have courage. take heart. bear witness.
Mary: My son joined the Marines a couple of weeks, actually, before 9/11. And he was being pressured by his father, my ex-husband, because he had basically screwed around his first year in college, and his dad, you know, felt that he needed discipline, and so forth. So I was really heartbroken, at that moment, that my son felt that his only avenue was to join the military. You know, I felt a sense of despair for him, and I was upset that I wasn't in a position to help him. So he tried to get into the Army first, and he'd gotten caught smoking a joint in high school, and so they turned up their nose at him. And then he applied to the Marines, and I think they were giving him a little grief over the same issue.
So I had had a friend, who is actually a retired Army general, and I hadn't spoken to him in a few years, but I had done a favor for him twenty-odd years prior, and he'd always felt that he owed me something for that. So, foolishly, I called in that favor, and they accepted my son. By this time it was after 9/11, and he was . . . he kept watching those towers fall repeatedly, on the news, and he was all swept up in that, and I remember him talking to me, saying, "You know, I just want to get in there and do a great job and just rip 'em up," you know, and defend his country.
So he went in for basic training. And I have to tell you, I didn't . . . could never see him—'cause he's always been rebellious—I could never see him taking orders well. But I went down for his graduation, and there he was, in his uniform with his single stripe and his little Expert Rifleman pin on his collar, and he just looked great. And as we were walking around the base, after the ceremonies, these new recruits were walking along, and they walked past him and they said, "Sir." And he was, like, sort of surprised, and he looked at me and said, "They called me 'sir.'" And it was, you know, a prideful moment, and I could see, you know, this discipline in him and that maybe it was . . . maybe it was going to be okay for him.
He was talking about possibly he would make the military a career. He had been told that he might be able to get his four-year degree by the time he finished his enlistment period. And then, of course, he started training pretty radically for Iraq. And I believe he graduated boot camp in September, and he was in Kuwait in January.
And, that morning, when they were showing all that news—I don't have tv and I haven't had tv since I was sixteen, but I went somewhere to watch it. And I saw this imagery and videos of these transports, laden with troops, crossing the border into Iraq. And it was such a raw feeling to know that I had a child in that, and he was going to war. And it wasn't playacting, you know—he was going to war. And I was just slain, and I called a friend and I was just in tears. She wound up in tears, too. I mean, it was just not something you expect.
So, anyway, we didn't hear much from him—communication wasn't very good that first tour. But he took pictures and came home, and he seemed okay. He'd had one experience—he was manning a checkpoint, and an Iraqi, a sergeant in the Republican Guard, was trying to run his checkpoint, and he had to fire on the vehicle. And he disabled it, eventually, at a stop light ten feet from where he was at. And the sergeant was wounded, but they, you know, took him off to a hospital, and my son came home from Iraq having not killed anybody. And for me, I took this huge sense of relief from that, that, you know, thank God—thank goodness that he doesn't have that burden. And . . . but we weren't that lucky the second time.
Mary: I didn't even appreciate how hard it was, the second tour, for him. He called one day, and there was all this mortar in the background, and he . . . I didn't even say anything about it, but he said, "Yeah, don't worry about that, Mom. It's just practice shooting." And after he came home, he admitted that they weren't practice. He just didn't want me to know.
And while he was there, I was getting a sense that it wasn't the same as the first tour, which had been fairly quiet, really. And I would get Google alerts—you can ask Google to send you alerts, using key words. So I just said "Marines in Ramadi." He was in Ramadi. Sometimes I would get twelve Google alerts a day: a Marine was killed or someone was wounded, and it was, I mean it was like torture, but you had to know. You couldn't not know. And I would get these alerts and I would look at this and I'd think, "Oh, my God," you know. "It could be my child." I would throw up in the bathroom.
And then, slowly, as the day wore on, you'd find out that it was a different company or a different rank or a different something, and you'd realize that it wasn't your Marine. And then you'd realize that it was somebody's Marine, and, you know, that my good fortune was someone else's misfortune.
And one day, I'd gotten one of these alerts, and it was a Marine had died. And he called me the day after, and I told him how scared I'd been that I was afraid it was him. And he'd been right there. The Marine died in his arms. He had his last words. And he just missed the blast by five meters himself. And he made that statement—he used that manner of speaking that warrior soldiers use when they're under that kind of stress all the time—and he just said, "I guess it wasn't my day to die, Mom." And, God, I can't tell you what those words did to me. Can you imagine a job where that's the state of mind you have to get in to be able to go out and do that job?
And I had another sense of how bad it was for him, and this is kind of a metaphysical sense. When my son went to Iraq the first time, my daughters and I held a little ritual, and we wanted to do everything that we could to protect him while he was over there. And we prayed, and we set up an altar, and we blessed some amulets and trinkets and sent them to him, and his little sisters were just certain that bullets would bounce off of him and he would be safe.
In addition to that, my mother—who had died a few years before that—and his dog, who had been murdered by a neighbor—I asked them, you know, I asked my mom and his dog to watch over him. And they came to me—my mom and Junior, was the dog—came to me in a dream one night, and they didn't say anything to me. They just looked at me and nodded, like they understood, you know—"We'll watch over him. We'll take care of him." And he came home, and he was fine.
So when he went back the second time, I asked them again, you know, "Please take care of John." And shortly after John had gone over there, Junior came to me in a dream, and he was so sorry, he was so sorry, but he was telling me, in this dream, that he couldn't be there, because there was so much gunfire and because he'd been shot, he was gun shy. And I told him it was okay—"I love you. You've done it. It's okay." And then I knew, from that dream, how bad it was.
He was in so many firefights, he doesn't know how many. He was hit by seven IEDs [improvised explosive devices] when he was over there—five primary, two secondary. And, you know, it was bad, and so when he came home, you know, I thanked my ancestors and God and Buddha and everyone for protecting him and bringing him home.
And my mother had been an alcoholic during her lifetime, and I didn't give her as much credit, I think. And one day, I was driving to Coos Bay, actually. I wasn't thinking about anything, and out of the blue, just like a flash, it dawned on me that it was my mom who brought him home. She did it for me. I don't know how she did it, but just as much as I know you're sitting there, I know she got him home for me. And it was her way of taking care of us. And she couldn't do it so well in life, but she could do it in death. And, anyway . . . and I've shared that with John. He did tell me, when he came back, that he believed in God now, and he believed strongly that it was divine intervention that brought him home.
Mary: So anyway, John made it home. And I had been doing everything I could to educate myself about the effects of war on soldiers. I had met a lot of veterans, and they had shared experiences and difficulties that they'd had. And I decided I needed to become a layperson expert on PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder], because I anticipated that he would suffer from PTSD, because I had learned just how violent it was while he was there.
So one of the things I learned about PTSD is that chronic sleep deprivation can certainly contribute to that. And my son and his whole platoon sometimes would go with as little as six hours' sleep in seventy-two hours. So they were undermanned from the beginning. And I, of course, developed a lot of anger towards the Pentagon leadership for allowing that to go on—for not prosecuting their efforts wisely and judiciously.
And I was opposed to war from the very beginning. I was opposed to the war, in particular, but I started to get really angry. And, where previously I had felt that I didn't have a voice and that who would listen to this, you know, mom in the middle of Oregon, I got to where I didn't care whether they would listen or not, I was going to tell them how I felt. So while my son was fighting in Iraq, his mother was becoming a peace activist and a rabble-rouser and getting to know her state and federal reps on a first-name basis, and became involved with a lot of other groups, so that when he came home, the benefit of that, for both of us, was that I . . . I wasn't totally unprepared for what had happened to him. Although I was still . . . still totally blown away at how much he'd changed.
He manifested symptoms before he even left the DoD [Department of Defense]. He did certain things right. He . . . they pressured everyone, very hard, to re-up while they were still in Iraq. They offered them, I think, $25,000 tax-free to re-up in Iraq. And John—in fact, everyone in Fox Company refused. John told me none of the grunts would re-up. And he was fairly practical about it. He said, "It works out to about $5,000 a year and you have to live like this."
And so he came back. He'd been a squad leader and belonged to Weapons Platoon, and when he came back, they wanted him to train a new squad—he only had eight or nine months left in the service—and he refused, because he didn't want to get close to a bunch of guys and feel responsible for going back with them.
So he transferred out of Weapons Platoon into H&S [Headquarters and Service Battalion], or something and was pretty adamant and steadfast in his resolve not to sign up. So a couple of sergeants—one who had never seen combat, and one who had been over there but hadn't really been involved, I guess—started to make his life miserable. And they pushed him and pushed him and pushed him. And finally, one of them pushed him so much, he [John] almost threw him off a four-story balcony and—I shouldn't be laughing.
He was disciplined. He could have been demoted. He wasn't—so he was still a corporal when he left. I don't know if I mentioned, he got a meritorious combat promotion when he was in Iraq, and he could have been demoted down to a private, but they . . . somebody must have understood or cared or . . . 'cause they didn't do that. But he did lose thirty days' leave, so it took him thirty days longer to get out than it would have if he could have . . . could have just held back.
Mary: So he came out of the military. He rushed off to get a job. He had this whole list of things he was going to do. And he'd always held jobs from the time he was sixteen, and all of a sudden, he couldn't keep a job. He couldn't get his life together. And things fell apart for John so much that he had to come up and live with Mom, which was really hard for a big macho Marine who'd, you know, led men in combat and made split-second decisions and done all the things that he had done—to have to go live with Mom.
So he came up, enrolled in school, and our lives just fell to pieces here. It was unbearable to see what happened. He . . . he would, literally, almost black out—I mean, except that he was conscious. But he was, like, you just see almost a chemical change in him. There would be this thing, and . . . One day, on Christmas Day, he . . . he had his brother on the floor, with his arms, his hands around his neck, and I couldn't get him off. And I was . . . I was looking for something to hit him with to get him off. Can you imagine having to choose between your children like that? I mean, it was . . .
Anyway, he came out of it on his own—he brought himself out, you know. And I would just throw everybody in the car when he would have an episode, and we'd just leave for two or three hours and go sit in a field somewhere—just wait. And I had some friends who were physicians, willing to diagnose him and write prescriptions for him while we were getting him in through the VA thing.
And that transition is not seamless, you know. People don't know you don't just go from the DoD to the VA [US Department of Veterans Affairs]. And the burden for entering the VA system falls entirely on the veteran. So here's a kid who could barely function, and he's typical of these people who have been in these high-stress combat situations, coming home. And unless they get themselves into the VA, there's no help.
So for the three or four months that it took us to help him wind through that process, all the medications that, you know, it all came out of our pocket. And they don't reimburse you, so military families are screwed, in a budgetary manner is what I'm talking about.
But, anyway, we got him on medication. The medication, you know, takes weeks to build up and actually start to work. And during that process, you know, he . . . he really punished us. I mean, we . . . we suffered. I sent my girls down to live with their father, because it was not safe for them. There were many times when I was on the verge of calling the police when I didn't dare, because I just knew they'd just shoot him. And I just couldn't, you know. And I almost lost my house. You know, I . . . we actually joke about it now, at times, but there is something . . . I refer to it as present traumatic stress disorder. I told him, "You have post, but I've got the present."
And he went to school—was actually doing pretty well at school—and then he was given a med change, and the med change . . . he literally couldn't get up to go to his finals. I mean, he just couldn't get that to work, and failed essentially most of his classes as a consequence of that. And then the GI bill wanted all the money back, 'cause you have to maintain this thing. And so, you know, it was just one financial catastrophe after another.
In the process of that, I was able to talk him into going to the Roseburg VA. And they have a spectacularly wonderful inpatient treatment for PTSD. So the local psychiatrist at the clinic, who's a great guy, supported that and we got John in. And he spent three months in the hospital, beginning in February this year.
And it's turned everything around for him. I mean it's still a huge problem. But he finally understands a lot of what's happened to him and, more importantly, he made a statement to me. About two weeks after he'd been there, I went to visit him and he said, "I'm learning to love myself again." And that was a pretty powerful statement to hear from him—all the hell and the broken doors and the broken everythings in my poor little house. It meant a lot to hear that.
But it's just a process, and I don't know if he would have been willing to go in earlier than he went in. But he did, and now he's so grateful that he went, and he plans to go again. He was able to share some more of his experiences in Iraq with me during that time. And I met some of the people that were in the treatment with him, and, you know, these guys carry that burden with them forever. It's, you know, it's so sad. And they really do need to have an opportunity to tell their story and get it out.
And so I think they were good at doing that for John. They showed him, you
know, the physiological damage that he'd suffered. I don't know if you know that with PTSD the hippocampi shrink, and it's permanent. So, PTSD—the physiological damage to the brain, caused by continued high levels of stress hormones—is permanent, it's irreversible. But it's not untreatable, so they can learn to reroute their brains. You know, a lot of thinking and focus happens in the hippocampi, which is one of the reasons they can't think and focus—they just react.
So he's working to train himself to respond, rather than react. He's going to school again, and he's doing much better. He's learning to manage the meds. He takes three meds—primary meds—and then two meds for each of those, to counteract the side effects.
When he got out of the military, he was having a nightmare once or twice a month. When he came to live with us, he was having a nightmare once or twice a week. Within a few months, even after being on medication, he was having nightmares two or three times a night. And, of course, the whole household had them with him, because, you know, he would be shrieking. And so one of the medications he takes is to help curb the nightmares.
He has, you know, traumatic brain injury, also, because of all of the IEDs. He also has been diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder, which he did not have, prior. So he takes Ritalin (methylphenadate) for that, and he has to take a couple of things to counteract those side effects. And then, of course, he takes something for this free-floating anxiety which is typical of PTSD.
And, so, for a young man trying to go to school and go to work, and to manage them so that you can keep them balanced in time so that you don't have a failure at some point, is quite a process. And he is doing much better after spending that time in Roseburg. And, you know, now I think it's two steps forward and one step back, instead of the other way around.
And he's . . . the psychiatrist at the VA had said that there can be posttraumatic growth, and I believe that's true, so I have to caution my own concerns about my longing for who he was, and accept that this, you know, well I have to accept this new person that's emerging from the ashes. But I'm optimistic now, as I talk with him and see him, and how hard he's trying—just how hard he wants to be normal. And I realize that, while he will, you know, he'll never be the same, he will still be wonderful. And I just wish more moms knew what they're sending their babies off to do. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be warriors.
Mary: If you have any influence over your veteran—they're adults, and it's limited what you can do—encouraging them to get into the VA system as instantly as they can, as they're coming out of the DoD, is certainly an important thing. But those are just bureaucratic things. What helped me get through some of this was just knowing veterans who'd been through what my son had been through, and fought those battles, and suffered those pains, and so forth. And just having that understanding ear, you know, as I'm sort of collapsing and falling apart, and having them, you know, just say, "Yeah, I used to do that. Wait 'til I tell you what I did to my family."
And I think, maybe, the most important thing for all of us is to know that, as hurtful as what they do to you sometimes is, that it really isn't personal, that it isn't really them. That no one feels worse about what they do than they do, after they've done it. And, believe me, if you have access to it, or the resources for it, get therapy. You know, finding the right tools to deal with . . . with somebody who's in crisis all the time—I mean, that's a skill.
I'll tell you one quick story. My son Chris, who was living with us, was actually a big help during that time. And John had gone out one night and he'd gotten drunk. And his dog, Cooper, was always enthusiastic to see him. And it was probably two or three in the morning, and when John came home, he shut the door, and took the last knuckle off the dog's tail. It was bad. There was blood everywhere. As this is evolving, John is sitting on the floor, in the middle of some of this blood, with his dog, and he's saying, "I've seen way more blood than this. I've seen way more blood than this." And he starts to get very agitated.
Right about this time, Chris comes home and he walks in, and Chris somehow managed to dismantle this burgeoning, you know, mushroom cloud that was forming in here. I mean, he didn't say, "No, John, you did it," or any of that. He said, "Well, let's see if we can figure this out," and John finally cooled down, and got through it, and it was a pretty spectacular effort on Chris' part—and very artfully done. And I don't where he, you know, where the inspiration, or whatever, came from, but he worked it through.
And so, you know, I think, so many of us want to believe the . . . you know, the trumpets and the flags. But the reality on the ground is just not . . . not that, you know. You're talking about . . . you know, I mentioned once, you know, this conversation I'd overheard him having with another veteran who's a little older and was a Gulf War I veteran. And they were having this conversation about how bodies smell when they're on fire. And John repeatedly would mention to me, over the course of the two years that he lived here, about the kind of acrid, metallic scent of blood. And, you know, how that . . . that's so visceral with him. And the, you know, pink mist of aerosolized blood from bombs and explosions.
We owe it to them to take those stories, whether they're glamorous and glorious or not. We sent them there, you know? We are collectively responsible for everything they did, everything they witnessed, and everything they suffered. And we owe it to them to just listen and not put our own picture over the top of it.
And, I guess, you know, if they want to believe or just share the heroic parts, that's good, too, 'cause there definitely were some very heroic events. I mean, my son told me about things he'd witnessed. And, you know, the first Marine he saw die had just joined. And he was shot, and he was down on the street. And everybody's firing rapidly, which is what they're trained to do—they're just shooting at anything and everything—and everybody, except one Marine and one doc, who ran through open fire to try and save this kid, you know, who was already gone. So, you know, there are these incredible stories of courage and sacrifice, but it just isn't pretty, you know.
I just never believed I would be the parent of someone that would kill somebody. It just never occurred to me, ever. And it's hard on me. It's hard on me to know that I've reached around the world and hurt people I don't even know.
But I'm relieved, truthfully, I'm relieved that my son has enough humanity left in him to suffer for that, because if he weren't suffering, he wouldn't be human, you know? I hate to see him suffer, but thank goodness he is, and all I can ask of him is that he find a way to forgive himself.
I know, when he went over there, he really believed that he was fighting for his country—that he was, somehow, saving you and me, and it's bad enough coming home and realizing, over time, that that wasn't the case.
I just hope that, as a nation, that we appreciate what's happened to these kids, you know. What we've done to them and asked them to do is horrific. And then to cast them aside because they're hard to be around—and, believe me, they're hard to be around—it's criminal. It's so un-American. It's so unpatriotic. It's so despicable. And, you know, we just have to take care of them. And unless people know what war is really about, they won't ever really appreciate that. But that's what we have to do.