Photo via Rain Bennett

Last week at Camp Lejeune I stood in a room of 500 Marines, still yawning and seated in an auditorium waiting to hear a group of speakers talk about alcohol awareness.

For a group of 18 to 20-yr-olds, this was the kind of event that could actually drive one to drink.

The four hour event was created by Prevention Specialist, Jennifer Attila, who’s had one goal: to help the Marines of Camp Lejeune reduce the number of accidents and suicides brought on by alcohol related events.

There’s an often-cited statistic that 22 veterans a day commit suicide. Although that figure may be misunderstood from the research, a fact remains that it is a serious problem. Not only that, but Jacksonville, NC, is the “drunkest city” in the state — and per capita, ranks #1 in the country, according to Attila.

At this event, there was a woman talking about how she killed someone while drunk driving, a “guidance-counselouresque” man with a guitar singing Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, and one other man – the man I was there to film.

Cam F Awesome (yes, that’s his legal name), is a former boxer that won the US Men’s National Title in 2008, 2010, 2013, and 2014, as well as the Golden Gloves in 2009, 2011, and 2013.

I first learned about Cam through the Netflix documentary, Counterpunch — a gripping tale of three boxers and the reality of the struggles and politics of US Olympic boxing.  Cam was a lovable character who I couldn’t help but root for.  Many other people know him from his viral post-loss interview where he referred to himself as “the Taylor Swift of boxing.”

Cam may have lost the fight that night, but he won the hearts of sports fans and beyond.

This is not only why he was talking to the room full of Marines, but why he actually connected with them.  The things that I’ve been learning about empathy and storytelling recently were on full display during his speech.

He made the Marines laugh (just like the reporter in his post fight interview), which relaxed them and made them more receptive to his story.  He talked to them about fighting, hard work and being tough — things that they could relate to which caused them to empathize and therefore actually listen to what he had to say.  They were engaged.

That’s what allowed him to effectively deliver his message.

I’d been following Cam on social media for the past two years and despite being a boxer once myself (and a lifelong fan), I was most impressed with the self-work he was clearly doing and how he was working to impart that onto the youth around the country.  He’s been on tour for quite some time, living what he refers to as “#vanlife”, speaking at high schools and other institutions about the effects of bullying.

But he wasn’t at Camp Lejeune to talk about that.

This was the first time he was ever going to publicly talk about his experience with drinking, depression, and suicide.

As a child of a long line of alcoholics (that also dealt with depression), this was an issue that hit home particularly hard and I told him that.  It’s a major issue all over our country, but it seems almost more so with our military.  It pains me to see this happen after they dedicate so much of their lives to our country — and we don’t have good programs to help them navigate that psychological journey.

Photo via Rain Bennett

When I saw Cam post on Twitter that he’d be in North Carolina to give this talk, I reached out to him to offer to help.  If this was going to be the first time he was talking about this — a subject so important in 2019 — then it needed to be captured.

Cam kept it real with the Marines.  He told them how loss, bullying, and life in general was too hard for him to handle at times.

He told them about his lowest points when he turned to drinking excessively and tried to commit suicide, and how hard it was to dig his way out of that mindstate.  I could tell it was actually resonating with them.

I was lost years ago.  Many of us have been lost in our lives at times and may not be able to see a way out of the weeds.

But Cam said that when we focus on the good things in our lives (friends, family, even life itself) and have gratitude; open ourselves up, not be afraid to be vulnerable, and discuss our issues; and stand up to stigma created by mental health; then we somehow find the ability to put one foot in front of the other and move forward.

I’ll support anyone who is leading the charge to change the conversation like Cam F Awesome is.

There’s a famous quote in Russell Crowe’s 2000 film, Gladiator: “Win the crowd, and you’ll win your freedom.”  Cam, once a gladiator himself, has won the crowd lately by being open, honest, and vulnerable.  Now he has won the freedom to break out of his old identity and become the person he was born to be — one that is seeking to create that same change in kids across the country.

That’s someone I want to be like.