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From Afghanistan war PTSD to serving NYC homeless: A combat vet's journey

In 2010, I had a life-changing experience in Afghanistan. I came back from the war with a different perspective, one that may help others at a time when we seem more divided and isolated than ever.

Before I went to Afghanistan, I cared more about myself than other people. But when I came home from the most intense battle I had ever experienced, my heart changed. All of a sudden, I had a deep desire to serve others. I spent a few years healing and dealing with my personal struggles and slowly shifted my focus away from myself. 

Then I had an extraordinary opportunity to serve in New York City through a cerebral palsy home, soup kitchen and food bank. It was one of the most impactful experiences I have ever had.

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I realized that in order to have meaningful service, you have to listen. Sometimes, the mere act of listening, which for me requires extraordinary patience, can be one of the most valuable forms of action.

I remember meeting a homeless man in the streets of New York City. His name was Travis. We sat down together, and I listened to his story. I learned about where he was from, his family, the obstacles he had faced, and how he eventually became homeless. 

Courtesy of Damon Friedman
Courtesy of Damon Friedman

His story was very similar to mine. We were both from the inner city. We were both raised in a melting pot. We both had terrible fathers who were always gone. Our mothers both worked extremely hard to make ends meet and keep the family fed.

He was African American and I was Puerto Rican. We learned that we both wanted to be professional football players when we were little. We learned a lot about each other simply by listening, a skill that seems to be lost in today’s society.

I gave him a sandwich, a bottle of water, a warm blanket, and some toiletries. He shook my hand and said thank you. I told him it was no big deal. He said, “I don’t think you understand. Thank you for listening. It’s good to know some people still care.” That moment was a key life lesson, one that I have reflected upon ever since.

The world has changed due to racial strife and the coronavirus pandemic. People are afraid and looking for hope. Now, like never before, we need to listen. If we listen to each other, we can begin to understand the struggles our country faces.

We have to find common ground, and then start talking about hard and sometimes uncomfortable topics. Only then will we be able to take meaningful action that will lead to lasting change.

For me, that action is to serve others. And it’s in the act of service that others realize you have a heart for them. And when they see your heartfelt action, they see you care. It’s that simple. 

Travis, I don’t know where you are, but I hope you are safe, and that you know that I’m praying for you. 

Dr. Damon Friedman, a decorated veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, recently retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in special operations. He is the founder of SOF Missions, which works with veterans with PTSD, and the author of the forthcoming book Igniting Movements, which empowers leaders to make a difference in uncertain times.

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