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After Escaping Death In Afghanistan, Bobsled Driver John Napier Reflects On Brotherhood Found In National Guard

By Karen Rosen | Nov. 11, 2020, 10 a.m. (ET)

Pilot John Napier (front) and his team members Charles Berkeley, Steven Langton and Christopher Fogt compete at the FIBT Bobsled & Skeleton World Cup on Dec. 13, 2009 in Winterberg, Germany.

 

For John Napier, Veterans Day “means my brothers, the ones that have passed, but also the ones that are still there.”

Like Alan Karl, who saved his life. Napier, now a Staff Sergeant with the Vermont Army National Guard, deployed to Afghanistan within months of driving a Team USA bobsled at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010.

“It means the Alan Karls of the world who will hug you and tell you they love you and you‘re going to be OK when you’re underneath a 40,000-pound vehicle and almost just got your head crushed off and you’re laughing about it,” said Napier, who still talks to Karl about once a month.

And Veterans Day means Alex Raymond, who also saved Napier’s life. He died unexpectedly after returning home in 2011.

And Brian Freeman, who was the brakeman for Napier when he competed in his first international race at age 15 in Park City, Utah. Freeman used to volunteer to ride with the promising young drivers despite their higher probability of crashing. He was a member of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), which Napier would eventually join.

“He was taken captive in Iraq serving his country (in 2007) and he was executed,” Napier said. “He left behind a family. That’s what Veterans Day stands for to me.”

And there are so many others, like Dan Silver and the late Luke Van Ranst. But while Napier, 33, reflects on his military service today, it is only one facet of his life.

When he’s with the National Guard, he is Sgt. John. Napier is also Bobsled John, as program manager of the Olympic sliding facility at Mount Van Hoevenberg near Lake Placid, New York. He manages everything from scheduling to ice preparation, runs the U.S. junior bobsled program – including some coaching - and works with veterans in the Adaptive Sports Foundation’s U.S. Para Bobsled program.

That’s a five-day-a-week job and it’s not unusual for Napier to arrive at 5 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m.

He’s also Dr. John, a Doctor of Chiropractic who in January began working at a practice Tuesdays and Fridays in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He also sees patients in his home in Lake Placid by request.

“I work seven days week,” Napier said. “It’s just a matter of where.”

Born to Drive
Bobsled had first dibs on his life. Napier’s father Bill was a driver and president of the national federation while his mother Betsy was a brakewoman. He started driving at age 8.
By 15, Napier had been identified as an emerging talent and moved to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Lake Placid.

He earned his high school diploma through homeschooling, which wasn’t easy since his mom, who supervised him, lived in the family home in Schenectady.

Napier dominated the America’s Cup circuit from 2004 to 2006, winning the overall title twice in four-man and once in two-man. He advanced to the Europa Cup and was fifth at the junior world championships in 2007.

“My father had passed away the year prior and I remember sitting there having one of those, ‘What am I going to do next in my life’ moments?” Napier said.

He called Tuffy Latour, a bobsledder who is now the U.S. skeleton coach. “I said, ‘Tell me about this National Guard thing,’” said Napier. “He said, ‘Come on over. We’ll get you signed up.  I showed up and three days later I was swearing in with hippy long hair, not knowing what the heck I was going to do in life.”

Napier went to basic training in the summer of 2007, came home, and joined the World Cup circuit for bobsledding.

Thanks to his high ranking, in 2009 Napier had an opportunity to become a WCAP soldier and he was put on active duty orders for the year prior to the Olympics.

In two-man bobsled, Napier was national champion in 2009, won a World Cup gold in Lake Placid and placed 10th at the 2010 Olympic Games. His sled crashed in the four-man event in Vancouver.

Prior to the Games, Napier appeared in uniform on the cover of Parade Magazine and had marketing gigs that highlighted his role in the National Guard.

“They were bringing me to the Pentagon and I’m sitting there saying, ‘I’m Sgt. Napier, nice to meet you and everybody’s going, ‘Oh, thank you for your service,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Thank you for what?’ Thank you for competing and making my dream come true? No… (I should) thank you! How can I call myself a soldier? I just couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t deploy with my unit that was overseas.”

A Bold Statement
He had also told a sportswriter that he wanted to join his unit in Afghanistan and that made national headlines. “And then you’ve got to follow through with it,” Napier said. “You’ve got to live up to the words, and that’s what I did.”

Chris Fogt, one of the Team USA athletes in his sled at the Winter Olympics, deployed to Iraq and Napier went to Afghanistan.

A sergeant, he served as a M-249 gunner with the 3-172 Infantry Division, Delta company, which was a heavy weapons platoon.

Napier became a gunner by chance after asking Silver, his platoon lieutenant, who would be carrying the SAW (squad automatic weapon). “He goes, ‘You are,” Napier said.

His remote outpost in Paktia province was called Rahmankheyl, and it had no running water or electricity other than generators.

Napier ran 180 missions, carrying a backpack weighing about 75 pounds and walking maybe six miles a day.

After a firefight on one mission, the lights went out on the mine roller in which Napier was the gunner.

“So I take my flashlight off my weapon and I’m standing up on tippy-toes out of the gun turret, holding the flashlight so the driver can see where to go,” Napier said.

The vehicle slipped off a bridge and he was thrown as it started to roll over into a riverbed. “Specialist Karl grabs me by my gear and drags me and he’s hugging me and we roll off this bridge, and I remember him saying to me in the cheekiest voice, ‘I got you buddy, don’t worry, I love you man.’ We rolled over and I looked at him and said, ‘I love you, too, brother.’”

But that wasn’t Napier’s closest call. On Oct. 10, 2010, he was part of an ambush and gunfight in an open field. He and Raymond took cover in an irrigation ditch that was about 10 inches deep.

“He got me out of that field on 10-10-10,” said Napier, choking up a bit at the memory.

I remember him saying to me in the cheekiest voice, ‘I got you buddy, don’t worry, I love you man.’

Returning to Civilian Life
After his sixth-month tour of duty, Napier was back in the United States. Within two weeks of participating in a major firefight, he had rejoined the U.S. national bobsled team and was competing in a world cup in Calgary, Canada.

“I still think Afghanistan and my time over there is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life for personal growth,” Napier said. “Are there events that I’d rather not remember? Sure, but I would never trade the bad, because the good memories and the brotherhood and the friends that I experienced over there completely changed my life. It’s why I’m a chiropractor. It’s why I left competing as an athlete in the sport of bobsled and completely redirected my life. There was a transition period, but I think I am better for it.”

Napier weighed 225-230 pounds when he arrived in Afghanistan and 179 when he got home, immediately going on “a pure eggnog and cheeseburger diet.”

However, Napier had difficulty with his reintegration period into civilian life. He said that while there is a lot of talk about post-traumatic stress, people don’t talk about post-traumatic growth, “soldiers who come home and they’re better, stronger people. They’re more loving to their families and they’re just better leaders and better people for their experience over there. And that really is the experience I had.”

He said that while everything is black/white or good/bad in combat and soldiers know how they are supposed to react to certain situations, in civilian life “there are so many shades of gray and that’s OK. Somebody having a different belief than me is completely fine over here, and that’s why I fought, why I went overseas so that we can all have our own opinions and beliefs.

“In my personal opinion, the dangers in the world come when you try and push your beliefs or your personal feelings and experiences onto another person.”

A Different Way of Life
Napier also realized that while athletes by nature are selfish – focusing on taking care of themselves, their diet, their training, etc., to the detriment of friends and relationships as they strive for gold medals - in Afghanistan, “I learned it’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the guy next to me and the guy next to him and the unit as a whole, because if I go out there and I just try to be the best me, then the mission’s going to fail and people are going to get killed. I have to worry about the guys around me and how to keep them safe.”

Like his friend Karl did for him. “We are completely opposite,” Napier said. “He lives down in New York City and is a union worker, into heavy rock and roll and grunge music, and I listen to jazz and blues. But that bond, it doesn’t matter who you are…That moment changed my life. The idea that this is a guy that’s completely different from me and it doesn’t matter, he saved my life.

“How could you not be changed by that?”

Napier stayed in the bobsled world for only another season and a half. “I went back to the athlete world where everybody’s worried about their own personal focus and goals, and for me, something had changed inside and I’m a better human.”

After placing sixth at the 2012 world championships, Napier called coach Brian Shimer, breaking down in tears as he said he was quitting the sport. “He said, ‘What do you mean? You’re supposed to go to five Olympics!’ I was like, ‘I’m done.’”

Napier sought to advance his military career by moving into special ops, but severely injured his hip while water skiing. He rehabbed with Dr. David Gabay, a chiropractor whom he had met through his work with the U.S. bobsled team.

One day when Napier was at Gabay’s office, the doctor invited him to meet another patient. Napier saw how they interacted and was reminded of Afghanistan, “about caring for other people around you.”

That’s when he set his sights on chiropractic school. Napier earned his undergraduate degree in biochemistry at Florida Southern College after returning to school at age 24. “It was an uphill climb,” he said. “I never took chemistry in high school. I took Bobsled 101.”

Napier said he didn’t even read a book until he was 24, and then became a voracious reader of his textbooks. While he was at New York Chiropractic College, Napier interned at a Veterans Affairs medical center. “It was a tremendous experience to work with veterans and learn from them,” he said.

Napier joined Gabay’s practice and hopes to eventually work there full-time. Sometimes when he’s dealing with an athlete and senses they don’t think he can relate to what they’re going through, Napier will build a rapport by saying, “Hey, I was on the U.S. Olympic team…I’ve experienced this before.”

With his haircut, it’s easier to guess Napier has a background in the military. Earlier this year, he was part of a contingent that built temporary hospitals due to the pandemic.

“There’s a chance I might deploy again this coming year with the Vermont National Guard,” said Napier, who may change units in hopes of eventually attaining the rank of Sergeant Major. “It’s been 10 years and it’s about time. It means I’m willing to sacrifice for this nation and for anything that this nation needs.

“If the military calls me tomorrow and says, ‘John, we’re sending you here’ - cool, my bags are always packed for that.”

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John Napier