They Lead

A Sports & Service Interview: Dedication, Fitness, And Service

Emilee White

Ken Corigliano seems like your average American man. But “average” is far from the correct word to use when describing the Air Force veteran.

From the United States Air Force to Ultimate Beastmaster Champion, Corigliano is a man of many talents, but his journey in life was almost cut short by a near-fatal car accident. It was because of that car accident however that Corigliano realized while he had done a lot in his life, he was not really seeing life around him. It was because of that car accident that Corigliano gained a new perspective. 

Corigliano spoke with Sports & Service about his passion for fitness, his commitment to serving his country, and a life experience that had such a profound effect on him that it literally changed the way he viewed the world.

*This interview has been edited for clarity.

You have this incredible passion for fitness — you’re a former Beastmaster champion, you're a world-ranked triathlete, obstacle course runner, and extreme sports competitor. Where did all of this passion come from?

It's a series of events for me, and I think when you ask that question, “Where did it all come from?” I think that we all have an innate program to improve society and others somehow, in some way. When we accomplish something that was driven by ego or a sense to feel or be superior, we lack fulfillment. For me, I had a calling that said, “Hey, look, eventually this is going to be big, and you need to stay committed and you need to just have faith.” 

When I was in Uzbekistan, we had these bad guys try to invade the base. I got all suited up, I started running, and I thought I was going to die. I was a muscular dude, but I was like, “These muscles don't help me. If I pass out right here, I'm going to die.” I realized looking fit did not equate to being fit. I got my commission slot just a few months after that and I failed my fitness tests for my ROTC interview, even though I had a full scholarship. I was sued for my tuition back. It was very embarrassing to leave a combat environment with medals of heroism and then be disenrolled because I couldn't run half a mile. It was incredibly embarrassing and I said I would never be unprepared for anything. 

So I trained and I trained. I remember getting in the pool trying to learn triathlon and this coach was telling me that I'll never be any good. A few months later, I beat his entire team out of the pool and beat almost all of them in the triathlon, including him. That told me we are as much as what we put in — if you have the vision, the drive, the motivation, and the determination for sports, that's all you need.

Why did you pursue a career in the military?

I had exposure to [the military] and what I liked was that it was respected — the uniform was respected. I had no desire to join the military at all until my sister passed. Shortly before [her passing], I had a recruiter visit me in my class. I was a very bad high school student; my parents got divorced, I was homeless at a point in time, and I just didn't understand the whole point of anything. I tried to destroy everything around me. This recruiter was so handsome and so strong, and the uniform looked great. When my sister passed, which was a couple of months later, I understood that I was mortal and I was confused. 

I went to see the recruiter and he said, “You have been a total waste on society. You have no evidence to show that you have done anything for this world, nor have you earned anything. You have only been taking. You are like a parasite. Why would I ever want you in my Air Force?” I honestly thought the military took anybody. I asked for help because I didn’t want to be useless in society. He took me under his wing and trained me to be a man. He became like a father figure to me and is still one of my best friends to this day. 

For me, to answer a larger question, when I wake up in the morning, I still feel like I owe the uniform for getting me out of the streets, off of whatever awful trajectory I would've been on, but it's not just about me. The uniform has done this for tens or hundreds of thousands of other people and I owe it to wear that uniform. I feel such an obligation to be the example, to wear this uniform, and do the best job that I can humanly do in my position.

So In 2011, you were getting ready to compete in the U.S. Trials in the triathlon, but you ended up not competing because you were in a car accident. You were also deployed to Iraq shortly after. What's the story of the car accident and why you went on deployment, but did not compete at trials?

It was an awful accident. I was scheduled to deploy and I said I would love to go see my parents. I was in fantastic shape and had a recent letter to the Olympic team to attend the trials. I flew over to Florida to see my parents and I was supposed to do a race. The next morning I'm there, I invite all my family out to go to the beach. I'm coming back [from the beach] and I get hit by a car while I'm on my bike and it was at high speed; it was not good. 

I'm all messed up. I can't talk, I can't walk, I can't figure out anything. My brain is trashed to where I didn't even know what was going on and neither did my unit because there was no impetus in my brain to call them. I couldn't even talk. I was told I needed to go back [on deployment] ASAP because I could only get medical care through them and all this bad leadership nonsense. So I had a pre-deployment physical, which includes nothing of brain injury examination whatsoever. They said I could still function sitting down at a computer and I should be fulfilled, plus there was nobody else to backfill me.

So I still had to go — I was forced to go. At one point on the flight over there, they had to bring the plane down because I could no longer feel my legs. I was in extreme pain. We landed at Hurlburt Field and I got examined, the doctor could not figure out what was going on, and he said he didn't have any authority to pull me from the deployment and that I have to continue. So that was it. I still went and [the deployment] was extremely traumatic.

At what point were you finally able to get the help that you needed to move on from the accident?

I don't think I ever did. We just were not set up for the type of injury. It was a brain injury of non-executive level functioning. Once I naturally recovered my ability (language and cognition), which took a few weeks to speak a little bit better, it was evident what my injuries and symptoms were. My memory was so bad that things would happen and I would not remember the problems. I just didn't remember. It was unbelievably challenging and it took years for me to even articulate and find people that could even help. 

The medical system is, I mean, it takes months to get any movement anywhere. If you're moving in the wrong direction, you just spent six months getting the wrong test, seeing the wrong specialist, going back to primary care, which is months behind schedule, trying to get them to do the right referral, and then get the people to write the right referral. It was a mess. So I don't think I did [move on from the accident].

I used the military medical system to get tests done to justify where I should move next and I think that was the most important part. The biggest improvement was when I found NuCalm, which is a neuro-acoustic software company that down-regulates the stress response. That's when I saw the results and my memories came back. My fitness came back and I was able to sleep for more than 45 minutes at a time. I had a sleep test done and I was only sleeping like 40 minutes at a time. As you can imagine, my hair was falling out and my nails were falling. It was awful, so that was the biggest improvement.

After the car accident, you developed a condition called Synesthesia. What is it and when did you start to experience symptoms?

It happened upon impact. When I got hit, I hit the windshield, I slid across the windshield as it broke, scraped up my back, hit my head on the windshield, hit my head on the ground, and with the double hits, I was gone. 

I was up in some heavenly kind of experience, and the experience was phenomenal. I saw the connection of life in my life in other people's lives. For many people it's different, but for me, it was cool. Basically, I just kind of went up and I certainly left my body. I did not turn around to look at my body. I didn't want to look at it, I just was going up, and I just thought about all the people I'm leaving behind. 

There was no pain, no nothing. It was just like this glorious feeling of acceptance. Then, what I saw was probably three days in a matter of seconds, but it felt like it was three days of movies of people interacting with me, but through their eyes. I talked to this one person and helped them achieve what they were sent here to do, but I did that without any expectation. What's funny is when you do those things, you will not remember them because you're just doing something that's within you and you're just being who you were born to be. It's not a major significant event. So I didn't remember any of these things and I got to see it through their eyes. 

At that point, I was given this gift that I could see the connections between things. The way the gift works is it uses all my senses to do it. So when you [say] apple, I see it, I taste it, I feel it, I can smell it. It all depends on my previous experiences. But that was my experience and it was worth the price of admission.

Could you tell me the backstory of your end state, or Myndstate initiative, where you coined the phrase “freeing our heroes from the shackles of manual processes”?

I've had my fair share of supervisors and commanders that I have not wanted to have. The biggest thing that I saw was that they 100 percent put their careers above the growth of their people. I did not like that, particularly now that I was equipped with this knowledge that, in the end, potentially everything that I've done out of the kindness of my heart has helped people realize what they were here to do. It will be an unbelievably awesome movie and I want to rack up as many episodes as possible. 

You get one life, that I know of. This might be the only human experience you get. If you're sitting there filling out spreadsheets, PowerPoints, emails, and all this other crap, you never get that time back. So my driving motivation in the military is to free people, everybody that I can, from the shackles, and they are shackles. You only get one time and this is a very competitive sphere. We cannot have our airmen, soldiers, sailors, and guardians wasting their skill sets on manual processes when our adversaries are spending a budget a hundred times that of ours on automation and cutting-edge technologies. It does not work. 

Photo credits: Courtesy of Ken Corigliano’s Instagram & Website