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The Quest for Resiliency

 

Sadly I am here to report that we lost another brother to suicide this month. This one hit hard mostly because we never expected this to come from him. The month has been extremely trying for all of us involved but I was blessed to be in the company of 3 brilliant men as we discussed ideas to stop this madness. This was the kind of conversation that was so powerful, about 15 minutes into it; I had to start recording it. The basic summary of our conversation was about resiliency and how we can better promote it amongst our ranks.

Operation Iraqi Freedom FY-08

Now I really don’t know how to pinpoint where we’ve missed the mark in the last 17 years of war fighting, but the one thing I do know, that I don’t think anyone can deny, is that something needs to change. This war has been fought as background noise to most of the American public, but still we have came home to a much better reception than our brothers who fought in Vietnam. We have the ability to reach out to our brothers and sisters in ways that our grandparents who fought in World War II and Korea probably never imagined, but still we are killing ourselves at an astounding rate. So where is the hang up?

 

We have access to seminars and briefs at least twice a year. Most regiments have a full time civilian social worker on staff whose soul purpose is to talk to the troops about this epidemic. We have online courses that we have to take every fiscal year that are monitored by higher command. There is no denying that it’s a not a case of not knowing where to go for help. So if we have the knowledge and we have to tools, why are we not using them?

 

I think that the biggest issue I see is that we look at suicide prevention as a problem that we can address directly when it might be a side effect of an entirely different issue. From the start, young Americans are joining the military under the pretense that after the war they will be damaged. The media, government programs and even our commands are lending their hands to this debilitating habit of thought when in reality they need to be promoting something that all warrior cultures possess. Resiliency.

 

Now before anyone says that each branch of the military has a resiliency program in place, let me counter with this. They suck. The programs are monotonous, boring and usually taught by a guy in his mid-thirties in a polo shirt, slacks and brown dress shoes named Chad who has never had to stuff someone’s testicles back inside their body while waiting for Pedro to reach their position. While I am 100 percent behind teaching our troops these skills, they need to come from those that are sharing the weight, not by a bystander. Every small unit leader should be a resident expert in the art of resiliency and overcoming diversity.

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While I would like to say that I did this to my Marines and Sailors, I obviously can’t say it’s going to work every time. The Marine we lost last month was on my vehicle for a deployment that kept us in the field for months at a time. Surely we shared time together discussing our viewpoints on life and I know that we shared one specific and terrifying moment, so did I miss something? Could I have done something different? Had I understood the true weight of my command, I might have made more time, and made myself more available to these brave young men. I might have better fostered an environment of mutual respect and empathy.

 

While I know that I will never get those moments back, and I understand that it is not my fault that he is no longer with us, I do have to ask myself, how could this have been prevented? How could I have made my Marines stronger than I already did? While talking with these three fine gentlemen over tacos we came to the conclusion that the United States Military doesn’t need another resiliency program. It needs better leaders.

 

Had I been approached when I was a 27 year old Staff Sergeant by a veteran that had seen the ugly side of war and been affected by suicide, I might have put more into each and every word I told my troops. I might have made more of an emphasis to them on being able to rely on their brothers and sisters for support when they needed help. I might have been more honest about the horrors they would see and the difficulty that would come with returning to the real world after they’ve been touched with that kind of power.

 

In the next few months, I will be researching the resiliency programs already in place with each branch of service. I will be looking at how they disseminate this information amongst themselves. I will also be looking at how we can better train ourselves for the future by looking at the past. While the facets of modern warfare are fantastically grotesque, they are nowhere near as personal as the hand to hand combat fought by our ancestors. So how then did they manage to build such incredible resiliency in themselves that they could do the things they did, and see the things they saw and still function in society?

 

This is going to be an overwhelming task but one that I would not turn away from in a million years. If you have any thoughts on this topic, resources that you think might help, or if you’re name is Chad and you’re offended, please help me out. Send me your thoughts and share the post amongst your circles. The idea is that, along with outdoor therapy, I would like the non-profit to fund several trips throughout the year where veterans would go to our bases and speak with small audiences of small unit leaders. The conversations would focus on better understanding and embracing the warrior ethos and leadership principles that will keep our men and women in the fight long after they return.

 

Thank you for reading this and please subscribe to the blog to get updates on future posts.

 

 

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Don’t give up. Someone is watching you!

Even though I’m the one that actively went out and aded myself to about half a dozen veteran social media groups that claim to be centered around PTSD Support and Recovery, I find myself at odds with the posts I see on a daily basis.

“I keep looking at my pistol.”

“When will the nightmares end?”

“I don’t know if I can go on.”

I see posts like these on a daily basis and while it does elicit a response from me to reach out and try to help, why does it also make me so immediately and almost blindingly angry? What is it about other people’s weaknesses that makes me so damn hostile? My counselor tells me that my internal calendar will set off an alarm on specific anniversaries but I don’t usually notice it on my own. In the latter weeks of summer I set aside some time to reflect and remember my brothers lost in Iraq but there is usually some prompting from members of the group. It’s not something that really comes up on it’s own for me.

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All that said, the last few days I’ve really had a hard time focusing on school and work. On Tuesday evening after work I found myself heading towards Cave Junction on highway 199. I was headed for Deer Creek Cemetery but I wasn’t sure what caused the sudden need to see him.

I was deployed when it happened. I had called home to my first wife and she told me that she had something horrible to tell me and asked if I would want to hear it over the phone or wait until I came home. I immediately thought that she was leaving me or something crazy like that but what she actually told me changed my life forever. My best friend growing up had taken his life on February 21, 2002. He was at a party, drugs and alcohol were involved in some degree, and he killed himself.

I have never in my life been so rocked by something like this. He was one of the biggest reasons I joined the Marines and even though he was not able to join because of a shoulder injury, he was my number one fan. Sure, we had drifted apart over the years but he was always on my mind and in my heart. We were brothers.

Years later, I had a dream. I was reunited with him in a field on a high mountain plain. When I write it down, I know exactly where we were. We had camped there when we were maybe 13 and 14 years old. Our parents were pissed that we set off on such a long trip by ourselves. For 5 days we stayed up there with only the food and water we carried in and our BB guns for protection. We sat under the stars and watched the lights of our sleepy little town go off one by one. We ate cans of bean and bacon soup, top ramen and pop tarts. We hunted birds and squirrels and explored the far side of the mountain that you don’t see from town.

In the dream I was telling him all about my life and how I was doing. I told him about my family and my children. My adventures and near misses. I invited him to come home with me so he could see for himself, but he couldn’t leave. He stood there like a statue with eyes of pity and regret and watched as I faded away back to reality. He would never see the house I bought, my cool new motorcycle or the son I named after him. He could never come home. He was gone forever.

Now I’ll admit, when I was in the grips of my alcohol addiction, I made a lot of mistakes and hurt a lot of people. There were times when I felt the world was a better place without me and I toyed with the idea of ending it all. I buried the needle on my motorcycle trying to see how fast I could go around a blind corner. I gave fate every opportunity to bring me in early, but it never happened.

What I found in the bottom of the bottle and at the end of the rope was pure desperation. Hopeless and helpless I begged, and I mean begged God for an answer. In the crappy little upstairs meeting hall of the Moose lodge in Oceanside, California I heard my fathers words over and over. “Don’t give up son. Someone is watching you.”

AJ watching Daddy

And there it is. The number one reason behind my contempt. Life is going to be hard. Life is going to offer you challenges and hardships so frequently that you’re going to feel like just giving it all up. That’s normal. That’s all a part of the grand design. But someone, somewhere, is watching you. Looking to you for guidance. For a clear path or a sign of some sort. When you throw in that towel, you’re not only robbing someone else of a brother or a sister. A father, mother, son or daughter. A best friend. You mean something to someone. Even at your worst, you’re something special to someone. When you quit, that person will never get to see your smile ever again. They will lose a part of themselves that they never wanted to give up.

I feel that society has tried very hard to paint us into a corner. To label us as broken and unforgivable. Shells of the men and women we once were when in reality we need to take a good hard look at what we’ve been through. I think that when we do that, we can find that the sum of our experiences has in fact hardened our resolve. You don’t make a blade by simply pouring steel into a mold. You apply heat and pressure to it over and over again. You beat the weakness out of it with thousands of relentless blows and then, after it’s cooled off, you do it all over again. Remember where you’ve been and what you’ve done. Remember all the times that life was against you and still you remained. You’re so much stronger than you give yourself credit for.

I guess my biggest point, and I’ve said this hundreds of times before, is simple. If you’re down and the voices in your head are telling you to quit, don’t listen to them. Pick up the phone and call someone. And if you’re phone rings in the middle of the night, answer it. Stay connected and keep moving forward. Do things that scare you. Constant improvement and competition will deliver you from the brink.

My best friend’s name was Justin. He lived at the top of B Street. A short walk from his house were the woods surrounding a small mountain that rises up on the west side of my town called Dollar Mountain. Naming my business Dollar Mountain Woodworks was my way of keeping him alive with me. My daily reminder that there are still some of us out there that need help finding their way.

If you’ve enjoyed reading my blog, please subscribe, comment and share. You never know who really needs to hear this kind of message. Thank you.

 

The Gift of Desperation

First let me start by saying that I’ve been there. I’ve had the thoughts and the sleepless nights, the nightmares and every thing else that comes with it. I can appreciate the heartfelt and raw honesty that comes with putting yourself out there, but how are any of us going to move forward without taking the advice of those that have been there? When I quit drinking back in 2011, I was blessed with a shoulder injury. I shit you not, I tore my shoulder out choking my chicken. Seriously, I had a rooster that had to go and while I raised him up to snap his neck, he twisted on me and that minor adjustment made me yank my right shoulder out of socket momentarily. I can’t make this up. Every doctor and specialist I saw made me retell the story like they couldn’t see it right there on the chart.

Continue reading The Gift of Desperation

The long road home…

So this is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time, and while I’m sure I’m going to upset a few people with this, I am excited to hear what some of you have to say about it.

I retired in June of 2016 and went to work as a white water rafting guide the next day. I had my own business to fall back on as well but as we all know, the struggle is most definitely real. I started going to school in the fall of 2016 at a local community college and that is where I first saw the image that most veterans are encouraging. What I’m talking about is the guy that everyone has seen on campus sporting his day pack he kept from supply with his t-shirt covered in veteran this and veteran that.

Continue reading The long road home…

The Journey Begins

So I guess for any of this to make sense, I should start with an introduction. My name is Donnie and I am a retired Marine. I’m a father of 4, 3 girls and 1 boy. The two oldest girls are my step kids but nobody could tell the difference in how I treat them. I’m a recovering alcoholic and a veteran of both Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. In my 18 years of service I deployed 7 times. Twice to the Western Pacific before the war started with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, twice to Iraq with 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, and after I went to the drill field, I deployed again to Afghanistan with 3rd LAR and then to the Republic of Georgia where I trained with the Batumi Georgian Light Infantry Battalion and subsequently deployed with them to Afghanistan for my last trip overseas. I finished up my career at 5th Marine Regiment at Camp Pendleton where I was a Company Gunny, (acting) Company First Sergeant and Water Survival Training Tank SNCOIC.
Just before I retired, my wife and I came home on humanitarian orders to handle some nasty custody issues, the like that no parent wants to go through. While I moved my family back and forth from Oregon to California and multiple court hearings I spent all of my savings and even had to resort to a GoFundMe campaign to stay above water. At one point I made a desperate attempt at being an artist to pay bills and started my company Dollar Mountain Woodworks. I named the company after a little piece of wilderness where my best friend and I grew up. He commited suicide when we were 21 years old, and naming the company after him was my way of keeping him alive with me.
I was blessed to fill my first 20 or so orders to friends that saw something in what I was trying to do and have since built a pretty successful business out of virtually nothing. I’m not getting rich but I am becoming extremely wealthy in the connections I’ve made with other veterans and first responders across America. My plan with this blog is to create a platform to share my strength, experience and hope with other veterans that find themselves conflicted with similar problems and patterns of behavior.
On top of my business and raising my children, I have also found work guiding for a white water rafting company and a zip line park. I am an avid hunter, which is a hobby I am blessed to share a passion for with my wife and kids. We met in high school and got together just after my 5th deployment. The custody issues I wrote about earlier have obviously put us both through the ringer and the stress of it, coupled with my seperation anxiety of no longer being the man I used to be in the service, has brought me an incredible amount of adversity and torment.
In the last 2 decades, I have lost dozens of close friends as a result of training mishaps, contact with the enemy and, most regrettably, suicide. Alcohol and substance abuse have and continue to play a very significant part in the latter, and while I am no stranger to it, I feel like I have made a lot of significant changes in my life that I want to share with our community.
We have a 4 acre parcel of land that we are working on starting a farm. We are in the process of raising chickens, ducks, rabbits, hogs, and soon will be adding a few head of beef. We’ve also got some goats but they’re just smart enough to stay alive and not end up on the table. It’s going to take a tremendous amount of work and dedication to get our land to work for us, but it is definitely a challenge we are up for. As if that weren’t enough, in a year or so we will be breeding our German Rottweiler and training the pups in rudimentary protection behavior before we find homes for them. The idea is that by sharing our experiences in the trials and errors we are sure to undergo, we can reach others in need that might be able to relate to the issues we find ourselves in.
I am a firm believer in post-traumatic growth and overcoming adversity at all costs. Before I finally put the bottle down I was an emotional time bomb. I destroyed relationships, marriages and the trust of those around me. But while there were a lot of things that I couldn’t ever seem to get right, there were other areas of my life and career that were incredibly successful and some might even say admirable. I have to be the first to admit, however, that over the course of the last 18 months, I have lost touch with that side of persona and my hope is that by sharing a little of myself with others, I will not only find it again, but also inspire others to do the same.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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