By Greg Barnes, Staff writer
Kyle Maynard implored Fort Bragg's wounded soldiers to set impossible goals for themselves and then strive to reach them.
When he had finished speaking, about 300 strong from Fort Bragg's Warrior Transition Battalion responded with a standing ovation.
Maynard has that effect on people, especially wounded soldiers, who can empathize with a 26-year-old athlete who was born with arms that end at his elbows and legs that stop near his knees.
But the disabilities - if they can even be called such a thing - haven't stopped Maynard. They hardly even slow him down.
In January, Maynard crawled his way to the top of Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. He said he was able to make the grueling trek in 10 days by repeating the mantra of a Navy Seal: "Not dead. Can't quit."
At the summit, Maynard spread the ashes of a soldier killed in war, fulfilling the wishes of the soldier's mother.
Maynard's entire life has been a series of obstacles that he has overcome. In sixth grade, he decided to take up wrestling. He lost his first 35 matches, but his parents wouldn't let him quit. By the time he had finished high school, he was recognized as among the 12 best prep wrestlers in the country. He has set records in weightlifting and fought in a mixed martial-arts cage.
Maynard's accomplishments led him, as a 19-year-old college student, to write a book titled "No Excuses."
That year, Maynard landed an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, making him an instant star and putting him on the path to become a motivational speaker for Fortune 500 companies.
Only one problem, Maynard told the wounded soldiers. He felt like a fraud. He was lonely, gaining weight and depressed.
For weeks, Maynard said, he complained and whined to his parents, only to be told - as he had been so many other times - to stick it out.
On the day he had finally decided to pack it in, Maynard had a chance meeting with two Fort Bragg soldiers, Alvin Shell and Wesley Spaid, at an airport.
He said Spaid and Shell had been riding in a convoy in Iraq when a rocket-propelled grenade struck a fuel truck. The explosion left them so badly burned that Shell was told he would probably never walk or talk again.
Shell and Spaid had recognized Maynard from an HBO Real Sports special and were amazed to see him sitting in the airport by himself. When they greeted one another, Maynard noticed the burns.
He said the soldiers' stories reinvigorated him.
"They have shown me my purpose," said Maynard, who now spends much of his time inspiring wounded service members.
He told the gathering at Fort Bragg's Main Post Theater that they need to find their own purpose.
"Find your why," he told them.
Sharing stories that were often hilarious and sometimes sad, Maynard told the soldiers to look past the ugly comments and stares they may receive from others.
"The way that someone else looks at us does not dictate who we are," he said.
But most of all, he said, seek to improve yourself, to reach your potential and more.
"You guys have the capacity to change lives," he said. "I challenge you not to give up on that, but to seek that."
Staff Sgt. Phillip Leonard listened to Maynard's speech from the back of the Main Post Theater. Leonard said he was injured when a roadside bomb exploded and insurgents attacked the soldiers he was leading. He said a rocket-propelled grenade hit his back, and he was shot in the leg and lower back.
Leonard walks with a cane now and said he suffers from chronic pain and a traumatic brain injury. Regardless, he said, he doesn't want to leave the Army and hopes commanders will allow him to stay.
Leonard said he knows of other soldiers in the battalion who complain and just want to leave the Army with full medical retirement benefits.
"This puts their injuries into perspective," Leonard said, referring to Maynard's speech. "Quit whining and do what you can for other people."