Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Humanity Shield

I’ve heard it a million times. “Boot camp brainwashes you!” Normally it isn’t said with an exclamation mark, at least not to my face, for obvious reasons. And I’ve heard the stories of friends who joined the Marines and “came back from boot camp a different person.” But I always resented the term “brainwash” being applied to something I had been through. I still have a very dirty mind, after all.

My explanation has always been that they don’t brainwash you, or even break you down and build you back up as a Marine, but rather scrub away your bad habits, and replace them with Marine Corps approved good habits. Most of these are genuinely good features for a decent human being to have. Marines are not only subjected to intense physical training, but taught that it is important to challenge yourself every day and to maintain a body that is always ready for anything.

Marines are imbued with a sense of self-sacrifice and service. This is reflected in our belief in community service. I have personally been involved in a number of Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots events. There is also a sense of heritage and respect that for those that have gone before us. We are the only branch of the service that has regular history classes as part of our basic training. And there are always the oft-repeated “Corps Values” of honor, courage, and commitment.

My tattoo reads, “For those who fight for it, life has a special flavor the protected never know.” I first saw this at Camp Pendleton when I was fourteen at the Devil Pups junior boot camp “citizenship and fitness program.” I came home and told my dad I just had to have this tattoo. He said if I could boil it down to five words, I could get it. Unfortunately, the phrase is an important part of the Marine Corps heritage. It originated in Vietnam and became a popular thing to write on one’s flak jacket or helmet. After I joined and saw all my friends getting their “hoorah tats” I knew that I had earned this one.

But clearly, the experience of boot camp changes you. Marines are also trained to kill. And part of that training is psychological. We are imbued with the ability to be very callous when we need to. We are not only armed with M-16s and K-BARs and machine guns, but we are given a shield with which to protect our humanity from whatever horrors we may encounter in the course of serving as weapons of our democracy. In times of peace, most Marines are able to go about their lives without ever raising that shield.

When the shield comes up, it is very effective. “The deadliest thing in the world is a Marine and his rifle.” When there is no room for hesitation, when it is kill or be killed, that shield is what keeps Marines alive. But it is not easy to take down. In Iraq, the reason mental health has become such an issue, is because there is no “rear,” there is no place to take a break, and there is no time to truly relax and think that you are safe. The threat of a mortar landing on your head at any time is literally a constant fear. At least my team did not have the luxury of spending our days in the Green Zone, in a reinforced bomb shelter.

With the shield up for so long, it is often difficult to bring it down. It means becoming vulnerable again, and becoming human again. When I came back from Iraq, I had a hard time adjusting. It took me about three months to really feel comfortable where I was, going to class, interacting with friends, things we take for granted. I would often wake up well before my alarm with a sense of urgency, thinking that I had to be somewhere and not be able to go back to sleep. I had occasional anxiety attacks. When bumped into from behind, I would find myself grabbing for the butt of my pistol where it would have been on my hip, not in aggression, but to protect it as we did when amid crowds of Iraqis.

I understood that what I was experiencing was “normal combat stress,” the symptoms of which persist for six to twelve weeks. It was not PTSD, I was sure of that. The reason it never became PTSD was because I kept the shield up. I kept it up for three more semesters and another year of active duty. I kept it up until after I got discharged last November. In fact, I was so comfortable behind it, that instead of going home to be with my family. I stayed at the house of a fellow Marine off base, sleeping on his couch so that I could keep working out at the gym on base and be with my Marine friends.

When I came to DC, I knew that I had to be involved somehow. I didn’t know IVAW existed, but I came across the website one night in February by accident. At first, I was apprehensive about being active. I spoke at a few events before participating in Operation First Casualty. That was when the shield really started to come down. That was when I got to become human again.

I went home that night and read over and over the story of Jonathan Shulze1 and couldn’t stop crying. For the next week, I spent my nights at my computer, sobbing uncontrollably. I read the story of Carlos Arredondo2. I had seen the coverage when his story was first on the news and saw the twisted version that America got. I felt sorry for him, but fuck it, it didn’t affect me. Then rereading the story over and over, and feeling his pain, I cried. I watched the “Before You Enlist” video and thought about how I had encouraged my brother to join the Army only months before and I cried.

I read the story of Cindy Sheehan, who I had been aware of, but never bothered to relate to. I saw a video of her in Crawford, where a young Marine “counter-protester” said to the press that her son was an “acceptable loss.” Cindy put her arm around him and led him off to speak with him privately. I couldn’t hear any of the words, but I knew exactly what she was saying to him and I cried. I realized how callous I had been to my own mother about being deployed and being ready to go back and I called her and apologized.

I think I am most of the way through this process of bringing down the shield, but it’s hard to say. I know of some Marines who have come home and never take it down, never get to go through this process. Some of them drink themselves to into oblivion instead. Some get to take it down slowly. But it is now that I am putting my experience back into context with my humanity, that I am experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, if only slightly. I used to tell people that I didn’t see anything too traumatic, and that I don’t have flashbacks, but now I cannot say that without certain incidents coming to mind.

This is what it means to be human. This is what it means to be vulnerable. I have spent my entire adult life up to this point carrying around the shield, but I’m done. I hope I never have to even pick it up again. As one of the Vietnam Veterans who participated in Operation Dewey Canyon III said before throwing his medals back at the Capitol, “We don’t want to fight anymore, but if we do, it’ll be to take these steps!” This is our fight now.

1. Jonathan Shulze is the Marine from Minnesota who was suffering from PTSD and was turned down twice by the VA after telling them he was suicidal. He killed himself the next day.

2. Carlos Arredondo’s son was killed in Iraq in August 2004. When he was notified by three local Marine reservists, he asked them leave his house. They refused and he took a hammer to their government van. He then retrieved a can of gasoline, and in an attempt to light the van on fire, also suffered severe burns over most of his body. He is now an active anti-war protester, and a personal friend of mine.