The problem with having problems is that ‘someone’ always has it worse. Feeling sorry for yourself isn't possible when faced with the realities of others' situations. I had my own battles with demons, true. I had nightmares that left me angry and breathless. My body had been burned and scarred. I had my issues and my struggles.
But I had my legs. I had my arms. And I was thankful to be alive. Bad dreams and stress were nothing in the grand scheme. Good men who’d paid the ultimate price would gladly trade places with me. I had cheated death more times than I deserved. I knew that I was lucky.
Because of those experiences, I was capable of living life more than any civilian ever could, even if that meant living it alone. When my head went to dark places, the need to live for the lost inspired me to keep trying, to create something new for myself eventually.
I have no complaints about this uncertain future. I chose the Marine Corps willingly. No commercials convinced me to get off my ass and join, no recruiter pressured me in high school. I didn’t join for the saber or to slay dragons in dress blues. No one told me it was my only option.
I enlisted after watching two planes attack my country because it was the right thing to do. Like my grandfather and his father before him, I believed it was my duty to protect the American way of life, to preserve our sacred principles of liberty and justice. I wanted to be a warrior and the Corps was the highest calling for men like us.
Even as a kid, I admired good men willing to selflessly defend others. Protectors were noble and necessary. I wanted to be the good guy, fighting the bad guys. The first time I killed cemented that.
On Christmas Day, as other ten-year-olds were deciding which toy to play with, I’d taken to my grandfather’s frozen land with my gift: a .22 hunting rifle. Even now, I could distinctly recall my mother’s hesitance and his pride as I tore the wrapping.
He said to me, “This gun once belonged to John Drake. He lived up the road until he died a few years back. He was a Marine in the Great War, fought in the Battle of Soissons with thousands of honorable Americans. Times were tough during the Depression, and this firearm fed his family. Next visit, we’ll teach you to hunt with it as he taught his sons.”
That rifle was a rite of passage and a sign of his trust and respect. My mother was an only child like me, and my grandfather treated me like the son he never had. Impressing him was important. I wanted to show him he was right and my father was wrong: I was old enough to hunt. I had watched him shoot, learned weapons safety and taken some turns, but I couldn’t wait to start practicing on my own. Within the hour, I excused myself from breakfast and scouted his map for the perfect secluded spot a half mile from the house.
I set three apples along the old wooden fence. Lying flat in the snow, I stabilized the rifle and took careful aim. I was alone, but internal pressure drove me to make the most of my ten rounds. Success and failure were already defining points of my identity.
Six shots later, two of the apples exploded and I couldn’t help but smile. My grandfather said the best marksman was a natural, and clearly I had skill. But I didn't gloat. Two out of three wasn’t good enough, so I promised myself to practice until I had dead-eye accuracy. If I succeeded before it we returned home, my Grandfather might share tips on how to shoot like a Marine. I swore when the country boys down the road called me a Yankee again I would challenge them and win.
Smiling at the thought of showing my father a thing or two when he returned from New York, I skipped back to the house. I made it past the duck blind when I heard a rumbling growl from behind me.
I spun around, seeing a dirty brown dog stalking me from the woods. White foam dripped from its jaw and its eyes were wild. I had never seen an animal look so mean. My shaky legs stepped back as I imagined it lunging forward and biting my face. Thin skin and patchy fur stretched across lean muscles. He looked hungry and fast. Escape was unlikely.
My fingers came alive and wrapped around my rifle. I considered pulling the trigger as it matched my retreat with forward strides. I had never killed anything before. Apples along a fence were one thing, but this was a living, breathing, moving target. The possibility of missing was strong.
Scared and uncertain, I raised my weapon and watched his slow, calculated movements. When the dog sprang, a switch flipped. I pulled the trigger and didn’t miss. The boom echoed around the woods, each reverberation a reminder of what I’d just done. The dog fell and the snow turned red. I almost ran then, but my feet froze.
I shook and watched it bleed and twitch, unsure of what to do until it whimpered. I couldn’t stand the crying and blood. My legs grew wings and I didn’t look back.
The tears hit once I made it to my room. I wrestled with my feelings for that entire day. I loved animals and killing was wrong. One part of me wished saving it was possible. I hadn’t even tried. Maybe it was defending its young or thought I wanted its food. I could’ve fired a warning shot. I wondered if I’d go to hell.
Another part of me questioned if I did the right thing. The dog was dangerous. If it came near my grandfather’s home, he could have hurt us or his neighbors and friends. Killing in defense was simple survival. God wouldn’t punish me if my ultimate goal was to protect and defend. The idea that I could guard others with actions made an indelible mark on my young mind.
For the rest of the afternoon, I rationalized my actions with reason; a process that would become a life-long pattern. I carefully drew lines between right and wrong, defining what was black and what was white. I decided good people had a duty to guard those that couldn’t guard themselves. If lives were at risk, killing was sometimes justified.
As a Marine, I’d saved lives many times because of that understanding. I had a sixth sense for danger and knew when to pull the trigger. We’d defended ourselves and never lost a brother until Ramadi. All that mattered to us was getting back alive and keeping the Corps honorable. We were America’s 911 force; we defended, we defeated and we won.
Then came the endless occupation of Iraq. After we accomplished our primary mission, the command changed and boots flooded in. Unlike my Marines, they were inexperienced, undisciplined, and unforgivably careless. To them, and often their commanders, mistakes were irrelevant if the end goal was achieved.
Each day was fresh with new bullshit. Boot-ass lieutenants pushed ineffective missions to pad their egos. Arrogant commanders reprimanded the most capable while the negligence of incompetents went unchecked. We lost lives and left positions we’d fought hard to take. Wrong coordinates, blanket airstrikes, and stupid orders caused unnecessary casualties.
In those days, I’d lain for hours in that desert, wondering how the leadership had changed the culture, redefining the parameters of practicality and strategy. At some point hubris influenced critical decisions instead of logic. Those in charge forgot that Marines don’t win wars, we win battles. We didn’t forcefully suppress the enemy with minimal damage to resources and life. We weren’t even fighting. The chief objective of war is to win and we were losing at great cost.
My country was the richest with the most powerful military, but we couldn’t get batteries or armor when needed. “Win hearts and minds,” they said, while tricky hajjis said one thing and did another without consequences. Friendly tribes that we supplied and bribed betrayed us and we were told to forgive them. We couldn’t even save innocent civilians because they refused to save themselves.
Eventually, it had all clicked into place. We weren’t in Iraq to win; the war was a failed cause driven solely by politicians—a bullshit cause I hadn’t joined the Corps to fight.
It felt then as if I had been a stranger all along, living in an alternate universe. My rational world had ceased to exist.
I never spoke of my realizations. Some felt the same way, even if they never said it. But saying the words made the reality inescapable and the Corps wasn’t a democracy. We were involved in a system of order we joined by choice. All we had was each other and I clung to that purpose: kill the enemy and keep my Marines alive.
My loss of faith and my anger at the injustices still ate me alive in those last days. Eventually I began to question and openly demand justification for BS orders in the heat of the moment. My pointed rationale made plain to all that preventable mistakes were made. Nothing changed. Incompetent commanders don't like questions. I made more enemies than friends, and I grew to hate them all. Bitterness and betrayal consumed me, so I stopped feeling to survive.
And then Ramadi happened. One minute we were clearing rooms, moving to secure a sniper position in the fifth house, and the next minute I was in Baghdad. I dreamed snippets of the hospital’s bright lights and the MEDEVAC’s whirling rotors and drop choppers. The searing pain in my shoulder and waking to beeping and humming, smelling piss and bleach were constant memory flashes. Everything else was a blur of pain.
I woke in the hospital sweating and thirsty. My body was weak, the room was hot, and the machines kept beeping. Even sedated I understood time was lost, but I had no idea if was still in Iraq, why I was tubed up and drugged. The last thing I remembered was scaling the stairs toward our objective, the adrenaline bursting through my veins, the AK fire popping, with our M-4’s responding. Andrew was covering my forward progression, and then, nothing. I learned later he was dead.
When I saw trees outside the window, my first my first panic attack hit. My chest tightened, my heart pounded and my fingers gripped the sheets but I couldn’t get free. The world closed in, so I fought against the confines of the bed as I was trained to do.
A 20-something yuppie civilian evaluated me. He wore khakis and parted his hair like Alfred E. Newman. I stared at the sparse hairs above his lip, wondering if that was his first mustache. “Do you feel angry? Do memories of your service cause discomfort? Do your thoughts stray to homicide?” he asked, so very concerned.
I was a professional killer, trained to remorselessly dispatch my enemy. Many a bad guy had reached their promised land because of my skill. What did he know of combat? Of rage, justice, and vengeance? What did he know of guilt, regret or hate? Nothing. And we both knew that. I laughed at him internally and wordlessly shook my head.
He blamed my panic attack and memory loss on Post-Traumatic Stress and Retrograde Amnesia. Memories were lost, but my problems were deeper. There was a blank space where I used to feel, a void inside my soul. Something was missing in me and I wanted it back.
My wounds healed quicker than they expected. Just like during deployment, weeks filled with physical therapy bled into one another, and then I was free. Free to choose, free to go wherever I wanted to go. Free to pursue my second chance at life.
I fell off the grid after my medical discharge. I didn’t go home to Philadelphia once released. There was something suffocating about returning to a doting mother and a smug father. I had been smothered for too long. I needed solitude. So I went straight for my grandfather’s abandoned home in Tennessee. That first week the real problems emerged.
Disturbing dreams and terrifying slivers of that last mission haunted me between nightmares. The struggle to remember those missing moments tortured my sleep. Even under fire, I had never felt so helpless. It was all I could do to stay conscious and keep breathing when a panic attack would come. Sometimes I succeeded; sometimes I failed.
Months passed, and I was still unable to remember what happened after we broke into the fifth house. Sometimes I saw the medic’s face in my sleep, saw his dark eyes and heard his demands that I keep breathing. I could recall snippets of that Baghdad hospital, but not much else.
The report said AQI got us with RPGs, that Andrews was dead when our team arrived. But there was more to it. I could feel that. Something slowed us down. Somehow, Andrew died and somehow I lived. In the deepest parts of my soul, I knew I was responsible. I failed him, his wife and his son and I would remember the truth if it was the last accomplishment of this miserable life.
This dark place was a blessing compared to the fate I should have had. And it wasn't so bad here in the mountains. Iraq was behind me, and I was stateside for good. There were no patrols, no gear, and no desert. No enemy.
I had wilderness and solitude and opportunity, which was more than I deserved. A chance to sort myself out. A chance to find what I wanted to do with the rest of my life since everything else was gone. If I couldn't get myself straight here, in this old home of my forefathers, then I never would. That's what kept me ticking. That, and hope for something more.