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Do you think this is any way for you to honor your fallen comrades? That was the question Kevin Flike’s wife, Kimberlee, posed to him when he was at rock bottom. A Green Beret, he had been badly wounded in Afghanistan. He struggled to put on his own socks. He was abusing his prescription medication. All the accumulated problems of his marriage came to a head, and he asked Kimberlee for a divorce. It’s an all-too-familiar story for American veterans who struggle to resume civilian life after their deployments; on average, 20 die by suicide every day.
As the war in Afghanistan approaches its 19th year, Mr. Flike – whose wife not only refused to divorce him, but encouraged him to get his MBA, and a master’s in public policy from Harvard – has emerged from that darkness, in part by helping others struggling with post-traumatic stress. He is equally hopeful about America’s trajectory going forward.
“Take it from a man who has been through hell and back,” he says, “there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it burns even brighter than you can imagine.”
When Green Beret Kevin Flike was severely wounded and flown out of Afghanistan, he thought he was leaving the war behind. “Little did I know my battles were just beginning,” he tells a veterans’ gathering in Lynn, Massachusetts, like he’s told so many groups around the country.
An articulate Ivy League graduate dressed in a sharp suit, it’s difficult to imagine him spending long painful nights on the couch, tears streaming down his face.
But that’s exactly why Mr. Flike came to speak here this spring before veterans and others concerned about the toll America’s longest and costliest wars have taken on its servicemen and women. An average of 20 veterans a day die by suicide, and the number of suicides among special operations forces members like Mr. Flike inexplicably tripled last year. He knows something of those depths of darkness, and has made it his new mission to help others find their way out.
“Take it from a man who has been through hell and back,” he tells them. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it burns even brighter than you can imagine.”
Mr. Flike had dreamed of joining the U.S. Special Forces since his freshman year at a Catholic military prep school. When 9/11 hit, it became not only a dream, but a duty.
Ten years and two weeks later, Mr. Flike set out for his last day in combat.
In the tenth hour of a firefight with the Taliban, he was badly wounded. Within an hour, he was asking for his last rites. The next thing he remembers is asking someone if he’d gone to heaven or hell. “Neither son, you’re in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany,” he recalls being told.
His physical recovery, though difficult and prolonged, defied doctors’ predictions. But his mental state began to deteriorate, and he started abusing his prescription medication.
Six months after his last surgery, his wife Kimberlee sat him down. I thought you had things you wanted to achieve in life, she said. Do you think this is any way for you to honor your fallen comrades?
It was the angriest he’d been with her since they started dating freshman year in college. Combat vets are 62% more likely to get divorced than other men. But he had already asked Kimberlee for a divorce, and she had said no.
“I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for her and her steadfastness to me,” he says in an interview. “She takes her marriage vows very seriously.”
Refining his character
After that wake-up call, Mr. Flike reached out to a psychologist to deal with the pain he felt, as well as the guilt of having survived when others hadn’t.
Then, someone else reached out to him – a fellow Green Beret who had incurred similar injuries. Though still struggling himself, Mr. Flike found that aiding a fellow soldier helped him keep his own moral compass straight.
But he hit another low point when, after getting into dual master’s programs at Harvard and M.I.T, he was rejected from 16 of the 17 companies he applied to for a summer internship.
He realized: You’re the problem, not them. “I think that that’s a big thing that happens with a lot of veterans when they get out – they think that the world needs to bend to them,” he says. He ditched the sense of entitlement he’d had as a highly decorated combat veteran (he was twice awarded the Bronze Star, as well as the Purple Heart), and learned to better articulate the value he would bring to a prospective employer.
The next time he applied for jobs, he had his pick of opportunities. Now he is thriving as the director of strategic projects at Threat Stack, a cybersecurity firm in Boston.
He gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day to complete his rigorous morning routine of Bible study, meditation, and writing in his journal about lessons he’s learning and how he can improve – including as a father. That regimen, he says, is key to his resiliency.
“We practice things thousands of times in the military,” he says, so that when things get tough, soldiers know exactly how to respond. “Life is the same way.”
‘The epitome of America’
Today Mr. Flike shares his story everywhere from Fortune 500 companies to elementary schools to the Green Beret Foundation, where he serves on the board. His favorite group to address is incarcerated veterans.
People ask him now whether, if he could go back in time, he would still choose to serve. He says 10 out of 10 times, yes.
As the war in Afghanistan approaches its 19th year, he says it’s “unacceptable” that the U.S. is still sending people to fight there. But he’s not despairing about America.
“There is not a country out there that has done what the United States has done – that has taken this many races, religions, ethnic groups, and put them all together and have this thing work,” says Mr. Flike. “That’s the epitome of America right there. And that’s what people are losing sight of.”
“Do we have our problems? … Should we continue to strive to fix them? Of course we should,” he says. “But there is no other country out there that has done anything like this.”
And for those who aren’t feeling optimistic? He asks them what they’re doing to make the world a better place.
“When you go out and help other people, it’s going to enlighten you,” says Mr. Flike, who has come to see his purpose as inspiring others to be the best version of themselves. “You can go through these incredibly dark and difficult periods, and you can come out of them a better person.”