On this day when we in our nation are woefully inadequate in trying to thank the many men and women who have served in the military and kept our land free, my attention is drawn to Clemson University where, sometime this afternoon, 24-year-old freshman Daniel Rodriguez will run wind sprints with his fellow Tiger football players. He is doing it to stay alive, just as he did when he spirited for cover on Oct. 3, 1999 in one of the bloodiest battles ever seen in Afghanistan.
When his unit was attacked at a small base camp in Kamdesh, Pvt. Rodriguez and 50 other Army soldiers were attacked by an estimated 200 Taliban and, by the time the 12-hour horror was over, eight Americans were dead and 22 more were wounded. Today he fights an even-greater foe – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – and, for the second straight year, the United States Armed Forces will lose more veterans to suicide than combat in what is called “our most dreadful epidemic.”
Daniel Rodriguez may have discovered a possible cure for what he unflinchingly calls “our new cancer.” He still has the panic attacks, the savage nightmares, and the ceaseless memory of his closest friend being killed not an arm’s length away that day but, bit by bit, his Clemson teammates have provided the 5-foot-8 walk-on from Virginia with an outlet for his troubled emotions. They are teaching him how to have fun again.
This isn’t to make light of what those who fought in the Great Wars, Korea, Viet Nam and Iraq have endured, but Daniel’s story is one you can touch and feel. When Daniel finally mustered out of the Army, he had a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a very private life that was an emotional wreck.
He enrolled in a community college but it didn’t work. For the first two months he got drunk every night until the numbing alcohol would give him rest before the demons stepped once again through the hazy fog. And the monsters would come every night, too.
One day, as he knelt and wept at the grave of his best friend Pfc. Kevin Thompson at Arlington, he remembered a pact the two had made in Afghanistan – that if Daniel made it out alive, he would play football and go to college. He became determined to keep his vow.
Some friends made a tape of him running and catching the ball, a member of the Clemson Board heard about the video and sent it to Tiger head coach Dabo Sweeney and – in a parade of providence – the emotionally distraught Rodriguez was invited to become a preferred walk-on.
Oh, it is much more complicated and grueling and heart-wrenching than that but, with his education fueled by the GI Bill and his new teammates savoring his drive and dedication, three weeks ago he held an American Flag and led his team racing down the east end-zone hill past Howard’s Rock into the stadium on “Military Appreciation Day.”
Rodriguez described the crowd’s roar as “breath-taking” and, at halftime, got to meet two of the pilots who had provided air support in Afghanistan the day Daniel suffered shrapnel wounds to his legs, his shoulder and his neck. “I was like, ‘Thank you so much!’”
Unfortunately, Daniel will never forget that day in Afghanistan. “I vividly remember thinking, this is it,” he told the New York Times. “My intent was to kill as many of them before they killed me. I kept a round in my pocket just in case; I was going to take my own life. But it wasn’t my day to go.”
Today he hardly laughs when he reminds you he “got his quota” of the enemy the day Kevin Thompson and his other buddies were killed. Recently, he spied the expiration date of “Oct 3” on a milk carton and it sent him into another panic attack. As you can see, he still has good days and bad.
But, with Clemson’s adoring fan base giddy over the 11th-ranked Tigers’ 9-1 season and its gentile followers believing Rodriguez’s story to be better than the inspirational movie “Rudy,” Daniel is being blanketed in love and admiration and respect. The experts say it may be the best possible cure they could ever imagine.
In a riveting story about Daniel in the Charleston (S.C) Post & Courier, psychologist Suzanne Best is quoted as saying PTSD changes the body’s reaction to stress. “Your stress hormones are not working properly,” she explained. “Your system is on red alert all the time. It is an incredibly difficult thing to live with. I’ve seen people just really struggle, it takes an awful lot of strength and courage to continue to get out there in the world.”
What’s worse, the psychologist said, “They won’t seek help when they need it. To them it makes them feel like they are weak. There are a lot of stigmas in the military.”
Daniel admitted as much. “I was tired of getting textbook answers from someone who has seven years of schooling and they are supposed to tell me what it feels like when I kill somebody?” Rodriguez said. “You saw it? You were there? So now we are here one-on-one and you are going to tell me what your degree tells you to tell me? That’s bull.”
So today he’s doing the best thing he knows to do. Football at Clemson is great therapy and the fact he has wormed his way to where he is playing on Clemson’s special teams is a reward in itself. “(Exercise) helps to curb a lot of symptoms,” the psychologist Best said. “The main thing we’ve noticed is having as much social support as possible can be very helpful. A lot of times when people have been deployed and return (to civilian life) they really miss that ‘team’ feel they get with their unit.”
Daniel Rodriguez, the guy in orange who is wearing No. 83 in your Clemson program, agreed. “When people blow up in front of you, when you’re putting pieces together that look like spaghetti into body bags, don’t you think we are going to be messed up? Of course we are,” he told the Charleston reporter. “But being here in general helps me develop, grow, get that sense of love back that I wanted for so long. It’s been a healing.”
The Clemson coaches and players adore Daniel. “He may only be a walk-on,” said head coach Swinney, “but he’s a team leader to these 18- to 22-year-olds, some of whom have a sense of entitlement or want to feel sorry for themselves or don’t understand the privilege they have.”
In short, Daniel Rodriguez is making his way. He’s earning it, too, and on this Veteran’s Day when America pauses to say thanks, it a great joy to hear him say, “Things are finally beginning to level out.” Oh, that our other warriors who are hurting could be as fortunate.
Sgt. Daniel Rodriguez Now Plays For Clemson