Ten Years Ago

Ten years ago today, I was the lead driver on a scout element crew in Iraq. It was around 11:30 pm when we were stopped in the city of Fallujah for a downed humvee. While they managed to get the humvee on the back of the tow truck, a car approached our position. We were right off the cloverleaf ramp leading into Fallujah. My gunner, Lcpl Grossman, fired a flare and the vehicle turned around.

Now this was after hours and curfew was in effect so we got on the alert. Once the downed humvee was on the tow, we proceeded to advance through the city. Three hundred meters from the George Washington Bridge, we spotted a small object on the road. It was the size of a cellphone box. I slowed and as the wind blew, a long copper wire became visible.

Quickly, I threw the humvee into reverse, keeping an eye on my side mirror to see if I was going to run into Scout 2 who was approaching. Luckily, Lcpl Zuccaro was an excellent driver and he could read my moves. He threw his vehicle into reverse and started moving. Fifteen feet from the object, it detonated. Our quick actions and keen observation allowed us to not be killed that night. After we were disabled, two enemy combatants commenced to firing at us from elevated positions.

Now in the rules of combat, the battle normally swings to those in the elevated position, but these men were trying to kill Marines and we take that personal. With the help of our surrounding vehicles who came to our aid after the explosion, we managed to dispatch both insurgents to the other side of this life.

Lcpl Grossman and I were awarded the purple heart for wounds received during the explosion and looking back now, it’s hard to believe it’s been ten years. Amazing.

The AK picture

So there is a picture of me holding an AK in Iraq on this blog and I want to explain it. A short time before Ipods became the norm, we had little devices called CD players. For you youngsters out there, it’s like a big Ipod but you have to change the disk to change the music, and it wasn’t touch screen.

So that morning I had been messing around with the CD player because it wasn’t acting right. I had a best of Pantera CD in and was really wanting to listen to it on the convoys that morning. The battle of Fallujah was over at this point and we were parked at VCP (Vehicle Check Point) 5. So everyone is talking to the Iraqi National Guard or each other when I spotted a Colonel of the ING holding an ASP. An ASP is the hard metal stick that extends and cops use it instead of nightsticks now.

Anyways, so I wanted one to take back home and figured I could maybe buy it off of him or trade him. So carrying my CD player, I approached the Colonel and asked if he wouldn’t mind trading. The man took one look at the CD player, thrust his AK rifle at me, and took the CD player. Then he commenced to walk off, stripping out of his uniform as he did so. I couldn’t believe my eyes and neither could the Marines around me.

For the price of a busted CD player, I had myself an AK. Truthfully, I still believe it was the Pantera CD which sold the deal but that’s neither here nor there. Being the good Marine I am, I inspected the rifle, clearing it and making sure it was good to go before we started to take pictures with it.

I thought this was the coolest thing in the world but my excitement was short lived as the Colonel came walking back with some Marine Officer I did not know, fixing his uniform and sulking. He handed me an ASP and took back his AK looking like a child who had just gotten in trouble for giving away his father’s baseball card collection. I didn’t mind. I still got the ASP and pictures with a cool story.

Life is strange sometimes.

Missing Things

I know most vets are this way, but sometimes I miss being in Iraq. Sure it was extremely cold in the winter with no windows on the seven tons and really hot in the summer with an inch thick layer of glass, but there was something about it that I simply miss. Maybe it was hanging with the guys, the thrill of adventure, or the craziness of being in a war zone and not knowing where the enemy was going to come from.

A lot of people always ask me if it was hard and sure, it was. Was I scared? You had to be, but you became used to it. It was simply a part of life. I miss the endless card games and long nights driving across the country, from one end to the other. I miss it all. I miss carrying an M16 and a shotgun.

I guess missing it makes it easy for me to write about it because it stays in my mind. I miss my friends and even though our lives have gone in different directions, I love them all and wish nothing but a peaceful life, from here to eternity. They earned that. Semper Fi.

Great Things

Great things come to those who wait. I don’t believe that. I believe great things come to those who get off their backside and get going, roll up them sleeves, and push forward. My Drill Instructor in boot camp use to say to me and the rest of the recruits, “Keep moving forward.” By say, I mean screamed and spit in our faces.

I took this statement to heart and it has become one of my life’s mottos. When you’re beaten down and you feel like you have no way out and all the world is weighing in on your shoulders, don’t give up, keep moving forward. Keep driving on and pushing, never surrender. The brightest star is among the darkest sky.

To achieve greatness or get what you want out of this life, you have to push for it. You have to work for it because no one will simply give you your dreams. You want a better body, a better job, a better life, you have to work for it. Great things have started to come to my household because we have worked so hard for it. For years now, my wife and I have worked hard with this writing project and I am so proud to say I have been given a contract with a literary agent to represent our work.

This is something I have dreamed about and worked for. Not only that but on the day I signed the contract, we got to bring home our new baby boy from the hospital. He is healthy and happy and I forgot how small a newborn really is. Life is looking great and I owe it all to hard work and the drive. Keep Moving Forward.

Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act.

The President of the United States signed the act. The Clay Hunt Act is to help prevent the suicides of our American Warriors. 22 veterans a day kill themselves and with the help from this bill and several organizations out there, we can start to bring that number down.

The House passed this bill 403 to zero. This is impressive. If you know a veteran that needs help, there are numbers he or she can call. Research local organizations and help them out. These men fought for our country, let’s help them win their war.

Labeled Disabled

 

I’m at the top of my game; one of the best drivers in Iraq. I have found several I.E.D.’s and never once allowed my convoy or my Marines to get hurt. It’s my second tour. I have already survived the battle of Fallujah. I’m 22 years old and feel completely invincible. Aug. 30th, 2006, I’m back in Fallujah. It’s 2345 and we are heading down the main street, which runs from MSR Mobile to the Euphrates River.

There is a dog walking across the road. We are three hundred meters from the George Washington Bridge. My gunner spots a small box in the middle of the road. I begin slowing down, trying to get eyes on it. Is it trash or is it a bomb? It’s hard to tell. The box looks like something a cell phone would come in. The wind blows and a small wire moves in the dirt. It’s a bomb.

I throw the M1114 Humvee into reverse. My Vehicle Commander is informing our Scout 2 truck to back up. I see headlights in my side mirror. I turn the wheel slightly. My side is exposed to the IED. I’m trying to get us out of harm’s way without slamming into my Scout 2. Scout 2 driver is a champ. He has been driving behind me long enough to know my movements and how to react to them.

He starts moving back almost as soon as I do. I see the bomb. I see the headlights in my side mirror. There is a blinding flash, a deafening pop, smoke fills my vehicle, we are down, but we are not out. Two hostiles start sending in the hurt from an elevated position. They assume because they have the high ground, they have superiority over the Marines. They were wrong.

Several Marines unload a can of unholy terror upon them, killing both of them. We won the day for the moment. Little did I know, my real battle had just begun. Top of the world Maw, Top of the world… and I came crashing down like an asteroid.

A little over a month later, I was back in the world of the big PX. I had all my limbs, was in great shape, and ready to go back on another deployment. This would not happen. I didn’t know it at the time but the IED blast destroyed most of my hearing in my right ear and some in my left. The Marine Corps has a policy: you can’t hear, you can’t shoot guns, so you can’t go to war.

I was told my war was over and I was going to have to get out of the Marine Corps. I was depressed. I loved being a combat Marine. It was the greatest thing in my life. I was getting to live out my childhood dreams of going to war. I had all my limbs, why can’t I still fight? I was going to live and die in war. I had my whole life planned out. I was pushed back into society and told I could never again do the one thing I was good at.

My EAS came up before I was medically discharged and I took the EAS. This was a dumb move because I lost out on benefits. I didn’t care though. I couldn’t be around it anymore. It was like having to work with the love of your life, now separated. You can still talk with her but you can’t score her.

You love her but she doesn’t love you back. This is what it felt like. I was heartbroken. I had been dumped by women before but this hurt the most. So instead of waiting and doing what I should have done, I opted out. I had to get away from the Corps because the more I was around it; the more I wanted to hurt myself for not being a part of it.

I felt like a loser and like I had done something wrong. On base I was not allowed to partake in PT, going to the field, no shooting range, like I was an invalid. I felt terrible for getting my friends hurt and I felt like I had let down my Marine Corps. PTSD to me was not seeing my dead friends or reliving the explosion. PTSD for me was feeling like I had failed my service, failed my country, failed my brothers.

Like most vets, I went to the VA. I got my rating and now I was labeled Disabled. Twenty-three years old and I am considered disabled? I felt like my manhood had been removed by blunt force. I was told I would need a hearing aid. My eyesight began to go bad because of the trauma to my brain. Now I needed glasses. My memory began to suffer. I forgot things easily. I had begun to forget details of my life: people, places, things.

The only thing I seemed to remember was the pity I felt for myself for letting down my Corps. The Marine Corps teaches you how to survive in combat but no one teaches you how to survive life after the Marine Corps. I was 23 but felt 83. My body hurt, I developed a drinking problem, I gained weight, wanted to hate myself more each day, refused help, and rejected women who were interested in me. How can I love someone when I can’t love myself?

This is meant to be the prime of my life and I was drowning behind a label – Disabled. I felt my life was over. It seemed like everyday someone had a joke to make about me being deaf or disabled. I laughed along with them but felt like shit inside. I am Disabled. I am an old man, without ever experiencing middle age. I hated my life.

Most of my peers had no idea what I was going through. My wounds were not visible. I had the scars from getting shrapnel but these were not what impaired me. Being labeled disabled was not a badge I cared to wear. I hated the look people gave me, that look of sympathy or confusion. I hated when someone would speak louder to me, practically screaming.

You’re young and strong, why can’t you do this simple task or keep your balance on one leg? Some Marine you are, people would say jokingly.

It took me years to embrace the truth. I was not disabled. I was not done with life. I had a slight problem but with time and work, I learned to adapt and overcome. I would survive and not be tied down by a label. Maybe I was labeled disabled but this doesn’t take away from what I did and what I will do. I will not let my son see me as a disabled person. I will be strong for him and show him that no matter what, you can persevere through anything. Disabled – it’s a label but it is not my character and I will not be defined by such.

Veteran is Not a Dirty Word

Veteran is Not a Dirty Word

Lines from Rambo: First Blood Part II

Col. Trautman: The war, everything that happened here may have been wrong, but damnit, don’t hate your country for it!

Rambo: Hate? I’d die for it!

Trautman: Then what is it you want?

Rambo: I want…what they want, and every other guy who came over here, and spilled his guts and gave everything he had wants… for our country to love us as much as we love it. That’s what I want.

Trautman: How will you live, John?

Rambo: Day by day.

I sat down and watched this movie the other day. These are the last lines of the movie before Rambo goes walking off and the credits roll. I couldn’t help but think about all the mess going on in the country and how these words relate. I am a veteran and proud of it. Stories about veterans in our society are increasing and intensifying.

There is a big scandal going on with the Veterans Administration and our government seems to be doing nothing about it. Men and women who fought bravely for this country are being given worse treatment than our own prisoners. The healthcare system is subpar, crooked, and we are treated like third rate citizens. A good portion of society thinks we are all just gun crazed psychopaths, ready to walk into a mall and start shooting.

I recently read an article about a young Marine who suffered from seizures. He scheduled an appointment for Neuro in October 2013. They said they couldn’t see him until December, 70 days later. The young man died of a seizure 24 days before his scheduled appointment. Now, dare you say, this is not really the VA’s fault. VA’s own rule states that for something like Neuro, the longest allowed wait for an appointment is 14 days… not 70. But the story doesn’t end there. Four days after the young Marine’s death, he called the VA, canceled his appointment and rescheduled it for a later date. Four days after he died, he called from the grave, apparently.

This is what I am talking about. This man served his country and needed help and our own country gave him the middle finger. The real reason for this is numbers. The VA is so incompetent that they must forge their numbers.

It’s not our fault there are long appointment times, the veterans are rescheduling and canceling.

Even after death, apparently. Money is the motivator. They have so much to do but if they aren’t meeting quotas, they need a scapegoat/patsy/a cause to blame… the Veterans. Once again, despite all the crap we took in the service, all the mystery shots, exposure to hazardous situations and waste, now we are back home and getting the same rear end job without a damn reach around.

Here’s a number for them – 22. About 22 veterans a day kill themselves because of this kind of treatment. 22 a day is 22 too many. I am diagnosed with PTSD for my combat experiences in Iraq. I feel like a normal human being but I am aware of the lasting effects the war had on me. I don’t pity myself. I show apathy to most things people find important. When something happens I laugh and say out loud for people to hear, “First world problems.” I think a lot of vets feel this way.

One anxiety I do have is sending me to a therapist who has never served in combat or even our country. Countless times I have met with a VA psychiatrist to learn they are fresh out of school. What kind of life situations can you relate to me about?

I once had to stay up all night and study for a test when all my friends were out partying.

I can imagine them saying this. Stay up late? Try running a mission across Iraq with zero sleep, get caught up by an IED, and then pull guard duty as soon as you get to the base you were heading for. Or worse, pull like the third hour of duty. That sucks. All this while your friends are partying back home because you traded in your prime years for your country.

It would seem the VA is disconnected; they have no idea what we have done because they can’t relate. They are driven by self-interest because they are a For-Profit company. An old Vietnam vet told me this one. Keep fighting for all your benefits no matter what they say. They have people in an office that don’t want to give you your money that you earned because, at the end of the year, they get bonuses back from the money they don’t give out to the vets. Men and women that never served are getting bigger paychecks from our government than I am.

Well, what do you want?

I want what Rambo wanted. I want my country to love us as much as we love it. I want to stop hearing about how this person couldn’t get a job because they are deemed hostile because they went to war. I want to stop hearing stories about how a veteran had to remove his flag or military service decals from his vehicle because the HOA housing is offended by his patriotism. I want for Americans to start taking pride back in their country.

I want to hear people saying this is a free country again. Growing up I heard that a lot. You don’t hear it anymore. I want to say that I am a veteran and not have people look at me like I’m going to snap on them. I want people to stop feeling sorry for me because I went to war. I am not sorry for this and in fact, it was one of the best experiences in my life.

I want people to stop telling me how I need treatment for my PTSD when they don’t know me. I want people to stop telling me that now I’m married and have a kid, I need to really watch myself. I’m not ashamed of my country or the actions of my country. I am not ashamed of the things I did in Iraq and I will not apologize for it. I am not one of these guys that want to cry and feel sorry for myself. I just want to chase my dreams of being a writer (which is my therapy), have a good paying job that I work hard at, and come home every night to a loving wife and child. I want a good affordable home and a running truck.

I want for my brothers and sisters in arms to hold their heads up proud and to be respected by their Government. And yes, we will live like everyone else, day by day.