Paralympians Jahn, Brunais share unique bond–defending USA in war, on the field
- Seth Jahn and Josh Brunais have served the country in Afghanistan, Iraq. They'll play for the USA's Paralympics men's soccer team in Rio this month.
In 2010, when Seth Jahn wakes up, he doesn’t know where he is or how he got there. To his right, he sees a mangled guy suspended from the ceiling. Jahn tries to move his arms and can’t. His first thought is that he’s being restrained, that he’s been captured.
It comes back to him in flashes. The five-hour firefight against the Taliban and then the chase after insurgents. How the ground gave way beneath them, their off-road vehicle rolling off a cliff and landing upside down in a river. Being pinned underwater, his friends trying to pull him up, his legs kicking and fighting to get free–and then nothing.
Now he hears footsteps approaching–the skill set and survival mode that has been honed by five years in Special Operations kicks in. He measures the weight of those steps, assesses the size of the person he’s dealing with, closes his eyes and fakes sleep until they’re gone. And then he makes his escape: He has broken ribs, trauma to his spine and brain, paralysis of his right arm and leg, but he hurls himself out of bed and into a nearby wheelchair.
Keyed up on adrenaline and morphine, he wheels himself as fast as he can down the hallway, through the double doors, into the parking lot. The parking lot attendant tries to stop him–he won’t open the gate–but Jahn just keeps shouting in English, “Open it! Open it” And seeing the urgency in Jahn’s eyes, the parking lot attendant complies. Then Jahn is wheeling himself down the road, not thinking, just wheeling. He sees an open field and heads straight for it–throwing himself down in the grass.
On the ground, heart pounding, he looks around. All he sees is endless green–lush grass, trees. He inhales. The air is cool and crisp. No matter how much morphine he is on, no matter how much trauma his brain has endured, he knows there’s no air like that in Afghanistan.
It takes him 30 minutes to crawl back into his chair and then wheel himself back to the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany–where they’ve declared a code silver, the alarm blaring as everyone scours the grounds for Jahn.
After three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, that crawl through the German field and that slow, one-arm wheelchair ride back to his hospital room is the final stretch–one journey ending, an entirely different journey beginning.
The U.S. Paralympic Soccer team flies below the radar. While Paralympic teams in European countries can have nearly similar celebrity status to their able-bodied co-patriots, many Americans pay little attention to the Paralympics–often confusing it with the Special Olympics. Unlike the Special Olympics, an amateur competition predominately for competitors with mental disabilities, the Paralympics are for elite competitors with physical disabilities–ones, like Jahn’s, often caused by a traumatic brain injury.
Six years after Jahn’s escape from the German hospital, Jahn is a forward for the U.S. Paralympic 7-a-side soccer team. He’s come back from more than just one brain trauma: after his military career ended, while working as a government contractor, he was hit by the blast of a rocket, taking shrapnel to the lungs and rupturing an ear drum. He has spent hundreds of hours in 11 hospitals, and after listening to multiple teams of doctors tell him he would never walk again, it feels good to be here, to be representing his country on the highest level he can.
Co-captain of the team, Jahn is 6’3" and 220 pounds. He is the embodiment of a can-do attitude, as demonstrated by his almost gaudy list of feats. In the past few years, he has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, visited over 90 countries, learned to fly a fixed-wing plane, raced cars in the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 and sailed competitively. He was a professional MMA fighter in Poland and Germany, a muay thai boxer in Thailand and a SWAT officer for two years in Lake Wales, Florida. Currently he has plans to compete in the Iditarod. He’s matter of fact in his explanation of these pursuits: you brush with death, you know how short life is, you go after everything you can.
Before practice on Memorial Day at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, Jahn and the three other military guys on the team gather near the mouth of the goal and film a tribute video. Afterward, as they walk back to the rest of the team, one of the other players calls out, “You all are looking especially disabled over there!”
“I remember my first joke,” veteran Josh Brunais deadpans back.
As the team stretches and warms up, they talk about the cooking class on the team’s schedule: Adam Ballou, one of the guys with cerebral palsy, jokes, “Bunch of one-arm guys in the kitchen? That’ll be the messiest cooking class you ever saw.”
This banter, initially surprising to an outsider, is important: there is no tip-toeing, no asking if you are O.K., no kid glove treatment. Here, everyone has either suffered a physical loss or was born with a disability like cerebral palsy that they have spent their whole life overcoming. On the Paralympic Soccer team, this fact is both understood and overlooked, the team instead focused on winning and losing.
Jahn is not the only Special Operations soldier on the team. As Jahn rehabs a broken tibia along the sideline, he points out a player in camo-colored cleats: Brunais, a former U.S. Ranger. Jahn had heard of Brunais before he even met him. Brunais was in a helicopter crash and received the Soldier’s Medal for saving the lives of 14 men, pulling them out of the fire. But, Jahn adds, Brunais himself won’t tell you any of that. Rangers pride themselves on staying in the shadows, on never taking the credit.
“But he is the real deal–a bonafide warrior,” says Jahn.
Brunais and Jahn, connected by similar experiences and losses, spend large stretches of time together–yet they are strikingly different from one another, the Paralympic Team’s version of the Odd Couple. Their friendship, an unusual combination of understanding and mercilessness, embodies the team spirit of a group of men who constantly beat the odds.
Jahn and Brunais are different kinds of handsome: whereas Jahn has a muscled, superhero look, Brunais is lankier, built more like a soccer player, with an angular face. And while Jahn is boisterously cheerful, Brunais is darker, surlier, his jokes more cutting. Their demeanors seem to correspond to their contrasting units within Special Operations: Jahn, trained in Middle Eastern languages Dari and Pashto, was embedded with locals and focused on promoting stability within the community. Brunais, on the other hand, as a Ranger, was responsible almost solely for taking out the enemy.
Ahead of the Rio Paralympic Games, the U.S. team is creating video introductions for each player. While Jahn has adjusted to the press side of playing on a national team, cognizant of the motivational-element, Brunais has not. The concept of making a 90-second video where he tells his inspiring story: he’s not O.K. with it. He doesn’t want to talk about himself, doesn’t want to even identify himself as a Ranger–no real Ranger would ever do that. But Jahn and coach Stuart Sharp have been in his ear, on him to share his story. Brunais, exasperated, says, “Fine, we can drop the ‘R-bomb’ but everyone will think I’m a p***y.”
When I invoke the familiar reasoning–your story is inspiring–he cuts me off: “I was in the military. I was good at it. Now it’s gone. I don’t see what’s inspiring about that.”
When I bring up the Soldier’s Award, and the lives he saved, he says, “Yeah, well, eight other guys died.”
He has no interest in being the hero. But one thing he is willing to talk about is what this team has meant to him.
After Brunais's helicopter went down, his neck and back were broken, his feet were freezing and he was blindingly angry. He shouted at a nurse to get his boots off. He shouted at the nurse who massaged his face, in charge of calming him down. When the doctor came in and asked what happened, this struck Brunais as an idiotic question: “A f***ing helicopter crash, that’s what happened.”
One month later, Brunais lied about where he was at physically and pulled himself out of rehab early because he was tired of the “stupid-ass little exercises.” They wouldn’t let him go at it the way he wanted, wouldn’t let him run with a broken neck and back. Out on his own, he could run the mile loop around his apartment complex in his giant neck and back brace and there was no one to stop him. Ten months later, he was back in Afghanistan. As the master breacher, in charge of gaining entry with demolition–i.e., blowing things up–he was in close range to hundreds of blasts.
The last blast, when the guy in front of him stepped on an IED, sent him back to the hospital. Again, he pulled himself out early, got deployed as soon as possible. But back in the field, he discovered he couldn’t do what he used to. His balance and entire physical orientation were off. His eyes weren’t focusing right. His feet hitting the ground made images shake, which is a problem when you’re aiming an M-4 rifle at a target.
Not wanting to go from leader to liability, he told his superiors that he no longer felt capable of keeping his men safe. He finished his sixth tour and did not go back out for another. His father was a Sergeant Major, and two of his three brothers were Rangers (the third brother an FBI agent), but for him it was over.
“I felt like my whole life was gone,” says Brunais.
The next year and a half was dark: He was afraid to leave his house. His ex-wife got him groceries so that he didn’t have to. The anxiety and depression were overwhelming. He tried not to move. Because if he did get off the couch, the dizziness hit. That feeling of going up and down in an elevator, that’s how he felt when he was just standing. He ran into doors, slammed into corners, felt constantly disoriented. But if he didn’t get off the couch, he didn’t have to face that.
“The less I moved, the less I felt,” says Brunais.
All his life he’d been an athlete, easily graceful. He’d already lost his Ranger command, but he wasn’t ready to also lose his athleticism, to know that he wasn’t as physically capable as he used to be.
One day he saw a flier for a Veterans Affairs soccer tournament. A military brat who grew up in Germany, fussball was the only thing that rivaled his love for the army. He hadn’t played seriously since he was a teenager, but the flier was the first thing that stirred his interest.
The first trip he made was tremendously uneasy. He was unaccustomed to public spaces, to being around people, and now people felt like they were everywhere. There was too much time in his hotel room, too much time spent in his own head, wondering what the hell he was doing there. He did not play well. He was out of shape, and the touch he had as a kid was no where to be found. He was nervous, aware of how long it had been since he’d been on the field. Some part of him thought it might be easy–a bunch of disabled guys hobbling around–but it wasn’t easy. As he attempted to do what he used to be able to do, the only handicaps he was aware of were his own.
Sharp did not select Brunais for the upcoming camp. But several months later, he got the phone call and this time he was determined not to psych himself out. He was still apprehensive of being surrounded by a team, but he found an unexpected ease: the guys on the team have had strokes, lifelong disabilities, brain surgeries, accidents, setbacks–they were easier to relate to than the rest of the general population. They understood bad days.
Out on the field, he discovered how much he wanted this. What he felt, for the first time in a long time, was purpose. This team was a way to once again have something to strive for. He went at it with a Ranger’s single-minded focus– he dropped the twenty pounds he gained while he was immobile on the couch; he threw himself into training with unparalleled intensity. A backbone of the defense, he is excellent at threading through balls to Jahn up top. And like Jahn, Brunais too has morphed into a leader–his level of effort raising everyone else’s.
He isn’t quite as effortlessly smooth as he was when he was a teenager–there are balance issues and vertigo and problems with depth perception–but he is also tougher and smarter and more desperate. He needs this and he knows it. This team saved him.
At residency camps, Jahn and Brunais are perma-roommates, largely because no one else wants to room with them: both have sleep issues and at 3 a.m., they are more likely awake than asleep. Neither likes silence, so in Chula Vista, they drag their mattresses out of their bedrooms and into the common room where they attempt to drift off to the background noise of the television. They lay there, mattresses side by side. Mostly, in the middle of the night, they just critique bad television and give each other hell.
Brunais likes to rip into Jahn: going after Jahn’s pouty lips and sculpted eyebrows (which Jahn swears are all-natural, no plucking involved); Jahn’s tendency to get media attention; Jahn’s rehab on the sideline (“How’s it going with the theraband while we’re sweating our balls off?”). While Brunais allows that Jahn is “one hell of a ballplayer,” he takes pleasure in relaying the story of Jahn’s first game back from injury: Jahn stole the ball and tore down the field on a breakaway–and then promptly face-planted. Brunais got his hands on a video clip and played it repeatedly. “Did you leave your legs in the locker room?” chided Brunais.
Jahn can keep up with Brunais’s banter: When Brunais criticizes Jahn’s Special Ops division as “primadonnas who are too carebear, too hold-hands with the enemies,” Jahn retaliates by calling Rangers “one-trick ponies.” When Brunais starts in on the eyebrows, Jahn goes after Brunais’s trauma-related bald spot (which Brunais describes as “just hair missing on the side of my head from rescuing guys like Jahn.”)
But Jahn doesn’t lay into Brunais quite as often, alleging that when he does, “Josh crawls back into the Ranger foxhole from which he came.” He says this only partly in jest. Jahn knows perhaps better than anyone what Brunais has been through, how much it has taken to get him where he is now–each day still a challenge to be won.
Jahn has fought hard against the residues of war–the anger and hatred that can eat away at who you are. And he understands the struggle with identity. Jahn has at least been able to stay linked to the military, still serving his country as a contractor for the government. For Brunais it is just gone.
“Josh was the baddest of the bad, the most capable there was. You get proud of that. He wanted to be a lifer. And all that was stripped from him,” says Jahn. “When it ends, it doesn’t mourn over you, it doesn’t come back for you–it takes the next youngest man and does the same thing to him later on down the road.”
Occasionally, in those wee hours of the night, they do more than talk trash, as they scroll through Facebook, looking at pictures of their friends, in action, the nostalgia hits. They talk about the lives they lost, along with how odd it feels now: after years defending their country, everyday spent in situations where the stakes are life or death. They are now focused on through balls and overlapping runs. It is only a game.
In June, the team headed to the Netherlands for the Tri-Nations Challenge. On an off day, everyone rents bikes, European-style cruisers, high handle-bars, the kind designed to have a basket in front (“granny-bikes” as Brunais refers to them). While the rest of the team enjoys neat, meandering Dutch sidewalks, Brunais and Jahn take off through the woods.
Part way through they trek, they are passed by two bikers–real bikers, the full biker ensemble outfit, the expensive racer bikes. Brunais and Jahn look at each other and don’t have to say anything: both take off, granny-bikes maxed out in an all-out sprint to the gas station. They win a race the other two bikers may or may not have known they had entered. As they pant and recover, they feel both sheepish and content, both aware of the cleansing nature of athletic endeavor.
This small competition is emblematic of the larger one on the horizon, the Paralympic Games, where athletes from all over the world come together to push their bodies to the limit. While the former soldier describes his current self as “just a weanie playing soccer,” Brunais admits that playing for the United States, amidst men who have achieved tenfold what was expected of them, makes him “a little less of a weanie” than he likes to let on.
After a decade of eating, breathing, and sleeping warfare, after the unimaginable sights and losses of real battle, Brunais and Jahn will now compete in the kind of battle that ends with a handshake, one that unites rather than divides.
In September, the team flies to Rio de Janeiro for the Paralympic Games. Almost always seatmates, Brunais and Jahn undergo a familiar routine: Brunais–who, post-helicopter crash, is no good at flying–sweats, shakes, curses, and closes his eyes; and Jahn focuses on restraint: “It takes everything into me not to exploit his fear and terrorize him throughout the entire ride,” says Jahn.
While they taxi to the airstrip, Jahn teases and jokes and ribs him, but then when Brunais’s eyes start to bug out, when the true panic kicks in, Jahn eases up. Brunais grips Jahn’s arm as the plane rises higher and higher–as they take off to conquer more new territory. The United States is seeded eighth out of eight teams.
On Sept. 8, the Americans play the Netherlands, on the 10th, they play Iran and on the 12th they play Argentina. Their odds are not good. But Brunais and Jahn and every other player on the team have heard this before.