When talking recently about assistant special teams coache Ben Kotwica, Rex Ryan said, "I think he's going to be a star in this league. I could see him [as a head coach]."
Kotwica's current role is a far cry from where he was in 2004, part of Operation Iraqi Freedom 2, flying Apache Attack Helicopters in the Iraqi war.
Kotwica graduated from West Point in 1996 and after graduation, he served in several other parts of the world including Korea and Afghanistan before arriving in Iraq. He described his job in succinct terms, "I was an Apache driver. I shot and blew things up."
He and the other pilots were there to provide support to their fellow soldiers on the ground. When those troops were in trouble, that's when Kotwica would step in, doing whatever was necessary to help keep the American soldiers safe.
In the process, he lost members of his unit, people he continues to think about to this day, especially on days like Memorial Day.
Kotwica, who was awarded the prestigious Bronze Star, among other citations, outlined some of the unique challenges that this particular war presents to those fighting it. "It's not a clean, linear battle. It's like flying over Manhattan and you can't tell the good from the bad. I didn't take any satisfaction [in killing people], I don't take the loss of life easily."
Although his primary job was in the air, he witnessed everything from the most mundane to the most horrific, on the ground and over his cockpit radio, which piped in the the most intimate sounds of the battle right into the pilots ears.
"[Nothing] can prepare you for what the reality was on the ground. You see heroism, you see bravery, you see cowardice, you see fear."
Fortunately for Kotwica he has been able to manage the great trauma he experienced and witnessed, and even joked recently that while he does not experience flashbacks from the war, he does occasionally wake up screaming when he dreams about the Jets loss to Seattle last year.
While he chose the Army as his first career, Kotwica, who was a standout linebacker for Army, always knew he wanted to coach. "Growing up, I always looked at the coaches who coached me and said, 'this is something I'd like to do someday.'"
In 2006, having left the Army, that "someday" arrived. Kotwica was coaching at the U.S. Military Academy prep school when his former head coach at Army, Bob Sutton, (then the Jets defenseive coordinator, now linebackers coach) came calling. Sutton and then-head coach Eric Mangini decided to give the young war veteran a chance at his dream job.
"I left the Army because I really, really wanted to do this," he said of coaching. "And an opportunity presented itself. I consider being able to do this a tremendous privilege. I love what I'm doing right now."
However, he wants to make sure people never lose sight of what America's Armed Forces are doing. "You need to thank them for what they do. They put a lot into it and they sacrifice a ton."