Another column in the North County Times

Here is my latest column in the North County Times:

“So what’s it like over there?”

It’s a question that I get a lot. It is also a question that gets a different answer depending on who asks it.

The problem is not the curiosity expressed by the curious inquisitor, but instead with their ability to process the answer.

To be a combat veteran is to have lived through experiences that are completely outside the perceptive reality of those who have not walked in the same boots that you have. As a result, I have learned that I have to be very, very cautious when I answer such a seemingly innocent query.

“It’s pretty hot and miserable,” I say to most people, “except in the winter, when it is pretty cold and miserable. I like it here in good old America much better than over there.”

That’s what I say now, anyway. I didn’t always have such a benign response.

The first time that I realized that I needed to have a different answer for that question was a few days after I had returned from my first tour in Iraq. I had spent seven months in a tough place where I spent no small amount of time trying to kill people who were trying to kill me. So when a very nice civilian neighbor sidled up to me at a neighborhood get-together and asked what it was like over there, I made the mistake of actually telling him.

“Well, we got rocketed and mortared a lot,” I started, “pretty much every day. The insurgents were always aiming for the chow hall on our FOB, and they would hit us at meal times. One morning, a couple of Marines were walking out of breakfast when a rocket hit one of them in the chest. All we found were his boots and bits of his ribcage…”

The look of startled horror on my neighbor’s face was something that I had never even considered. I didn’t know what to say after that, and I suddenly realized that I had no way to express myself to those who had not “been there.” What was, to me, just another day in Ramadi was to a friend who had no experience in such a place a terrible shock.

It was then that I learned that such a simple question required a more selective answer.

Last Saturday I met an octogenarian at a veterans museum. After we shook hands, he asked if I had served in the military. After I told him that I had spent a little time in Iraq and Afghanistan, he visibly perked up and told me that he had fought in Korea. Then he asked that ubiquitous question:

“So what’s it like over there?”

So I told him. Not about the weather, but what it was like to fight a determined and wily enemy. He listened, nodded and told me about the frozen hills of Korea. How he had fought with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division against the North Koreans and how he and his unit had “bugged out” when they were assaulted by 150,000 Chinese soldiers from the other side of the Yalu River in 1950.

We chatted about what it was like to fight. Our wars were different, but we were the same: two men who had gone “over there” and lived to talk about it. He told me how he swore that he would never again climb a mountain but had somehow ended up retired in Colorado. I shared my desire to never see a desert again, much less live in one. He wondered at the amount of equipment we carry in the wars of today, and I marveled at how he survived the amazing experience of fighting his way through the ice and snow of the Korean winter to escape certain capture or death.

So if you ask me what it’s like over there, don’t be surprised if you get a pretty boring answer. Unless, of course, you have been “over there,” too.

Then we’ll chat.

Latest column in the North County Times

Here is my latest column in the North County Times:

No one immune to PTSD


Never in our history has the military establishment or the nation been as forthcoming or accepting of combat stress injuries. There are programs everywhere to help those who suffer from the effects of prolonged combat. The Veterans Administration offers everything from individual counseling to residential treatment for those who have left the military, and active-duty personnel are afforded the opportunity to seek treatment without effect to their careers.

Well, officially anyway.

I recognized that I had PTSD after my third combat tour. I had just returned from Afghanistan, and with a roomful of Marines I sat down for a post-deployment briefing that was pretty much identical to the ones I had attended after my two trips to Iraq.

A parade of briefers that ranged from concerned professionals to bored bureaucrats passed before us, flinging a blizzard of papers for us to read, initial, fill out, and sign. We sat behind computer terminals to see if we experienced any traumatic brain injuries, listened to how important it was to be patient with our wives and girlfriends and kids, and not to go out and get rip roaring drunk on our first night home.

Somewhere between the brain test and the drinking-and-driving lecture, a sheaf of papers was handed around for all of us to complete. Not thinking too much about it, I grabbed my pencil and started filling in the little bubbles by the questions.

“Do you have problems sleeping?”

“Are you more irritable now than before you deployed?”

“Do you have problems remembering things?”

“Do you feel unable to relax?”

The questions covered the page. I marked the little bubbles one after the other, and when I was done I looked it over and dropped my pencil in shock. It wasn’t the first time that I had seen a form like this; in fact, I filled one out after every deployment. The difference this time was that I had a whole lot more questions marked “Yes” than there had been previously. Not just one or two or three questions. I said yes to more than half of them.

My reaction was, “Holy mackerel! I can’t possibly have PTSD —- only burned out losers have PTSD. Not me! No way!”

I walked up to the guy who handed out the forms and turned it in. He looked at it, looked at me, and asked me if I wanted to go see anybody.

That was it. I could say no and get on with my life. That, to be honest, is the course that the vast majority of military folks take. At that moment, that timeless span of a few seconds, thoughts rocketed through my mind. What will people say? Do I really need help? Is there something wrong with me? Only losers have PTSD, don’t they?

So I chose not to choose, but I did ask the guy for more information. He shrugged and handed me a brochure for an on-base facility that offered assessment and treatment with no questions asked. I looked it over, folded it up, and went on my way.

Moving on was not as simple as shoving the brochure in my pocket, however. I really started to view myself through a different lens; I paid attention to myself. I really couldn’t remember things even though my mind had formerly been sharp. I was short-tempered, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t relax. I came to the stark realization that I had changed, and not in a good way.

So I made a choice. I pulled the crumpled pamphlet out of my pocked and read through it. Not just another cursory once over as I had done before, but I really studied it. It promised an opportunity to be evaluated by a staff of professionals whose only purpose was to help Marines like me. All I had to do was make a call.

So I did. More on that in my next column.

Combat Stress and PTSD: My latest column in the North County Times

Here is my latest column in the North County Times.  As a veteran of multiple tours in two wars I have personally experienced and witnessed first hand the the wide spectrum of combat related stress and the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  To me it is a truly important subject, and I am writing about the subject as a columnist in our local newspaper.


Stigma still attached to PTSD

Every person who goes to war brings a little bit of it home. For some, they carry memories of their adventures and some stories to tell. Others, however, bring home a burden that weighs upon their psyche and may accompany them for the rest of their lives.

Even though two combat veterans may have been in the same places and experienced the same stresses, joys, horrors and camaraderie that are all factors in the personal experience of warfare, they will return home affected by their participation in very different ways.

There is a wide range of emotional and psychological effects that result from an individual’s involvement in conflict. No veteran returns home without some change within themselves, and in that regard they are no different from any other person who experiences a stress and separation for extended periods of time. Research and common sense both irrefutably show that prolonged exposure to stress, as well as involvement in terrifyingly brief but immensely stressful situations, results in psychological change. Just how much change varies with every person, and the effects of the experience differ for each and every person who goes through such an event.

These effects are not limited to participants in war. Anyone can suffer from long-term exposure to stress or from short-term specific events. Battered women who endure abusive relationships agonize long after they leave the abuser, just as survivors of disasters such as plane crashes or earthquakes endure inner turmoil even though the actual event has come and gone.

Veterans of war share the same inner conflict and anxiety as anyone who has been through the emotional wringer.

Does that mean that we have over a million sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder? Nope. The majority of veterans return from the combat theater with no psychological damage, but instead with a broader perspective on life that shapes their worldview and subtly alters their thought processes and reasoning as they move on with their lives. They live as they did before they left, except for a greater reservoir of experience to draw from.

That said, a significant number of combat vets experience real difficulty adjusting to life at home when they return from overseas. They suffer from combat operational stress injury, or COSI. Their symptoms range from mild to severe, and from acute to chronic. Some sufferers require little assistance to overcome the challenges they face when they come home, while others are completely incapacitated by the ravages of PTSD.

To the tremendous credit of the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration those who suffer from COSI are encouraged to participate in treatment that is comprehensive, effective, non-attributional and free. Active-duty personnel can take advantage of Deployment Health Centers that offer a wide range of assistance and treatment options that are designed to help the service member understand and cope with their stress injury while still wearing the uniform. The Veterans Administration likewise offers a wide array of services for veterans who are no longer actively serving; all a veteran needs to do is contact the Veterans Affairs office for assistance.

And therein lies the rub.

There are dozens of programs in the DOD and VA to help people who have fought for their country, but surprisingly few actually seek help even though they really need it. The programs are free, so there is no financial reason to stay away. They are also non-attributional, meaning that there is no official retribution or black mark on a person’s record should they seek help.

Why, then, do so many fail to seek treatment?

The answer is simple. Even though society has come to accept that the mind can suffer injury just as the body can, the same cannot be said for the members of the armed forces. There is a very real stigma attached to those who seek mental help while in uniform, and the perception of the stigma follows closely behind servicemen and servicewomen as they transition back to civilian life.

So why does the stigma still exist in the military when society has largely come to accept it?

The military exists to fight the nation’s wars. Sure, it does a lot of other things, too, like perform humanitarian missions at home and abroad and provide employment —- but the true purpose of the military is to fight.

In order to go to war and win requires that the people in the military be aggressive, fit and mentally inured to hardship in order to do the things required of them in combat. The cultures of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all revolve around things like strength, resilience, aggressiveness and toughness. Any form of weakness is contrary to the warrior culture, and individuals who exhibit weakness are viewed as lesser beings in the eyes of their peers.

Seeking help for stress injuries is viewed as weakness. Even though thousands of people really need help, they won’t pursue it. The official DOD policy states that seeking help is non-attributional and that there will be no detriment to a person’s career, but the truth is different. Warriors don’t want to be seen as mentally frail, so they just suck it up despite all of the opportunities to help overcome their injuries. They fear ostracism, so they just hide their pain and soldier on.

I know, because I have seen it first-hand. I’ll explain in my next column.
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Getting the band back together

Thursdays come and go once a week, so generally speaking they aren’t particularly significant.  Compared to Friday. which is everybody’s favorite weekday it doesn’t amount to much.  Pretty much everyone agrees that Thursday is better than Monday, but it can’t hold a candle to Saturday or Sunday.  Nope, Thursday is pretty much just an average day in the grand scheme of things.

Except for this past Thursday.  Last Thursday, March 1st, marked the 61st anniversary of the birth of the Marine Corps unit that I served in during three tours to combat.  On March 1st 1951 the 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company unfurled its flag on its way to fight in the hills of Korea.  Since that time ANGLICO Marines and Sailors have deployed across the globe and fought in places like Beirut, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  They stood on the frontiers of American interests during the cold war and set the unequalled standard for professionalism and skill in the realm of fire support (employing things like mortars, artillery, naval gunfire, attack helicopters and jets) and communications (with the capability to talk via radio to pretty much anyone, anywhere, and at any time).

So this past Thursday, March 1st, was special because it was the 61st birthday of such a fantastic organization.  It was even more distinguished, however, because the Commanding Officer, Marines, and Sailors who currently serve in 1st ANGLICO threw a little birthday party and they invited any and all veterans of 1st ANGLICO to come on down to Camp Pendleton and share in the big day.  And come we did- from those of us just down the road in San Diego to others who traveled thousands of miles across the country to share in the big day.  All told there were nearly 50 veterans and their wives in attendance, with veterans who were with the company when it was brand spankin’ new and headed for Korea to those of us who just left last year.

And what a day it was!  The Marines and Sailors of the company set up a series of briefings and displays to show how the unit operates as it enters its seventh decade of existence.  We saw the newest equipment and were briefed on the latest combat techniques, and it was truly impressive to see such a great bunch of Marines and Sailors so proudly share their trade with the older generation.  Before lunch in the most excellent new chowhall on Camp Las Flores (which is the home of 1st ANGLICO) there was a brief but impressive ceremony where a birthday cake was cut and the eldest ANGLICO veteran shared the first slices with the commanding officer.  The vets were then honored to be present as a half dozen or so Marines were promoted to the next higher rank; the Marine Corps promotes their best and brightest at the beginning of the month, so we were fortunate to be able to attend such a significant event in the lives of these young and motivated warriors.

Then, off to lunch.  For me it was a tremendously rewarding experience because I was able to break bread (or in my case, a turkey Panini sandwich) with brother Marines that I had served with during my last tour.  Now that I am retired I am no longer Lieutenant Colonel Grice (even though my retired ID card says so), but instead the exalted rank of Marine, which all of us who served proudly share.  We are all now brothers unseparated by rank and position, and it was a great time to have lunch with brothers Barnette, Fortson, and Brantley.  We talked about life, deployment, chow, and everything else, and it was a great time.  With men such as these keeping the wolf from the door our nation has nothing to fear.

The afternoon was spent observing the newest training technologies, which was interesting.  For me, it was more thrilling to meet and talk to the veterans of ANGLICO who had served in so many far flung places and had cemented the legacy of the unit into the story of the Marine Corps.  I finally met Vance and Tom, who had served in Vietnam and were simply the most amazing supporters of deployed ANGLICO units as they led care package drives that sent us literally hundreds of boxes from home as we served overseas.  I met Buzz and John and Walt and Joe and countless other vets, and it was truly my privilege and honor to be counted as one of their ranks.  To be with them was to walk in the shadow of giants, and it was truly a thrilling honor just to be around them.

We had cocktails at the old Officer’s Club later that evening, and I was able to chat with another John, with whom I had served in Iraq as well as with a half dozen Marines with whom I had served during my last deployment to Afghanistan.  There were over a hundred people packed into the bar that evening, and the mixture of camoflage uniforms and retiree’s ballcaps was impressive to witness.  Veterans who fought a half century ago traded tips with Marines who were yet thirty years unborn when Korea was hot, and regardless of age or war the connection was genuinely made.  It eclipses nostalgia and enters the realm of true brotherhood, and I was incredibly fortunate to be a part of it all.

So my hat is off to the Commanding Officer, Marines, and Sailors of 1st ANGLICO for putting on such a marvelous event.  I thank you on behalf of all of us who served, and to all who attended, it was simply magnificent to meet you.  It is times like this that wash away the pain, the anguish, and the anxiety that comes with serving the hard master that is the Marine Corps in time of war.  It is times like this that that rejuvenate the soul and remind you that, after all, no matter what you did or where you served, it was all worth it.

For that all to brief moment in time the cross generational band that is 1st ANGLICO got back together, and it was a sight to behold.  To all members of 1st ANGLICO past and present, I say congratulations on your 61st Birthday and Semper Fidelis!


Striking a nerve…

This post has nothing to do with transition, but instead with a debate that been raging as a result of an article in the Marine Corps Gazette.

In addition to blogging, I write articles for various publications (such as the Marine Corps Gazette, the Armed Forces Journal, The Artillery Journal, and others) and recently was very fortunate to be brought on board as a columnist at the North County Times.  One of the articles that I wrote for the Marine Corps Gazette has really struck a nerve and the interesting bit is not so much the article itself, but the commentary that follows (although I am quite proud of the article!).

At any rate, here is a link to the article and the comments that follow:

You may find it interesting.  If nothing else, you will see how passionately Marines feel about what color your socks are…..and I would love to hear your feedback!