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