May 14, 2014

Casey Carroll’s Homecoming

Casey Carroll, a 29-year-old former Army Ranger, and his Duke teammates face Denver in the final four Saturday in Baltimore. Carroll's last contest before he joined the Army was the 2007 national title game. (Peyton Williams)

After four deployments as a U.S. Army Ranger, the 29-year-old defenseman feels lucky to be a Blue Devil again

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the April 2014 edition of Lacrosse Magazine. Don’t get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 415,000-plus members today to start your subscription.

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Casey Carroll would rather it not be about him.

Plenty of Army Rangers and other military personnel continue to put their lives at stake in Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere else where there’s a threat to the U.S. And there are 43 other members of the Duke men's lacrosse team, he said, that deserve their time in the spotlight.

It’s hard to realize the weight your story carries when you are living it, but as Blue Devils defenseman Henry Lobb said, “I’ve never heard of a story like it in college athletics.”

At 29 years old, Carroll is a sixth-year, redshirt senior defenseman at Duke. With four Middle East deployments behind him, a wife and two kids at home, two season-ending knee injuries and a two-year graduate business degree nearly complete, he’s not exactly a college kid.

“I’m incredibly grateful that I’m able to do all these things because of the guys that are still serving overseas,” Carroll said. “A lot of attention will be thrown at me, and people will thank me for my service, but it’s hard for me to hear that and not automatically think about all the people who are still serving, in all the units.”

Being the kind of humble and thoughtful person he is — “He’s got all the qualities you want in a person you're around on a daily basis,” Duke coach John Danowski said — Carroll also doesn’t want to be dismissive of someone asking to write about him. “I’m honored that you’d take the time,” he said.

*** 

The turning point was Feb. 9, 2007. Until that day, Carroll knew he wanted to serve in the military, but in what capacity: Navy, Marines or Army? His grandfather served. His father and two older brothers all were Navy men.

The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks hit home, with fire department service in his lineage, too, and the Carroll family residing in Baldwin on Long Island, about a 45-minute train ride from the center of New York City.

“I took it to heart,” Carroll said.

Carroll had a calling. But it wasn't until he learned Jimmy Regan died that Carroll knew exactly where he wanted the response to take him.

Regan, a fellow Long Island native and Duke lacrosse player from 1999-2002, was killed in Iraq while serving as a sergeant in the 75th Ranger Regiment, the most elite special operations force in the Army, a volunteer unit that, in part, has troops on the ground seeking to target known terrorists.

On Feb. 9, 2007, an improvised explosive device detonated near Regan's vehicle while he was on patrol in northern Iraq. News of his death reached the Duke lacrosse team just as it was picking up the pieces from the false rape allegations that capsized the program and drew white-hot national media attention the previous spring.

While most players wouldn’t be blamed for recoiling after hearing about the death of someone who once wore their uniform, Carroll's reaction was different. He wanted to wear Regan's uniform.

“It was probably within moments of hearing about Jimmy getting killed, that I said ‘This is it,’” Carroll said. “As far as we saw, he was the toughest guy in the world. He’s a guy that we all looked up to, whether guys knew of him personally or just knew of his story. I felt that that would be a really great way to honor his memory, and do my military service. I set out to try to follow in his footsteps.”

Carroll, whose 2006 season ended with a knee injury a month before the rape scandal started, and teammates spent that spring on a campus inundated with strangers looking to pounce and dispense opinion on any shred of new information. It was infuriating.

The coach that recruited Carroll, Mike Pressler, was fired. The allegations against David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann turned out to be unfounded.

But the stigma and stereotypes about college lacrosse players, especially at Duke, stuck.

Little did people know Carroll, now a wiry 6-foot, 182-pound man, did not fit into their broad brushstrokes. A former athlete of the year at Baldwin (N.Y.) High — where he also played quarterback and often matched up in lacrosse against current Blue Devils assistant Matt Danowski of Farmingdale High  — Carroll rehabbed and played in all 20 games of the 2007 season. Duke fashioned a nearly perfect comeback story, losing by a goal to Johns Hopkins in the NCAA final, for the second time in three years. Carroll was a first-team All-American defenseman.

Carroll had another year of eligibility, but he made up his mind: He would no longer be a Blue Devil. He would become a Ranger.

Carroll never personally knew Regan, whose framed No. 10 jersey now hangs outside the Duke locker room. But prior to his senior season, Carroll got Regan's contact information from then-assistant coach Kevin Cassese. He intended to speak to Regan about the Rangers, but Regan left the country for his fourth deployment before they could talk.

***

Carroll (left) served four deployments as a Ranger, in Iraq in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2009, 2010 and 2011. (Courtesy Casey Carroll)

Carroll soon found out how hard it was to become a Ranger.

First there was basic training. Then Airborne School, basic paratrooper training at Fort Benning, Ga, followed by a four-week program then called the Ranger Indoctrination Program. (It’s now the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program and lasts eight weeks).

The process is crafted to weed out those who are not capable of sustaining the rigors of Ranger duty. Often in stifling heat and humidity, trainees are pushed to physical and mental limits. According to various public accounts, there’s a combat water test, ruck marches up to 12 miles and things called smoke sessions in which privates are told to do pushups and flutter kicks indefinitely. You might have to hold a 45-pound rucksack over your head until your muscles fail. There’s “Cole Range,” a four-day experience of little sleep and mental exhaustion comparable to the Navy’s “Hell Week” for SEALs.

If you pass all of the tests, you may have the choice to select which battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment you join. In Carroll’s case, friends of Regan still serving in the 3rd Battalion were proactive. They helped recruit Carroll to their group. He ended up in the identical battalion, company and platoon — a group of about 40 soldiers — in which Regan served.

Carroll deployed to Iraq in 2008.

“It was a pretty special thing,” he said. “I kind of realized the moment I got there, ‘Holy crap, I might have bit off more than I can chew.’ If you could imagine how we felt [at Duke] without Jimmy, imagine the regard that those men held him in, having been there when it happened. I never felt that I had to fill anybody’s shoes or anything like that, but surely knowing what Jimmy meant to the platoon, I didn’t want to let anybody down.”

Carroll started as a grenadier on a vehicle he described as similar to one in the video game, “Call of Duty,” with a 203M-grenade launcher on the back.

After serving at least one deployment, which for Rangers typically last about four months, Rangers get the option to attend Ranger School to become a team leader. This is a roughly 60-day slog with three phases — at Fort Benning, a mountain phase in a remote region near Dahlonega, Ga., and a swamp phase near Eglin Air Force base in Florida. With limited sleep and food, trainees encounter high-stress situations.

In the swamp phase, for example, Carroll was awake for most of nine days straight. He was lucky to get between 15 minutes and an hour of sleep each day. It prepares you for the worst. You're given a buddy, the theory being that having someone to support you will help you through the challenges. But Carroll ran through so many partners, he could not accurately answer the question about who was his.

Eventually, Carroll became a fire team leader of his platoon, just like Regan. Carroll even ran the New York City marathon in honor of Regan to raise money for the Lead The Way Fund, which supports families of Rangers who have been killed or wounded.

“Despite popular belief, it will in fact take more than six strides with my long dancer’s legs to make it to the finish line,” Carroll wrote in a humorous fundraising pitch on a website. “Like coach Mike Pressler always said, ‘We’re not just going for a run. It’s a race.’ I paraphrased that, but I figured it would look better in quotes.” 

After Iraq, Carroll deployed three more times, to Afghanistan in 2009, 2010 and 2011. He executed raids on known terrorists based on intelligence of their locations. “We were strictly going after the bad guys,” he said. “There’s a whole lot that goes into that. Everybody has their own role. Just like on a lacrosse team, if I’m sliding to a guy, I know that Chris Hipps or somebody is coming to get that second slide behind me. Everybody just has to do their job and watch each other’s back. It’s the same concept over there. Everybody is keeping an eye on their sector and doing their job. We were lucky enough to eliminate a lot of enemies.”

During Carroll’s third deployment, he said there was two-month stretch where the entire battalion, across the country of Afghanistan, seemed under fire.

“Every day there was a mission where one of our guys was getting hurt or killed,” he said.

On one of Carroll’s missions, a member of his platoon was shot. He survived, but it reminded Carroll of the realities of war.

“That was the first moment where you realize you’re not invincible,” he said. “You never think it’s a game, but the moment one of your own goes down, it turns the whole thing on its head. We always want to come home, keep everybody safe. When you start seeing that, as good and as well-trained as your unit is, you don’t have total control, it definitely changes your perspective on things.”

***

Carroll in the Duke locker room with faceoff man Brendan Fowler before Carroll's first game in almost seven years, the Blue Devils' 2014 season-opener. He has started 17 of 18 games for Duke this season. (Peyton Williams)

Carroll was honorably discharged from the Army in February 2012. As he neared completion of his fourth deployment, he was looking at options for the future. After talking with Duke coaches and school administrators, Carroll decided to return to Durham, N.C., to pursue an MBA at the well-regarded Fuqua School of Business, located near Duke’s practice fields.

With the help of the GI bill and the Yellow Ribbon program, which covers costs beyond the GI bill’s limits, and the support of his wife, Erin, a former Duke soccer player who taught grade school while Carroll was based in Fort Benning, he reenrolled at Duke in fall of 2012. At age 27, he received an additional season of NCAA eligibility based on an exemption for those who serve in the military. The couple's first child, Casey Patrick, was born in September 2012.

After a successful fall ball, Carroll tore his ACL in practice in January 2013. He didn’t play at all in Duke’s run to the NCAA championship, its second in four years. “It’s amazing,” John Danowski said. “He's jumped out of helicopters. He's on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he hurts his knee in a non-contact injury.”

Carroll rehabbed during the season and was cleared to play with a week left, but Duke preserved his eligibility. Carroll spent last summer working 70-80 hours for an internship in Charlotte, which set him back physically upon return to campus in the fall. He only practiced with the team two or three days a week while balancing school and family responsibilities. His second child, John Aspden, was born in November.

Danowski said the Duke coaching staff and likely the players had doubts if Carroll could return at full strength for the 2014 season. But as his father, Peter Carroll said, “If he says he’s going to do something, he’ll do it.”

Carroll said he wanted to play lacrosse again. 

***

On Feb. 8, Carroll trotted onto the field at Duke’s Koskinen Stadium for the Blue Devils’ season opener against Jacksonville. His parents, wife, children, brothers and sisters-in-law were in town to watch 60 minutes of lacrosse and then attend little John’s christening the next day.

“A big weekend,” Carroll said.

Lacrosse, his wife Erin said, is what Carroll does in his spare time. While other players hang out after practice, working on their sticks or enjoying the lacrosse facilities, Carroll usually heads home to tend to his family. "He's the first one in and out," Duke equipment coordinator Jay Bissette said.

The night before the Jacksonville game, after practice, there was a team meal in the Devils’ Den, a nondescript building near campus. Assistant coach Ron Caputo, who actually coached Carroll and Matt Danowski on a New York Empire all-star team in high school, arranged trays of Italian food for the players and two special guest speakers: Captain Jamie Sands, a former Navy SEAL Team commander, and Colonel Ron Clark, a 26-year Army veteran. Both men studied in a public policy and counterterrorism fellowship program at Duke. Danowski met them and asked them to speak to the team about their battlefield experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and how they could relate to organizational effectiveness, how groups get better or worse, but they don’t stay the same.

For the defending national champion, it was a timely message. It was for Carroll, too.

"Like Casey," Clark said, "I'm an Army Ranger."

Clark drew a direct parallel between lacrosse and the military.

Carroll, his sons John Aspden and Casey Patrick, wife Erin and father Peter after Duke's season-opener in February. (Corey McLaughlin)

"Everybody knows what a size of a platoon is, right? It’s about the size of your team, 35-40 dudes,” he said. “You know why platoons are that size, why lacrosse teams are that size? Since the days of the cavemen, men in groups of 35-40 will band together. How many dudes does it take to fight off a woolly mammoth or to fight off another tribe? How many dudes can you have assemble and still know what each other are thinking? You get a group that is larger than that, you no longer have the familiarity. That’s the size that prehistoric groups of men would fight in. That’s why the platoon is the basic element within a fighting formation."

Carroll spent about 45 minutes afterward listening to and sharing stories with Clark, Sands and the Duke coaching staff before sneaking home for 30 minutes prior to another team meeting on campus.

The players ran this meeting. The senior class, of which Carroll is a unique, respected and accepted member, spoke about what playing at Koskinen meant to him and how to protect the home turf. As with any group of college students, there were typical jokes and hijinks. But when Carroll spoke, a hush came over the room. "He demands that," Lobb said. "He’s really what Duke lacrosse is, a guy who believes in right and wrong and lives his life the right way.”

Carroll spoke in a laidback tone.

“The fact that I'm standing here right now, and there are 500 other Duke lacrosse alumni who would kill to be in my shoes, says it all,” he said. “It's the coolest thing you're going to do, until maybe you have kids, or something like that.”

Laughter echoed in the room.

Later that night, Carroll caught up with John Danowski’s college roommate, Arthur Diamond, a judge in the Nassau County (N.Y.) Supreme Court, who was in town to hang out with his longtime friend and watch the game. Diamond talked to the freshmen about the extra scrutiny they face as Duke lacrosse players.

At about 10 p.m., Carroll and Diamond stood in the hallway of the team building and talked about Carroll’s real-life plans to close on a house, the mortgage that comes with it and a sales and trading job with Wells Fargo that he will start this July in Charlotte. Professional lacrosse with Major League Lacrosse's Charlotte Hounds could also be an option. Carroll is on their 23-man protected roster.

*** 

Game day felt nostalgic for Carroll, who missed the locker-room humor he compared to the team atmosphere of the Rangers. Earlier in the week, Carroll texted with a Ranger buddy, Tyler Fillion, who reasoned that listening to Lady Gaga would guarantee 10- to 15-percent added strength during a workout. Carroll also keeps in touch with the 2007 Duke seniors, who have a long-running email chain, just busting chops and keeping up with life updates.

“It’s probably the same reason why all athletes just wish they had one more year,” Carroll said. “It’s just pure fun being out there and having a blast.”

An hour before the game, Carroll, wearing a black brace on his left knee, threw and caught in pre-game warm-ups, went through some stick-work drills then retreated to the locker room. Inside, there was no mention of Carroll’s wayward journey back to this place. Focused on lacrosse, he slipped the familiar No. 37 white game jersey over his head and shoulders in the corner of the room next to Brendan Fowler, Duke’s prolific faceoff man and the star of its 2013 NCAA championship run.

Danowski ran through the basic elements of success, including winning the ground ball battle, a Duke trademark. “This is just a glimpse of what’s to come,” Danowski said of the season.

Moments before the opening faceoff, Carroll took a spot on the sideline between Lobb and freshman Calder Alfono for the national anthem. His legs shook back and forth in place as the song finished. When it was over, Lobb and Alfono tapped Carroll on the back, and he sprinted to midfield to line up with the starters for both teams.

Carroll played nearly every minute in Duke’s 16-10 win over Jacksonville, and started all but one of Duke’s 18 games this season as the Blue Devils prepare to face Denver in the final four on Saturday. His unique road back has led him right to where he was seven years ago, with a chance to win a national title with Duke at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. After the first game of his return tour in Durham, as Carroll sought out his family in the stands, a fan found him first.

“Good to have you back.”


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