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After the fast lane, this Army Veteran slows his roll

Ren Stanley, via @Ren_stanley_boat_design on Instagram
Ren Stanley with his boat "Patience."

Army veteran Ren Stanley joined the Army when he was 22, hoping to find a sense of direction.

"I’m this broke college student, not really motivated," recalled Stanley. "I feel super guilty that I'm blowing all my parents’ money in college. I was in college for four years and I had 45 credit hours. I always felt like there was more to life than this sort of a stigmatized cookie cutter pathway. I showed up to the recruiter’s office and for the first time in my life I kinda took responsibility. One of the jobs that I took was 88 Mike, is what they call it, and that was a heavy wheeled motor vehicle operator, which is a fancy way of saying I was a truck driver."

He was stationed in Iraq. His squad transported water bottles, ammo, tanks, and materials for building new posts on the Syrian border.

"I thought my job was going to be a support job, where we're not going to have any kind of issues," said Stanley.

"We're not going to be in combat, but what I learned was that we were the f*king combat, said Stanley. "Every time we went outside of the wire, we're getting hit by IEDs, and our convoys were stopped. We ran all of our missions at night, because it's too hot during the day, trucks overheat and that it’s a little bit safer at night. The mission was to just get in these damn trucks and then transport this stuff."

"I saw a fuel truck get hit one time by an IED and ignite. The whole goddamn horizon just lit up with fire, it was unreal."

Stanley left the military in 2009. He had joined as an unmotivated student. Now, he says, he’s an adrenaline junkie.

"I feel like the military puts an animal inside of you," said Stanley. "And you don't ever domesticate that. And it's almost like a discomfort. So, I got a crotch rocket, I was going 160 miles an hour down the interstate, zooming in and out of traffic, and I realized I was gonna kill myself. So, I sold that bike and I got out of that. And I moved to Florida, I tried to literally redefine myself and discover myself."

And what he discovered was boat building. Which gave him income. And a source of peace.

"I've been fishing down here quite a bit," said Stanley. "And I wanted a better boat. And all the boats were super expensive. I was like, how is a 17-foot piece of fiberglass $60,000? I started studying this guy, Chris Moore John, he was an old school naval architect. And he was building these models. I was so in love with that idea. I was just enamored by the serenity of it, all the peacefulness of being on the water, the sort of renaissance man-feel to building something with your hands. I learned how to build boats on the first boat. Now I was like well I'm gonna improve it, that's when I built a second boat. That's what the military does. It propelled me to do things that I never would have done before. My biggest adversary in life has always been me. It’s always been fear."

He says what he saw in Iraq gave him an appreciation for life.

"Every day people are afraid," said Stanley. "'Well, I don’t know if I should take that job. I've always wanted to do this. And I've always wanted to do this.'" And the reality of it is, those people that always wanted to do that, or always wanted to do that, they're going to take the safe way out, live out the rest of their life, and die never doing the thing that they ever wanted to do. And after seeing how quickly life can be taken, you're here one minute, and you're gone the next. It's like, what do you want to do with this life? What's the meaning of life? I think everybody’s meaning of life is just to live fucking life. Live life, do it. You know, because what else is there?"

Claudia Kahl, A Reporter's Notebook
The side of veterans that we don’t get to see

Strong. Fearless. Unstoppable.

That’s how I would have described Army veteran Ren Stanley when I met him three years ago. He told me about his boat company, and I remember feeling like the man in front of me could do anything he wanted to. Little did I know how strong he really was. And how vulnerable.

It wasn’t until the veteran story assignment that I got to know him on a deeper level.

In 2005, he was a lost college student. He walked into the Army recruiter’s office not knowing those steps would later lead to him serving our country in Iraq.

“I did my basic training at Fort Knox and I did a CIT, which is called advanced individual training, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and after that I was all trained up,” Stanley said. “They go put you with a unit, you know, and now you're in the Army.”

Shortly after, he was sent to Germany and then deployed to Iraq. As he was recounting his time there, Stanley teared up, laughed, and yelled. The feeling of being in the same room as someone who was so broken yet so whole at the same time was powerful.

“I saw a fuel truck get hit one time, like a f*ck*ng fuel truck, you know, get hit by an IED and ignite, and the whole g*d*mn horizon just lit up with fire,” Stanley said. “It was unreal, I mean, but like, after a while the fear stops, for me, at least the fear stopped. It was all about excitement, and it was all about the adrenaline and all about that.”

The part of his story that is often not told is what he experienced with the media while in Iraq. Stanley recounted the time that he was on one of his daily transportation missions along the Syrian border. His truck was hit with an IED, per usual. He knew it wasn’t a big deal because he went through this mission every single day.

Once they arrived at a base, he saw his truck driving on a news broadcast on the television. Turning up the volume, he expected to hear a story about the true story, but he was disappointed.

“They had no right to, advertise or publicize something they just put a story to some sh*t they saw,” Stanley said. “Meanwhile they're probably reporting from a pretty safe place, so it's like they’re literally filming our trucks like outside the combat zone. We're inside the wire, have another base in Fallujah, and they're just like filming our trucks. When I saw that, I started looking at things through a different lens and I started seeing like the reality of what is told on the media.”

After leaving the Army, he tried to fill the void it left. He was close with his squad and felt lost without them.

“I've never felt close to anybody as I did there, and it was like the biggest sorrow of my life when I got out of the military and knew that you don't get that back,” Stanley said. “I've tried different things you know, it's great to be a part of groups and things like that, but there's nothing that replaces that kind of intimacy that you had with your squad.”

He relocated to Naples, Florida, and started over. He began his career as a charter fishing captain and wanted a better boat. Instead of buying a boat, he took his drive and love for a challenge and decided to build his own.

Now, he’s built three boats and sold two of them. His advice for people wanting to do something that they’re afraid of is to just do it. Do the thing you’re afraid of. Scare yourself. Push your boundaries. Live your life.

I learned many things from Ren in the hour that we talked, many more than I know how to articulate. He taught me that fear should never stop you. He taught me that it’s ok to cry and feel alone. He taught me that even when you feel down, you still have the privilege of waking up and being alive.

The three words I would use to describe him now are fearless, human, and alive.