Ruck On

Twins share a unique bond few ever experience. They share the same space, the same resources — the same code of genetic conduct. Perhaps soldiers in battle understand; they too share the same space, resources, and code.

Joe was first; Earl entered the world thirty-five minutes later. Seventeen years after Maggie’s deliveries, it was Joe who wanted to be a soldier. Earl followed him to the recruiter’s office. Just before high school graduation, it was official. Joe and Earl Granville were Pennsylvania National Guardsmen. It was their ticket out of small town America, and a de facto credit for college later.

But when two planes hit the twin towers in New York, and a third crashed on the western front of their home state, basic training took on a new meaning. This was about protecting their country; this was personal.

Their first deployment wasn’t to the belly of the current conflict but to pockmarked Bosnia as part of a UN peacekeeping force. Soldiering came natural to them. Joe was promoted; then Earl. Throughout their career, they would both continue to be promoted, eventually earning the rank of E6, Staff Sergeant.

After Bosnia, the Granvilles volunteered for their next assignment. Pre-surge Iraq. This time they would be fighting jihadists in the seat of civilization. The company commander split the twins into separate attachments. It was a precautionary measure. But it was one that allowed Earl to grow independently as a soldier in his own right. He also began making plans to attend college and think of a career he could commit to in conjunction with National Guard. Deeply inspired by the story of NYFD firefighter Stephen Siller who had just finished his shift on 9/11 when, after the towers were struck, went back to help and ultimately perish, Earl decided he wanted to be a firefighter, too.

The mission in Iraq took its toll. Their battalion lost seven men that August and September — five in the span of one day. Joe took it hard; he knew many of those killed personally. Earl felt a change in his brother. “He didn’t come home the same. Losing some of our guys took something from him.”

The paths of the brothers diverged in late 2007 when Earl volunteered for his third mission. This time, solo. Joe had secured a job as a corrections officer, and he and his wife Stephanie were expecting their third child. Earl would deploy for the first time without Joe.

Patrolling the eastern Afghanistan countryside in the Paktia province, Earl’s unit was part of a reconstruction team that was building schools, hospitals, and wells. He met with and grew to admire the people, but many villagers were wary of the American presence. Taliban were lurking in the shadows, and the unit received warnings that the rebuilding effort was not wanted – it was attracting the attention of the extremists.

On the morning of June 3, 2008, a convoy left the Zormat Forward Operating Base to look at a site that would be a future school. Earl was in a Humvee with Specialist Derek Holland of Wind Gap, PA who was driving their vehicle, along with Major Scott Hagerty of Stillwater, Oklahoma, and a local Afghan governor.

They never made it to the site. In a flash of light, their journey stopped. A roadside bomb ripped through the vehicle killing Spc. Holland and Maj. Hagerty.

As Earl lay on the earth bleeding profusely from both legs, his brother Joe, sat up in bed. He knew something was wrong, his wife Stephanie would later tell Earl. But there was no way for the brothers to communicate. Earl was MEDIVACed to the closest hospital. In the chopper, Earl held the Afghan governor’s hand in his hand — their conjoined fists willing each other to stay alive, as the beating connection of men traversed barriers in words unspoken.

Earl lost his left leg. The doctors in Germany were able to save his right. A week later, he would arrive at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. He felt lucky to be alive. But Joe felt enraged the enemy had maimed his twin. When the Granville family was allowed to visit Earl for the first time, Joe and their father stayed in the lobby for several extra minutes before entering Earl’s room. “I’m here, I’m alive, I’m happy.” Earl assured them. Later during their visit, a nurse came in to dress Earl’s wounds. Removing the blanket and exposing Earl’s truncated left leg amputated below his knee, Joe had to leave the room. It cut Earl more than the shrapnel did.

Anger divides, and, like angry water from a storm, creates crevices. Earl noticed Joe seemed angry at the world. While Earl recovered and was competing with the wounded warrior sled hockey team, Joe accepted a job as trainer for the Active Guard Reserve. But Joe’s commanders decided he wouldn’t deploy to Iraq with his unit, citing Earl’s combat injuries.

Joe’s rage – and their spanning viewpoints – grew deeper. And then, he made a decision that would separate them physically forever. Perhaps it wasn’t a decision, but an impulse. Unfortunately, it could not be reversed.

On December 18th, 2010, Joe Granville took his own life. He was 27 years old.

There was no call for help, no cry in pain. Was it the anger? Did Earl miss his twin’s distress signal? The pang of separation was almost too painful to bear. “You’d think losing your leg is tough – but going through Joe’s death, I’d lose it all over again if it meant bringing Joe back.”

Aimless, Earl went to the refrigerator and grabbed a six-pack of beer. He poured each can, and all the alcohol he could find in the house, down the drain of the kitchen sink – he would not numb his pain or turn to something so easy – it would be beneath Joe’s honor. The next day, he drove to his family’s house and there, embraced his parents, and vowed to be a guardian for his sister-in-law and Joe’s three young children. And his guardianship vow grew. Never again would he watch a brother in arms, a soldier in distress, lose an invisible battle to suicide.

What pains him as much as losing Joe is the stigma associated with seeking help. Real or perceived, Earl sees its effects on his military siblings. “They think you’re weak if you get help. You’re weak if you talk somebody. That it’s a sign of weakness. In Iraq, when we were on a mission, we’d be told ‘Suck it up and drive on.’ That’s one of the reasons why we’re such a good fighting force. But if you’re a soldier, and you and your battle buddy are on a mission and he gets sniped in the face, you may need a little more than ‘suck it up and drive on.’ And I tell people, there’s no shame in that.”

Earl touches on a paradox in today’s culture, and perhaps it is an ancient paradox. Our greatest strength can be our greatest weakness. And conversely, our greatest weakness can become our greatest strength. It is finding the balance point of this polarity of strength and weakness that one finds true mastery of self and life, regardless of conditions.

He walks his talk in many ways. Earl sees a therapist, and credits counseling sessions with helping him express and work through emotions associated with grief, survivor’s guilt and interpersonal issues. He also ruck marches in marathons, charity events, and benefit fundraisers such as Tunnel to Towers — always rucking for Joe, for patriots lost, and for his brothers and sisters in arms.

Earl doesn’t ruck for time; he rucks for a message that’s about time. “There is no shame in asking for help. There is no shame in receiving help. It’s time to get rid of that stigma and use the resources we have. Know you don’t have to go through anything alone.”

In many ways, Earl feels Joe is still with him. Their bond, the bond of brothers in womb and war, is unbreakable. And so he rucks on.

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(Alivia Tagliaferri is an author, playwright and documentary filmmaker. She is currently writing, producing and directing Power of One: Preventing Suicide in America.)

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(To support production of Power of One, contribute a little and share a lot.)

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