Clemson's Rodriguez using football to cope with invisible war wounds

Daniel Rodriguez, who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart as a U.S. soldier fighting in Afghanistan, joined the Clemson football team this season. At top, Rodriguez sits in a U.S. Army base in northern Afghanistan near the village of Kamdesh.

The mountains sloped steeply to the narrow valley below where a river flowed from the snowcaps high above. Alongside the river was a road guarded by one of the U.S. Army’s northernmost bases in Afghanistan.

The road led to the nearby village of Kamdesh not far from the Pakistani border, where insurgents gathered and weapons were smuggled into the country. The remote American base was supposed to serve as a deterrent.

The people had long built their villages on the ridges and cliffs for natural defensive positions. In the 19th century, the British army was ambushed and defeated in these barren, lawless mountains. There are remains of villages destroyed by the Soviets during their failed invasion in the 1980s. Now, Americans were in the cross hairs.

Early on the morning of Oct. 3, 2009, U.S. Army Pvt. Daniel Rodriguez walked from his mortar pit position to check his email on the base’s computer. At 5:58 a.m., minutes after sunrise, one mortar crashed into the base. Seconds later, a full barrage began.

Rodriguez scanned the black hills silhouetted against an early morning sky and saw hundreds of sparks that looked like fireflies. They were muzzle flashes from hundreds of enemy fighters in the hills.

Rodriguez and 50 U.S. troops, including his friend Brad Lawson, were surrounded and outnumbered.

“It was the worst tactical location you could possibly be in,” Lawson said. “They could shoot at us from a couple thousand feet above us and we couldn’t see them.”

Rodriguez, a former wide receiver at Brooke Point High School (Stafford, Va.), who now plays at Clemson, ran to his position faster than he’d ever run before. Stones and dust pelted his ankles as bullets rained down around him. He zig-zagged back to his position two football fields across the base.

The fighting was savage with point-blank killing as enemy fighters breached the walls. Lawson nearly ran out of ammo. Rodriguez kept one round in his pocket just in case. Air support was slow to arrive. Most of the base was on fire. Rodriguez killed men and saw friends killed, including his best friend Kevin Thompson, shot in the head just an arm’s length away.

Rodriguez, who took a bullet through his shoulder and had shrapnel wounds to his neck and legs, dragged Thompson’s body to shelter. After two days of fighting, the soldiers were evacuated, the base abandoned and munitions looted by insurgents.

Eight Americans were killed and 22 wounded at Kamdesh in one of the bloodiest battles of the Afghan war for U.S. troops.

Rodriguez received the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, awarded to those physically wounded or killed in combat. But every soldier at Kamdesh was psychologically wounded. Rodriguez was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Today at Clemson, Rodriguez, 24, will run down the east end zone hill and onto the field at Memorial Stadium carrying the American flag prior to the Tigers’ football game against Virginia Tech. It’s Military Appreciation Day at Clemson, and Rodriguez, a walk-on member of the team, is using football as therapy.

“(PTSD) is the new cancer,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone wants to know the cure for an incurable disease.”

Alexis Zell was the first to greet Rodriguez when he returned home in October 2010, stepping off a plane at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.

Zell had been a cheerleader at Brooke Point High. Before each football game, Rodriguez gave Zell a rose and Zell handed Rodriguez a goodie bag, the exchange was part of the school’s game-day tradition. They became close friends. When Rodriguez returned from his first tour in Iraq, they began dating.

In the Brooke Point High yearbook’s senior superlatives in 2006, Rodriguez was dubbed the ‘life of the party.’ He was outgoing. Zell said she knew immediately that something was different about Rodriguez when he came off the plane.

PTSD manifests itself in different ways. The once jovial Rodriguez “shut down,” according to Zell. He was quiet, cold.

“I don’t want to say the war took it away from him, but it definitely changed that side of him,” Zell said. “He’s a lot more subdued. Any issue he has, anything, no matter how he’s feeling, it is hard for him to speak about it.

“He’s keeping everything in and bottling it up. He’s not an angry person, he’s never snapped, but hopefully he can learn to communicate before he actually does one day.”

Rodriguez suffers night terrors and panic attacks. He can never quite get away from the battle.

A seemingly innocuous expiration date on a gallon of milk can trigger a flood of memories as it did earlier this month when he saw ‘Oct. 3,’ the anniversary of the battle.

Stephan Batt grew up with Rodriguez in their affluent suburban Washington neighborhood. He said Rodriguez used to be a free spirit who cared more about pick-up basketball games than grades.

When Rodriguez returned from Afghanistan, he was quiet, serious and internalized more, Batt said. Rodriguez also was overly concerned about his surroundings. He rarely went anywhere without a handgun, Batt said.

The symptoms were common: reliving events through nightmares and flashbacks, feeling detached and being easily startled.

Psychologist Suzanne Best has worked with combat veterans and said PTSD changes the body’s response to stress.

“Your stress hormones are not working properly,” Best said, “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.”

So far this year, suicides by active-duty military personnel are averaging one a day. For the second year in a row, more U.S. soldiers have been lost to suicide than combat. Army statistics show suicides are up 22 percent from last year, the highest rate in more than a decade of war. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified to Congress in July that suicides are an “epidemic ... something’s wrong.”

Rodriguez met with an Army psychologist days after the battle in Kamdesh. Upon his return to the U.S., he met with more mental health specialists but resisted additional treatment.

“They won’t seek help when they need it,” Best said. “To them it makes them feel like they are weak. There are a lot of stigmas in the military.”

Many veterans, including Rodriguez, reject help from those who have not experienced combat.

“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.”

After returning home, Rodriguez visited Arlington National Cemetery at least once a month, breaking down at the gravesites of his friends. The memories of Oct. 3, 2009, haunted him. He had to find something to help him move on with his life. He began thinking about football, and about a promise.

Rodriguez and Thompson promised each other they would pursue their dreams if they made it out of Afghanistan. For Rodriguez, the dream was playing college football. Last December he decided to fulfill the promise to his friend killed at Kamdesh.

He began working out again. He stopped drinking. He found exercise helped alleviate symptoms.

He asked Batt to help him put together a football video he could show to coaches. Batt’s cousin runs a production company and in two hours they put together a short documentary-style film. Batt suggested they upload the video to YouTube.

It went viral.

“I was helping him respond to emails, he had stuff coming in from all over the world,” Batt said. “I was acting as his little pseudo sports agent.”

Eventually, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called.

Rodriguez had dreamed of playing football at Virginia Tech but didn’t get accepted for admission.

He enrolled at Clemson and the Tigers obtained a waiver from the NCAA to allow Rodriguez to play football. Perhaps it was fitting Rodriguez ended up at Clemson, which has a military heritage. Two players from Clemson’s 1939 Cotton Bowl team were killed in combat in World War II.

Rodriguez, who ran the Memorial Stadium steps in the blazing heat while wearing a military gas mask last summer, has taken on the thankless special teams duties with a passion. Swinney has praised his leadership. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said Rodriguez has been a constant source of energy on the practice field.

“It clears my mind,” Rodriguez said. “(Football) is therapeutic. It separates me from what I’ve been through when I focus on something I’m trying to achieve.”

Zell sees positive changes.

“I think it has helped him in that there are other things in life other than looking back on what he’s been through,” Zell said. “He has something to look forward to.”

Best said sports offers effective coping mechanisms for people suffering with PTSD.

“(Exercise) helps to curb a lot of symptoms,” 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 they really miss that team feel they get with their unit.”

Rodriguez said he will never get past what he saw and did in Afghanistan. But being part of the Clemson football team has given him hope.

“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,” Rodriguez said. “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.”