There I was, 19 and walking around feeling like a Badass. I had just finished training. I had never been anywhere or done anything. I was awaiting my first assignment overseas and I was too proud of myself. I was your typical gung-ho kid who ran away from home at the first opportunity he could and got involved in something he knew would piss off the people he was getting away from. I had gotten through training even though I honestly wonder how, with all of the stupid and incredible experiences new to me in San Antonio, Texas. It was 5 AM and I was headed to work. I congratulated myself in the mirror on being the most bad-ass individual who ever walked the planet and before I left my dorm room I promised my adoring fans I would stand in front of the mirror and stare at myself wearing my beret in the mirror as soon as I got back. Look at this guy! I did it. I was fucking awesome.
When I weighed in at MEPS in Philadelphia I was the same height I am today (6’2) and I weighed 140 lbs soaking wet (about 90 lbs less than I do now). I had very low self esteem and honestly was just looking for someone (anyone) to give me some sort of idea what direction I was supposed to go in life more than anything else.
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Here comes a lot of rapid lifestyle changes delivered pretty quick so try to keep up.
I was headed to the armory to draw my weapons and pick up my vehicle. Fast forward a little over six months later I experienced my first TDY to Saudi Arabia. Some people might have complained but we lived like Kings compared to my experiences in High School. There was a 24 hour chow hall that would serve you a half dozen eggs in one serving. I could walk in there at any moment and eat as much food as I wanted and I was in Heaven. There was a 24 hour gym where I worked out with the first professional workout trainer I have ever met, a former Bodybuilder from India. He looked like Hercules in human form and was the smoothest, nicest Goliath you could ever meet. He was an example of “what I wanted to be when I grew up.” You meet the nicest people when you’re traveling the world.
When you’re deployed, life becomes very simple. For someone in my line of work you are going to be armed and on the move for at least 13-14 hours unless you were stuck in a static place with nothing to do but make sure no one drives past the place you are aiming a mounted machine gun. That was just a fact of life. You really only needed 5-6 hours of rest every 24 hours so that leaves us with approximately 5 hours per day to eat, work out, eat, do schoolwork, eat, do laundry, eat, and get ready for work. When I joined the military I was borderline anorexic and I swore I would never go hungry again if there was anything I could do about it.
While assigned to my first duty station I lost the first of many friends I would lose in my career. He died while he was on his first deployment assignment. He was gone and that was it. “Dom, he had a couple CDs and a rain jacket that belonged to you so make sure you fill out the paperwork in the 1st Sergeant’s office.” We would never hang out and drink beer again. We would never shoot guns together and tease each other about being a shitty marksman. He was gone. I think that was the first time I cried over another grown ass man in this world. I was finally making real friends in life and now I was losing them again.
My Grandmother had recently passed away and I missed her very much but to be fair, she had lived a long and good life. The realization someone I trained with, worked with, hung out with and had actually given a shit about was gone; hit me rather hard. When his remains were returned stateside I was selected to escort him home. He was from a small town very unlike the place I had grown up. After the funeral there was a HUGE bonfire party in the middle of nowhere thrown by all of his High School friends. Myself and another military member who served with him were treated like celebrities because we were the last known connection of these people to their friend. On the one hand it was an incredible honor. On the other hand I felt like a phony because I didn’t understand why I was so important to these people mourning the passing of their friend they knew all throughout Elementary, Middle and High School. I wish I had grown up in a place like that. These people cared about each other. They had group dynamics. These people were different than what I expected. Why?
When I returned to my first base I spent some time trying to figure out why these people came from miles around to pay respect to this young man. There was maybe three or four people in this world who would even notice if I died. Honestly, I had no friends and I escaped my family. What was it that was so different about his life? I had never seen a Midwestern town and honestly knew nothing of the close knit bonds these communities share. These people had stories of this young man. Girls recounted story after story of him throughout their childhoods. Growing up I lived most of my life in Newark, Delaware which was just neighborhoods and neighborhoods of suburbs and people live practically right on top of eachother while rarely speaking a word to one another the whole time they live there.
While stationed at my first base in California I learned a lot about people. Although I had a lot of sexual experiences at a very young age and continued to do so through Middle School due to my confused physical pursuits, my emotional maturity did not develop the same and I soon socially regressed away from other adolescents. I especially avoided females through puberty because I came to a greater and greater realization that a lot of my sexual experiences I had already were not considered “normal” to other teenagers. I often felt like a freak when I touched or kissed a girl and realized many things my fellow High Schoolers were excitedly discovering about themselves and each other was information I had been aware of before I ever began puberty. I was ashamed of myself because my experiences were so very different from the amazing ones I would hear told at parties as popular kids with confidence would brag about rounding the bases with girls. I’d hear these amazing stories of triumph and I remained quiet because I told myself no girl would ever want to be close to me. I came to Sacramento, California as a confused young man who did not understand women. I left California as a confused young man who spent a lot of time trying to understand women and at that point realized not only did I not know very much about people and attraction but I realized if I applied myself and learned more about people, I could “fix” my lack of maturity and inability to understand other people (Marques, 2017). I decided after I left California I was going to try to be less like this awkward teenaged boy and more like the “man” I know I should be. Whatever that meant…
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I left California in the year 2000 to pursue an opportunity to chase a different direction in my military career. That direction was a real eye opener for me in that I had my first real exposure to hostility. While I was assigned to a rapid-response deployment unit, I experienced September 11th. I visited Kyrgzstan, Oman, Turkey, Africa, Iraq and a whole lot of other countries that really aren’t important to me anymore.
During that time I learned about people. I learned what it was to struggle with yourself and lose. During those years of intense back-to-back deployments I learned just how rapidly people rise and fall in their lives. I would see people do amazing things while away at war only to return home and go to prison. During my time in Georgia I learned just how badly suicide was a problem with people like us. We would be out for months, come home for about ninety days and head right back out the door again. I never realized just how much suicide impacts organizations and families until I was stationed in Georgia.
One morning in the 2000s, I parked my 1998 Dodge Dakota and gathered up with the other guys in my group for 0630 PT. After roll-call a name was called and although we all knew what his car looked like and could verify it was in the parking lot, he was nowhere to be found. One of our troops finally opened the door to his car and found him. I slowly walked toward his vehicle and as the sun began to rise I could see the red coating the inside of his windows and it suddenly dawned on me his vehicle was the only one covered in the morning dew.
I hadn’t noticed. I didn’t notice his vehicle looked a little different that day. I didn’t notice he had been acting a little different lately. I didn’t notice the loss of a stripe on his arm because group-mentality labeled him a dirtbag and so he acted accordingly. I didn’t notice how deep it would cut when people would rip on him for not meeting standards anymore. Especially since he was a real hard charger before he had his incident and his career took a nose dive.
An investigation later determined he parked his vehicle and took his life hours before we were to report that morning. He wanted to make sure he would be found. His suicide note apologized to us, his brothers and sisters that he made this decision. He apologized for his inability to cope with the things that occurred in his life and he said he hoped others would get help before we ever got to his point. He begged others to get help since he couldn’t.
He said he hoped his life would have purpose and meaning.
I didn’t understand what he meant. I was so pissed off he did this and affected everyone so deeply. I mean, who the fuck did he think he was??? How could he have felt so worthless when he had accomplished so very much? Why did he kill himself when he had a beautiful wife and two daughters at home. He was a college educated young man that was passionate about his heritage and lifting up others. I just didn’t understand it. I kept thinking why “I” didn’t understand. How his actions affected me. ME. ME. ME. ME.
I never thought about him and how he felt.
I didn’t understand – until I finally did, years later. Years later during my own downfall I finally understood how he could have felt so worthless and forgotten about. I realized what he meant when he felt like he pushed everyone away and didn’t deserve kindness. During the time I considered taking my own life, I felt the same way. I lacked the empathy to realize my behaviors while under the influence of pain killers and my alcoholism pushed everyone away. My behaviors were the reason people did not like me, not who I was or what I had or not accomplished in life. I made myself into a victim because that justified who I had become and how I allowed myself to feel (Bryan, Bryan and Kopacz, 2019).
Over the years more and more of my friends have lost their lives. Some were killed in action overseas and while I have mourned them, I will always remember their sacrifice. None of us will bullshit you, we all knew what could happen when we signed up. Its how losers like us get to become awesome.
I think what truly hurts is I can count with two hands how many true Goddamn heroes I have served with who did not return home. But I need more sets to count the number of people who returned from the AOR and either never asked for help or asked for help and lost their careers as the result of an ineffective military mental health system. These are the people who either took their lives or found odd and creative ways to end them.
These are the people who lost their purpose in life like I did and in doing so lost their empathy toward others. These are the people who do stupid shit like riding motorcycles over 100 miles an hour around blind curves with on-coming traffic present. I did that and yes I can’t say I’m proud right now. For a while that was the only way I wanted to ride a motorcycle. These are people who get drunk and run red-lights because they are so upset at the world and all they want is to just feel something. Anything. I have run red lights in my Dodge RAM. And I’m sorry. I have no idea how I would live with myself if I hit someone in my Dodge RAM. These are the people who had a purpose and seemed to lose it. Just like I did.
These are people who have lost their purpose and direction in life. Just like I did. These are people who’s train has gone off the rails and they are a wreck. You can change your circumstances. You are worth it. I promise.
You’re Welcome. Internet.
Bryan, C. J., Bryan, A. O., & Kopacz, M. S. (2019). Finding purpose and happiness after recovery from suicide ideation. The Journal of Positive Psychology.
Marques, J. (2017). Oh, what happiness! Finding joy and purpose through work. Development and Learning in Organizations: An International Journal, (3), 1.