Stann reflects on life as Marine, Sept. 11

May, 4, 2011
5/04/11
10:13
AM ET
Brian Stann's story is well known by now.

He enrolled in the United States Naval Academy in 1999, when the world was nothing like it is now. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the kid out of Scranton, Pa., a hard-nosed middle linebacker for the Midshipmen, was, like the rest of his class, a future officer.

Post 9/11, Stann become something much more real, a future combat veteran.

"At that point, every single Midshipmen, once they graduated and moved on to their further training, knew they were going to deploy on combat operations," said Stann, square-jawed, straight out of central casting. "It wasn't going to be like they got deployed and went to Australia."

No one could have predicted he'd receive a Silver Star Medal from the President of the United States. But, for leading a platoon of men safely home, for accomplishing his task over a harrowing week in Iraq, he did. He served two tours before deciding it was time to focus on family, leaving the Corps in 2008 with the rank of captain.

Stann's mission these days is much more personal. He fights for himself, a middleweight contender in the UFC.

Following Sunday's historic mission to take out Osama bin Laden, ESPN.com asked the 30-year-old Stann, who is in Albuquerque training at Greg Jackson's camp for a bout May 28 against Jorge Santiago, for his perspective on the news.

Josh Gross: The country was in a jubilant mood on Sunday night. I'm curious for your initial reaction to news of Osama bin Laden's death. And now that we're a couple days removed, how are you feeling about it?

Brian Stann: I think it was an important war in the War on Terror, without a doubt. For me, I really hope that this can help continue the courses of action that have been taking place in the Middle East with what we saw that happened in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and these other countries. I think the youth, young adults are sick and tired of the lack of freedoms that their current regimes and governments are providing them. They're actually starting to want and desire more freedoms like we see in the Western world. If they continue to move down that path I think you'll finally see a significant decrease in activity between the U.S. and some of those countries. I think we'll see terrorism go away. I really hope the death of Osama bin Laden is used appropriately by our media, by our country, by our CIA, by our military, etc., and we continue to help the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. And that's what we see happening in the Middle East, where we see countries moving towards governments allowing their people to live like we live here. Being over there for as long as I was, that was the first thing I noticed. I would never wish it upon a child to be born in Iraq. From the schools I saw. From the living standards. The daily life. It's just terrible when you compare it to some of the worst neighborhoods we have in our own country.

JG: Aside from the geopolitical aspect of this -- and clearly it's an important one -- what about your visceral reaction as an American, as a Marine, as someone who was involved firsthand in being over there. What did you feel?

BS: The bottom line is Osama bin Laden is a man who planned and helped execute attacks on innocent people. There are obviously people who are anti-America that said different things, but at the end of the day America, America's military and our allies do not plan and execute missions that specifically target innocent people, women and children. That's what terrorists do. That's why his death is significant. He is obviously a large figure in that movement. Those type of attacks. Things like that take place every day in the Middle East. We forget there hasn't been a terrorist attack on U.S. soil in about a decade. We're closing in on that. Knock on wood; hopefully that lasts. That's what Osama bin Laden did and that's why he had to be eliminated.

JG: You served two tours in Iraq. Does part of you wish you were in Afghanistan? It seems like the conflict is a totally different one from in Iraq. The experience is different for Marines and troops there. Is there some yearning on your part to go participate?

BS: There always is. I think anybody who serves specifically in a leadership role of some sort in a front line unit is always going to have survivor's guilt. It's something that I toy with every single day. It was a very difficult decision that I had to get out of the Marine Corps and stop leading Marines in combat. I certainly would have been in Afghanistan by now leading a company of Marines and it would have been an amazing opportunity to lead those men. But I chose to be a father and a husband first. Not that it's wrong to stay in the military; that was just my personal decision. I wanted to be around my kids as much as possible. It is definitely a decision that I will teeter-totter on for the rest of my life, but when I hold my daughters that always answers the questions for me.

JG: The way this thing went down with the Navy SEAL Team Six, they seem to be as good as you get; did you have much interaction with the special operators? Was that something you considered going into and pursuing yourself?

BS: Yes, I did have a lot of interaction with them in my first tour in Iraq. And a little bit in my second tour in Iraq. In fact, Tim Kennedy has become a very good friend of mine. We laugh about it. He operated with a unit that I interacted with a little bit in Al-Qa'im, Iraq, in 2005. We may have crossed paths and not even known it. It was something I considered. Every alpha male in the military always considered doing a tour with special operations. The Marine Corps has since come up with their own branch under the Special Operations Command. For me, my passion was more in leadership. When you go into special operations, officers in spec ops certainly don't have the same roles as they do in a typical infantry unit like they would in a Ranger unit or a Marine Corps infantry unit. So that's really the give up. Where I've had the opportunity to lead hundreds of Marines, in a special operations unit you're going to lead eight or 10 guys and they're all going to call you by your first name. It's different. It's something I considered. It's not something I got a chance to do. That said, the task force that is made up of Delta Force operatives and the best of the best of the SEAL community were certainly impressive when I worked with them.

JG: I'm not a military person in that I've never been enlisted and I don't have family in the military. I've been around it because of MMA, but there seems to be a great disconnect between the military and the general population. Most Americans don't have someone in their lives that's connected to the military, so it's like watching from a distance. Do you think events like the bin Laden killing, or Army staff sergeant Salvatore Giunta being a living Medal of Honor recipient makes Americans more aware of the sacrifices that guys like you make? Or do you and the troops feels as if the outpouring of support is always strong?

BS: No, I definitely feel the significant publicizing of these events helps. It reminds Americans who aren't affected by things that happening in the Middle East, that aren't being deployed and don't have family members being deployed. War is something that just by nature people don't want to think of. It's not even a fun thing to listen to on the news. If you don't have some kind of connection over there it's very easy for people not to think of the most horrible thing that takes place on this planet. I actually took comfort and would talk to my men about that. I said, "Listen guys, you do this so well that the American people don't have to focus on this as an everyday part of their lives. They don't have to worry about people coming onto our soil because you do your job so well." That's something I think is very rewarding for them. If you compare the American populace during the Vietnam war and the way they treated our troops to now, it's completely different. We still have many areas we need to improve on, but I think for the most part Americans are much more appreciative today than they were then of our troops, regardless of their thoughts on the conflicts overseas.

JG: There was some incredible video circulating online of the reaction of Americans to the news on Sunday night, but a few stood out to me. The reactions in Annapolis and West Point seemed to be moments to cheer and shout and celebrate. What is the significance for the men and women in the military of bin Laden's death? How do you interpret that?

BS: Well, it's a reaction like that because we're talking about a leader in a movement in a war that's cost the lives of many, many of their friends. Any military member who's enlisted on a base and any Cadet or Midshipmen who was located at an academy has friends that they no longer have anymore, that's not longer here, that's been killed. Especially those that are enlisted in our military, in many cases they've stood next to someone that's died in combat. When you experience a traumatic event like that it affects you for the rest of your life. I think that positive outpouring wasn't necessarily celebrating the fact that someone was just killed. It was more the significance of the moment. This leader, this person, this planner, this blow to al Qaeda and the Taliban, their way of life and their war on our way of life took a huge hit.

JG: I know you can't speak for anyone else, but I imagine you have a good sense for the men and women on the front lines of Afghanistan and Iraq. How are they reacting to this news?

BS: They're reacting very positive and the reason is this: In the war that we've experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the tactics utilized of Improvised Explosive Devices, it makes it very difficult to encounter an enemy and go toe to toe with them. These frontline troops would love to have anybody from the Taliban or al Qaeda in a direct firefight, even if they have better terrain. The odds are most of the enemy encounters they'll make will be Improvised Explosive devices that will cause major damage to both our troops and civilians in that area. It's extraordinarily traumatic to be walking down the street one day, all of a sudden you're blown up, and when you come to three of your friends are gone or severely wounded. To see someone, and see a direct operation where it was straight conflict and we were able to eliminate some of the masterminds of these operations, it's very positive for those guys. When they're deployed for such a long time away from their families, even the slightest thing such as a piece of mail can increase their morale. So an event like this will fuel them for months to come.

JG: You're preparing for your fight with Jorge Santiago. How is that coming along? It's not that far away. May 28 is coming up quick.

BS: Things are going great. It's been the toughest camp I've ever had. Since I live away from Albuquerque, each time I come and do my camp I'm able to come in here, there's such great talent, and measure my skillset and measure my growth. These last two fights have really been a turning point where I've gone from a guy who came to the gym because I'm really still developing to where now I'm noticeably someone who's competing every single day with the top-level guys in the world and doing well. So I feel comfortable in all areas and my skills are finally catching up to my athletic abilities. I'm really anxious and very fortunate to fight a champion like Jorge Santiago and be the first one in the UFC to get to fight him [since 2006]. To be a guy who fights someone in the top 10 the last two years, I'm very lucky. The UFC certainly did not have to give me that fight. There are higher profile guys that could have gotten an opportunity to fight Jorge.

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