Joshua Mantz (@joshmantz) is a retired Major who commanded in the Army for a decade. Joshua has also recently authored the book to be released in August: “The Beauty of a Darker Soul: Overcoming Trauma Through the Power of Human Connection.” In 2007 he was very seriously wounded by a sniper on the outskirts of Sadr City, and he actually died for 15 minutes.
“He talks with Commander Divine about what the experience of dying was like, and the mental challenges of emotional trauma.”
Find out how you can help with his mission and how he has dealt with the kind of very serious trauma that he has faced.
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Discussing Trauma & The Military with Joshua Mantz
Hi, this is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Welcome back. So glad you could join me today. I am super-stoked to do today’s interview with Major Joshua Mantz. Major Retired Joshua Mantz.
So please stay on the line for the whole thing. This is going to be an incredible show.
All right. On to the more important things. So my guest today is–as I mentioned–retired Major, Army Major Joshua Mantz. Joshua is a graduate of West Point and an Infantry officer in the Army for almost a decade. Josh has a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor. He’s the author of a book dedicated to emotional trauma and how to overcome it. So we’re going to talk about that.
And there’s some other interesting things about Josh that I’m not going to get into yet. We’ll let the story unfold. But Josh, thanks so much for your time today. Super-appreciate your service. And also the service that you’re doing now to help people heal emotionally.
Joshua Mantz: Hey Mark, it’s a pleasure to be here. And likewise to that. Thanks for having me on the show. And thanks to you and you’re entire team for everything you’re continuing to do today. Pleasure to be here.
Mark: Hooyah. Well, you know, we talked at length. And I just was deeply inspired by our conversation earlier, and I think we can kind of go in the same direction. But before we dive into the kind of meat and potatoes of your work around emotional trauma and what you call understanding your darker soul, let’s talk about who you were. Who you were before Iraq. Because clearly as the story unfolds, people will appreciate how that changed you so much.
But what was your early childhood like? Where did you grow up? What were some of the early influences in your life? How did you begin to develop your unbeatable Character?
Josh: Sure. You know, there’s 2 major influences in my life. During high school and growing up. I grew up in Pennsylvania. Smaller town and kind of grew up like the all-American boy. Like, always outside, always out hiking every weekend and doing a bunch of stuff like that. Playing sports.
But I also grew up in a family of police. So my step-father still does work with the Attorney General’s office in Pennsylvania. He had a 25 year police career.
But more importantly, when I got in high school, I met the 2nd biggest influence in my life and decided to join a junior ROTC program. And it just so happened that the guy leading that program had just retired from the Special Forces. He was a Special Forces Sergeant-Major in 7th group…
Josh: Yeah. Down in South American running counter-drug operations at the height of the drug war. And then this guy just retires and goes to this random town in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, and takes over this program.
So he’d be landing Chinook helicopters in our football field and taking our cadets off to these FTXs. So we would have college ROTCs hopping onto our training. And, you know, he really took me under his wing. He knew I was kind of destined for the military path. And both he and my step-father are two of the people that really started to shape me. In a couple of ways.
First, my step-father is a pretty big and intimidating guy. He’s about 6’5″, 250. Mostly muscle. Has a reputation for having never lost a fight during a 25 year police career. So I grew up really thinking that he was just this ultimate bad-ass kind of guy. And it wasn’t until I got a little older… Later in high school when I started to do ride alongs with him. And that’s when I realized the depth to his character.
He was ultra-empathetic, when he was on the job. He really made an effort to understand the true challenges that people were facing and resolve it without any kind of violence or anything like that. And it really… the level of respect that he demonstrated for people of every walk of life was just eye-opening to me. And really influenced me at a very young age.
Then similarly the Special Forces Sergeant-Major is the first to really drive home the importance of understanding culture, understanding language, understanding the capabilities of foreign forces and how capable they actually are. Regardless of their technological capability.
So I really kind of came out of high school and entered the Academy with this deep… already having this deep perspective of foreign cultures and kind of the inherent capabilities to people.
Mark: That’s cool. So you had these two mentors. From your step-dad, you learned a lot about empathy and respect. And the Sergeant-Major about respecting culture and capabilities of others. At what point did you decide… a path toward the Academy? I mean, West Point is pre-eminent leadership academy. Was it always something you kind of wanted to do? Or did these guys inspire you to kind of head in that direction?
Josh: I’d say my… since I was about 12 years old, is when I remember first wanting to go to the Academy. And my step-father’s the one who planted that seed.
“I wanted to be an athlete; I wanted to go into the military. I wanted to be a good student. And he basically said, “Well, at the Academy you can do all 3.”
And basically from that point on I was laser-focused from the day I set foot in high school on getting into the Academy.
Mark: So you wanted to go be a warrior/athlete. West Point was a great place to do it. What were some of the real insights or lessons in leadership that you learned at the Academy? I think listeners would be interested in that. We’ve all heard about West Point. We know it’s unrivaled in its ability to cultivate character. So what was that like?
Josh: You know, that’s such a… West Point is such an experience. It’s literally like you step on that train and 4 years later you’re hopping off of it. And you don’t really know what happened until much later. And there’s…
Mark: It’s gotta be non-stop. Like, I mean, you’re from dusk to dawn doing stuff. (laughing) Non-stop physical, non-stop athletics, non-stop academics. All the discipline and tightening up that goes on.
Josh: It absolutely is. There’s a kind of standing joke amongst graduates that West Point is great place to be from, but not a great place to be. Right? And you don’t really realize the value of what it does for you afterwards.
The thing that shocked me the most about the Academy, is there’s relatively minimal focus on military, tactical training, right? Which is… I walked into the Academy gung-ho, thinking it was going to be predominantly military-based. And I wasn’t necessarily prepared for the Princeton, Harvard level academics that West Point really puts primary emphasis on.
And what’s interesting about their approach is they use what’s called the Thayer method. Which was created by the person considered to be the founder of West Point, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer. And basically at the Academy you have to study the material in advance, on your own. And then you are tested on it the moment that you walk through the classroom door. And it’s not until after the test that the teacher actually gives you detailed instruction on the material.
So it’s kind of reversal of the normal academic process. But it’s so valuable. After 4 years of doing that, you know… bottom line, it teaches you to pick up a manual and learn something on your own. And process really complex information.
Mark: And also to do your research before you step foot into the meeting, or make some assumptions…
Josh: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s kind of whirlwind… I mean, it is. It’s a whirlwind when you’re there. There’s a lot of things that you just kind of despise about it. But it really starts to set in a couple years later. And… Cause you just don’t understand why there’s such a huge emphasis on academics. And it was really hard.
Mark: To be fair, in your history class, you were studying military battles and military leadership. I mean, it wasn’t that there was no military education.
Josh: Absolutely. Yes. Very detailed account of military history which is more grounded on the purely conventional side of warfare. Which is very different from what we were about to go face, which is this counter-insurgency environment.
Mark: Right. Fair enough.
Josh: But it’s… it was a really interesting time at the Academy. I was class of 2005 and basically 9/11 happened my freshman year. So 2, 3 months after being in the Academy, 9/11 happened. And it…
Mark: Wow. What did that do to the esprit de corps of the class? Must have been incredible.
Josh: It absolutely changed. It was like a new level of seriousness set in across the entire corps. Cause we knew we were going to war. And not just going to war, but being charged with the responsibility of leading people in that environment. And everything became very real.
I… to the point where it was very difficult to not leave the Academy. You know, I wanted nothing more than to drop out of the Academy, enlist and go Downrange. Right?
And the guilt that kind of set in… To me and I know a lot of my classmates really struggled with the guilt of not being part of the main effort. You know, you’re really young. You’re 20 years old at the time, and it’s really hard to kind of contain that. And especially… several of my friends got killed while I was there. At the Academy. Their names would pop up over an announcement. My best friend from high school got killed when I was literally writing a history report, my senior year.
“And it took everything to not drop-out and enlist. But I’m glad that I didn’t. I trusted… put blind trust into my mentors. Which some of those were at the Academy. Some were… my step-father and the Sergeant-Major.”
But it wasn’t an accomplishment. That’s the most interesting thing. You’d think graduating from a place like that would be… you’d be elated at the end. And I wasn’t, at all. It was just like completing the next step to get Downrange.
Mark: Right. Completing a very long boot camp. It’s like, “Okay. Got that done.”
Josh: Right. “Let’s go,” you know?
Mark: Couple things. I know exactly what you’re talking about, about the feeling of not being in the primary thrust, you know? I experienced that same thing, cause I held off for a couple of years before going to Iraq in ’04. For good reasons, but for those 3 years, while all my buddies went, it was kind of torture to watch them go Downrange. I know what you felt there.
The other thing that I think is really interesting… I’ve noticed this even in the SEAL teams that a lot of people join the military without thinking about the possibility that they will not survive. And war, the breakout of war, and watching peers and friends pass on the battlefield, on the line-of-duty, is a real wake-up call.
So I imagine, after 9/11, your whole class all of a sudden… the reality of what it meant to be a warrior and to serve the country as a military officer just hit home hard. A lot of self-reflection going on.
Josh: It absolutely did. And what was interesting was we had a pretty good percentage of our class who was prior-enlisted. And some of them coming from the Ranger regiment or other Special Ops units or infantry units… some of the folks really naturally emerged as kind of natural leaders within our class. A lot of us would look to them to kind of get a perspective on the real deal. Prepare in whatever way we could. It was… whether that be going out in smaller groups and studying tactics and practicing tactically room-clearing. Or doing whatever it was, we kinda would pull from every ounce of spare-time we had, which wasn’t much.
But it wasn’t so much the time. You talk about the monkey-brain, you talk about just kind of… and back then I had no clue what that was. I had no clue how to kind of regulate my physiology and my thinking process. It’s just… you’re in a constant state of this almost like subtle anxiety. It’s forward looking and ready to go.
Mark: It’s a pressure for performance at all levels. Physically, mentally, emotionally. The warrior/athlete/scholar has to step up his game. I totally get that. But the nice part about it is when you get done, you’ve got this experience of a very multi-dimensional approach to leading and to relating to other human beings. Which is distinctly different than pretty much anyone else. Any other educational setting, right?
And your ability to deal with pressure coming at from all sides is pretty solid. And I’m sure that served you very well as an infantry leader.
So what happened after West Point? You went to… there’s an infantry school for officers. What was that like? And where did you serve? What unit and whatnot?
Josh: It was… coming out of the Academy, I majored in Arabic. I should probably mention that cause it’s kind of important. I did that specifically because of 9/11. Specifically because
“I just instinctively knew how important language would be.”
And leaving there I spent about a year at Fort Benning, Georgia going through the infantry officer basic course. Which is usually like a week-on, week-off. You’re in the field for full week. And then you’re back out resetting for the next week. And it’s like that for almost a full year.
And that’s where kind of the hardcore infantry tactics come into play. But like you said, the Academy and the approach that they took, even though we didn’t understand it at the time, those values… those approaches really started to just naturally emerge in this highly complex, learn on the fly, counter-insurgency environment in Baghdad.
And I could not be more thankful for the way that we were groomed at the Academy because of that. It was really… there was nothing standard about that, as you well know. It was very, very… Every area was different, every person was different. It’s considered the graduate level of warfare for a reason.
Bu the Academy definitely somehow prepared us for it in ways that I did not understand at the time, but do now. And I guess maybe the most powerful thing to takeaway is
“they really strive to teach young officers how to think, not what to think.”
And if you can come away with that, that’s a pretty significant learning point.
Mark: Yeah, that’s incredible. And incredibly powerful when you think about where the world is going and how it’s requiring that exact style of education. How to think and how to adapt. How to relate, and create as opposed to stuffing one’s head with factual knowledge or knowledge that’s easily achieved by a quick Google search.
Josh: Right. Right. Exactly.
Mark: So you went… After infantry school, you were assigned to an infantry division. Which one was that? And where did you deploy?
Josh: I got assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division in Fort Hood, Texas. And within 3 months, we were on our way to Baghdad. Basically right at the beginning of the surge. In 2006.
Mark: Mm-hmm. So did you get a horse, when you went there? Or how did that work?
Josh: (laughing) They didn’t give me a horse. I kinda wanted one, but no… it was all mounted. But most of the ops we did were dismounted. Cause we were operating obviously in an urban environment. Pretty close to Sadr City and it was…
Mark: But the Cavalry division had armored vehicles, right?
Josh: Yes, yes.
Mark: But they were different guys who drove those? Or could you have been assigned to like an armored unit?
Josh: So in the Cavalry, they’re basically all armored units. It’s a full up-armored unit. But some of the vehicles are specifically designed to transport infantry troops, and efficiently drop them into sector. And that’s basically what we were utilizing at the time.
Mark: And how many guys… or I should say, troops. Men and women, did you have in your charge?
Josh: Yeah, usually rough size of a platoon element is around 40 people. Within an infantry unit at least, that’s kind of a rough number to go off of.
Mark: Mm-hmm. So you went to Sadr City. I remember Sadr. He was really stirring up a lot of insurgent activity in and around Baghdad. So what was your operations like, over there?
Josh: You know, we were really on the border of Sadr City. Which, it was… one word describes the first couple weeks of that deployment, and that’s “violent.” We… both the unit that we were replacing and our unit lost people within the first 2, 3 weeks…
Mark: Wow. Was that to sniper fire? Or to just IEDs, or…?
Josh: It was almost all IEDs. Interesting.
“Our biggest threat by far. By far. Were roadside bombs. And, you know, we got hit with those every day. “
And just incredibly, incredibly powerful devices and by far our biggest threat.
And they’re almost impossible to spot. It’s like, for those who haven’t been in an environment like that–imagine yourself going to New York City for the first time, as a tourist. And how long would it take you to start to learn your way around that city before you start making wrong turns, and have no idea where you’re going. Before you’re relatively fluent in the city. It would take a while.
And now imagine doing that with roadside bombs going off and sniper threats and everything else. So it’s certainly a bit chaotic at first as you’re trying to take in the scope of everything that’s happening. So you can start to apply those counter-insurgency techniques and relationship building activities that’ll set you up for success long-term.
Mark: Mm-hmm. What was your specific mission?
Josh: (laughing) You know, that is something that molded and shifted almost every day. Cause the unique part about that time was we had a rough idea of what we were walking into. But the military as a whole was really just starting to convert into full-blown counter-insurgency operations. And we did some basic prep work for that before we deployed, as best we could.
But it was a lot of on-the-job training. And it was a relatively new environment. A lot of the senior leaders didn’t necessarily… You know, just the military in general didn’t necessarily understand the fundamental principles of relationship building and humility. And understanding the concerns. Because this… you certainly have to have the capacity to get violent at the snap of finger and take out a threat.
But that’s really the least of it, you know?
Mark: Right. And still have the discernment to recognize legitimate threats versus non-threats. And the awareness to be able to take your eyes off yourself and put them on your wounded teammates. I agree with you. There’s just an enormous complexity to those environments.
Mark: Now, I’ve kind of led chronologically up to a decisive moment in your life. And I wanted the listeners to hear kind of like who you are. Who you were. The education, the leadership potential. Just the solid dude that you are as a leader. And now, let’s kind of get into the soft underbelly of life, and what happened in April of 2007. Can you describe the incident in some detail?
Josh: Sure. Just a little background. One of the things that I was charged with was rebuilding the Iraqi police force that was local to that area. You know, the organization was highly infiltrated by insurgents. Minimal resources. They were basically completely ineffective.
And it was critical that we did what we could to repair that, and that they started to become the “face” of the operations that we were running.
“So understanding the language and being culturally competent is more powerful than any weapon I could have carried.”
And many nights of conversation with this Iraqi police chief in Arabic, I finally convinced him to go with me to do a humanitarian mission at the border of Sadr City.
And when I pointed to him on the map where I wanted to go, his face turned white. And he basically said, “That’s outside of our sector. We can’t go there. It’s very dangerous. Very dangerous. We’re not going to go.”
And I explained the importance of it to him. Cause we were going up there to drop off school supplies, clothes, stuff like that. Very important that this was a joint mission. That the Iraqis were the face of it.
And I think through building trust with him, he did something that I never thought he would do. And he agreed to go with. With that I committed to him that we would do everything possible to guarantee the safety of his men, as well. We went up, we did that drop. It went off without a hitch. It was great.
But suddenly got diverted to another part of the sector. One of our units was apparently engaged by an RPG. And we had to go investigate. And while we were over there, one of my vehicles noticed a suspicious vehicle driving around that appeared to be video-taping us. And so we stopped that vehicle. Myself and my senior non-commissioned officer got out of the car.
I was questioning him in Arabic. Older gentleman. He didn’t seem like the insurgent type, but sure enough, I look in the backseat and there’s probably a 5 or 6000 dollar video camera in the backseat. And I’m trying to get a playback function on that, and I’m talking to him in Arabic, to basically confirm or deny if he’s an insurgent.
“And that’s when we were engaged by an enemy sniper. “
Not just a regular weapon. It was one of the more… it was one of the highest-caliber weapons we’ve ever seen used on dismounted troops. The bullet first ripped through the aorta of my senior non-commissioned officer and killed him almost instantly. And then ricocheted into my thigh. And severed my femoral artery.
And if you… I mean, there’s a couple different ways that I could kind of walk you through this. But there’s a couple different… it was such a bizarre experience because to fast forward for a second, I have perfect recollection of this experience. Vivid detail, and I went through a couple different phases. Physiological phases that are pretty bizarre. But the first, initially, was… and I know you’re familiar with Grossman’s work. Dave Grossman, “On Killing” and “On Combat.” You know, very fortunate that that book was on the required reading list at West Point while I was there. Cause I’ll tell you the initial physiological response from that gunshot wound was almost verbatim what he discusses. It was auditory distortion. In that I could only hear the shot of the sniper rifle and nothing else. It was slow-motion time. It was fast-motion time. It was really bizarre physiological things going on. And I drug Marlin out of the way. Senior NCOs name was Marlin Harper. Staff Sergeant. I drug him out of the way. I didn’t know I was shot at first. It just felt like something was wrong. I didn’t know what. I pulled off his gear and a few seconds later the medic arrived.
I kind of stopped to point out that this medic was only 19 years old. And here’s the point where he realized he had 2 catastrophic injuries to deal with at the same time. One severed aorta, one severed femoral. And this 19 year old kid had to make a triage decision. And he made a really… he executed the decision perfectly. He made the decision to ride with me because I had a slightly better chance of survival than did Marlin. It’s still that 19 year old kid that’s going to have to live with the moral weight of that for the rest of his life, which can be difficult. So that’s kind of the first phase, right?
Mark: But you recognized right away that you had a life-threatening injury?
Josh: I’m sorry, you said, he recognized or I did?
Mark: Yeah, did he or you? Sounded like you weren’t quite sure. You just knew something was wrong.
Josh: Yeah, it was interesting, Mark. I was actually calling up on the radio. As I was dragging Marlin with one hand, I was calling on the radio with the other. “We have two casualties. We have two casualties.” I was yelling.
And I didn’t specify that I was the second one. So, when I was working on Marlin, I was down on a knee. And it was the knee of the leg that had my femoral artery severed. So the blood was spurting off to the left. And the medic came in from the right. So he couldn’t see my injury, and when this kid gets there, he grabs me and he goes, “Who’s the 2nd casualty sir?” And I said, “I am.” And at that point I started to lose it. I fell to my left side and really almost went into this state of sub consciousness almost for a few seconds.
And this is important, all right? Cause I’ve…
Mark: Distinguish or differentiate that from unconsciousness.
Josh: “Yup. I could hear echoes of voices around me. I could hear the voices of my men. But more so, I felt very peaceful at that point. There was no pain.”
There was no… I was just kind of relaxing into a deeper, deeper sleep. Deeper, deeper meditative state is really what it felt like. And I felt safe.
And the way I describe the feeling is you know, when you’re like a kid and you’re sick and you don’t want to go to school. And mom comes in or your parents come in and they give you a cup of tea or whatever and they say, “Yeah, it’s okay. Stay home today.” And you get all excited and you cover back up, and everything’s okay.
It was almost like that kind of feeling, right? Where everything just feels like quiet and safe, and…
Mark: Did you have any thoughts–like cognitive thoughts, like “I’m dying, and this is what it’s like.” Or was it just this presence or this awareness.
Josh: Initially, no. That does come later. But what was so powerful about this and what snapped me out of it, is I heard one of my men just scream. It was something like, “Come on, sir.” And screamed at the top of his lungs trying to get me to stay conscious, stay awake. And I could–and I remember this vividly–I could hear the pain in his voice. The emotional pain. And it registered for me even in that state that I can’t just sit here and relax. I am still the leader of this unit. And I can’t give up on these guys because look at what they’re going through to try to pull me through this. I’ve gotta do my part too.
So here in this completely degraded, basically worthless state,
“that spark from the people that you’re supporting, that you’re leading, that you’re with was enough to snap me back to full consciousness.”
That in conjunction… was probably right at the same time. Medically speaking, they pulled me into the back of this vehicle and as they pulled me in, they sat me up. And it could have pushed the little remaining blood I had into the chest cavity. Which also allowed me to regain consciousness.
Powerful, powerful moment.
Mark: Did you have a tourniquet on yet at that point?
Josh: Yup. The medic was just all over it. He cinched up a tourniquet immediately, and then he re-tightened that tourniquet or I believe put a second one on, actually. When I was in the back of the vehicle with him. And the evacuation process started.
And I’ll tell you, Mark, this is where it kind of converts from that bizarre physiological experience to… the ride to that Aid Station, after… and again, I was in a state of full consciousness again at this point. But was so weak that I couldn’t even unbuckle the plastic strap on my Kevlar helmet. I felt like I gave blood 10 times over. And was just on the cusp of passing out.
“And I really just made it my only objective to stay conscious until I got to the Aid Station. “
Which fortunately was only about 10 or 15 minutes away. If I was in Afghanistan when this happened, I’d probably be dead.
But there’s so many elements to this. One of the things is I never had like a… almost no physical pain whatsoever during this whole experience. It was bizarre in the sense that my body was basically in shock. But my mind was crystal clear. And it was… I can’t say that I can really explain why it was like that. But it was just an incredible experience. But the type of pain that I did experience was more of an anaerobic pain. Like you’re doing the Fire breathing Crossfit workout, and just cannot stop. And that’s what it felt like. Kind of in phase 2.
Mark: Right. Interesting. Your body just screaming for oxygen and for blood.
Josh: Yeah, cause when you’re dying of blood loss, you’re essentially suffocating. Cause…
Mark: Right. On a cellular level.
Josh: Right on. But, little bit of dark humor embedded in a couple of elements of it throughout this. You know, my medic… here I was in the back of this vehicle and just like fighting to stay conscious and breathing really shallow at that point, but suddenly the… I had a big wad of Copenhagen in when I got shot. And I didn’t think to spit it out. I didn’t even remember it was in there. But it obviously posed a choking hazard.
And suddenly I feel this finger come into my mouth, sweep the Copenhagen out, throw it to the side. And the kid just keeps going, right? Just like nothing happened. And for that instant, I stopped thinking about dying. And all I could think of was, “Man, here’s this 19 year-old kid in the middle of catastrophic event and he still remembered to do his secondary checks.” He was just so much in the zone and it was one of those just little moments that, even in that state, just put my mind at complete ease.
Mark: Do you ever stop to think that maybe it was the nicotine that had such clarity? (laughing)
Josh: (laughing) It very well could have been.
Mark: (laughing) You should provide a testimonial to Copenhagen.
Josh: (laughing) I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it. It was either that or back then… man, supplements were the thing. Pre-workout, we’d take like 3 scoops a day. So it coulda been pre-workout that somehow kept me alive through this too.
Mark: So now you got to the Aid Station and that’s when you died. Is that right? Or was it at the hospital?
Josh: It was… so this was a very rogue–what we call “level 2” trauma facility. So they had just basic equipment. But a dynamite, dynamite trauma team. Led by a trauma surgeon. And this…
Mark: By the way… pause there; I’ve met many doctors who were army reservists, or even civilians who went into the army to be a trauma surgeon in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what an incredible service that these guys have provided. I’d like to call out to them, and say thank you, you know? As I’m sure you’ve done many times.
Josh: Well, you know… trauma doesn’t discriminate. And when I say that, I mean, like, emotional trauma. And the thing about trauma units is they… the vicarious trauma that they experience day-in and day-out. Over and over again. Without any validation of their success most of the time. Typically a trauma team will get a faint pulse back if they’re lucky, and send the person to the next echelon of care, hoping for the best. And they almost never get to see the results of their work. Even though what they’re doing is literally pulling off miracles in some cases.
So, one of the best days of my life was actually when I went back to Baghdad. Which is only about 5 months after this injury happened, which is a whole ‘nother story. But that trauma team was still there. And I got to thank them in person for the work that they did. And one of the just most emotionally powerful days I’ve ever had was being able to just say thank you in the flesh and blood for them.
Mark: I’m sure that’d be pretty meaningful for them.
Josh: I still get chills.
Mark: Yeah, no doubt.
All right, so let’s go right to the heart of the matter that I’ve been dancing around. So what was it like? You flat lined for 15 minutes. Walk us through that, as best you can.
Josh: Yup. So that kind of progression that I was describing continued when I was in the Aid Station. In an injury such as this, your body will actually pull blood to the chest cavity to protect the vital organs. And I could actually feel that happening. The blood would basically creep out of my extremities and as the blood left, they basically cramped up and became numb.
And then that blood creeping sensation continued up through my thighs, and then they became numb. And when that feeling hit my stomach, that is the point where I realized the injury was getting out of control. For the first time. At this point, we’re probably about a minute or two away from the point that I flat lined. So I mean, we’re pretty close here. But the… when that blood creeping sensation hit my stomach it felt like I was running wind sprints around a track and breathing through a straw. And couldn’t stop.
And out of nowhere, I just started to repeat 3 names in my head over and over and over again. For the last 60 seconds of my life. That was my mom and my 2 sisters.
No idea why. It wasn’t like life flashed before my eyes. But I do think that something came to the surface of what was most important to me that maybe prompted me to stay alive a little longer. Might even helped bring me back. I don’t know, but…
Mark: In the parlance of Unbeatable Mind, that was your “why.” And your “why” evoked a mantra, and that kept your mind focused on what it needed to be focused on at that point in time.
Josh: That’s a beautiful way to put it. Right on. Right on.
You know, a few seconds later,
“I consciously knew that I was dying, at that point. And I literally took my last breaths, said my last thought and died. “
And I always get the… You know, the most common question I obviously get is, “Did you have an out-of-body experience?”
And what’s interesting is no. I didn’t. At least not what I can recall. When I died it literally faded to black and it was game over.
But what I will say… and what I did experience, I think is maybe even more powerful than kind of the out-of-body experience where you’re floating over your body. Or you see the white light, or whatever it might be.
And I say that because I know I was still conscious. And it was in that last second or two. And the only way that I can describe that feeling is one of absolute and complete submission to something much greater than ourselves. And in that submission was the most overwhelming sense of peace that I’ve ever experienced. It’s as if every good, every bad, every positive, every negative, every doubt, every hope, it just vanishes.
Mark: In that state, you had no individualized sense of self. But you just recollect an expansive awareness of this peaceful condition?
Josh: It was almost like being in a perfect state of Zen. Perfect state of mindfulness. It was… you know,
“the moment of my death was the most peaceful experience of my life. “
And it’s interesting, cause what’s so important about this though is that I didn’t have a choice. Like, the only choice I had was to submit. And in that… And when I say like, truly, absolute and complete submission. There was no other option. Some people might think that’s scary…
Mark: You didn’t have time for anger or anything like that?
Josh: No, no. There’s no anger, no fear, no good, no bad. It was as if you’re in this completely balanced, submissive state and your spirit becomes part of everything and nothing, at the same time, is what it felt like. That may sound scary to some people. And understandably.
But I can tell you that by far… To the point where it’s almost difficult to describe how powerful that moment was and how peaceful it was. Because it’s as if all choices are removed. And there’s no good, there’s no bad, it’s just perfection. It is… and that’s the best way I’ve come to describe it so far, at least.
Suppression and Numbness
Mark: Let me ask a couple questions. This is so awe inspiring to hear that. For someone like me who’s studied Zen and meditation and tried to connect. And have had experiences of connecting to that void of what you’re describing. This sounds exactly like a deep state of Samadhi or losing yourself into universal consciousness. But of course that local experience of you exists and you’re going to snap back into it. You didn’t have that. At least you weren’t aware that you were going to be able to snap back into it.
But my question is, prior to this, did you fear death?
Josh: You know, I would probably say, at least subconsciously, yes. Granted I was 21. I was on Cloud 9. You’re… this is a complicated answer. I’m not trying to complicate it, but it really is. It’s 1) there is a lot of bravado, especially at that age. You’re almost trained to suppress emotion and be in a state where you almost have to be larger than life in order to perform…
Mark: Grossman talks about that in his books, right? The training that kind of… especially at the young brain age, which isn’t fully… Executive function’s not fully developed. You can kind of push fears to the side. But it doesn’t mean that go away. Like you said.
Josh: Right. What I would say is that leading up to that moment in the deployment is where I would say, like… Maybe that answer started to convert more to a “no.” And I say that because anyone in the warrior professions is exposed… Especially in environments like that, you’re exposed to just crippling situations of fear. Where it just grips every ounce of your body, and within a fraction of a second, you train yourself to be able to take that fear and suppress it.
Until you become so accustomed to it, you’re like emotionally numb. And I describe that to people. Tactically, I was at my absolute best when I was the most emotionally numb. And really stopped caring about living or dying.
“And, you know, when you let go of that fear of death, there’s almost a great sense of freedom within that. There’s almost a great sense of invincibility. “
And that was… couple that with the bravado of being 21, 22 years old. You know, all of those factors together might work really well for a short period of time in combat. And we’re good at training people to suppress and control their emotions. We’re not very good at teaching the how to turn them back on when they get home. And that’s where a lot of these problems start to manifest throughout relationships and stuff.
So, the short answer is I was emotionally numb. But I would say that I did fear death based on what I know now, and what I experienced then. Like, cause now I do not. But it’s at such a deeper spiritual level for the reasons that I do not. Whereas I did not have that before. Does that make sense?
Mark: It does. It does to me.
Mark: Gosh, I mean, I could stay on any one of these topics forever talking about it. But we’ve already been at this for an hour almost.
Josh: Oh, really? Wow.
Mark: I know.
Just so the listeners are aware, let’s talk just a little bit about the actual “what happened.” The 15 minutes and then your recovery and stuff.
And then I wanna get into the healing work that you’re doing and some of your message for those who have suffered from trauma at whatever level.
So tell us… finish the story, so to speak.
Josh: Yeah, so basically I was… I went back to Baghdad only about 5 months after this injury. With everyone telling me not to. And it was almost like I was in a state of psychosis. My mom literally got a call that said, “Your son’s not going to make it through the night. Get on a plane to Germany now, to see him before he passes away.”
And 4 and a half months later, I’m leaving them behind again. And almost had no awareness of their emotional state. No ability to empathize back then.
And it was…
Mark: Part of you must have just wanted to get… needed to get back into the fight.
Josh: Yeah. What I would say, Mark, is bottom-line here is
“guilt is extremely powerful. And it can drive us to do things that are basically impossible and dangerous.”
And I would say I wasn’t ready to go back. I pulled stuff out of my medical records. I was pulling staples out of my leg with a Gerber. I didn’t… it was like nothing was going to stop me from getting back. And going through the course of writing this book… and the bottom-line here is… I would soon come to learn… and it take some time for this, but
“I’d soon come to learn that the decade long emotional struggle that I would go through afterwards to try to find meaning in this second life was far more challenging than the experience of dying.”
And it wasn’t at all for the reasons of dying. Here’s like a quick vignette that I think kind of captures this pretty well. And this is something that… that really didn’t come out for me until recently. And it was by doing the deep work to go through the process of writing this book for the last 2 years. And to do that… I didn’t want this book to just be another war story. There’s tons and tons of people who have experiences that are just mind-blowing. As you well know.
And I wanted to somehow leverage this to be a benefit for other people in the field of emotional trauma. And to do that I realized that I could explain things to people in a 3, 4 hour conversation. I could get through to somebody struggling. But how we do that in scale?
And I’ve worked both on the behavioral health side and in the military, and I’ve worked there in the private sector. And what’s concerning is even within the clinical community; trauma is not very well understood.
“Many don’t have the ability or maybe the level of empathy needed to go deep enough, to look at these experiences through the lens of shame and guilt and powerlessness and betrayal, which are really the over-riding emotions.”
And so to get to that point, I really had to deliberately stay with the demons that were in my life long enough to understand them. Describe them. And be productive for other people.
And one of the things that emerged from that… I started asking myself the hard questions. Why was I so driven to go back to Baghdad so fast? What was it? Was it survivor’s guilt, that Marlin died and I didn’t?
Cause that’s kind of what I defaulted to. Cause everybody else around me was assuming that. Everybody else around me was assuming that this isolated experience of dying and coming back to life was surely a traumatic experience. And it took me 10 years to really internalize and validate for myself that that experience, in isolation, wasn’t that traumatic for me, right?
Mark: Hmm. That’s shocking to hear.
Josh: Yeah. You know, and I’m not saying that to sound like a… some kind of macho male guy. Not at all. I couldn’t be more sincere about it. With the exception of losing Marlin that day, of course. Many of the facets surrounding that experience were actually very positive. I got to witness people just performing brilliantly in the face of adversity and so many positive things at every echelon came out of that and it gave us a platform to help a lot of people, but…
Mark: Mm-hmm. Let me ask a question. Have you had a sense that…? You were dead for 15 minutes, and I’ve dealt with that as well. Where we’ve tried to recover someone. And you just keep going, and you wanna keep going, cause you just can’t believe that they’re not, in the next moment, gonna snap back. But usually after 7 or 8 minutes the trauma team will move on.
Do you have a sense that perhaps it was your destiny to teach emotional trauma, emotional development? And this death was part of that experience. And so the trauma team was kind of guided in some way to keep working until you found your way back?
Josh: You know, that’s… Mark, there was a lot of very odd things that happened that day. Like, they pulled out… they literally just got defibrillator paddles in that morning. And had to take them out of the plastic to use them on me. There just so happened to be this 18, 19 year-old private first class, who was a former football player. The kid weighed about 250, 260. He was the one doing CPR on me. For 15 straight minutes.
And when I went back, first question I asked that surgical team was “Why did you work on a dead guy for 15 minutes?” Three word response. “We never quit.” And I mean, obviously there would have been a point where they would have had to, but his thought was, “You were conscious when you got here. You died on the table…” Which was definitely one of the factors that helped. Cause they were able to start CPR immediately. But it’s… what I will say is that this experience has… what’s so bizarre about it is 1, yes, after the 6 minute mark is when most surgeons will call it on a patient. Cause that’s when catastrophic brain damage sets in.
And I walked out without a trace of brain damage. I walked out with full recollection of the event. I somehow kept my leg. The only thing I have here is a bunch of scars.
Mark: That’s incredible.
Josh: And it’s like…
Mark: Do you think, by the way, in the military has that changed the thinking about how long to perform CPR? Not just assuming that people are going to go brain-dead after 6 minutes? Because clearly that’s not true. That must be an old medical wives’ tale.
Josh: You know, I… what I’ll say is I really believe that our trauma teams are just the absolute best in the world. They have literally pulled off miracles. And especially within those trauma units is where a lot of the modern day techniques that are widespread across the medical community are bred. Because they’re setting the example. They’re setting the stage. So I’ve heard a few more cases of people who were kind of flat lining for 20 minutes. This ranges from civilian world to military to whatever, but just to have all of those components there is what’s… it’s something that I don’t believe that I’ll ever necessarily understand. But it is absolutely tied to the overarching purpose of my life, which, again, there’s a 10 year emotional journey here that was filled with suicidal spirals and depressive states and anxiety and relationship… traumas not always what it seems. And it took really reaching what I totally would call a “limit” situation. Where you truly feel that you have nothing. And that’s where this clarity starts to come through.
Mark: That’s when you become “born again” so to speak, to you new self. The deeper self.
Mark: You outline in your book “Darker Souls” a healing path. And trauma isn’t what it always seems is the first kind of element to that. Talk about that a little bit more and then let’s go through the path as a way to kind of, help others understand both what you went through, and how you’ve kind of processed this experience. So that you could help others who are struck with some sort of traumatic event.
Josh: Sure. Just really, the over-arching statement here is everything we’re about to discuss, it doesn’t really require any action. It’s conceptual. And I found that it took the book just to get to that point. Because to help give people permission to recognize and validate the true source of their pain. Shame and guilt, they have one major weakness, and that’s when you shine light on it. And that weakness is really exploited through the power of human connection. The connection we share with each other. So with respect to that–trauma is not always what it seems is absolutely pivotal in my life. That goes back to everyone around me. To the point where I started to believe it myself. Really believe that this experience of dying, getting shot, coming back to life was the pinnacle trauma. It’s like the Holy Grail of trauma.
Well to me it wasn’t. If you look at how I’d define trauma, which is an experience or situation that fundamentally alters the way you believe the world should work. Right?
Mark: I love that. That’s awesome.
Josh: That is an element I knew that something like that could happen. I knew I could die. I knew my boys could die. I knew… and I kind of see that lot in the first responder world and in the military world.
“It’s service members, police officers, firefighters, they’ll get confused because the events that they’re experiencing seem traumatic on the surface. But the events that tend to bring us down seem so miniscule in comparison to them, and we don’t understand why.”
Well the point here is… to really get at the root cause of trauma, we have to be looking at a spiritual, moral level. We need to be looking at these incidents through the lens of moral wounds like shame and guilt. Which are really the master emotions. And that’s when we can find clarity.
So for me–kind of revisiting what I was talking about a couple minutes ago–the experience… I asked myself those hard questions, one of which was “why did I go back to Baghdad so fast?” And for years I used to say, “I went back because of my men. They needed leadership.” And there is absolutely truth to that. And I went back to prove to myself that I could get back on the horse and still perform my job. Certainly truth to that.
But there was always something deeper there, and I couldn’t put my finger on it until recently. I was driven to go back because of guilt. Not in the form of survivor’s guilt, right? Walter Reed… One, the medical care there… like, nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. It was phenomenal. But very difficult place to be. You’re surrounded by some of the worst injuries you can fathom. And I was one of the very few that was expected to make a full recovery. And the image that I’ll never forget–and I don’t want to–is I remember seeing this… walking around a corner and seeing this beautiful, blond, twenty-something year old woman pushing around her new double-amputee fiancée in a wheelchair, you know?
And it’s like… So I was guilty in my ability to heal, where others couldn’t. And I was also guilty for not being with my men. So it was almost like this perpetual force that drove me to do this impossible thing.
And that’s what I’m talking about, you know? It’s like those… when you really dissect and do the true detective work. Revisiting everything from childhood forward. It’s really important to take and honest look at how you truly feel about those experiences. Which is not an easy thing to do. Getting in touch with your own emotions.
“I mean, the hardest question I’ve ever been asked is “How do you feel?”
Mark: (laughing) Great! I feel great! No problem.
Now I got a question, so the next 2 concepts you talk about is trauma is complex. I think we’ve kind of hit that.
Josh: We’ve hit that.
Mark: And it’s also cumulative. You just talked about that.
And most people… I would say most people have some form of trauma in their life that is complex, cumulative and is not what it seems. But we wanna know… and I think probably one of your main messages is, you don’t have to wait to have a near-death experience to investigate it.
So what can be a major motivation. I know for you the NDE and your experiences forced you to investigate it. So that’s the beauty of that experience in your life. As painful as it was.
But for other people, how do they step into the courage to investigate their own trauma? ‘
Josh: Boy is that a great question. And what’s interesting is it wasn’t the near-death experience that drove me to do this. You know? Frankly, it was the opposite. I was quote-unquote “good” after that. I wasn’t trying to suppress anything, I wasn’t deliberately or intentionally trying to do anything. But at the same time, I wasn’t having kind of the… what I call those PowerPoint symptoms of post-traumatic stress, right? The stuff we all get briefed on on PowerPoint slides. You know, the anxiety, the nightmares and night-sweats. Jumpy at loud booms and all that stuff. Which that’s certainly very prevalent in some lives, but for me, it wasn’t.
And yet I was still… found myself repeatedly–3 very distinct times–in just dangerous, suicidal spirals. That the only thing that stopped me was my little sister. And trying to explain that to her.
Mark: So the same “why” that kept you alive in Iraq was the “why” that kept you from taking your life…
Josh: That’s powerful. That’s powerful. I’ve never worded that like that before, so thank you for that. But it’s true. What’s interesting though is every one of those spirals; the catalyst–not the cause, but the catalyst–was a failed relationship. And failed, like at least on my part of that was typically associated with lack of intimacy and emotional withdrawal. A lot of those relationships looked perfect on paper, but there’s a great quote by a guy named John Bradshaw who passed away last year. And he was one of the original guys who really… psychologists who really dove into explaining shame.
Mark: Right. I remember reading his work. It’s great.
Josh: Oh really? Yeah! Well you might recall he says in there that, “To a shame-based person,”–meaning to a person who is carrying unresolved shame, unresolved trauma–“abandonment in relationships is akin to death.” And we have rejected ourselves, and when somebody else rejects us, it only reinforces that we are worth less than someone else.
So pretty frequently find that a lot of these issues tend to surface and manifest in relationships. Those moments where I was at my weakest in those spirals happened… just progressively got worse and worse over the years until I hit a point where it was truly the rock bottom. Where I literally could not see past an hour. I couldn’t see past a day.
I had no clue… it was just complete fog. And that lasted for a couple of weeks. And somehow in those extreme moments is where I really found the clarity and the strength to do the deep work.
Cause I realized that everything that happened over the past 10 years, regardless of excelling in my career. Regardless of being this kind of image of resilience to the larger public’s eye. Whatever I was doing was not good enough for me. There was something much deeper there that I couldn’t identify, and people around me–even some of the best clinicians in the world, that I was working with–couldn’t identify. So that responsibility came with me at that point. Where I consciously needed to do that deep work. To find out the truth. The truth behind trauma, you know?
Mark: You talk about the absolute need to have a team to rely on in healing and that it’s gonna require suffering… so, you know, embrace the suck and suffer productively is what you say. So we’ll have to talk about that, and then we’ll have to wrap up soon.
Josh: Well that’s a good place to wrap, cause we’ve had so many… we always encounter people, especially in these professions… cause there is still a stigma around–for a variety of reasons–a stigma around seeking help. Sometimes that’s a fear of what others will think, but more importantly I think it’s a fear of… or not even a fear. It’s the emotions we’re experiencing are so incredibly complex that we cannot put them into words. And, you know, which I think is really a barrier to a lot of people seeking treatment.
And one thing that I find that gets through to some is just thinking about it a little bit differently. And the best definition of therapy I ever got was from a lady named Lori Gottfriend out here in Monterey. And I was shadowing a group session with her one day, and, she’s going through a process and suddenly just said that she believes
“the role of therapist is to help people suffer productively. As opposed to allowing them to suffer in vain.”
And I’ve never heard of a more powerful definition of the true nature of what therapy really is than that. We all suffer throughout our lives. And I know you’re a fan of Frankl as well, you know? And suffering is inherent to our lives. At some point in time if we go through the process and do the work there will be a point where can start to derive meaning in that suffering. Which ultimately makes you so much more powerful, but it’s not a process that you need to go through alone, right? And there’s so many different faults and dangerous paths that you could take. Some of which can be fatal, right? But with the presence of at least a friend with a very good perspective on this. Or in some cases a trained therapist or clinician. They’re not going to try to fix your problems. They can’t. Only you can. Only you can derive that meaning out of it.
But what they can do is offer you a different perspective that would help you avoid some of those false paths. Harness your energy a little bit differently, and truly suffer more productively. It’s going to suck anyway… It really will.
Mark: But teammates can reflect back your true nature to you, which is the nature that you touched in on in the near death experience. The vast ocean of love that every human being essentially is at their deepest level. And so being alone and unable to connect with that–it’s very difficult if not impossible to heal. And that’s what Viktor Frankl was talking about in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Have that teammate to reflect back your own goodness, right?
Mark: What an incredible story. And then the law of contrasts, right? So that suffering allows you to appreciate the beauty even more. So that’s a nice thing to remember as well.
Josh: That’s kind of beautiful thing to close with there. Because it’s… I appreciate and respect every one of my experiences leading up to this point in my life. Because it gave me the capacity to empathize with others on a much deeper level. It gave me the opportunity to help people.
Which is where I find the greatest meaning in life. And that’s where I find beauty within the darkness. So that is the Beauty of the Darker Soul.
Mark: Hooyah. Yes. Awesome.
Thank you so much for your work and for your example. Your book “Darker Souls” is it out? Available at Amazon and normal outlets?
Josh: So you can preorder just the digital version right now. We’re wrapping up the pre-publication review at the Pentagon, so I should be getting that back any day. We’re expecting to publish in August time frame.
Mark: Well we’ll support the launch of the book to get the word out, but if you guys listening want to go and pre-order it, that’s great. I imagine you get to read a chapter or something. Usually you get to see an advance peek or something like that.
Josh: That’s going to come out soon. As soon as we get it cleared by the Pentagon. And I will say too that I’m dedicating 100% of the profits for all pre-orders and sales during the first week to a group down in Southern California called the Integrated Recovery Foundation, which is a treatment center set up by Ron Gellis–oldest active competitor in the Crossfit Games. Guy’s a champ.
Mark: Yeah, I know Ron myself.
Josh: You know Ron? Yeah, so this is going to Ron’s organization. And he’s set up a beautiful treatment facility to help women who were sexually assaulted in the military receive quality treatment. So, very needed resource…
Mark: I’m going to connect with him. Support that as well. That’s awesome.
Also I’m hoping to see you at the Unbeatable Mind Summit. So we need to talk about that.
Josh: Let’s make it happen.
Mark: I would love to have you there. I would love to have you present a little bit. And then I know that you’re going to be with my buddy, fellow warrior Greg Amundson. The original fire-breather. On August 6, is that right?
Josh: Right. I cannot wait.
Mark: So, if you want to see Greg and Joshua–two incredible spiritual warriors–the August 6th at Crossfit Amundson, he’s having a little get-together and my step-daughter Catherine is going to be leading some Kokoro Yoga as well. That’ll be a lot of fun.
All right Joshua. Once again, we thank you and we’re committed to supporting you on your journey, and your mission.
Josh: And Mark thanks so much. And likewise brother. Looking forward to supporting you as well.
Mark: All right. Likewise. Hooyah.
All right everybody. Thank you so much for listening. “Darker Souls” Joshua Mantz. What an incredible guy and what an incredible story. But like he says, this isn’t about us or him anymore. It’s really about getting the word out to help everyone heal. To help the world become a better place.
Josh: Right on.
Mark: We’re all going to do our part, and you’ll do yours. And we’re in this together. One big team.
Joshua, thanks very much.
Josh: Awesome. Thank you.
Mark: Thanks everybody. We’ll see you next time. ‘Nuff said on that point.
Coach Divine Out.