April 14, 2022

#055: Chad1000X – Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Hosted by Fran Racioppi

At some point in our lives we’ll lose someone or something that defines our very being. How we respond to that loss will test our character to its foundation.

Sara Wilkinson lost her husband when he died by suicide in 2018. Navy SEAL Chad Wilkinson was one of our nation’s finest Special Operators, having served 21 years in the Navy, with many of those on Seal Team 6. Sara joined host Fran Racioppi to share the love story between her and Chad, reducing the stigmas around Veteran suicide, what it takes to serve as a military spouse and the Chad1000X WOD.

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About Sara Wilkinson

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson“My husband, Navy SEAL Chad Wilkinson, served honorably for 21 years. When Chad took his life he had everything to live for: myself and our children, extended family, his fellow brothers and our community.

This is a silent disease where symptoms, triggers and warnings are often recognized too late. Chad is not alone, this is a silent epidemic with the enemy sneaking quietly into our homes and it has to stop. We want to use Chad’s life and legacy to raise awareness for suicide prevention. Our hope is to remove mental health stigmas, and encourage people to reach out, one step at a time, no matter who you are.

Our goal is to honor Chad and all Veterans currently struggling this and every Veterans Day moving forward. I hope you’ll join me and our community in doing the Hero WOD that Dave Castro named after my husband Chad, supporting the Navy SEAL Foundation.”

 

Chad1000X – Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Loss is defined as the state or feeling of grief when deprived of someone or something of value. Everyone experiences loss at some point. Most often, our loss is superficial in the grand scheme of things. We lose a game, a competition, a job but at some point in our lives, we lose someone or something that defines our very being or our reason for existing and waking up each day. How we respond to that loss will test our character to its very foundation.TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Sara Wilkinson lost her husband when he died by suicide in 2018. Navy SEAL Chad Wilkinson was one of our nation’s finest Special Operators, having served 21 years in the Navy, many of those on SEAL Team Six. Sara joined me on this episode to share the love story between her and Chad and how serving as a military spouse requires fearlessness, independence, and resilience.

Sara and I discuss the importance of doing exactly what we are wired to do, the difficulty of leaving what we love, and the harmful effects of pushing ourselves far for too long. We discuss Chad’s death, the signs leading up to it, the stigmas associated with prolonged blast exposure and post-traumatic stress, and why spouses are some of the most important first responders.

In our 2nd of 3 episodes in partnership with the GORUCK Sandlot JAX Fitness Festival, Sara and I honor Chad’s legacy and a commitment to complete the Chad 1000X hero workout of the day, and finally, we talk about CrossFit, the importance of fitness in our daily lives, and why living big is Sara’s key to resiliency and adaptability.

Sara, welcome to The Jedburgh Podcast.

Thanks for having me.

We talk about failure and loss a lot on the show but we focus many of our conversations on mental and emotional health. We quantify the loss in terms of competition, a professional career or a moment in time in which the result, although often traumatic in that person’s world, is often not final. I have said many times that resiliency and adaptability are tested in times of loss because the true measure of who we are comes forward. Our character comes forward. The attributes that Rich Diviney talks about come forward when we are stressed or when we are faced with adversity.

You lost your husband, Navy SEAL Chad Wilkinson, to the silent epidemic of veteran suicide. As a Gold Star spouse, you have experienced firsthand a loss that most of us can never comprehend. You have demonstrated the utmost levels of resiliency and adaptability in volumes that the majority of people can never even achieve.

Both your work honor Chad’s legacy, his service and also to help others to bring awareness to this terrible disease is commendable. Since losing Chad, you have become an entrepreneur, a business owner, a leader in mental health, an advocate for veterans, and an inspiration to all those who have lost somebody. I thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule and joining me for the conversation.

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

That was very kind. I appreciate that. Thank you.

When a person joins the military, it’s not just the individual who serves. It really is the entire family, and especially the spouses. For many like you and Chad, and me and my wife, we had lived together before we joined the military, and then one day, I came home, and Chad came home and said, “This is what I want to do.” You get a choice as the spouse but in so many ways, you almost don’t.

Yours is a love story that went back to high school. It stemmed from two sets of military parents, yours and his, and it began with a, “Hey,” from Chad in the hallway. I read that you went to fifteen schools by the time you were in twelfth grade. Can you talk about that love story growing up with Chad, meeting each other as kids, and your early life together?

I was thinking about this. Sometimes, it flashes back. As most people do, they think about their past and history, and especially their childhood. We were military kids that went to a military high school, which for most people now, are non-existent. Maybe two DOD high schools still exist. I said it before but I saw him on the first day of my freshman year. In PE class, I saw a profile of his face because he turned for roll call and said, “Here.” I still remember that like it was yesterday. He had this blue collared shirt on. I saw his profile, and I was done. This was PE class. We wore uniforms, the red stretchy shorts with the ringer T-shirt with a Q in the front because our high school was Quantico. We are talking early ‘90s.

Serve something greater than yourself. Click To Tweet

We would do PE class, and then after class, we go to the locker room and change out. I would always rush back into the basketball court to go to the water fountain because I knew that he came out and went to the water fountain. I was that girl that was trying to cross some paths with him. Our school was small. There wasn’t room for bullying, cliques or anything like that. Everyone knew everyone and was friends with everyone. We were friends for two years and hung out with the same group. He was older than me but I always had a crush on him. We started dating at the end of my sophomore year.

You ended up being apart for a bit, too. I listened to some conversations about it.

I have talked about it before. This is a long story. We dated long distance for seven years, more or less. I moved away. My dad’s duty station changed. I moved down to North Carolina. He was a 16 or 17-year-old guy, and his parents were giving him permission to drive six and a half hours South on the weekends to come to see me and then turn around and drive that distance back home. That continued, and I went away to college. He went to BUD/S. It was always in his plan to be a Navy SEAL. The first time I ever heard of a Navy SEAL was from Chad. Even with my dad in the military, I didn’t know what they were.

There weren’t that many movies yet.

Not really but there were old ones. The world was a lot different then, and the war that we have seen over the years is the highlight reel of Navy SEALs on the news. I was pretty naive about what they were and what they did. There was some distance, for sure. He went away to BUD/S. We were long-distance, broke up, got back together, did that whole dance before, ultimately, he called me on his first deployment. We were broken up. I was at the University of Florida, and he had sent me an email. We are talking AOL dial-up email. I printed those emails off, and I’m glad that I did. He was like, “I’ve got to see you.” I said, “You know where I am.” He came home from deployment and showed up on my doorstep. That was it. I knew that we were going to be together forever.

I want to ask you about the decision to go into the Navy and the decision to go into BUD/S. You said in an interview that you did that everyone is wired to do something. It resonated with me because I interviewed Travis Hollman in episode 43, and Travis Hollman is the CEO of Hollman Lockers. They make the locker rooms for all the professional sports teams. He said that we are all wired to do exactly what we want to do, and as leaders, we have to put people in places that leverage their strengths and desires.

You said that Chad had the heart of a warrior, and he answered the call to serve in those pre-9/11 days. Why enter the military? Talking about the decision that you ultimately come into the family and you are in the military as a military spouse but what was that call to serve, and why enter BUD/S in those days before anybody knew anything about Navy SEALs?

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Sara Wilkinson: ”I think you have to be incredibly independent because you are going to spend an exorbitant amount of time alone.”

Part of it is legacy. Chad’s dad and uncle were both SEALs. They weren’t career SEALs as far as twenty years. His dad was a SEAL for about 4 to 5 years, roughly, and then he transferred over and did something different in the Navy mainly because they started having children and he wanted a job that he would be around a little bit more.

Growing up, Chad was the oldest of four. He has two brothers and a sister. He was the pack leader. Also, if you think about kids in the ‘80s, that’s when we played outside. That’s when you ride your bike, get dirty, and jump off of stuff. That’s how he grew up, in addition to knowing the history of his dad and his uncle. He was a military kid. That set the precedent of being in the military and serving your country, and something greater than yourself was what called to his heart. That’s what he felt like he was born to do, and I can still sit here and say he was born to do that.

There’s a saying that being a spouse of a service member is the hardest job in the military, and I would argue too that being the spouse of a Special Operator is the hardest of the hard. The tip of the spear is what we said in SF. It’s easy as the service member or the Special Operations Operator to deploy. You know what’s going on all the time. You are in the thick of it. You said that you are doing what you were born to do, and it feels like that when you are the service member. Even when it sucks, you are there. You are like, “At least I’m doing what I want to do, and I’m doing what I love,” but when you are at home, you are removed from the action. There’s no information most of the time.

Chad deployed three times with SEAL Team Eight, not to mention in the early years of his career. We will talk about the subsequent stints when he transitioned to SEAL Team Six but you said that to be a military spouse, it takes three things, fearlessness, independence, and resilience. Can you talk a bit more about those? It really is one of, if not the hardest, a job that’s out there, and it takes each one of these attributes or traits to wake up every day, be at home, and continue a life when the one you love isn’t there.

It’s not for the faint of heart. Sometimes, I think about how Chad and I’s relationship started. I fell in love with him long before he became a Navy SEAL. I can see how certain jobs in the military might be enticing for some people and attract those people together but I knew him as Chad first and a Navy SEAL second. You have to be incredibly independent because you are going to spend an exorbitant amount of time alone from your spouse. I can’t even count how many birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and how many Christmas trees I bought on my own. You have to be able to handle yourself and your family that you create, the children that you are raising, alone and be okay with that. You have to be pretty strong.

You have to be fearless because you are also going to face everyday hardships, often on your own without the support of your spouse because they are deployed but also fearless because your person is going to be gone, and you are not going to know what they are doing all the time. Especially in Special Operations or Special Forces, there’s no safety net. These guys are out kicking in doors on the regular, and that can be a little overwhelming if you can’t put yourself in the right headspace. You have to be resilient because you have to go through all these hardships on a daily basis and keep pushing yourself forward regardless.

What was the biggest concern during those times?

I would say something different now. My biggest concern was my concern for him. We lived our life in the sense that I didn’t complain to him about anything that was happening back home. My hot water heater broke in my attic once and flooded part of the upstairs. I had cars break down. It’s daily things that every person encounters but if he called me, it was like, “Everything is good. The kids are great,” because the last thing I wanted was for him to be deployed, surrounded by plywood walls, RPG threat or whatever.

He’s in his shitty living conditions, not eating great food, not getting a lot of sleep, and then he’s sitting there wondering like, “How’s my wife going to get the car fixed?” I needed him to know that I had it covered but what I worried about was him. Was he getting enough sleep? Did he feel safe? Did he have enough to eat? Did he miss us? Was he okay? That was my concern.

Do those things always happen whenever he leaves?

Yeah. It’s Murphy’s Law. That’s the way it goes. Besides worrying about him and our kids because I’m a mom, and it’s what moms do, I try to make sure that my kids can grow up and hopefully feel that they are supported and loved always. Both parents are proud of them even when he’s absent so much. It’s a lot of work.

Make sure the kids can grow up and feel supported and loved. Click To Tweet

Chad did an initial stint in the Navy, and then in 2008, he decided to transition out and transition to civilian life. Why leave?

The grass is always greener. It’s that whole concept that life is going to be better over there. We were military kids our whole life. He then joined the military. We became a family in the military. Once I was pregnant with our second child, our son, we had this feeling that he’s done it. He has done the whole Navy SEAL. He finished BUD/S. He went to a team. He did deployments. He checked the box.

Chad was a goal setter, and he always accomplished every goal he set, which was freakishly annoying sometimes but for both of us, after a couple of years and having our second child, we thought that the grass was greener. We are going to go over there, and we are going to create a life for our kids that we didn’t necessarily have. We are going to have that 9:00 to 5:00 job and have weekends together. Our thought was, “It was going to be so much better,” and it wasn’t.

Transition is hard. We can talk about that a bit. I transitioned a couple of years ago out of the Army. To some extent, it has only been less than a year where I have started feeling like I know what I want to do when I grow up and what that’s going to look like. I have gone through an evolution of different positions, places and lived in different places in the country. There’s so much in the military that you almost take for granted that you don’t have to think about.

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Sara Wilkinson: You have to be “fearless because your person is gonna be gone and you’re not going to know what they’re doing.”

It doesn’t matter what happens. You are going to get paid on the 1st and the 15th. You are going to have healthcare. You are going to have a job even if you are not good at your job. You are not going to go in one day, and they are going to say, “You are out today,” and that’s it, and then you don’t have a way to provide for your family.

Also, to some extent, it’s the stimulation. You think about people who operate. They rev high but they operate in this element of stress where they are always stimulated. There’s always something new and exciting that’s stimulating the brain and the body to do more and push further and farther. You walk away from that, and all of a sudden, you are sitting there and you are like, “Is this it?”

I have said before that I’m a big believer people are creatures of habit, whether it’s a good habit or a bad habit, we like what we know. I have seen people transition to this military lifestyle. It takes a little while, and then eventually, they find their own heartbeat in the civilian world. They can make that transition. There’s a large population that struggles and may never find that.

For Chad and I, we’ve got out of the military, and from an outsider’s perspective or our family’s perspective, everything was great because he had a great job, he made good money. We had our two kids, a cute house, and neighbors we enjoyed. There was all of that stuff but if you look at all the things he left behind, he couldn’t find any of that in his civilian life, and neither could I. The bonds that you make as a military person are undeniably strong but the bonds that you make as a military spouse are the same.

I wanted to ask you about that. I’m glad you brought up the bonds between the military spouses because all the time, we talk about camaraderie. You hear military service members talk about that sense of loss that they have and the team that they walk away from. It’s often the thing that you don’t even think about during transition. It’s something you didn’t think about it until you are driving off base for the last time, and then you realize, “Everybody I hang out with, and the whole support network is behind me.”

Can you talk a bit about what it means in the spouse network? I know there are different organizations. In the Army, we have the family readiness group. You naturally make friends. You gravitate towards other people, whether it’s formally or informally. Can you talk a little bit more about how tight that group of wives is, especially in an organization like Special Operations, where the team is the team and the team does everything together, and the families, by default, often get very close?

I have made some of the greatest friendships of my life here, and some of my oldest friends go back to those teammate days. When you first go to a team, they do these in doc meetings for spouses. They are pointless because you spend gas money to get to the base and they say, “Here’s what your husband does. Don’t ask any questions. Do you have any questions?” You are like, “What?”

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Sara Wilkinson: “Resilient because you have to go through all these hardships on a daily basis and keep pushing yourself forward regardless.”

I met a couple of girls there that I’m still friends with, and this was many years ago. Especially in a world like the one I have been in, where your husband is a Navy SEAL and goes away on deployment, you don’t always know where he is. You kind of know where he is or you don’t know what he’s doing, that’s odd for the mainstream society that you don’t get to talk to your husband every day. They are like, “You can’t call them when you need to?” I’m like, “No, but maybe I can send him an email and wait.”

It’s the fact that you don’t have to explain that to others in your friendship circle. There’s this underlining knowing amongst you that’s comforting. It’s also comforting knowing that they feel the same stressors you feel in terms of juggling your children, getting your car fixed, getting your hot water fixed or worrying about their safety. When a spouse says, “My husband is leaving on deployment in two days,” you look at each other and shake your head. You know what that feeling is when they go away. You constantly have someone to lean on. It’s almost indescribable. I don’t think I’m even doing it justice.

It is one of those things that you have to feel, you have to be there or you have to know it to be able to properly experience and express it. It was three years that he spent out of the military and the Navy, and then he went back. It’s almost a return to normal in some sense.

We were excited.

When he entered back, Chad screened to go to SEAL Team Six.

We did this little juggle. We were on the East Coast. He had to go out to the West Coast to do some training because he hadn’t deployed in three years and then fast-tracked back over to the East Coast. He was three years out and then came back in and screened for SEAL Team Six. It’s a big jump.

We have talked about this organization before. I had worked with a bunch of the guys who were there both when I was in and now, too. I make fun of the SEALs a lot because I get to do that as a Green Beret but I do give credit. I will say that it truly is one of the best organizations in the world when it comes to the development of leaders, national and strategic capability that has done so much for this country, and the organization is one of the greatest at standards.

Be fearless, brave, and selfless. Click To Tweet

A conversation and an example that I like to give to different companies and teams that I work with is when you think about standards and strict adherence to standards where there’s objectivity between the personal piece because everybody is a good guy, and you hear that all the time like, “He’s a good guy. He’s a good person. We don’t want to do anything. We want to keep him but if they are not good and don’t meet the standard, we can’t keep him.” That organization is one of the greatest at having an objective standard and being able to separate the person from the activity that’s required.

It’s leadership at its finest, and you can apply that to everyday life. People would. People can be good all day long but if you can’t operate at a certain level and complete the task, whatever that task is, then it’s not going to get you there. That screening is intense. It was a pretty stressful time for us.

You said that during the second stint in the Navy, another enemy had entered your home. We have had some impactful conversations about this silent enemy that many veterans and people face, not just veterans. I want to make sure that we highlight that because there are a lot of people who face a tremendous amount of adversity in their lives and suffer from what Dr. Chris Frueh calls Operator Syndrome.

We had Dr. Frueh on a while ago. He’s our number two episode of all time but it’s about Operator Syndrome. It’s about this concept that what happens when you push yourself for too long and too many years on end physically, mentally, and emotionally. There’s no break. There’s no time off. You are constantly revving high and elevating yourself higher and higher, and then you wake up one day, and it’s too much. You suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies that you may even take your own life. All of these things are massed by your desire to wake up every day and perform, and then one day, you can’t.

I talk about the community I’m in only because that’s my experience. I’m not naive to think that this doesn’t affect the mainstream military at all but you also have to recognize that when you are talking about tier one operators. They are designed and built to be fearless, brave, selfless, and always give themselves for the sake of the man next to them. It’s scary that they need that design to be successful but that design is also their demise when Operator Syndrome starts to take in because you are not going to recognize most likely all the ways they fall apart because they do a good job at dialing that in.

There’s a separation that occurs, compartmentalization almost, where you don’t think about it. It’s like, “If I don’t think about it, then it’s not really happening.” You see it in first responders. We have seen in it a number of athletes like Simone Biles in the Summer Olympics. They wake up one day and be like, “I don’t have it in me. I can’t be there.”

One of the mottos or themes that you hear them talk about, and I don’t know if it stems from BUD/S, is the whole concept of suffering in silence. You suffer in silence. You don’t speak up in BUD/S. You just take it, and that carries over. That only works for when it works but when we talk about this guy down the road, that’s a bad motto to follow. They compartmentalize and hold all that is because they have been told to suffer in silence, and if they speak up, what’s wrong with them?

General Peter Chiarelli was the former Vice Chief of Staff in the Army. I had a conversation with him where we talked about PTS. We separated this PTS stigma from the disorder part. General Chiarelli’s perspective is that post-traumatic stress is a disease. It’s not a disorder. When you label something a disorder, you have immediately put the impetus on the patient or the person suffering from it to create this aura that there’s something wrong with them and that if they speak up or if people know about it, they are going to be looked at differently. They are going to be looked at lower. They are not going to be given the same opportunities that they might if they don’t say anything, so then that leads to people not saying anything.

When you talk about head trauma or TBI from prolonged blast exposure and where people start to feel symptoms over time but don’t say anything, it’s because we have taken this term and said, “You have a disorder.” It doesn’t matter who you are. Nobody wants to say, “I’m a person with a disorder,” so we have to start thinking differently about how we classify these, as you have called them, combat injuries. These are combat wounds that people have from no prolonged service but until we, as a society, begin to change the way we think about it and classify it, it’s going to be hard to make concrete change.

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Sara Wilkinson: ”People commit burglary. People commit murder. People do not commit suicide. People die by suicide.”

I agree with that. I feel similar when people say they committed suicide. I would like to change that language. People commit burglary or murder but people do not commit suicide. People die by suicide and die by suicide because there’s something larger at play that’s not them. There’s quite a bit of language that needs change around PTSD and mental struggle. If we could mainstream that, if anything, from this show, the words are died by suicide.

You said the military changes you. It changes your brain and your personality. I 100% agree with that. I was 24 or 23 when I entered. I had finished college. Generally, I have had a good feeling of where my life was going to go. I understood myself. As much as 23-year-old can understand themselves, I felt like I did. It does change you. It changes your perspective on life. It changes the way you handle situations. It changes so many of the ways in which you interact with yourself and others. Can you talk about what was going on at home in Chad’s mindset and the mental state during the second stint in the Navy?

When he first started, he was pretty much the Chad I knew. He was so focused and driven on whatever his goal was, and his goal was to be an operator at Six, and he wanted to do a good job. He was always refining and practicing techniques. I don’t know if I should say this but I remember him on Green Team. He would walk around our house, have his holster and a gun unloaded with no magazines, and constantly practice drawing and coming around doorways. This is commonplace for us.

In the first couple of years, it was fine. The military has a larger goal. Hundreds and thousands of veterans in uniform need to serve this greater purpose, and then you take this small group of guys, and the level at which they need to perform requires no room for mess-ups. They need to be dialed in. The self-induced stress. I can’t necessarily speak for all of them but what he put on himself was too much. Over time, that plays on you.

It isn’t just deployments. That’s what people also need to recognize. They would deploy one year from when they came back home. Let’s say they get home on July 7th, 2022. I know that by July 7th, 2023, he’s going to be gone but what you also don’t realize is all the training trips in between like a week to Mississippi, 2 weeks to Arizona or 3 weeks in Seattle. You are constantly gone, and you have to perform that over time, one sleep deprivation and stress were on him.

I woke up thinking about this, and I believe it was 1998. I was in college, and my roommate woke me up. It was past 12:00 AM. She handed me the phone and said, “I was in a helicopter crash but I want you to know I’m okay.” I remember being like, “What?” He said it again. It was a training trip. He was in a helicopter crash but when I think back to it, that could have very easily been the first major head injury that Chad had.

As we know, many people have head injuries. They can have concussions through sport but then you fast forward to our military who not only was he in a helicopter crash but they have hard landings on jumps, they ride in the rigs and the different boats, the pounding, the blast exposure, breaching doors, and shooting guns. That over and over to our brain is hugely problematic that people don’t want to recognize.

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara WilkinsonChad had interface astroglial scarring. I read a study on this from the National Institute of Health as I prepared for this conversation. They compare the post-mortem brains of various patients who had been exposed to different levels of blast trauma versus those who had no blast trauma. In all prolonged or significant blast trauma exposure patients, there existed this interface astroglial scarring. Each of the patients who had this scarring also had a premortem diagnosis of PTS. Can you talk about this diagnosis and what you have learned about it since Chad’s death?

We donated Chad’s brain after his death. For anybody who’s lost someone and especially lost a spouse, I couldn’t tell you much of what happened in the first couple of weeks. I can but I can’t. This has been new that we have a doctor affiliated with our community that has been researching their brains. I knew he was gone, so I thought, “What’s the harm?” You hear about CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. We hear that from football players and the term punchdrunk from boxers. In our military, some of our guys have CTE as well because it comes from that physical impact. It’s that punching to the head, the impact of our football players but the interface astroglial scarring again comes from that blast wave.

Fitness is just another way to test and challenge yourself. Click To Tweet

I’m no doctor. I’m just a wife who loved her husband but what I understand is if you have a brain and it’s surrounded by a skull, the idea is that skull protects that brain naturally. However, the brain isn’t meant to shift multiple times over and over, with high repetition hitting those sides of the skull. When I saw the picture, it almost looked like a ricochet of a BB gun through the brain, and ultimately, that’s what caused this derailment. Do I think Chad had PTS? Absolutely. I have said it before. I can look back in hindsight and see so many ways that he exhibited that. That, unfortunately, as a spouse, I couldn’t identify then because I chalked it up to, “That’s just how these guys are.”

They are quiet and withdrawn. Chad was always a quiet person. He was never the guy that was going to be the loudest guy at the party. He was never going to draw attention to himself, so when that was still happening but a little bit more exacerbated, I still was able to say, “That’s how he is. He’s quiet. He doesn’t like to be around people all the time.” He is a little bit shyer. He became super hypervigilant. You hear these guys say, “I’ve got to have my back to the wall and my face facing the door.” That’s how most of them are but that has become increasingly worse.

He had the most beautiful blue-green eyes. Our daughter has them, and I’m so thankful that she does but they are super sensitive to light. The guy never went outside without sunglasses but even that got extreme. His sleep was terrible but if you talk about it otherwise, they would mention, “He doesn’t sleep at all either. He sleeps terribly.” He’s just like everybody else. There was no way for me prior to his death to probably differentiate between what was “normal” for a Navy SEAL who had spent twenty years as an Operator to what is like, “This is problematic.” I only wish I could go back in time.

When you think about everything that has occurred, what do you say to spouses? We spoke about the bond that you have, and you are still very involved with the community. When you hear the stories about operators now, what’s your advice?

Truthfully, I say a couple of things, and one is as a spouse, we carry a unique set of skillsets as well being married to someone like this. You said fearless, independent, and resilient. That alone, on top of many other skills we carry, sets us as what I would like to say, at the top of the tier. If you have made the decision to marry this person you love who has been an Operator for twenty years serving our country, your job is to safeguard his health, whether you realize it or not.

He and I say he because I take SEALs but we will say she for the mainstream military as well, he or she has spent years serving our country, and they have been exposed to things that maybe they didn’t realize they signed up for when they first joined the military. While we have sat at home taking care of the family and held it down at home, it’s also our job to safeguard their health.

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Sara Wilkinson’s Characteristics of a Military Spouse

Almost treat it like TSA rules. If you see something, say something. If he’s not sleeping well, let’s talk about that. If his diet and nutrition are off, let’s talk about that. Do you notice that he loses his balance? Chad died when he was 43. Why does a 43-year-old lose their balance? They shouldn’t but he did. Are they starting to become forgetful? Do they forget normal things or everyday things, and you have to tell them 3 or 4 times? This is not a husband and wife and selective listening. This is something larger at play. I would rather see spouses err on the side of caution versus chalk it up to, “That’s just how they are,” because it didn’t work for me, and that’s how I’ve got here.

You use the phrase first responders in saying that spouses are first responders. I like that because it’s so true that when you think about the partnership you have with your spouse, it’s the person who is there and sees the most. If we think about that other person in that way, it creates, in some ways, a go-to place that we should feel safe in being able to express how we feel and what we see even when it’s hard to do so.

You would like to think that a spouse would be the first person to recognize when things are different, and I can speak to this now because I have learned a lot from what I pushed down. In addition to just the spouse, I also like to say the first responder because not everybody is married, and not everybody has someone that sleeps in their bed every night next to them.

You mentioned it earlier. As a whole, can’t we all take a little bit of ownership of the people that are the closest people in our lives and do them a service by making sure we are checking in on them? If something doesn’t seem right, ask them about it. When I reference it, I always say spouse and/or the first responder because I want people to know that you don’t have to be married to have someone look out for you.

I want to transition the conversation. I want to talk about CrossFit, fitness, and where you have come since. While Chad was here, you built a life together with fitness as a core foundation. You mentioned goal setting, and goal setting has been a big part of both of your lives. Chad had the goal of summiting the tallest peaks on each continent. Can you talk a bit about the importance of fitness, how it played a role in your life together, and the importance that it has taken in your life since losing him?

It has changed quite a bit. We were both super active kids, too. We played sports, so being active was always ingrained in me as well as him. I don’t have to state the obvious that the dopamine, the serotonin release, the endorphins, and everything you get from fitness is great but Chad and I were both fairly type-A goal-driven and pretty hardworking individuals.

When you look at fitness, it’s another way to test and challenge yourself. For him and I, that’s what we both gravitate to fitness for. It’s not necessarily to be competitive with others, and some people thrive off of that but for him and me individually, it was about how far we can push ourselves physically and emotionally and what we can accomplish.

That’s what drew him to the mountains, and for me, probably what drew me to CrossFit. I have shared this story before but Chad started CrossFit in 2004. He started putting me through workouts in our garage when we lived in North Carolina. When I went to San Diego, and this is crazy because we had been married for seven years at that point, I went to a CrossFit gym to do a free workout because I wanted to impress him. I wanted him to impress my husband, and I wanted to say, “I did that CrossFit workout.”

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Sara Wilkinson: ”If you doubt me then I am 100% gonna do it, just to prove to you that I can do it.”

I still think about that because when we moved to California, the kids and I flew out, and Chad drove a U-Haul truck with all of our stuff, drinking Red Bull and eating sunflower seeds for 48 hours. I remember sitting on the beach with our kids thinking, “This is going to change my life.” We had been out of the military. We moved to California for a short stint. He came back in, as we discussed, and I knew that something about being there was going to change my life. What I did was I found CrossFit. I did that first workout, and I was instantly sore. I remember the coach leaning out the door saying, “Are you going to come back?” That lights a fire in me because if you doubt me, then I am 100% going to do it to prove to you I can do it. I said, “I will be back,” so I joined a CrossFit gym. It has been a wild ride but it has been good.

Fast forward, we moved back to Virginia Beach, and Chad bought enough equipment for us. We were renting at the time. We rented a one-car garage, and we could put two people through a workout. He and I would work out. My girlfriend said, “I want to work out.” I had taken my level one not because I wanted to coach people but because I wanted the knowledge, and then slowly, it’s like Kevin Costner. “If you build it, they will come.” People started showing up at our garage, and I didn’t know what to do with them, so I opened a CrossFit gym.

In our last episode, we spoke with Jason Khalipa, the 2008 CrossFit Games champ.

I should have had you ask him about climbing the rope at the BUD/S compound because years ago, we did that, and he was very upset about it. I offered to climb it with him. That good guy should have told you that. He probably doesn’t remember this. He didn’t want to climb up over the big cargo net. I told him I would climb with him. He was scared.

You have to have a little bit of grit to keep going. Click To Tweet

I have to come after him on this because I’m not going to be let him off the hook. I would have brought that up with him.

He probably won’t remember.

He was deemed the fittest man in the world. That’s the designation for winning that. We did a workout at the end of our interview. He put me through six minutes. I was sore for a week. I couldn’t lift my arms above my head. He crushed me but motivated me too because one of the things that he and I spoke about was that I had lost a bit of self-discipline throughout the winter.

We moved. We had a bunch of things going on in life, and it was always the thing that got put on the back burner, and then being able to spend the day with him and then him showing me how far I have fallen was an immediate wake-up call to be like, “That’s it. You need to buckle down and get after it.” I’ve got to send him a note and tell him that I made a commitment to him in that episode that I was going to get it back, and I have been doing that.

Good for you. That’s great. I have slowly found my way back, too. I took quite a while off of exercise but I’m back at it and it feels good.

Can you talk about the community around it?

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Sara Wilkinson: “If you are a very good CrossFit trainer it means you are designed with the unique ability to allow others to find the best within themselves.”

Yeah. Chad and I together opened a gym here in 2008. I worked for a CrossFit seminar staff starting in 2010. It was never in my plan. It organically happened and was wonderful. We ended up selling the gym. I worked for CrossFit full-time. Regardless of working for HQ or belonging to a CrossFit gym, people like to joke about CrossFit and say it’s a cult but if you can see past the initial hoopla of people grunting and sweating, the way that I have seen people change their life for the better is astounding. These are people that not only do you go in to sweat, and maybe it’s just for six minutes but they are also people that I feel like when you suffer together, you naturally bond.

You can’t be the hero every day. You can’t win the workout every day, nor will you be the last one every day. Having that mix-up from time to time, whether you are the best or the worst, makes you bond with the people you suffer with, and then, in turn, it becomes this safe space. In addition to watching people change their health markers, whether they are losing weight, they improve their blood pressure or their body fat goes down and fill in that, I have watched people change their lives.

I use the example of one of my dearest friends, Pete. He joined our gym where I coach now years ago. He was a heavier set. He moved okay. He grew up playing football and worked at a sporting goods store. In the last few years, I have watched him drop a considerable amount of weight and pick up skills within CrossFit I would have never seen him do. He has a full-time salaried career. He met his wife, and I attended his wedding in February 2022.

To watch that transformation come out, and some of it could be due to time in life but I can’t neglect the fact that the community and the confidence that he also got by coming to the CrossFit gym had a play in that. Being a part of that is amazing, and I have said it before that if you are a very good CrossFit trainer, it means that you are designed with the unique ability to allow others to find the best within themselves, and that’s what we are trying to do.

Navy SEAL Dave Castro named a hero workout of the day after Chad, Chad 1000X. You said, “We want to use Chad’s life and legacy to raise awareness for suicide prevention. Our hope is to remove mental health stigmas and encourage people to reach out one step at a time no matter who you are.” How did Chad 1000X come about? Can you talk a bit about the founding of it, the driving factors, and what you are doing with it now?

Yeah, Dave is friends with me still. He attended Chad’s memorial as well as some larger legacies within the CrossFit HQ community. I spoke at Chad’s funeral and had no underlining intention but trying to share a little bit about who Chad was as a person. I shared that when he used a train for these mountains, he would do these 1,000 step-ups with a weighted pack, and that was just Chad’s way of knowing that he was going to be a solid performer for the team that goes up this mountain. When I said it at the funeral, some whispers went around that that should be a workout. Probably a month or two after Chad’s memorial, Dave had messaged me and said, “A group of us at HQ are going to do this. Are you good with that?” I said, “Yeah. It sounds great,” so they did the workout.

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Chad1000X was developed by Navy SEAL Dave Castro to honor Chad Wilkinson as a WOD.

We did it the following October around his anniversary. Chad died in October of 2018. Eventually, I was approached by GORUCK to make this workout a staple workout around Veterans Day. My first response was no, and they said, “Okay,” but I did take some time to think about it and realized that this was true. I have video footage of Chad. He would display the mountain on a projector on the back of our garage door, and that’s what he would look at while he was doing his step-ups.

I started to think about the poetic beauty behind 1,000 step-ups that it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a lot of volumes. It’s not technical. It doesn’t require a lot of skill. Almost anybody can do this workout in any form or fashion. It could be a lower box or a lower weight but you do have to have a little bit of grit to keep going and to pair that up with mental awareness. Especially as it pertains to our veterans and where your headspace might go, the workout is probably going to take you a little more than an hour. It’s good by design to spend that hour digging into where your mind goes and to recognize that you can keep stepping up.

You said what you write on the board isn’t as important as the time and the heart you put into those minutes in doing the workout. It will go a lot smoother if you do it with a friend. Our episode here is the second in our partnership with GORUCK, focused around the Sandlot JAX Fitness Festival in Jacksonville from April 22nd to 24th.

You are going to be there as a speaker, and we are going to be there in a remote studio that we are bringing in to have a whole host of conversations around the festival. We are highlighting leaders in the fitness industry who share our common commitment and our values to help people become the best version of themselves or even better versions of themselves.

I mentioned we spoke with Jason Khalipa. He was episode 54, and you are 55. We are going to interview Jason McCarthy for 56, which will be the next episode. Jason is the Founder of GORUCK. Anyone who’s in the area that’s reading needs to come out. They need to see you. They need to come and see us. They need to get a feel for what GORUCK is all about but I do want to ask you one question about Chad 1000X. Will you do it with me when we are there?

Of course. I can’t say no. I have a lot of friends here in the local area. We do it as a large-scale event in Virginia Beach around Veterans Day in November. I had many people say, “Are you going to come and do it? Will you do it with me? I will come and do it with you.” I thought long and hard about it. The first time I had to do it by myself, and I did it exactly how Chad did it, I closed the door of my garage. I put the mountain up, and I did 1,000 step-ups completely by myself. I don’t know why I had to do it that way. Maybe it was a cathartic experience but since then, I have done it with a large group, and I would be happy to do it with you.

Embrace every experience you can, so when you die, you can say that was good. Click To Tweet

I’m going to tell you that I’m doing it slick. There’s going to be no pack for this guy.

That’s okay.

I look forward to it. I can’t wait. I’ve got to get a hold of you to it. We will figure out exactly when we are going to do it. This conversation will be released a couple of weeks before but then we will do a bunch of follow-ups. You said that you have to live big. That’s something that you live by. What does that mean?

You will make me cry. When I was a little girl, I was a swimmer. I remember being scared about a swim meet. My mom said to me one time, “You don’t have to be a swimmer. You just have to play the part of a swimmer,” and I don’t know why as a little kid, that made sense to me. I could imagine for a moment that I was a swimmer, and then I could execute the task. For some people, that might sound like a piece of weird advice or impostor advice but that is a little bit of what’s got me through some of the hardest parts of my grieving. I know that I’m strong and resilient. I just have to believe in myself that I can be that person.

She always used to say to me, “No guts, no glory,” which I say a lot to my kids. I posted about this. Unfortunately, death is one of the greatest teachers in life. None of us are going to get out of this life without experiencing the death of some kind like someone we love or care for. If they haven’t already, and you haven’t experienced it, you will experience that loss at some point in your life. Unfortunately, what I found is it took a loss like that to realize what life is about, and life is about living.TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

For every person, you are going to have to define what that means for you and what adventure and experience mean for you but for me, living big means not holding back. I want the people in my life to know I love and care about them. I want my friends to know I support them. I want to embrace every experience I can so that when I die, I can say, “That was good.” That’s living big.

That’s such a good perspective, and perspective is something we gain from having to have those life experiences that teach that. I saw on Instagram that you are involved in the 2022 Boston Frogman Swim. I have to ask you about this for a couple of reasons. One is because it’s important and a great event to bring awareness to veteran suicide, and also, it’s my hometown. I have to ask you about that because it’s very near and dear to my heart. Can you talk about what you are going to be doing at the Boston Frogman Swim and how do we get involved?

The Boston Frogman is a swim that’s organized to benefit the Navy SEAL Foundation. It takes part in the Harbor. It’s a 5k open water swim. I have two friends that have swum in the last couple of years in honor of my husband, Chad. They live up in Boston as well. In 2021, she put my feet to the fire as you did with Chad 1000X. She said, “Come on. You are going to swim it,” so I swam and raised money. It was such a great experience. It was good for me mentally and physically to prepare and train for it. It gave me purpose. It fueled my passion. All of us need something like that in our lives to work for and accomplish.

This 2022, I knew I wanted to swim again. I reached out to a fellow swimmer I met in 2021 and said, “Would you want to swim on behalf of the Step Up Foundation?” He said, “Absolutely.” That has since grown, so we have a handful of swimmers now. The hope is to shed light on the lives and the legacy of the men that we have lost to suicide. When swimmers swim the Boston, they can swim in the names of the fallen, and because it’s for the Navy SEAL Foundation, they are SEALs.

A lot of our men that have passed had a hero’s death. They died in combat or they were taken by an enemy, a man on the other side of the gun. We didn’t get that. A suicide loss is a whole other boat that is so complex and falls into what we talked about being the military spouse. It’s hard to get someone to understand how complex your loss is with something like suicide.

I, in no way, want to upstage or take away anybody’s death who fought for the freedoms that we have here in the United States but I do want to recognize, value, and validate the lives of the men that we lost to the silent enemy because it’s just as powerful. That’s what we hope to do. We’ve got a team. We’ve got about two swimmers per guy. We will swim in honor of them. Through the next couple of weeks, we will share on social media a few of their stories. People can donate to their individual fundraising platforms, and then we will get the Step Up website up, and our donate button life.

TJP 55 l Gold Star Spouse Sara Wilkinson

Sara Wilkinson’s 3 Foundations For Success

As we close out, the Jedburghs in World War II had to do three things every day to win. They had these three core tasks. If they executed these three tasks with proficiency at the highest level, then they could focus their attention and energy on other challenges that came their way. They had to be able to shoot, move, and communicate. What are the three things that you do in your world every day to set the conditions for your own success?

I don’t think it is sexy as shooting but I write almost every day because I enjoy it. I think the written word is pretty powerful. I exercise or get some sort of physical activity. I try to be outside in the sunshine. I ride my skateboard. I know I have talked about it in the past but since losing Chad, riding my skateboard gives me the freest feeling I can find, and that’s what keeps me level-headed or centered.

Exercise and ride your skateboard. I love those. The nine characteristics of elite performances defined by Special Operations Forces, whether you are a Navy SEAL or Green Beret, it doesn’t matter. They are used to recruit, assess, and select talent. Drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, team ability, effective intelligence, and emotional strength are characteristics are exhibited by all elite performers. When we build great teams and great organizations, we can take these and apply them to anything in any industry.

I think about your story, about you, and our conversation here. What I do at the end of these conversations is I take one of these, and I say that my guest exhibits this character trait to me. For you, I have to think about a couple. It’s not just one that comes to my mind because I think about resiliency and adaptability as two of the primary ones.

We have talked about so many different character traits through this conversation here but your ability to be resilient, adaptable, and experience what you have to bounce back in the way that you have if you can truly bounce back 100%. If you can wake up every day and drive forward, find a sense of purpose, find a way to give back, find a way to honor Chad, his memory and legacy, give back to those around you, and continue to build the community that you served for so long is truly commendable. I thank you much for joining me here in this episode. I look forward to continuing the conversation with you to build a relationship with you and your efforts. I can’t wait for Sandlot JAX to meet you in person and together tackle Chad 1000X.

It’s going to be great. Thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it.

Thanks.

 

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