Chapter 3 – Ryan the “Buddha”


“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe.  But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche


in alaska 2

If you are going to be around Ryan the “Buddha” for more than a passing interaction, you ought to know a couple of things beforehand.  First, you need to understand that he is not you.  And if you forget that, there is a good chance he will remind you.  Those around him will tell you too.  “Ryan is extremely unique and doesn’t ever do anything because someone says that’s how you should do it,” points out his wife Jessica.  “He is very much his own person who makes his own path and goes against what the status quo is.”  Nick Vento describes what he considers to be the defining trait of his fellow Golf Company non-commissioned officer: “Buddha is a warrior’s warrior.  He marches to the beat of his own war drum and does what he feels is right and just, not necessarily what society tells him to do.”  The reminders you may get are not intended to be adversarial as much as they are to ensure you don’t waste effort trying to place him in whatever convenient box you have constructed in your head.  Buddha recognizes the norms that support societal inertia and asks, ‘Why?’  Few people live an unapologetically authentic life – he is one of them.

The other thing to know about Buddha is that what you see is often not what you get.  The ripped, muscle-bound Marine demolishes stereotypes and challenges others to revise their preconceived suppositions.  Based on physical appearance alone, one might mistake him for the star of an ultra-remote wilderness reality television show.  Vento acknowledges he “is intimidating on the outside,” but emphasizes, “he has one of the biggest hearts and is completely selfless in all that he does.”  He possesses the ability to entertain and discuss an idea without necessarily agreeing with it, a critical skill rapidly vanishing in our society.  This, coupled with his intellect, enables him to be one of the more interesting conversationalists you will ever encounter.  Combined with this is a genuine love for those with shared experiences.  “Buddha is a guy I could call in the middle of the night, ask him to drive several hours to my house, and not even tell him what it is I need until he got there,” explains Keegan Murphy of his friend.

Buddha was born and grew up in Sturgeon Bay, a small waterfront community in the northern peninsula of Wisconsin.  Exploration defined his early years, and he drove himself to experience all he possibly could.  He strived to discover new things in different places, and continuously attempted to expand his limits.  “Even in my early youth, I would always seek adventure,” Buddha recalled.  “If my mother told me I could go a mile away from the house, I went three.  I was obsessed with geography and intrigued by faraway places.”  He found the more he collected novel experiences, the more they piqued his interest to increase his adventures.  Living near the water, he found himself on the shores of the bay frequently, looking for the perfect spot to fish.  He navigated wooded areas and marveled at the sights he witnessed.  From his early years, nature served as a tranquil refuge for him, allowing him to be himself and surrender to his own thoughts.

Buddha was blessed with prodigious intelligence and a natural curiosity that fueled constant questioning.  He was reading periodicals such as Newsweek cover to cover when he was nine years old, fascinated by what he learned and the faraway places the articles featured.  His elementary school teachers, trying to keep up with his expansive academic needs, placed him in above grade level classes as early as 3rd grade to try to challenge him appropriately.  In 5th grade, Buddha made it to the finals of the 8th grade geography bee, and in middle school he was taking high-school classes.  Even with the higher-level material, he maintained a 4.0 grade point average while also being very active in sports.  But Buddha was not satisfied with his arrangement.  The ease of school meant his mind was not occupied, so he discovered other ways to strengthen his cognitive muscle.  “Academics came easy, to the point I had to find ways to entertain myself, often leading to disciplinary action,” explained Buddha.  “It was more fun for me to prove teachers wrong than to care that I could do more than what they were or weren’t challenging me to do.”  His desire to explore led him to question almost everything, including the status quo he felt was forced upon him.  Cory LeMieux, Buddha’s friend from middle school, shared a peculiar example that demonstrated Buddha’s disregard for societal norms.  While in high school, Buddha decided to prove a vibrant social life was possible even without maintaining basic hygiene.  He vowed to go an entire year without brushing his teeth and was confident that would not hold him back.  “Even though our group of friends told him this was disgusting and not a great idea, he went through with it to prove us wrong,” said LeMieux.  “He was still successful with the ladies and somehow made it through without getting even one cavity.”

Buddha with parents William and Mary

It is hard to believe by looking at him now, but Buddha grew up undersized compared to his peers.  What he lacked in size, however, he more than made up for with attitude.  He backed down from no one, regardless of the circumstances.  On his first day of kindergarten, he boarded the school bus and immediately ran afoul of a third grader.  Buddha remembered that the kid “took offense” to where he chose to sit and “started picking on me right away.  So, I beat the tar out of him with my umbrella and got kicked off the bus my first day of school.”  Athletics became a natural outlet for his fearlessness, and he gravitated to the more violent ones.  Football became extremely important to him, as the sport and how he measured up in it provided countless opportunities to conquer the doubt that came with being undersized.  Weighing approximately 120 pounds when he entered the 9th grade, his recklessness on the field was critical to compete.  “I played the game with utter disregard to my own bodily health and was never afraid to face any opponent of any size,” Buddha explained.  “I played with several teammates in high school who went on to division one football programs and even the NFL, and my coach will still tell you I was pound for pound the hardest hitter and meanest player he’s ever seen.”

His freshman year, Buddha recognized the pathway to overcoming his size and earning his way on the field rested in demonstrating heart.  While practicing, he noticed that his teammates avoided lining up against senior Nick Greisen during tackling drills.  Greisen was an all-state player who would go on to play linebacker in the NFL for 12 years.  Buddha took the opposite approach, doing everything possible to line up against him.  Though knocked down seemingly every repetition, he jumped up each time with even more energy.  The head coach noticed the first-year player’s consistent demonstration of courage and heart and awarded him the honor of being one of only two freshmen to suit up for varsity games.  In his sophomore season, the now 130-pound Buddha earned the backup linebacker position on the varsity team.  During a game that season, Buddha found himself playing after an injury to the starting linebacker.  All game, he launched his body at the star fullback from the opponent’s team, allowing his teammates to make the play.  The next day during film review, the head coach noticed one player flying across the field on EVERY play and asked, “Who in the hell is number forty-six?”  Buddha raised his hand, leading to the coach starting him the next game.  He didn’t come off the defensive side of the field for the rest of his high-school career.  His uncle Steve, who saw many of his games, observed, “I never saw Ryan take a play off, which showed how committed he was to what he did, regardless of the circumstances.”

Sometime during his junior year, Buddha’s father William asked him what he planned to do with his life post-graduation.  Buddha replied that he had some interest in going into film.  His father pondered the answer and responded, “You’re going to be another aspiring actor or film-maker who’s going to be unemployed in Los Angeles, you dumbass.”  While Buddha felt lukewarm about going to college, his father was the one person he actively tried to please, so he started looking into post-secondary options he could stomach.  However, the one absolute condition he had was that any options he considered had to lead to military service.  As far back as third grade, when he became fascinated by Operation Desert Storm, he believed that serving was a foregone conclusion for him.  Driven by desire to experience new and faraway adventures, he was attracted to any and all information that could make the conflict more real to him.  “I followed the Gulf War to the point of setting up battle plans with GI Joes in the living room,” Buddha explained.  “I was literally tracking General Schwarzkopf and the progress of Allied forces in the Middle East.”  He also remembered watching World War II footage on the History Channel and was intrigued by what the Americans’ service entailed.  He wanted to know, and experience, more.

“My grandfather on my father’s side was a Marine who fought at Guadalcanal,” noted Buddha.  “You can trace our family’s service in pretty much every conflict all the way back to the Battle of Bunker Hill in the American Revolution.”  William made sure that his children knew how much he respected his father’s service.  His grandfather died before Buddha was born, and the stories he heard growing up lit a fire under him to learn more.  Studying his grandfather’s dress blue uniform, Buddha envisioned himself responding to the calling.  “This is not just something that I was going to do.  This was something that everybody before me had done and I was going to take my place in line. From a historical context, there was something to be really proud of that your family had answered the call every time.  That was pretty cool.”

In considering options for college, Buddha initially focused on some of the service academies and schools that had Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs.  With a Coast Guard station in Sturgeon Bay, he had become comfortable with that branch of service and showed interest in becoming a ‘Coastie.’  In the summer after his junior year, he attended a week-long orientation program at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, reserved for the most serious and competitive applicants.  The ‘mini boot camp’ reinforced for Buddha that he would flourish in that type of environment.  At the camp’s conclusion, the school’s admission representatives assured Buddha that if he maintained his grades in the first semester of his senior year, he would be in very good shape for being admitted to the prestigious academy.  He also considered pursuing an appointment to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but pulled back when he discovered there would not be a guaranteed spot in the Marine Corps for him upon graduation1.

In the fall of his senior year, local recruiters from all the military branches visited his school.  Each representative had 10-15 minutes to talk to the assembled students.  They all gave their best sales pitch, focusing on enlistment bonuses, travel, education and technology, and other tangible things their branches could ‘give’ to individuals who joined.  The Marine recruiter strode to the podium and used all of about 10 seconds to express, “My name is Staff Sergeant Chris Pyawasit, United States Marine Corps.  If you think you are good enough to be a Marine, come talk to me.”  He then walked out of the auditorium.  Buddha had heard all he needed to hear.  “He knew exactly who he wanted.  He spoke to my inner self.  I fit the bill and that was it.  You could not have changed my mind for anything at that point.  I enlisted two weeks later.”

Buddha withdrew his application to the Coast Guard Academy, and let his family and friends know he would be joining the Marine Corps upon graduation.  His friend Cory remembered when Buddha told him: “When he made the decision to join, I saw how prideful and excited he was to take on the challenge of becoming a Marine like his grandfather.”  His uncle Steve concurred: “I would have been surprised had he not joined.  Ryan’s strong sense of patriotism and love of country was instilled in him by his parents and his general disposition screamed Marine.”  Buddha signed up for the Marine Corps CAT-P program, which allowed him to drill as a guest with Golf Company during his senior year, even before he attended boot camp and officially became a Marine.  Keegan Murphy, who had joined the company that year, recalled his first impressions of his future platoon mate: “You could tell right away that he was bound and determined to become a Marine, and that he was the type of person who would succeed and eventually become a solid NCO, which he did.  You could see that immediately after meeting him, even though he was a high school punk kid.”  Buddha went to boot camp in the summer of 2000, graduated and joined the company in Madison that August.  He had been accepted to the University of Wisconsin at Madison and started classes that fall.

At boot camp graduation. With father William, and siblings Jake and Sara

Despite the excitement he had joining the Marine Corps, Buddha struggled the following year.  Going in, he had already been less than excited about the college experience, and nothing changed his mind when he started school.  None of his classes stimulated him intellectually, and the party-like atmosphere that existed in Madison led to Buddha consuming a lot of alcohol.  His performance in the classroom deteriorated and his grades were abysmal.  Surprisingly, his first year in Golf Company was not much better.  “To be fully honest, I was not a good Marine in the beginning,” admitted Buddha.  The bureaucracy he saw in the military, coupled with the lack of having what he considered a true purpose in peace time, deflated his motivation.  More and more, he found himself doing the bare minimum.  “The guys weren’t taking the training exercises we did seriously.  Not to say they weren’t good Marines; it just didn’t seem as if war was coming, so it didn’t matter.”  As he entered his second year of college, Buddha considered leaving both school and the reserves to enter the active duty component of the Marine Corps.  He assumed he would find a higher sense of direction by serving full time.

On September 11, 2001, Buddha rediscovered his purpose and regained his focus.  Incessant pounding on his bathroom door interrupted his shower.  “Dude, you gotta come out here and check this out,” shouted his roommate Mike Skaar2.  Buddha told him he would be out when he was done.  “No, you need to come out here RIGHT now!” insisted Skaar.  Buddha jumped out of the shower, covered himself with a towel, and walked into the living room just in time to see the second plane slam into the World Trade Center in New York City.  Buddha instantly comprehended the implications of the action.  “I knew we were going to war,” stated Buddha.  “I didn’t need to know who did it or any of the details.  I knew that didn’t just happen for no reason.”  He spent the rest of the day on the phone with family members and other Marines from Golf Company.  The only certainty he felt was that combat was in his near future, a thought that appealed to his sense of duty.  “Every ounce of my existence was now fully dedicated to deploying to war.  Here was my duty – my calling.  I was going to be the most prepared Marine I could be to do my part.  By the time we got to the point of being called up, I no longer struggled with purpose.”  For the next two plus years, Buddha prepared religiously for everything he would encounter in war, regardless of where he might be sent.  He was maniacal in his fitness routine, lifting weights as if he were a professional bodybuilder.  He prepared for every drill session with the company as if it were his last chance to train before deploying.  He volunteered for every opportunity to hone his skills, including learning Arabic at the special language school the military operated.

As Buddha prepared for combat, he realized his fundamental motivations to serve were morphing.  Central to them still was his belief that serving was something he needed to do.  “It was a bit of a ‘Lieutenant Dan’3 kind of thing to go over there.  I wasn’t trying to be killed, but if I’m in the Marine Corps infantry and we are at war, I better be going.  I would have stayed past my enlistment contract until we deployed, because I would have felt empty if I hadn’t gone on a combat deployment.”  Though his sense of duty remained a strong factor, it was the connection that he felt to his Marine brothers that powered his intense preparation the most.  During weekend drill sessions, Buddha found himself “looking around at the other guys in the unit and telling myself ‘I can’t let them down.’  Everything I did going forward was geared towards that idea.”  This feeling of responsibility to those you will be fighting with is a concept experienced by many when they are in combat.  Going in, a few things permeate one’s thoughts: patriotic ideals, proving yourself and survival.  But these lofty ideals, while meaningful to those who feel them, often do not last beyond the first firefight, the first mortar attack, or the first IED explosion.  At that point, many experience a significant shift in their thinking.  Keegan Murphy4, who served in 3rd Platoon with Buddha, described the feeling: “Yes, we were all proud Americans who loved our country and signed our paperwork to fight if needed.  Most likely, we’d do it all over again.  But once you deploy, all that chest pounding goes away, and you realize quickly that what you’re fighting for is standing right next to you.  You fight for each other, so as many of you as possible can return home.”  Murphy points to the words delivered in 480 B.C. by the Spartan platoon commander Dienekes.  His speech5, given on the third day of the Battle of Thermopylae, captured the essence of fighting for one another.

In addition, Buddha experienced another feeling – the desire to gain vengeance for what happened on 9/11.  Did he really feel that way, or was that the emotion of a moment coming out?  “Absolutely I felt like it was about vengeance,” Buddha doubled down on his conviction.  “The plane hitting, and then watching those people jump put a sense of borderline hatred in me.  Who would do this?  For what reason?  It was vengeance I wanted.  These people came here and killed my countrymen and I was going to go over there to get retribution.”  In the months after 9/11 and the beginning of Operating Enduring Freedom (OEF), many in our country contended it would be a serious mistake to broaden the military response beyond Afghanistan.  The rationale for this thinking centered around the role the Taliban-run country played in harboring and enabling the terrorists who committed the atrocities.  Buddha did not agree with this.  “Iraq was a battleground in a larger fight.  Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, but we needed to go over to the Middle East and set up the ‘football field’ so that we could duke this out.”  He was not alone in his thinking.  Many believed that 9/11 occurred, in large part, because the United States’ leadership allowed people who had promised terrible violence on our country to act with impunity.  While much of the case against Iraq centered initially on weapons of mass destruction and subsequently on creating a free, democratic Iraq, those reasons were red herrings.  Iraq was about taking the fight to people who one day could have brought it to us in unconventional ways.  Yes, there were many mistakes made in the execution of the war in Iraq, but it does not take away from the appropriateness of the original rationale to be there.

Buddha’s family on the day Golf Company deployed to Iraq

When Buddha and Golf Company arrived in Iraq, his platoon split its time between MSR Tampa and the forward operating base (FOB) in Lutifiyah as we established a rhythm for managing the missions assigned to us.  Tragedy struck a couple of months after getting there.  On November 8, 2004, 3rd Platoon was in Lutifiyah when an IED blast killed Corporal Bobby Warns, Lance Corporal Shane O’Donnell, and Lance Corporal Branden Ramey, and seriously injured Staff Sergeant Chad Simon and Lance Corporal Scott Kruchten.  Buddha was manning the machine gun position overlooking the entrance checkpoint to the FOB and witnessed the smoke cloud of the explosion in the distance.  “That cloud was different than any other IED we saw,” Buddha remembered.  “It was just so massive.”  He watched another squad from his platoon leave the FOB and race to the attack site as part of the QRF (quick reaction force).  He instantly thought of his friend Keegan Murphy, who was already out on patrol in the vicinity of where the explosion occurred.  Buddha feared it was his squad that had been hit.  Though he felt strong loyalty to all of his brothers, he had the tightest relationship with him, dating back to when they met shortly after Murphy joined Golf Company.  Buddha had relied on him in some of his lowest times, to include when Murphy “kept me from losing my mind when my girlfriend left me the day we left for Iraq.”  Seconds after having the thought about his friend, Buddha scolded himself, knowing that whoever had been hit was one or more of his brothers and most likely had been seriously injured, or killed.  “Then the radio call came across and I heard them say Warns was killed, and I was just sick.”

The devastating loss of Buddha’s Golf Company brothers was exacerbated a little over two weeks later, this time on the other side of the company’s area of operations.  While conducting a nighttime vehicular patrol on MSR Tampa, an IED detonated on the lead vehicle in the patrol near Checkpoints 26A (see figure 2 in the Introduction Chapter), killing Lance Corporal Ryan Cantafio and wounding Sergeant BJ Ganem, Lance Corporal Mike Skaar, and Sergeant Brad Hazell.  “A radio call came in that the squad out patrolling had been hit by an IED and was engaged in a firefight,” Buddha explained.  He and the rest of the QRF, located at 22A, jumped into the vehicles and rocketed to the fight.  When they got to the location, there were still a few rounds being fired at the 3rd Platoon patrol squad, but most of the insurgents who had attacked retreated as the extra firepower of the QRF arrived.  Buddha and the rest of the squad took up defensive positions to allow the wounded Marines to be worked on and for a casualty evacuation to be coordinated.  While scanning his hastily assigned sector of fire, Buddha observed a potential insurgent through his night-vision goggles.  Buddha did not see the man holding a weapon, but he was in the middle of nowhere, in the late evening, and near where the attack had occurred.  Buddha recounted what happened next: “I had my laser sight on this guy’s chest.  I asked Jackson (squad leader Sergeant Brad Jackson) ‘this has got to be the guy, right?’  It’s in the middle of the night.  Who in their right mind would be walking around at this time when a firefight just went down and an IED was detonated?  Jackson said to hold on and he radioed in to headquarters and was told not to shoot.  That’s something that bothered me.  I probably should have just shot the guy and then asked for permission later, but I followed the rules of engagement.  I could tell that Jackson was pissed.”

Buddha experienced the same conundrum many of our Marines faced during deployment.  While killing or capturing insurgents was part of our stated mission, the combat we faced was not traditional fighting.  Identifying enemy apart from regular Iraqi citizens proved extremely challenging.  At best, those who attempted to do us harm wore black garments more than others, but most wore the same clothing as average Iraqi citizens.  Specific rules of engagement (ROE) guided the myriad engagements our guys encountered daily.  One section within them stated: “Positive identification (PID) is required prior to engagement.  PID is a reasonable certainty that the proposed target is a legitimate military target.  If no PID, contact your next higher commander for decision.”  Buddha was doing exactly what he had been trained to do.  As frustrating as it was, and even though the man he saw fit the profile of an attacking insurgent in several ways, the fact that Buddha did not observe a weapon on him meant not firing was the right thing to do.  There were many instances throughout the Iraqi conflict and others, where troops went beyond the ROE and did things they should not have6.  I never worried about that possibility with our guys.  Even knowing that human nature would dictate a desire to retaliate that could cause collateral damage, I was confident those in Golf Company would continue to pursue the insurgents in the right way.  There was no doubt that the casualties made it easier to dehumanize the people we were interacting with every day.  However, inappropriate retribution would be not be acted upon, because the strong leadership in the company would not allow it.  Buddha suggested a complementary rationale for the restraint: “There was a moral fiber there that was a testament to our parents.  I don’t know if that was our Midwest upbringing, but the foundation was already there, and it was enforced.”

Echo Company, who had a patrol out in the vicinity of the mixing bowl checkpoint, was tasked to carry out a surface MEDEVAC, as the weather did not allow for helicopters to fly that evening.  Ryan Cantafio, serving as the turret gunner of the vehicle that was hit, had been struck in the neck by an explosive projectile from the detonated IED.  The metal shard that killed him entered his body just above the line of his Kevlar flak jacket neck guard.  BJ Ganem, who was driving the vehicle that was hit, suffered a severe lower leg injury and needed to be evacuated to Germany, and then back to the United States.  Mike Skaar had shrapnel in his elbow and was evacuated too, while Brad Hazell suffered minor injuries and was able to remain with the company.  After the MEDEVAC was completed, the patrolling squad and QRF returned to 22A.  Everyone from the platoon who was not on guard gathered together under the bridge.  The grief felt by all weighed heavy in the air, but the men did not have the words to articulate what they were feeling.  “No one was even making eye contact,” said Buddha.  “Everyone just stood in a tight group, not saying a word.  And nobody had to say a word.”  After a bit of time, platoon commander Captain Kevin Jackson gently implored the assembled group to stay focused on the mission, regardless of the anguish they were all feeling for their brothers.  How was it possible for them to compartmentalize so quickly?  “Staying focused boiled down to who was right next to me,” Buddha pointed out.  “If I didn’t stay focused, then either I was going to die, or these guys were going to die, so I couldn’t even worry about what I could not control.”  The absence of each of the Marines hurt the platoon’s effectiveness, but Ganem’s was particularly challenging given his leadership role in the platoon.  “When BJ was injured and sent home there was a day or two where we thought we were screwed and then we looked at each other and said no we are not, because everyone we had there knew how to operate the way he (Ganem) showed us.”  Buddha and the platoon, as difficult as it was, set aside the inestimable grief they felt about the loss of their brothers and redoubled their focus on the missions they conducted every day.

For most of the remaining five months we spent in Iraq, 3rd Platoon executed the MSR Tampa mission, helping to maintain a safe and open logistical line between Kuwait City and Baghdad.  Without a free-flowing route, the resupply of coalition forces across the country would have been exponentially harder.  The battalion that preceded 2/24 maintained an entire company on Tampa, and yet most stretches of it were labeled black7 for several months prior to us arriving.  Because of the innovative and ambitious, but manpower intensive, battalion-wide strategy we employed, we could dedicate only one platoon to accomplish the entire Tampa mission.  For the first few weeks in country we had the entire company out there, but soon it was only 3rd Platoon.  The platoon’s specific mission was to keep insurgents from attacking coalition convoys or making the 15-mile stretch of Tampa impassable through IEDs or cratering the bridge overpasses.

Buddha’s squad was located at Checkpoint 22A8, which doubled as the platoon headquarters.  The physical checkpoint surrounded one of the overpasses that crossed the Tampa highway.  When the platoon first arrived, they found that the unit before us had constructed some rudimentary structures to help make the time spent out there a little more bearable.  This was in addition to the HESCO barriers, sandbags, concertina wire, and Jersey barriers used to provide safety and security from any type of attack the insurgents could mount.  However, because 2/2 had rotated a different company out to Tampa every week, the structures and organization at the checkpoints lacked the continuity that could be achieved by having the same unit out there permanently.  Once 3rd Platoon knew they would be out there for good, they went to work improving the inner and outer structure of the checkpoints.  This is one of many areas where the nature of a reserve unit was a tremendous benefit.  “You have all these different people who have something else in their life besides the Marine Corps that they are an expert in or that they are skilled in,” explained Buddha.  Within the unit, there were carpenters, electricians, plumbers, policemen, EMT trained personnel, and several other skilled tradesmen.  With a small amount of material, their skill and imagination transformed the checkpoint.  Buddha remembered how Corporal Eric Link, a manager at Best Buy in civilian life, created an elaborate entertainment center.  Marines in the platoon constructed a small room from lumber and plywood, filled it with bucket seats from coalition contractor vehicles that had been abandoned on Tampa, and Link did the rest.  Soon, there was a functioning TV so that Marines not on patrol or checkpoint guard duty could watch DVDs and play video games.  Over time, the platoon scavenged enough material to construct rudimentary weight-lifting equipment.  This was an important part of maintaining a small sense of normalcy in the middle of the chaos.  For Buddha, the weight lifting routine he started in Iraq carries over into his routine today.  He lifts an hour of weights every day when he is not traveling, and he even lifts on some of those days.  He works at it hard and he works at it consistently.  Today, his 5’11” frame holds 215 pounds of packed muscle, which contributes to the daunting persona he projects.

3rd Platoon did an excellent job carrying out their mission.  Rather than focusing inwardly on the highway and the bridge overpasses, they routinely pushed patrols into the surrounding villages and came to know the people well.  They built trust with the Iraqis and gained a much better real-time understanding of what was happening in the area.  After being in country for a few months, the threat level of MSR Tampa in our AO was downgraded to brown, the first time in numerous months it was not categorized as black.  This was a momentous accomplishment, but it required an extremely high operational tempo from the platoon to achieve it.  When he was not on patrol, Buddha was on guard duty.  When not on either, he was on the QRF.  This was the only time he could get any sleep, and only if he was not responding to a QRF request.  Early on in their time on Tampa, the platoon realized they could not rely on one of their provided interpreters to reliably convey what Iraqis were saying, so Buddha’s understanding of Arabic became even more critical to the success of the platoon.  He volunteered to go on any patrol that he was needed, regardless of what squad was going.  As a result, he was on patrol 1.5-2 times more than he otherwise would have been.  He never complained and never wished for anything else, knowing how it helped the mission.  Said Keegan Murphy, “Buddha was unwaveringly dependable.  You never had to think twice about him or second guess anything he was doing.  If our squad needed extra help, Buddha was always there.”

Because he was the informal interpreter for the platoon, Buddha grew to know the Iraqi people they interacted with at a different level.  Many of these exchanges changed the way he thought about the Iraqis.  “The people there weren’t totally pro America, but they were just human,” Buddha explained.  “It was tough to watch and see people out in their fields with mortar rounds dropping around them and they weren’t part of this, and they just had to continue to work in order to provide for their families.”  Buddha developed a friendly relationship with an onion farmer who resided in the vicinity of 26A.  Squads that were patrolling would travel past his farm often on their way to farther out locations.  Buddha took every opportunity he could to stop and converse with the old man who seemed to always be toiling in his fields.  As he got to know him better, he understood the Iraqi’s plight.  “In his demeanor and body language, you could tell that there was not a bad bone in him.  He just wanted to be able to take the highway to Baghdad to sell his produce to feed his family.  I felt for him because when I looked at the map, I could tell that he would have to take a very convoluted route way out of his way just to get on the highway so that he can go sell his onions.”  The locking down of MSR Tampa to Iraqi traffic due to the insurgent attacks was adding tremendous adversity to his daily life.  There were countless examples of situations like this, and it helped Buddha and others within our unit to develop empathy for the people of Iraq.  As in the United States, 99%+ of Iraqis were decent people who just wanted to live their lives, take care of their families, and peacefully coexist with those around them.

Buddha went to great lengths to develop relationships with the Iraqi people

How Buddha changed his mind about the Iraqi people is a perfect example of the confluence of his independent thinking and ‘what you see is not necessarily what you get’ qualities.  Imagine seeing this tough Marine, in full combat gear, walking hand in hand with Iraqis, as was their custom.  If Buddha feels something is the right thing to do, he just doesn’t care what others think about it.  Yet, unlike many others who hold similar attitudes, he does not retreat into a corner and fiercely defend his position on things.  He demonstrates an increasingly rare quality of considering and exploring others’ thinking about issues, even when he doesn’t agree.

The decision to keep 3rd Platoon on MSR Tampa for most of the seven months we were in Iraq was not easy for me.  It was an unconventional concept.  The platoon would be isolated from the rest of the company.  The conditions they would live in for a protracted period were the harshest any unit in Iraq would experience.  The mission was critical, and human nature would dictate the longer the unit carried out the same assignment, the more that complacency could set in.  However, I made the decision because I believed it gave us the best chance to succeed, and I made the decision because I had 3rd Platoon.  It is said that parents love all their children equally, but not necessarily the same.  I loved every Marine and Sailor in Golf Company, but 3rd Platoon was different.  I have been a part of numerous military units, civilian organizations, and sports teams at various levels.  I have never seen the combination of comradery, competence, belief in each other, and results that I witnessed in this platoon.  Similar to how I believed Golf was different than the other companies in the battalion, so too did 3rd Platoon believe they were different from the other platoons in the company.  And they backed it up.  The foundation for this was the non-commissioned officers in the platoon.  Keegan Murphy pointed out: “We had excellent leadership across the platoon that exceeded even the high standard of what you normally see in the Marine Corps.”  Nick Vento, squad leader in 2nd Platoon, appreciated how Buddha contributed to the platoon’s excellence: “Each year Golf Company would compete in various events as part of the ‘First Sergeant’s cup’.  Buddha and his platoon usually dominated the football portion of the event.  Their aggressive, competitive nature came out, not only on the football field, but in their desire to always be the best, to be the tip of the proverbial spear.  The platoon had a great set of NCOs who helped to set the pace.  Buddha was one of those great NCOs.”  In Golf Company circles, the names Buddha, Ganem, Gillitzer, Jackson, Murphy, Barnes, Wentworth, Link, Wiltse, and Cull were – and still are – spoken with reverence.  They represented the best.  Buddha’s leadership helped provide the vision, guidance and motivation that helped keep the platoon razor sharp.  When we completed the deployment and went home, Buddha and 3rd Platoon did so knowing they had given everything they had and contributed to making an enormous difference.

As Buddha waited at Baghdad International Airport to fly home, his mind raced through countless memories of the previous seven months.  “It was the coolest, the strangest, and the most perplexing emotional rollercoaster movie screen playing in my brain I’ve ever experienced.”  Beyond the events he had witnessed, he thought about the people the experience had connected him to forever.  He thought about the kids he met on patrol and wondered what Iraq would be like when they grew up.  He thought about the onion farmer.  He thought about his four brothers who would not return home alive.  He thought about the Marines who had been seriously wounded.  And he thought about each of his brothers who now shared an unbreakable bond.  “I tell people all the time, you don’t know someone until you sit in a machine gun pit with him for eight hours a day for seven months and you tell your life story over and over.  When they can finish the stories you start, that’s when you know you really know each other.  The brotherhood is thicker than anything anyone who hasn’t experienced it can ever fathom.”

“PTSD is the realization that you will never be this cool again.”  This sentence is pulled from When the Music Stops, one of several Iraq/Afghanistan blog posts written by author ‘Grifter’ in 2014.  For many veterans and families, the biggest challenges don’t reveal themselves until after returning from deployment.  Families who have lost loved ones do their best to cope with the hole left in their hearts.  Those returning frequently suffer survivor’s guilt and routinely struggle to reconcile the darkest of the events they witnessed.  It is not uncommon for them to return and find their jobs significantly changed or gone, and many experience the end of their marriages or relationships.  For some, the major challenge is reintegrating back into a daily routine so disassociated from what they had just experienced.  For Buddha, beyond the pain associated with the deaths of his Marine brothers, he was suffering from no longer experiencing the purpose that combat had provided him.  When he read Grifter’s blog the first time, he realized what he had been feeling when he returned home years before: “When I read that piece, my jaw dropped, and I said that’s me.”

When Buddha returned home, he tried his best to settle back into the life he had before the deployment.  He had two years of schooling remaining to finish his degree, and he maintained a steady focus on his studies.  Prior to leaving for Iraq, he had transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, which proved to be a much better fit for him.  He found the blue-collar city more to his liking and playing on the rugby team provided a healthy physical outlet for him.  However, he struggled to moderate some of the excesses that many enjoy temporarily after being denied them.  Limiting alcohol was his biggest challenge. “When I got home from Iraq, I was a college student in Wisconsin, playing rugby, which is a very alcohol-friendly sport.  I don’t think I or anyone else really realized the excess.  It seemed to be just kind of a normal thing for people who were in their twenties to drink, but I guess the quantity and frequency were alarming.”  Not only were the influences he experienced in college leading him towards drinking, he was still processing the experiences he had in Iraq, and the deaths of his brothers had created a void in him he did not know how to fill.  His friend Corey remembered, “When Buddha first returned, his behavior was reckless, and he depended on drinking to cope with his issues.”  Get togethers with his friends, while healthy in many respects, also promoted more drinking at a time that Buddha was developing a problem.  Nick Vento remembered the time Buddha invited him to join a gathering he was having with some of his rugby teammates.  It was held at a bar where Buddha had previously been a bouncer in downtown Milwaukee.  The bar was extremely crowded that day, as the NCAA basketball tournament “March Madness” was underway, and the Wisconsin Badgers were playing that afternoon.  Vento scoured the establishment, looking for Buddha and his group, and soon found a raucous gathering in a room in the back of the bar.  Buddha was not there at the time, but Vento had found the right group.  After about 30 minutes of visiting with the rugby players, loud voices approached from the hallway outside the room.  “Here comes Buddha crashing through the door shirtless, and landing on a wooden stool, breaking both,” Vento described.  The group roared its approval and surrounded their friend, checking to make sure he was ok and giving him a hard time.  Vento was struck by the comradery the group had for each other, especially Buddha.  “I noticed they got along and treated each other like brothers, like Marines would treat each other.  That is, they engaged in full foul-mouthed teasing and love for each other.”  Vento also noticed Buddha was extremely drunk and by the end of the night would blackout.  Though he didn’t worry about Buddha’s immediate safety, as the group would take care of him and get him home, Vento was concerned by how drunk Buddha was and the impact this level of drinking would have on him if continued.

Competing in a rugby match while at UW-Milwaukee

By the time Buddha received his history degree from UW-Milwaukee in 2007, he had dropped deeply into a lack of purpose and alcoholism spiral.  He didn’t know how to pull himself out of it.  “When I was in school, I drank and drank, and it didn’t seem out of place until I started teaching,“ Buddha explained, referencing the job he secured after graduation at Hamilton High School in the Milwaukee Public School system.  He enjoyed teaching history and loved working with the kids, but the bureaucracy created by the administration drove him to move on after just one year.  “Next, I took an office job and I instantly struggled with being in a cubicle for eight to ten hours a day.  I would go home and take the edge off with booze, and I fell deeper and deeper into depression.”  Buddha was suffering severely from what ‘Grifter” described in his blog.  “There is a beautiful simplicity to war that you never notice until you’re slapped in the face with ‘life’ when you return home,” Keegan Murphy related.

In May 2011, Buddha travelled to see Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site, tacking the New York visit on to the end of a month-long training he attended for his job in Baltimore.  He had long looked forward to this trip, as he had never been there.  The construction on Freedom Tower had not yet begun, but the memorial pools that outlined the original twin towers were almost complete.  The magnitude and soberness of the site almost overcame Buddha.  “I have never felt like that except when I was at the Wall9.  I stood there almost in shock.  The scenes of my time in Iraq played back and I even remembered back to the day when Mike Skaar knocked on the bathroom door on September 11th.”  He spotted a bronze mural that commemorated the heroic actions of firefighters and other first responders.  He observed the pair of boots at the base of the mural and found himself staring at his own boots, the same pair he had worn in Iraq.  Inside the boots, he noticed a letter written by the mother of a Marine who had been killed in action.  “All these unbelievably powerful emotions were coming over me.”  And then Buddha’s phone rang.  It was his father.

“My dad told me that my mom was in hospice,” stammered Buddha, the crushing pain still evident in his voice these many years later.  Mary had recently been diagnosed with ovarian cancer for the third time.  Buddha hadn’t seen her for several weeks, having visited her just before he left for the training in Baltimore.  “I didn’t know how bad she was, and I think they kind of kept it from me because the school I was attending was pretty important for work.”  Buddha told his father he would get home as quickly as possible.  He flew back to Milwaukee, swung by his house to pick up his dogs Crosby and Winston, and made the drive north to Sturgeon Bay.  Before meeting his dad to go see his mom, he dropped the dogs off with a family friend, knowing the following few days would be intense and wanting to ensure he could be fully present.  “I called my dad and said I would pick him up to go to Green Bay to see Mom in the hospital.  He told me to pick him up at the Sturgeon Bay Hospital instead.”  Having no idea what was happening, Buddha drove to his dad.  When he arrived and walked into the lobby, he saw his Uncle Steve.  “From the look on his face I knew that it was not good.  I walked in to where my Dad was, and he looked like he just got hit by a truck.”  William had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the brain, lungs, and liver.  In shock, Buddha helped his father to his car and then stopped at the nearest pharmacy to pick up some medications William would need before starting chemotherapy.  After leaving the pharmacy and while walking through the parking lot back to his car, Buddha’s phone rang.  He answered it and on the other end of the line was the woman taking care of his dogs.  Having a moment of pure intuition, Buddha’s legs failed him, and he fell to his knees.  Sorrow enveloped him as he croaked, “I already know.”  The woman, sobbing hysterically, told him what he tragically already sensed – both of Buddha’s dogs had been hit by a truck and were seriously injured.  “She said they were both still alive and asked me what I wanted her to do.”  Buddha told her he was on his way to see his mom and asked her to take the dogs to the emergency vet.  A little while later, before they arrived at Mary’s hospital, the woman called back and shared with Buddha that the dogs had not made it.  The grief-stricken day was one of many to come; two weeks later, his mother Mary died, and two months after that, his father William passed away.

The deaths of his parents and dogs increased exponentially the depression Buddha was already feeling.  He was still in emotional debt, reconciling his Marine brothers’ deaths and dealing with the absence of a guiding purpose in his life.  The combination of so much tragedy in such a small span overwhelmed him.  His life contained unthinkable amounts of sorrow.  He had been relying on alcohol to help drown out his dissatisfaction with his nine-to-five job for the previous two years, and now he turned to it completely to dull the severe anguish he felt.  His life was unravelling completely.  “I couldn’t function in a normal world anymore,” he explained.  “I always had that wanderlust and that thirst for travel and things that were new but now I felt it even more.  I had seen even more with the edge and adrenaline of combat and it was irreplaceable.  Yet there I was in a job staring at a computer screen in between three cubicle walls.  I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t deal with people.  I was done dealing with people who had zero reference level to how the rest of the world was.”

As he had done as a boy, Buddha turned to nature to provide a solitude that everyday living could not.  Fishing, hunting, or just wandering around in a forest energized him.  This helped him cope and allowed him to somewhat curb his alcohol consumption.   “When I was out there, I didn’t even think about drinking,” Buddha explained.  During this time, he had bought a basic camera and used it to photograph the wildlife and nature he was experiencing.  He posted the pictures on Facebook and received numerous comments on how good a photographer he was.  He did not feel like he knew exactly what he was doing with the camera, but he seemed to possess innate talent.  “When I go back and look at some of my first photos, the content was always good, but the quality sucked.  I think it’s true when they say that you can’t teach the eye.  There’s some people who just have it and that cannot be taught.”  His burgeoning interest in wildlife photography brought him peace.  But these outings provided only brief respites to the hell he suffered most days.  When he could not get to a place that would provide him peace, he drank. A lot.

In December 2011, Mick Gillitzer, one of the squad leaders in Buddha’s platoon while on deployment and now working for the Semper Fi Fund in support of veterans, arranged for Buddha to attend a duck hunt in Horicon, Wisconsin, home to the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States. 10  “At the time, I was aware Buddha was dealing with some challenging circumstances and believed that being around other combat veterans would provide a positive impact, or at least a way to vent,” explained Gillitzer.  The event was organized by Ryan Voy and Chuck Dodge and offered veterans a weekend of camaraderie and waterfowl hunting on the Horicon Marsh.  Neither of them had served and they wanted to thank those who had, and to use the event to promote healing for those still working through a range of physical and emotional issues.  Dodge had been moved to action when a close friend of his lost his Marine son in Iraq.  The idea for the specific event came about on Memorial Day 2010. Dodge and Voy had been camping with their families, thinking about how much they had to be thankful for, and wondering what they could do to contribute to veterans.11  Buddha, and approximately 20 other veterans attended the event that year, supported by a couple dozen volunteers who showed up to be guides, serve food, and provide a listening ear to the participants.  Buddha was blown away by the day.  “It was such a cool, different hunt because it wasn’t even about the hunt.  It was about camaraderie with other veterans.”

After that initial experience, Buddha approached Voy and told him, “What you’re doing here is so cool.  I don’t even think you guys comprehend how much this is doing for veterans.  How big do you want this to be?”  Buddha returned as a volunteer in subsequent years and started to photograph the hunt to provide visual documentation for those who attended.  Meanwhile, the organizers built more infrastructure to support the event, to include registering the Horicon Marsh Veterans Hunt as a non-profit organization.  Recognizing the need for a strong veteran presence to help guide the future direction of the event, they invited Buddha to join as Veteran Liaison to the Board of Directors.  Each year, it grew bigger.  The 2018 event accommodated 90 veterans who participated, supported by over 200 volunteers.  Buddha believes the secret sauce of the event is how community based it is.  “We have a waiting list for volunteers.  I have people contacting me once a month asking if they can help.  Grandmas are baking pies and dropping them off to help.  The volunteers from the community of Horicon and the surrounding communities stay in contact with the veterans they had in their boat or had lunch with them.”  Buddha was understandably proud of the difference he was making in the veteran community.  Additionally, the event served as an effective centering tool for him, allowing for short lulls from his destructive drinking binges.  However, the annual event was not powerful enough to keep Buddha from hitting a new low point.

Horicon hunt with Marines from Golf and Green Bay Packer Chris Jacke (far right)

In January 2015, Buddha quit his office job and enrolled in an alcohol rehabilitation program in Colorado.  He was no longer willing to accept the everyday drudgery his job provided.  As well, he had recognized the severity of his drinking problem and knew he needed help.  “One morning, I woke up on my kitchen floor.  My refrigerator was open, food was laying on top of me and my dogs were eating it off me.  I asked myself ‘what are you doing?’  Everything I needed to do during the day I was accomplishing, but every night I was drinking and when I started drinking, I would not stop.”  Did he experience second thoughts around the momentous decision to quit his job with nothing lined up on the other side?  “No. I’m really a shut the door type of person.  Once I make a decision, you’re not going to sway me in any way and it is set in stone.”  While in rehab, Buddha uncovered a profound truth about himself.  “I discovered that I could not be emotional without alcohol.”  He had locked up the feelings he had about his parents dying, losing his brothers in Iraq, and his dogs who were killed.  Alcohol was the key.  Buddha realized that drinking provided a powerful outlet to release his emotions, and he absolutely needed that outlet.  Having this new level of rational self-awareness was critical as he began to chart a new course; however, just recognizing it didn’t resolve the issue. “My brother would tell you I still struggle,” Buddha admits.  “It comes off that I am an asshole because I have a problem engaging with people if it’s not hunting or doing something that I’m passionate about.  It comes across as I don’t care, but nothing could be farther from the truth.”  Buddha completed the program and returned home to Wisconsin, but just a few months later, he started drinking again.  The lifelong challenge that alcohol addiction represented enveloped him, and he rationalized that his issue was not severe enough to require complete sobriety.  “What they say about relapsing is that the first time you go to rehab, you hit a low but in relapsing you go back to that level and push it lower.  I would tell myself ‘well, at least I’m not homeless or that guy on the street.’  I found a reason that allowed me to keep drinking.”  While to many he was functioning just fine, Buddha continued his spiral.

When Buddha told his family and friends he had quit his office job to pursue his passion in photography and wildlife professionally, he received mixed reaction.  Many were excited for him, as it was apparent that Buddha had ‘it’ when they saw the photographs he shared.  Others were not so certain about the decision.  He remembered what BJ Ganem, who had been there for Buddha’s highs and lows, told him.  “When I told BJ what I was doing, he was like ‘ok’, but he told me that if my dad was still alive, he would kick my ass for quitting an office job to go do this.”  To most everyone else, these uncertain times would have been enough to prevent them from moving forward with something different.  But Buddha was different.  He had his purpose back, and he poured everything he had into his passion.  By April, he had upgraded his camera and related equipment, and the quality of his photography grew.  Patrick Cummings, who had seen his images on Facebook, contacted him and asked him if he had ever thought about filming to complement his still photography.  Cummings was a professional hunting guide and had just joined Backcountry Traditions, a loose affiliation of hunters and guides across the country who were vying to host a wildlife-themed TV show.  Cummings shared they had a potential opportunity to produce a show on the Pursuit Channel, the most widely distributed hunting, fishing, and shooting television network in America.  The catch was they couldn’t afford to hire a cameraman to film, so Cummings told Buddha if he would film their upcoming excursion in Texas, he could participate in the hunt for free.  “I had never thought about filming even after I bought the camera,” remembered Buddha, but he was excited about the opportunity to combine so many things he loved.  “I just didn’t equate taking pictures of animals and hunting into thinking that I could incorporate this into this until he asked me.  After I got off the phone with him, I thought I can do this.  So, I enrolled in ‘YouTube College’ because I had nothing else to educate me.  I watched YouTube videos on how to do the techniques I would need to know and how to edit and produce pieces.”  Buddha’s relentless preparation readied him to prove himself on that first trip, and he passed the test with flying colors.  Soon afterwards, Cummings offered him a permanent spot on the team, coming around full circle to the interest in filming that Buddha had flirted with as a teenager.

On Lake Huron photographing a long-tailed duck hunt

Buddha’s new career blossomed after the trip to Texas. Since then, he has travelled the world as a hunter, guide, photographer, and videographer. It has become his profession, and he is damn good at it.12  He has combined his passions with his desire for adventure and new experiences and does it in an irreverent way that is unmistakably him.  He is the owner of Off the Grid Photography, and the descriptor on his website reads, “He left 8 years of cubicle prison life behind to start chasing…”  He maintains an Instagram page that boasts over 25,000 followers.  A single post of his can reach over a million people.  He remains a member of the Backcountry Traditions team, serving as a field producer.  “He is an inspiration to me and many others.  He threw caution to the wind and chased his dream,” said Nick Vento.  Buddha has expanded upon the concept of what he does with the Horicon Marsh Veterans Hunt each year.  He replicated the filming and photographing that he did in the hunt each year in other situations, on a smaller scale, but with much greater frequency.  He started to take veterans with him on the hunts he filmed, at no cost to them, and even started his own nonprofit organization dedicated to it.  The benefits of bringing them on the hunts exceeded Buddha’s grandest hopes of what he wanted to accomplish.  “Some of the participants told me that hunting saved their lives because it gave them something to live for.  I have taken veterans all over the world on hunts.”  Once others saw what he was doing, many of them picked up the torch and carried it forward.  Almost every month, someone who had access to a site and sponsorship contacted Buddha to arrange for a hunt.  Buddha mentored them and shared the template to help them put on top-notch events.  Buddha exudes pride in what he has helped to build.  “It’s become such a thing of beauty that I can’t even keep up with it. It’s so big, I need to bring in guys to help.”  Those around him marveled at the effort he made to help others.  “It’s one thing to help our own group of guys,” said Keegan Murphy.  “We all know each other intimately and would do anything for each other.  But Buddha continues to reach out and help people through hunting and the outdoors, and before taking them out, he has no idea who they are. He just wants to help people. That is very noble.”

Buddha is a first-rate conversationalist and treats engagements with others as an opportunity to debate and learn.  Despite the supremely confident and opinionated persona he conveys, he remains open to differing points of views and always seeks to understand.  Some of his most special memories involve discussions he has had with people he had nothing in common with on the surface.  He remembers one, when he was flying to Instanbul.  “In a row on the plane, you had me, a Somali woman in a full burka, and a woman from Zimbabwe named Wizzy.  She was on her way back home and was only able to do so because the country’s dictator president had just been overthrown in a coup.  So you had the three most opposite people in the world having an absolutely fantastic conversation.”  Buddha has remained friends with Wizzy since the flight.  With the worldwide angst regarding those who believe hunting animals is immoral intensifying, Buddha’s business’ social media pages have been the venue for many interesting interactions.  Almost daily, people direct profane language, wishes of physical harm, and even outright death threats at him.  While he ignores much of what is directed at him, he has no hesitation in engaging and will ‘troll’ those who present close-minded attitudes.  He determines his response by what he senses from the person on the other side.  When a person starts with threats or is posting just to get a reaction, Buddha will respond back with an amusing or cutting comment and will move forward.  But if he sees the person is making a true effort, even if clumsy, to learn, then he will match the effort in his response back.  “If the person frames the question in an inquisitive manner or they just don’t know and they’re not being a jerk about it, I always approach it from the standpoint of being polite and taking the time showing them the parts of the hunt and explain why we hunt.”  Buddha  has found that many times the people engaging with him just don’t know enough to understand the other side.

This post is representative of what Buddha deals with most of the time on social media


One of the few rational social media posts Buddha has received

Though he was experiencing significant success in his work, Buddha’s alcohol addiction continued its siege on him.  In January 2018, he hit another low and checked himself into outpatient rehab for the second time.  This time, though, he was ready to fully embrace the realities of his addiction and how it affected him and those around him.  Keegan Murphy noticed a huge difference between the first and second times.  “Talking to him on the phone and seeing him, you could tell in his demeanor and attitude that it was night and day.”  His reaction to the ongoing battle may represent his biggest accomplishment in life.  BJ Ganem expressed pride in his friend, saying, “Buddha has conquered that struggle and though he knows the battle is not over, he has set himself up to fight this struggle with honor and integrity.  I am most proud of him for his continued commitment to sobriety.”  Buddha had met Jessica after attending the second rehab program, and he gives all credit to her for why that stint has stuck.  “The difference is her,” Buddha bluntly states.  “I could not have met the more perfect person for getting it.  She is a very understanding person and she understands me.  We mesh together perfectly.  She will hold my ass accountable.”  Others have noted the support system she provides him and the huge difference that has made. He and  Jessica were married a few months later and Buddha is now the proud stepfather to two daughters, Madison and Elizabeth.  He and Jessica are expecting a son in April 2019.

Buddha with Jessica, Madison, and Elizabeth

“Don’t ever underestimate the impact that you could have on someone else’s life.”  This anonymous quote aligns nicely with the effect Buddha’s service has had on many.  He is understandably proud of the service he gave to his country and the service he still provides to others.  He continues to refine his views of the context in which he and his brothers fought.  But there is one thing that has remained constant; he is proud that he and his brothers answered the bell.  “What matters to me is that we went without question,” he explained.  Jessica, who had not had any close experience with others who served, is thankful for what she has learned.  “Knowing Ryan personally and hearing the sacrifice and everything it meant for him to serve put a new perspective on it for me and my kids.”  Buddha’s friend Corey concurs, saying, “Ryan’s service allowed me a more intimate knowledge of the sacrifices our service members and their families make.  Because of it, I became more appreciative and gained even greater respect for our military members and their families.”  To ensure that our country retains the ethos needed to support those in our military, the education of those who did not serve is critical.  Without that, we would not possess the collective understanding of what is needed to support those who do.  Buddha’s ongoing service helps to bridge the gap and ensure the appropriate alignment exists.

It’s been a long time since Buddha was always the smallest one in the group

For many years, I have said if I could have only one ‘Facebook friend’ it would be Buddha.  He is the most interesting person I know, and he lives a life that fascinates me.  He chose to join the military as a nod to the proud legacy of his family and because he believed it was the right thing to do.  He served his enlistment contract honorably as an amazing Marine leader, and he continues to provide valuable service to others today.  He has experienced enough joy, success, exhilaration, disappointment and sorrow to last several lifetimes and yet remains fully accountable for his own decisions, stating unequivocally, “We are absolutely responsible for our own successes and failures.”  He has faced his demons with honesty and steadfastness, and his life has become a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit.  He lives life his own unique way, and yet fits perfectly within the fabric of what an inclusive society should be.  He wastes no time grandstanding on the things he is against.  Rather, he expends energy engaging with the ideas he is for without attacking those who disagree, while leaving room for real dialogue.  He has toiled to build his body but has exercised his mind just as rigorously.  I have to imagine Ralph Waldo Emerson was envisioning Buddha when he famously said, “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  He has done this, acting on the possibilities that align with who he is at his core and setting the example that gives permission for others to do the same.  Most importantly, along with being his own self, he has held true to his stated description of what life should involve: “Be fathers, be sons, and be husbands the best we can.  Travel, learn, teach, and explore.  Give constantly, never quit, never stop the thirst for more, yet without greed.  Motivate others.  Be humble.  Give thanks.”



1The Marine Corps is officially part of the Department of the Navy.  As such, the Naval Academy produces Marine Corps as well as Navy officers. Officer slots in the Marine Corps are capped by law at 1/6th of a graduating class from Annapolis.

2Mike Skaar was Buddha’s roommate and a fellow Marine in Golf Company.  Skaar would later become a Purple Heart recipient in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

3Lieutenant Dan Taylor is a fictional character from the movie Forrest Gump.  In the story, he came from a long line of ancestors who had died in combat and he believed that to do the same was his personal destiny.

4This is the third time I have mentioned Keegan Murphy in this chapter, and I am not comfortable restricting the reader’s understanding of him to a few quotes.  Murph is an outstanding Marine and was indispensable to the success we had while deployed.  You will notice that I will make several references to the Golf Company NCOs as the ‘backbone’ of our unit.  Murph was both representative and the epitome of a great NCO.  Today, he continues to serve as a firefighter in Appleton, Wisconsin.

5Featured in the book Gates of Fire, the speech Dienekes gave is so good, it should be shared in its entirety (credit to Keegan Murphy for submitting it): “Brothers, I’m not a King or a General.  I’ve never held rank beyond that of a platoon commander.  So, I say to you now only what I would say to my own men, knowing the fear that stands unspoken in each heart.  Not of death, but worse. Of faltering or failing, of somehow proving unworthy in this, the ultimate hour.  Here is what you do, friends.  Forget country, forget King, forget wife and children and freedom.  Forget every concept, however noble, that you imagine you fight for here today.  Act for this alone: for the man who stands at your shoulder.  He is everything, and everything is contained within him.  That’s all I know.  That’s all I can tell you.”

6in 2006, five soldiers from the Army unit tasked with the mission in the same AO we had previously occupied abandoned their post and gang-raped and murdered a 14-year-old Iraqi girl in Yusifiyah.  They then killed the girl’s father, mother, and six-year-old sister.  Their vicious actions, and the events leading up to it, are the subject of the book Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death.

7Black was the color used by higher headquarters planners to indicate the highest level of threat / lowest level of security.

8For a reminder of the geography and set up of MSR Tampa, see the Introduction chapter, specifically figure 2.

9The ‘Wall’ refers to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located in Washington, DC, between the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool.

10Will, Tracy (1997). Wisconsin.  Oakland, California: Compass American Guides. p. 83. ISBN 1-878867-49-0.

11Paul A. Smith. “Soldiers of good fortune” (2011, December 3), Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved from http:// on January 9, 2019.

12Don’t take my word for it.  You can see Buddha’s work here. You can also see it on Instagram under the handle @ryanoffthegrid.







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