By current estimates, 22 veterans every day are choosing to end their own lives. I can't help but wonder about my own experiences and how fortunate I've been thus far hanging on to this roller coaster called post-military life.
After completing my second Operation Iraqi Freedom tour in 2005, I came home to a familiar environment: training and preparing for another possible combat deployment. There was a sense of mission, something unmatched in the civilian world. In 2006, I got my civilian opportunity with my first job that was a great fit for me as they utilized some of the same technologies I knew pretty well in the Marine Corps. A year later, I moved out and got my first apartment shortly after my old platoon sergeant closed on his first house. In 2008, I dropped to the Inactive Ready Reserve, which meant I completed my obligated service. It was a difficult and emotional time for me, but it was a huge chapter in my life I was ready to put behind me...or so I thought. The next year would bring me from a high to a new low personally.
It started off well. I worked for a good employer, had great managers that engaged and empowered me. It was a good environment that I excelled in and was promoted twice in the three years I was there. So professionally I was in great shape.
On the personal front, I met someone and shortly thereafter started a relationship. Two people just enjoying time together. I was in a good place, or so I thought. Then things started to come up and I couldn't 'adapt and overcome' the way I knew so well from my time in the Marine Corps. I remember one of the first things: We were hanging out in her place the morning before she took a trip. Someone knocked on the door. It was the landlord's daughter. I briefly made eye contact with this woman at the doorway before she asked my girlfriend to step outside to talk. The look on this woman's face was all I needed to know that this 'conversation' was going to be about me. After a few minutes, I come to learn that this conversation was indeed about me and how they didn't feel comfortable with this black guy on the property. As that sank in over a few days, I couldn't help but think of African-American veterans before me that came home from combat only to have their fellow Americans disrespect them in so many ways. I can remember hearing from her some of the racial jokes made to her by one of her managers at work. Something I knew all too well was now attacking the person I was with. The helplessness was numbing.
That year was unlike any deployment. When you are in an environment where life and death are before you every day, regular life seems dull. Shrug things off and keep pushing forward is what I knew. The very skills that allowed me to make it through the multiple combat tours and excel professionally were the very skills that became problematic in my personal relationships. I was cut off from close friends and family. I was stumbling and didn't realize it. Survival mode is what I call it as it's a mode all too familiar to some of us. In many ways I was mentally back in the Sandbox. Over the course of just a year and multiple dramatic events involving lies, deceit and betrayal from another Marine, all hitting me at once, I was at a major turning point. That personal relationship blew up and ended, but it cleared a path for me to get myself together. For the first time in quite some time, I felt hopeful.
I definitely was at a critical point and realized that after one conversation with my father after a period of not speaking. As my mom told me, if you feel you need help, go out and get it. A very dear friend helped to keep me on level ground. I started to reach out to my close friends and family to reconnect along with therapy. They were especially there for me over the next year as I started to peel back the multiple layers of how my service impacted me personally. It was time to really slow down and process this as well as the readjustment to being a full-time civilian again.
Then came Joe Bobrow and the Coming Home Project. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a retreat for combat veterans in Virginia during Memorial Day Weekend in 2010. I didn't know what to expect, but there was a sense I needed to go and be there. On the very first day of the retreat, I remember Joe saying "It may never go away, but it does get better." It resonated with me and I still remember it to this very day. We became a community in those four short days as we shared our stories with each other. We came into the retreat as strangers, but we all left as family. I remember how I felt coming home from that retreat and wanting to do more.
I would progress later in the summer to doing my first and only stint at modeling with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America as they partnered up with Joseph Abboud and JCPenny on a "Welcome Home Joe" combat-to-careers campaign. It was a way for a recovering workaholic like myself to rationalize taking time off from work. I was ever so surprised when they called and said they wanted me. This was the start of something special. I've been advocating for my fellow veterans ever since.
I've been blessed enough to not fall too far, but I know many of my brothers and sisters haven't been as fortunate. I want them to know that there is hope and it does get better.