Army vet and wrestler Cila teaches mental toughness

Updated: May 9, 2024

Photo: Despite losing his left hand while serving in the Army, Sam Cila, a former wrestler from New York, became an Ironman athlete while promoting mental health awareness.

By John Klessinger

After a successful operation on July 4, 2005, to “grab a high-value target,” Sam Cila and his team (5th Group Operation, 1st Calvary) was ordered to go back and complete a presence patrol that night in Iraq. His team did not know that the enemy had staged an ambush on them. Lined on opposite sides of the road were two Improvised Explosive Devices. 

The IEDs were detonated, and Sam and his captain were its casualties. The explosion sheered Sam’s left bicep and tricep. His brachial artery was severed an inch from his heart. At the same time, he was shot in his left leg. Shrapnel wounded the left side of his body up to his chest.

“Wrestlers are built differently,” said Sam, an accomplished wrestler at Smithtown High School in Long Island, N.Y., and then at Nassau Community College. “That level of toughness and the physical toughness I learned from wrestling allowed me to sit up and fire one round back at the enemy.”

From there, a whole different world ensued for Sam. In 2008, after over 50 surgeries to repair his arm, Sam elected to have his left hand amputated from his wrist down to improve the quality of his life.

Sam spent seven months in Walter Reed Hospital. He was told to “relax” but Sam didn’t understand what that meant. Serving two tours in Iraq, 2003-05, Sam’s daily life was war and chaos. It was his “normal.” Yet, he was being told to relax. 

“It was a quick transition; from war to peace,” Sam said.

Beyond his amputated arm, Sam suffered from PTSD, depression and anxiety from the ambush.

“I had to learn to be integrated back to life,” he said. 

Sam had a wife and two kids. “I had to relearn how to communicate with them.”

He remembers the day vividly. September 11, 2001. Sam was a corrections officer for the Suffolk County prison. He started the day high on life. That day began a two-week scheduled vacation.

Admittingly, Sam spent the day not engaged with the dramatic “9/11” happenings in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. It wasn’t until his flight to Las Vegas was canceled and he was called into work for an “emergency situation” that it dawned on him that something was seriously wrong. At the prison, he found out details that his co-worker lost her husband and son in Tower One of the World Trade Center. 

Three weeks later, on October 14, Sam enlisted in the Army National Guard and shortly after became an active-duty member of the United States Army. 

“Up until that point, I never did anything that was brave or honorable,” he said. “I was a wrestler, but I underperformed and it still is one of my biggest regrets. I saw what people were doing after 9/11. They shared duty, honor, and courage. I wanted to be like that.”

In 2008, Sam was linked to the Challenge Athletes Foundation. The organization gave wounded veterans a way to deal with their physical and “invisible” (mental-health) challenges. It was called Operation Rebound. The slogan was “the front line to the finish line.”

An Ironman athlete, Sam Cila has ridden his bike countless places, including from Santa Monica, Calif., to Annapolis, Md., in Race Across America.

Sam began competing in triathlons and other events. He became frustrated. He didn’t want to be viewed “as the poor guy with one arm.” He thought to himself, “Why can’t we (challenged athletes) do this at an elite level?” 

Sam and seven other challenged athletes decided on a “no-more-poor-me” attitude. “They were here to race.” What resulted is nothing less than remarkable. Sam became a national-level triathlete, making three U.S. national teams. He competed in the Ironman World Championships — a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run — in Kona, Hawaii. He rode from Santa Monica, Calif., to Annapolis, Md., on a bicycle in the Race Across America. And Sam has climbed two of the highest peaks in the seven continents and each of the tallest mountains in the United States. It is fair to say Sam Cila is one tough customer. 

I bring all this up for one reason. To highlight a significant difference between mental toughness and mental health. Sam has struggled with mental-health challenges. He likes to call them mental “behaviors.” 

“Mental health is an overall blanket,” Sam said. “Issues (mental health) are behavior patterns. If you want to fix mental health (including performance anxiety), you have to really look at mental behaviors.” 

He doesn’t think his challenges are any more significant than someone else because of the ambush in Iraq. 

“It is unique to every individual. The only similarity is how we process it,” said Sam, who still has difficulty sleeping. He sleeps in “intervals” three to four hours at a time. “The demons are loudest when I’m alone. That is why I hang out with great teammates with a mission and a purpose. Too many people make bad choices without a purpose driving them in life.”

Mental health has become a big initiative in colleges and high schools. The post-COVID aftermath has left many in the United States ridden with anxiety and depression — the two leading mental-health disorders in the world. Sam stressed sharing your vulnerabilities with others as a way to manage “behaviors.” 

That is one of the reasons he challenges himself regularly. 

“There’s something about suffering I enjoy. It allows me to dive into the behaviors, gain clarity, and continue to better myself,” Sam said. “If you don’t have a purpose, something to fight for, your demons become the loudest. Challenges help me regulate the behaviors.” 

Nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population struggles with a mental-health disorder. Those are the reported numbers. A large percentage of people remain silent about their challenges. There still is a stigma or a “weakness” label attached to them. Sam agrees but has also said it has gone the other way.

“It publicly is used as almost a crutch,” he said. “If you want something to be different, you have to be willing to do something different.

“We self-sabotage ourselves. It is an alibi at times instead of facing the challenges. People run. Find the easy way out,” he said. “Avoiding the difficult, the behaviors ultimately make the other behaviors worse.

“Mental toughness is the ability to accept some things are out of your control. It is attacking mental adversity with equal or greater force.

“I try to be as physically tough as possible. Physical toughness is never saying die. I train that way. Mental toughness is never even thinking about it. That is why I want to spend time with people who won’t let me think differently.

“I am honest with myself. I have learned being dishonest is more of a detriment and takes me further from where I want to be.”

What Sam says to himself is no different than what he says to football teams from Notre Dame or basketball teams from Kansas. He is an expert instructor on leadership and team building. 

“I have to be the most confident person in the room when working with athletic and corporate teams for The Program,” Sam said. The Program is a leadership and team-building company based in Massachusetts. 

“I don’t always feel that way. But I talk about it. I am vulnerable and honest,” he added. 

Sam has worked with hundreds of teams and thousands of athletes. His presence in a room is undeniable. When Sam talks, people listen. His story brings silence to a room. Just as quick though Sam doesn’t hesitate to tell some of the best athletes in America or an executive from a Fortune 500 company his mistakes. He admits he still struggles at times.

No one would have blamed Sam if he decided to be “the poor guy who with one arm.” 

But, at this point, I think you understand the person Sam is. He runs into things that are “hard” because he knows the alternative would only cause more pain. Duty, honor and courage. I think it is safe to say Sam has fulfilled those obligations and continues to do so every day. And he makes it clear, we can all do the same. It is only a willingness “to do something different.”  

Here are some of Sam’s points of emphasis if you are struggling with overthinking, mindset or mental behaviors.

1. The problem is rarely the problem. Overthinking is rarely the solution. 99 percent of the harm of a challenging situation is caused in your own head by you and your thoughts. One percent of the harm is caused by reality.

2. Self-rejection is poison. Sometimes, we are not confident in our abilities, attributes and strengths. We may fear failure so strongly that we reject ourselves before anyone else has a chance to. This can lead us to operate solely in our comfort zone. Never overthink yourself into self-rejection. The more you do it, the stronger the habit becomes and the more powerful the poison gets.

3. Conduct a self-debrief and evaluation. Although we can’t change the past, we can always learn from it. Through past experiences (both good and bad), we can usually discover ways to positively influence the future. So, ask yourself what you can do to positively impact the future, then lean forward and act.

4. Be present in the now. All you have is the now. How you act now can help right your past and create good for your future. Make peace with yesterday, bear down and attack the now.

5. Acceptance is peace. No amount of anxiety will change your future. No amount of regret will change your past. For me, peace is found in acceptance, imperfection, uncertainty and of the uncontrollable. I became stronger mentally and emotionally once I understood I don’t have to understand, tolerate, or even forget, but if I want peace, I must accept.

(John Klessinger is a teacher and wrestling coach at South River High School in Maryland. You can follow him on Instagram @coachkless and like his Facebook page “Coach Kless”.)