During the daytime in the desert, you always think that you can see [enemy fire] coming,” says pro bodybuilder Garrett Downing, who served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including 11 months in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the first Gulf War. At least he thought he should be able to see it. But this time he didn’t. Manning the .50-caliber machine gun atop his Humvee, Garrett heard only a brief hiss before a mortar shell exploded less than 10 feet from the road. The heavy blast concussion threw him from the vehicle and brought the convoy to a screeching halt. As commanding officer in the motorcade, Garrett quickly rose and barked orders to take cover even before the dust and debris had settled. As the men scrambled for safety — no easy feat out in the open — Garrett radioed back to base to triangulate the origin of the mortar. “We didn’t even know where to shoot,” he recalls. “All they were able to tell me was that it was definitely not friendly fire.” Confusion. Chaos. War.

“That’s when I first said to myself, ‘This is some real shit, not just some arcade or Nintendo game.’”

Despite being stationed far away from the main battle zone, his group was still a bullet magnet. “At night, we would have tracer rounds fly right past us, so it wasn’t exactly easy to rest,” says Garrett. “But most of our engagements were from a distance.”

“I look upon those years as giving me the discipline that carries me through to today,” Garrett says. “I still wake up around 4:30 every morning.”

Since having strangers constantly shooting at you takes a toll, he needed a way to keep his wits about him. That’s when Garrett started occupying his down time with weight training. He eventually took up powerlifting, which he credits for providing him with the heavily muscled base that he has since forged into a pro bodybuilder’s frame.

“Powerlifting gave me an excellent head start but moreover, it taught me how to lift,” he says.

Yet getting his reps in wasn’t easy. Improvised benches and makeshift barbells were about all he could manage when in camp in the Saudi desert. Asked by a superior officer one day why he was carrying around a wooden bench, Garrett replied that he needed to stay in shape to fight.

“No, you don’t. You need ammo to fight,” the officer snapped. Yet Garrett continued to train, reprimands, mortars and tracer fire be damned.

Speaking to Garrett today, one would never guess that he’s a combat-experienced war veteran. As soft-spoken, polite and articulate as he is, you’d also think it a stark contrast to see him manhandle the iron the way he does. Hundred-pound dumbbell shoulder presses? No sweat. Can’t find any 45-pound plates in the gym? Garrett must be working the leg press. Akin to the good guy in the movies whom you really hope ultimately gets the girl, Garrett’s a guy you want to root for, but he hasn’t yet broken into the upper echelon of bodybuilders. It’s hard to believe his size, razor-sharp conditioning and good looks have been overlooked. Still, he’s philosophical about some of his recent placings.

“After finishing fifth at the Toronto Pro last year, I realized I’m not even at my peak yet,” he says. “I just do my best to prepare; the rest is up to the judges.”

Garrett is hoping that his time in the pros leaves a strong imprint, regardless of how many times his name is announced throughout the rest of his career. “I really want to be remembered for my character and for having a good sense of self,” he explains. “I want people to know me as having contributed something positive to the legacy of bodybuilding.” Whatever he has done in his life — from contest preparation to dodging incoming artillery — he has done it with the same yeoman’s work ethic. Battle-tested and better for it, Garrett Downing is definitely living up to the semper fidelis credo.