By: John Schrey, Help For Our Heroes Alumnus
As we turned the corner, we heard a large explosion directly in front of us. We could see smoke coming from the building where a team had just entered and immediately heard the call for a stretcher and a corpsman. As we approached the building, we could hear the screams of men inside and I swept us up as close to the doorway as the mine detector would allow without going off from the door frame. We entered the room, which by this time was full of blood. The screams and gut-wrenching calls for help were coming from all directions and we quickly came upon a Marine who had suffered what appeared to be a double amputee from some sort of blast. We proceeded to put two tourniquets on him and immediately had him put on the stretcher and taken away. At this moment the screaming stopped and then everything went silent.
Our NCO called for us to assemble over by the building we were just in and we proceeded to discuss how everyone in the platoon did during the make-believe mass casualty the instructors had set up for us. You see, this was a training op and the blood wasn’t real. Furthermore, the dual amputee we had put the tourniquets on, had lost his legs years earlier in combat and was a role player in this simulation. They called that bloody horror scene “The Kill House.” It was training like this that made us the greatest fighting force in the world and prepared us for things to come when we arrived in real combat later that year. From the day we stepped foot on the Yellow Foot Prints at boot camp, we are conditioned for combat. Whether it’s not being allowed into the chow hall to eat our meal until we had sufficiently yelled “KILL” loud enough for the drill instructor or being pushed to our mental breaking point from lack of sleep and fatigue, we were trained to not just survive combat but win.
So why do I bring this up? I do this to try and shed some light on the stark contrast between the lengths they will go to train us for combat versus the short amount of time they spend on us as we prepare to reintegrate back into “the civilian world.” When we are about to get out of the corps whether we did four, eight, or 20 years, we all sit together in a two-week class. The class is run mostly by civilians or long-since retired veterans and it teaches us things like check writing, how to fill out our disability claims, and other day-to-day life skills. We may get a card with the suicide prevention number on it and be told to reach out if we need help.
The problem for me and many guys I know is we don’t know we need help until it’s too late. When I got out of the Marine Corps I had absolutely no clue I had the problems I had inside. I knew I drank more than most civilians and had an affinity for anything that would produce an adrenaline rush, but my thought was, “who doesn’t love to get messed up and go hard?” I had no idea how empty I was going to feel without Marines in my charge and the purpose those men brought to my life. I had no clue how big an impact the countless gunfights and three IED blasts I had been in were to my brain. No one told me all those life-or-death moments would throw off my brain’s idea of excitement and the only time I would feel alive was when I put myself in riskier and riskier situations in the streets and with drugs.
When I got out of the Marine Corps I was married to an amazing woman and had a five-month-old daughter and a beautiful townhouse back home in Florida. My wife had moved down there a month prior to my getting out and she and my family set everything up. What if I told you that walking into that amazing, peaceful house with my little beautiful family waiting for me was worse than the first time I was involved in a mass casualty? That every time I was about to go home and sit on the couch with my girls, I had to get high just to be able to sit still and not have my mind racing to the point of insanity. Where was the training for this shit? Where was the “kill house” level of real-life training where I am taught to handle peace and quiet since I had been conditioned to operate best in chaos for so many years?
I don’t blame the Marine Corps; I don’t want this to be about blaming anyone. I want this to be a conversation starter amongst us veterans, therapists, and anyone who cares enough and is sick and tired of watching us lose so many warriors prematurely. Of my group of five men I came into the Marine Corps with, one died in combat, two of them took their own lives following their time in the corps, and the last two of us have struggled for years in and out of treatment for substance abuse and PTSD. These numbers aren’t exclusive to just my guys, it is a microcosm of a much larger problem we must solve. We must educate our service members and show them there is a way out of the darkness but they have to be aware of the problem in order to solve it. They have to know they can find purpose again through helping others and they have to understand what they are embarking on when they end their military service.
If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out. We’ve got your back!