No Man’s Land, No MoreOct 22, 2023 02:04AM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Illustration by Renee Ludwick.
Warrior-turned-diplomat Chris Kolenda knows trauma. The Omaha Creighton Prep and West Point graduate was commissioned as an armor (tank) officer in 1987 and qualified for the Army Rangers. He commanded the 1-91 Cavalry in Afghanistan during a 450-day deployment between 2007 and 2008. He convinced insurgents to switch sides during the conflict and worked on a team that negotiated peace with The Taliban. He advised generals and the Secretary of Defense. He’s been an author and lecturer on military strategy. He retired from the Army in 2011 and from government service in 2014.
From his days carrying the fight to the enemy, he and his comrades experienced their share of combat-related trauma—moments and memories that linger long after weapons have been holstered and final salutes exchanged. Six warriors under Kolenda’s command fell in the line of duty. Others experienced depression, anxiety, and some succumbed to suicide. In 2022, the former colonel organized a Fallen Hero Honor Ride—commemorating those who perished and raising funds for his Saber Six Foundation that offers support to the unit’s 800-plus veterans and their families.
When he initially posted about his upcoming ride, he said, “I got so much encouragement from people who wanted me to be successful. They’d ride with me, they’d cheer me on, do whatever to help me prepare, and that was awesome. What surprised me was just the number of people I met who, once they heard about this [journey], wanted to find how they could support it. That was great.”
He needed all the inspiration he could find, battling prevailing winds the first 600 miles of his 1,700 mile, 28-day odyssey to the gravesites of his fallen comrades.
“Riding a bike an average of 74 miles a day, I had a lot of time to think about the people I served with along the way,” Kolenda said, (their names engraved on the crossbar of his road bike. “Particularly, approaching the gravesites, I thought about the fallen. I knew all of them.”
From his home base of Milwaukee, he rode to Spalding, Nebraska, where Chris Pfeifer is buried. The two had bonded over Husker football.
“His parents were there. His widow Karen was there,” Kolenda recalled. “And their daughter, Peyton, born two days after Chris died, was there. She never met her dad…but she got to hear some new stories.”
Karen said the family appreciated the “sincerity” of Kolenda’s gesture.
From Spalding, Kolenda pedaled to the gravesites of Adrian Hike in Carroll, Iowa, Jacob Lowell in Elwood, Illinois, Ryan Fritsche in Hall, Indiana, and Dave Boris in Minersville, Pennsylvania.
“Dave and I were very close; he was like a little brother to me in many ways,” Kolenda said. “There’s this mountain you have to pedal up outside Minersville—it’s about three to five miles long, with grades between seven and 11% the entire way up. I had no idea whether I was going to make it.
“Starting to pedal up, I remembered Dave, who used to be a cyclist, and imagined him next to me, taunting me, giving me a hard time as I knew he would. Got to the cemetery and I was already pretty emotional. Then I saw Dave’s dad at the entrance, wearing a unit shirt. We’d met before. I just started sobbing…so, he started sobbing.
Kolenda reflected on the encounter, noting the slippery, trying, and ultimately liberating experience of riding toward—rather than away from— shared grief.
“I don’t think I’d ever given myself the permission to grieve properly for his death,” he confessed. “It was one of those cases where sometimes you have to open old wounds to let them heal better.”
It was like that at every stop. The ride ended at Arlington National Cemetery, where Texas native Tom Bostick is interred.
“I wanted to do this because I felt it was the right thing to do; I wanted to honor their service and sacrifice,” Kolenda said. “People are forgetting the wars and those who fought in them. We tend to think of veterans either as broken or people we put up on a pedestal, and most of us are just normal, average human beings. I want people to see them as flesh and blood—and to tell their stories.”
His foundation recently designed and released a resource for mastering emotional triggers.
“We all have them,” Kolenda noted. “Veterans’ emotional triggers may cause them to lash out. You get this intense feeling of emotion—anger, sadness, anxiety. When we act out, whether lashing out or withdrawing or self-medicating to respond to this intense feeling, it’s invariably counterproductive and can damage our relationships, reputation, [and] self-confidence.
“We created essentially a training manual and set of videos about how you deal with emotional triggers—we want to give people the tools to find new purpose, belonging, and wellbeing in their lives.”
Karen Pfeifer said the foundation provides a vital resource for veterans and families who otherwise “feel isolated” after military service ends. She said it fills the sense of “family and community” the military had provided.
Kolenda’s path to mindfulness began when he set aside the tools of war and reequipped himself for dialogue. He’s believed to be the only American who went from combat commander to negotiator in that conflict’s two-decade history.
“That got me a little bit of a reputation that I knew how to talk to people and could do so successfully. I mean, ultimately wars have to end and you want them to end in ways that meet your interests,” he said. “Most wars actually end in some sort of a negotiation process. If I could help us finish this war successfully then that was a great way to serve—I didn’t have any qualms about sitting down across the table and talking.”
Today, he and a team of fellow veterans apply lessons, principles, and skills from their warrior diplomacy to the private sector through Strategic Leaders Academy.
“Ultimately, whether it’s leadership in the military, or in business [and] nonprofits, it’s all about: how do you inspire people to contribute their best to your organization?” Kolenda said. “There’s a lot of consistency across different sectors—like, how do you build trust, gain buy in, and create accountability? [How do you] help people connect their personal purpose to the purpose of the organization?”
Kolenda, whose father was a JAG officer in the Army Reserves, has a brother pulling that same duty today and a son nearing the end of submariner service. If Kolenda leaves any legacy, he hopes it’s encouraging veterans and non-veterans alike to strengthen their personal sense of purpose, belonging, and wellbeing.
“When you’ve got those three things working for you, you become an ever better version of yourself,” Kolenda affirmed.