I thought that I was an idiot, that I was incompetent, and that I was good for nothing. At least that is how I feel I was treated as a junior Marine Corps officer. You see, my story is a mixed bag of things that contributed to my mental state. Some of these were my decisions and other things were externally influenced. Either way, I have it. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I had stayed up all night getting ready with Veronica. It’s January 6th, 2001 and I was going to Marine Corps bootcamp. I’d studied my General Orders, I’d learned the rank structure somewhat, and I’d worked out everyday so that my body would not get thrashed too bad. I was 20 years old and nervous. I mean, I’m about to go to the hardest bootcamp in the military and leave everything behind. My girlfriend, my son, my family…
Then it happened…knock knock knock…
Eyes wide open, everyone knew what was about to happen. Slowly we all got together by the front door and I opened it. Standing there was my Staff Sergeant, in the Marine Corps Dress Blue uniform. I looked back, hugged my dad and he patted me on the back. I kissed my mom and saw in her eyes the fear of her only son going off to the unknown. I embraced everyone a last time and then walked through the door.
It was 45 minutes of silence in the white government issued van down to Miami for processing.
We went through the final physical exams and signed more papers.
In the evening, we took a plane to an airport where we were greeted by our Marine handlers. Males and females were systematically shuffled into several buses and we began to move. I looked out of the window and saw ice on the ground. It’s a rare sight for someone who has never seen snow in person. I heard people talking about what bootcamp was like and what we can expect. Hints and tips to “make” it through 13 weeks of training. This went on for an hour or so until we arrived at the main gate.
Have you ever seen a slow motion video of someone who knows they are going to get punched in the face and knocked out? Imagine a 20 minute version of that. Then you will know what it feels like to be a recruit on the 20 minute bus ride to the “Receiving” building. It’s over. You are here. You can’t escape.
You look out the window. You see the Drill Instructors. Fuck. You know what they look like because they have campaign covers on. They stand there, in formation, quietly waiting.
The doors open. The bus driver gets off the bus. Fuck.
Like an orchestrated nightmare, the drill instructors descend on each bus, blasting their initial orders. You kept your face forward because you were told to, you yelled at the top of your lungs because you were afraid not to.You were told you were to get off the bus and you did. Screaming and yelling.
Every Marine will tell you the same story about when they got off the bus. They will tell you about the yellow footprints. These are painted yellow footprints that have their heels together and the toes pointed in 45 degrees. Standing with your feet in this fashion with your arms to the side and thumbs at your trouser seams is the position of attention.
“You are now aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island South Carolina,” bellowed the Drill Instructor, “and you have just taken the first step toward becoming a member of the world’s finest fighting force, the United States Marine Corps.”
This was the beginning of my journey.
I learned very quickly that speed and intensity is the name of the game. Instant obedience to orders. Our core values are Honor, Courage, and Commitment. You lived it. You breathed it.
It wasn’t easy for me at first. Like most recruits, I’d not been in a situation where I was constantly being yelled at for random things. I’ve never been micromanaged to the point where I was told when to use the restroom and then told to “pinch it off”.
“What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself “Why am I even here?”
It’s easy to start questioning your worth to the world when you are being broken down physically and mentally. When that starts happening, you begin a downwards spiral into depression. I came into bootcamp with a goal in mind, I wanted to be a Marine.
“I am weak.” “I can’t keep up.” “You’re nasty.” Boot camp felt like a jail sentence, I needed to get through it to get to where I wanted to go.
How do you get the energy to move through the misery that you are going through? How do motivate yourself when you are under so much stress?
Before there were apps that sent FedEx packages to Marine Corps recruits, people actually had to hand write letters. Not only that, it took 2–3 weeks for these letters to arrive. Mail call was a recruit’s respite. It was an easy concept to understand. You got mail, you were happy. You didn’t get mail, you read someone else’s mail and felt a little better.
Pages of love notes from Veronica. Proud notes from my family. Pictures of Andrew. Newspaper clippings…anything that got our mind off of our world for a moment. All packages were checked for contraband and it made for an entertaining evening when the Drill Instructors had the recruit open it up to find panties or bars of candy.
It was those small things that reminded me that I wanted to prove that I can do something bigger than myself…I endured.
Compliance = survival. I saw what happens when you don’t comply. I saw the rewards when you do. When the team is a well oiled and disciplined machine, we all win. I wanted to win, I wanted to be disciplined, and I wanted to be a great Marine.
I saw that if you didn’t stay within the norms, you were liable to get your piss in your canteen or completely ostracized from your peers. Those 2–5am watches were specifically for the most disliked recruits…you didn’t want to be one of them.
Earning the title of “US Marine” is not an easy feat and it shouldn’t be. Nothing easy is ever worth anything. We had spent weeks learning how to shoot rifles, march in step, and basic combat skills. We had learned about our history and all of the wars we’ve fought in. We learned about the heroes and what they did in sacrifice for their country. Everything we were taught culminated in an even called the Crucible where we spent days marching and conducting simulated combat exercises. At the end of the event we hiked 7+ miles in the rain to a building called the Lyceum. It was here I received the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor…it was the moment in my life where I said to myself “I earned this. Me. I didn’t think that this would happen. Here I am. I did this.” I cried.
I was finally one of the few, the proud, a Marine.
This was the beginning of a new life in the Corps. I was a young man who was ready to take on the world and believed I could do anything. I told myself that I would never let my team down for anything and that I would be an example for my Marines.
For the most part I did. I was successful in my enlisted career and was able to see the world as a musician performing as an “Ambassador of the United States” through music. I’ve lead my Marines to perform for Senators, Congressmen, and foreign dignitaries.
Veronica and I got married and we had kids. I was in my prime and on to do amazing things for the Marine Corps and Marine Music. I had a bright future ahead of me as a Marine Musician. However, it was at 9 years into my career that I had noticed that I had not done what most Marines have done. I have not been to combat.
On September 11, 2001 I was at the Naval School of Music in Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek. I was the guide or head of the student platoon at that time. Unbeknownst to us, the first plane had crashed into one of the twin towers. All student personnel were called for accountability in a room where our senior leaders put on the news about what had just happened. We sat in our chairs in disbelief as to what was happening, when the second plane flew into the tower.
Seeing the two towers burning still bothers me to this day. Knowing that people willingly cast themselves off these building because they knew they were going to die…I’m still unnerved. After 9/11/2001, Americans were pissed and patriotic. That event catapulted us into the longest war in American history where we fought battles to counter terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a musician, I’ve seen the homecomings and I’ve also seen the memorials. They almost became a routine thing to perform at, but I felt that I had a disconnect with my fellow Marines, servicemen, and servicewomen. The troops were rotating in and out of theater, families were separated for long periods of time, and I felt that I was completed removed from this experience. It became an identity crisis that I needed to fix. While I love music, there was a personal need to contribute and make an impact for the Corps I loved so much.
In 2009, I decided to make a change in my military career and improve the life for my family. I would pursue a path to become an officer of Marines. So, I put in the paperwork, went through the medical tests, and was interviewed multiple times by senior officers to gauge my fit and commitment to become one.
It was early January 2010 and a cold day in New York when I kissed to my wife, my two sons, and my newborn (2 weeks) daughter goodbye for 10 weeks. Closing the door to our townhome on Long Island, walked to the car and driving to John F. Kennedy airport was a familiar feeling. This would be the beginning of another chapter in my life.
I left everything I knew as an enlisted Marine to travel to Quantico, Virginia to try to graduate from the US Marine Corps Officer Candidates School.
I wasn’t scared of what was going happen. I’ve lived it once already. I was prepared to be hazed, to be yelled at, and to be physically and mentally challenged. I was resolute. I wanted to be an Officer of Marines.
As you were reading this, I’m sure you were asking yourself, “I thought this was an article about PTSD.” What I want you to recognize is that there was a gradual increase of self-confidence and purpose from my teenage years until this point of my life. It was at this time I was the most optimistic and most positive. You couldn’t tear me down. Sure, I had my ups and downs, but there were more ups than there were downs.
This was the last time where I felt “normal”.
What I didn’t know was that going to Officer Candidate School was the beginning of a series of life altering events based on my decisions, my abilities, as well things that were beyond my control. The world that I knew was about to become more complex physically, emotionally, and mentally...
More to follow…
Everyone has good days and everyone has bad days. Some days are just more terrible than others. If you need to talk about it please call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1–800–662-HELP (4357).
You are not alone.