Survivor Mentality

April 8, 2014

Keka Schermerhorn

“People told me from the day I woke up in the hospital that I was an inspiration ... I survived something awful and that’s lucky ... accomplishing goals, acquiring a new and fun career while doing things people once thought were impossible ... that's inspirational.”

Photos courtesy of Joseph Kelley

Former motocross athlete and retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Brendan Ferreira recently completed his first CrossFit Games Open.

Ferreira, a coach at CrossFit Seekonk, in Seekonk, Mass., wanted to get as many of his athletes involved in the Open, but had not planned on participating.

“Not too many people were signing up, so I started pumping it in my classes,” Ferreira said. “Then a member dropped the bomb on me: ‘Are you doing it?' I thought about it for a couple seconds, said yes, and went for it alongside 40-plus other CrossFit Seekonk members. I set a goal to Rx all of the (workouts) or go down trying.”  

As an adaptive athlete, Ferreira would have to modify most of the movements, but his commitment to using the prescribed weights for all of the Open workouts was unwavering.  

After graduating high school, Ferreira mulled over the idea of joining the army.

“The job sounded like everything I wanted it to be,” Ferreira said. “So I enlisted as an infantryman in the U.S. Army. Basic training went down at Fort Benning, Ga., and upon graduation I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Air Assault Division.”

Ferreira served a 15-month tour in Iraq with the Rakkasans, a high-speed, low-drag combat unit. At the end of his tour, he turned down a non-deployable job, re-enlisted and deployed to Afghanistan.

“Carrying heavy gear, long distances and up mountains, sneaking to different observation points to gather intel, raids, mortar attacks, firefights—it was an infantryman's dream,” Ferreira said. “Unfortunately some dreams are nightmares.”

Ferreira and his unit worked together with the Afghan Border Patrol (ABP) manning two outposts.

“On March 9, 2010, at about 8 p.m., a member of the ABP donned a suicide vest and ran up behind me and a few of my brothers and detonated his device,” Ferreira recounted.

The explosion was seen from three miles away and it was followed by hostile gunfire. Despite Ferreira’s proximity to the bomber, he never lost consciousness.

“The force of the blast launched me a good 12 feet,” Ferreira said. “I thought one of my friends tackled me and I hit my head wrong on our fire pit or something. I tried to get up with my left hand, but my hand was gone. Right about then the most intense pain I have ever felt in my life kicked in from head to toe as I finally pieced together what had just happened.”

The attack occurred near the Afghan-Pakistan border, and it took medical evacuation nearly 15 minutes to reach Ferreira.

“I didn't know who else was injured or what exactly had happened,” Ferreira said. “I woke up in Walter Reed Army Medical Center on March 12, three days before my 23rd birthday. I didn’t find out until about a week later that my brothers, Sergeant Jonathan Richardson and Private First Class Jason Kropat, had been killed in the blast.”

Ferreira suffered the amputation of his left arm below the elbow, and lost all functionality of the joint. He fractured every bone in his face, suffered complete loss of sight and hearing on one side and vast impairment on the other. He also had a lung contusion, left quadriceps tear and other severe lacerations and burns. His injuries required more than 45 surgeries in his first two months of recovery.

He would spend the next two years at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“I had high spirits at first,” Ferreira said. “I had many injuries before and I knew I was a quick healer. Doctors at first weren't entirely sure if I would keep my legs, but I was determined.”

Unfortunately, Ferreira’s right leg stopped healing, and he was informed that he would need another amputation.

That’s when he hit rock bottom.

“I started eating poorly and skipping appointments,” Ferreira said. “I re-ignited my smoking habits, sleeping excessively and mixing alcohol with my pain medication. Outside I would smile and crack jokes, but in my room I was miserable.”

While at Walter Reed, Ferreira met army medic Elise McDougle and the two became fast friends.

“My father was being treated at Walter Reed at the same time that Brendan arrived,” McDougle said. “Both Brendan and my dad were snipers and got along really well, so he introduced me to him.”

Brendan was put into a walking cast in preparation for his amputation. When the surgeon removed the cast and ordered X-rays, there was evidence of new bone growth, meaning the amputation would not be necessary after all.

McDougle had planned on being there for Ferreira post-amputation.

“The day I was supposed to get my leg amputated, I walked Elise out back to the fire place and asked her out on a date,” Ferreira said. “A few months later, I would walk her out to the same place and ask her to marry me.”

The two married, and moved back to Massachusetts, Ferreira’s home state.  

“I was off my meds and drank very little, but I ate a lot of crappy food and slept the day away,” Brendan said. “Every now and then I would run on an elliptical, but if I felt any twinge of pain, I'd stop. My wife fell into the same rut after giving birth to our daughter. It was one excuse after the other, and she was getting tired of hearing me talk about how motivated I was before my injuries, and about some of the crazy (workouts) we would come up with at my unit. One day she just took off, and when she got home she informed me she signed up for CrossFit.”

The unit Brendan was deployed to Iraq with were early adapters of CrossFit as their fitness regimen.

“I couldn't stand it! She'd come home and talk about the workout," Brendan said. “And all these awesome memories would flow back.”  

It took some convincing to get Brendan to try CrossFit again.

“Getting him to get back into it was a bit of a struggle at first,” Elise said. “I think the tipping point for him was when he looked up adaptive CrossFit athletes. He had a thousand excuses until he watched the video and realized that he didn't have an excuse besides fear.”

“I typed into YouTube ‘one-arm CrossFitter’ for shits and giggles, and a CrossFit Journal episode titled Evolution of Adaptation popped up,” Brendan said. “All of these amputees, many wounded veterans with nearly identical stories to mine, were doing a CrossFit competition at CrossFit Rubicon called The Working Wounded Games. In that video, I saw Kendra Bailey doing either knees-to-elbows or toes-to-bars with a bilateral grip by attaching herself to the rig with a strap and chain. That was all I needed to see.”

The couple joined CrossFit Seekonk, an affiliate where many of the members are former military or military family members.

“CrossFit Seekonk's amazing little community welcomed us in with open arms,” Brendan said. “The owner, Paul Dumontier, would bring in tools and snowboard bindings and help me brainstorm new setups. The coaches treated me the same as all the other athletes, never letting me use my arm or banged up legs as an excuse, and the people were awesome!”

Six months after joining CrossFit Seenkok, Brendan had dropped 47 lb., and he and his wife both signed up for a CrossFit Level 1 Seminar.

“I had planned on getting my cert when I returned from my Afghanistan tour in 2010,” Brendan said. “But life had a different plan.”

At the seminar, Brendan was asked if he wanted to sit through the instruction portion of the kipping pull-up, so that he could still teach the movement effectively. Instead, Brendan grabbed his chain and strap, and joined in on the practical portion of the instruction.

“The next day during the muscle-up class, I went to the front to watch,” Brendan said. “(Seminar staff member) EC Synkowksi jokingly told me to get up there and show them how it's done. I chuckled and told her that one might be impossible. She said she thought a man with one arm learning how to do a kipping pull-up would be impossible, too, until yesterday.”  

Dumontier allowed Brendan to shadow coaches while he waited for the results of his Level 1 exam. Once Brendan received his certificate, Dumontier offered him a job as the coach for their on-ramp classes.

“He’s always trying to better himself as an athlete and as a coach,” Dumotier said. “He’s a great addition to our staff of coaches, especially when new members come in and see him doing the same workout they are about to do. There's no ‘I can't’ being said around the box, that's for sure. He’s a big inspiration for all of us and we are so lucky to have him.”

When Open Workout 14.1 was announced, Brendan was discouraged with the first movement in the workout.

“There were a lot of grumbles from me,” he said. “I even sent an email to the Games (team) asking if it was OK to hold both handles in one hand. They apologized and said no, so I duct taped one to my nub, whipped myself about a million times in the ear, managed to get to the snatches with 30 seconds left and knocked out 11 real quick.”

Open Workout 14.2 presented yet another problem. While Brendan is capable of getting 95 lb. overhead without trouble, he was not able to squat with it. He made several attempts, but could not break parallel.

For 14.3, he used a strap and was able to complete 93 repetitions of the deadlift/box jump couplet.

“While two-handed folks can pull and release (the deadlifts), I was tethered, and unclipping a bunch of times would be time consuming,” he said. “I went through the 135 lb. and 185 lb. unbroken, sets of five with 225 lb. touch-and-go, and pulled three more reps at 275 lb. to beat the buzzer.”

With 109 reps on 14.4, the chipper, Brendan got through the row and completed 49 toes-to-bars using a strap and chain to secure him to the bar.

And then there was 14.5.

Brendan was elated watching the Open announcement.

“I thought, ‘It's probably an AMRAP, and I’ll get into the 15 or 12 round and time will be up,’” Brendan said. “Then Dave Castro dropped the big one: ‘It’s for time!’ And I thought, ‘Well balls, this is gonna hurt.’”

Brendan embarked on what he called “the most miserable journey of my CrossFit career.”  

It took him 38:32, but he completed 84 one-armed 95-lb. thrusters and 84 burpees, finishing the workout.

“People told me from the day I woke up in the hospital that I was an inspiration, but I never really felt like I deserved that title,” he said. “I survived something awful and that’s lucky. Now getting things back on track and accomplishing goals, acquiring a new and fun career while doing things people once thought were impossible—OK, that's inspirational.”