On To Bigger, Better Things: It Really Does Get Better

Before I get into how and why shit really does get a hell of a lot better, I’ll write a little about the VA and why it is so difficult for many of us to seek help from that system.

 

Walking into a VA hospital is a coin flip for every veteran who suffers from, well, anything really.  On one side, you might flip heads and end up with a great doctor who will check your records, listen to what you have to say, give you an examination, run some tests, and assign to you the medical treatments that you will require while being a professional.  However, some of us flip tails and end up with…substandard healthcare.  I don’t mean that you will either be treated like a hero or a villain for life, I mean every time you walk through those doors, your experience will be different.

 

If you spent any amount of time in the Marines, you know that everything comes from the lowest bidder.  The doctors at VA hospitals are no different.  There are many men and women in the system that are very genuine in their pursuit of helping sick and injured veterans, but of course there are also some that are only there to enhance their careers.  Many of them are fresh from college, which is good and bad.  They lack experience but have all of the modern knowledge…which is also a two-sided coin.  I’m not trying to go all Harvey Dent on you, but it really is a coin flip at every turn in the VA system.  Some of the more experienced doctors have vast reserves of information in their heads, but have become so jaded by scams and “advice” from above that they will treat every patient as if they are only seeking a drug connection (that is, unless the patient is over 70).  The nurses are…well, honestly your nurses will either be sweet as pie and full of sunshine and rainbows or complete bitches who don’t give a shit because “ugh, *tch* I’m on break.”  Males included.  Some guys bitch about the “foreign” doctors, but they are just as professional and courteous as any other docs you’ll meet.  The best help I have received came from two Pakistani doctors, so pay no attention to the racist/nationalist bullshit from our older, less enlightened brethren.  Some of the older guys and patients with hearing loss ask a nurse to basically interpret, though.  If you get a doc with an industrial strength accent, the nurses will be ready to answer your questions.  I have met a couple guys in group that had to request another doc because they couldn’t handle baring their soul to a guy who looks and sounds eerily similar to the men they fought against.

 

And there are the pills…

 

If you suffer from chronic pain, be ready for one of two things to happen:

1.  You will be treated with respect and dignity while receiving the help you need for you injury.

2.  You will be treated like a common criminal.

 

You will likely get the medications you require to kill the pain and allow you to function as a productive member of society.  However, some doctors have become very jaded by their years of doctoring and dealing with addicts and will therefore use extreme scrutiny when considering your individual needs.  Some of them will ask you what medications you want as a test to see if you jump right to opiates, which will lead them to believe you don’t need the meds, you’re just a filthy, lying goddamned junky.  When you are standing in line at the pharmacy window, you will very likely find out why this is because loud mouthed shitbags exist in the VA system as well and they have no problem bragging/complaining to you about their “score.”  Yeah, you have to deal with shitbags in the civ div, too (fuckin’ frowny face and shit, man).

 

The mental health side is just as messy, if not worse.  Mental health care has become a trial and error process of seeing what chemicals are less likely to put you down for good.  There are now over 300 different *cough*bullshit*cough* diagnoses that can be given to anyone, whereas there used to be only a handful (which included female hysteria and drapetomania…and that’s your cue to google those two terms by the way).  Again, some docs will ask you which medications you would prefer to weed out addicts.  If you request that they NOT prescribe you anti-something pills, you will likely be prescribed something anyways and receive a “voluntarily refused treatment” statement on your medical record if you choose not to use them- a form you have to sign in order to continue receiving health care from the VA.  Any time you don’t follow their advice, you have to sign another one.  The system is usually pretty clogged up with red tape shit like that.  They are required to prescribe pills because that is the new thing to do and apparently therapy wasn’t cost effective (but was in reality very effective for veterans).  Appointments are usually a few months apart and are very difficult to schedule sooner unless there is an emergency.  The chemicals do not begin to work for two to six weeks and sometimes make things like PTSD, depression, and suicidal thoughts/tendencies to intensify.  SOP for worsening symptoms is to stop taking the medication immediately and contact your doc for a replacement, leaving a several-week time span where the veteran is extremely vulnerable and sick before they can ever see someone who can help them.  When they go back, they are given a different chemical and the process repeats until they find something that doesn’t make the problem too much worse, succumb to their ailment, or get very pissed off and find their own way to deal (this last one is not recommended by professionals).

 

That all being said, the system does seem to do more good than it gets credit for.  I once ended up with acute pancreatitis (I would suggest avoiding this if at all possible) and they helped me avoid losing that inflamed little bastard.  When I had nowhere to sleep, they hooked me up with a local mission, who in turn, due to an unnecessarily intense confrontation with the manager, pointed me towards the hotel our VA uses to house transient patients.  Their substance abuse programs are pretty useful.  I haven’t eaten any strange medications or had more than one beer since February of 2013 and I was shitfaced nearly every day before that.  Without the alcohol, my depression eased up a bit.  Enough that I decided to stop taking anti-pills.  That did suck at first; coming off of any brain-altering chemical will be awkward at the very least.  Separating myself from my old friends/bad influences helped A LOT.  The group sessions they hold are often very eye-opening.  When I was in the inpatient program, they had classes every morning and a group session before and after lunch, then another class.  Group was held by the head counselor-guy and was usually a motivating speech then whoever would talk about whatever, the conversations centering around positivity and letting go of the things that truly do not matter.  After these talks, I would always feel better about some ass-chewing or bullshit game because I had realized that it was almost always due to shoddy leadership instead of a personal failure.  It gives a lot of intelligent insight into how and why people become assholes.

 

Many of the most useful things I learned there came from other veterans who had made far poorer choices than I and for much longer.  There were retired officers and SNCO’s with cocaine and crack problems.  Bad ones.  Alcoholism was present in nearly everyone, but there were people that were addicted to meth, heroine, pills, eating, shopping, sex (seriously, the most honest addicts you will ever meet are sex addicts), and even success.  That is a real thing by the way.  Several guys from my local VA are literally addicted to gaining a fortune then losing it all so they can get it back over and over.  This happens to people on both sides of the law.  Most of them never touched the harder shit until after they got out, which kind of has to be expected.  Be prepared, however, as you may hear some stories that will curdle your spermicles and make you think to yourself, “holy shit how the fuck are you even alive right now?” or “wow, dude, you really should be in prison right now” and those aren’t even the war stories.  Shit will make you sick sometimes but you have to sit through it to get a proper perspective on how truly flawed our system is.

 

They feed you.  It is food, and it…um, has nutrients?  Sometimes it has taste, but most of the time it will be hospital food that is very easy to digest (its all soft and bland).  It’s hot, it’s free, and it’s always on time, so you can’t really complain.  To quote Alfred Matthew Yankovic:  “Just eat it.”

 

Job placement services are available to any veteran who wants help finding a good/better job.  Inpatients can get part-time to full-time employment within the VA doing things like laundry, painting, landscaping, and other manual labor jobs while they are being treated.  It is a good way to save up a little cash so that when you’re treatment is through you can find a place and a vehicle.  Some VA’s have on-site or nearby group homes where patients that have completed the program can live and work.

 

Normally there is at least one VFW representative in the hospital somewhere.  Even if you haven’t deployed to a war zone or seen combat, they will help you file your claim and work with you if you are having legal troubles.  There are sometimes volunteers who come in to help veterans with financial woes like bankruptcy, losing their home, or the almost obligatory bad credit so many of us tend to accumulate.  They will even do your taxes if it is February – April for the free.  These fine folks, the VFW and volunteers, will help you buy a fucking house!

 

Many of the employers they can introduce you to are very awesome people who want to hire you.  It may be a little bit of blind troop worship, but use it to your advantage because if you don’t, a shitbag will abuse it until they no longer accept us.

 

Education benefits are the easiest thing to apply for, and they will help you with that, too.  If you have had problems with school due to anxiety, depression, PTSD, or something similar, your docs can pull a string or two and keep your instructor from dropping you due to absence or tardiness.  That “string” being a letter stating that you are seeking assistance for a disability and they must accommodate your illness’s unfortunate side-effects.

 

It can be difficult for many of us to even walk through those doors for the first time.  The “only shitbags go to medical” mentality follows some of us for life, stripping us of the willingness to seek out medical help until it is often too late.  Horror stories of bad experiences with staff, treatments, and policies ruin some peoples’ opinion of VA healthcare, but those stories often lack the important elements of truth and perspective.

 

I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into a VA for mental health and substance abuse help.  I mean, I knew where to go and what the buildings looked like and all of that because I grew up there; my ma worked around the VA for most of my life and I had been in and around just about every building.  The anxiety I experienced was very intense for the first couple of hours, but that was mostly due to the fact that the mental health ward was once home to the bed where, as a child, I watched cancer slowly turn my grandfather into a 70-pound skeleton.  That realization later helped me a little bit by reminding me how bad things can get when you replace someone’s instinct for self-preservation with John Wayne Macho Bravado.  I wasn’t sure how the doc would react or how the other personnel would treat me:  were they going to be dicks like the old, jaded docs, or calm, understanding, and willing to listen and help.  They were definitely in the latter category.

 

Counselors helped me figure out what my problems really were instead of just ticking off symptoms on a checklist and tossing a diagnosis my way.  This was a huge step.  It is hard to fix yourself if you don’t know what is wrong.  Medications are for treating symptoms and are used for sustaining stability.  Therapy and getting it all out is the cure.  For some at least.  It appears that many of us depart the Corps with some demons, and an exorcism of sorts is often in order.  I found my outlets in art and beating the ever-loving shit out of an old heavy bag.  Painting something horribly violent, disgusting, or ugly helps me focus.  Tits work also, but making pretty things has never really been my thing.  Being an addict, however, is often a life-long ordeal, so many people just trade one addiction for another…or several.

 

Instead of drinking, I hobby.  I hobby my ass off.  Old, broken things are easily acquired for the cheap, and I find a lot of crap to fix in order to stay busy.  If something is broken or looks like shit, I feel obligated to immediately fix and improve it if I can.  It took me a while to realize that this was not a fault and should be used to my advantage.  The counselors helped me get back into school and even offered to help me with homework if I had any.  I had already finished all of the prerequisites like readin’ and ritin’, and in auto tech there isn’t much homework, but the sentiment was there, and I appreciated the crap out of it.

 

With my mind slowly beginning to work properly again, I was able to concentrate in school and take the next step and find a job.  After a few unsuccessful attempts at working around a large number of people, I found a part-time job as a janitor.  Already being fully trained (and possibly over-qualified), I was hired on and have been skat…cleaning buildings for about a year, which is the longest I have held a job for a while.  Those of us who have problems with anxiety (and no shame) should look into janitry:  It is easy, relaxed, quiet, and above all else, nobody fucks with the janitor.

 

Employed and doing well in school, things were looking better.  I slowly weened myself off of anything stronger than ibuprofen until I was off prescriptions altogether.  I waited a few months to tell my doctor about this because I figured he would come down with a case of the Butt Hurts, but he instead was not only supportive, he told me that is their goal.  The doctors and counselors want to see us off the medications because they know how harmful they can be but are required to issue them – if we have improved that is.  My counselors were initially against me stopping my medications but once I showed them that I was getting better, they were much more supportive.  It needs to be noted that you should never simply stop taking your meds and think that shit will magically get better.  If you aren’t ready to change, dropping your meds will only hurt you.  It needs to be done gradually and with a good amount of control.  You can’t take a double dose to make up for having a bad day or because you have an important interview, it ruins the progress, and you can’t just stop for a few days and then start taking them again when you start feeling like shit again because they will take a while to kick back in and by then you could be anywhere from perfectly fine to permanently confined.

 

So, unnecessarily long story short, I’ve held a job for a year, stopped drinking, got released from death by prescription, gained my physical and mental health back, and earned an associate’s degree in auto tech.  Sure, plenty of people have accomplished much, much more and against much greater and dire odds, but it was my struggle and I made it my bitch.  For now.

 

Some of the most important things I learned from all of this:

 

-Alcohol and drugs are not the answer.  A couple of beers or blunts now and then between friends who are celebrating a victory or an accomplishment is perfectly healthy, but getting wasted to relieve stress or forget about your problems is counter-productive, depressing, and potentially dangerous.

 

-Talk to someone.  Believe it or not, there is at least one person in your life that WANTS to hear your story, and you need to get it off of your chest before it crushes the life out of you.

 

-Keep yourself busy.  When you are in the Corps, you are almost never truly “bored,” you just spend a shit load of time waiting.  There is always something that needs to be done, and even if you spent the majority of your time avoiding said thing-that-needs-to-be-done, your mind was occupied.  Without the constant use your brain is accustomed to, it will find things to occupy itself, those things often being negative memories or other triggers.

 

-Find someone to talk to.  This doesn’t mean you need a girlfriend, boyfriend, fuck buddy, friend with boobs, or that guy you met through Craigslist’s casual encounters section that swears he just wants to watch you play with it a little, it means have another person around that will listen.  Family members, spouses, and old friends can be hard to talk to because they do not understand, so you may have to adapt and overcome by getting yourself a good dog (hey man, worked for me).

 

-Death won’t help.  Killing yourself will not end your troubles, it will ruin the lives of everyone around you instead.  If you have children, they will be scarred for the rest of their lives and will feel at fault or that you are doing it to punish them.  If you are married, your spouse will feel like it is their fault for not loving you enough.  Your parents will feel like they are to blame.  Your friends?  They too, will think they were the cause of your demise.  The guys and gals from your old units?  Yep, them, too.  They will feel terrible because, “I should have known but didn’t.”  I have been unfortunate enough to have been on several sides of this confusing octahedron, and can tell you that every side is just as awful.

 

-Talk it out.  Tell your story.  If you don’t trust anyone enough to listen, write it out.  Find a pen, pencil, marker, crayon, finger-full-of-shoe-polish, half-frozen cat turd, whatever.  Scribble that shit on a pizza box if you have to.  Burn it into your neighbor’s lawn if you want, I don’t care,  just get your story out.  Grab a keyboard and pound out a few words here on this very site if you can.  (Have I stressed the importance of talking about your problems yet?)

 

-It gets better.  It really, truly does.  The world may seem like an endless ocean of shit, but you have to keep swimming:  The Shit gets thick and sticky, but that just means you have to push a little harder to get through it.  The Shit may confuse you at times or obscure your view of the goal, but you have to wipe it out of your eyes and keep pushing onward and upward.  The Shit gets heavy, but you have to push it off your back and keep going.  The Shit gets deep, but you can’t let it suck you down.  The Shit can seem to suck the life right out of you sometimes, but you have to keep kicking your legs and pushing that shit out of your way so you can breath and move on.  Don’t ever let The Shit keep you down.

 

 

 

-AAVPOG

On To Bigger, Better Things: Old Habits Die Hard

The ER folk were nice enough to ensure that my official diagnosis included the words “heat stroke” so that my supervisors couldn’t question it and were forced to deal with their plant’s shady conditions.

Still awaiting approval from the company’s health insurer however, I had nowhere else to go but the VA for help.  I explained to them the basics of what had happened:  I lost my shit and worked myself into a nice, healthy heat stroke.  They immediately began the guessing game of throwing random pills at me in a feeble attempt to find a combination that worked, much to my disappointment and gastronomical discomfort (that went on for seven years).  Note to anyone going to the VA for mental health issues;  just say no to drugs.  Chemicals are for extreme cases, therapy often works much better and will not turn you into a sad zombie with a slowly rotting digestive system.  I felt so sick the first couple of weeks that I called in enough to lose my job and things quickly started to get out of control.

A good friend from Okinawa offered me a place to stay for a while in another state, so I took him up on the offer.  It turned out that he was having similar issues dealing with acclimating to the 1st Civ Div and hating the VA‘s endless bullshit.  The job market around there was limited due to a large auto manufacturer closing its doors, making it difficult to even get a job as a clerk at a video store or gas station.  After a couple of months, my savings were almost exhausted and I made the horrible decision to move back home around family and old friends.

To be honest, moving back in with the family wasn’t all that bad at first.  It was cheap and…well, it was cheap and I was broke.  Sure, there was little privacy, but it would only be for a few weeks, a month at best.  A few part-time jobs and an entire year later, I realized I was stuck.  Trying to move seemed impossible as it was prohibitively expensive and brought guilt trips that would make a recruiter tear up with pride.  One of the worst parts of living in a house full of needy females with no permanent male entity in their lives…the guilt trips.  Guilt works on the depressed like nothing else, probably due to the incredible amount of it already present.  If you come from a close-knit family, you know how difficult it can be to “leave them behind to fend for themselves” as they often put it.  Having a suicidal family member does not help this, like, at all (if she offs herself, its your fault for not being there to prevent it, apparently).  It felt like moving on with my life would be turning my back on everyone I cared about.  Again.

Trying to deal with shitty jobs, selfish-asshole family members, keeping myself clean, and generally hating life again was getting to be too much.  I eventually said “fuck it” and started hanging around the only people who took an interest; my old high school friends.

Know how your recruiter and all those SNCO’s kept screaming about how your buddies back home aren’t doing anything but playing Nintendo and popping out welfare babies?  It is, for the most part, bullshit.  Some of them might be doing the same shit they were when you were kids, but many of them have upgraded, for better or worse.

My best friend was The Dro Man.  Not a regular connect, but the guy that stays on Baskin Robbins status (31 flavors – from Poor to Coma quality).  His circle of friends was full of familiar faces who accepted me and didn’t ask a lot of questions.  Partying was generally a big part of that life, making attendance at bars, clubs, concerts, and parties essential, as was sampling the products for quality control and proving your legitimacy by consuming large amounts of booze, weed, and hallucinogens.  Cocaine made random appearances, but was mostly looked down upon in our circle.  Alcohol helped desensitize my anxiety but also destroyed my speech filter and removed my ability to closely monitor my actions while using it.  There were some decent looking ladies around who loved to party, but they were definitely not the kind you’d want to spend more than a few hours with if you have a decent amount of intelligence in you.  Run-ins with thieves, thugs, and gangsters were common, as were special guest appearances by LEO’s with and without warrants (SURPRISE!).  Getting pulled over several times a week gets old very fast, especially when they start addressing you by your first name before they even get a chance to see your ID.  That is when you know it is time to slow your roll.  Long story short:  Some shit went down, a house got raided and trashed, a dog caught a flash-bang to the face, and prison sentences were barely avoided.

The problem with…um…retirement…was that people tend  to not believe it.  Years have passed and I still run into people who ask me if I can hook them up with someone or some dumb shit like that.  I never  directly sold but they still ask because I’m guilty by association.  Several times within the first year of his retirement he had his door kicked in by people who thought he still had pounds and stacks.

This is where I go off on a tangent:  Look, I know it may seem exhilarating to put your boot through someone’s front door and order them flat on the floor with your weapon pointed at their head, but you shouldn’t brag about it to your civilian buddies, or anyone for that matter.  Until you have been on the other side of that experience, you will never understand how fucked up it is.  How would you like it if you were curled up on the couch with your old lady (or whatever you call the gal that lets you put your thing in her)  about to get some and out of fucking nowhere the door flies open and there’s some random asshole standing there pointing a shotgun at you?  You like to sleep, right?  What if you were peacefully sleeping off an epic hangover, only to be woken up to a big, black, metallic cave being aimed into your eyes?  Know how you like to get your drink on and play some Call of Duty with your pals on the weekend?  What if you were sitting around having an awesome time and several large men kicked your doors in and pointed gun barrels in your faces?  That would be kind of fucked up, wouldn’t it?  (Yes, I see the humor in a former marine playing a combat-simulation game while being robbed at gunpoint.)

Note:  Robbers usually leave when they realize there is nothing to be taken but an old xbox and an early 90’s big-screen with a busted housing.  Keep it simple, guys.

Most of the time when shit went down it was relatively tame, like some guy that just wanted to snatch some nonexistent green or imaginary, rumored cash.  It only got truly dangerous once, and it had nothing to do with drugs or money.

I was outside on the front porch attempting to cleanse my palette of some sub-standard alcoholic beverages via regurgitation when this great big fat person appeared and began demanding that I bring her the racist expletive who…something or another.  I was pretty drunk and had no idea what the fat harpy was screeching about.  All I remember was her dropping N-bombs like it was trendy or something.  Anyway, I felt some shit hit my face, like someone had thrown a handful of glass at me, and all sound faded in a split second.  The door opened and my buddy was standing there for a second before yelling something and slamming the door as sparks flew off of the screen’s frame.  Trying to figure out what hit me, I looked at the house and saw there was a small hole surrounded by a broken kind-of-circle where the siding had shattered.  Thinking to myself, “what in the absolute fuck is going on here -”  I heard what sounded like a balloon popping but much louder and saw a couple more holes appear in the house, sending more shards of dusty siding towards me.  I then theorized, “well, shit.  I think someone might be shooting at me.”  A quick glance to my left confirmed that someone was definitely crouched down in an improper kneeling position attempting to put rounds into my chubby tummy and/or grizzled melon.  I turned and found the closest cover I could find – a car.  Pulling the handle as the windshield exploded forced me to realize two things:

1.  The goddamned doors were locked.
2.  I should find better cover because this fucker was still shooting.

A few holes appeared in the garage as I sprinted towards the back of the house but none of them hit me, proving my brother’s old hypothesis that I could be extremely fucking lucky sometimes.  At the back of the house, I ducked behind the fence and waited in the dark for whoever to pop around the corner and catch a Spyderco to the jugular, but no one followed.  The sounds of car doors slamming shut, an engine rapidly increasing RPM’s, and tires breaking traction told me they took off, so I ran back up front to make sure everyone inside was alright.  They were.

Local law enforcement popped in to say hello, take selfies, police-call brass, take measurements and statements, and tell me that the round that hit the house next to my face missed my grape by a couple of inches at best, which was reassuring (thank goodness for terrible marksmanship, amirite?).  A couple of phone calls revealed that the shooter was someone’s ex’s sister’s boyfriend’s something’s someone’s…whatever, look it doesn’t matter; his old lady caught a few man-slaps from an ejected, disorderly partier earlier in the evening and he wanted to avenge her, I dunno, honor or something.  Because, you know, murdering a stranger is totally fine if they slapped your gal, I guess.

It took a lot to wake me up.  Even being shot at by random strangers didn’t seem to bother me enough to make me want to get away from that type of situation.  Sure, I couldn’t sleep for a while and carried my .45 everywhere, but it could have been worse I suppose.  It took hitting what I felt was rock bottom for me to take a step back and observe.

Drinking always left me a little depressed at the end of the night.  Some nights much more than others.  Most of the time I could force myself to pass out or find something tiring to do, but occasionally I would find myself extremely intoxicated and unable to do anything but think.  Thinking for too long led to a downward spiral of disgust and hate for the careless, irresponsible asshole I thought I had become over the years.  Things that wouldn’t bother most people stuck out in my mind as red flags that signaled how fucked up I was.  Stuff like Aryan Nation biker dudes immediately assuming I was a skin head.  I had gained over 70 pounds since my EAS and looked like ape shit.  That head Carny offering me a job on sight.  My old “respectable” friends would no longer be seen with me, even the few friends I made in the Corps began to shy away from me and after a while, completely broke contact.  It’s not as if I ever stole anything or cheated anyone, I was just given the “he’s a lost cause” treatment and dismissed.  I understood that sometimes you just have to cut toxic elements out of your life.  My home life got much worse over time.  I kept up the bills and house maintenance type of shit and stayed away for the most part, but would still catch family members speaking ill no matter how much effort I put into helping out.  My education was getting pushed aside for work, family and social obligations, ruining my GPA.  Relationship problems with females only added to all of that garbage.  I would sit and hate all of that for hours on end, trying as hard as I could to keep it together and figure out what exactly in the hell I was supposed to do to fix it all.  Anxiety attacks became more and more intense as time passed, and it became very difficult to control myself when I was alone and inebriated.  I eventually came to the genius conclusion that eating every pill the VA prescribed me and whatever else I had lying around and then dying was a good idea (it was not).  Luckily, my rotten bastard of a gut forced every last pill, beer, buffalo wing, and sloppy film of bile from my insides in a glorious, forty-minute salute to projectile regurgitation and painful dry-heaving.  It wasn’t the first or last time I thought about killing myself, but it stuck with me, like a sign that it wasn’t my time and that I needed to push on for some reason I won’t understand.  Soon after that I found myself needing a place to live again, and with the encouragement of a few friends, forced myself to nervously walk into the VA and ask for help.

Next Time:  It Really Does Get Better

On To Bigger, Better Things: Assaulting the Civilian World

The disclaimer *your experience may vary* should be attached to every Marine Corps picture, poster, social media post, commercial, and Recruiter.  Four years of on and off severe alcohol abuse and depression due to horrible and sadistic leadership failures were not what was promised, but that is what I got.  When your recruiter promised you all of those outstanding training opportunities, remember how he said that they would transfer towards college credits?  Like everything else he told you, that is a lie with a little kernel of truth tucked firmly inside.

 

Transition Assistance classes taught me how to see how many college credits my training would translate to, and it was horrifying.  I had been through basic and advanced vehicle maintenance courses including electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic, fuel and emissions, diesel diagnostics and troubleshooting, tracked suspension, and maintenance and complete overhaul for engines, transmissions, PTO’s, winches, electrical components, and hydraulic components.  Unfortunately, there was no complete survey done for my MOS school’s basic or advanced courses, so I was awarded zero translated credit for learning more than most diesel mechanics with an Associate’s.  When I learned about this, I spoke with my peers then brought it up to a superior that we should find a way to get the survey group to work with the school towards awarding credit for the training we received.  I almost expected a “good initiative Devil Dog, Marines could benefit from this” I got an ass chewing about how selfish it was for me to bitch about not getting college credits merely because I was about to EAS.  Explaining that I did not know about this deficiency in our training programs until then was useless and only resulted in a longer and more motivated ass chewing for being insubordinate and talking back to a superior.

 

When my terminal leave date came around, I grabbed my papers, changed into civvies in the head, which was now a bathroom again, and hit the road not caring what I was going to do as long as I was done with that bullshit.  I had enrolled in some classes at a community college back home, but I had about a month until school started and wanted to drift.  My first couple of weeks were spent on my brother’s couch.  He didn’t seem to mind.  We were never close friends despite growing up in the same bedroom, but he seemed genuinely more concerned with my mental health than with my plans for the future.  I brushed it off at the time as him being a senior NCO in another branch more than a big brother looking out for me.  I went back to my home town and moved back in with the Mama until I could find a place.  Going to the community college to get books and an ID, I was informed that my GI Bill paperwork had been lost and then found, but that it was too late by the time they got it in and I was unable to receive my benefits for that semester.  That shouldn’t have been a problem as long as I could get a PEL grant or something, right?  Actually, no, you made too much money last year as a Corporal, so you cannot receive a financial aid to go to school.  For the first seven days of the semester, I would have still been on terminal leave, making me ineligible the Illinois Veteran’s Grant, which would have paid tuition.  No problem, I’ll just get a small loan and – I’m sorry, all of our spots are filled but you can come back towards the end of the semester and register for the fall if you want.  Okay, fuck, well, I can always go on unemployment and get a Joe job until then, something low key, really easy with no bullshit to deal with.

 

Unemployment was awful.  It is nowhere close to enough to make the bills on your own, even as a bachelor.  I moved into a trailer on an old guy’s property (less than five and its not a trailer park!) with my buddy because I could not afford it alone.  Four months of hardcore job searching and resisting the urge to burn a great big fat-ass joint later and I end up working as a machine maintenance/operator guy person in a factory for $16/hour.  Not bad for someone with almost no official education going into a non-union position at the time.  It wasn’t that I was overly qualified however, it was mainly due to the unemployment office’s veteran’s coordinator, who was a Chief and a recruiter for a Big Ten college and knew nearly everyone in town who worked in personnel management.  It was a pretty decent job, and allowed me to move into much nicer digs the day my second paycheck hit my hands.

 

Somehow though, I was extremely unhappy.  I had everything I had been wanting for years; a decent paying job where I don’t have to deal with being micromanaged, a nice place with my buddy, and all the freedom I could handle.  But I didn’t feel…right.  I didn’t feel like I belonged in the civilian world, or anywhere.  I knew I didn’t belong in the Marine Corps any longer and that nothing would ever get me to go back, but I  felt like there was no one I could relate to anymore.

 

Civilians didn’t understand.  They didn’t understand why I gave them a dirty look while I picked up that piece of trash they threw on the ground next to the trash can.  They didn’t understand why I paused so often and chose my words carefully when talking about the Marine Corps, using words like “appropriate” instead of steal.  They didn’t understand why I had to excuse myself and walk away when I was pissed.  They didn’t seem to understand why I would be upset when they would wipe off the equipment with a greasy rag instead of washing it off with soap and water, or why I would bring them five extra pairs of ear plugs for their tool box if they weren’t wearing any.  I ended up downplaying my time in the Corps by saying, “it was okay most of the time,” or “it wasn’t all bad,” which are both very similar to the things said by abused spouses and children.

 

The questions they would ask were the worst, as they brought up all of the random, awful feelings right back but with much more intensity and regret.  If you are a civilian and meet a veteran, please do not ask them a lot of questions.  Most of us really just don’t want to talk about it, we are out and want to leave it behind us.  Now that I am thinking about it, here are some questions that you should avoid when speaking to a veteran:

 

Did you have/get to kill anyone?

If you ask this question:  Fuck You.  That is an extremely personal question that brings up the feelings associated with ending another human being’s life.  Anyone who answers this question with “hell yeah, it was awesome blah blah…” is a liar or has severe emotional problems associated with combat.

 

Did you ever watch anyone die or get shot/blown up/vaporized?

This is very similar to asking if they have killed someone, and should be avoided.  Do not prod a veteran for information about a fallen comrade, it is disrespectful.  If they trust you enough to tell you about it, they will volunteer the information when they are comfortable.

 

Did you have to deploy/go to war?

This one is seemingly innocent, but it also brings up all of the horrible things that Marines have to go through before, during, and after deployments.  They do not want to think about these things because they can be emotional triggers.  Marines that did not deploy often feel as if they haven’t done their job as a Marine by going to war and dying.  The workload on rear-element units are greatly increased and they have minimal personnel with which to accomplish their mission and are often treated with much less respect despite their efforts simply due to them not being in a unit when it deployed.  Again, if they want to talk about it, they will tell you.

 

Did you lose any close friends?

The short answer to this question is always going to be “yes.”  Everyone loses friends, but not everyone wants to talk about it.  We have all lost friends during training accidents and to IED’s, enemy attacks, car accidents, murders, or suicides.  We generally don’t want to think about it, just like you.

 

You seemed to have not liked it, did you get kicked out or something?

You talk shit about your last job, did you get fired or something?  No, most of us have not been kicked out, we decided to move on with our lives.  Many, MANY people that wasted their youth in the military absolutely hated it, and they weren’t kicked out.  Even if they were, it was likely the result of them standing up for themselves or because a service-connected condition forced them to be retired or caused them to behave inappropriately.

 

Other than my room mates and the few devils I kept in touch with, I didn’t have a social life.  Bars were no fun because I hated crowds and didn’t drink, as were concerts, festivals, fairs, and probably even the circus I suppose.  I played a lot of PS2 and worked a lot of shifts.  I did everything I could to keep my mind off of my buddies back in the Suck who were deployed but couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing nothing to help and that that fact made me a shitty excuse for a Marine.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe those asshole SNCO’s and NCO’s were right after all…I mean…some of my friends from high school are literally doing the exact same shit they used to, except now they do it in bars and have added more bad habits like snorting cocaine into their lives.  Some of them have never left the state, let alone the county, and have never held a job.  What else were they right about?

 

Sleeping was nearly impossible.  I was used to getting less than six hours per night for the past four years, but when I got out it was as if I could never sleep for more than four at a time if I was lucky.  I could work four days in a row of 12 on 12 off shifts only sleeping three hours after work and on my days off still could not force myself to pass out for a full eight hours.  When I could fall off, it would be so deeply that my room mates could not wake me by shaking the bed and I would wake up freaked out but never knowing why.  Instead of seeking help, I self-medicated with sleeping pills to help me rest but then needed caffeine to keep wake me back up.  My back was bothering the shit out of me but I wanted no part of the VA so I kept a shitload of Excedrin and Ibuprofen around to minimize the migraines, which also kept me awake but unable to do much.

 

The insomnia and depression caught up with their friends anxiety and agoraphobia and had themselves a goddamned field day one night while I was at work.  I had been stressed out over some disputes between my room mates and was exhausted and dehydrated from working a week of 12 and 12’s in a 110+ degree factory and the utility workers they kept sending me were worthless, forcing me to do my own job and theirs all night.  After eight hours of working non-stop pushing 1/2 ton boxes around and running blazing hot machines without a break while trying my best not to think about how worthless of a human being I had become for leaving my brothers behind and being incapable of even settling immature arguments between room mates and being so goddamned sad all the time, my brain started to shut down.  I had just grabbed my thousandth cone-cup of water from the Culligan bottle next to my machine and took a sip, then a black spot and I’m kneeling in front of the machine after running the shutdown sequence, then another black spot and the machine is shut down and I’m trying to find someone but there is no one around, then yet another black spot and I’m wobbling towards the lunch room and finally see another employee.  He nodded as I made eye contact and I tried to say something but could not speak.  My mind was so cloudy I couldn’t even think of what words to say to this stranger, so I put my shaking hand up I was trying to tell him he shouldn’t be going any further.  He stopped and looked at me a little side ways and asked me what was up, but I couldn’t even grasp a word from the cloud to convey what was wrong and couldn’t remember what gesture to use, so I shook my head “no” and opened and closed my mouth a few times to show him I was attempting to speak but had lost the ability.  A few moments of confused, wordless posture changes and shuffling later, I was able to pluck the word “nurse” out of the air in the form of a mono-syllabic inquiry.  He gestured for me to follow him so I nodded vehemently in the positive as he led me towards the cafeteria.  Water was drank while I waited for whatever was going to happen to happen, and a while later my supervisor walked in looking very serious but not angry.  I managed to point to my temple and push out “I don’t…the, talk” and shaking my head in a nervous panic.  I could barely feel my hands and my chest felt like it was being crushed between two skyscrapers.  I could not catch my breath, my lungs only took short, shallow, shaky breaths.  My heart rate could be felt in every part of my body including my eyeballs, I could almost see it and I felt like my blood had been infused with static electricity.  I could not shake the feeling that I should either sprint out the door and never stop running or destroy everything and everyone around me.  I felt like an animal that had been backed into a corner and was fearing for its life, yet I was in an extremely safe environment and in no danger whatsoever.  Someone called an ambulance, and I was escorted outside by two EMT’s.  Once we were out front and I saw the ambulance’s flashing lights, I had to face away from it because it was freaking me out hard.  My supervisor wanted me to stay there and chill out in the lounge until the end of my shift, but I couldn’t even understand what he was saying, all I could do was shrug my shoulders and shiver uncontrollably with unexplainable tears rolling down my cheeks.  Words would not come out of my mouth, no matter how hard I concentrated.  Nothing.

 

The feeling of “holy fuck shit is so out of control right now even my speech doesn’t work what the fuck is happening everyone is staring at you they all know what do they know it doesn’t matter they know you’re probably dying one of them is going to hurt you don’t trust any of them dude just run just fucking run and never ever ever fucking stop” was, at best, terrifying.

 

The EMT’s were very cool about it all.  They seemed to understand that I couldn’t express anything and was in an intense fight or flight mode, and were careful not to handle me until they were sure that I understood they were required to strap me in the ambulance because they could not allow me to drive home or stay at work because I could put others or myself in danger.  One of them was a sailor or a coastie, I can’t remember clearly, and recognized my stupid moto tat, and he made sure they took damn good care of me and tried to calm me down by telling me I was going to be okay, he’d seen it before and I was going to be alright.  It did help quite a bit.  They drove me to the ER, strapped me to a bed, gave me a couple shots and an IV, then left me to pass out until later on the next day.

 

When I woke up there was a doctor in the room and I was confused and couldn’t immediately recall how or why I was in a hospital.  My speech had partially returned, at least enough to inquire as to exactly what in the fuck I was doing there.  She informed me that I had been brought in early that morning highly distressed and unable to communicate, although no one knew exactly why so they put me down and kept an eye on me.  A few moments of hazily explaining what I could remember later, she stops writing, looks up at me and says, “it sounds like you might have had an extremely bad anxiety attack.”

 

Next time:  Old Habits Die Hard

On To Bigger, Better Things: The Struggle Begins

Like many a soon-to-be-separating Devil Dogs, in the early winter of 2005 I was all too ready to shed my green, amphibian skin and horrible indentured servitude.  The transition assistance classes required by the Corps for all separating Marines were thorough enough, and I had a coverletter/resume/thanksbiatchletter combination that looked pretty damned professional.  My final physical was cleared, noting my exposure to CS and asbestos, a fucked up knee, and some hearing loss.  My terminal leave was approved and worked out so that I could pick up my walking papers at 0830 on my motherfucking birthday.  It was the most content I had been in…well, years.  The sad part about that sentence is the fact that I had to use the word “content” because I was normally in a state mentally in which I hated almost every second of my life.  At the time, I never realized how goddamned awful it was to fully accept being treated like a stupid, useless child, and for no reason other than it had been pounded into my brain for the past few years that it was acceptable to treat people that way because if they were “below” you, they deserved it.

 

My transition was not a smooth one.  I was so eager to get away from the terrible people at my local USMC Rape Dungeon that I failed to realize how unhealthy my state of mind had become and and why it became that way.

 

Truth be told, I was fairly moto for my first year and a half.  I was that dumb ass boot wearing Oorah gear and rocking the horse shoe.  Boot camp, MCT, and MOS school took up most of that year, and being surrounded by a constant stream of other boots and ridiculously motivated SNCO’s did not help that at all.  It was a while after I got to Okinawa that I realized the Marine Corps wasn’t nearly as awesome as it was made out to be.  A month of cold showers and six months of opening my door with an ID/credit card (or stiff envelope for fuck’s sake) due to horribly negligent BEQ management,  watching my best friends and the hardest working Marines get harassed and put on duty for petty disagreements, and all of the other constant bullshit cured my motardity.  My NCO’s noticed this, but instead of asking why I was no longer sounding off as loudly or being motivated in general, they would fail me on field day, attempt to take credit for my work at the shop, short count my pullups at unofficial PFT’s, and look for reasons to either publicly chew me out or humiliate me.  I accepted it as “tough love” for a long time, but after a while it got really old and insulting, humiliating even.  Eventually I started thinking really stupid, shitty things about myself like, “damn, maybe they’re right, maybe I’m just a reject who really should kill himself.  I really am worth more dead than alive like he keeps saying.  I don’t think SGLI pays out for suicides and everyone would just hate me more because they’d have to go to a bunch of safety briefs and shit, better not, don’t want to be a buddy fucker.”  I would often have to listen to shit for my appallingly long 22-minute run time even though I always kept a 1st class PFT.  The stream of “you’re a piece of shit” type of insults was constant and endless towards my coworkers and myself by our superiors simply because we had different MOS’s; us being AAV mechanics and them being LAV mechanics who considered themselves grunts because the guys that drive the vehicle they work on have “03” in their MOS.  Public humiliation was their personal favorite, as well as discrete assaults to the abdomen, back, and thighs with fists, feet, and tools.  My section kept the highest turnover rate in the shop because we always stayed late, came in early, and missed chow to get it done.  This was mainly due to us hating our NCO’s so viciously that we would do anything to get away from them, even for an hour.  At times it felt like we were in the first half of the movie Sleepers, but with less rape.  We never got our “inmates obliterate guards during epic football game” though.  In the Marines, you almost never do.  It was bad enough that most of us would gladly volunteer for duty and working parties just to relax.  Eventually I just wanted to fade into the crowd or become invisible just so that I could do my job in peace without having to worry about what kind of random, pointless rectum-rapery was going to occur next.

 

Dealing with the bullshit day in and day out eventually began to take its toll on my mental state, and like many Marines before me, I attempted to solve my problems by numbing myself with alcohol.  It wasn’t difficult, booze is everywhere and it seemed like everyone was doing the exact same thing.  Alcoholism is so common in the Marine Corps that it is not treated as a sickness, it is looked at as just another part of being a Marine.  At the time, it didn’t seem so unhealthy because being a drunk meant always having friendly-ish people around and not feeling like an outcast.

 

Severe depression and alcoholism pretty much ran my life by the end of my first year on the Rock, although I had no idea how bad it really was getting.  Instead of becoming an aggressive dickbag, I slowly dropped all cares outside of work and focused on the job at hand because nothing else seemed to matter.  I ended up getting really good at my job, and our Gunny noticed this, eventually deciding to pull every string he could to get me accepted into an advanced MOS course near Pendleton.

 

While in California for that course, my drinking had all but stopped.  The school environment was strict on procedures but relaxed on bullshit formalities and they played zero games because the class consisted of a Staff Sergeant, two Sergeants, two Corporals, a Brazilian Lieutenant and Staff Sergeant, and my lowly, boot Lance Corporal ass.  I studied, PT’ed, and read every book I could get my hands on because I was isolated as the only non-rate student.  Some of those books changed the way I perceived the world around me and I ended up deciding to change my religion to one that mirrored my system of beliefs about man and life and that brought hope and motivation back into my life.  The school command did not care, and looked at it as a Marine expressing his religious freedom, and if it helped him stop drinking and get motivated, all the better.

 

Okinawa was different, with Warrant Officers, SNCO’s, NCO’s, and other non-rates randomly picking fights, but they almost always lost.  One of our less-enlightened officers decided to order me to disrobe in front of several other Marines so that he could see one of my tattoos.  Having your Platoon Commander force you to strip your upper half in an office full of people is a bit humiliating, especially if while doing this he is insulting you by telling you how worthless of a human being you are and how badly you are failing is Corps and how you are a disgrace to the uniform and do not deserve the title “Marine” because of your religion.  Events like that are what brought back everything I hated about life and demotivated me until I began drinking again, and much more heavily.  I could not stand the fact that regardless of how many positive changes I had made in myself, my superiors’ treatment of me worsened with every step.

 

They knew I had stopped drinking, so they put me on duty more often, telling me “its not like you have anything better to do, you don’t drink” until I started drinking again so they couldn’t use that excuse.  They knew I had graduated an advanced course for my MOS that non-rates do not get to attend, so they put me in charge of paperwork so that I could not do the job I had been trained to do and was still liable for anything that went wrong because I was the “Duty Expert.”  They found out I changed my religion so they began harassing me about it constantly, making disrespectful remarks and jokes, refusing to respect my beliefs, and telling me that it was “unauthorized” while filling out charge sheets that would ultimately be torn up and thrown out by someone with common sense.

 

I became disillusioned with everything motivating and began to see the world as a dark place full of awful people who were only out to hurt others.  Alcohol only fueled this further until I hated Marines, I hated life, and I wanted to be done with it all as soon as possible.  When my second year on Okinawa was up, I went to Twentynine Palms with a severe alcohol problem and a death wish.

 

The Stumps was different.  It was a combat unit and most of the guys had deployed at least once, so it was way more relaxed on the petty bullshit because everyone was concerned with getting work done and being left alone.  Being an all AAV unit also helped, as there was very little “my MOS is better’n yer MOS” rivalry/stupidity to get in the way.  The alcoholism, however, was much, much worse, with almost every night being full of drunken shenanigans both hilarious and tragic.  I kept to myself mostly; I only knew one guy and he was a Lance from my unit on Oki, but you know, fraternization.  That part about it being a combat unit with a bunch of guys that had deployed?  Yeah, that was kind of important if you weren’t paying attention.  Being a Corporal from an ultra-pog GSM shop was like…shit…let’s just say that a tiny part of me totally feels for Amos and Rodney Dangerfield.  Absolutely no respect.  Before I had finished checking in, they already had me a spot reserved as the Tool Room NCO because I had “no experience”…even though I had been through an AAV course only one of our SNCO’s had been to, and that was years before.  When the company left for Okinawa, I stood so much duty they should have given me a secondary MOS of 1369 Permanent DNCO (they didn’t).  Our Rear Party CO was a douche bag Lieutenant whose head was so far up his ass his shoulders were shit-stained and he overreacted to every incident by locking us down so tightly we had to log Marines in and out of the lounge and laundry rooms.  I stood barracks duty so often it interrupted my “social” life enough to actually force me to quit drinking because I never had eight hours between work or duty.  Yes, I could have sneakeded a few, but by that point I was so goddamned paranoid and nervous all the time that I assumed that I would be caught and fucked right down to Private on the spot.  I didn’t care about losing drinking buddies, by then all we had were boots and guys getting out, so nobody associated with each other.  Even our boots ended up hanging out with tanker boots and Comm school kiddies more than guys in their own unit.

 

When the Company returned, things loosened up but I had to deal with way more SNCO’s and NCO’s talking down to me because I decided to not reenlist.  Trying to explain to them, “I am a terrible Marine, the spot should be saved for someone better” was like trying to teach calculus to a Buick; it ain’t fuckin’ happenin’ son.  What is worse is that instead of listening to the reasoning of a Marine who is obviously depressed, they would angrily describe the horrible lives of anyone who was stupid enough to get out.  “Out in January, homeless in February, and wanting back in my Corps in March!”  My Platoon Commander was so insulted by my refusal to reenlist that he took a special interest in making my life hell.  After my final physical, instead of hitting the gym or being OFP, he wanted me to run with the unit, which I was cool with.  A month before my terminal leave date, my knee is swollen to the point where it was visible in cammies and I was getting sharp pains in my back, ribs and neck that came with migraines, and I was having trouble even walking to work.  Medical did an X-ray and couldn’t find anything broken, so the CWO assumed I was a malingerer and started berating me in formations, especially during PT when I would fall out of runs due to the pain of my right knee being twice the size of my left and headaches so intense I would puke.  Another trip to BAS revealed a bunch of inflamed tendons and a lack of cartilage, which was apparently what was causing that funny grinding noise whenever I bent my knees.  When migraines and numb spots in my back were mentioned, shit got real.  Medical records had to be found, final physicals had to be voided and re…um…physicalled.  This does not look good on a command, and of course it was explained to me by mine that it was all my fault because Marine Corps, rah?

 

I left the Corps with migraines, back pain, shitty knees and hips, and a desperate need for real medical attention for depression and anxiety.  It took me around seven years to think seriously about getting help because I was so sick I believed I didn’t deserve to be helped.  Like many others, I have ruined relationships with friends, family, and women by pushing everyone away when they tried to give me a hand, all due to sadistic Marines and their sick desire to humiliate someone under them for not conforming.

 

But I’m not bitter.

 

Next Time:  Assaulting the Civilian World