Triathlete Shaw Burke is known for competing in over 200 triathlons and 19 Ironman competitions, winning 50 gold medals and 3 silvers over the course of his career. But behind his tough-guy exterior lived an untold story about his time spent in the military and the ways his experiences during that time have plagued him over the years.
At ASEA’s annual convention, Shawn was finally able to tell about how a recent trip to Ecuador with the Advancing Life Foundation brought unexpected healing and clarity he didn’t know he needed. Shawn served as a United States Army Ranger from 1980-84 and as a veteran, he thought he understood the scope of his mental and emotional demons since his time in the military.
“Thirty-six years ago, I was a young army ranger propelling into the jungles of Panama, sent there to seek and destroy. As a young soldier, I’ve served our country proudly and did what I need to do to accomplish my mission and I fought to defend my friends on the battlefield. But like many veterans, the fray of battle has left deep and permanent scars on my heart,” said Burke, “This is my secret shame that I’ve carried, that only other battle vets will understand. These personal demons are difficult for me to talk about. I run, train, and go great distances to fend off the ghosts that have haunted me for so long.”
Although Shawn had served as a volunteer expeditioner in Ecuador with the Advancing Life Foundation previously, as he stepped off the bus this year he experienced something unexpected when he arrived. He began to feel a sense of frightening deja vu amongst the familiar surroundings and jungles so similar to those from his army ranger years. Suddenly, the jungle became full of danger and death. “It was just then that the past came crashing down on me really hard,” said Burke.
Burke explained that he went into defense mode and started scouting the area for threats. His fists clenched, he began to sweat, and he became very nervous. He was experiencing a common form of veteran PTSD. In the middle of this episode, he noticed his wife Veronica kneeling down to embrace children who ran to greet her from the village.
Being Hispanic with English as her second language it was easy for Veronica to bond with the children. They smiled, laughed, and were so excited to see her and Shawn, whom they remembered from the previous year. The air was suddenly filled with love instead of a feeling of danger. That’s when Shawn noticed a little girl who reached out for his hand.
“Her big brown eyes were beaming with a smile and full of excitement as she reached up to take my hand. She wrapped her own tiny hand around two of my fingers and led me forward, thrilled to share with me her little world, including her house, her room, and her few meager possessions. In her innocent joy and excitement she never noticed the tears that were running down my face,” said Burke.
A little girl from the small village in the jungles of Ecuador had found a way to reach a 59-year-old man a whole world away, touch his heart, help mend old wounds that were long held in secret. She and the other children that Shawn and his wife worked so hard to help that week touched his soul, he explained. He felt a sense of forgiveness that was long overdue and a weight seemed to lift from shoulders.
“This year something transformational happened to me. Isn’t it funny what happens when you’re willing to selflessly help others, expecting nothing in return? Sometimes you are the one who is truly helped. For me, it was the help of a small girl who led a wounded soldier across the finish line and because of her willingness to accept me for who I was, I found peace at last.”
Shawn’s powerful story is an example of how expeditions not only impact the lives of those we serve but those of the volunteers as well. To donate to Advancing Life Foundation, visit advancinglife.org.