Wellness After Warfare: Lessons From Marine Raider Sean CaranoDec 18, 2023
In October 2022, Marine Raider Sean Carano retired from active duty after 20 years of service. He had deployed seven times to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. His story is a beautiful guide to how we all can reinvent ourselves and redefine fitness and wellness during life’s most jarring transitions.
Sean wasn’t exactly a natural athlete growing up. In sixth grade, says Sean, he was “a chubby little kid” who came in at a “blistering 13-and-a-half minutes” on the mile run during gym class. That slow mile motivated him to get in shape, so he took up wrestling. He made the varsity wrestling team as a high school freshman and later earned an ROTC scholarship to Ohio State University. In 2002, he entered the Officer Candidate School and later joined the Marine Raider battalion at Camp Pendleton in San Diego.
“When you're 22, you think you're bulletproof,” remembers Sean. For training, Sean and fellow Marine Raiders would run six days a week and regularly hike 8 to 10 miles on San Diego’s coastal foothills with a 50-pound rucksack. At age 30, his knees, back, and hips started to hurt. He discovered triathlons which, oddly enough, reduced wear and tear. Instead of running six days a week, Sean divided those six days between running, biking, and swimming.
In 2015, just days after relocating with his family to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Sean was a hit by a car while bicycling. He suffered an avulsion fracture of the T12 vertebrae, meaning that a chunk of bone ripped off his spine. He wore a back brace for about 90 days, during which time he started to focus on stress management, sleep, and nutrition – aspects of wellness he had overlooked.
Near the end of his active duty, Sean’s understanding of wellness deepened. He underwent Intrepid Spirit, a program focused on mental wellness. Many elite soldiers suffer “operator syndrome,” a condition in which prolonged combat service causes the parasympathetic nervous system to get stuck in fight-or-flight mode, leading to chronic pain and sleep deprivation. Intrepid taught Sean to use modalities like yoga, music, and cognitive behavioral therapy to unwind that stress. Afterwards, he completed a 12-week program with The Honor Foundation, a nonprofit that helps U.S. Special Operations Forces transition to civilian life.
“We typically see veterans struggle with community, purpose, and identity,” says Sean. “A lot of times that military rank or the unit they belong to subsumes their identity as an individual.” The Honor Foundation helped Sean recultivate his identity and find a new mission—as a Program Director for the organization. Sean has guided over a 100 soldiers from active duty to their next chapter in life.
We all face the challenge of resetting our expectations, sense of identity, and approach to wellness at transition points in life. We are more than whatever sports we do (or did), and wellness isn’t just how we train. Sean breaks it down into five relationships:
- Physical wellness is the relationship we have with our body.
- Mental wellness is our relationship with ourselves.
- Spiritual wellness is our relationship with a higher power.
- Emotional wellness is our relationship with other people.
- Financial wellness is the relationship we have with money.
When one of those goes off-kilter, the others suffer. To keep sending it, 100 Year Athletes have to manage those relationships in balance with outdoor adventure and training.
To dive into Sean’s full story, listen to the 100 Year Athlete podcast with OTM founder Ben Van Treese. Some highlights we didn’t include the blog post include:
- “There is no such thing as an “ex-Marine” (00:23)
- “Comfortable drift,” the opposite of living with intention (13:17)
- American Gladiators and the full story of Sean’s athletic awakening (22:00)
- The time 35-year-old Sean beat a 22-year-old on the Marine obstacle course (28:00)
- Balancing the responsibilities of parenthood with the duty of caring for oneself (43:13)
Sean, thank you for your service, and thank you for sharing your wisdom with the 100 Year Athlete community.