There are times in life when a single moment can change absolutely everything.

It was the middle of the night – 2, maybe 3 a.m. – in February 2006, and Staff Sgt. Aaron Anderson and his team of U.S. Army Special Forces were about to set out from base to capture a member of the Taliban at a location in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. But when they learned their target was not in place, the mission was postponed. Hours later, the group embarked on a new mission: supporting nearby villagers who were being harassed and threatened for resisting the Taliban regime.

“The Taliban were exploiting the local populace,” Anderson says. “We wanted to go out there, get them help, gather intelligence and set our targets. We needed to figure out the network so we could understand how to strike.”

The men were in good spirits despite their original mission having been called off. In the Humvee, Anderson and his fellow soldiers were chatting and laughing, talking about how each had a connection to California. Thousands of miles away from home in a war zone, it bonded them in a deeper way. One moment, they were teammates out on a routine patrol looking for intel. The next ….

The Explosion

He felt like he was in an isolation tank, suspended in midair, time moving slowly. Dust and debris clouded his vision, and all he could hear was the reverberation of white noise and tinnitus in the aftermath of the explosion, accompanied by the bitter stench of chemicals, fuel, gunpowder and smoke.

An improvised explosive device – or IED, as they’re more commonly known – had ejected the men from the vehicle, killing the driver and slamming Anderson into its crater along with hot metal and shrapnel that burned the back of his legs. At the time, he didn’t realize the full extent of his injuries: His left leg was broken in several places, both heels were crushed and a pectoral muscle was torn, among other wounds. But Anderson knew he was alive. A man of faith, he thanked God.

“My brain was going a million miles an hour,” he said. “I had to assess the damage and react to stay alive.”

The truck was in shambles – the entire cab crushed, weapons damaged, including a mounted .50-caliber machine gun – and they were under enemy gunfire. It was more than an hour before Anderson could be medically evacuated.

Coming of Age

As a child, Anderson had a great sense of duty that sometimes led him to make reckless, albeit noble, decisions to ferociously defend those in need. When he was just 10 years old, a burglar attempted to break into his family home in Van Nuys, and instead of hiding or running from danger, he confronted the would-be intruder through the window in an attempt to protect his younger sister sleeping in the next room.

When he looks back on his youth – his interests, his hobbies, his cunning, his rebelliousness, his tenacity, his propensity for getting into fights and his deep desire to right the wrongs he saw in the world – it seems logical that he’d end up in the Special Forces. But he couldn’t have imagined what would lead him there.

He was a 20-year-old community college student when two hijacked planes flew directly into the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

“I knew I had to do something,” Anderson says.

Weeks later, he walked into a local recruitment office and signed up to become a Green Beret, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, a select group that specializes in unconventional warfare, gathering intelligence, and training and equipping the oppressed to defend themselves and their communities.

“I was at the right age, and I was looking for direction in my life. Everything fell into place. I needed to do it for myself, and I needed to do it for my country,” he says, his voice breaking with conviction.

Operation: Green Beret

Recovery from the explosion was a battle of its own. Anderson underwent 24 surgeries to save his legs and spent several months in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. It was there that he met fellow veterans, many far worse off than himself, trying to cope with limited physical capabilities as well as limited government resources.

“There were guys in there worrying about how they were going to take care of their families, struggling to figure it all out and put their lives back together again,” Anderson says. “That’s stressful. That impedes healing.”

Once again, he found himself on the front lines, determined to make a difference. Only this time, he was ready to lead the charge.

“Charity organizations would come in, but they didn’t understand me,” he recalls. “They didn’t understand most special operations guys in there.”

So in 2009 Anderson started his own: the Green Beret Foundation. The San Antonio, Texas-based nonprofit has transformed lives by helping wounded soldiers pay for ongoing medical treatment, supporting family needs, awarding college scholarships to their dependents, and even covering the costs of in vitro fertilization for a veteran and his wife who desperately wanted to start a family but couldn’t due to combat injuries.

“The fact that we got to help create life was, hands down, the best thing that has come out of the Green Beret Foundation,” Anderson says. “When you’re in the military, you see life taken all too often. To bring life into the world was incredible.”

Since its inception, the organization has worked with more than 2,500 families. When a Green Beret is injured, the foundation immediately sends a check and a care package to get him through his hospital stay. From there, it determines what type of support he may need going forward – from career placement assistance to experimental medical treatments not covered by military insurance.

“We fill the gaps the government cannot,” Anderson says. “That’s why organizations like ours exist.”

Assembling the Troops

For Anderson, the key to building a successful nonprofit was putting the right people in place – those with a connection to the Green Beret community who understood the type of people they were helping.

As he tells it, Green Berets are more than just tough Army guys, the real-life “Rambos” of the world. Known as “the quiet professionals,” they’re used to getting the job done themselves, managing high stress, operating in secret and keeping a low profile. They’re proud and determined, and they view the world through a different lens.

“Many of these families will not ask for help, but they really need it, and they’re only going to go to somebody they trust within the community,” says veteran and Green Beret Foundation board member Rone Reed.

“Green Berets are alpha males,” Anderson elaborates. “They’re exactly the kind of people who don’t want to take a handout.”

That’s why getting the right team in place – a board of directors made up of veterans of various wars, permanent staff members with Green Beret loved ones, and Special Forces liaisons who could personally reach men and women in need – was so important to the organization’s success.

The Quiet Professional

Today Anderson leads a seemingly quiet life compared to his military days, which ended as a result of his sustained injuries from the explosion. He’s a husband, a father, an executive MBA student at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business and a floor trader for PIMCO, an investment management company in Newport Beach. He’s moved on from his nonprofit, leaving the organization in typical Green Beret style: in the capable hands of people devoted to improving their communities.

“Green Berets are all about standing up for people who aren’t able to stand up for themselves,” Anderson says. “We give them the means to protect and defend themselves and enable them to grow.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in international studies at UCI in 2013, he spent his spare time working with the local veterans community in Orange County and on campus, serving on the PIMCO Veterans steering committee and organizing events in partnership with UCI’s Veteran Services Center to assist student veterans in translating their military skills for use in the civilian workforce.

“When you’re in the military, you see life taken all too often. To bring life into the world was incredible.”

“The military offers a lot of opportunities to develop administrative and technical skills, so, naturally, our veterans gravitate toward subjects like business, engineering, computer science and law,” says Adeli Duron, director of the UCI Veteran Services Center. “Aaron has helped his fellow veterans and local employers realize the unique qualifications veterans bring to the table. He’s always willing to lend a hand.”

Anderson’s current passion project – a computer-aided design software startup – lives in the Beall Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business. He and his co-founders, MBA classmates Gokul Kumar Kolandavel and Brenden Monahan, aim to invent a software platform that incorporates augmented reality into the design process so that electrical, mechanical and manufacturing engineers can seamlessly work together in real time.

“Ultimately, we want to create a product that’s going to help people collaborate more effectively,” Anderson says. “If we can get people connecting and interacting in a more engaging manner, I’ll know we’ve done something right.”

Originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of UCI Magazine.