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I was on top of my MMA career. After 9/11, I gave it all up to join the military

In an essay, Tim Kennedy shares what he wants people to know about his life of service.
/ Source: TODAY

Tim Kennedy was on top of his career as an MMA fighter — then the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened. Kennedy was inspired to leave his old life behind and join the military, and ultimately became a Green Beret. In honor of Memorial Day, Kennedy spoke to TODAY about what that transition taught him, what he wants civilians to understand about military life and what service means to him. Warning: The following story contains some graphic imagery related to war.

In some ways I've always known my life path.

I am a Sept. 1 baby, so when I was in kindergarten I was the littlest and the youngest in my class, and I think it caused me to have a bit of a chip on my shoulder.

We made books of what we wanted to be when we grew up and I drew a picture of me jumping out of an airplane wearing a black belt. I said I wanted to be a military karate guy. I still have that book today.

My frontal lobe wasn't even developed yet, but it was my version of what I am now: a professional fighter and United States Army Green Beret.

That same year, there was a little girl in my class, Laura, who had gotten a terrible haircut. It was like her mom took a bowl, put it on top of her head and cut her hair. There was this little boy who kept making fun of her and saying "Laura looks like a boy!" So, I followed him up onto the top of the playscape and I hit him in the face and I pushed him off and he broke his arm.

This was in the 1980s when school administrators could spank kids, so the principal was spanking me and I start laughing, telling him, "My mom spanks harder than this."

I was not invited to come back to that school.

'I was wasting every single opportunity'

From the moment kids are born, parents lose influence over their children a little bit each day and I think my parents realized this early on. I was a strong-willed child — a stubborn second-born. I needed discipline, so my dad enrolled me in martial arts, boxing and kickboxing, and it saved me.

While I was still in college, I competed in sanctioned mixed martial arts fights. I started MMA in the dark era, before it was even sanctioned in most states in America, and I trained out of the elite Jackson Wink fight camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I trained with main-event, hall-of-fame fighters and world champions.

I had just won a big tournament and was one of the top UFC middleweights in the world when 9/11 happened.

At the time, my life was wild: I'd gotten a couple of women pregnant, I was traveling down to Tijuana to fight bare-knuckle, going to New Orleans to fight in the basement of bars, and all the while being a useless student in college.

If you froze that moment, I had every opportunity and every privilege afforded to a smart, athletic, young, white guy — and I was wasting every single one of them. 

Tim Kennedy
Tim Kennedy was competing as a UFC middleweight when 9/11 happened.Courtesy Tim Kennedy

'I was only looking out for myself'

When 9/11 happened, one of the first photos I saw was the (now famous) photo of the "Falling Man," which is a man free-falling to his death. I saw photos of women jumping, one who, in a last act of modesty, held down her dress as she jumped to her death so she didn't burn alive.

Those images seared into my selfish brain and I had this "What the f--- is wrong with me?" moment. At that point, I had no purpose. I had no direction. I was only looking out for myself. Those images started what will be, until the day that I die, me on trying to find things more important than myself to pour into.

I went into a military recruiting office on Sept. 12, 2001. At that point, no one really knew what was going to happen. I wanted the fastest, most direct way to be in the fight and make the biggest difference, and after a year and a half of research, I decided to join the Green Berets.

'So few people know what we do'

My career was born at Fort Benning in Georgia, where I did infantry training, airborne training, Ranger school and sniper school, before going to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. There, I spent a year and a half going through this pipeline called the Q Course to ultimately become a Green Beret.

Tim Kennedy
Tim Kennedy began the road to his career as a Green Beret at Fort Benning in Georgia.Courtesy Tim Kennedy

I graduated from the Special Forces Q Course in 2005, immediately went to 7th Special Forces Group and deployed to Iraq in 2006 as part of of the Zarqawi Task Force entrusted with finding Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. I was part of the task force assigned to find and kill him, which we did.

There were a lot of phases of this 20-year war — good and bad — but throughout, it was absolutely a war of finding and killing.

So few people know what we do. The personal element is always missing in stories that are written that generalize and stereotype us, because there's a huge discrepancy between the military and civilian mindset.

In my experience, the men and women within Special Operations are gentle giants, and they ultimately want peace. You peel back one layer and they are truly some of the most beautiful Americans, and that’s the thing that is so hard for people to understand. They just can’t reconcile that somebody who could do such extreme violence while deployed is such a caring, loving human.

'Very few people have spent their entire lives in service'

Tim Kennedy
After the Afghanistan withdrawal became problematic, Tim Kennedy joined Nick Palmisciano and Sarah Verardo to found "Save Our Allies," which helps rescue and aid Americans and allies in war-torn environments.Courtesy Tim Kennedy

Freedom isn’t free. The cost is different than what most people understand. It takes hard work, blood, sweat and tears. Today, less than 1% of Americans are serving on active duty. They know things that can only be learned while in service. It’s something that can’t be explained, but it is forever part of the fabric of who we are.

Very few people have spent their entire lives in service, but I've seen firsthand that it can be the most fulfilling life.

What does service mean to me? The best way I can describe it is when my 3-year-old opens up a musical unicorn and she melts, or when my wife puts on a necklace that bears the birthstones of our children, including the one we lost to miscarriage, and smiles. That feeds my purpose and my reason for being on this planet. That's what service is. It is a greater thing to give than it is to receive, and in a world where there is a "quick fix" for everything — like calling an Uber or ordering food to be delivered in seconds — I sometimes feel that we've forgotten how important it is to do something more important than you.

As told to Kait Hanson