Brian Daniels was still a student sitting in a U.S. classroom when the bombs that would upend his life more than a year later were concealed in the ground half a world away.
In the time between those two points on his life’s arching spectrum, Daniels would join the military, finish basic training and be deployed to Iraq before his Army patrol was on a route clearance mission between two checkpoints when his vehicle pulled into a driveway to turn around.
Then he felt the truck drop.
In the nanoseconds that followed, Daniels was able to register the terror that was ripping through the vehicle and his brothers in arms. He was thrown 150 feet from the blast. It was November 2005, and Daniels was 19 years old.
“Someone set off three 155 artillery rounds with a cellphone. There was no indication that the bombs were there,” he said. “EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) later said that the bombs were planted back in 2004 — so when I was still in high school, the bombs were sitting there waiting. … There were five of us in the truck. The four others died.”
In the 16 years since then, Daniels seems lifetimes away from that moment; however, the reverberations from that day continue to help shape a significant portion of his life’s work. In fact, it was on a visit to the gravesites of his fallen colleagues that Daniels made the decision to open emPOWer Lansing at 2010 E. Michigan Ave. The boxing and fitness facility he founded three years ago also echoes back to the physical training he undertook to aid in his own recovery from the physical and mental trauma of his wartime injuries — and it’s something he wants others to reap rewards from, physically as well as mentally and emotionally.
“One of the things that you have to do to get through a trauma is to have small victories,” Daniels said. “Being in a gym and in a fitness facility and finding yourself being stronger, or standing up straighter, or lasting longer, or being able to complete an exercise you couldn’t before helps give you that victory. Now you’re in the fight, and that’s all people want to do is to be able to actually fight back.
There’s a lot of things trying to push you down. So now you have the ability to fight back against it. Giving people that victory, that’s priceless.
“I think that people need to know that you’ve struggled too. Misery loves company, right?” he continued. “So, when someone says they have a trauma — people share very, very honest and hard things with me, and I share my very honest and hard things with them. I think that the community here, as a whole, we support each other. When you’re able to do that, you’re able to actually start, as my therapist would say, walking through the fire as opposed to just putting up walls or trying to drink it away.”
The 2,000-square-foot facility is gearing up toward a 1,600-square-foot expansion for a weight room. Daniels works with six other trainers at emPOWer Lansing, each with his or her own fitness specialty and each with his or her own personal story of success through overcoming personal obstacles.
“I think that people who have been through those fights are able to help people better than someone who’s always been into health and fitness — someone who might not necessarily be able to understand the struggles of people walking in here because they’ve never experienced it,” Daniels said.
That understanding and openness contributes to what makes emPOWer Lansing focus on acceptance of anyone who is looking to become their better self.
“You have a lot of toxic masculinity in a boxing gym, but not here. I’m very much against that, and we nip it in the bud,” Daniels said. “And the fitness industry, especially in the fight world, hasn’t necessarily been welcoming to the LGBTQ community. Whereas here, it doesn’t matter who you are. If you want to work hard and you are ready to work, we’re happy to have you. I firmly believe in America as the melting pot. It’s not supposed to be the divisive and political-based game that we’re currently playing. So, emPOWer is an extension of what America is supposed to be.”
It also doesn’t matter what experience level a new member has. The first step of that small victory that leads to larger rewards may simply be walking in the door.
“It took me a year to learn to walk again. I went from a wheelchair to a walker to crutches to a cane. I weighed 185 pounds when I got blown out. When I got out of the hospital, I weighed 123. Everything was atrophied,” Daniels said. “When I first walked into a gym, I couldn’t curl a 5-pound weight. I was never the big buff guy in high school. I was the runty quiet kid whose family couldn’t afford sports. But I got into fitness because I never wanted to feel as weak or look as weak as I did in the hospital. That’s still real and very much what I’m running from.”
What he’s running toward may be something altogether different.
As for the future, Daniels said he has been thinking about how he can serve more people outside the doors of emPOWer Lansing. One of those considerations is a possible political run, perhaps starting out at the local level on the Lansing City Council.
“I think that might be a good start,” he said. “I firmly believe that America is on the wrong course. I think that everyone agrees that we’re in a really bad way, and one of the reasons we’re in a really bad way is that all the good people who want to help are scared out of helping. Going into politics seems like a natural continuation of the oath that I took to defend my country. I’m here to serve my country, and that might start with Lansing; but I will serve America in any capacity she wants me to for as long as she wants me to.”
Yet whether politics is in his future or not, for the time being Daniels is focused on doing what he can — for himself, for those who walk into emPOWer Lansing and for the local community — in the moment.
“All I want to do is make being the only one who lived worth it — and to make sure that I’m contributing positively to Lansing and to Michigan and to America, because I love my country,” Daniels said. “I’m just trying to be the best person I can be now. You know, that’s not always easy. No one’s perfect. I’m by no means perfect, but I do my best. That’s all we can do. That’s all. So that’s the story.”