State 07: Connecticut

Bethany, Connecticut, U.S.A. | October 12-13, 2017

Video by: Graham Nolte

VETERAN: Sean Pesce
BRANCH: U.S. Army Ranger

ARTIST: Sasha Safir-Temple
WEBSITE: sashasafirtemple.com
INSTAGRAM: @sasha.jp3g

VIDEOGRAPHER: Graham Nolte
PHOTOGRAPHER: Xavier Guerra

WORKSPACE: MTV
PARTNERS: MTV, Alpha Industries

STATE SPONSOR: Available

BELIEVE

U.S. Army Ranger Veteran Sean Pesce and MTV graphic designer Sasha Safir-Temple collaborated to create the design “Believe In Your Weakness,” an illustrative expression of Sean’s positivity and continual drive to be the best version of himself by turning his weaknesses into strengths. On the last mission of his deployment in 2012, Sean was shot thirteen times, leading him to be paralyzed from the bellybutton down, undergo countless surgeries and hours of rehabilitation, be hospitalized for a year, and have continual complications to this day.

At the beginning of what seemed like an unending path to recovery, Sean saw the obstacles that lay ahead of him as ways to improve and grow. A goal-oriented individual who never settles, the desire for a challenge is what motivated Sean to become an Army Ranger in the first place. Through their design, Sasha and Sean hope to inspire others to recognize the opportunities hidden beneath what we believe to be our weaknesses.

Flying the highest of all birds, the eagle represents Sean’s strength in overcoming his fear of heights while the sun and the star are symbols pulled from the Ranger Crest and the lightning bolt from his position as a Forward Observer–the communicator between air and ground units. Above it all, the thirteen rays of light symbolize the thirteen bullets that struck Sean, eventually leading him to adopt his positive attitude of living with his injuries, seeing them as motivation to do more and constantly strive to improve.

In collaboration with Alpha Industries, the designs from the 50 States: Veterans + Artists United tour are produced into a limited number of fifty t-shirts and embroidered patches. Click the product images below to purchase Sean and Sasha’s collaborative “Believe In Your Weakness” design exclusively on AlphaIndustries.com.

SHIRT: $30.00

Size Shown: Large (Unisex)

PATCH: $17.00

Patch Width: 4.0in

DECAL: $5.00

3.0in x 2.8in

 BEHIND-THE-PROCESS: 

[Written by: Kendra Clapp Olguín | Photos by: Xavier Guerra]

Passing Lil Yachty adjusting his diamond-encrusted chains as he entered the loud, screaming TRL set located in MTV’s headquarters was exactly how this Connecticut project got rolling. Having struck out finding a designer and videographer while actually in Connecticut, we told U.S. Army Ranger Veteran Sean Pesce not to worry; that we’d figure something out.

A few weeks later, we were walking from New York’s chaotic Times Square into Viacom’s lobby to meet with Rich Tu, our Oregon designer who had recently left Nike to be the VP of Design at MTV. It was on our way into the elevator that we passed Lil Yachty, close enough to hear the sound of the beads in his hair as he moved. 

Walking into Rich’s office was like walking into his mind. His bold artwork, collectible sneakers, and awards make you feel like you’re walking into a modern art museum but then, at a closer glance, you see the various quirky trinkets and objects that make you feel like you’re peering into the creative thought-bubbles of Rich Tu.

We sit in front of the television that’s playing the recently rebooted TRL show, his latest project with MTV. After exchanging the normal pleasantries, Rich asked if there was a way he and MTV could help with the 50 States: Veterans + Artists United tour. We were ecstatic and grateful, reminded of the difference one person can make. Tyler and I looked at each other thinking the same thing, we had to get Sean from Bethany, Connecticut to NYC.

The very next week, we took the PATH into the city, exchanging trains at the World Trade Center’s transportation hub, Oculus, and got off in Greenwich Village where Viacom has additional offices. In the lobby we met Humy Çelik, a Coordinating Producer at MTV, and Kelly McCrossin, a Production Coordinator at VH1, who helped find accommodations in the city for Sean and organize the logistics of the Connecticut project. Once settled into one of Viacom’s bright and funky conference rooms, we waited to meet our designer.

MTV Associate Art Director Sasha Safir-Temple is wickedly talented, able to take ordinary concepts and bring them to light with unconventional design and striking color. When you first meet her, you notice she manages the impossible of being both cool and down-to-earth at the very same time. Highly recommended by Rich, we were excited for her to collaborate with Sean. Arriving just a few minutes before him, she walked into the hot pink conference room and took a seat at the white midcentury tulip table.

With a few minutes to spare, Sean and his girlfriend Mare Hassan arrived. Although the room was filled with Viacom employees anxiously waiting to meet him, Sean was calm and collected. With such an incredible story, he’s used to sharing it with others. Having had the opportunity to meet him while in Connecticut, Tyler and I were excited for him to not only share his story once more, but for the first time, but to also have him collaborate with an artist to create a design representing it.

After going around the table and giving introductions, it was time for Sean to kickoff the design days by sharing his experience serving in the U.S. Army with Sasha. 

Knowing exactly what he wanted to do out of high school, Sean signed up for the Army during his sophomore year with the determination to become a Ranger. 

To give some context, to become a Ranger is to become part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite airborne light infantry combat formation within the US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), being 1% of the 1%. Breaking that down, Rangers are multi-skilled soldiers trained in airborne combat (being dropped into battle from aircraft- think parachutes), light infantry combat (the ability to move quickly and fluidly by being in impeccable shape and carrying relatively lighter equipment- although in human standards it’s still super heavy), and are dedicated to special operations and missions. Think of them as the Army’s ninjas- except they are not; they are “RANGERS,” a term the skilled group take tremendous pride in.

“Before going into the any military branch, you have to take a qualification military test. When I originally took it, I got a 65; 55 is passing for military members so I was cool. I had a year or two to study after that so the second time I took it, I got a 97; the highest it goes to is 135. If you pass 80 to 85, you pretty much qualify for everything,” Sean explains to Sasha after she asked him what motivated him to enlist.

“I wanted to do something different, to do something that challenged me,” he goes on explaining. “Once you get your score, you get to see little videos of what you qualify for and I got Forward Observer. With that and my score, I had the ability to add “airborne” and “option 30 into my contract. I felt like a sports player negotiating my contract. I automatically qualified into the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP).”

RASP is intense and that might be putting it lightly. It’s a program that weeds out soldiers not qualified physically and mentally to serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Located in Fort Benning, Georgia, RASP tests trainees and pushes them to their breaking points. The majority of the class quits throughout the eight-week course. 

“It was miserable, the worst time of my life,” Sean recalls. “The [75th Ranger] Regiment wants the most physically and mentally fit since it’s not an easy job with what we do. They do the most grueling things the first week to try to make you quit.” 

“What were some of the mental things that they would test you to do?” Sasha asks Sean.

“They just start throwing your shit all over the place and tell you to pick and pack it up and if we didn’t pack it up in time, within two minutes, we didn’t get to ride the bus so we’d have to carry all of our stuff and run behind the bus for two miles. There are 80 to 180 people there and those numbers quickly decline. I think we lost half of our people before RASP even started. If you don’t keep up physically, you get kicked out. If your instructors don’t like you, you get kicked out. There are peer evaluations. If the people training with you in your squad don’t like you, that can get you kicked out. If you don’t make it through Cole Range, you’re out. Then there’s this 12-mile ruck-march. They give you three hours to make it, otherwise, see ya.” 

Trainees would often be told to “hit the woodline,” a disciplinary instruction given at times for no reason at all. “It’s a big open field, maybe two football fields put together. Whenever they say that, you have to go run and grab a stuck from the tree line. They can tell you that, doesn’t matter when, and you just go, run, and hit the woodline,” Sean explains.

After hearing various mental and physical challenges Sean faced while at RASP, Sasha asks what motivated him through it. 

“I’m a very stubborn person and I don’t like to quit. I can accomplish a lot of things if I focus and I know I have the talent to do most things. I’m a lazy person but if something challenges me, I’ll do it,” he shares with her.

Not yet knowing anything about the additional training he had to go through once becoming a Ranger, his deployment, his injury, or his recovery, “lazy” was still not the term anyone in the room would use to describe Sean. Yet we all could sense the change and pride Sean had in his experience becoming a Ranger.

Thus, through incredible perseverance and determination, Sean passed and qualified to join the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment as a Forward Observer (FO) where he would go onto participate in special operations and missions during a 2012 deployment to Afghanistan.

“To minimize our risks, we only go out at night,” he explains to Sasha. He shows her the Rangers’ distinctive unit insignia (DUI), the Rangers’ emblem that is in the shape of a shield that bares the symbols of a sun, lightning bolt, and star. 

“We go after high-valued targets. They pretty much compile a list of the main leaders and weapon manufacturers. We go directly after the people of power who are committing the crimes; the people who are confirmed terrorists. They would be sleeping and wouldn’t see us. We had night-vision goggles and when you wear them, you don’t have depth-perception. You walk into things that you thought were five-feet away and the ones I worked with didn’t have perisperhal vision,” Sean says as he grins. He goes onto explain the intention of his missions, “It was aggravating, to risk our safety and lives to bring him in safely for him to be put on trail, to get more information out of him, and ultimately for his president to bail him out. He’d be back on the streets after a few months.”

Yet, no matter how frustrating internally, you do not show it as a Ranger and complete your missions. As a FO, Sean was in charge of aircraft. “On a typical night, I would have three to five planes on man-drones to look at certain parts off the village and look at our route. Then I would get on the radio and tell them to look at certain parts of the village. I would have two teams of apache helicopters. I had an important job because I was communicating between aircrafts and anyone on the ground. I was the middleman. In my headphones the left ear would be aircraft and the right [ear] would be squad leaders on the ground.”

He went on of the environment and climate of the dangerous Ghanzi Province in Afghanistan, “The altitude change there sucked. The elevation was almost eight-thousand feet. You run out of breath after just walking in a straight line.” He shook his head. Sasha maintained eye contact as she wrote notes, intently listening.

“My group, we had the most action out of anyone there.”

What was the last of that action, his final mission on deployment, forever changed Sean’s life.

On Friday, October 12, 2012, just about an hour short of being on a plane headed back to the states, Sean had just completed securing a compound’s rooftop with his friend Sergeant Thomas McPherson.

“We had gone after this guy our very first mission. He got away because he went through a mine field. We were going after him for our very last mission,” he tells Sasha.

“We went into this village. There were two buildings in the village that we had seen people going back-and-forth to. There’s usually 60 to 70 of us on any given mission so we split. Main group went to building 1 and I broke off with a smaller group of people, a group of fifteen, to go into building 2. We were halfway done with the mission and were told to get into position on building 2, to secure it, and to make sure people weren’t going to and from the building. We had climbed a ladder to get onto the building. We were on the rooftop that overlooked the courtyard and initially I had been watching a window. The Staff Sergeant had noticed a door and asked me to take watch of it. The team had finally got onto the building when a guy with a machine gun had woken up in the window next to me. I was hit thirteen times in total and my friend next to me only got hit once. He lied and said that he was fine but the bullet had ricocheted off his sling clip and went into his arm. He told the others to go see me since I seemed way worse off. He passed away a couple of minutes later. The first thing I worried about was everyone else on the mission with me. I didn’t know that my sergeant had been wounded or passed away until three or four weeks after.”

Fifteen minutes later, his fellow Rangers had gotten him off the rooftop, given him a morphine lollipop for the pain, and gotten him onto a stretcher, then a medical helicopter where they began performing surgery on him.

Conscious for the transport to the helicopter, Sean didn’t know how badly he had gotten hit. “I just kind of prayed and kept myself as calm as I could. If you breathe more, your blood flows more,” he tells Sasha. That was the last he remembers before being put to sleep.

From Afghanistan, Sean was taken to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC) in Landstuhl, Germany, where they performed a couple of surgeries in attempt to stabilize him for his return to the US. After a few days, he was transported to the Walter Reed Army National Military Medical Center in Maryland where they performed several more surgeries.

When Sean awoke, he couldn’t feel any sensation below his bellybutton and was told he was paralyzed from L5 down. “I remember laying in bed and thinking, ‘Hey, I should be able to move these,’ then really thinking about them, and seeing them not move,” he shares with Sasha as he explains the forced realization of his paralysis. “It wasn’t like I was introduced to all this stuff.”

“I still would have rather had it been me; I didn’t have anything going on,” he tells Sasha of losing his friend Mac. “[His death] hit me more than being injured. The first eight months I was down and depressed about it. Now I go every year to California and visit his wife and kids.”

Just as his mother and friends suggested, Sean has decided to live life to the fullest and in Mac’s honor. Always having loved a challenge, he uses his “handicap” as motivation to simply do and live more.

“I went sky diving, I’ve gone shark fishing, I love golf,” he lists among other activities. He adds that he has plans to attend business school soon so that he can one day open up his own coffee shop or restaurant. 

“I was probably going to make a career in the Army but after getting injured, that changed,” he tells Sasha after she asks what else he sees himself doing in the future. “There are so many people that helped me out that I feel like I should do my part in return to give back. I mean, I just try to help people. I have been through a lot in life, even before the military. So, I’ve always tried just help,” he shares with Sasha. “But, people have to be willing to help themselves,” he adds. 

A little tough love; it seems as though there’s plenty of military left in him after all of these years.

After four weeks in Maryland, he was taken to a VA in Tampa, Florida, for even more surgeries and rehab. 

“Coming from what I was doing and who I was to going through all of these changes, I hadn’t given up but I wasn’t doing anything about my situation,” he describes. “I broke down and cried. It was then that my mom and friends came to me and told me, ‘Mac [Sgt. McPherson] sacrificed and gave his life for you, at least live and honor his sacrifice.’”

It was the reality check that Sean needed and put everything into perspective. 

“I still have arms. I can still talk. I still have a lot. There are people that are way worse off than me and have a positive outlook. So that’s how I’ve been seeing it ever since. I’m still limited to things; I cant get things off the top shelf,” Sean laughs.

After five months in Florida, he continued intensive rehab in Massachusetts. Ultimately, after 15 months bouncing from medical facility to medical facility, countless surgeries, and hours upon hours of rehab, he headed home with his parents to West Haven, Connecticut, who, with the help of local businesses and epic crowdfunding campaign done by theCHIVE, retrofitted their home to best suit Sean and his new lifestyle in a wheelchair. Not long after, thanks to Homes For Our Troops, Sean moved into his own home in 2016 that was designed entirely for him, allowing him to live independently and freely.

“One of the best and biggest things is learning to be adaptable,” he goes on. “Life is not going to stop for you so you always have to change and work with it. The military teaches a lot of situational training and I think America could learn a lot from it. In the military, you’re surrounded by every race and religion. None of that matters, as long as you’re a respectful, good person, you wont have any problems. I think a lot of people are selfish; they don’t have a lot of patience and jump to a lot of conclusions. I learned patience, I learned how to wait really good in the Army,” he laughed. 

To Sean, the military made sense to him, it’s where he fit in. It’s where he first began taking his weaknesses and turning them into strengths.

“One of the strongest themes you’ve been talking about is persistence, dealing with the cards that you’ve been dealt,” she begins. “Other themes that go along with that are perseverance, stubbornness, failure to quit, strong-willed mentality, pride, focus, patience, a competitive nature, and quiet professionalism.” 

She then turns to the page of sketches, “I just sketched some things and I was trying to pull up some symbolism. I began looking at the bald eagle and what that signified.” 

The bald eagle is an extremely skilled predator with keen eyesight. In the United States, it’s become a symbol of strength, freedom, courage, and honor.

Additionally, Sasha showed Sean a sketch of a fist holding a rose, a representation of something strong as well as something soft, representative of a person’s strengths and weaknesses. Sean laughed at the coincidence, “A fist holding a lightning bolt was the symbol for my position as a Forward Observer,” he tells Sasha.

Both keen on how the eagle and the fist symbolize strength, the pair spent the next couple of hours discussing the possible representation of the two in Sean’s story serving and his life since. Held to tremendously high standards, Rangers can be seen as a force of strength within the Army. Yet, it’s the incredibly difficult path of becoming a Ranger that leads them to be seen in that way. This path that turns their world upside-down, that pushes them to their very last limit, and forces them to use every strength that they may have additionally leads Rangers to evaluate their weaknesses. In doing so, they are left with a choice with said weaknesses: to quit or to continue.

Sean chose to continue. Sean still chooses to continue.

“I think people are a lot tougher than they give themselves credit for,” Sean says. “Me? There are three things I’m scared of on this planet: spiders, heights, and my dad.” 

This seems funny to everyone, remembering that Sean has gone and completed Airborne school, which entails jumping out of numerous planes, and has also recently recreationally sky-dived. He seems to pay no attention to his perceived weaknesses.

“Bald eagles fly higher than any other bird,” Sasha says. It’s as though a light-bulb has gone off above her head. 

Taking more time to elaborate on the possibility of an eagle for the design, Sean suggests that the eagle hold a lightning bolt just as the fist from the FO emblem does, to represent his position as the communicator between aircraft and boots on the ground.

“Yeah! I love that!” Sasha responds. “Another thing I thought was cool was that the number thirteen normally means dead or unlucky. Can we skew it in a positive way? That’s what made you better, who you are today. Sure it’s shitty and not ideal but it’s your story,” she adds.

Pulling inspiration from Sean’s tattoos, Sasha adds thirteen rays of light around the eagle’s head, symbolizing the number of times Sean was hit and the day in which he joined the Army.

“Being in a wheelchair,” Sean says, “A lot of people can see that as a weakness, but I’m more positive and can do a lot more than able-bodied people. I had a lot of time to self-reflect after getting injured and having a year to lay around. Being able to know what your weaknesses are and being able to improve as a person, it helps the world around us.”

Piece by piece, the design comes together. Sasha, pulling further inspiration from the Ranger DUI, positioned a sun and a moon on either side of the eagle’s head. The dichotomy of day and night or light and dark additionally represent the choice of persistence and perseverance, of taking advantage of a new day. 

Ultimately, a banner emblematic of the 2nd Battalion’s ribbon presents the powerful statement, “Believe In Your Weakness,” a reminder for all that what makes them human, what they think are their weaknesses, are actually their strengths. They are opportunities to overcome challenges, to improve, and most importantly, they are opportunities to help others.

Thank you, Sean, for leading the way.

Support Sean and help share his message by purchasing the “Believe” products designed in collaboration with Sasha:

SHIRT: $30.00

Size Shown: Large (Unisex)

PATCH: $17.00

Patch Width: 4.0in

DECAL: $5.00

3.0in x 2.8in

OUR JOURNEY: CONNECTICUT 

Written by: Kendra Clapp Olguin | Photos by: Tyler Way

We began our time in Connecticut nestled within a beautiful field of sunflowers where we spent a night amongst the buzzing bees. Those are words I can’t say I’ve ever expected to type out, but it’s true and we have photo-evidence to prove it…

[READ MORE]