The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps – Eleanor Roosevelt
My name is Michael and I’m a Marine Corps veteran that proudly served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve always enjoyed writing out my experiences, good or bad, but I’ve never been brave enough to put it out there for others to read. When I was a kid I used to write short stories about fictional military campaigns and imaginary battles. I fanatically watched any and all war movies that I could get my hands on. I grew up idolizing John Wayne (But I knew him as Sgt. Striker from “Sands of Iwo Jima”). I memorized every word spoken by Sgt Striker. I so wanted to be a hard ass, salty Sergeant of Marines.
As I got older my priorities shifted to things more appropriate of my age; sports, girls, and a lot of partying. Oh yes, and some good ole American education somewhere in between. Sgt Striker was soon phased out and replaced with Jeff Lebowski “The Dude”.
Time saw interests and hobbies come and go, but my interest in military history always stayed the same. I’m sure it stemmed from growing up on or near military bases and living around military personnel for the better part of my life. I have what you could call a unique, extended military family.
My grandpa Danny, on my fathers side, was a career Air Force pilot that served in the Korean and Vietnam War. My grandpa Benjamin, on my mothers side, fought as a Filipino guerrilla against the Japanese during WW2 and earned his citizenship by enlisting in the United States Navy. He was also career Navy and later served in Korea and Vietnam. Two of my uncles, Army and Marine, served in Vietnam. All my uncles and an aunt have served in the military at some point in time. I also have cousins that serve in the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps.
You could call it the family business.
My father was a career Navy fighter pilot and his squadron become our second family wherever we found ourselves. I called my dads buddies ‘Uncle‘ and their wives ‘Aunt‘. I thought it was the coolest thing to hang around fighter pilots. They had cool call signs like “Spanky” and “Ichabod“. My dads call sign was “Ninja“, great backstory. I started wearing my dads uniforms and he would occasionally take me to work with him. I felt, in those small moments, that I was a part of something bigger than myself.
Our family moved around every three to four years, sometimes shorter. I was born in Yokosuka, Japan and my brother was born eighteen months later in San Diego, CA. From there we lived in Pensacola FL, San Diego again, Durham NC, and then shot over the Atlantic for a three year tour in Gaeta, Italy.
Why the Marine Corps?
The day I met Major Joe Malovsky was the day I knew I wanted to be a Marine. We lived in Durham, NC at the time and Major Malovsky worked with my dad. I noticed the way he carried himself and the crisp look of his uniform. He looked every part of a US Marine. He was deployed during the First Gulf War with Recon Battalion. He wore a “Puller” (The man, the myth) stack of ribbons/medals. A lot of them.
At the time I was wearing my dads over-sized khaki uniform and ‘piss cover’. He walked towards me with no smile to be found. He stopped one arms distance from me and began inspecting my uniform. He looked disgusted. Maybe I expected another pat on the head and a “Good Job Mike!”, like my dads Navy buddies did. Instead he thumped my pathetic excuse of a ribbon stack and pointed out that my ribbons were out of order and crooked to ‘fuck all‘. He then looked hard into my eyes and said with a quiet, but deep authoritative voice,
“You’ll have to earn those brother” – Major Malovsky
I felt crushed and motivated at the same time. After my “work” day I ditched the ribbons, and didn’t wear them again until I enlisted in 2004. From that day on it was my life objective to become a Marine, like Major Malovsky. I wanted to be one of the Few, one of the Proud.
Our family ‘deployment‘ to Italy was definitely the most challenging move our family had to make. The culture shock, language barrier and distance from friends and family were all difficult to deal with. That initial shock hurts the worst though. As a family, we adjusted fire and ended up having a great time traveling all over Europe. My fascination with military history expanded exponentially through our three year tour. We were able to visit a number of important battlefields. Battlefields that changed history. Normandy Beach was the most powerful battlefield I visited. I was truly humbled as I walked along and ran on Omaha Beach; the scene of a savage battle between the Allies and Axis during World War 2. We also had the opportunity to walk through the enormous Normandy Cemetery and Memorial. 9,385 American servicemen are buried there, most of whom were killed during the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. I felt so damn proud to be an American.
My life’s priorities shifted back and forth through the years, but one date in particular eliminated any doubt I had about joining the Marine Corps. September 11, 2001
I graduated high school in Pensacola, FL in or around May of 2004. Great memory. Shortly after graduation, I left for Tallahassee with some of my boys to give college a try. It was a half ass effort and I failed miserably. That and the thought of four more years of books, tests and essays made me physically ill. I ditched the books and left for basic training later that year in December. Destination, MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) Parris Island, SC. There I was assigned to 2nd Battalion, Echo Company, Platoon 2016. My senior drill instructor was SSgt Driver and he was God on earth as far as us recruits were concerned. Under SSgt Driver were three of his devilish henchmen or ‘Green Hat’ Drill Instructors. Sgt Ostas, SSgt Smith, Sgt Lewis, all were experts in their craft. Their craft being: the breaking down and destruction of young recruits from dusk till dawn, non-stop for three months.
After three months on the Island, I received my Eagle, Globe and Anchor and left to go home on ten days of leave. It was like I blinked, and the ten days were over. Literally. I said goodbye to my family again and jumped on the first Greyhound bus headed northbound. Destination Camp Geiger’s Marine Corps School of the Infantry.
I looked every part of a freshly minted, boot Marine. High and tight haircut, wide eyed, uniform jacked up, responding to everyone I encountered with loud noises, and one ribbon to my name. That one ribbon being the National Defense ribbon given to anyone who has a pulse after boot camp. I hadn’t really communicated, like a normal human being, in three months. In boot camp, you communicate with loud noises, specifically by yelling at the top of your lungs. Usually with “Aye Sir” or “No Sir” and always in the third person. No questions asked.
It was challenging to go back to normal human communications. Everything was still “Aye Sir!” and “No Sir!” even to the PFC’s, Lance Corporals, civilian lawn keepers, the milk man, basically anyone I interacted with. I was aggressively instructed not to call enlisted ‘Sir‘. That was reserved for officers who don’t work for a living. Or so I was told. Let’s just say it wasn’t a smooth transition. “Don’t call me sir you little shit, I work for a living”, was a common response to me. Semper Fi.
School of the Infantry was tough but it was exciting. I learned a lot of new shit and met some top-notch Marines. They were all motivated young men hungry for a fight. In order to fight I had to learn how to shoot. I became familiar with the various weapons systems in the Marine Corps arsenal. That means I got to fire, shoot and blow up shit with everything the Marine Corps had. The Infantry had always fascinated me as a kid. I always wondered what it would be like to live in a foxhole surrounded by a platoon of Marines searching, scanning for the ‘enemy‘ in a treeline. Well I did just that. There was nothing I could compare to assaulting a mock enemy position, with 240B machine guns shooting over our heads, and flares lighting up the sky. I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be in the world.
After a couple of months I received my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) as an 0311 Infantry Rifleman. The coveted 0311 MOS. I was elated with pride. But with that pride there was a sobering reality of what my job would actually entail. Just how demanding it would be. Make no mistake, the job of a Marine Rifleman is to locate, close with and destroy the enemy. And to do so with extreme prejudice. I was young, and at the time I thought I was bulletproof. We all did. A couple of days before graduation we overheard a group of instructors talking about a battalion that had just took some serious casualties. It was a Marine unit from Ohio and I remember feeling for the first time a general sense of unease, bordering on fear. At the same time I was extremely excited for the future, to get in there and do my part. That future would lead me on Drug Interdiction missions on the border and tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Struggle is Real
I’ve had the privilege of serving with some of America’s best. The Marine Corps taught me how to be man and instilled traits in me that I didn’t have before. They taught me how to operate, survive and thrive in a dangerous environment and to look cool while doing it. I learned the importance of the Team. There of course being no “I” in team. Being an individual on the battlefield is lonely and dangerous to everyone around you. I had to trust that each Marine on our team would do his job when shit went down. During my time in Parris Island it was drilled into my head that we were only as strong as the weakest link. If one person out of seventy messed up, everyone got fucked up. At the time I thought it was a barbaric practice, punishing everyone for one guys mistake. But it all started to make sense when we started conducting missions down range.
I served in Iraq and Afghanistan and saw enough combat for me to know that I never want to see it or hear it ever again. I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome), TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and a gnarly seizure disorder that has plagued me on and off through the years. Combat changed my life in a number of ways. I learned and accepted that you can be there one second, and gone the next. I learned to accept my own mortality. The mindset that I carried into combat stays with me today, for better or worse.
Life got a lot more complicated after I got out of the service. I thought the worst was behind me, like this is the beginning of my post-war, stress-free life. It was a cruel mirage.
I slowly started to realize that the war came back home with me.There was an emptiness that I tried to fill with whatever I could, school, work, partying, drugs. Instead of dealing with the issues I knew I had, I tried to act like it didn’t affect me. Like if I didn’t acknowledge it, then it didn’t exist. I thought I was doing a great job of hiding it. I wasn’t. I hope that by sharing some of my experiences, someone who is going through a similar experience will divert from the path I took and save yourself the time, hardship, money and pain.
Getting me to see a counselor at the VA was like pulling teeth. I tried to “do it on my own” for far too long and had made zero progress. Things only started to look up when I began to put all my effort into getting better, mentally and physically.
I finally started to open up to my Veterans Affairs counselor Sherry. She’s a wonderful, knowledgeable, understanding and motivated woman. We started tackling issues that I avoided like the plague. I started to look forward to her appointments. I found it to be a ‘safe place‘ where I could tell someone how I actually felt without scaring the shit out of them, if that makes sense.
It was a relief to to tell someone what was actually going through my head when I’m in a loud, crowded place. Why I’m always scanning around the room at people. My fixation with watching the ground in front of me, when walking anywhere. Horrific nightmares where I wake up drenched in sweat, thinking I pissed myself. It was a relief to tell someone these things and have them say, “Yeah Dude we’ve heard it before, this is what we can do…”
I started using the strategies that the VA was successfully using on other veterans that were struggling. I agreed, under great suspicion, to go through their ‘Exposure Therapy‘. Mr. Stevens was a no bullshit kind of guy. He told me directly that the only way this shit works is if I put everything into it, every day.
Over a six week span we began unraveling the past. We talked about firefights and bombs and everything going through my head, minute by minute, at every turn and how I felt, my emotions I guess, as the events unfolded. We went over it again, again and again. We recorded each session and every morning, before I got out of bed, I put in my ear buds and listened to the recording. When I finished I got up, took a shower, brushed my teeth and went ahead with my day.
After a couple of days it started to sound like someone else telling the story. I acknowledged that sometimes shit happens, and that’s unfair. But life is unfair sometimes. All I can do is take another step. That’s what our Fallen would want.
I attend a weekly veterans PTSD group at the VA and it has changed my life. Its what I look forward to every week. I walked, I should say crawled, into my first group when I was at the end of my rope. I was literally a broken individual. I opened up and listened to other veterans stories and took note of the strategies they use to get through their day. Its been a humbling experience and I’m blessed to be a part of it.
It would be bullshit for me to say that I’ve done any of this on my own. I have the most supportive family and amazing group of friends. They have been there for me every step of the way. I owe them my life. I don’t say thank you enough to these wonderful people. Thank you.