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It is another late night, and I look down into my drink with the single ice cube glistening as it floats around. I take the last swig of the strong brown liquor(it happens to be spiced rum tonight),and I think to myself,
Why did I make it back and not them?
I go back to the bottle and see their faces and remember their names while I pour my next drink dedicated to them. Men who I considered to be much better Marines than I am are gone, yet I am the one here instead of them. This is just a very small toll that I have paid compared to many others who have served in combat theaters in the past decades. Sacrifice is a constant struggle of coming to grips with the men we have become and the mental demons that rear their ugly heads every day.
Initially, missing out on holidays and birthdays with my family while stationed on the opposite side of the country sure used to feel like the sacrifice for my duty to our country. The endless handshakes and the ubiquitous
Thank you for your service!
from random citizens are extremely familiar to anyone who has served. This happened to me countless times while stationed in Washington D.C., but it never felt right to me. All I was doing was standing post providing physical security to top Marine Generals and Flag Officers of the Navy. I worked twelve hour shifts, six days a week on my feet in dress uniforms almost three thousand miles away from my family and friends. I started to think that this was worthy of thanks and my sacrifice for being in the military. In the years that followed, I eventually got moved around by the Marine Corps and placed in an infantry unit stationed at Camp Pendleton, California. This soon made me respect what we considered “Real Marines.” Marines who have done multiple tours to both Iraq and Afghanistan, that have truly sacrificed for our country. It was not too long before our unit started our combat deployment to Musa Quala, Afghanistan, and I would get my own taste of this.
Most significantly, the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) laden battlefields of Afghanistan deepened my insight and understanding of what true sacrifice meant as the sounds of war became familiar in my life for seven months. IEDs were an ever present threat every time we left the wire. Before I had even left Camp David, IEDs had already claimed the legs of Mark Fidler, a Marine I had served with in D.C. He would not be last, as they also claimed the legs of Jeremiah Thein in my platoon during our own tour to Afghanistan. Yet again, we went on a patrol to investigate a position that our company had been taking fire from frequently. We located the position that turned out to be a bunker with a tunnel nearby, where the Taliban could hide. Our combat engineer went down into the tunnel to plant explosives to destroy the position in order to make it unusable by the enemy in the future and saving lives. After detonating the explosives in the tunnel, he went back down to do a damage report and soon came back up struggling to breathe and coughing up dark black mucous. We rushed to call a Medivac, and the whole squad worked to clear and secure a landing zone for the incoming helicopter. Four Marines carried him on the litter for over a hundred meters to the bird, getting him to crucial medical care that saved his life. This is just brief example of the heavy toll combat takes on our bodies, which is why knees that crack like cement mixers and dilapidated backs that are more commonly found in fifty year-old men can be found in young twenty-year-old veterans. These visible wounds are much easier to see on veterans through prostheses and scars than their internal battles, but present just as serious challenges and agony.
While PTSD has gotten more time in the lime light in recent years compared to America’s past conflicts, the mental anguish and suffering from service members is still a vague and misunderstood concept to the rest of the population. Yellow ribbon and “Support the troops” bumper stickers have grown in popularity, but sadly the suicide rate among returning service members is at an unacceptable level. Cory Vickery was a Marine that I served with while stationed at 8th & I in Washington D.C. He was a true warrior and stellar Marine, with a physique like a tank and covered in tattoos. He left before I did and served two combat tours to Afghanistan in Musa Quala and Sangin. As a squad leader, he was entrusted with the lives of at least thirteen Marines through the city’s dangerous streets. These cities are infamous for being a hot bed for the Taliban, which results in extremely kinetic deployments for the Marines who served there. After returning home to his pregnant wife, who was due shortly, he struggled with the lasting effects of the chaotic deployments. Cory Vickery, sadly fought his last battle against his demons, and took his own life. I wish I could say this is an exception, an anomaly, but this has become all too common among service members. Now an average of twenty-two veterans are taking their lives every day; the toll of war is becoming more evident and the burden that we carry around cannot be ignored anymore. This burden is not just carried by the veterans, but their families as well. Cory’s wife and child, who will grow up knowing her father only through tales and her mom’s memories, suffer along with him and his brothers in arms. This is just another part of our job that we have to face, and everyone deals with it in their own way. You will be hard pressed to find an infantryman who has not lost a friend or does not know buddies who have lost limbs.
Even before we got on our flight to start our journey to Afghanistan, there was a constant nagging thought of
“Am I good enough?”
“Will I be able to bring all my guys home?”
that wore heavy on my mind. This small idea sat in the back of my head despite bringing all of them home safe, and grew even more now that I am out of the military. We were lucky where many before and after us had not been. The little voice got louder, and the guilt dug deeper.
So many better Marines and men have been taken from this world and their friends, leaving many to find peace and try to resume normal lives despite all the pain and loss. We pick up the pieces one day at a time. The thoughts that I had not suffered my fair share when others had given so much were always there. Every conversation with a close friend and veteran heals a bit at a time, as I become grateful for my smaller burden. Facing and overcoming the things that family and civilian friends cannot imagine is not always a lonely road, but more often than not it is hard to open up to those who do not understand.
The more and more I see my brothers in arms giving life, limb, and part of their mental stability, the more my sacrifice is revealed and simplified. I am one of the lucky ones who do not have trouble emotionally connecting with a significant other after stumbling back from the battlegrounds. I am not the one waking violently in the middle of the night, clutching on to a .40 caliber Glock and wandering though a dark house. I am not the one who had my whole life changed forever by new physical capabilities and limitations. I am not the one who has personally seen his brothers mangled and torn on the ground in a random third-world shit hole. I am the one who has faced death and heard the rounds crack by me with my brothers. Thanks to these life-long friends that have been bathed in this same baptism of fire, we have emerged changed, not broken and put ourselves back together. We are always there for each other, just like when we were stuck in the mud getting shot at. We have always been there for each other through every facet of the daily life, side by side through everyone’s sacrifice. These are the men who carried me through battle, and they are the same ones who helped me come to terms and heal. Our sacrifice is a puzzle and everyone has a bigger or smaller piece that completes it. We took on our pieces so that our family, friends, and hopefully our children would not have to. This is our burden. This is our sacrifice.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.