Overcoming PTSD through lacrosse: An Open Letter from Sgt. Scarola to SFS Nation

By March 15, 2017long island, News

Who are you when life is steady? Who are you when storms come?

At 13 years old, life was steady for me until 8:46am on September 11 th , 2001. Witnessing the horrific events of 9/11 before my eyes changed the way my brain operated. 9/11 gave me a calling; a purpose to do something bigger than myself. That day changed the rest of my life.From that day forward it was my duty to bring those who waged war on my home turf to justice. Let’s rewind back to when life was steady. 1988 was a good year. I was born on Long Island, NY (Mineola) and by age 7, my old man already had a lacrosse stick in my hand. My dad, the prolific Chaminade High School athletic director, was there every step of the way helping me catch and throw with this stick that had a net on it. Playing catch in the backyard while he grilled was where life lessons were learned. Pops ensured to tell me that I had it easy since when he played growing up, he had to play with a wooden stick and holes in his shoes!

“Post-traumatic Stress (PTS) is permanent and though it cannot be cured magically, it can be HEALED with so many wonderful and beneficial ways.”

Typical old school Italian Dad comment right? Well, I understand those comments NOW because while having a catch in our front yard, I caught myself telling my 7 year old daughter Shay and 4 year old son Roman that they have it easy these days. I may have told them that I had a STX head that was about as wide as a watermelon (as they both held their brand new Rabil 2 fiddle sticks).

Here comes a storm…A few years after 9/11, the woman that brought me into this world, always cheering me on rain or shine; home or away, bandaging my post-game bumps and cuts, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

This was a time in my life, as a freshman at Chaminade High School, where life and lacrosse was put into serious perspective. Due to the intense chemotherapy, Mom wasn’t able to come to my games anymore. I missed my Mom and that’s when the white medical tape came into play. From then on, I honored my Moms strength, adversity and battle on my helmet. “JS” was always written on my chin guard of my helmet and a cross was taped on my facemask to keep faith no matter what.

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Good news: Mom has been in remission for over 10 years and guess what is on my Cascade Pro7 now when I play? Yup, that cross and her initials. I have been serving Active Duty in the United States Air Force since October 2006.  I graduated high school in June and the call to serve just couldn’t wait any longer. As I write this, it has been 10 years and 5 months serving Uncle Sam and through the best of times and worst of times, I wouldn’t not change it for anything. Throughout these years, the many moves (Texas, Arkansas, Germany, Guam), deployments and overall adversity that comes with the life of an enlisted defender, there has been one constant throughout it all: the love of lacrosse.

Before life now as a Criminal Investigator, I was a military policeman from 2007- 2015 and it has made me who I am however, it has come with a heavy price.  Whether it is killed in action (KIA) bracelets on my wrists to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice or invisible wounds from war that cannot be undone, war is unfair.

It has taken an immense toll on myself, my fellow teammates and fellow Veterans.  Physically, I am grateful every minute of every day that I returned from war in one piece…not a scratch on me. Unfortunately and with a heavy heart, it pains me to know too many cannot say that for themselves.

I have served multiple tours overseas and I am a proud combat Veteran in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom(Baghdad, Iraq 09-10) War is the easy part. The return home and transition out of a combat zone is what is so scary. The invisible battle is a continuous struggle that deteriorates at your brain and your emotions.

“Though YouTube and social media has kept me updated with Shootout for Soldiers, I have ALWAYS had such a strong desire to participate and play. ” 

Since returning from my most recent tour in 2010, life has been far from easy.  With a beautiful wife (aka my rock) two beautiful children, and a job representing the thin blue line between order and chaos–what is so hard right?

Scarola and his friend Travis representing New York's flag in Tokyo, Japan at the Samurai Cup 2017

Scarola and his friend Travis representing New York’s flag in Tokyo, Japan at the Samurai Cup 2017

War is the pill and once ingested, the side effects slowly commence: anxiety, loss of emotional connections, sleeplessness, anger, irritability, social unease, hyper vigilance, and an uncontrollable urge to go back into combat—a cocktail of side effects called combat stress. These side effects and scars of war have deterred myself and our nations Veterans from living my life 100% since the day we landed back on American soil.

Post-traumatic Stress (PTS) is permanent and though it cannot be cured magically, it can be HEALED with so many wonderful and beneficial ways.

Have you ever heard of Post-traumatic growth? Post-traumatic growth refers to positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning—and that’s myself and so many courageous Veterans NOW.

“I play because it means I’m still alive; I’m still in the fight.”

I found development and growth when for so long, I thought this was just the way I am wired and that others will just have to deal with it. In 2016, I was “at the last house on the block” in search of ANY answer to help myself and solve the Veteran suicide epidemic.

The non-profit organization called Save A Warrior (SAW) has the answer. I found mediation and countless ways to process past and present experiences. From pre-trauma processing, to mindfulness-inspired labyrinth walks, to the artful preparation and processing of Jungian-based mandalas; to the high ropes course and Veteran team building and resiliency exercises; to the equine-supported communication modules; I was a witness to countless miracles.

SAW literally changed and saved my life. Most importantly, it GAVE my life back too.  I am forever in debt to Save A Warrior, the 10 Veterans alongside me, and the selfless individuals who consistently volunteer to “shepherd” cohorts in attendance. Not all brothers are blood.

Scarola and his cohort (035) after finishing their labyrinth walk with Save A Warrior. "That was a wonderful moment for all of us," Scarola said.

Scarola and his cohort (035) after finishing their labyrinth walk with Save A Warrior. “That was a wonderful moment for all of us,” Scarola said.

With a renewed sense of teamwork, competition and purpose, lacrosse found its way back into my heart. In July 2016, I founded Guam’s first ever lacrosse club. It all started as just a cool idea in a conversation with a fellow ‘lax bro’ (shoutout to you, Travis!) Currently the Guam Blacktips have 14 Active Duty U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy servicemen on the roster and we are always growing. With recent Pacific Region tournament successes in both Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan, the Guam Lacrosse Club looks forward to representing in Hong Kong and Hawaii in 2017.

I fell in love with and have been following Shootout For Soldiers since it was first developed and I am truly proud of how fast it has grown. To unite countless communities USA-wide with the intent to raise awareness and money for our Veterans through the sport of lacrosse is very humbling and impressive.

Though YouTube and social media has kept me updated with Shootout for Soldiers, I have ALWAYS had such a strong desire to participate and play. Since being stationed in Europe and the Pacific since 2011, I have never been back home on Strong Island to play at an event.

Well if you can dream it, you can achieve it, right? In July 2017, I will be back home on Long Island with my family and I am so honored to have recently registered as a player. This is a dream come true and will be yet another important chapter in not only my book of healing, but in the many life chapters of fellow Veterans who continue to honor the fallen and search for meaning and purpose. Thank you to all who sacrifice and make Shootout for Soldiers so successful.

Throughout my life, lacrosse was and still is an answer to adversity. I chose to push away my passion and put the stick down after I returned from Iraq; I let war win. I won’t let that happen again. Along with meditation, I play the sport of lacrosse to give my brain a break– to empower my brain to be competitive and happy.

Lacrosse helps me build trust with others. Lacrosse helps me mitigate the bad, irrational thoughts and experiences from not only the past but also what I may see in the future. I play because it means I’m still alive; I’m still in the fight.

I am no hero but I’ve walked beside many…honor the fallen, challenge the living.

Proud to serve,

Dan Scarola, USAF

*Rest in Honor Sgt James J. Regan, 3 BN/75 RGT, Fortes In Unitate, JR10-Go Duke!*

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