Saved by the Bell

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

Emmanuel Escobedo had been a leader in Iraq, but back home he became a drinker. Alcohol eased the stress. It distracted him from his loneliness, with his wife and four children living so far from Fort Hood, Texas, the base where he was staying. And then, inevitably, it introduced him at 5 a.m. to a police officer who shined his flashlight into the sergeant's eyes and arrested him for drunk driving.

It was May 2009, and Escobedo had been back in the United States for 6 months. The army threatened to demote him. His driver's license was taken. He had fines to pay. So he made the unthinkable request: Send me back to Iraq. There, at least, this wouldn't dog him. "But my first sergeant said, 'I'm sorry, but you're stayingand it's going to be hard,'" Escobedo says. "I could have insisted and gone. But I stopped. I realized there was a reason I should stay."

A mistake is not a thing, hardened and unchangeable. It's part of a story. Run away from it, though, and it becomes all there is to say. "I thought of my kids. They know me as a sergeant, a leader, more than just a soldier. I spoke in their schools, and I was their hero. I couldn't lose that," he says. Then he saw salvation: a boxing tournament. These events are held regularly in the army. He'd even begun training for one during his drinking days, but he was so out of shape that he quit early. This time, though, he'd fight.

Cue the Rocky theme: Escobedo stopped drinking, stopped even hanging out with his friends from the bars. He hit the gym, slammed the bags. On Saturdays he woke up early to run, and he ran again in the afternoon. By night he was too tired to go out. It was better that way.

When the tournament came, three boxing rings were set up on a basketball court. Escobedo fought and won. Fought and won. After a week, two rings were gone and he'd made it to the final: one bout, one winner. A Don King look-alike escorted him to the ring, and 1,500 soldiers watched, roared, expected. "I just thought, Wow, if I get my ass whupped, it's going to make me look real bad," he says.

No need for that: He won.

When Escobedo was drinking, people didn't take him seriously. One of his superiors laughed when he promised to quit. But that changed after the fight. "If people see you winning, it motivates them to try something themselves," he says. "Even now, when people see me, they cheer. They're still hyped up." People need inspiration. They love role models. It's never too late to be that man.

The army knows this. When Escobedo's superiors saw how he inspired others, they put him in charge of a special-population program to train soldiers who can't pass the fitness test. The test is a doozy: To ace it, a 30-year-old man like Escobedo must run 2 miles in 13 minutes and 18 seconds. Then there are situps (82 in 2 minutes) and pushups (77 in 2 minutes).

He didn't ask for the position. In the army, he jokes, you don't volunteer; you're voluntold. But he's a natural at the job. His DUI, that mistake he tried running away from, is his credential. The soldiers take him more seriously; he knows struggle.

And when the entire base suffered a blow13 soldiers killed and 30 wounded last November, after an army psychologist opened firethe pace of life changed for weeks. There was no time for his training sessions, and Escobedo thought back to how stress could derail hard work. "So whenever I'd see my soldiers around, I'd warn them, 'When we're back on a regular schedule, my demands aren't going to change. There's no slack.'"

He was telling them to stay with the challenge, as he had. It's the only way forward.

Escobedo's Favorite Training Tools

1 Boxing gloves
Escobedo prefers 20-ounce Everlast gloves, with hook and loop. "They build endurance and reduce injuries at the hands and elbows, especially when you're hitting a heavy bag."

2 Inspiration
Escobedo puts his struggles in perspective by keeping a copy of Medal of Honor, by Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez. "To read about everything he went through is very humbling."

3 Jump rope
He goes 15 to 20 minutes nonstop. "It's one of the best calf exercises," he says. Or he does four rounds of 5 minutes each, with a minute of pushups between.