Fiber heart valve, steely determination drive this triathlete
Jonathan Silk doesn't like being told he will not be able to do something.
He takes it as an "Oh, yeah?" challenge to prove the naysayer wrong.
This is a guy who has been awarded a Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart. He's a soldier who three years ago was awarded the prestigious Douglas McArthur Award, presented to company-grade officers who demonstrate the ideals of duty, honor and country.
The 43-year-old U.S. Army major and native of Newton, Mass., who is based at Fort Polk, competed in the recent Indian Creek triathlon. That's just the most recent example of how he has proven wrong the doctors who told him several years ago he'd likely never be a triathlete again, nor even continue his military career.
On April 9, 2004, Silk led his platoon in a three-hour firefight to seize a bridge in Al Kut, Iraq. During the fight, a rocket grenade fired by the enemy from a nearby rooftop skipped up off the ground -- miraculously not detonating -- and hit Silk, wearing body armor at the time, in the chest.
He and nine of his soldiers were wounded in the battle and three gun trucks were damaged, but they nevertheless secured the bridge under adverse conditions.
"The next day, I noticed a big bruise on my chest, and I was a little sore, but I didn't think anything of it," Silk, who also caught some shrapnel in his side during the fight, said recently while sitting outside a downtown coffee house.
He finished his 11-month deployment in Iraq, and it wasn't until after he returned to Fort Polk and was having trouble keeping up on runs, that a cardiologist discovered he had a heart valve with 40-percent leakage. He required surgery in June of 2005 to replace the torn valve with a carbon fiber mitral valve.
"That is why I tick when I run," he said.
Yet, it's more than just an artificial heart valve that makes Silk tick.
He's not one to be denied a goal. A triathlete before the war and a competitive person by nature, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound athlete wanted to compete again in endurance sports and he wanted to resume his military career that he started out of high school, despite what doctors told him.
"Two weeks after I got out of the hospital I was working on a stationary bike," he said, noting his swift recovery was aided because his surgery had not been invasive and did not require his sternum to be cut.
Five months after his surgery, he competed in a triathlon in Natchitoches as a member of a relay team. Ten months after surgery, he completed a sprint triathlon and 11 months after surgery, he competed in a distance triathlon.
He pursued and achieved a college degree from LSU-Alexandria while continuing his military career. He commanded a tank company in Korea, where he served 18 months. He returned to Fort Polk in November of 2008 and competed in the New Orleans Half Ironman in April of '09, when he raised $4,500 for the Wounded Warrior Project. (He has since raised that total to $7,000.)
His race times have not been anything to rave about, so a lack of victories matters not, he said, even though it's a bit frustrating to know he'll never be able to run five miles in 38 1/2 minutes as he could before his heart valve injury.
"To me," he said, "I win every time I cross the finish line."
Silk went to Afghanistan in February of 2010 for six months as a company commander in charge of a unit that trained Afghan national police.
Silk, who has been married seven years to his second wife, Staci, resumed competing in races last September at the Cajun Man Triathlon in Lafayette, and in January he ran the half marathon of the Louisiana Marathon, carrying an American flag the whole way as part of a veterans group called Team Red, White and Blue.
He ran in three different events from February through May before the recent Indian Creek Triathlon.
"I've run 57 miles with the flag," said Silk, whose next Army assignment, starting in August, will be as an instructor at West Point, teaching leadership and ethics. "I do it to create awareness. I've travelled all over the world, and this is the greatest country in the world."
Silk admitted he suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome in 2005, when he saw a psychologist for six months.
In difficult times, especially, Silk said he has also been bolstered by his Christian faith.
"My favorite Bible verse," he said, "is Joshua 1:9 -- 'This is my command -- be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.'"
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