Veterans Day 2015: Ex-Marine asks ‘How heavy is thy burden?”

In this 2014 photo, Growing Veterans Director Chris Brown, left, talks to veteran Billy Pacaccio while processing lettuce at the nonprofit program’s organic farm south of Lynden. The program has won a three-year, $175,000 grant to train veterans to be effective “peer supporters” for other veterans.
In this 2014 photo, Growing Veterans Director Chris Brown, left, talks to veteran Billy Pacaccio while processing lettuce at the nonprofit program’s organic farm south of Lynden. The program has won a three-year, $175,000 grant to train veterans to be effective “peer supporters” for other veterans. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

How heavy is my burden? I prefer to use the analogy of a bag of rocks that I carry over my shoulder. It is with me everywhere I go. Some rocks are bigger than others, but collectively they weigh enough to make me want to drop my pack every now and then.

The tough part is, I’m afraid to lose those rocks. I’m afraid to lose them because of what they have done to shape my character and who I am as a man. So instead of dropping them aside and leaving them forgotten, I try to pass some of them off to folks like you, through writing or telling stories, to help lighten the load and make the pack “wearable”.

If you’re willing, please feel free to help me carry some of this burden. … Before doing so, you’ll probably want to know — what do these rocks represent?

In September of 2004 I enlisted as an infantryman in the U.S. Marines. The war in Iraq was still pretty fresh. By the time I made it to Iraq, it was the spring of 2005.

We served the first half of our tour in Fallujah, providing security for the locals. I was able to watch buildings being rebuilt from the large battles that occurred in the city within the previous year and we were able to provide security for the first-ever democratic elections that the citizens had been a part of.

The second half of my deployment we spent in rural farmlands, digging up weapons caches along the Euphrates River — backbreaking and nerve-wracking work. Before we transitioned out of Fallujah, my squad was attacked in the middle of the night by an RPG attack combined with small arms and machine gun fire. One of my friends was wounded from the RPG and it changed all of us a bit.

When I talk about my three deployments, I always say that this first one wasn’t too bad, because, compared to the others, it wasn’t. We came home in early 2006 and I was deployed back to the same area again in 2007.

The second deployment for me was the toughest. Upon returning to the same area, we discovered that al-Qaida cells had moved in and were recruiting out of local markets. They were running checkpoints on the roads and were not allowing local villagers to go to the market to buy food. They had set up kill houses and torture houses. They would leave dead bodies lying on the side of the road. It was like the Wild West combined with your worst nightmare.

We spent nearly all of that deployment patrolling out of Iraqi homes that we set up as patrol bases and we moved from house to house every few days as an effort to prevent the enemy from planning a coordinated attack on us.

Our mission was to find IEDs (roadside bombs) and bad guys before they found us, but it didn’t normally work that way. Our unit “took contact” or “engaged the enemy” nearly every day for that entire deployment. This deployment was during the famous “troop surge.”

My wife and family would watch casualty reports on the news on a weekly basis, afraid it might be me each time. Sometimes it was my friends.

Finally, with less than a month left in our deployment, I would be one of those numbers — I was injured during a suicide bombing, followed by a complex attack on our patrol base. My friends were losing their limbs, their minds, their lives, and their innocence — I was not alone.

For all that sacrifice, at least I could say that we helped turn the tide in the war and empowered local militias to stand up and fight against al-Qaida on their own. It’s saddening to see much of that work lost to ongoing current events right now.

In 2008 my unit was the first of two Marine units to go into Afghanistan. We were pushed out to the “front lines” against the Taliban. North of us, and really everything around us besides the nearest base that was nearly 20 miles away, was Taliban country.

We were undersupplied, undersupported, and asked to do a nearly impossible mission. The work that the men in my unit did on that deployment is going to be in history books one day, I hope. Examples of actions taken by our guys during that deployment are already being used at the Marine Corps’ School of Infantry to teach new infantrymen how to fight war.

Many men died on those deployments, but the one that hit me the hardest was Sgt. Matthew Mendoza, in Afghanistan. One of the few who had been on all three deployments that I had been on, he also was a squad leader, in the position I probably would have had if I wasn’t a “partial deployer” (I was sent home early due to the end of my enlistment contract).

Hearing the news of Mendoza’s death over the radio was like being hit with a ton of rocks. I carried guilt with me for the longest time — and although I’ve done a lot of work to come to grips with it, I still feel that guilt every now and then. Mendoza’s wife and family would never see him again, outside of their dreams. Why were my family and I so lucky?

After talking with several of my friends who served with us, I have since learned the guilt that it “should have been me” is shared by all of them. I’m not alone in this burden.

After an honorable discharge in 2008 I wasn’t sure what to do with my life. What is one who has experienced so much trauma, combat, and suffering supposed to do in this society?

My wife encouraged me to go to school, where I started to take interest in pursuing an education and career that would teach me how to understand myself, the struggle that vets like me face, and what we can do about it. Within the first few quarters of school, after living with the extreme guilt of being the one who made it home and wondering why, I made the decision to dedicate my life to getting better and to helping other vets do the same.

Since I was one of the ones who made it home, I wanted to make sure my life was lived in a way that would honor their sacrifice and make sure that the deaths of my unit’s “41 fallen” were not in vain. That’s a heavy burden to carry, but I chose to do it with honor.

It has been over six years now since I got out of the Marines. I still feel the same way. I probably always will. The burden is reaffirmed every time I hear the news of one of our guys committing suicide. Within the past year, three of my friends have done so. Since I got out, nearly 15 Marines from my unit have committed suicide.

Combine the experiences I just shared with six years of a college education learning about psychology, social systems, PTSD and the human condition — and countless hours of thoughtful reflection about myself and my peers — and I have a hard time thinking of anything but the origins of the bag full of rocks that we carry.

When a veteran comes home from enduring such trauma, they discover that we are less than 1 percent of the population and the only ones many of us think we can relate to are our battle buddies who now live several hundred miles away.

We see the experiences we went through forgotten, ignored, or belittled. We see the progress and sacrifices we made lost to terrorists again. We learn of our friends committing suicide — being constantly reminded of the guilt, trauma, or shame that we carry.

Many veterans carry this burden without doing the necessary psychological work with a counselor or a friend who has, so it is no wonder that we have 22 veteran suicides per day in this country.

It is no wonder, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Some of the things we tell ourselves as veterans just aren’t true: Often times there actually are veterans nearby, right where we live, who understand. We don’t realize that there are many members in our community who actually do care about our experiences — the only way to find them is to reach out and get involved.

There is nothing we can do about events outside of our small circle of influence, so let those negative thoughts pass and stay the course. Be there for each other. Be proactive, not reactive. Keep each other accountable.

Most important, if the trauma you’ve experienced is having a negative effect on your life or the people around you, do the hard work to process your trauma and make it more manageable — talk to a professional or a person who has done that hard work in order to gain insight about yourself and to add tools to your toolbox.

And keep at it — this is a lifelong process. Learn how to take some of those burdensome rocks out of your pack and share them in a healthy way with the people around you. I promise, if you persevere, the weight of the burden will become lighter.

By reading this, you are helping shoulder my burden — you are helping take some of the rocks out of my pack. By sharing this, I am helping myself take some of the rocks out and, hopefully, I am providing an example for other vets who are suffering to do the same.

Some warrior cultures tell their warriors who return home to “share your story with 10 people per day, for 10 days.” Such a simple concept, but incredibly powerful.

In sharing our stories, we are shedding some of the burden and allowing others to help us carry it. By learning to articulate our struggle, we no longer have to worry about feeling misunderstood or alone.

We are also able to teach ourselves trust, humility, honesty, vulnerability, and compassion — all are necessary to a healthy healing process for folks who have been through trauma.

Thank you for helping me carry some of these rocks. I think I’ll be able to carry this pack for quite some time now.

A graduate of Western Washington University, Chris Brown is the founder and director of Growing Veterans, a Whatcom County nonprofit program that helps military veterans ease back into civilian life while growing healthy vegetables for the community. For information about Growing Veterans, call 360-333-7712 or see growingveterans.org.