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Erik Bartell had to grow up quickly.
"Ever since I was little, I was the one that had to worry about bills, appointments, school, if we were getting evicted again, or if I was eating cheese sandwiches that day. I understood the weight of the world well before I understood how the world worked," he told Fox News. "Because of this, I grew a heavy chip on my shoulder at a young age. I channeled all my energy into being successful in everything I did, in changing my legacy from that of my families. No one in my family ever went to college. None of them even finished high school. I would change that. No one in my family ever became anything, ever stood for anything, I would rather die on my feet than stand on my knees."
On his very popular Instagram, which has more than 16,600 followers, his tagline describes exactly who he is: "Husband | Father | Combat Veteran… ⚔️ Iron Sharpens Iron.”
Now based in Nashville, Bartell, 29, has been working with Bravo Sierra, making performance-engineered products for members of the military and civilians, and it's stepping up amid the coronavirus pandemic.
His childhood before joining the military helped make him the man he is today.
"Chicago is a proud city. We're proud to be tough, both in the kind of work we do and the kind of people we breed. It was the murder capital of the world for a good part of my life, and growing up I knew it. In most places you know if you get in a fight, you likely will walk away with a black eye and a lesson. Growing up I knew if I got into a fight, I could die. I held my first gun when I was nine. It was a murder weapon that got thrown in the bushes near my apartment complex," he told Fox News.
"I lost my first friend when I was younger than that. He was an older kid in the gang I hung out around that got a girl pregnant and hung himself by his belt in his basement. He was always good to me, and to this day, I don’t understand why that was the decision he made. He was maybe 15 years old at the time. Throughout my childhood, there were numerous incidents like this that have forced me to be confronted by the world early while also reinforcing the perspective in my heart that I needed to escape this lifestyle, to escape this place."
He continued, "As I grew older and became more and more involved in sports, I slowly gained confidence. Football and basketball allowed me to escape the reality of poverty, the stress of life and the people around me. On the field and on the court, life made sense, you either scored or you didn't, and winning was attainable. Up until high school, I never planned on living a long life because I had no concept of what that looked like. Sports gave me the confidence to be better and a medium to prove that hard work equals success, and mentors that cared about getting me there. But, self-confidence isn't as much of a characteristic as it is a fading state of being. Something that isn’t attained but maintained."
Athleticism was his golden ticket.
"Poor kids don't play basketball because they want to be Mike, they play it to escape from reality for 11 points at a time. I worked harder than everyone on the team. I would rather die on the field than leave an ounce of sweat unshed. I wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth something. I had to. I had to prove it to myself," he said. "I came into high school athletics as a poor kid with no dad who never played football or basketball outside of in the street, and left captain of the team, a college prospect, scholarship opportunities for multiple schools."
School wasn't for him, though, until he got involved with the track toward the Army.
The Reserve Officers' Training Corps [ROTC] "is where I found my tribe," he said about the small group of people in college who understood his values. "They got me. They wanted to work harder than anyone I had ever met, to be physically and mentally tough. Finally, I had found iron that would sharpen my own."
When he found his calling, it was time to shine.
"I went to basic training that summer. I was a leader the whole way through, Soldier of the Cycle for my class, and received word halfway through that ROTC wanted to sign me to an officer contract. This would mean that after graduating basic training I would report back to ROTC and move on in the pipeline to becoming an Army officer. I signed the contract that night. Returning to college was a blur. I had just returned from basic training, preparing for war, shooting rifles and throwing hand grenades. This was 2010, when the [Afghanistan] surge was kicking into high gear and everyone was deploying. All of my drill sergeants had seen combat and told us the stories of it. And then. after when most of the soldiers I led in basic went off to war, I went back to class. I knew from that point on that I wanted to become an army officer and lead men in combat. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to be an Army ranger."
But then, his body gave out. It dashed his biggest dream.
"I graduated college in 2013 and shipped off to training at Fort Benning, Georgia two weeks after I threw my tassel in the air. I was in the top 75 ranked cadets in the nation out of thousands. I got my first pick branch and duty station. I chose infantry and Fort Campbell, home of the legendary 101st Airborne Division. On the last mission of the Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course, a 17-week program that prepares you for Ranger School and the physical and mental demands of being an infantry officer, I blew my knee. It was a 15-mile ruck march into a hasty attack and halfway through the ruck, I felt it pop. We carried anywhere from 80 pounds to 120 pounds on these mission on average. We were malnourished, got little to no sleep for weeks on end and had to perform at high levels for hours on end."
"He continued, My body had finally broken. I finished the mission out of pure stubbornness and went to the medic immediately after. I had torn my meniscus and would need physical therapy, possibly surgery. All of my friends were going to Ranger School and I couldn’t run without breaking down in tears from the pain."
As the pandemic has shut down so much of the world these days, Bartell, now a civilian, is nowadays using the digital realm to give back.
"I have created an online community page on Instagram of over 1,000 people where I am sharing workouts, as well as tips and tricks I picked up while in the military on how to strength train without equipment. I use everything from trash bags to T-shirts to replace common fitness equipment that people use in gyms but don't have at home."
He also is hosting a weekly online series, "bringing on individuals who have experience in uncertainty."
He added, "Our first interview was with Ben Bunn, a 17-year Special Forces veteran who likened what the world is going through now to his last deployment. He paralleled the uncertainty and fear felt when going outside the wire in Afghanistan and possibly getting blown up to the uncertainty and fear felt now when leaving the house. The second interviewee was a friend who has been detained for the last 24 days in a hospital in Singapore with COVID and although he feels completely healthy, continues to test positive for the virus. His outlook remains hopeful and he is looking forward to being reunited with his family. Each interview is meant to bring a different human touchpoint that will inspire people to remain calm, positive and hopeful for the future."