Eventually, Tim Kennedy felt no remorse when he killed men. It became a black-and-white proposition to him. The guys who threw acid in the faces of Afghani girls trying to go to school? "I killed those guys," he says, "and I slept really well that night." One of the four aces in the U.S. Military's deck of Iraqi's Most Wanted cards, the ace who burned Americans and beheaded them on TV? "We killed," Kennedy says, "I don't even know how many bad dudes to include -- super, super bad dudes -- and we come back, and we're like high-fiving."
But the first time he killed someone, Tim Kennedy fell into the gray. Kennedy watched the man bleed from the less-than-perfect grouping of bullets perforating his forehead. The man didn't have a gun -- at least not yet. That's what he was reaching for, right? He didn't stand up screaming in the name of Allah like some of the other Muslim extremists Kennedy's team encountered, but he wouldn't kneel down at the Kennedy's command, either. So Kennedy blasted him.
The feeling that filled him next was the principal ingredient in an emotional cocktail that has sent more than 250,000 combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan home with symptoms of Post-Tramautic Stress Disorded: Doubt. He felt it overtake him, bubbling up inside until he felt another unexpected sensation, this time a hard slap across the back of his head.
"You popped your cherry, Rook," said Kennedy's team leader, as he lowered the assaulting hand. "You owe me a case of beer."
We whitewash war. We edit out its realities -- the images too graphic for the evening news. We appease our guilt by only occasionally thanking our soldiers for their "service," as if they've just waited on us at a restaurant. That, perhaps, explains why we're so quick to equate war with sports. We let the 2013 Boston Red Sox refer to their facial hair as "war beards" and don't challenge fighters who get monikers like War Machine. But when we apply the soft focus treatment to war, we lose the ability to see the contrast between the gravity of the war and the levity of our daily lives stateside. And after seeing what he's seen, doing what he's done, that contrast is what keeps the 34-year-old Kennedy sane.
"I don't think you could be good at anything unless you can understand the contrast of what you're doing," says Kennedy, who has served two tours in two wars as a Green Beret and Army Ranger. "The cold and hot. The love and hate, the pain suffering, pleasure ... I love deploying to horrible places, doing God awful horrible things because then when you come back, everything is so wonderful."
He has lost more friends and killed more enemies than he can count. His ability to see contrast, to be present and comfortable with both darkness and light, that, he believes, thwarted the threat of PTSD. In a much smaller sense, it also explains why, two weeks before he headlines the UFC's Fight for the Troops in front of his brethren at Fort Campbell in Kentucky on Nov. 6 against Brazilian Rafael Natal(17-4-1) -- Kennedy (16-4-0) seems unfazed.
"It's another fight," he says. " Another fight with a cool audience. I'm going to hit [Natal] a whole bunch, and he's going to get back up, and they're going to love him. They're going to see how tough he is and they're going to cheer for him too. And I hope they do. He'll deserve it."
Tim Kennedy grew up with contrast. The son of a father who prosecuted narcotics cases and a mother who doubled as a Christian marriage counselor and a piano teacher, Kennedy saw the blacks and whites of life as clearly as the keys on the family piano.
"They're very justice, right -- wrong," Kennedy says. "The whole family was raised that way."
But growing up in California's San Luis Obispo -- dubbed by researcher Dan Buettner as the Happiest Place in America -- Kennedy experienced mostly shades of white in his early years. He was good at practically everything he tried. School? A straight-A student who graduated ahead of schedule. Sports? Excelled at every one. Work? At 18, he took a test to transition from a seasonal to fulltime firefighter. "All these guys have been waiting eight, nine, ten years for a fulltime position. And this f***tarded kid comes in and takes a test. I miss two questions -- so, boom. I get the job and everybody hates me." And as a son? The most the Kennedy clan had to worry about was his unofficial science experiments (like using balloon launchers to determine the trajectories of potatoes hitting cars across Highway 101) or picking fights with his kid sister's dates. "My sister was going to the movies with this guy," he says. "I threw him into a telephone booth."
Perhaps the closest experience with contrast for Kennedy in his youth wasn't so much a comparison between good and bad but a vacillation between his mom's softness and his dad's strength. While mom enrolled him in piano and ballet, dad stuck him in karate and wrestling. Soon he added Jujutsu and Muay Thai to the mix, prompting Kennedy's dad to warn his son, "You can't letter in eight sports. You're going to be a jack of all trades but a master of none."
But what the elder Kennedy didn't know is that, in small pockets of the globe, a new sport was emerging. "The dark ages," as Kennedy called them. A show in a rope ring at a Tijuana bar here. A contest at a Native American casino there. A brand new sport of no-holds-barred fighting for which all the disciplines Kennedy studied could be combined. "That's why I was so good at MMA so early because I'd done everything," Kennedy says.
Around 2000, Kennedy was working for weapons manufacturer Knox Industries and studying psychology so that he could be like Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, he says. His boss asked him to drive a truck full of guns from California to New Orleans for a conference. He dropped off his load and did exactly what one is supposed to do in the Big Easy: He headed straight for the bar.
There, a group of men walks in with cauliflower ears, broad shoulders and trim waists and takes over a table. Minutes later, one of the men gets up and shoulder checks another man at the bar. Out of a nowhere another man jumps between them. The man had no interest in stopping the fight ... but promoting it. Down the street. At his bar. Five Benjamins for the winner.
"I was like, genius," Kennedy remembers. "These guys are geniuses."
Kennedy saw another one of the fighters at the table, scouring the crowd, looking for his next opponent. But before the fighter could make it over to his intended target, Kennedy introduced himself with a shoulder check and a hearty, "What the f--- is your problem?"
Before the dumbfounded fighter could come up with an answer, the bar owner once again jumped in.
"Hey, gentlemen, relax," the man told Kennedy and his new opponent. "Come down to my bar and we'll settle this."
"Done," Kennedy says.
Before the bar owner could even come up with the terms of the fight, Kennedy was out the door, waiting to be shown the way to his improvised ring. The fight started with the challenger planting a fist in Kennedy's right eye socket. But a few days after the fight, Kennedy showed up to represent Knox Industries wearing khakis, a corporate polo and a black eye. He announced to his horrified boss, "I'm buying dinner!" His wallet, after all, was $500 dollars thicker. He delivered a knockout 45 seconds into his first informal brawl.
Then, without warning, the blackest of the black set in.
Billows of black smoke wafted out of Towers One and Two of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Kennedy had already settled into his desk at an e-commerce company in California, arriving early to take calls from his East Coast clients. Computer monitors lined his desk. A news banner on one of them caught his eye. He opened a window to the CNN site just before the second plane crashed.
Some of us went home that day to hug our families. Others to churches. Many to bars. But Tim Kennedy headed straight from work to the nearest military recruitment office. He joined a line of thousands of other people compelled to serve by what they'd seen on their TV screens. The line of prospects snaked through a parking lot and around an adjacent supermarket. Kennedy stood all night so that he wouldn't lose his place. The next day, when he made it to the front, he told the recruiter, "I want to be a Special Forces Navy Seal Green Beret."
"I didn't know there was a difference," he says.
"Oh, yeah," the recruiter said. "I'll have something for you."
"I'm sure he thought I was going to be a cook."
Much of what Tim Kennedy has done in his military career is classified, but this much we do know: He's earned the Bronze Star for Valor. He became an Army Ranger, a Green Beret, and a book character in the nonfiction work Chosen Solider. He also managed to win a few fights between deployments.
In 2007, less than a week after completing the Army's notorious ranger school, Kennedy answered a call from the now-defunct International Fight League with a fight offer -- for that weekend.
"Usually, when people finish ranger school, they take five or six months just to get their bodies back to not trying to fall apart," Kennedy says. But they usually don't have an offer to fight on the main card of a nationally televised fight, either. Kennedy beat the Brazilian Jujutsu black belt Dante Rivera in the second round.
The armchair psychologists can make their own cheap and easy conclusions about how Kennedy's MMA career is a continuation of those he fought in the battlefields. But Kennedy swears they'd be wrong.
"Fighting is fun," he says. "That's it."
To give us the contrast, he tells us one of the few stories he can about the war:
We got ambushed in Afghanistan. There were maybe 80 of us and 400 of [the Taliban]. It was an IED, RPG, PKM-initiated ambush. So a big machine gun, a big bazooka thing and then a bomb beneath the ground. That's what kicked off the ambush. The thing lasted three days. A day into it, I'm out of ammo. They're air-dropping ammo to us. We had gun ships [full of ammunition] coming in. Then on the radio, I hear, "We are now out of bullets. We have to go back."
We literally took a gun ship and made them run out of ammo. That's how bad this gun fight was. The Humvee in front of me got blown up. The guy that was in the turret of the vehicle got flipped over. He's stuck and still alive. I'm in the captain's seat of this vehicle, and the driver, this guy named Irish, was like, "I'm going to go get him."
"No. We're all going to die if we go down there."
He gets out and takes off. I'm like, "Damn it." So I get off and I run with him. I get this guy out from underneath this hood. I'm trying to shoot my long gun one-handed. I'm shooting over our heads at these guys coming out of the trees 10 feet away. This goes on for three days. It's horrible.
Then we come out of this valley and the sun is rising over the back of this mountain. In this valley, there's tons of agriculture. Water is flowing down the hill to fields. There were all these trees in crazy colors. There was a pomegranate tree that I pulled a pomegranate off of. It almost seemed surreal. As we're coming into this pass, there's this body hanging. It was a Taliban. Then these kids -- these half Russian-Asian kids -- are running up. They want candy from us, from our MREs. And they're like hugging my leg. We'd stopped shooting like 30 minutes ago. And we came into this valley and these beautiful, gorgeous kids, are running up and hugging me. The sun was rising. I was in Shangri-La. We talk about contrast. That was contrast. I went from, I was pretty sure I was going to die to these people are amazing. This is why I do this.
As he finishes the story, he lets out a smile. And then it becomes clear: The miracle of Tim Kennedy isn't so much that he lived but that he's still fully alive.