By: John Schrey, Help For Our Heroes Alumnus, Veteran Liaison/Group Facilitator
I sat on the cigarette burned, dirty ass mattress of the abandoned house we had made a home for the last few days and watched as the life slowly left the dude next to me. His face was gray and his eyes were blank. I had seen eyes like this before 9 years earlier in Afghanistan as we loaded a young man into a vehicle to medivac him out after an IED had ravaged his body. But today there was no medivac coming, no ambulance, and no 911 calls being made. This dude was going to die in that room and I didn’t feel a thing. We did try and do some chest compressions and smack him a few times to see if he would snap out of it but it wasn’t happening. He had taken a bad shot and he was on his way out and per the rules of the “house”, you can never call the cops. That would mean the end of our shelter, the end of the dope dealers hustling spot, and a whole lot of questions from investigators about things we didn’t want to talk about. When you enter places like this house, you know the stakes and you know the rules. “If you die you die” and it’s just that simple. So, we slumped back on the mattress and did what came there to do, get high and figure out the rest later.
When I say I didn’t feel a thing, it wasn’t because I didn’t like the kid or because I am some sort of sadistic psychopath, I was just focused on the mission at hand. It was something I learned to do nine years earlier when I was in the in that little town in Afghanistan. Back then it was all about survival and if someone died or was injured next to you, you didn’t have time to show emotion or even look at it as a life lost. You had to stay focused on the mission and not let anything deter you from achieving the objective or taking more casualties. Believe it or not, in that trap house off Seacrest Blvd I was back in survival mode and although the mission had changed and came with no glory, pride or honor, it had to be accomplished. Getting high by this point wasn’t about fun or enjoying the feeling like it was when it started. It was about being able to breathe, or at least that is how it seems when you have gone to the depths of addiction that many of us have. I can’t tell you when this happened or when it stopped being about fun or even just a temporary escape from reality. What I can tell you is when I realized that my only mission in life was to use heroin and cocaine, I became ultra-focused on mission accomplishment. Just like when I was a sergeant leading 90 vehicle convoys through IED ladened Taliban strongholds.
Mission accomplishment is number one for warriors when we are in combat and I have heard a lot of Therapists and “PTSD experts” tell me the new mission is sobriety and living a normal life. I want to challenge that premise. You see a mission has an objective. It has a point where you stop and say “we made it”. I think that is detrimental for guys like me because it leads us to believe that you can just leave the trauma behind and move on at some point. I don’t believe this to be true. For one thing, I love the Marine Corps and I love a lot of the times I spent in some of the worst places on Earth. I don’t want to forget about those times. So, with those memories, I can never forget the trauma and tragedies we experienced. It also implies that once I have achieved sobriety, I can stop doing the things I did to get there. If we are assaulting a Taliban stronghold and achieved the objective, we stop firing, we lower our weapons, and rejoice in our victory. If I were to do that in my sobriety I am as good as dead. You see my triumph over addiction and PTSD is firmly based on the understanding that I must never stop doing the things I did to get here. There is no mission to accomplish, no expectation to be met. Just a clear understanding that my purpose on this Earth is to help other men and women who are suffering like I once did. To provide hope to them as others did for me and to continue to grow and never stop.
I also contest the “experts” notion of living a “normal life.” Who really knows what that is anyway? I felt a lot of guilt and shame over the fact that I didn’t feel “normal” after combat. I have since realized we don’t have to fit into anyone’s box of normalcy. I had to embrace my issues and use them to my advantage and to help others. When I stopped trying to go back to how I was before combat when I was “normal” and stopped trying to accomplish a mission, I was able to free myself of all those negative thoughts. My life has since been on a trajectory I never imagined was possible. I actually love what I have come through and 100% believe I am a better version of myself than the one I was before.
If you or a loved one are struggling, please reach out. We’ve got your back!