They fight. They look forward. They inspire. They leave others with courageous hope. Though we may have forgotten, the sacrifices of these soldiers have made our dreams into realities.
Staff Sgt. Travis MacCody Strong embodies the character of such Soldiers.
An infantry Soldier in the U.S. Army for 11 years, Strong was deployed to Iraq when, on November 27, 2006, he was injured during a night mission in the Shula district of Baghdad. He instantly lost his right leg and his left leg was severely injured. After being taken to the Camp Liberty Field Hospital, Strong flat lined 4 times and eventually lost both legs.
But Strong does not believe in giving up, and that hope has been a source of hope for others and an inspiration to all he meets.
One of those inspired by Strong’s selfless service is the CEO of Sparta Combat League, Jeff Cisneros.
The Denver-based promotions company hosts Mixed Martial Arts events but its mission goes beyond fighting. It looks to raise both awareness and donations for those in need. Proceeds from every event benefit a diverse group of needs including veterans, cancer survivors and injured police officers.
Cisneros met Strong during the April 2013 Army vs. Marine fight and was moved to help him and give back to him for his selfless service.
“I come from a strong military family and wanted to reach out and help as many wounded Soldiers as we can,” Cisneros he said. “I met Staff Sgt. Strong back in April this year and he really inspired me, so wanted to honor him and his service at the Greeley Stampede fight on June 29. It’s really heartfelt, because without their sacrifice we wouldn’t be able to live our dream. It’s very important to me and near and dear to my heart.”
Among the fighters who will be participating at the June 29 event are world-acclaimed Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Chris Camozzi and MMA fighter Marcus “Bad Intention” Edwards, with Edwards being in the main event.
Inspired by Strong, the fighters spoke with a determination to not give up and presented a greater purpose other than just fighting.
Camozzi, from Factory X, was honored to accept the fight to help Strong. Dedicating proceeds from each of his fights to charities, Camozzi looks for ways to help someone with every fight.
“It is inspiring to watch him fall and get up on his video,” Camozzi said. “He lives his life to the fullest, not letting it slow him down. He is moving forward and not looking back. I look for ways to always help someone. Medical bills are expensive and we can help this way.”
“(He) makes me want to push myself harder,” Edwards said. “Strong is an inspiration for me. It is a blessing. To see these guys, if they can do what they do, I can keep pushing and show my support.”
With 13 fights and 26 fighters, Colorado Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Dusky Vanness will also be among the fighters participating on June 29.
When asked what others can take from Strong’s life, Vanness replied, “Watch his video on YouTube and you will see through his example, there is nothing in life that will keep you down. Keep going. You can pull yourself up. Keep fighting.”
On June 15, Sparta Combat League hosted a meet and greet for the fighters who will be participating in the Greeley Stampede event.
As I entered the doors of the Ugly Dog Sports Bar in Denver to meet and greet the fighters myself, I anticipated speaking with Strong. He wasn’t there. Instead, the double amputee was participating in the Tough Mudder, a 10-12 mile obstacle course designed to test all aspects of human physical and mental stamina and strength.
Fortunately, I was able to speak with Strong a few days after the fighter meet and greet. His responses to my questions provided me an opportunity to glimpse into a hero’s heart.
Stoneback: Where did you grow up?
Strong: I was born in Burbank California. Growing up, I lived all over L.A., but when I was about 13 we moved to the Antelope Valley up in the Mojave Desert. I lived there till I Joined the Army in 1997.
Stoneback: Why did you choose to serve in the Army?
Strong: I always knew I wanted to serve. Even when I was a kid I always played Army and every Halloween I dressed up like a Soldier. When I graduated from high school, I was working 2 jobs and I felt I really wasn't going anywhere in my life. I wanted to make a difference and joining the Army felt like the right choice. So in 1997 I joined the Army, went 11B (infantry), did Airborne school and my first duty station was in Vicenza Italy.
Stoneback: How long were you in the Army? What unit were you in?
Strong: I served 11 years in the Army from 1997-2008. First duty station was 1/508th ABCT in Vicenza Italy. My second duty station was in Fort Lewis, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, 1/23. We were the first Brigade to receive the Army's new vehicle, the Stryker. I got to Fort Lewis in 2003 and field-tested the Stryker. Our unit was also the first to take the Stryker into combat in 2003.
Stoneback: What was your primary motivation for going into the Army?
Strong: I have always had a calling to join the service. It was just that little voice inside that kept telling me to join. I guess you could say it was my calling.
Stoneback: You are an inspiration to all you meet. Who inspires you?
Strong: I am inspired by all the men and women who are still in ... fighting for our freedom. I'm also inspired by other wounded Soldiers who are out living life to the fullest and are not complaining about their injuries.
Stoneback: What are your greatest challenges?
Strong: I have a lot of challenges every day. Right now one of my biggest is getting better at walking with my prosthetics – just trying to get better each day and learn how the legs work so I can walk better.
Stoneback: Who are your role models?
Strong: My dad is a good role model. He served in the Vietnam War. He came into my life when I was about 10 and instilled discipline into my life, got me on the right track. ... Without him in my life, I don't think I would be the same person I am today.
Stoneback: What characteristics do you see in yourself that are especially critical for achieving success?
Strong: This is a good question. ... When I was first injured, I went through a lot of different emotions. I was depressed, angry, sad – and it was hard for a few years – but I came to realize that I am the only one who can make my life better. So I decided to not give up and to strive to make my life the best I can and to not put limits on things that I can or cannot do. You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself and try to be the best person you can be.
Stoneback: If there is one thing you would like people to know about you, what is it?
Strong: I am a pretty open person. I have no problem answering question or talking about what happened to me. So if you see me please don't just stare. Come up and talk to me.
Stoneback: Could you share some of your thoughts with us regarding the upcoming benefit fight?
Strong: I was so humbled when Dusky told me that he wanted to raise money for my family. I was at a loss for words. ... I just want to thank Dusky and the Sparta Combat League for all their help. I am excited for the fights.
Partial proceeds from the June 29 MMA Live event at the Greeley Stampede will go directly to Strong. For tickets go online at www.Spartcombatmma.com. Tickets are also available at www.ticketswest.com or at the Greeley Stampede box office. Doors open at 2 p.m., fights begin at 3 p.m. at 501 N. 14th Avenue, Greeley, CO 80631. For more information about donating to Staff Sgt. Strong, call Jeff Cisneros at 720-933-6147.