When his girlfriend called him, Christopher Albert couldn’t believe the news. It was September 11, 2001 and two planes had slammed into the iconic World Trade Center buildings in New York; the United States was under attack. As disbelief turned to anger, Albert and the rest of the Marine reserves in Norwalk, Connecticut volunteered to take up arms and protect the reserve site through the night as the nation reeled from the worst terrorist attack on US soil.
“It was absolutely surreal,” Albert said. “From my district we lost over 100 individuals, my roommate from the Marines lost his best friend and everything within 50 miles of New York City was on complete lock down.”
It was 13 years ago, but like most people old enough to remember that day, he can recount the emotions that surged through his body like it happened yesterday. Being a reservist, he knew the attacks meant his deployment was likely, and the rage produced by the attacks made the thought of being shipped out to Afghanistan a priority. He wanted to get the people that committed this terrible act. Two years later, he’d get his chance.
Albert was part of the initial wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The 21-year-old sergeant helped run security missions protecting scientists traveling to and from Bahrain on the Euphrates River. He remembers navigating the river that bisects Iraq and watching artillery rounds going off in the distance as he floated around on a tiny boat. Stressful doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Still, in hindsight he admits that he was one of the lucky ones. He returned home after one tour and used his veteran’s benefits to further his education. If it hadn’t been for the fact that he reached the dissertation phase of his political science doctoral program at the University of California Santa Barbara, his drinking, which had spiraled out of control by that point, would’ve been more of a red flag.
The alcoholism that he developed post-deployment isn’t something that Albert directly attributes to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that he would eventually be diagnosed with, but the nightmares, depression, and the guilt that stemmed from, as Albert put it, “sitting on the bench” while his unit was enduring the worst parts of the war in Fallujah, could definitely have been triggers.
He was home, thousands of miles from the mortar rounds and improvised explosive devices, but his battle had just begun.
“When you come back, the media wants to see amputees,” Albert said. “They want to see people who have physical wounds. That makes for good images, they want to support wounded warriors. The thing is, they don’t understand the trauma and absolute violence it does to one’s life to, one, be put in a combat zone but, two, be sent away for a while and then have to come back and start everything over.”
Starting over has been a recurring theme for Albert since returning from the battlefield. The once-homeless entrepreneur quit drinking in 2007 and now runs a construction business, online training company and Warrior Soul Apparel—a clothing company that sells fitness gear with 20 percent of the profits going toward helping veterans returning home from deployment— which was inspired by his desire to help his brothers in arms transition back to civilian life.
Albert, no longer wanting to dissect the subject of war and turned off to the idea of authoring entries in academic journals, abandoned his PhD work and turned to fitness to escape the solitude of research, and to overcome the substance abuse that was consuming his life. He moved to Long Beach and was one of the original owners of Metroflex Gym. For Albert, it was a crash course in business; he learned a lot, but the dollars didn’t make sense.
Despite having a client list that included YouTube workout sensation C.T. Fletcher (nutritionist) and helping train Brian Banks—the Poly alum who was imprisoned for a rape he didn’t commit—for his NFL debut after his release from prison, Albert was broke. He was training people and living out of his car, having roughly $200 in his bank account at any given moment.
Still, he managed to save up enough money to rent a room in North Long Beach, turning his training expertise into an online enterprise where he no longer had to meet with people in person; instead, he now develops personalized training and lifestyle guidelines to help people become healthier. He was eventually able to save enough money to bootstrap his Warrior Soul clothing line and start his mission to help veterans in need. The line is veteran owned, operated and produced, with the focus being on supporting those who sacrificed for their country.
“I wanted to come up with something that would let me help all veterans,” Albert said. “A lot of these guys don’t have anyone to talk to. They’re not wounded warriors, they don’t have any physical scars so they think that they’re not either worthy of getting anything for themselves or most people don’t understand them.”
He partners with Team AMVETS, a Long Beach-based charity that orchestrates a Welcome Home Project, and Active Heroes which helps to fight veteran suicides. According to national statistics from the Veterans Affairs, veteran suicide rates have hovered above 20 per day from 2008-2010. Active Heroes places that number closer to 22 which amounts to over 8,000 veteran suicides annually. They hold an event called Carry the Fallen, a 12-hour ruck march in every state in America four times a year to raise donations and awareness.
Sharon Elefant, Veteran Outreach Manager for Team AMVETS explained that with The Welcome Home Project, veterans are provided with grocery gift cards and furniture for the units provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which are often unfurnished. Albert met Elefant while serving as her personal trainer, where they discovered they both had a passion for helping people.
“I’m Jewish, [...] Chris is not, but we both live by the philosophy of tikkun olam which means 'to heal the world,'” Elefant said. “We’re civil servants and it’s our job to help people. We don’t even hire anybody, we do it all ourselves because we’re focused on using every resource we have to help the veterans.”
The fact that the charities he gives to appropriate all of the money he donates was important to Albert because he was aware that often times, the funds given to organizations don’t always end up in the places where they’re needed.
“When you’re working with charities, a lot of times the percentage of profits doesn’t necessarily get to where it has to go,” Albert said. “I’m a for profit company and I give a higher percentage of my income than a lot of larger scale charities do to their actual causes. I wanted organizations where I knew the money would get to the cause."
Although veterans are the focus of his philanthropy, they are not his target audience. Instead, Albert wishes to help anyone who is trying to better their lives both physically—through training and motivational workout gear—but also through blogs on the Warrior Soul website, where he has entries on entrepreneurial advice.
“I wanted to create a message where I wanted to tell people, you’re alive and that’s a blessing,” Albert said. “And by virtue of having that blessing, you have an obligation to live your best life ever.”
He chose the Chinese Wu symbol to brand his line, with its literal translation meaning “martial” as in martial arts, or "to cease the use of weapons," much like the veterans he’s trying to aid through his donations. The feudal-Asian peasants that developed martial arts because they weren’t allowed to possess weapons mirror his mission, to help those without the necessary tools prevail over their life challenges.
Albert had no idea that the symbol he first noticed on a Wu Tang poster as a teenager and later got tattooed on his abdomen would eventually become the branding of his fitness apparel company. The Wu has come to represent more than just a “badass” rap poster, it’s now a beacon of hope for those that have nothing.
“The method is to create a means of self defense without having the resources,” Albert said. “So, to overcome something without having the resources available and that’s a big part of what I try to advocate with the brand.”
Albert started a Kickstarter campaign where he hopes to raise $8,000 to help further develop and research the female line of Warrior Soul clothing. With the help of Elefant from Team AMVETS, he’s also in the process of setting up the Warrior Soul Foundation, a 501c3 that will be aimed at combating veteran homelessness and helping with suicide prevention.
Above all, Albert wants to spread the message of hope and the power to turn your life around, whether you’re a veteran or civilian. He believes that in this life “you can either live or exist,” and he hopes to help teach the necessary skills to give people the power to choose to live the most extraordinary lives possible.
“I’m somebody who’s not perfect at all,” Albert said. “I’m somebody that’s been an addict. I’m somebody that’s been a junkie, an addict and an alcholic. I’m somebody that’s had a lot of failed relationships. I’ve faield in business and I’m somebody who’s lived out of my car. What I really want people to udnerstand is that if I can do it, they can do it.”
Donations can be made to the Warrior Soul Kickstarter here.
Above, left: Christopher Albert wearing one of Warrior Soul's t-shirts with the signature Wu character. Photo courtesy of Christopher Albert/Warrior Soul.