Warrior’s Creed: A Life of Preparing For and Facing the Impossible
By Roger Sparks with Don Rearden. St. Martin’s Press, 2019. 320 pages. $28.99. Also available as ebook and audiobook
Roger Sparks, who lives in Eagle River, served in the military for more than 25 years as an elite Reconnaissance Marine and an Air Force PJ or pararescuer, earning a Silver Star for valor in Afghanistan. “Warrior’s Creed” is his story of how he trained and served, backed with the philosophy that has guided his beliefs and actions. As an inside look into a driven warrior’s life, it makes for compelling, even inspiring, reading.
Don Rearden, author of the novel “The Raven’s Gift,” previously co-authored “Never Quit,” the impressive memoir of Jimmy Settle, another Alaska pararescuer. Rearden has said that helping Sparks capture his life on paper “has been one of the highest honors of my writing career.” (Settle himself makes a cameo appearance in “Warrior’s Creed.”)
Sparks’s early life, as he tells it, might not have seemed all that promising. The son of a drug-dealing, violent ex-con — two of his early memories involve his father viciously beating a man and clubbing a neighbor’s cat to death — he nevertheless always felt loved and protected. His concept of manliness involved showing no weakness, which meant that as a young teen he suffered for a long time with an extremely painful knee until he could no longer hide its tumorous growth. When told he would never walk normally again, he threw himself into a rigid regime of athletic training. A further knee injury only intensified his commitment to become the strongest person he could imagine, mentally as well as physically.
After high school, Sparks joined the Marines, determined to work his way into the Recon ranks, where he’d been told the toughest men in the military operated. Along the way he did a stint with the French Foreign Legion, an experience he describes as “brutal.” Curiously, while he details his training extensively, he skips over his active time in the Marines and picks up his story as a civilian. (Perhaps his reconnaissance work was too sensitive to be recounted?) When he told a career counselor that his goals were to master himself physically, mentally and spiritually, he got only a questioning look. Soon he reenlisted, this time as a Recon trainer.
It was at that time that Sparks learned about samurai culture and an 18th-century samurai warriors’ guide, the “Hagakure.” That wisdom, and “The Warrior’s Creed,” a samurai instruction from the 14th century, resonated with him as the way he’d been living his life. They supported his desires to avoid comfort and overcome every limitation. (The creed opens the book, and excerpts from the “Hagakure” begin each chapter.)
Not long after leaving the Marines for the second time, Sparks joined the Air Force to become a pararescuer — that is, one of those highly trained, highly skilled medics who jump out of planes and helicopters into combat zones as well as other treacherous conditions. Badly injured in a training exercise, he forced himself back into health and strength, as he had before — and would again.
Stationed in Alaska with the elite 212th, Sparks found he’d “moved from being an instrument of destruction to focus on protecting and saving lives.” In this mid-section of the book, Sparks tells numerous stories of Alaska rescues — and recoveries — of plane crash victims, sick and injured rural residents and mountain climbers. He also details one of his own daredevil and nearly disastrous packraft adventures.
As fascinating and adrenaline-rushing as all of Sparks’s storytelling is, the apex is reached with the long chapter called “Bulldog Bite.” In the fall of 2010, Sparks was deployed to Afghanistan, where he took part in the week-long Operation Bulldog Bite, a gruesome battle with insurgents. Here, in what feels like a second-by-second reenactment of his experience, he dropped into the middle of a firefight where he did what he could to reach, protect and stabilize coalition survivors. This horrific depiction of the reality and cost of war should be required reading for those who romanticize warfare or send young people into harm. Sparks has some very frank things to say about the “dirty business” of corporate and contractor profits from wars.
In the end, Sparks wants us to understand the toll of grief and post-traumatic stress, but also to grasp the transformative power of experience and “the importance in creating something of value for ourselves and each other.” He hopes that by telling his own story — which he makes clear was not easy for him to do — others may contemplate their own lives and the kind of fighters they wish to be.
Aside from work as a tattoo artist and painter, and from caring for his family, Sparks today is involved with two non-profit organizations that add value to our world. Force Blue utilizes the skills of combat divers for coral reef and sea turtle conservation. Healing Our Heroes promotes and provides cell stem therapy to injured veterans.
Extraordinary acts, Sparks tell us, come not from heroism but from desperation. His book, extraordinary in its own gritty way, shows us what it is to be human and humane.