The conditions under which I joined the Marine Corps weren’t the best. They weren’t admirable. It was mostly desperation to make something out of my life since I had failed miserably at being a college student. I tried to disguise it as some laudable action that I really cared about my country and all the freedoms we are fortunate to have. In reality, I had squandered opportunities and burned a few bridges, so I figured the Marine Corps could serve as a lifesaver of sorts to help get me back on track. The first year was tough, but eventually I settled into everything and found my groove. I finished my degree, deployed to Kuwait, changed duty stations three times and met some incredible people I will always call friends along the way. The Marine Corps transformed me, even though I thought I could remain the same, I came out the other side a much better person. The Marine Corps saved my life.
As big of a mistake as I thought I made when I first stood on the yellow footprints at Parris Island, I did enjoy my time in the Marine Corps. Setting up and fixing Vietnam Era computer networks for Air Traffic Controllers wasn’t as bad as it sounded. However, when the option came to get out a little early, I jumped at the opportunity. My degree was finished, my MOS was getting phased out, and I thought I was ready to be a civilian again. As soon as my Voluntary Early Exit Release Program (sounds like an inmate getting out for good behavior) package was approved, I had tunnel vision. Whatever box I had to check, gear I had to turn in or Commanding Officer I had to stand in front of I was game. When my time came to drive off base for the last time, I didn’t look back. The problem was, I didn’t look that far forward either. There was a small semblance of a plan that included going to school at some point. My ma flew out to Vegas and she and I made the cross-country journey back to Ohio. However, when I arrived there I truly lost my way.
In many ways the Marine Corps was a safety net for me. I had a structure I thrived in and the Marine Corps values to guide me when I thought I might have a lapse in judgment. Each day was different, but in the familiar confines of my Marine Corps bubble I clearly understood what was expected of me and what mission I needed to execute. I wasn’t sure what being done with my service meant, but I felt like a crustacean that molts its shell. Although on the exterior I looked much the same, on the inside I was vulnerable. I was susceptible to all the pressure and uncertainty of the civilian world.
As I went through the first few months of my new job as an underwriter for Nationwide, I found it increasingly difficult to communicate with my co-workers. There were times I would have a question about something but I was frozen in my chair. I’d stare at my screen for thirty minutes before I could work up the courage to ask someone for help. I started to feel anxious, and started to shut down at work, always trying to be by myself, not wanting to talk to anyone. Those were the bad days. The good days felt much different, they were shimmers of hope. It still felt as if I could be a normal person. The good days didn’t last long and there was increasing frustration like I didn’t fit into the mold of corporate America. I began to doubt my intelligence, my self-worth, my discipline, my work ethic, my kindness and my ability to function on my own. I was cold-hearted - trying to disagree, downplay and keep everyone away. I couldn’t socialize at work, but I felt like I put pressure on myself to go out and try to socialize and drink and party outside of work because that’s what everyone was doing, but I took it too far.
I had begun to look at myself as one of those statistics in the studies you read about veterans coming home that usually has the words “high risk behavior,” in it several times. But I wasn’t coming back from combat, I only deployed to Kuwait and I didn’t have PTS. I was also hanging out with people that enabled my destructive behavior. Around this same time, in February of 2016, a friend of mine called to say one of the Marines we served with had committed suicide. He had recently separated and moved back to the East coast, only a few months after I had left the same base. A few weeks later, a childhood friend did the same thing. I went to the VA to speak with someone because it was a difficult topic to broach, even with my close friends. I also didn’t want anyone to know, I felt like I needed to keep this private. After a few sessions with the VA counselor, I didn’t feel much better. I didn’t actually get to speak with a licensed therapist, these were screening sessions to see if there was a need for me to speak with someone at a higher echelon. I came away from the two sessions I had with a great deal of resentment. My depression, sadness and anxiety bred more depression, sadness and anxiety. I resented myself for not being able to deal with the emotions I had. People say, “It’s okay to let yourself be sad.” I knew that; that’s the reason I was there. But I didn’t know how to handle these feelings properly. The other veterans I saw were doing so well, why was this so hard for me? The combination of unhealthy coping mechanisms and my indignance was lethal.
Sometimes it’s easier to figure out what you don’t want to do, which will lead you to what you are passionate about. Despite not always being able to help myself, I did enjoy helping others. That’s what the Marine Corps is all about. I knew I liked working out as well. It was the one aspect of the structured military I really embraced and carried with me. My days as a Personal Lines Underwriter were numbered and I was fortunate to be accepted to grad school in Brooklyn for exercise science with a focus on special population fitness. I wanted to be able to help people that had barriers to physical activity live a better quality of life. I was happy because I began to see that the person I had become in Columbus was not the person that I wanted to be and it wasn’t the person that left the Marine Corps a year and a half earlier. I was also excited that there was something to look forward to and I began to feel more excitement than anxiousness. I felt like I finally made the right decision.
It’s easy to make the right choice in the Marine Corps, you have the core values of honor, courage and commitment to guide you. If you forget, they’re on almost every sign, banner and staircase on base. When I left I needed to embrace my own values, but I was confused about the person I was supposed to be and the person I wanted to be. I felt pressure internally and externally to go out and drink, but that was far from the person I knew in the Marines. For example, at my last Marine Corps Ball, I was the Designated Driver and it was the best. I went from an environment I thrived in to the civilian world where I didn’t seem to fit. I wasn’t living according to any values and I wasn’t willing to show any vulnerability. What I did have was a growing excitement about moving, starting school and my future. I started to become motivated again, and I started to reflect on my service more positively.
When I arrived in NYC, I was still excited but it was a big change. I was used to change in the Marine Corps so I was ready to adapt. I had known a few people here before I moved, but I had to be more dependent on myself if I wanted to flourish. There were some tough days when I hated the city, but others when I loved it. As up and down as the first few months were, I met some really incredible people. These were people that I could relate to and began to share stories with and I could get fresh new perspectives from. This was much like military. This was unlike my time in Ohio. I began to meet my new self for the first time. This was the person that was supposed to come to Ohio, but he got knocked off-course. The Marine Corps changed me in many ways, it took me when I was at my lowest point and altered the direction of my life. At first, I rejected the person who came out on the other side, but I finally took the time to accept this new version and listen to what I was passionate about. The military constantly gets you outside of your comfort zone, which is great because that’s how you grow. Now, I can look back on my service with a fresh lens and fully understand what it meant. The transition is big, but not impossible, it’s just a different comfort zone to develop. It affects everyone differently no matter what, when and where you served. It took me a while, but I was finally able to embrace my improved post-military self and let everyone else see this version as well.
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