Targeting Stigma: Stories from Stockton Veterans on Service, War, and Issues They Face on the Home Front
Student-veterans are often labeled by stereotypes – the gun-waving punisher, the selfless Captain America, the PTSD-ravaged ticking time bomb.
None of these stereotypes are accurate.
Targeting Stigma strives to show that student-veterans don’t want or need charity or sympathy. They need a new sense of purpose. The reason they enrolled at Stockton University was to find that purpose.
Many of the stories are raw and disturbing.
But student-veterans shared them to give readers a sense of what it felt like to be in their shoes during a time, in their much younger lives, when they thought they knew their purpose.
By Karen Matsinger, Mental Health Counselor, Stockton Wellness Center
In the five years that I have spent working with Stockton’s military population, I have sat with almost 300 military men and women. They have shared their experiences on military life, war, coping with illness and trauma, and the difficult task of starting a new life after leaving the military. Over the years, they have extended a privilege to me by allowing me to be present with them, learn from them, and hold their histories.
Stereotypes of military personnel generally fall into one of three categories:
The first is the punisher – the gun-waving bro who chastises people on social media and believes they have cornered the courage and bravery market.
In second place, we have Captain America - the do-no-wrong, heroic all-American whom we should profusely thank for their service to our country.
And the third, most damaging stereotype, is the outraged vet - the PTSD-ravaged, psychologically unhinged, and behaviorally unpredictable ticking time bomb.
These stereotypes are not accurate. For example, PTSD is a real thing, and it is a serious thing. It is not something that can get swept under the rug or “toughed out,” and absolutely the best thing for vets who are suffering serious emotional or mental distress is to get professional help. However, only a small minority of veterans who are struggling with combat-related trauma experience nightmares or flashbacks associated with PTSD and not all veterans are “triggered” by loud noises or sudden movements.
Here is the real kicker: Student-veterans get labeled based on these stereotypes all the time. It’s not uncommon for student-veterans to be asked if they ever killed anyone. Regardless of whether the veteran has or has not killed someone in combat, the question itself can still generate anxiety. What's more, anxiety can decrease educational performance by reducing working memory, or the ability to hold information for processing — a necessary component of successful academic functioning. A reckless question asked by an immature classmate has the potential to negatively influence a veteran’s academic performance, simply by way of stereotyping and its consequences.
Negative stereotypes created about veterans are far more damaging than anything that affects their health as individuals. They do not wish to present themselves as victims. Veterans don’t have a monopoly on post-traumatic stress or suffering. In fact, most people with post-traumatic stress are not veterans. Stockton’s student-veterans want to encourage all students to have open conversations with each other about their experiences and their struggles.
So, I am here to tell you that our student-veterans are pushing back against the stereotype of the broken hero who once did incredible things but is now forever damaged and in need of help. Hopefully these essays send the message that student-veterans don’t want or need charity or sympathy. They need a new sense of purpose. The reason they enrolled at the university was to find that purpose.
The students who wrote the monologues did so reluctantly. When I presented the project to each individual I was most often asked, “Will this be anonymous?” That question alone expresses how stigma and stereotyping affects our student-veterans.
In these stories you will be handed memories that, often, have not been shared with mothers, best friends, or lovers. This was a very emotional and difficult process for the students who own these memories. Some thanked me for allowing them the opportunity to purge their emotions while others jumped at the opportunity and then hesitated for weeks and, in a few cases, years before submitting a monologue. They are sharing their stories with hope that you can get a sense of what it felt like to be in their shoes during a time, in their much younger lives, when they thought that they knew their purpose.
Yes, I Am a Veteran
Go ahead let’s hear the questions you have for me.
Kill anyone? Does being able to pull a few pounds with the small of my finger make me more of a f***ing man to you or does it make me the murderer that you never wanted to f***ing address in the first place. You don’t have to reply, your face says more than you could imagine for this topic. At the end of the day I go to bed knowing what I did without your look of pity or disdain.
Changed me? Nah, spending 14 months of my life in a distant land and watching people get shredded to pieces because they stepped in the wrong spot couldn’t hold a candle to the Instagram quote that changed your life. Making calculated decisions to end another person’s life and having them make attempts to end yours is a mundane experience. I hear if you want to have your life changed you should try hot yoga.
PTSD? You are moving fast. Is this like speed dating? Oh no… it’s your interview for the Veteran’s Experience class. Please forgive my ignorance for mistaking you for a compassionate human being because after this 15 minutes is up I will never see you again. I think our interview is going great. Yeah… that car crash that lasted a few seconds sounds pretty scary. Do you want to hear about my car crash that lasted 3 days? I walked for over an hour to get there and could hear it raging on the whole time. Damn... was that answer too real for you? It was pretty f***ing vague. If you are afraid of an answer, do us all a favor and do not ask the question.
Free college? You must be referencing my contractual agreement with the United States government. No… it’s not like they say, “All be all of FAFSA,” and you might want to bark up a different tree on this one. The veteran students on campus pay a different fee. Some feel the need to drop a class because the syllabus says that military service is not a valid excuse for an absence. Others are told they cannot take a test or quiz because it falls on their drill weekend. If only there was a law to protect these students and provide them with equal opportunity for success… or just someone to hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions. At the end of the day I guess those students succeeded because of their own actions and self-advocacy skills.
Suicide? A very real topic and I will not be sarcastic. I have had between 6 and 8 friends complete suicide. Not remembering their names or the number makes me feel guilty but I refuse to look them up. I do not need to see the posts from their mothers, wives, and families on their Facebooks. The loved ones describing how they are missed on the anniversary of their deaths is unbearable. My friends have a history of choosing the most effective means for completion and at times double down. One survivor attempted to overdose on medication and shoot himself to ensure he completed suicide. Many have been successful with this method. Fortunately, he took the medication too soon and collapsed before he could make it to the woods with his gun. He did not want his wife or family to find his body with the gunshot wound. He wanted instant gratification and relief from his pain. His answer was a long-term solution to a short-term problem.
How to Burn Sh**
There are many less-than-glamorous chores and duties when it comes to living at the edge of the world, so far from home, and the comforts of modern life. We rely on generators to supply us with power. All of our food has to be brought in by air, and after all that food is consumed, then something must be done with the waste.
On our COP (combat outpost) we had no working toilets, or any kind of plumbing for that matter. What we did have was a wooden shack with three “stalls.” These were actually just a wood board with a hole cut out over the bottom 1/4th of a steel drum.
With two platoons stationed at our small outpost, well, that adds up to a lot of sh**. Now, seeing as how we can’t just dump this waste inside or outside our compound, it has to be burned, and, furthermore, someone has to be the one to have the great honor of burning three barrels of sh**.
This esteemed privilege landed upon my unpleasant but unsurprised shoulders. While I was not overly cheery about having to burn sh**, it did get me out of a four-hour guard shift and it was something new, which I was always willing to experience. The first time the barrels filled up, my Squad Leader Alvarado, a short-tempered but well-meaning man, handed me a hard plastic fuel filled with diesel and a metal pipe and told me, “Time to go burn the sh**. Grab a friend to help you.”
I walked two rooms over, to Stiles bunk, gave him a swift slap on the face and said, “Get up f***er, Alvarado said someone’s gotta help me burn the sh**, and that’s you buddy.”
“What the f***!” he shouted back at me, as both a reaction to being slapped in the face and what I was signing him up for.
“Meet me by the sh**ers, bring gloves, a neck gaiter, and your smokes cause I’m running low.”
Five minutes later, Stiles walks up to me with the saltiest facial expression I had ever seen him wear.
“Okay, so we have to carry each barrel out one at a time by the handles and bring it out of the gate by Tower 1, I got everything set up over there, so let’s not f***ing spill anything,” I said to Stiles half laughing.
We moved all three barrels out to the side of a cobblestone wall, poured in about a gallon of diesel fuel into each one, balled up some newspaper, tossed it in and set all of it on fire.
If you have never experienced the smell of diesel fuel, urine, and human waste, burning together in a steel bucket from three feet away, you should count yourself lucky. It is a smell so strong, it is impossible to wipe it from memory. It will haunt your nasal passages for the rest of your natural life and possibly the afterlife as well. I found that after I was able to get the urge to vomit under control and I kept relatively upwind, I got used to the smell in around a half-hour to an hour. It really is a strange feeling to say that I was able to get used to the smell and I feel a little disgusted with myself for having said it.
After the first time having to burn the sh**, I began volunteering for the duty. I have no idea why, but for some reason beyond me, I didn’t mind having to burn sh**. There really is a science behind it too, I learned a lot after a few ritual burnings. I made a few discoveries even.
Firstly, I tried to designate each stall with a function, number one or number two, because each burned easier on its own than together, though no everyone followed this system, to my irritation.
Secondly, I found that adding diesel to the barrels after replacing them allowed the waste and fuel to mix making it easier to burn in the future.
Lastly, I invented a technique of burning and stirring which cut the burn time to about three hours instead of five. I happily shared this knowledge with anyone who was unlucky enough to get sh**-burning duty with me. After filling in Sgt. Covich on my discoveries he appropriately replied, “You’re f***ing weird, you know that?”
“Yeah buddy, I know.” I lit another cigarette and gave the bucket a stir.
War is a strange place; it gives a person some strange habits and some even stranger memories. For all the perceived negatives, I got to stand around a fire in the dead of winter, out of full uniform, out of a guard tower and smoke cigarettes with my best friends, which was all I ever wanted to do anyway.
Worst Day So Far
I spent more time up in Tower 1 on guard with Huckabey than I did with anyone else from my platoon. Huckabey was my team leader and one of the best friends I have ever had. He stood shoulder to shoulder with me in height; he had a distinct Kansas accent and an affinity for bumming cigarettes from me constantly.
Our tower was colder than most, with two large open windows overlooking dead grape-rows, and light mud homes that populated the plains and hillsides at the foot of the mountains. While Tower 1 was the coldest and arguably the most dangerous as it lay outside the American side of the COP (combat outpost) in the portion controlled by the Afghan National Army, who we worked with but never fully trusted, as corruption is rampant over there.
Tower 1 was not without its perks however. For instance, to access our tower, a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO), like a sergeant or higher, would have to unlock the chain to open the gate to the road that led to our tower. This chain was excessively noisy, giving Huck and I ample time to put our helmets back on. To explain, helmets are heavy and after four hours, it feels like a car on your neck so we always dropped them when we could.
Anyway, Huck and I were sitting on guard smoking or talking about what we would do if someone attacked us like this or like that, like we always did, day in and day out. This, I remember, was a particularly nice day; the sun was shining brightly, interrupted by a few stubborn clouds, and a slightly cool, socially awkward breeze that did not seem to want to interrupt our conversations. The status quo never stays the same for very long in a warzone - you are safe until you are not, you are sleeping until you are forced awake by the incoming fire alarm - and everything is quiet until it is not.
I heard a sound so horrendous and gut wrenching from just below the tower; I would have thought someone had been shot if I knew I hadn’t heard a gunshot.
Huckabey and I threw on our helmets, grabbed our weapons, and checked the perimeter and then the edge of the sandbag-lined windows. All the while, more screams, as if something was fighting for survival, in fear and in pain. We unlocked the thick reinforced steel door and stepped out onto the landing of our two-story tower.
Looking down, we saw two Afghan Army soldiers attempting to kill a dog with a mud-crusted, rusty pick-ax. He raised and lowered the blunt end of the pick forcefully down into the dog’s ribs and sides. I saw the blood soaking into the dog’s sandy-colored fur as its hind leg buckled behind it.
“What in the f*** are you doing!?” Huck shouted, both of us brimming with anger and hatred that I’m not sure either of us had felt before that day.
He racked his weapon, chambering a round. I did not know what he intended on doing, but I trusted him.
“Just shoot the f***ing thing!” he screamed down to the soldiers who now turned their attention to us as they realized there were two livid Americans shouting directly at them. While we were shouting at each other and trying not to start a fight between the Afghan soldiers, Huckabey and myself, that could easily turn deadly, I think the dog slipped between the gate and the outside wall of the Afghan side compound.
I have no idea what happened to that dog, if it died three feet outside the compound or three miles. I’m not sure if it kept on living and if it did, if it would have been better if Huckabey had shot it and stopped it from suffering. I didn’t talk to anyone for the rest of that day. I stayed in my room, closed the door, turned off the lights and failed to sleep for eight hours before my next guard shift began. Four months in. Worst day so far.
After the Super Bowl
On February 6, 2012, I woke up thinking I was going to have an easy day. Reveille was at 0530, (5:30 a.m.) which sucks, but since it was the day after the Super Bowl, I figured we probably wouldn't do much at work, as everyone was still hungover from the night before. I had no idea that after that morning my life would never be the same. When I left my room, emergency personnel blocked off the far end of the hallway, and I was forced to go downstairs to formation by using the stairs on the near side of my barracks building. When I got outside, the air was electric. There was an ambulance, three military police cars, and I think, a fire truck in the parking lot.
"Did you hear what happened? Harris shot himself and the EMTs won't go in the room so Prendergast is in there now trying to resuscitate him."
Confusion reigned. None of us had ever heard of someone blowing their brains out in the barracks before.
In August of 2011, my company returned from a combat deployment to what was then regarded as the most dangerous place in the world, Sangin, Afghanistan. Every day we battled an enemy that was invisible. Watching as our friends and fellow marines were broken and shattered by bombs buried in the dirt. Nothing separating us from the same fate as our dearly departed but a sixth sense for spotting and finding those deadly bombs, usually digging them up with either our fingers or our bayonets. After surviving, and thriving in, such a horrific environment for seven months, we figured we were safe. We had made it out. Or so I thought.
Harris was just the tip of the iceberg. In the coming months Blankenship, Lutz, Dalgliesh, Wolfel...a seemingly never-ending line of suicides for 2nd Battalion 8th Marine Regiment. At one point, in the midst of this crisis, our battalion sergeant major called all the enlisted marines of the battalion together to talk to us. Thinking we were headed into some kind of a pep talk, I was in for a rude awakening. This man, this senior enlisted marine who is in charge of all of us, and is supposed to be our leader, stood there in front of a mass of grieving brothers and told us that it was our fault that our friends were killing themselves. That if we were to blame anyone for their deaths, we should look in the mirror, because it was the fault of everyone junior Marine present, not him.
They taught us how to care for each other on the battlefield. I personally attended the highest level of medical training then available for infantry marines. And to this day, I can tell you how to treat a gunshot wound, a traumatic amputation. I can tell you the signs of shock and how to keep it at bay. I can spot the symptoms of hypothermia like nobody's business. But they never taught us how to treat the mental health of one another. And so we felt helpless. As the number of suicides in the battalion grew and grew, what could we do? Whom could we turn to? How could we help people who did not tell us they needed help? I just talked to Dalgliesh the other day, and now he is gone forever? You can rectify losing men in combat. Such is the way of war. That is what we signed up for. But to lose your friends AT HOME, to their own inner demons? How do you explain that away? How do you justify that?
Even now, as I sit here, three years removed from the Marine Corps, not a day goes by that I don't worry that I'll get another call like I did on June 23, 2015. My friend Haskin called to tell me that our friend, and tent mate, from our 2013 Afghan deployment, Sgt. Gross, had killed himself. What can we do?
I do my best to put on a strong face, to carry on, and try to be the best man and example that I can be for my junior marines, and for my peers. So they can look at me and say, "Hey T***'s doing it, if he can, I can." So that maybe, when these guys get down, they know they'll have somewhere to turn, someone to look to, because I know how it feels to not have anyone, to not have anywhere to go.
Never Steal Pudding
During the winter at Combat Out-Post (COP) Baraki-Barak (BBK), I was heading up the snow-covered stairs of Tower 5 to relieve one of the other guys so they could get some chow. While I was walking up, I noticed a few large packages of Snack-Packs beneath some boxes on an adjacent shipping container.
I decided then that I would come back later that night and “tactically acquire” these delicious pudding snacks for my platoon-mates who were on four-hour guard shifts watching some equipment in the cold. See, I say, “tactically acquire” but I really mean steal because I am 99.9% sure that these puddings belonged to the Navy SEAL’s that were also at our COP.
After I got off shift, I went back to the wood shack that was my room and planned this heist with my best friend, Stiles. Stiles was a weird guy with big teeth but he was my first and best friend I ever made in the army. If either of us were ever in trouble the other was always right there.
Under the cover of darkness, we made our approach through the tents and cobblestone walls to the base of Tower 5. We checked to make sure we were all clear before I put my foot in Stiles hands and he lifted me up to the top of the shipping container.
As I am half on the container, one arm and one leg, I notice a figure with a headlamp on walking parallel to us. It was definitely a SEAL. He looked briefly and kept walking. After he was out of sight, I swung over, grabbed two boxes of Butterscotch Snack Packs and jumped off. Stiles and I stealthily moved toward the barrel fire that kept us warm on our equipment guard shift.
We met up with my other best friend, Covich and his Team Leader, Soranno. I tell them, “Don’t ask me how and don’t ask me where they came from, but I got these for the guys, just burn the evidence and say nothing.”
We all smoked a cigarette and had a semi-frozen pudding snack before Stiles and I went back to the hooch, our plywood home. I went to bed that night thinking that I did a good job and that I did a little something to make things better.
Well, boy, was I f***ing wrong.
Turns out that those Snack Packs were about two years or so expired. Two years! Two years sitting up there, one full year spent frozen solid and one full year directly in the hot Afghan sun. Everyone who ate one came down with the sh***. I was immediately blamed and everyone hated me for about a week, though no one will ever let me forget.
To add insult to injury, I had eaten like three or four of those f***ing things and I felt fine. I still enjoy Snack Packs to this day.
Something to Carry
Shortly after my first college football game, the daunting reality that I would never make it to the NFL settled into my soul. My determination and skills would only take me so far and even being a big man, I wasn't the ideal size to play on Sundays. At this point in time, I was 320lbs and 6'2, lost, and only motivated by a dear friend that was killed in Iraq that I had grown up with. Initially, I had no plans to join the armed services, let alone the Marine Corps. I had done some research and spoke with my grandfather who is a Marine and found that they were first to fight so regardless of weariness I wanted in. Again, being overweight, I knew to make it to the war I needed to change my lifestyle.
My roommate in college at the time expressed that a "jacked dude" he knew ate whatever he wanted and still lost weight. I didn't know then, but it was that statement that started a super model lifestyle I had no control of.
Weight fell off as I progressed, eating a meal every couple of days and starving myself to lose weight. The mirror in my room became my biggest critic and my self-image was distorted and irregular. In April, after my 21st birthday, I had lost 40lbs in 3 months and was eligible to enlist. Even though I was allowed to enlist, I was still 10-15 pounds overweight according to the Marine Corps. Though a few pounds overweight, it didn't stop my escalation to boot camp. My weight issues were not over at that time and the strictness of weight standards would be subsided by the rigors of Marine Corps recruit training... for a while.
After the infantry training battalion, I realized that I needed to weight 208 to stay off the sh** list of the MC, which unfortunately was not a normal weight for my stature. With 4 + miles for PT in the morning and extensive training in the field I would have to consider eating for energy but also be mindful of nearing quarterly weigh-ins. It was after I had to lose 14 lbs. in one day that I realized it was going to be a long few years regardless of the potential risk associated with deploying to a combat zone.
My first deployment, living with an eating disorder, was not the ideal location to be struggling with body image and various other self-esteem issues. Fasting became somewhat of a second nature for me and even through 100+-degree weather I felt it was necessary to continue this lifestyle to stay ahead of the game. The single weigh-in I had no problem with while in the Marine Corps was in Sangin Valley, Afghanistan in a heavily laid IED village. A common thought of mine was that if I had lost a leg I would never be considered overweight. Fortunately I became addicted to finding IED’s rather than stepping on them and had success sniffing them out, which was a glimmer of self-attraction and self-esteem during this point of my life I grew to take pride in.
During my second deployment, long-term emotional effects from my eating disorders and forms of post traumatic stress, I began to retreat mentally. With a new command focused on non-mission essential actions like weigh-ins and other garrison bullsh** I had no relief in the way I viewed myself and the strong hate I developed for myself and everyone around me. This command was also responsible for directly demoralizing an entire company fallowing a suicide in the barracks of a well-respected Marine. I will forever hold a grudge for Lt. Col F**face and Sgt. Maj. Sh**head (who later killed himself). A senior Marine, said to me once when I was at boot, that the Marine Corps will hate and belittle the big guys until there is something big to carry.
As a civilian, my issues of body image and eating disorders have not let up and are still something I struggle with daily. Ups and downs…peaks and valleys...gutters and strikes, with no consistency, the waves of emotions drive my body through the day and leave me exhausted. I chalk it up to my great deception, like an actor playing a role.
"I Like a Man in Uniform"
Mex was the only one over the age of 21, but it was very easy to convince the bouncer to let us into the club, especially when Benjamin Franklin is involved. Everyone knows we have a full bank account and are eager to spend. Like idiots, we're drinking jaeger bombs because we don't know any better. Mex and Hollmann have taken to the dance floor, Rivers was sitting at a booth because his head was spinning, and I'm being awkward. This is my first club. I wasn't a very social kid back home. I did theater, a few sports here and there, but I just didn't have the gift of gab that others have. I made an attempt to talk to some girls, but I just couldn't find the right words to say. Picking up people at the bar is hard. I overthink it. I can't stand small talk. I want to talk about -something. Whenever I meet someone, I really want to get into a real conversation about real stuff. Not bullsh**. It's just not conducive in a club setting to talk about the problems in Darfur, or North Korea, or space or anything like that. So I was very unsuccessful.
“You're from Sheppard, aren't you?” came a voice. I turned. There she was, blue eyes, black hair, beautiful dress. Pale skin. Freckles. The girl from my flight. Sarah. We found each other two hours away at some random club in Dallas. Fate can seem like a strong four letter word, but in my 19-year-old mind, the stars had aligned. I wish I could tell you the words that were said, but I can't. The night was a whirlwind of drinks, of laughs and her dimples profound, the lights sparkling in her eyes, and a smile I have yet to repeat to this day. How we danced and it didn't matter that I couldn't dance, how she held me tight and didn't care that I had no rhythm. How after the lights came up and everyone tumbled into the street for after-party shenanigans, when we found ourselves in the backseat of my car, staring through the moon-roof as she pointed out Mars, the big dipper, and all that beautiful infinite that I’ll never see again. How we just fell asleep together, there, in each other’s arms, an embrace that only the desires of the armed forces of the United States could shatter.
I went to South Carolina; she went to South Korea. We talked frequently. I'd like to think that she remembered that night. I did, even when I was sleeping with other women. When I found myself in Iraq, I received that letter, saying that she cared for me but that she was pregnant by another man. I didn't blame her. How could I? I was young and in the best shape of my life and was having fun. It was just sad, that final moment of clarity. How quickly something so perfect and special can fade when you're not paying attention.
Sometimes, I sit and wonder what it would have been like if I wasn't so careless and awful. Would I still be in the military with the woman of my dreams? Was it just a perfect night together, and nothing more? Would we have grown to resent each other? What would our kids’ names be? Would her parents like me? Do you think we would have gotten a dog?
I joined the military to avenge my uncle. Following that choice, came a litany of misadventures I could have never predicted. I'm now approaching 30, ready to receive my bachelor’s degree. I have a great girlfriend now, and my prospects are bright and promising. But when I'm alone at night, and I sit on my porch, and I look at Mars, the big dipper, and all that beautiful infinite that never will quite be the same as it was, I keep thinking back to that warm spring night when it all made sense.
The House Was Abandoned
My life was quite simple back then. Maybe it was because I did not have to play the usual f***-f*** games everyone else was playing. My team was small and we all got along. In addition, we didn’t have to stand in any type of duty or watch. All I did was sleep, eat, workout, and patrol by going on missions.
This is my story - a day that began like any other day. I woke up in the middle of the day, ate something, worked out and did my PCC’s and PCI’s which are equipment inspections. After that, I had dinner and bitched at the cook because his food always sucked. Lastly, I gathered with the rest of the team for the next mission briefing.
We mostly worked in support of other units. For this mission we where looking for a sharpshooter that had been harassing the troops for a few days: almost killing one of the turgunners from Alpha platoon. (A turgunner is a person who sits on top of an armored car with a machine gun).
So we got ready. We packed our food, ammunition, and water. We departed as soon as the sun went down. We had to walk in the middle of the night for about three hours to get to our sniper hideout. After finally reaching our destination, we enter a compound. Compounds in Afghanistan were actually the locals’ houses. We searched for inhabitants. The house was abandoned. Since the house was very large, we decide to use the courtyard for our sniper hideout and block the entrances to it.
We hid there for a few hours until the sun came out. Alpha platoon was finally on their way to our west. It was around seven in the morning when we could finally see them. As Alpha platoon patrolled we kept a close eye on them.
Suddenly we heard gunshots. They were coming from a location that was close to us so we got ready to move. Alpha platoon informed us that it was the sharpshooter that we had been looking for and that he was aiming at the turgunner of the third truck of their patrol.
We looked around to find out where the gunshots were coming from. We realized that they were coming from the same house we were in. Three members of my team went around the house to gain access to the room where the gunman was located. My team leader and I got on top of the roof to provide security and protection in case the gunman decided to come out of the room.
The gunman did not realize what was going on. When the three members of my team were finally in place to engage, they shot him though the back of the neck. He dropped to the ground. Three team members slowly entered the room. My team member and I jumped down into the room and followed the rest of the team. The gunman was laying of the floor motionless, but even then, we approached him with caution. One of my buddies dead-checked him to make sure he was dead. He kicked him as if he was kicking a field goal for the super bowl. The gunman whined in pain. He was still alive. My buddy turned him around and I took possession of his weapon. There was blood pooling under him.
We called the corpsman, our medic, to assist us with the gunman. Once our corpsman got there he informed me that there wasn’t much he could do to help the gunman. Since both sides of his neck were open. He was neither going to die by suffocation due to his blood clotting in his throat or he was going to drown from blood going to his lungs.
We still called for a casualty evacuation, however the helicopter was redirected to assist an injured Marine from another platoon who had been shot.
Regardless, I had work to do. One of my responsibilities in the team was to carry the SEAK. This small computer takes pictures, collects fingerprints, and records basic information about the Afghani population. I began taking pictures of the dying man. At the same time, Alpha platoon had arrived to our location to reinforce us.
I requested help from my team leader since the gunman continued to move as I tried to collect his fingerprints. It been almost ten minutes and he was still alive.
My team leader asked the leader of alpha platoon for a Marine to come help me. They send the worst possible person they could have sent to help me. They sent me the biggest piece of sh** I have ever met to this day. The person they sent had recklessly put my life and the lives of seven other people in danger because he wanted to be negligent but that is another story.
At that same moment, I realized that the dying gunman had managed to cover my pants and boots in blood. I was so upset and mad. I was so mad that I began kicking the gunman in the chest and stomach demanding for him to die. He finally stop moving. He wasn’t dead but he finally stopped. Once I finish collecting all the information, I left the room. The gunman died a bit later. By this time, it had been more than 30 minutes since he had been shot.
Once I finished putting the information into the SEAK, I found out that I had spoken to him before. I had been to his house. I had seen his children. He had a family and now he is laying in a puddle of his own blood a few yards away from me. He was one of the locals. I asked myself, “Why would he shoot at us?” Not finding an answer to that, I said, “F*** him, he is dead now.”
Once the mission was finished we headed back to our patrol base. I handed in the information I collected to the intelligence officer and continued my day like nothing happen, just another day in Afghanistan.
The America I Fought for
It’s been one year since I’ve seen my home, my family, and my friends. A full year since I have eaten normal food and driven my own car. It has been one year since I’ve been able to relax and feel safe. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Easter, the 4th of July, Labor Day, and countless others have been spent far from home. It’s been one year since I gave up those things for the country that I love.
I return now with a sense of joy and satisfaction, hoping that I made the world a little better. That my sacrifice, and the sacrifices of my fellow soldiers, had meaning. I come home believing that I did some good, and I look forward to returning to the life I left behind.
But this is not the America I remember. I left a nation that valued courage and honor, but now seems to cower in fear. Kindness has been replaced by suspicion and hate, especially toward those who were not born here.
Doubt, mistrust, and anger are everywhere.
What is going on? What happened to the America that I left? Where is the hope, and courage, and compassion? I sometimes feel that we have traded one war zone for another.
How have we allowed ourselves to become so divided? Have we forgotten that we rise and fall as one nation, one people? We think differently, we believe differently, indeed, each of us is unique. But that is what makes us great. We are a diverse nation that has always drawn upon the strength of its people. There is no “us” versus “them.” We are not enemies, but friends and neighbors who should be looking out for each other.
Our president (Obama) once said, “the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.” That is the country that I remember, and I have faith that we can be that nation again!
A Personal Essay
In life there are millions of miniscule, simple moments that pass us by. While these moments are not usually the catalyst for a change in our person, the accumulation of these mostly unremarkable ticks of the clock are what make us who we are. It is hard to see what kind of person we are going to become, and more than that it is hard to see what kind of person we are. Then comes that one moment, that singular defining moment in your life that makes you look at all those moments passed and decide whether or not this is who you want to be.
For me that moment came during my second deployment to Afghanistan. To preface this, I had always had a pride in my ability and knowledge while I was in the Army. I felt as though I was really doing something good, helping the people of countries less fortunate than ours. It was not until one specific day that my eyes really opened to what was happening. I commonly refer to this day as the worst day of my life, and that has nothing to do with that fact that I was about half an inch away from dying.
The day started out normal, wake up at six, get breakfast, start prepping the vehicles for the afternoon mission. It was all rather mundane, we just seemed to be going through the motions at this point. However, within an instant that routine would be broken, shattered like a glass dropping in a restaurant. We felt it first, the shockwave that rolled through the camp, then came the sound, and finally the visual evidence of what we knew had already happened. A cloud of dust kicked up right outside our walls, motorcycle parts flying through the sky, some landing in our compound falling around us. We stood there for a few long seconds before everyone sprang into action, doing what we had been trained to do, moving without thinking.
By the time I got to my post at the front gate, the dust had died down and all I could hear were the screams and cries of women and children. Then I saw it. A man, carrying a small girl, running towards me, yelling, begging for help. As he placed the girl into my arms and I brought her into the compound for the medics to look at her, I noticed that it was a girl I had seen before. Whenever we went into the bazaar she would always be running around, dancing, and smiling. She was that symbol that I held onto, that physical evidence that what we were doing was good. And in a second that symbol was crushed. I knew she was not going to make it, but we did what we could.
It wasn’t really until later on, when I was sitting in a medivac bird watching as a local man struggled to survive, that it truly hit me. When that little girl closed her eyes for the last time and the remaining life slipped from her body, my faith in the mission and my abilities went with her. I no longer held that pride, I was almost disgusted by the actions I had taken up to that point. I began to look at all those tiny moments that had occurred, and began to regret who I had become. It was at that moment that I decided, that no longer would I be the one who actively caused harm. I would do all that I could to prevent it, to heal it. I know that there is really no making up for the past, but for the rest of my life, I will try. I will do the most good I can until the day I leave this world, and hopefully on that day, I can look back at my life after that moment and I can be proud again.
A Hospital in Samarra, Part I
October 1st 2004. We sat in Humvees on the bridge into Samarra. As we waited, we could hear the Big Red One (1st Infantry Division) just tearing sh** up. They had tracks, tanks, and guys going house to house and we just waited. We had one mission - take the Golden Mosque back. It made Sue so mad. He jumped on the hood of the Humvee. He screamed “We are missing it! God Damn it, we are missing it! He threw his MK-11 rifle on the hood and pouted like a baby.
Don’t let his name fool you. Sue was a bad man, he was originally in the French foreign legion before defecting to the US and becoming, not only Special Forces, but also a Ranger and one of the nastiest shooter I have ever seen. So we waited. We listened to fire fights over the radio, dipped, smoked, and laughed at Sue’s bitching.
Five hours later we got the green light to go in. We were the handlers for the 36 Commando Battalion. It was our job to push these Iraqi “Special” Operations soldiers into these high visibility situations. The plan was to show Iraqis that THEY were taking back their own land, not us occupiers. The problem was the selection process for 36 was not hard and most Iraqi men only did it for a paycheck. So the higher-ups said, “Lets slap the special operations moniker on them and then flood them into the building.”
At the Golden Mosque that is exactly what we did. After the master breacher, a guy we referred to as Delta Bob, set the charge, he made a beautiful C-4 charge that blew that thousand-year-old door apart. The Commandos bulked at the door and they wouldn’t go in. It was pure chaos. It was awesome. I remember Chris screaming, “Yala” (which is Arabic slang for hurry up or c’mon let’s go.) at the Commandos. As the day wore on, we took zero causalities and we rolled up easily thirty military aged males. All in all, a success and the Iraqi government could say that the 36 Commando Battalion took back the Golden Mosque from AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq).
That being said, everyone had their own experience. Sue had to shoot a guy with an RPG, (rocket-propelled grenade) and his wife, and almost had to shoot a child who went for said RPG. Mike M threw a grenade into the Golden Mosque which unbeknownst to us is, well, was, lined with thousand-plus-year-old glass and mirrors. The mirrors blew out like confetti. It looked like they just dropped the ball at Times Square. At the time I laughed my ass off. I even remember yelling “F*** your mosque!”
Now that I am older I realize that we destroyed one of the only links to humanity’s actual beginning.
What am I doing today?
Personal relationships? What are those? How can I live a perfect life when the weight of my baggage seems to weigh me down on a daily basis? How do I care for something so much when I can't even care for myself?
What am I doing today... is today the day I can give up? No, I can't. I have a meeting to go to at 11. Work distracts me from my pit, but will never pull me out. Helping people who can't even help themselves. Sounds familiar. Being there for someone when they need someone to turn to. Where the hell am I when I need me?
How do I wake up from a night of sleep when I'm not even sure if I slept? Four years of taking a little white pill handed to me by the dozen, only to immerse myself into a parallel universe of hallucinations designed to keep my mind off of counting the specks of dust clinging to the corners of my room. Counting how many times a cricket chirps in an hour. Any sleep I do get is interrupted by a fly crossing the room, or a leaf landing across my yard. A creak in the hundred-year-old floor on the other side of the room where no one is standing. I don't have time to dream, but then again, do I really want to? Fpur years of this damn white pill. Does it even work anymore? Or is it the two shots of Jack I took to wash it down with?
Why do I have to overanalyze everything? Why is it so hard to gauge people's true intentions? Maybe it's because of all the speeches that have been vomited over me through the years. Blank statements said by the high and mighty to smile for the cameras and say "see, I care!" No. No you don't.
Why do I have to be so damn emotional? Is it really necessary to cry over the first Hunger Games? Then overanalyze it to relate to our situation? Throwing poor jaded kids into a few days of luxury, train them to go savage, rip each other apart to entertain the high and mighty. Tell them it's for a loyal and noble cause. All the while, the rich throw money to sponsor, and make bets on who will live, who will die, and who kills who. Maybe it hits me more than you because I see the reality of it. Have your entertainment, rake in your winnings invest off of our brutality. Parade us around as the victors. But our nightmares, our energy, our wasted youth, our whole world is turned upside down. Act like you care, but the next year throw more into the arena.
There's no more freedom at the end of the tunnel. There's only a self-induced exile where I have to remember to put on a fake smile and sincere eyes on my face before leaving the house every day. God forbid I tell anyone my secret, tell people how sh*** I actually feel. I hate to break it to you, but viral videos of you doing 22 pushups won't bring back Luke, Alex, Chad, Zach, or Matt. Nothing will.
Maybe tomorrow's a better day. Maybe I'll have more energy to do it.
A Hospital in Samarra, Part II
I have been to the cradle of civilization and it smelled like sh**. We were told that they had acquired intel from the mosque and we would have a follow on mission. That is when my whole perspective changed.
That night we stayed on FOB 7; an Iraqi run FOB (forward operating base). We took turns on guard. We didn’t trust any of the other Jundis (Irqai soldiers). We trusted our guys, but these others, no idea who they were.
That morning, at 0430, we rolled back into Samarra. We were right outside the hospital. At 0500, we grabbed our gear and moved out. Fifteen US troops all together including our JTAC and terp (interpreter). We had 30 Commandos with us. As we moved around the low wall one of the Commandos shot himself in the foot. We couldn’t believe it. Now we were screwed, the element of surprise was gone. We sent the idiot back to the trucks and we moved forward. We had to move quickly now, they knew we were coming. We got around the wall and there was no one there. We moved into position to breach the door. No need for any charges, the door swung open with a push. The hospital was quiet; the whole reason we were there was because AQI had been storing weapons there. We found weapons alright. We found RPGs, AKs and a few Tabuks. We also found patients that hadn’t seen doctors in what looked like weeks. Not guys that had been shot but like people with diseases. They all just laid there and watched us as we went about clearing every room. We found the weapons under the gurneys. Ever patient had a small supply under their gurney. We cleared the hospital one room at a time; some had people, some were just empty. Mike was using an old ladder to breach locked doors. He had this idea that with his luck he would breach a door with his Mossberg and it would be an “oxygen in use” room and boom that’s the end for him.
At the end of the hallway, on the first floor, two doors hung like deli doors in a grocery store. Mike and I moved slowly calling out open door right and left. We moved into the room, it was completely empty. A door was open at the end of the room. As we entered the smell immediately filled my nostrils. There is a certain smell and feeling that comes with a lot of dead in one place. The room was filled with bodies, stacked floor to ceiling with people. Some with single bullet wounds some that met the wrong end of Bradley’s 25mm gun. Some guys that clearly tangled with an Abrams and other people that, well, God knows what happened to them. Death never bothered me, it was just a thing that happened, and most of those assholes probably deserved to die.
As I scanned the bodies I saw something that didn’t look right. It was a little girl; half of her body was fine, the other half looked like it just melted, like she had burned alive. The look on her face was terror, anguish, and pure fear. She was maybe seven. Her one eye was milky and her other one was gone. She would have been a beautiful woman. There she was, this poor little Iraqi girl, life cut short, by what? Us? Did we do this? Oh my God, did we do this? Did we kill this cute little girl? It wasn’t us in particular but it was our fault.
I stood face to face with the harsh reality of war. I have pulled the trigger in so
many situations. I have never felt any guilt and I never had nightmares about any
of those assholes, but that little girl still haunts my dreams. Sometimes I will wonder
what would she have done if she wasn’t burned alive. Would she have been one of the
only girls to attend school? I like to think we saved her from being an ISIS slave
but I know that is bullsh**. Death is death.
We, as in coalition forces, killed a little girl and the Iraqis in Samarra picked her up and threw her in this room to rot with the rest of the bodies. I tried to convince myself that she was already here, but as we took pictures and looked around, we realized that as the Big Red One tore through Samarra, the people would take their dead and throw them in this room. They were all fresh, none of them were dead longer than 72 hours. I spent the rest of that trip telling myself that we didn’t end that little girl’s life, that she should have left, but where could she have gone?
That wasn’t my last trip down range. I went back a few times after that. Some deployments good, some bad. Some with death, some with sun bathing. That deployment though, that deployment changed everything. I still think about her every once in a while and as time has gone by the nightmares have gone and with counseling the guilt has subsided. Sometimes I grab my daughter, hold her tight, and kiss her forehead. I dream about all of the amazing things she will do in her life. Every once in a while I cry but most times I don’t. No matter how long I will live on this earth, I will never forget that poor little girl.
A Birthday Story
You’re asking me to tell a fun story about the time I spent in the Marines?
There’s always fun stories I guess. Manly just drinking though. Actually, it was always me drinking and things going bad. Just like college… except it was the military. Every night, at least before and after deployment, we would all just keep hanging out in each other’s rooms, drink, and play video games.
I turned 21 in Afghanistan. I was there for seven months. That’s seven sober months. A week before my 21st birthday I was briefly sent to Safar Bazaar. It was miles north of my home base. It was great. I liked Safar Bazaar. We had a big barbecue.
However, it wasn’t without incidents- On one particular day at Safar Bazaar our good time was interrupted by a loud boom, just an explosion from an IED. We heard them regularly, each time we winced; hoping that it wasn’t one of the Lima Companies out on patrol. We calmed ourselves after a few minutes passed and we hadn’t seen any scurrying of QRF (a military unit).
Not too much longer a local national showed up at our base pushing a wheel barrow. Quickly a crowd formed around him as everyone tried to see what was going on. Here was this local man who had picked, scraped up, and piled his friend into a wheel barrel. He told us that his friend had been walking goats when he stepped on a pressure plate IED. He was begging for us to help revive what was left of the shepherd in the wheel barrel. The look on the man’s face and his refusal to accept the reality of his friend’s demise was horrific and unbearable. He was in disbelief that the pile of what used to be a living being, his friend, was not able to be saved. At that moment the realization that not just us, but locals were also being killed by traps set for us became my new reality. These people had been born into a world of war and hatred. They were too poor to escape. Our presence created their normal.
A few days later we drove back to our home base. I spent the entire journey to home base contemplating the possibility of being blown up myself. Despite my new found fear we made it back to base without incident. Upon my arrival one of the commanders found out it was my 21st birthday and told me that he was going to give me something that I have never had before. As a birthday present he gave me a Tastykake Butter Scotch Crumpet and a root beer straight from the East Coast of the United States. I was so very thankful because the Tastykake reminded me of New Jersey and my home. When he asked me if I had a good birthday. I told him that I did because I had birthday cake and beer and didn’t get blown up.
Millimeters and Milliseconds
There are two distinct sounds you hear when someone is shooting at you, a whip and a crack. First you hear the whip, this is the sound the bullet makes as it flies through the air. The second sound, the crack, is the sound of the bullet actually being fired from the muzzle of the rifle.
The first time I was shot at, my platoon was set up in a circular formation on the outskirts of a village between two ridgelines where we would come to take a lot of fire from in the future. I was posted up on a small mud wall on the side of a short dirt building. I’d been scanning the horizon, every building, and every scattered person, making mental notes about who and what was where. Searching for any sign of trouble or something out of place. On the right side of my field of view across the valley, at the base of the far ridgeline, I noticed a few men with what looked like shovels on a rooftop. Something about that seemed off. I watched them for a while before continuing to scan my sectors.
A cloud of dust breaks off the building next to me, I feel it on my face and taste it on my tongue. A layer coats the heat shield covering the barrel of my machine gun.
“Contact east! 900 meters!”
I look through my optic to see if I can spot the target. The men from the rooftop are gone. The Afghan National Army unit attached with us begins to open fire randomly across the open fields. A few, short bursts of intermittent fire and some shouting later and everything quiets down as quickly as it began. After everything had calmed down and we decided that we weren’t going to get shot at again we decided to exfiltrate the area and return to base. We picked up, double-checked our equipment and water and headed out towards highway 1, the only paved route in Afghanistan, which ran along the edge of our larger Forward Operating Base (FOB) that we moved to in the spring. Along the way, one of our Improvised Explosive Device (IED) jammers detected a hit. As we pushed through, an explosion went off between the two squads of the platoon in our formation. Rocks and dirt fell around us. Each one of us gave an “up” to our leaders and we were all unharmed. We walked about another hour until we arrived at the front gates and entered into the FOB. Taking my helmet off I wiped the sweat from my brow as I walked the 200-meter stretch of concrete walls and road back to our trucks. We would very familiar with sniper fire over the next few months. More familiar than I think I ever would have liked. I wonder sometimes, where the guy that tried to kill me is. I wonder what affected his aim enough to allow me to live. The wind? The pull of his finger? A breath at the wrong time? I don’t think I will ever know. What I do know is that I’m alive by only millimeters and milliseconds
In for a Penny, In for a Pound
Most people view the veteran experience as all doom and gloom, tragedy and bull****. If it were, I do not think any sane people would do it, not many insane either on that note. So instead of doing some bull**** trumped up story of how I lived saving private Ryan I'll tell you the story of my nonprofit venture into opening quite possibly the first Afghan vineyard.
Now as any vet will tell you, the first rule (and most ignored) is that while on deployment you are to remain sober. You have zero access to booze except if you take leave or the magical bar at Kyrgyzstan airfield, but that is not this story. So on that, we were in this sh**hole south of Kandahar called Panjwaii Province, and aside from farming dirt they also had some of the most amazing grapes I've ever had. My care packages of "soda" were a little too spaced out for my liking, so naturally my ingenious infantry adaptability kicked in after only four months. I gathered my tools - a 5-gallon bucket, sugar procured from the cooks, the finest of grapes, a bit of yeast too, and other tidbits from here and there. I set up shop at 3 week turnover. Well I am not the lightest drinker but 5 gallons every 3 weeks is a little much so naturally I started trading and then just giving it out. I mean all most everyone on the FOB had some of my wine sometime.
The battalion commander caught some fellow napping it off one day, took interest, and decided he needed to shut this down. He had the first sergeants toss tents, locate this sommelier, and let him feel the wrath of a vengeful lord. Well if you know anything about the fermentation process, you know that it leaves an odor in the air and a distinct one if in an enclosed space. Ball sweat would not cover it. So I'm coming back from chow and, boom, there's my lieutenant and first sergeant sitting there waiting for me. I am nervous. I mean if I was not sweating before I sure was then. The first sergeant. gives me a nod. I am escorted to my bunk area, where he pokes and prods, acting as if he doesn't see my handiwork in the corner, says it's fine, and goes to leave.
Too easy, right?
He leaves, immediately turns around and says, "One last thing soldier. What is that in the corner? It wouldn't be contraband would it?" My heart drops. “In for a penny, in for pound,” so I look him straight in the eye, steel my nerves and reply: "Not yet first sergeant, but when it's ready you'll be the first to know. Time stops. The whole platoon can feel the tension now. My sergeant is directly behind him now, wide-eyed at my idiotic response, giving me the signals he will kill me. The top just stares blank-faced for a second, cracks the faintest of smiles and nods. "I'm holding you to it, son," is his only response as he turns on his heels and casually walks out. To this day, every time I speak to him he asks me if I'm still making my Afghani prison wine, and to be honest I don't think I've ever laughed harder in my life. I got a week’s worth of "I can't believe that worked," talks from everyone who heard about it. That concludes my veteran experience I chose to share with you.
The Little Boy
We are back from a routine mounted patrol when I hear Sergeant T*** say, "Constantino's M-WRAP has been attacked with an RKG-3".
An immediate knot welled up in my stomach. We had been in Iraq for around four months and while attacks had happened in country, none had affected anyone in my unit.
A day later we are told to gather by the class tent, a weird long desert colored structure with church-pew-like benches. I sat there like everyone else not knowing what was going on or why we were gathered.
Our commander, Lt. Colonel L***, comes in and starts talking about the attack on the M-WRAP the previous day. We find out that no one was killed. Constantino had a TBI and took shrapnel to the face and the interpreter with them had lost an eye from shrapnel as well.
I was thankful that these were the only things that had happened as terrible as they were. Lt. Colonel L*** tells us that our intelligence team has found a video uploaded to a Mujahedeen website of the attack. So they start up the projector, plug in a laptop, and click on a video file. It started with the now memed to death music I'm sure all of you have heard, then cuts to video of a bend in the road near two Iraqi Police stations. One side of the road is flat and level. The other side is a hill about 20 to 30 feet high. About 30 seconds pass and the first two trucks are past the vantage point of the camera. Then Constantino's vehicle pulls into the frame, as soon as this happens you seen a man running up to the edge of the hilled side of the street. He throws the RKG-3, BOOM, an explosion and cloud of dust fills the area where the M-WRAP used to be. The video then cuts back to the same music with the flag and crossed swords of the group.
The knot from yesterday just grew in size along with a new unfamiliar feeling of overwhelming fear and unbridled rage. Someone just attempted to kill my brothers and I could do nothing but look at a screen and watch it happen. I spent quite some time using a computer to attempt to find out any other information about how these attacks were going down. I stumbled upon a compilation of these attacks that had been happening in the prior months we had been in country. The way it happened had one key thing about them. They were hiding in plain sight with their hand behind their back.
Fast forward to a few days later. We are out on another patrol. Going out is normal. People are walking on the side of the streets. Vendors are in their place selling things and going about the normal day-to-day operations.
I was on edge though; had been since I heard about the attack. We are in the town, did what we had to do, and left. The ride back seemed as though the road had emptied. Not many people in the shops anymore and it seemed abnormal though it could have just been my new found paranoia. We get close to the date tree grove. We pass it all the time before we hit the second-to-last Iraqi police station checkpoint before the base and I see you. You are sitting atop one of the barrels of gas and I assume you are waiting for the next car that needs it. As we get closer, I see your hand behind your back.
There you are, not any older than 9. Anywhere else, at any other time, I would have thought of you as helpless. But we were in a war zone and I thought you were going to attack us.
As we drove by our communication was down and I had no idea what you were going to do. So as my truck was passing, out of fear, I sighted in on you. I still see you in that scope helpless, young, and fragile. I recognize that now you were not a threat. I become perpendicular to you and I notice your arm start to raise, I switch to semi, it keeps moving up, I place finger on trigger, it keeps going, I begin apply pressure to the trigger, you hand clears your head and I see a water bottle. Instantly I switch my weapon to safe and put it down.
I have spent countless hours seeing those few moments that seemed like forever over and over again. I know I cannot take it back. I know that, in the situation I was in, what I did was a reasonable course of action.
But I still think about how you felt. I saw the look of terror on your face when you saw me sighted in on you. Your look went through the scope and imprinted itself on my brain. I have written to you anonymously on the internet hoping in some way that you would see it and know that it was about you. All I can think to say is sorry, I wish I could take it all back. I wish that we never had to be put in that situation. I was so sacred you were going to hurt or kill my brothers and me. I hope you understand.
Then and Now
Sitting in a classroom thinking to myself, “how the hell did I get here?”
No sh** there I was, sitting in a classroom. I used to be a soldier. I still am, but just dormant I suppose, sometimes feeling like I lack purpose or have unfinished business. Sitting in a classroom listening to a professor lecture to an inattentive class. Students on their phones and girls gossiping. Where’s the respect?
I allow myself to go back deep into my thoughts and reach for a place I yearn to go back to. War. Who would want to go back to war? The blood, savagery, carnage, confusion, love, hatred, fear, triumph, all balled into an abomination of hell on Earth.
Yet, there’s no place I’d rather be. The days I miss most are the days I’m cleaning blood off the back of the helicopter. Eating lunch nonchalantly as surgeons work on amputations. Watching shows like Dexter to pass the time, while there’s blood still on my boots that I have yet to clean. I’m too tired to clean it. I just want to eat and watch this show while I still can. I never know when I’ll get the call to go back out, but until then I’m going to enjoy what time I have to myself.
War is endless and unpredictable. I miss going from 0-100 really quick. I think that’s what the kids say these days. Kids. As if I’m that much older. I’m only in my mid 20’s yet I feel like a man in his 40’s. Physically and mentally. What happened to me? I went through something so visceral that few will ever get to experience.
For six years I went back and forth from Afghanistan. Each time losing a piece of myself without noticing. I come back to this civilian world and realize how much of me I left out there on the battlefield. Sounds so Hollywood. But Hollywood could never think of a story like the ones I have. Blood. So much blood. Carnage to the point where one man or woman should never be subjected to witnessing. Let alone be faced with treating. Bone shards and fragments from an explosion.
“Hey, the Military Police needs the medical crew to clear the blown up vehicle of any biohazards.” I go along just to remind myself where these bodies came from. Mangled up metal and steel that look like folded up yarn. So devastating, yet I’m intrigued by the sheer force of these explosions. I’m almost sickened, yet I’m amazed.
“Oh my god, there’s still bone fragments left in the vehicle.”
“Can I keep some of it?”
I notice the strange and confused looks I’m receiving.
War was the best part of my life. It was filled with adrenaline and chaos. It was undoubtedly the worst part of my life. Filled with loss and failure. I used to sit in these classrooms and drift away into these dark places. Re-evaluate and rethink every situation and scenario. Ask what I could’ve done better. I would walk the halls aimlessly. Walk to and from my car without noticing the changes in the season. My mind, constantly in a state of flux between here and there. Nobody prepared me for this.
It took time. Time for me to heal and get readjusted to society. Become a human being again. I sit in this classroom full of inattentive students as a professor rambles on. I chuckle. I say to myself, “This isn’t so bad. I’m glad I’m here now. I’m alright”
When you join the Armed Forces at a time of war, you know that you are going to be deployed to a hostile environment. Most people who are deployed are never put in harm’s way. When I signed up, I took a job knowing I would get to see the enemy face to face. I wanted that interaction, needed it almost. I thought if I could get information from the source itself maybe we could change the way we fight our enemies. During my first deployment in Iraq, I conducted over 250 interrogations. Face to face interactions with the enemy, just like I wanted. The only thing I was not expecting was getting information from enemies who actually killed members of our Task Force. The realities of doing the job and collecting information became even more personal than just getting the information. I felt empowered, and almost wanted to personally kill these individuals myself. There is a huge difference between getting into a firefight and killing the enemy and actually interrogating someone who killed one of your buddies directly after the firefight. Emotions are high and the will to do the right thing, morally, is a lot harder than I’d imagined after being trained for nine months.
After my first deployment, I returned to Arizona for debriefings. Right after my debriefings, I was shipped off to Korea for over a year. In Korea, I did not do my job once; I only trained on my true job six days out of the 13 months I was there. What I did specialize in while in Korea was drinking. Korea was a complete sh** show. Half of the time in Korea, we had curfew. During the week, you had to be on base by midnight and weekends you had to be back by one in the morning. We would maximize our drinking by pre-gaming as hard as ever immediately after being released from final formation and then go out until curfew. If we missed curfew we would spend time running away from the Military Police all night until the gates opened at five in the morning. That was just enough time to get on post and get into our PT uniform, and go run five miles after drinking all night. It was an acquired skill, and I was good at it, if not one of the best.
One night I had a little too much to drink with an old buddy from training. As we were walking back in the gate, we got into an altercation with four other soldiers. We fought all four of them, and did a real number on them. One of them had to be flown to an emergency hospital in Seoul. This was my first time being negatively counseled in the military, I received non-judicial punishment of a Field Grade Article 15. I was placed on 45 days of hard labor and 45 days of restriction to post. I was confined to the post and doing the same work that prisoners do on the side of the road for 12-15 hours a day for 45 days. I stopped drinking for eight months when I landed a position at the U.S. Army Paratrooper School in route to my new unit in the 82nd Airborne Division.
I was in the 82nd Airborne Division for the remainder of my career which was just under eight years, and I got out of the Army as a Staff Sergeant. I deployed twice more, once to Haiti for earthquake relief and once to Iraq. Prior to my deployment to Iraq, I was on leave and received a DUI while driving home from a Phillies game. This would be my second alcohol related incident in the Army. My command decided to keep me in the military and let me deploy to Iraq, because I trained my team, and they didn’t want my guys to be led by someone else three weeks prior to leaving.
My Iraq deployment was everything I wanted in the Army and everything I expected. We got to kill, capture, and interrogate the enemy. It was great. I got to run sources which is basically the same as informants. They were trained to collect information I wanted and would significantly impact our mission.
On day during that deployment, we were out on a patrol base, with the Iraqi Police when a man dressed in a police uniform came running at our checkpoint. I was the first to notice him, and pointed him out to the guys pulling security. As the man got closer we had the Iraq Police yell commands at him in Arabic, but nothing stopped the man, so we took warning shots towards him. He still charged. I shot at him, and a few others did as well. He was strapped with a suicide explosives vest. When the man was shot in the chest his suicide vest detonated. He would have killed nearly 20 of us, and injured many more others had he not been stopped.
On my previous deployment a bunch of the guys were killed, but it didn’t affect me, not because I’m a heartless asshole but because I didn’t know them. I was sad for their loss and the fact that a lot of them left behind families, but they weren’t my friends. Maybe that’s selfish.
I decided to give more time to the Army and reenlist on September 11th in Bagdad, Iraq. I thought I had everything figured out, until November 14, 2011, when one of my best buddies on deployment was killed. Nothing prepares you for when someone close to you is killed in combat. At that time, we were less than a month away from leaving Iraq forever. It is not true anymore, but at the time, we were the last unit in Iraq. David was the last soldier killed in Iraq under the “Iraqi Freedom/New Dawn Campaign.” He was a great dude, nicknamed “Zeus” for his incredible strength in the weight room. He’s one of the main reasons I work out as hard as I still do to this day, because I know he’d be calling me a b*** or p*** if I was grieving and not in the gym. Over the next three years I had left in the Army, I never talked about David’s death. Any time I thought about it I just drank.
I finally got out of the Army in September 2014, and immediately enrolled at Stockton University. I discovered a lot of veterans at school that I could relate too and many who had no f***ing clue what I’ve been through. The Veteran Lounge in F-Wing was the perfect place to relax in between classes, a little loud at times, but most importantly a good place to get out of a stressful situation in class or even during our breaks to talk sh** about a professor, or even some little entitled piece of sh** in class. During my time at Stockton, there were a few guys that I could relate to but without that military environment all I wanted to do was drown my sorrows in a bottle of Jameson. It probably didn’t help that I lived two blocks away from my favorite bar in town. So when I would put my kids to bed at 7:30-8:00 p.m., that’s when I started drinking. I wasn’t working. All I needed to do was put the kids on the bus in the morning and then go back to sleep. I only went to class two days a week. So I just partied, and didn’t ever talk about my problems. This went on for a full year and a half until I took a contract job in Afghanistan. It was then I realized I had a problem; it was easy to deal with then because I rarely would have access to alcohol but in no way shape or form did I have the opportunity to drink every day.
I came back to Stockton after my deployment to finish my degree, which I attained in May 2018. Everything has gone downhill since then, I’ve lost my family, the ability to see my kids, and nearly lost my job. It took everything to get taken away (mainly me just f***ing up) for me to realize I needed help. Now I do not drink, I attend AA meetings twice a week and go to counseling for PTSD and Anger Management. I could have taken the easy way out as so many other veterans I know have, but I just couldn’t do that to my children. I am a son of a father who committed suicide, and I would never want anyone to experience what it was like for me growing up like that, especially my boys.
Just because things get rough doesn’t mean you have to give up. Surround yourself with positive people and get help when needed. I always thought asking for help was a weakness, but to be honest it’s those who don’t ask for help and take action into their own hands that are weak.
I was told to write something about my brother…
There is just so much to write….
Just bear with me….
I’m not the writer in the family.. Raymond is..
My brother died a week ago. For all you people that say Raymond was a good person, a good brother, a Marine. You are wrong.
He is all of those things, and so much more.
You think that if you say, “I’m sorry,” to me, it is going to make me feel better. No way. All of the “Sorrys” of the world ain’t going to bring my brother back.
I’ve had so many people come and tell me, “I know how you feel.” It’s a complete and utter lie. I don’t even know how I feel. You will never understand how I feel…..
I would give anything just to see him one more time. My brother was everything to me. He is not only my brother but my best friend. The only person I could trust, and confide in. He knew everything about me, as I did him. He is a little different, yes, I’ll admit that. But that is Raymond.
That gave him his unique personality. He is honest, a hard worker, dependable, and the list is ongoing..
We both fought in Iraq for the “rights” and “freedoms” of the American people but what about his rights and freedoms. He has none now.
So, what exactly did he die for?
It’s so sad how many people take their freedoms and lives for granted.
People are overseas fighting and dying for them and they don’t care about us. Nobody cared when he was over there fighting.
Now that he’s gone, all of a sudden, everyone cares.
Not only should you honor those that have lost their lives but honor the men and women of the Armed Forces over there fighting for YOU to be free.
You took in upon yourselves to criticize (President) Bush for the war in Iraq.
Raymond was fighting for what he believed in and he died doing what he loved to do, beside his fellow Marines, his brothers.
I have no doubt in my mind that if there was a way for him to have lived, they would have done everything in their power to make it happen.
But we knew the possible consequences when we went over there. The chance of dying was an imminent danger that we both knew was very possible. Yet we did what we had to do.
No one will understand what it’s like to lose a brother, a friend on the battlefield unless it happens to you.
He is closer to me than ever.
In my mind and in my heart. He will always be there.
How do I even Civilian?
In the summer of 2013, the war was drawing to a close as infantry battalions gradually stopped deploying to Afghanistan. I was an infantryman by trade and my purpose to stay in the military had virtually ceased to exist. So, on one warm morning, exactly four years after I left South Jersey for boot camp, I went down to the base admin building. I picked up my discharge paperwork and returned to my barracks for one last time to say goodbye to my platoon. After that, I walked out to my car in a tee shirt, short and flip flops. Mark, one of the mortar men who had been attached to my squad in Afghanistan, spotted me.
“What are you doing, man?” he asked, obviously confused at the sight of me wearing plain clothes.
“I’m out.” God that felt good to say.
“Like out out?”
There was a pause.
“So what the f*** are you still doing here, then?”
“One last walk out, taking it all in.”
“Nah dude, take it out,” Mark said, telling me to embrace my newfound freedom and to just get the f*** away of this sh*** base.
On my way out to my car, a few of my closer friends came running out the barracks to intercept me and say goodbye one last time. We had been through quite a bit together. We’d been hazed together as new guys in the platoon, gotten surrounded by Taliban on deployment, survived ambushes, and then we came home together. To say that you get pretty close with your buddies would be a bit of an understatement.
We hugged one another, said our goodbyes, and all that fuzzy sh**. I was about to get in the car, but then I just stood there, looking at them, still in their uniforms. And they stood there looking at me. We just stood there, gazing at each other for a moment, while I had my car keys in my hand. We’d lived in a war zone together, I knew all of their little idiosyncrasies and they knew mine. We could’ve picked each other out of a crowd, in the dark, from a distance, just based on how each of us walked. And now life’s winds were scattering us on our separate ways. I’ll probably never see a lot of those guys ever again.
“I’m going to get on the road,” I said. I got in my car and pulled out of my battalion’s parking lot. I looked at my friends through my rearview as they watched my car leave. And then they disappeared when I rounded the corner.
God....that feeling. The kind of feely feel that feels…feely.
I drove out of the base’s main gate for the last time and I felt like Morgan Freeman. You know, when he got released from prison at the end of the movie “Shawshank Redemption.” Anyways, I looked back once again at the gate, to look at it one more time and reflect. It was my home for years and now, and I’d never be going back.
“Holy f***, thank God,” I said to myself. No more getting yelled at for dumb sh**. No more barracks inspections, and no more f***ing weekend field ops out in the woods during the winter. I was so hyped to go home for good. My family, old friends, and college parties all awaited. And Wawa, thank God almighty, I’d have Wawa again. I was stationed down south and those barbarians don’t even know what Wawa is. Poor f***ers.
Fast forward to 2014. I had been out for a little over a year and my honeymoon phase with civilian life had since ended. Wearing sweat clothes and sporting a scraggly beard, I lay sprawled out on my couch after skipping all of my classes for the day. I would spend fourteen hours just lying there, watching the news, or playing Xbox.
My mind would drift. Less than two years before, I had been on deployment, creeping through a field in a village nobody has ever heard of, trying to get the drop on enemy sniper positions. I had a gun, a bank account full of money, a mob of friends who would risk their lives for me without hesitation and a smoking hot girlfriend back home. Now all of that was gone and I was just another stereotypical broken-down veteran has-been that lacked direction. My identity and any sense of purpose or legitimacy expired along with my enlistment. I impulsively reached out to recruiters from various branches to see what my possibilities were in returning to the service, few ever bothered to call me back. The money that had been in my bank account dried up to $27. Oh, and that smoking hot girlfriend I mentioned? She was long gone, and a VERY lengthy dry spell was sufficient evidence that my love life was not best in its class.
Stockton had lost its luster too. This heavenly experience I had dreamed of soon turned into this soft, isolated purgatory. The excitement I once had soured into bitter resentment towards the students and professors that I came into contact with. The hippie girl who insists she’s oppressed will never acknowledge that she has it better off than the Afghan child sex slaves that I saw overseas. Or how about loudmouth kid in class? The one who grew up obviously spoiled? Why does he get to keep walking this earth? Why did guys I went to boot camp and infantry school with have to be the ones who died? And that “hard-ass” professor, trying to be a ball-breaker and scare his students. Something tells me that he’s never had to look down his gunsights and get ready to smoke-check a 17-year-old Taliban spotter, like I have. Until you do that, pal, you can drop that death stare. Alright, so basically, with all that silliness, I didn’t take school seriously at all. And my GPA dropped like an anvil.
I was institutionalized, and that’s partly why I felt the way I did. In a grunt platoon, anyone who didn’t serve in combat, let alone serve at all, didn’t rate an opinion and should be looked upon with disdain. We know what we had signed up for, but that doesn’t mean this sh** still doesn’t affect you.
Look, I’m not trying to just sh** on civilians here, or throw myself a pity party. I’m just trying to paint an honest picture for you guys on what may be on a vet’s mind. Readjustment is a challenge, and its WAY more difficult for someone who was wounded or came down with a psychological condition.
Anyways, I spent the better part of my freshman and sophomore year just being a sorry f*** in general. I fell for this oxymoron that the veteran community has. I was a broken, worthless mother***er who was incapable of surviving without charity, yet I was still somehow a badass.
Here’s where things get better. One day, I was di**ing around on my phone, and I came across this article on my newsfeed.
Basically, the article talked about how leaving this anger unchecked deprives veterans of healthy and meaningful relationships; both business and personal. It told me to at least give civilians a chance at being my friend before immediately writing them off. It also encouraged the readers to think critically about trends in society and in the veteran community.
An article, a measly f***ing internet article woke something up inside me. Gears started turning in my head as I began to realize that the life I was living was unhealthy. It certainly wouldn’t be sustainable for the rest of my life... My service was in the past; it was time to move on. I needed to find a new purpose. But that would be tough! For veterans like me, we’ve dreamed since childhood of serving in war. But what happens after you’ve accomplished that before your 22nd birthday? What are you supposed to do for the rest of your life? And it was going to be tough befriending people I had a hard time empathizing with. I just knew that I didn’t want to continue being a sh***y little negative Nancy.
Fast forward to 2016. It’s August now as I write this and I feel as though that I’m pretty well adjusted back into civilian life. It was a long process of tearing down the walls of distrust and resentment that I put between myself and my civilian colleagues. Over this time, I’ve learned that civilians have the potential to enrich our lives, and become unlikely, though profound friends. Things have gotten much better since I gave them a chance. Since I began accepting their friendship and advice, I’ve forged new, healthy relationships. There is more than $27 in my bank account now. I also have a girlfriend; we've been together for a few months. Of all places, we met at a frat party. On top of that, I now have a relatively clear image of what I want to do for the rest of my life when I’m done here at Stockton.
I have found a new purpose. And it no longer involves carrying a gun.