SGT Russell Davies (Army, OIF, OEF Veteran)
The “thinking man’s soldier” is an interesting perplexity in the world of all things grunt. There are, to all intents and purposes, two types of infantrymen. Seemingly you’re either a body slayer, born out of molten lava ready to spray lead with each and every passing second or you’re the cerebral killer; not always for the fight but always understanding the necessity. I believe that Russell Davies would be described as more of the latter. The interesting conundrum amongst these two types of infantrymen is that neither one is necessarily superior to the other. There’s a place for both types of warrior on the battlefield and both are extremely effective within their skillsets. Russell Davies has taken lives in service of his country and though that doesn’t make him completely unique from other soldiers and Marines it’s the thought process that was truly an incredible part of Russ’ interview. There’s the admittance of these actions and the reflection on those moments in time that’s almost chilling. There is a sensitivity to life and the loss of life that makes one realize Davies didn’t take killing lightly, but as a means of victory, survival, and defense of his brothers.
Yet there is also the Russell Davies, the Pocatello-born bull rider, boxer, and now sponsored adventure athlete. There is the Russ that got kicked out of high school for his role in a brutal brawl, a month before his graduation. There’s a Russ that’s about as tough and blunt as any soldier could be. There’s the Russ that instinctually dragged his brothers to safety as automatic weapons fire littered the ground around him in a fashion that would send most into the fetal position. There’s the squad leader whose first reaction to a Taliban led ambush in the mountains of Afghanistan was to immediately emplace covering fire until all his men were safe. This duality in approach to life is what truly made Davies such an incredibly sharp weapon for the United States Army, specifically the 101st. And now? Russell Davies the servant minded, guiding wounded veterans through adventure therapy in a way that truly leaves them with the priceless gift of lifetime skillsets. By the end of this blog, you’ll better understand the man behind the mission of Professional Transformation and Sports Development, Davies’ non-profit dedicated to giving veterans a new path and lifeline through adventure therapy. Here’s Russ.
Can you talk a bit about your time in service and why you decided to join the military?
RD: I grew up in the small town of Pocatello, Idaho and my parents ended up getting divorced around the time I was 12 or 13 years old. I pretty much lived with my mom growing up and I knew right when I turned 18 that I wanted to help provide for my family. I knew that child support would run out and my mom would need that help because I grew up in a low-income household. It was something I could change. I watched my mom struggling to raise me and my brothers so that was a huge factor. I knew that I wanted to give back. College wasn’t really an option for me. I always thought I’d join the service but when I turned 18 I was fully committed to it. I asked my parents to sign a release form when I was 17 but they wouldn’t do it, so as soon as I turned 18 I went down to the recruiting station. That's where my Army career began.
Why the Army specifically?
RD: I was pretty deadest on the Marines or the Army. I can’t say that I did a ton of research before going into the recruiter’s office but I knew I wanted it to be one of those two. I got in a good amount of fights growing up so I ended up getting a GED instead of a high school diploma. I was in a fight in high school close to graduation and I got kicked out so that was my only option. The Marine Corps wouldn’t let me in because of that. Then I’d also heard that the Army had more funding and better equipment. I thought if I was going to be an infantryman I’d want the best equipment I could get my hands on. I wanted to be on the front-lines. The recruiter was like, ‘Oh, you want to be infantry? Too easy (laughs).’ There’s no way you could really fail out of that as long as you’re not colorblind or in terrible shape (laughs), especially since Iraq and Afghanistan were so hot at the time. It didn’t require too much on the ASVAB to make it into the infantry but it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made; and it ended up being one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.
Talk a little bit about the 101st and what it meant to be a part of that.
RD: After graduating Basic and AIT they started coming down with our orders and all that. I wanted to be in the 101st because of that incredible lineage and history. I remember my Drill Sergeants saying, “You better hope to God that you don’t get 3rd Brigade (Rakkasans) because all they do is train, day and night.” I thought about that for a second and was like, “Damn, I really don’t want that (laughs). Shit, that would be the worst.” That was where I went. I got to the 101st and I went straight to 3rd Brigade. The Rakkasans have so much damn history though that I was actually really proud to be a part of that. But everything my Drill Sergeants said was 100% true. We did train all day and into the night. To be a part of an elite infantry unit was pretty special, but I also knew that would mean I’d be deploying all the time. It definitely had its pros and cons. There was little to no free time, but you knew you’d be in combat and you’d be well trained in every scenario. If you wanted action, 3rd Brigade was where it was at. We were as qualified as possible for every job in a combat environment that we took on.
What was that first deployment like?
RD: The first deployment was pretty crazy. I was still 18 years old and knowing I was going to war was pretty weird. I thought we were going to hit the ground running like Black Hawk Down style. I just pictured us flying through crowded markets while people tried to kill us. It was a wakeup call. Most people in their lifetime will never see a war-torn third-world country. Getting there was an eye opener and they’d just changed it to 15-month deployments, so thanks for that Army (laughs). You get your little mid-tour leave which breaks it up a bit but it was still a long deployment. We lost our first five guys at the same time to a catastrophic IED. That was in the first few weeks we were there. I remember in that moment thinking to myself, “Holy shit, we just lost five guys in our first few weeks. How are we going to make it through a 15-month deployment? We’re going to lose all our guys.” I think that just played a role in my mind where I developed a bit of a fatalistic mentality. I started to think that I wasn’t going back and I became comfortable in that. In a weird way, I think that truly makes the ideal soldier. I dialed in after that and I was completely focused. We were in Yusufiyah, Iraq in what they call the “Triangle of Death.” We were running missions both day and night at an extremely high op-tempo.
What was your mission on that deployment?
RD: Our job was to get the Iraqi Army to straighten up and handle their own issues. A lot of that was really complicated because we had our own ROE (Rules of Engagement) and they had their own ROE. They pretty much did whatever the hell they wanted and we had to be cool with it because it was their country. One time, we had a suicide bomber enter our base once and they didn’t even pat her down. She detonated the vest and killed a few of their commanders and soldiers. Next thing you know the commander’s brother took over for him since he was killed and our first mission out was directly to this lady’s house that blew herself up. The Iraqi Army took her brother and father out into the street and executed them in the middle of the road right in front of us. We were just sitting there like, “What the hell is going on?” That was their form of justice.
There wasn’t really any evidence they had anything to do with it but that’s the way things work in Iraq. They were running the show. Our commanders would meet with their commanders and we’d come up with a list of places where enemy activity was heightened. They’d then form a high-value target list and we’d go after those guys. We’d air assault in, clear those areas, and kill or capture those targets. We were just trying to come into contact with the enemy as often as we could. Most night missions were clearing houses so we’d enter, clear, then often stay in that home overnight. We’d split the women and the men, post four guys on the rooftop, and try to get a few hours of sleep until your guard shift started. We came under attack all the time. But I’m not surprised at all. Of course those people were panicked and scared. We just kicked in their door, take all their women into one room, and their men into another. Who wouldn’t be freaked out (laughs)? It had to be done for safety measures though.
What was the next deployment like?
RD: I just wanted to touch on this even though it’s a bit off topic. Another thing that made Iraq so difficult was families trying to help you out. There are people there that would leave Iraq in a heartbeat to come to the U.S. but it just wasn’t an option for them. They would help us out and get tortured for that. I remember guys giving us intel and the next day we’d see them completely dismembered. They were just trying to help us out. I remember one of the first people that tried to help us out. Al-Qaeda cut his dick off, cut his throat with a dull, shitty knife, and they put his dick in his mouth. I remember thinking to myself, “I’ll go down swinging no matter what. I’ll never get captured by those sons of bitches.” War is one thing but to torture people at that level is just about as insidious and evil as it gets. I remember just wondering, “Who are these monsters?” I’ll never forget that day and it wasn’t the only time that happened either.
Talk about that tour to Afghanistan.
RD: The major difference for me was that our units were spread so thin in Afghanistan. There were not enough boots on the ground. A lot of the things that would limit firefights to 10-15 minutes in Iraq weren’t there in Afghanistan, so you were facing 5 or 6-hour firefights instead. Our enemy knew we didn’t have backup coming so they’d keep fighting. There were so many troops in Iraq that our responses were quick and we’d limit the damage by always having a backup reactionary force in the area. In Afghanistan that didn’t exist. Afghanistan was far more chaotic than Iraq because of that. We were just constantly in contact with the enemy in firefights. I would say that 50% of my unit had Purple Hearts by the end of our tour. We lost so many guys. The Taliban wasn't breaking contact because they knew we didn’t have a division backing us up in the area. What we had was what we had. They had so many fighters available. We were fighting the Taliban, Pakistanis, Iranians and everything in between. I remember killing guys and realizing they weren’t even Taliban. They were a part of some other fighting force just coming to kill Americans. They just crossed the border because they decided one day they wanted to die some warrior’s death. It was crazy. It went from urban style combat in Iraq, to open, mountainous terrain, where they were building machine gun nests out of loose stone up in the mountains.
I remember taking fire and I had absolutely no idea where it was coming from. That was constant in Afghanistan. For the first half of our tour, we were in the Waza Khwa Province. It was an entirely different way of fighting. There were so many damn IEDs and we had no EOD so that made things ten times harder. I remember having so many MRAPs and M-ATVs blown up that we literally couldn’t go out on missions that day. We didn’t have the resources. We had to switch back to light infantry and hit the ground but that was terrible because light infantry spread that thin gets smoked. We’d be in valleys, pinned down, and they’re firing at us from the mountains. Our mortars were trying to hit them but it’s tough when you’re in the valley and they’re elevated. It was at a point where we had to constantly have air support because it wasn’t a matter of “if” we were going to come into contact but “when” we were going to come into contact. They were fucking good fighters and an overall very impressive enemy.
It went from fighting 10-15 guys in Iraq where they’re immediately breaking contact to a situation in Afghanistan where you’re fighting platoon-on-platoon and sometimes they outnumbered you. I remember so many times where we’d almost go “black” (empty) on ammunition. I remember our air support would come and save our asses so often. I’ve never seen such accurate plunging fire in my life. I didn’t even know where to shoot and these guys were flying straight to target and just lighting whoever it was up. I don’t know if they were hitting anything but I can tell you that we stopped getting attacked (laughs). And the Taliban was damn good. There’s no other way to say it. Their complex ambushes were right on point. They’d blow our lead truck up and at that point, we were stuck in the valley with nowhere to go. Halfway through that tour when things calmed down a bit in that province, they moved us to Ghazni Province. 2010-2011 was probably the bloodiest year in the war in Afghanistan so it was pretty rough being there at that time. We were going to places in Ghazni where U.S. forces had never been before and you absolutely knew without a shadow of a doubt that shit was going to hit the fan. You never had the comfort of having an entire military fighting force behind you. It was just you and your platoon and you dealt with whatever came your way.
What was your toughest time on that tour of Afghanistan?
RD: One of my best friends Chris Bales that came into my unit with me at the same time also deployed with me to Iraq and Afghanistan. We went through this open field in Afghanistan and we knew it was a terrible scenario. I remember hearing those weapons “crack” and he got hit with two rounds in the back. I remember when we MEDEVAC’d him out thinking he was going to die for sure. He did make it that day but his right leg is now paralyzed and he has no movement there. Lagronio got shot in the foot and it was just an aggregate of guys getting picked off on a pretty constant basis. I remember one of the times my truck hit an IED and it literally felt like we drove off a ten-foot cliff. I was in the back of my vehicle not doing what I should be. I think I had a can of tuna and some crackers open with my fucking helmet off (laughs). I kind of had that “fuck it” mentality at this point that all us grunts tend to get when bad stuff is always happening (laughs). We hit this IED and I still have no idea what exactly happened. I just remember yelling, “What the fuck? Who is fucking driving this rig?! (laughs)” I look around and there’s smoke everywhere. People were pretty fucked up in the vehicle.
Everyone else in the truck was unconscious. I had to manually jack down the back-track door because the electronics weren’t working. As soon as I opened the back, I realized we were in a complex ambush and they just started coming down on us with automatic weapons. I was dragging guys from our truck to the other trucks because obviously ours was done for. They were firing at me but I remember it was just instinctual. I knew I had to get these guys to the other trucks to our medics. I dragged like five people to other trucks. We had mortars coming into our position too, which made things even tougher. I grabbed some machine gunners and we started laying down covering fire on the side of those hills. Once they started working I got back to my truck because I knew we had the handheld 60 mm mortar system there. I got that mortar tube and made it rain on that fucking hillside. I think I probably used up an entire can in less than a minute. I wasn’t even assessing where these mortars were landing because there really wasn’t any time for that. I was just trying to smoke the entire hillside.
They were hitting our position so hard that one of their rounds actually hit my mortar tube and effectively destroyed that tube (laughs). I don’t know how many Taliban were killed but we were able to suppress the enemy long enough to get a MEDEVAC in there and get our injured guys out of the kill zone. I’m proud of that day and I’m proud of my guys. I received an Army Commendation Medal with Valor for my actions and I’m proud that I got the job done. My truck alone was hit three times that tour. The second time I got hit was when I got my Purple Heart. I remember arguing with my medic and telling him I was good to go. I had been knocked out but I didn’t really remember it. Then I remember on one of our missions Cuttsworth being shot in the face. We thought maybe there was some way that he could pull through but he died later that day. That was pretty heavy too. You never want to lose guys but we were being picked apart out there.
One day that I’ll never forget was on this random mission right outside our FOB in Ghazni Province. We had a meeting with some tribal elders. We were just sitting out on the rooftop, gearing up, and getting ready to leave. It was the middle of a conversation with one of my guys and I just remember we were standing by to head out. Someone from that meeting must’ve told them we were getting ready to EXFIL. We were just chillin’ and my buddy says to me, “I swear that guy up there has an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade).” I saw him so we got about five of our guys on-line and ready for whatever might come our way. They had about four guys and they were armed and ready to go as well. They were just waiting for us to cross this open field. We saw them, they saw us, and we just opened up on them and started letting them have it. We smoked a few of their guys pretty quickly and one of their guys jumped over a mud wall for cover. I was the grenadier so I started lobbing some 40 mm round towards his position.
I was trying to get some rounds over that wall so I could kill him. He stood up, was peppered with shrapnel and looked dazed. He didn’t have a weapon in his hands anymore. It looked like he had a concussion. I was going to finish this dude off but our Platoon Sergeant yelled at us not to do it. Our Rules of Engagement dictated that we not kill this guy in that situation because he was unarmed at the time. Well, he stumbled around for a bit and just disappeared. I was like, “Where the fuck did he go? (laughs)” Platoon Sergeant said, “Davies, take your squad and find that guy.” So we started clearing their bodies and I found the guy in a 15-foot well. I peeked over the edge of the well and I remember looking down on him. He was saying something and he started messing with his plate carrier. He was going for a grenade. It was crazy in that moment because I realized standing over him that I was going to end his life. I did what any good soldier would do and opened up on him with a few rounds and finished him off. I’d killed people in firefights before that obviously but to stand over someone and kill them like that was a strange feeling. It was weird. I ended up having to go into the well and fish him out and bag him up. I dropped down in there, tied a cable around him that was attached to one of our trucks and they pulled him out. That was a wild scenario.
What’s the process from a psychological perspective on taking someone’s life?
RD: Thinking back on it, killing that combatant in the well was a different situation. That guy and I were probably similar ages. It’s crazy to think about individuals of same ages finding themselves on a battlefield and fighting each other to the death. I realized that he was definitely a hazard so I had to kill him. Normally taking someone’s life in combat is a really quick process where your instincts kick in, but that wasn’t the case in that situation. I had to actively think about killing this guy. I’m sure his family got word that he'd died in combat and that could’ve been me. Two soldiers met on the battlefield and I got to go home and he left in a bag. I’m glad I was the guy that had to pull the trigger because this wasn’t the first time I’d had to take someone’s life.
It might’ve been harder on one of my guys who hadn’t done that before. I knew as an infantryman that it was my job and that situations like that will occur. This wasn’t some innocent kid I smoked so I didn’t feel bad about it. It was just the reality of the situation. He was a combatant and one of us was going to die. I chose to let it be him. I’m fortunate to say that all the lives I took were soldier’s lives. I know situations where innocent people were accidentally killed and fortunately I was never responsible for that. That can be hard to live with. I don’t really sit back and lose any sleep over my kills. They were there to take my life and I was there to take theirs’.
Talk about the complexities of a 3D battlefield.
RD: It’s frustrating when you realize that everyone you come in contact with might be the enemy. You just never know over there because terrorism doesn’t have a face. It’s so hard to try to dictate who is good and bad, who is giving you real information, and who is lying to you. Just looking at the lifestyle over there you realize why terrorism is a constant problem. Hell, if I was over there living that way I can’t say I wouldn’t be Taliban. Life is pretty shitty there. If life isn’t really worth living, might as well join the fight for country and what you think eternity promises. They’re good at that guerilla style of warfare where they fight until they’re completely overwhelmed then they drop weapons and blend back in with the civilian population. I hear some guys talk about it being cowardly but it’s really the only way to beat us.
They can’t beat us going toe-to-toe because we’d kick their ass. They don’t have the weapons and support we do. They fight the way that works for them. Obviously, once they start involving civilians that’s when it becomes a problem but a lot of those guys fight their asses off against us and they’re very intelligent about it. You have your interpreter and his broken ass English and you have no clue if he’s laughing about you and helping them plan attacks (laughs). It’s completely frustrating. I’m sure there are people over there that desperately want change. That’s why it’s so important not to go over there with that “Billy Badass” mentality. There were definitely guys over there that just wanted to be the biggest, baddest, and meanest soldier and that really doesn’t do anything over there. It only makes the ones that want to help us not want to help us anymore. And through that mentality, you’re actually creating even more of an issue and possibility for terrorism to grow. It’s important when you’re representing your country to show some compassion. Yes, I’m an infantryman first but part of that is working with the civilians and leaving them with positive thoughts of us. So, yes, you need to have the mentality that you’re prepared to fuck shit up but you also need to desire peace.
Talk about leadership and going into a situation as a squad leader.
RD: As I advanced in rank throughout my time in the Army, I picked things up from my leaders along the way. I decided my leadership model based on what I did and didn’t like about my superiors. My desire was to be looked at as family and friend rather than a co-worker. I saw a lot of leaders that didn’t approach it that way, but the way their guys treated them was a direct reflection of how they treated their guys. My guys called me by my first name and maybe that’s not proper Army etiquette but it worked. I didn’t give a shit if they called me “Sergeant Davies.” They knew be my first name and they all respected me. I wanted to gain their respect and I did that by being their family. You can argue all day about leadership model but mine worked in a combat zone and in garrison. That’s what it’s all about.
If my soldiers were messing up, I took the blame for that action. You’d see the opposite where leaders were throwing their guys under the bus and those leaders were never respected. Ultimately, you’re creating more problems with that leadership model because now that soldier may never trust another leader in his career. You threw your guy under the bus and truly that “fuck up” was on you because you’re his leadership. You didn’t instruct him well enough to prepare him for that situation and he messed up, so that’s on you. I just wanted all my guys in my squad to come home and do the right thing in combat. I knew my soldiers were always looking at me and how I reacted on the battlefield.
Can you talk about reintegration?
RD: Getting out of the Army was a huge wakeup call. I joined right when I turned 18 so I was used to structure the whole way. My parents had their rules under their roof and the Army had their rules so that’s all I knew. I got out and that structure was completely gone. I took some time to myself when I first got out to think about my life and my direction. I joined with a few buddies of mine and we all got out at the same time after our tour in Afghanistan. We went on this fucking epic road trip, living in five star hotels, eating at all the nicest restaurants, and basically just blowing through our deployment money. It was awesome. We lived like kings for about two or three months all around the country. It was a big party. My parents weren’t stoked about how I utilized my deployment money (laughs). I’ve never been too concerned about money being my sheer focus or drive. I just knew that I wanted to enjoy my country and what we’d been fighting for overseas. It was cool to live that lifestyle for a bit. When I got back home from that road trip, I took some time to not have a plan.
Everything had always been planned out for me and this was my excuse to get away from that. I started bartending at some high-end restaurant after that and it was pretty easy pay. I could bartend a couple of months and then take off on a trip for a couple of months. I saw a kayaking video one-day and I met some elite kayaker out of my hometown here in Pocatello and I started paddling with him. We moved out to Washington with a bunch of other elite kayakers. Ultimately, it was probably the best decision of my life. I still had that infantryman mindset, was getting in a ton of fights, and partying. It was just kind of destructive so I knew I needed change. I was on the wrong path. If I hadn’t found the outdoors and extreme sports, who knows where I’d be now. One of the things I love most about the people I’m involved with is that we actually connect. You can’t be on your cellphone all the time and be successful in the outdoor world. I was meeting people who were on my level and who wanted the same things I wanted. They weren’t hooked into their phones like everyone else is nowadays. It’s genuine conversations in great environments. The camaraderie was excellent.
Kayaking is in some ways just like war (laughs). You have a planned route and things usually don’t go the way you think. Shit can hit the fan and suddenly you’ve got a buddy with a broken back who you’re towing up the river for five days. Society and the media kind of pushes people into building an empire and making millions of dollars. You start to realize that life isn’t about that at all when you’re around the right people. You need to do what you love and what gets your heart beating harder every day. I think that’s where a lot of veterans mess up. They’re just looking to collect a check and not chasing their passion. They had real purpose in the military environment and they lose that purpose going into the civilian world. I started forming totally new intense bonds with incredible people and that made it to where I wasn’t looking back anymore at my time in the military. I didn’t talk about those old stories as if they were the best days of my life because they weren’t. My best days are still ahead of me. As I got more into the world of kayaking that led me into other sports because most of these guys are multi-sport athletes. Before you know it I was rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding, and everything in between.
What was life like growing up in Pocatello and what do you think in your childhood made you a better soldier?
RD: I grew up and was consistently getting in fights. I was always a wild child and always trying to get myself in trouble. My parents could tell you some stories. My family always got me involved in all the team sports when I was a kid. I was about halfway into high school when I started branching away from team sports and getting into individual sports. I’m not knocking football by any means but nothing ever changes. It’s always the same sport every single time. I got into boxing, skating, and bull riding. The boxing was because I was in so many fights and my parents thought I could channel that rage into something constructive. Really, it just taught me to be a better fighter (laughs). I ended up getting kicked out of high school like a month before graduating for fighting. These guys who weren’t even supposed to be at our school came onto our campus and were talking a ton of shit.
We went off campus to fight them and one of them pulled a knife. I grabbed his wrist and my buddy started whaling on him until we could grab the knife. Then we grabbed his friend and kicked his ass too. We thought we taught them a lesson. We ended up getting called into the office and the administration got mad at me and my buddy even though we were students and these losers were not even high school age. I had to go in front of the whole school board and the president of the board said, “Everyone in this school thinks you deserve a second chance but I don’t. Find a different school district.” It was mind blowing. How do you do that to a young kid? The other guy that got kicked out who was my friend is in prison now. Fortunately, I didn’t have the mentality of a victim so I joined the military and made a good future anyways. I thought, “Well it seems like I keep getting in trouble for fighting so I’m going to go somewhere where they’re cool with my mentality. The Army was that for me.”
What do you think is the importance of having help when you get out of the military?
RD: I think having help when you get out of the military is massive. Everyone needs help in some way and why would we be any different? The transition back into civilian life is a tough one. I think it’s safe to say that no veteran is looking for a handout. We’re not out there searching for handouts or thinking we’re entitled to anything. It’s just really tough because in the military and especially the infantry, you’re doing something that’s so outside of most people’s comprehension. When I left the Army, it was tough being in a society that didn’t get my battle-hardened mentality. I went from the closest bonds that I’d ever had in my life to civilian society where I didn’t know where to turn. PTSD is thrown around so lightly nowadays and treated like this disorder. When guys get out society kind of makes them feel bad or like they’re different because they have PTSD.
The truth is you’ve just seen some extremely traumatic shit and you’re trying to deal with it like any normal human would. Most people just aren’t thrust into those situations or choose to be in those positions. As infantrymen, we kind of ask for trauma. Having the assets that we have now is massive and it really helps with the trauma. As a veteran, you just need to take that step to get off the couch and find those options. There are so many various non-profits out there looking to help us now. It’s okay to admit that you’re not happy with you’re at. My company, PTSD, is really about helping bring veterans out of their shell and teaching them a lifelong skill that will change their outlook forever. If it’s not my company, then it could be another company but there are people out there trying to help you. Troublesome times will come no matter what in life, but being able to fully dive into something is what having an outlet is all about.
Talk about growing up in extreme sports and how that’s helped ease your transition.
RD: I remember as a kid, my parents would want to go on a camping trip and I’d throw a little shit fit. Once I was out there, I was having a blast and loving every minute. I discovered so much in those times out in the middle of nowhere, and it would help me completely escape. The therapeutic aspect of escaping out into the outdoors was healing and humbling. I learned a lot about myself on those trips. Nature has a power that’s so much more powerful than anything I’ve ever seen and that completely changed me. I know as a kayaker I see the power of water all the time, and it’s taught me a lot of life lessons. There are going to be some obstacles that may seem massive at the time but you just have to power through and push past. Water has that ability.
What do you think are the biggest issues facing the veteran community?
RD: There is such a tight-formed bond with so many incredible individuals when you serve in the Army. Throughout any trials, I could find relief no matter what in my brothers. When I got out, everything was so different. Everyone has their own thing going in life and I couldn’t just call anyone up at any time when I was having a problem. Getting out of the military is tough in those moments when that realization sets in and becomes the reality. I lost that connection and for a lot of people it’s devastating. The Army sucked but at least I had my brothers there to help (laughs). When you get out you’re just surrounded by people who don’t know that kind of loyalty. That’s tough. The question then becomes, “Will I ever have bonds like I did while I was serving?”
How do we bridge the gap between the civilian and veteran populations?
RD: I don’t even know if my solution would work for everyone. If it wasn’t for getting involved in outdoor sports, I don’t know what I would’ve done or if I ever could’ve found comfort in the civilian population. When I didn’t trust anyone I found outdoor sports. I got out and as far as I was concerned civilians didn’t know shit and that’s just the way it was. I had such a negative outlook and outdoor sports gave me some of that positivity back. I didn’t necessarily have to serve with someone in combat to find trust anymore. That discovery kind of changed my life. It put me directly into scenarios where I could’ve died and I love those adrenaline highs and that pump I got in those positions. There were these huge uncertainties with climbing that Cliffside or mountain biking that insane terrain, where you kind of have to trust someone else. When you’re climbing at a certain height you’re absolutely dead if that person belaying for you isn’t paying attention or up to the task. I loved being able to put my life in someone else’s hands again.
How do we curb this suicide issue within our community?
RD: The hardest part about suicide is there are so many factors. Obviously, the VA and other health agencies throwing medications at most of the problems doesn’t help the issue. There is only so much we know about the brain and can possibly know at this time where medical technology is currently. We have so much work to do in that regard. As we continue to map out that space, I believe we’ll learn a lot more about why suicide occurs at such a high rate with veterans. It’s just not nearly as mapped out as our vital organs. If you’re living your life and truly believe there is not one single positive, you’re in a very dangerous position. The outdoors and extreme sports was my solution but I’m not going to say that’s the solution for everyone. I personally believe it can be the panacea for a lot of people but I’m not just going to sit here and plug my non-profit as the only means to getting help. The outdoors is humbling for me because of the sheer magnitude. It’s taught me so many lessons about myself and that in turn has created an incredibly positive space in my life. Extreme sports and the self-discipline it’s taken to be great in that space has constantly cultivated new life within me.
What do you think about the term “hero” and when someone associates that with being a soldier or Marine?
RD: I think that to some extent we are heroes because we made that choice to sign on the dotted line. We, as soldiers, committed ourselves to something much greater than our own individuality. When you commit yourself in that regard, it truly is a heroic action. It’s a courageous choice. Whether you agree with the war or not is completely irrelevant. Brothers and sisters in our community make the volunteer’s choice to commit themselves to defense of nation. It can also be a bad thing where you’re constantly defined by the term “hero.” Heroes don’t typically get help and that can be detrimental to veterans as a community. It’s okay to ask for help.
What would you say to a civilian about certain stereotypes? If there was one stereotype you could change what would that be?
RD: I think one of the biggest stereotypes that I run into is that military men and women are government, brainwashed puppets. It’s like there is this overall assumption that we have no capability to think for ourselves, and that we just do whatever we’re told without our own idea of right and wrong. That turns us into these compassionless beings where we’re almost robotic in nature. War is such an ugly thing that only the most ignorant could carry out the task. That’s such a load of bullshit. I feel like a lot of people assume that we’re fully supportive of what we do, the wars we fight, and every task we carry out. That’s just not the case. I served with some guys that didn’t have the ASVAB score to do anything other than the infantry but they had three kids, a wife, and were working in a factory that was shut down. What do you do in that scenario? They made the choice to serve and commit to an honorable path, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with all of our principles.
What do you love most about this county and what did you love most about serving this country?
RD: I’ve been to quite a few different countries now and I think my favorite thing about this nation is the fact that we have other options when we need help. I get so tired of hearing people talk about food stamps and welfare. There are people out there that complain about their tax dollars being utilized for food stamps and welfare. Who cares if 9/10 people take advantage of the system if it’s helping that one person who desperately needs the assistance. Yes, it’s an absolute shame that people take advantage; but the answer isn’t to get rid of those systems. Those systems are in place to protect those who are underprivileged and in need. That’s a beautiful thing about our country. Even if it’s not perfect, we are boldly committed to helping those in need. Single mothers, the poor, hurting minority groups, are all given a better chance through some of these programs. Like I said before, taking advantage of it is really the individual’s issue and that doesn’t mean we stop rendering aid.
Talk about your time in the Grand Canyon and what you were looking to accomplish there.
RD: The Grand Canyon was on my bucket list like most people’s, I’m sure. I had the opportunity to take Lonnie Bedwell, who’d lost his eyesight in service of our country, into the canyon. The guy is an incredible kayaker and it was so inspiring to see him on the water. I was also lucky enough to be paired with Aaron Howell, a Marine, who’s a phenomenal kayaker as well. He lost his legs and the majority of his hands while he was serving in Afghanistan. It was such a privilege to kayak with these two gentlemen. The Grand Canyon is such an incredible escape. You can do it anywhere from 9 days, if you have jet propulsion systems, or 14 days if you’re self propelled or 21 days if you take it at a leisurely pace. There’s about 216 miles of river through the heart and it’s so uniquely beautiful. I was dealing with people that were my brothers who’d sacrificed so much but I was able to give back through my expertise and that was so humbling. Water teaches so many lessons about getting past resistance and I think in many ways it was metaphoric for us on that trip.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of helping veterans on these trips through your company?
RD: I think the most rewarding aspect is that when you’re on the water you’re all equal. Everyone on the river is equalized in some way. I was awarded my Purple Heart for a traumatic brain injury and they were rewarded Purple Hearts for their loss of eyesight and limbs. On the water, you form such a tight bond of coherence where communication is so important. There’s this camaraderie that’s untouchable in that setting and it’s almost like being in the Army again. We were with quite a few civilians who didn’t know much about that, but they got to watch and see that strength in community. The transition is made smoother in those settings. Civilians have these questions they always want to ask and in that scenario it’s more comfortable to bring up those questions. As soldiers, we start to believe that reliability only comes with having served in combat. We start to believe that only other soldiers can have our backs in those life or death situations. In the water, being around civilians, you start to learn that’s just not always the truth. There are some incredible civilians out there that will have your back. I understand that trust is hard to come by, especially in today’s society, but you still have to be able to do it or you’ll never live a fulfilling life. We operate as a team, counting on one another to accomplish the mission at hand. Much like the military, respect and camaraderie is formed in those types of intense situations.
If you could tell the brothers you lost in combat what would you tell them?
RD: I try to live a life that exemplifies all of the best characteristics of a soldier. If my brothers I’ve lost are looking down on me, I want them to see the best possible example and that I’m living my life to the fullest. I want them to be proud of me and everything I’m accomplishing. I’m continuing to push the boundaries and try to bring a new light to others’ lives. I hope they see that I’m doing my best.
What’s the toughest aspect of losing guys in combat?
RD: The toughest aspect of loss in combat is the insane amount of “what if?” scenarios that present themselves to you after that occurrence. I’ve learned that you can ask “what if?” in almost every scenario in life when you mess up or something goes wrong, and that doesn’t actually fix anything. It’s okay to use that moment as a possible learning tool, but sometimes there’s just nothing you can do. It’s the wrong question to ask. The major thing isn’t “what if?” or maybe what you could’ve done. What happened is just another occurrence and a direct reflection of warfare and combat. I don’t dwell on who’s here and who’s not anymore. I try to keep tabs on those who are still here. Some of my brothers are struggling right now and I can’t do anything about those already gone. I can help those who are still here by lending an ear or offering assistance. I try to keep a list of my bros and reach out to them whenever possible. I will always remember those we lost in combat but I don’t dwell on the “what if?” at all.
Talk about PTSD (Professional Transformation and Sports Development) and the purpose of your organization?
RD: One of my best friends, who joined the military around the same time I did, took his own life and that really was the catalyst that had me looking for a way to give back. I knew I needed to do something much bigger with my life. I was searching for that adrenaline rush that I had in combat in all the wrong places through drinking and getting into brawls. Professional Transformation and Sports Development is my peace in life now. We bring veterans out for a two-week introductory course in either kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing, skiing, or snowboarding. The whole purpose is to let veterans find their path through escape. That’s the great thing about adventure sports. We fly them out to Pocatello, set them up with accommodations, and show them a new skillset over those two weeks that will absolutely, unequivocally change their lives.
How would you want people to look back on your legacy?
RD: I think the major thing you could take from my life, is that I pointed it in a direction that was unique. Building a legacy or establishing an empire was not my goal in life. My own personal happiness was my greatest goal. You can’t really listen to any one person in coping with life’s issues and fixing your own internal problems. Only you truly know you. You have to take what you’ve gone through and approach the issue in your own way knowing yourself. I lost myself in the moment every time and I came back with new purpose through the outdoors. We all exist in this world and it’s easy to get caught up in the materialism of this planet. It’s really not all that relevant and it really doesn’t create happiness. You can build an empire your whole life and then turn around one day and realize your own personal happiness was never realized. Your passion needs to be your goal. People need to embrace “the now” and live life doing things that make them most happy. Enjoy every day because yesterday is gone and tomorrow definitely isn’t a guarantee.
The human individual is always completely unique and that's the greater goal of the project; to expose that individuality. There is no one type of person that makes the perfect soldier or infantryman, but it would be easy to imagine if you were looking for the type of soldier that you knew would perform at the highest level, you'd look at a man like Russell. His courage could never be questioned in the slightest and his resolve was formed and founded in his earliest days on the white waters of Idaho's most savage landscape. That resolve was only strengthened as he fought against a treacherous enemy in some of the most dangerous places in the world.
Russell is a perfect picture of Secretary of Defense Mattis' quote about post-traumatic growth. Mattis said, "There is also something called post-traumatic growth where you come out of a situation like that (combat) and you actually feel kinder toward your fellow man and fellow woman." His experiences overseas acted as a catalyst for compassion and helped fuel an already burning love in his heart for his fellow veterans. This compassion has surfaced as a foundation for his non-profit which will almost certainly help other veterans realize their purpose, much like it did for Sergeant Davies.
To learn more about Professional Transformation and Sports Development check out www.ptsdveteranathletes.com, Instagram: @ptsdveteranathletes, Facebook: PTSD Veteran Athletes. You can check out Russ and keep up with all his adventures on Instagram: @russ_dav.