Steve Schneider is totally that guy. The three-sport high school athlete with tons of friends who was small but scrappy and kind of good at everything. The one who had "A+ potential" but preferred to be a class clown. A guy who was so affected by the September 11, 2001 terror attacks (and a cousin in the military who was killed in a helicopter crash just before his wedding day) that he joined the Marines the minute he turned 18.
He planned to be a leatherneck for life, retire at 48 after 30 years in with full benefits, so he killed it in basic training, quickly rising through the ranks and impressing his fellow soldiers and commanders.
"I could have gone anywhere I wanted to go," he said of his state of mind after volunteering for the Air Wing Unit, which would have taken him to Okinawa, Japan, and then on to Afghanistan 13 years ago. "I felt invincible ... like I was a hero and my sh-- didn't stink."
And then, in the blink of an eye, he went from being in the best shape of his life and harboring dreams of fighting alongside his fellow rookies to lying in a New Jersey hospital bed with a life-threatening brain injury and his parents being told to prepare for his funeral.
A night out in a 'sh---y part of town' changed my life forever
Schneider wasn't injured in combat, though. While awaiting deployment to Japan, he went out one night to a bar in a bad part of town and, well, "things happened." He said he was trying to break up a fight when he got hit from behind and had his head smashed on a curb, with his assailants leaving him for dead.
"They told my parents I had a 50/50 chance of living after the surgery where they put three plates in my head," Schneider said.
"For whatever reason, maybe because I was still a stubborn little sh--, I woke up," he said, remembering how he immediately regretted his decision not to take a cushier assignment in Hawaii that would have kept him out of trouble that night.
After three years of brain rehab at a hospital in Maryland -- where he saw people he trained with come back with gruesome war injuries and went himself from promising Marine to handing out towels at a Pentagon gym -- a depressed Schneider was released to find a new purpose in his life.
Broke, deep in debt and looking for a future in all the wrong places
Amazingly, after being discharged, Schneider said he walked by a bar in Georgetown, D.C., and answered a help wanted ad in the window despite having no experience bartending.
"When you're 18, 19, they keep giving you credit cards and I had a sh--load of credit card debt and I needed a few extra bucks," he explained.
So, Schneider hopped behind the bar at the dive club and it ended up being exactly what he needed to reboot his life. "It was the first time since the injury that I was happy," he said. "The bar is like a foxhole, the people who work next to you are on the same mission."
He entered a fastest bartender competition and won, started making enough to pay off his debts and, somehow, the increasingly more complicated drinks he was asked to make felt like a new, different kind of rehab.
Not the kind of service he was dreaming about...
"I regret that I never got deployed," said Schneider, 31, who lives in Brooklyn with his rescue dog and holds down a job as the top bartender at one of New York's most esteemed cocktail bars, Employees Only. "At the risk of sounding like a faux hero ... I signed up for duty and it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that that wasn’t gonna happen.
"I’d be a fool to say that I'm not happy and lucky that I'm still around. I got a second chance and not many people can say they got that second chance and I took advantage of it."
After starting from the bottom at Employees Only six years ago, Schneider, of course, rose through the ranks faster than any employee there ever had. These days, he travels the globe training other bartenders and representing the U.S. at cocktail competitions all around the world.
One day a few years ago, a stranger (who turned out to be award-winning filmmaker Douglas Tirola) came into the bar on a slow Tuesday and was so impressed with Schneider's skills and story he decided to make a documentary about the craft cocktail movement called "Hey Bartender" featuring a profile of the former Marine.
Learning to 'shut up and listen' all over again
The Marine Corps gave Schneider a sense of discipline, but he said being the principal bartender and bar manager at Employees Only has given him a whole different kind. From dealing with people who maybe had a few too many, to working with his team and making the team, and the bar's patrons, feel safe and supported, Schneider has risen through the ranks and now he's ready for his toughest mission behind the oak.
"Some of the guys I was with are gunnery sergeants now and they were 18-year-old punks when we started," he said. "It makes me think what rank I could have made. Now I have the opportunity to go from being an employee to possibly opening my own bar."
Schneider, who is working on his second edition of giant, six-pound Standard Issue signature ice hammers said the advice he has from his pre- and post-military life is the same.
"Find something you love and find somebody you believe in who does the same thing and listen to them," he said. "Shut up and listen and learn and teach other people about what you learn. That's how the Marines work. Learn from those who came before and teach those who come after."