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Fitness

The Heart of a Warrior

“Where there is one or two individuals or obstacles in life to destroy you, there are thousands more to help you." – SGT Natanael Radke / Photo by Bryce Vickmark
SGT Natanael Radke with his wife, Anna, and two children. Photo by Bryce Vickmark
“I didn’t grow up here, but I feel I am part of this country, and my roots are here. … Now I fight for America." – SGT Natanael Radke / Photo from SGT Natanael Radke

SGT Natanael Radke, who extended his service in May, showed how tough he is by the sacrifices he made for his teammates and the Guard. But he showed another kind of strength when personal misfortune nearly cost him everything.

As a Soldier in the National Guard, Sergeant Natanael Radke has hunted the Boston bombers, guarded Afghan insurgents, protected President Barack Obama and trained in Italy. But as much as the Brazilian-born Radke has done for his adopted country in six years of service, the Guard has done even more for him.

In short, it’s kept him alive.

Suffering from the long-term effects of a traumatic brain injury sustained before his first deployment, Radke fell into a period of physical and psychological decline during which his marriage and career were crumbling. At one point, he was suicidal, thinking of escaping his problems by crashing his car into a tree.

Today, however, he is standing stronger than ever, his family intact and his career on the rise, because of a vast network of support he found within the Guard. He asked for help, and he got it, and in May, Radke signed on for another six years, newly enthused about the opportunities the Guard offers, and grateful for another chance to serve.

“Being a Soldier, wearing the uniform, gives me a sense of pride,” says Radke, 30, of Shrewsbury, MA. “The military has been very good to me.”

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Although Radke, a member of the 26th IBCT, is a fiercely proud American now, his story begins in the impoverished outskirts of Goiania, a city in Goias, Brazil. Natanael B. Radke was born there, the third child of Christian missionaries who ran an orphanage that cared for nearly three dozen children. It was, at times, a difficult childhood for Radke, who remembers relentless poverty and days when there wasn’t enough for everyone to eat. “Sometimes we had absolutely nothing. We would pray that we would have food,” he says.

When his parents decided to move to the United States when he was 12, the young Radke was eager to escape the meager existence in Brazil, even though he spoke only Portuguese and knew no one here.

The family moved to Massachusetts, where the teenaged Radke experienced difficulty assimilating into a vastly different culture in which he struggled to learn the language. Teased and bullied by classmates, he knew no other response than defiance, and he was eventually kicked out of high school for fighting. He worked an assortment of jobs to stay afloat, and then, on a whim, proposed to a beautiful, dark-haired girl in Brazil, a young woman he had known since he was 9 and she was 8. Anna, who had never been to the United States before and didn’t speak English, said yes, and the pair became engaged without a ring and without ever having been on a date. But their marriage set the pair on a course that would lead to a family of four and Radke’s satisfying career in the Guard.

Anna and Natanael were married in 2003, the same year Radke became an American citizen. “It was a very big deal for us,” he says.

The couple moved to Florida, where Radke took a job at a car dealership, selling Toyotas. The work was unfulfilling, however, and one day, an idle conversation with a co-worker led to the topic of guns. Radke had never handled them, and didn’t know how to shoot, but he wanted to learn, and he mentioned this, not knowing that his co-worker was in the Guard.

“I didn’t even know what it was,” he says. “I was interested in guns, and wanted to learn to shoot, and my friend said, ‘Well, you ought to join the National Guard.’ ”

Radke’s father had always wanted to be a military policeman but never had the opportunity. And his father-in-law was a military policeman. So, naturally, law enforcement was Radke’s first interest.

He enlisted on May 2, 2007, went to Basic Training in June at Fort Leonard Wood, near Waynesville, MO, and graduated from military police school in November. Two months later, the car salesman who came to America not even knowing how to speak English was part of the security detail for President Barack Obama’s inauguration, one of the highlights of his Guard career.

DEVASTATING DETOUR

But tragedy struck right before his first deployment, when a military vehicle in which Radke was riding rolled over, and he sustained significant head and spine injuries. Although he could have asked for a deferral, he deployed to Afghanistan on schedule, believing it was his duty and not wanting to abandon his team. After a few months in Afghanistan, Radke began displaying the classic symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI), which were almost certainly the result of the crash.

A traumatic brain injury occurs when a blow or jolt to the head disrupts normal brain functioning. When more than one head injury is sustained, the effects are cumulative; each injury builds upon the others. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TBI is a serious public health problem, with about 1.7 million cases diagnosed each year. Symptoms include a decline in attention and memory, impaired coordination and balance, depression, aggression, and personality changes. Recent studies suggest a strong link between TBI and suicidal thoughts.

Most people who suffer a mild TBI recover without further treatment, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, but because of the prevalence of TBIs, all service members returning from combat are screened for them by order of Congress. When service members are at risk, they are assigned to a Warrior Transition Unit for treatment and evaluation.

Returning to the United States, Radke was assigned to a Warrior Transition Unit for treatment, and although it helped to restore his physical health, the lengthy time away from his family took its toll. Between the deployment and his time with the WTU, Radke was away from his family for 30 months, and upon his return, he and Anna found themselves virtual strangers, struggling to connect. They moved back to Massachusetts to be with Radke’s family of origin, but with no home of their own, mounting debt and a growing family, the stress was unmanageable—and escalating.

To pay the bills, Radke invested his savings in a towing business that ultimately failed in the competitive market. Unable to find meaningful civilian work, and with injuries that continued to nag him, he fell into depression, and one day, after an argument with his wife, he “took a bunch of medication and began thinking about driving my car into a tree as hard as I could.”

“At least that way, it would look like an accident,” he recalls thinking. In a fog of misery and despair, he could envision no other option.

That was six months ago.

THE TURNAROUND

Today, Radke is tanned, trim and healthy, smiling as he hands his 1-year-old son to Anna so he can peel off his uniform to reveal the eagle tattooed on his left shoulder and back, a sign of devotion to the Guard and the country it serves. He exudes enthusiasm as he talks about the family’s future. Both he and Anna are preparing to go to college and are making plans to move into a home of their own in which they can raise their two boys. Radke also recently had hand surgery to correct an old wound that continued to plague him.

In May, he “tested” Anna on Facebook, telling her he had re-enlisted before he actually had, just to get her response.

Her response: Go for it. He re-upped immediately.

Looking back, Radke sees a convergence of negatives that led to his downward spiral. The circumstances of his life at the time were challenging in and of themselves, but also, suicide is increasingly seen as heritable, and Radke had two family members who had taken their own lives. The family history, combined with the long-term effects of TBI, made Radke a high risk for suicide.

What saved him was the Guard.

At bottom, when Radke was thinking of suicide, he contacted a friend and counselor from West Point, NY, who assured him there was no stigma in seeking help. A call to a congressman’s office led to a plethora of National Guard services and a remarkable turnaround that has made Radke an outstanding role model for other Soldiers struggling with despair. Recognizing this, Guard leaders chose him for a video that will be shown to all members of the Massachusetts National Guard annually during the Suicide-Prevention Stand Down.

The video was scheduled to premiere Sept. 13 at an annual conference on the program Resilience, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention, known by the acronym R3SP.

NEED HELP? JUST ASK

How Radke turned his life around is simple: He asked for help.

It’s a simple thing, but also enormously difficult, particularly for service members, who are famously tough. Command Sergeant Major Bill Davidson of the Massachusetts National Guard says, “We’re trying to reduce the stigma and say, ‘It’s OK to raise your hand and ask for help.’ ”

Davidson is the risk reduction/suicide prevention program manager for the Massachusetts Guard and helped organize the life-changing meeting that started Radke on the path to recovery.

“He had a lot of issues—financial issues, family issues, medical issues, all the indicators that lead someone to suicide. He was right on the edge of that cliff,” he says.

Davidson invited Radke and his wife to a meeting at the Military and Family Support Center in Wellesley, MA, with nearly a dozen people offering services from which the struggling family could benefit.

“We had the full gamut: the transition assistance advisor, the director of psychological help, family counselors, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve [ESGR], a local Veterans Services officer, and numerous others. We all went around the room and said, ‘What can we do for you?’ ” Davidson says. “After that, the ball just kept rolling.”

The team effort in Massachusetts was part of the R3SP program implemented by the Army in 2010. For Radke, the intervention was life-changing and did not interfere with his career in the Guard. He is still serving proudly in a military police unit in Massachusetts.

“He was at an all-time low in life, and we helped him out,” Davidson says. “He was overwhelmed by the help he received.”

Looking at how the National Guard has changed their lives, Anna, too, marvels at the scope of assistance. Although she has made her own sacrifices for this country, enduring lengthy separations from her husband, she supports his Guard work and is happy about his recent re-enlistment.

“He’s found his purpose. He’s happier now. The Army is his passion,” she says, admitting, “I’m even a little bit jealous,” as the couple’s 1-year-old son clings to her neck.

Radke, who recently returned from a weeklong training at Camp Edwards at Cape Cod, dove energetically back into Guard service after he and Anna emerged from the R3SP meeting with a realistic plan for correcting the problems in their lives. Where there once was hopelessness, now there is determination and resolve.

One of Radke’s first assignments after his transfer from the Florida National Guard to the Massachusetts Guard was to work security at the 2013 Boston Marathon. He was at the race’s starting line in Hopkinton, MA, and was actively involved in efforts to track down the bombers in the ensuing week, going for long periods of time without sleep. “We didn’t care,” he says. “The gratitude we received from local citizens was incredible.”

In fact, it’s the response of civilians that makes service in the National Guard so rewarding, Radke says. “People will come up to me in restaurants and say, ‘Hey, can I buy you a beer?’ They’ll race ahead of you on the interstate to pay your tolls, to say, ‘Thank you for serving.’ ”

“When I just finished Basic, I was on my way home in uniform, and I had a couple stop me and say, ‘Hey, can we give you a hug?’ They had just lost their son in Afghanistan. This lady hugged me, and wouldn’t let go,” he says. “From that point on …”

His voice trails off, and the eyes of this tall, tattooed Soldier grow wet.

“I get emotional,” he says quietly.

“I didn’t grow up here, but I feel I am part of this country, and my roots are here now,” Radke says. “One of my goals now is to become an officer. You never know.”

When Radke’s family first moved to Massachusetts when he was a young teen, he struggled with feeling excluded and occasionally bullied. “I would have people say to me, ‘You don’t belong here; go back to your country,’ ” he says. Sometimes the tension escalated into fistfights, and somewhere along the way, the boy struggling to learn a new language in a strange country got the idea that he was the problem, that he was ill-tempered and aggressive.

“But I turned out to be a nice guy after I joined the National Guard,” he says, laughing. “Now, I fight for America.”

And those guns that he wanted to learn about, back when a friend first told him about the Guard? He’s a competent shot now, although he admits that it took him five tries to qualify with the M16. “I’m decent,” he says, laughing.

Then he grows serious. Reflecting on the tragedy of the marathon, Radke notes an analogy between the aftermath of the bombings—when thousands united to search for the bombers and offer aid to the victims—and his own life.

“Where there is one or two individuals or obstacles in life to destroy you, there are thousands more to help you,” he says. “So thank you, National Guard, for all you did for my family.”

It’s something the Guard will do for any Soldier in trouble. Says First Lieutenant Laura Lakin, who runs the R3SP program with Davidson, “We want all Soldiers to know that there is help and there are resources out there to get them through difficult situations in their lives.”

– Story by Jennifer Graham