His Mission Now

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Then.

His story, he tells me, is not so different from the stories of other veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. He doesn’t know if he can come up with the right words, words that are “profound” enough for the post I’ve asked him to help me write.

He knows that talking can unleash a storm of thoughts, feelings, memories and anxiety that take days to settle down. And the last thing he wants is attention for himself.

He tells me later that he almost didn’t show.

There he is though, a little before noon on a November Friday full of blue skies, rolling surf, and people packing the sidewalks of Ocean Beach. He’s surrounded by shouts, laughter, and the cell-phone chatter of people already giddy about the upcoming weekend. From the outside, he fits right in. Jeans. Black tee-shirt. Sunglasses under the bill of a blue cap with the words “True Religion” sewn in front.

Three and a half hours later, I understand that civilian life often seems more foreign to him than Iraq where he served three tours as a Marine. His mission now is to try to live in this world even though he often wishes he could go back.

“I’d go in a minute,” he says more than once, looking at me from across the table where we are eating lunch, or at least I am. He has barely touched his salad. He still wears the sunglasses and the hat because the light streaming through the windows can trigger migraines that have gotten worse since the blasts that caused his first concussion.

The sense of purpose that got him and his fellow Marines through 18 or 20-hour days on the small base near the Syrian border, is gone. That sense of purpose took root the day he saw the towers fall on television.

“This was our generation’s fight, the way Vietnam was another generation’s fight.”

His life then was just taking shape. He was twenty. He had a steady girlfriend, a job, went to community college. Worked on his Mustang, went to the races at night. As the fallout from 9/11 sank in, he knew he wanted to do his part. In June 2003 he graduated from boot camp at Parris Island. By February 2004 he was in Iraq.

That sense of purpose motivated him to want a career with the Marines. It carried him through two more deployments. He carried it with him on 200 patrols, on guard duty, all the jobs he did in addition to his own job as a Supply Administration and Operations Specialist because that is what everyone in his unit did.

“We were all cross trained. We all had to be able to do each other’s job.”

That sense of purpose kept him and his fellow Marines alert during the crushing hours of boredom that come with every deployment. He held onto it after mortars screamed into two contractor trailers at the wall of the base and fell inches from where he’d been standing moments before. The sense of purpose did not desert him after a rocket propelled grenade knocked him to the ground, or when a female suicide bomber exploded an SUV sending a down a rain of car and body parts onto the base.

He was not alone in that purpose.

“I believe that most of us were there for the right reasons. We believed in America. We were there to help the Iraqis.”

They were also there for each other. He forged bonds with fellow Marines that he will always feel even though some of them — too many of them — are gone. Around his wrist he wears a black metal band engraved with 8 names. Two died in Iraq, two in Afghanistan. The remaining four — and five whose names are not on the bracelet — died after they got home, where they should have been safe.

He learned early on how much could change at home. He’d married his fiancee before deploying. The marriage was over by the time he got back. He found out that his mother, from whom he’d been estranged, had died. When he wasn’t on duty, he drank. He met a woman who cared about him. “She told me to get help. But I didn’t have time for that. I needed to be there for my guys.”

He “doubled down” – more training. Two deployments back to back. In the space between them, his daughter was conceived. He came home to El Cajon from the last deployment in April 2008, four days before her birth.

By then he was a Senior Sergeant stationed in Monterey. As long as he was at work, he could handle things. After hours, the headaches came. The panic attacks. His relationship with his daughter’s mom ended. Then his career with the Marines ended.

“There is no instruction manual for coming home,” he says with a sad smile.

He’s been figuring it out one day at a time. First there was asking for help, something that came hard, something that comes hard for a lot of vets, he says. “We are supposed to tough it out. We are used to looking out for the other guy, not ourselves.”

Even now, he says, “I will get in line behind the amputees and older vets. They deserve every bit of help they can get.”

He struggles with short-term memory loss, the migraines, panic attacks and thoughts that ambush him. If he’s lucky he can sleep four hours a night. He has been diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. There are days when he wonders if he will ever feel better. There are days when he thinks about friends who haven’t made it this far. A year ago last month one of his closest friends who served with him committed suicide.

“I talked to him two nights before he died,” he says in a low voice. The words come haltingly and behind the sunglasses I see him blinking. “He didn’t say anything. I think he didn’t want to burden me.”

When he struggles the most, he thinks of his daughter. He lives near her now and spends time with her regularly. “She’s my saving grace.”

She’s one of the reasons he takes a full course load at a nearby college and is working to figure out a career path. She’s the reason he continues to get the help he can from the VA. When he talks about his daughter, his voice steadies and I see a father, a student, a caring human being whose shoulders straighten under his his tee shirt when he talks about the mission he has now.

I ask him, “What would you like most from people who have never been to war?”

“Most of us don’t want anything but a little respect because they don’t really know what we’ve done or been through other than the media. That’s not always accurate. Talk to us.”

How, I ask, do we get started?

“Just talk like we are people. Isn’t that how everyone should be? Human beings. We’re just trying to make it like everyone else.”

Here are three sites that are dedicated to helping Veterans to tell their stories. They offer Veterans the chance to tell their stories in ways they may not have thought of. They offer ways for those of us who have never served to listen, learn, and bridge the distance we imagine exists between us and those who have gone to war.

Paving The Road Back

When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home

The Veterans Book Project