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In their own words: Brian Stann

A former Navy linebacker, Stann graduated in 2003 and went on to serve two tours in combat overseas. He received the Silver Star for his leadership in battle in Iraq. Stann went on to become an elite fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He is now retired from the sport and serves as the president of a nonprofit that assists veterans.

I was at the Naval Academy, and I’d just finished class and was walking into the barber shop when everybody got pulled back into the company area. And that’s when I saw the first glimpse of it on TV, seeing the planes crash into the buildings. Everybody was obviously devastated, angry, emotional. There were a lot of staff there and people there who knew people in the Pentagon. That day was a huge paradigm shift in our lives. We went from, “Hey, we’re there! We’re going to graduate and be leaders in the military and maybe travel the world a little bit,” to, “Hey, we’re going to graduate and we’re going off to war somewhere.” It was very different.

It put a lot of things in perspective in your life and reshaped your priorities. It just changed a lot. All the different expectations you levied on yourself were different now because you expected and fully anticipated going off to war. It was tough. The Naval Academy was never the same after it.

It symbolizes a completely different direction in my life. It’s changed a lot of things. You go from being someone who’s “normal” to someone who’s been in combat and has lost a lot of friends and people they really care about. And that’s been the biggest difference. You don’t envision those things when you go into the Naval Academy. Before 9/11, you don’t envision going into the Naval Academy and going to war. It just wasn’t one of those things because the country hadn’t been at war in so long. But it’s completely different once that happens. As I reflect on it, those are the thoughts that go through my mind. Watching friends leave for war, waiting for my turn, coming back and then obviously having to deal with the phone calls you get when you have lost a friend, a Marine you’ve served with.

Because of my busy schedule I don’t get to go back (to the Naval Academy) often. But I went back for the Army-Navy game and spoke to the guys. I talked a little bit about who they are, what they’re going to be, and both teams are professional warriors. I talked a little bit about my fighting and what I do, and just some things to get them pumped up. But mostly that it’s different. They’re different men. They have a different purpose. And they have to always maintain that discipline and execute correctly, because where they’re going later in life, their execution, their discipline, their leadership isn’t going to be about points on a scoreboard. It’s going to be about lives.

(Serving in the Navy has) meant a great deal, and it truly defines who you are as a person. Not so much that I was a Navy football player, or that I was a Marine or a Naval Academy graduate. It all gets summed up in the service. And it means something, and I continue to serve today whether it be in philanthropy rather than on active duty. I think that’s what defines you and your purpose, as a person.