“I joined the Marines in a less traditional way than most. I was already in law school and didn’t think I was eligible until a friend of mine mentioned a special program for lawyers. I knew I wanted to join the Marine Corps, and so that’s what I did in the summer of 1997. I came on active duty in 1998 as a Judge Advocate (attorney), and my first duty station was in Okinawa, Japan. I was a criminal defense lawyer there for one year and I was involved with a lot different cases and interesting trials. As a Captain I was a criminal prosecutor at Camp Pendleton, California for about four years. I ended up extending my time after 9/11 for a couple years, but I never deployed while I was on active duty. I decided to leave active duty in 2004, and I took an attorney position with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Washington, DC. I joined the Reserves in 2005, and started teaching the Laws of War, Geneva Convention, and Rules of Engagement to Marine units that were getting ready to deploy. I did that until 2006 when the message came out that a Civil Affairs unit was looking for Marine officers for an upcoming deployment. I volunteered to transfer to that unit and deployed as a Civil Affairs Team Leader, where I led a small team of Marines that ended up being attached to a larger infantry battalion. We landed in Iraq in the fall of 2006, and it was a really fiercely contested place at that time. On October 18, 2006, we were out on one of our usual patrols, except we had recently lost two Marines in this particular area to an enemy sniper. We had a reporter there for a couple days doing a story about the battalion, and I told him that he needed to move a little quicker with the sniper in the area. As soon as I said that, he took a big step forward and seconds later a shot hit the wall between us where his head had been. The next round the sniper shot hit me behind my left ear and exploded out of my mouth causing incredible damage. I went into shock shortly afterward and my mind just shut down.
I was no longer breathing but Corpsman Grant was able to perform rescue breathing on me even though a bullet had just gone through my face. He also performed an emergency tracheotomy on me so I wouldn’t drown in my own blood. They were able to get me up into a humvee, where Corporal Jordan Buhler put his life on the line by driving 70 miles an hour on roads that we knew had IEDs on them. The doctors said they had operated on thousands of Marines already and no one had survived the type of gunshot I endured, so they had a lot of challenges figuring out how to save me. Everyone along the way did an amazing job, starting with Corpsman Grant, to the doctors in Iraq and Germany, and then the doctors in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s incredible looking back on it and how it all worked out. I was in an induced coma for a couple of weeks. My first surgery was 18 hours long and they took a bone out of my left leg to reconstruct my lower jaw. I had a number of surgeries, and was sharing a room with a young Marine who had lost his leg. The doctors said I would get better quicker if I went home and slept for long periods of time. The doctors showed my wife how to clean my mouth and how to keep things clean on my legs where I had surgeries so I was back at home five weeks later. I came in regularly for surgery and then I’d go home and recover again. I went back to work about 8 or 9 months after I was injured, but would still go back to the hospital periodically for surgery. Meanwhile, they gave me the option to Med Board immediately or stay in. I chose to stay in because I still wanted to keep serving, but there was also a part of me that was concerned about the quality of care I would get if I left. The physical recovery has taken years, but now after two dozen surgeries, it’s an incredible testament to what the human body can endure. There’s an obvious physical hurdle in going through what I did, but there is also a mental element you have to deal with.
I originally started going to a counselor for PTSD at the Vet Center in Alexandria, Virginia. Then I found a really great psychologist right around the corner in Crystal City, so I started seeing him for weekly hour long counseling sessions for a year and a half. It really changed everything and made a huge difference getting things off my chest, to the point that my wife could tell if I missed my session on a given week. It was really beneficial to be able to talk to someone who was an objective person, regardless of whether it was related to my injury or not. He helped me to understand that what I went through was really traumatic and that not having some sort of reaction to that would have been a little odd. I started to understand why I didn’t want to be around crowds, or see fireworks on the Fourth of July, or why I had emotional reactions to certain situations. He was really able to help me find my triggers and in turn, a solution to deal with those issues when they came up. Once I started getting better I went back to work as a lawyer with Department of Justice. I eventually went to work on Capitol Hill and then with the FBI, but in 2013 I decided I wanted to do something else. I ended up medically retiring from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel in 2013 and stopped practicing law in order to start my speaking business. I’ve been doing it for 6 years now and I’ve spoken at a lot of Fortune 500 companies. I also wrote a book on leadership taking Marine Corps leadership principles and applying them to the private sector. Additionally, I started focusing a lot of my time on veteran employment because employment was such an important part of my recovery. Getting back to work and being a productive member of society made a big difference in my mental health. I talk to a lot of employers and HR professionals about the business of hiring veterans, and I feel very good about that. I’ve been very fortunate in my recovery, but I know others didn’t have the same opportunities I did, so I’m just trying to give back in any way I can.”
*To provide mental health treatment to veterans like Justin, please consider donating to the Headstrong Project at http://getheadstrong.org/donate/