In May 2008, a Taliban sniper hit the top of a wall just inches from my head.
The photos of me staggering backwards and falling into the sand were shared by the Pentagon to show the sacrifice of bravery Americans made on the front lines of Helmand Province — even though there were already signs that we didn’t want to win the war.
Just over two years later, in October 2010 — nine years after watching the Twin Towers fall at the end of my workout at Camp Lejeune — I woke up with duct-taped head to my fridge with an IV in each arm. I had drunk two liters of tequila as fast as I could and left a note for my wife to say goodbye.
I couldn’t handle the nightmares and the flashbacks anymore.
Two months earlier, I was caught in an IED explosion in Marjah, on my fourth tour of Afghanistan, which left me with a brain injury that caused amnesia and a rage disorder. My combat career was over and my health was in the hands of the government. I was declared 100 percent incapacitated by the VA, but nine years after leaving the Marines I am still not medically retired.
When I go to the Veterans Administration (VA) to be treated by a doctor or psychologist, they say, “You saw your doctor once this year, why should you see him again?”
So they prescribe more potent recipes and send me on my way.
Was it worth it?
Seeing the completely avoidable debacle that was the withdrawal of US troops from Kabul last year, I wondered if the sacrifice was worth it for me and my friends.
It’s an impossible question.
Mothers lost sons and daughters in mud puddles 5000 miles away. And at the same time, Afghan girls could go to school instead of being married off to a 60-year-old man at the age of 10, because of the work we were doing. But if the reward for veterans is to return to a medical system ill-prepared to deal with the physical and psychological injuries sustained in combat, what’s the point?
When I left the Marine Corps in 2013 after 13 years, I began my civilian career as a counselor and counselor to talk to veterans about how much the VA is for them.
The problem is, the VA wasn’t, and in most cases still isn’t. I learned firsthand that there was next to nothing for many of the men and women who had fought the Taliban for years after 9/11.
Like me, many of the veterans I mentored were just out of high school and not old enough to buy a beer when they were shipped to a country until recently ruled by fascists who gave people a seventh-century imposed interpretation of Islam. Now it was ruled by a corrupt central government with little authority outside Kabul, and regional warlords from villages with names they couldn’t pronounce. Most of them, like me, had never left the United States.
I was one of the first Americans on the ground at Kandahar Air Force Base in 2001, and our goal was to wipe out the Taliban.
But on my last tour in 2010, I could see that there was no real desire to win the war against the US or the Afghan military.
We usually played detective to find out which locals were being extorted so that their poppy seeds could be used in the heroin trade. Marines were also terrified of breaking General Stanley McChrystal’s strict rules of involvement than in hunting the terrorists we were sent to search for.
I stopped believing the mission and focused more on bringing my men home. Some of them didn’t come back, and it was my fault. Over the next ten years, my desire to leave Afghanistan victorious and with a democracy fell apart.
“… on my last tour in 2010, I could see that there was no real desire to win the war from the US or the Afghan military.”
Therefore, the chilling scenes from August 2021 should not have come as a surprise. Any young Lance Corporal on their first deployment would have seen it coming, but the armchair generals in their ivory towers had blinders.
The scenes of men, women and children in a stampede trying desperately to get out of Hamid Karzai International Airport represented the implosion of 20 years of fighting and the despair veterans still face.
It fills me with anger that my story is not unique.
How do you treat heroes?
In 2014, a year into my new civilian life, the list of potent drugs I was prescribed had expanded to eighteen pills a day. I put the opioids on the table and threw them out one by one, in a ritual that was more natural than breakfast.
There was a bottle for depression, another for seizures, one to help me sleep, another for panic attacks, one for anxiety, another for low testosterone and ulcer medicine.
The drugs the VA put me on while I waited for a doctor or specialist made my wife, Bobbie, horrified, and she spent hours online researching the side effects to make sure I was safe .
One day, while browsing through information about sumatriptan succinate, the pill I took to relieve my migraines, she discovered that it could kill me if I mixed it with other drugs, including paroxetine, another item on my long list. with recipes. The combination would create a cocktail that could cause my serotonin levels to become so high that it was fatal.
I developed stomach problems and had to vomit for hours in the bathroom because the pills caused untold damage to my body. Bobbie told my doctors that she would no longer allow me to take them, but they continued to fill out scripts in the belief that it would ease my suffering while only making it worse.
The VA staff thought I could fend for myself with this magical collection of pill bottles. But even more shocking is the fact that nearly 68,000 veterans in VA care were addicted to opioids at the time — many because they were overprescribed.
To be sure, not all VA is broken. The majority of doctors and nurses who work in the hospitals and clinics care deeply about veterans and should get saints for the work they do. But there is no access to vital care. In my hometown of Jacksonville, North Carolina, there are two doctors for a town of thousands of veterans.
The fat-cat administrators who run the business also cash in on their bonuses. Executives took home $278 million in 2013 for the alleged work they had done. What if that money had been used for more doctors, nurses and psychologists?
Personally, I refuse to believe that the sacrifice of even one Marine was in vain. We have given Afghanistan a glimpse of freedom for 20 years.
Some Americans have good experiences with the VA and others just don’t need the care. Others struggle, like me, when it should be much easier. All veterans should be able to get a doctor’s appointment without waiting for weeks, and should be given the decency of good, attentive care after risking their lives thousands of miles away.
My anger at the way this country treats veterans – who claim to be heroes – is why I finally mustered the courage to tell my story in my book, The shot.
Now I know, more than ever, that my experience is one that needs to be shared and understood. There are men and women who need help now, and there will be many more in the future.