Major Jon Silk’s Story: Brave Heart, Strong Heart
I am originally from Newton, MA. Growing up, I had a good relationship with my grandfather, who was an Army officer during World War II. He told me fascinating stories, and based on our interactions and my fascination with history, I became very interested in military service. Much to the chagrin of my parents, I decided to put college on hold and enlist in the Army as an Infantryman after graduating from Newton North High School.
I was initially assigned to the Old Guard–a great assignment! I decided I wanted to see more of the Infantry and reenlisted for Korea and was assigned to 5/20 Infantry at Camp Casey, Korea. Shortly after I reported to the unit, we rotated up to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. We patrolled the DMZ on a regular basis, conducting reconnaissance patrols during the day and going out on ambush at night.
After this experience I decided I wanted to make the Army a career. Over the next several years I was stationed in several different units. I also was promoted and moved into leadership positions of increasing responsibility. In Alaska and Hawaii, some incredible non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers led me. These leaders were totally focused on developing subordinates to become future leaders themselves. Through hard, realistic, and challenging training, they taught me the importance of personal leader development and collective leader development. I carried forward those experiences and lessons, and they had a big impact as I applied them to the units I later led.
I loved being a noncommissioned officer and never gave much thought to pursuing a commission; however, in February 1998, when I was assigned to A Co, 2-5 INF, I had an incredible training experience that would change the trajectory of my Army career. We were at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, LA, taking part in a large training exercise. I was serving as a platoon sergeant at the time. The platoon leader was assessed as a casualty, so I stepped up into the platoon leader position. Our platoon was the main effort on the mission and had several squads attached to us from other platoons. I was maneuvering about 75 percent of the company as a noncommissioned officer. We executed the mission and successfully seized our objective. After the mission, I reflected on the experience and realized that unless I pursued a commission, I would never again have that type of an experience as a noncommissioned officer. Noncommissioned officers don’t maneuver elements of that size, and when they reach the more senior ranks, they are there to advise officers and not actually command.
After Hawaii I was assigned as a Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Louisiana National Guard at Camp Cook, in Ball, LA. There I had time for school, so shortly after September 11, 2001, I submitted my packet for Officer Candidate School (OCS). I was selected, started the course in September 2002, and was commissioned as an Armor Officer in January 2003. Most second lieutenants are considered inexperienced by the men under them. I was a different case, though, because I had 15 years of service, had served in every Infantry leadership position through platoon sergeant, and had attained the rank of Sergeant First Class (SFC/E-7) prior to being commissioned.
After attending the Armor Officer Basic Course at Fort Knox, KY, I was assigned to 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Polk, LA. I arrived in late August 2003 and was told I would deploy to Iraq in September. The Regiment had deployed in the spring. Once I deployed and arrived in Baghdad, I was assigned as a Scout Platoon Leader to Killer Troop, 3 Red Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
We conducted operations in Baghdad as well as mounted security missions across Iraq. On April 4th, 2004 the Mahdi Militia uprising began in Sadr City in Baghdad and quickly spread across southern Iraq. (At this point we were one-week form going home.) I was tasked to deploy my platoon and escort a command and control element of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division to Najaf and prepare for future operations. After a few days in Najaf conducting operations, we were ordered to move to Al Kut and join the rest of Killer Troop. We were to be part of a larger operation to secure the city of Al Kut. The Mahdi Militia had previously seized the city from coalition forces (Ukrainian contingent). Between dusk of April 8t and dawn of April 9, the operation kicked off.
I was wounded on April 9, 2004. As part of “Operation Iron Saber,” my platoon was involved in a three-hour firefight to seize Bridge 3 East in Al Kut, Iraq from the “Mahdi Militia,” an Iraqi Shiite insurgent group. During the fight, three of my gun trucks were damaged and nine of my soldiers were wounded. I was wounded as well, receiving multiple traumas to the chest. The first hit I took was when my gun truck crashed as my driver swerved to avoid incoming fire. I had my body armor on, but was thrown into the dashboard and my chest absorbed the impact. I dismounted to join the fight. As I was coming to the front of my truck to assume a firing position over the hood, a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) hit my truck. It landed about 15 feet in front of me, not detonating (it was a dud) and then it ricocheted, breaking apart off the pavement and hitting me in the chest. That impact threw me back several feet. I remember lying there for a few minutes and then recovering and rejoining the fight. About 15 minutes later, I took another hit in the side from some RPG shrapnel.
We accomplished our mission. We destroyed all the enemy positions with the help of air support, and we seized the bridge. I was among the 10 soldiers wounded during the assault. All of us recovered from our wounds and returned to the platoon.
When we were relieved of our positions, we moved back to our base. There, I took my body armor off and discovered that I had a large bruise on my chest, but I did not think much of it since I felt fine.
I finished out the deployment. After Al Kut, we moved back to Najaf and conducted operations against Mahdi Militia forces. We then moved to Diwaniyah and did the same. In Diwaniyah I was attached to B Co. 2/37 Armor “Battle Cats” as their scout platoon. We conducted operation in Diwaniyah for a few weeks and then were ordered back to the Kufah/Najaf area where we conducted combat operations against the Mahdi Militia forces in that area. After a cease-fire was negotiated in June 2004, we redeployed back to Fort Polk.
Remember what I said about getting hit in the chest? In hindsight I had all the symptoms of the injury. In September 2004, back at Fort Polk, LA, I was getting back to normal garrison operations and doing regular physical fitness training. Combat was physically demanding, so we were always doing physically challenging activities (patrols, etc…) but we were not working out on a regular basis. My level of fitness was not improving. In fact, it seemed to be getting worse.
My ears were constantly ringing from the gunfire, explosions and other loud noises that I experienced in Iraq. I went to get my hearing loss checked out and a brain MRI was ordered. The MRI showed a small clot in my brain. While I did not show any symptoms and was a pretty healthy person, the doctor was pretty concerned. I was sent to a cardiologist who did an echocardiogram of my heart. After the echo was complete, the cardiologist asked me if I took any trauma to the chest in Iraq. I told him the story. The echocardiogram showed that the concussion from the impact of one of the blows–or from a combination of all three–tore my mitral valve, and my heart was leaking 40 percent. The medical term is mitral valve regurgitation.
After that diagnosis, I had surgery, and my valve was replaced in June 2005. I received a carbon prosthetic valve.
My doctors painted a pretty bleak outlook for me during my recovery, but I was a triathlete before the war, and I was determined to recover. I made a good recovery, and within 5 months of surgery, I competed in a triathlon as a member of a relay team. I completed the 20-mile bike portion in a sprint triathlon. Only 10 months after my surgery, I completed a sprint distance triathlon, and 11 months afterward, I completed an Olympic distance triathlon.
I was declared fit for active duty and was assigned to Korea where I commanded a tank company, C Co., 1-72 AR for 18 months. Upon my return, I was reassigned to Fort Polk, LA, where I took a second company command. During this time I trained for, and completed, the New Orleans Half-Ironman in April 2009. This had been another goal I set for myself after recovering from heart surgery. In January 2010, I deployed my company to Afghanistan where we served as combat advisors to the Afghan National Police, advising them on their operations and training. While in Afghanistan, I was awarded the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award for 2009. My wife accepted it for me in May 2010 because I was still deployed.
After returning from Afghanistan, I was offered the opportunity to be assigned to the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. I jumped at the opportunity. This was a chance for me to give back and develop the future leaders of the Army and nation. Some of the cadets will go on to be senior leadership in the Army, some will serve the United States in other positions, and others will go on to be great business and community leaders.
I don’t run nearly as fast as I once did, but exercise has always been part of my life, so I have come to realize that now it is not about how fast I run, it is all about finishing. Every time I finish a race, I win. And that is the message I want to spread to other wounded and disabled veterans. Every time you set a physical fitness goal, and reach it, you win. For wounded and disabled veterans, physical fitness is a way to regain confidence in yourself and to reclaim a lost identity. It is a great way to burn away the negative energy that comes with being wounded or disabled.
By way of example, I would like to share the goals I set for myself during recovery from injury. Here is my blog about the endurance events I have done post-surgery: http://itickwhenirun.com/2012/05/why-i-tick-when-i-run.html
I got involved with Team Red, White, and Blue (TRWB) in May of 2011. The organization’s mission is to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by rejoining them to their community through physical and social connectivity. I like the TRWB approach to veteran reintegration to communities through physical fitness. I was the captain for the central Louisiana chapter while I was stationed there. I was assigned to West Point in July 2012. I have been involved with the West Point chapter since I have been here competing in several 5Ks and triathlons.
I plan on transitioning from the Army to civilian life in a few years. Leadership development is a passion of mine. Because I have had some great experiences leading and developing both soldiers and cadets, I plan on starting my own leadership coaching business. I hope to develop individual leaders as well as offer consulting services to build collective leader development programs within organizations. Potential leaders learn best from other experienced mentors, and I will bring the experience, background and education needed to see that they succeed. I will teach, coach and mentor tomorrow’s leaders.