Growing up as a young Pashtun boy in war-torn Afghanistan, I learned quickly that life is anything but fair. On one side we had the Taliban and on the other side we had the Northern Alliance. If you want to have a somewhat comfortable experience, you learn at a young age to become hard. When I was a young boy during the Taliban regime, my father, an ex-Afghan Air Force pilot, was driving an old Russian Volga cab almost 17 hours a day. My mother, a college tutor, was forced to stay at home and sew clothes to provide for our family. We didn't have a TV, VCR, or any other digital entertainment means. Not only because we couldn't afford them, but because they were illegal under the Taliban. Growing up in the circumstances that I did, where all I saw was violence and power plays, it was easy to lose the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. Thankfully my parents, and our extended family members had seen better days in Afghanistan, and they used their experiences and neutrality to keep us hopeful about the future. Mazar-e-Sharif was my father’s last duty station before the Taliban took over. After several close calls with Iran’s IRGC backed Shia Militants, we had to relocate from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul. Kabul had its own challenges. My father was ridiculed and harassed by the Taliban for his secular views and his Soviet Air Force College degree. All of us had to dodge incoming Northern Alliance 9K52 Luna-M missiles.
In Kabul, thankfully, I had access to tons of books that I could rent from the few local bookstores for the Afghani equivalent of two American cents per night. I read multiple novels about American spies and Special Forces; versions translated from English to Farsi. After the U.S invasion of Afghanistan, I got introduced to Tom Clancy, Steven Coonts, and other American spy novelists. I bought all the trashed books from the cleaners and garbage disposal guys who worked on American bases and read them. While my father was away, transporting passengers between major Afghan cities, I had to grow up without a physical male role model. As a result of reading all the spy novels, I had vivid dreams of who I wanted to be when I grew up; an American CIA Case Officer. It was very unlikely for an Afghan teenager, but I never gave up hope.
In pursuit of my dreams, I took English, Russian and Urdu classes. I can hold my own in all three languages plus my native tongues of Pashto and Farsi. I also started practicing Martial Arts and got my black belt in Full Contact Kickboxing when I was 17 years old. I started working as a local-national interpreter for the U.S Military right before my 18th birthday in 2007. My first assignment was with 101st Airborne Division. The unit I was assigned to was in charge of Force Protection in Bagram Air Field. I had to translate for the soldiers manning the ECPs and the Guard Towers. It was a pretty uneventful and sweet gig, but it wasn't for me. I wanted action and the rush of combat, so I volunteered to be assigned to an Infantry Platoon in FOB Morales-Frazier, in Kapisa. At Morales-Frazier we had an Infantry Platoon of Pennsylvania National Guard, some Army and Air Force Civil affairs teams, and a Marine Embedded Training Team along with their ANA mentees. My tenure at Morales-Frazier lasted about two years, during which I got to work with some amazing NCOs and Officers. I participated in countless combat and civil affairs operations throughout the insurgent infested Kapisa and Parwan Provinces. I saw more than my fair share of bloodshed and fighting.
Before my 21st birthday, I had already been blown up three times by IEDs, two of which were direct hits. As the result of my last injuries from a direct hit IED, which EOD estimated to have been 150 pounds of homemade explosives, I was hospitalized for a month with internal bleeding in my abdomen and a fractured heel and ankle that needed serious care and recovery. I resigned from my job as a linguist for the military and went on to work for an Afghan Banker in Dubai, UAE.
After 18 months of civilian employment, living the high life in Dubai, there was a part of me that still craved chaos and the highs and lows of combat, so I returned back to Afghanistan to work for DynCorp’s Counter Narco-Terrorism Global Support Progam. While I was employed with DynCorp, I also consulted at a local security company in charge of providing security for several Afghan Parliament members and now President Ashraf Ghani. I got to accompany Ghani on several campaign trips to the southern Afghanistan provinces of Khost and Paktia.
During my employment with DynCorp, I received my Special Immigration Visa to the United States. I landed in Houston, Texas, in September of 2014. Like many other new immigrants, my first job was as a Gas Station cashier for $10.00 an hour. It was just enough to cover my portion of the rent and my cellphone bill. After almost 18 months, I finally passed the background check, ASVAB, and medical checkups to join the Marine Corps. Being culture shocked and struggling with PTSD, which I never admitted to having until it got out of hand, I had plenty on my plate. I found physical activity gave me a needed daily dose of dopamine. As I continued to get involved in more physical activities, I made more friends and worked on the circumstances I was living under.
Have you ever thought about doing something that you have never done before but you perceived it as not for you because of social and cultural stereotypes with which you didn’t associate? Well, for me that thing was Yoga. Before doing Yoga, I always associated it with hippies, hipsters, suburban soccer moms, Antifa, and every other group of "soft" people you can imagine. Before Yoga, my general attitude towards painful memories, losses, and anxieties was to tell myself that I was not hard enough; that I was bothered by my thoughts and emotions because I lacked strength. Yoga helped me realize that the answer is not always being a hard guy, sometimes I must be soft, process everything consciously, and know that what happened, has happened and no amount of regret or remorse can reverse the time. Given my background and experiences, I was very skeptical of Yoga as an exercise, let alone a lifestyle. I was so wrong. I waited until almost everything went wrong before I started doing Yoga as one of the last resorts to combat my years of trauma. Don't be like me! Do Yoga even if you feel like you don't need it; you will notice the change in your general wellbeing.
Around the same time I started practicing Yoga, I started doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I found Jiu-Jitsu to be just as effective as Yoga for balancing my mood. No matter how hard life gets, I know that I have at least two stress relievers that will always work. Jiu-Jitsu is very good at giving you both instant and delayed gratifications. Each successful execution of a submission, escape, or position boosts your self-confidence immediately, and each competition gives you adrenaline, disappointments, and euphoria like nothing else. These recurring, controlled manifestations of adversity enrich our human experience; it prepares us for better management of real and inevitable difficulties.
Usually, when we are stressed, we tend to forget about our surroundings and get lost in lengthy chains of thoughts that are not always positive. Thankfully there is something magical about having a training partner mounted on your chest and squeezing the life out of your neck; It is physically impossible to be mentally absent as that happens.
As I continued to practice Jiu-Jitsu and Yoga, I hit a plateau where my skills and flexibility no longer were advantageous against training partners and opponents with similar abilities. I heard about SOFlete programming from a fellow Marine, who described it as a balanced and scientific approach to physical fitness, which would increase my strength for Jiu-Jitsu and help me be in top physical shape for the Marine Corps. I am a subscriber to SOFlete all-access programming and I love it. It has significantly changed my fitness level as well as my aesthetics.
Today, I am getting ready to go to a polling station and cast my vote for the 2020 U.S elections. After that I will be participating at a Jiu Jitsu submission only match. I have to say, I am blessed to be living in the United States, a truly free country where I am accepted and respected as a human being first. Looking back at my experiences and lifestyle, I can say I can't relate to any other motto as much as I do with SOFlete's Die Living. I have learned to fully embrace every situation and every new adventure, living through it passionately, even if it may be my last one in this dimension! So be it!
I will Die Living.
Jason Essazay is an Afghan Interpreter and Special Immigrant Visa recipient who is now a US Marine Reservist. He is a Yoga and BJJ adherent who loves SOFLETE programming.