November has long since held a special spot for me. The temperature in South Florida dips into the brisk mid 80’s (can you say sweater weather!!), and of course, Thanksgiving with friends and family (and let’s be honest, Turkey Day NFL hits different). But for a long time, those things have taken a backseat to two very important days each November.
As some of you may or may not know, I am a United States Marine Corps Veteran. And every November 10th, Marines celebrate our birthday. The United States Marine Corps was founded on November 10, 1775. And where else would the birthplace of one of history’s greatest, most notable/notorious military forces be born? But IN A BAR. As legend has it, The USMC was founded at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia. How fitting.
And of course, we have Veterans Day. A day in which our GREAT Nation shows it’s appreciation for their Veterans, past and present. It’s a day for all Veterans to get together and be proud of their service, tell a tall tale or two and if you have the time, maybe a free meal at a Golden Corral. Even though I usually skip that part.
However, for the better part of 15 years, these two days have not always been filled with laughs, BBQ’s, and fond memories for this Marine. Somewhere along the way, I lost that sense of pride. In not only being a Veteran, but also as a United States Marine. And for anyone that has ever met a Marine, we carry that title with a FIERCE sense of pride. The bravado is what some may call, “obnoxious”. But, I digress.
A lot of people have asked me, “Why The Marines of all branches?! You all are lunatics!” And they may be right. But, if you had asked me in 1999 why I joined, I would have told you it was hereditary. My dad was a Marine. He served two combat tours in Vietnam as a Marine Grunt. So, maybe I wanted to carry on the legacy? Or maybe, just maybe I was trying to fill a void. See, my dad passed away when I was about 1.5 years old, unfortunately. So, he wasn’t there to push me in that direction. And I had other relatives that had joined The Marines, also. But they were not really present in my life growing up, either. So where did it come from, you ask? When I made the decision to join (not the happiest of moments for my mother), it was because at that point in my life I did not feel as though I was a man. I felt I lacked the customary “coming into manhood” moment we all would see on TV, movies, and in books we read growing up. Now, let me just put this out there…my mom would eventually remarry, and my stepdad did everything he could to help take care of my mother, sister and I. He really did. And he did a damn good job. But he and I always had a kind of disconnect. We never formed that strong father/son relationship…in the American sense, at least. He was European and I was Apple Pie. Soccer vs. Football. Wine vs. Whiskey. And I felt as though I lacked a lot of those proud “father and son” coming of age moments. Camping trips, learning to change my oil, shoot my first gun (actually, my mother taught me that – she was a helluva sharpshooter in her day, and quite the skeet shooter, might I add). So, as I neared my senior year in high school, I decided joining the Corps would give me what I wanted.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed most of my time spent in the Marines. And, I did in fact get some of those life lessons. I got to go camping (A LOT), fire weapons (A LOT) and, well, drink whiskey, (you guessed it) A LOT. There was only one period of my time in that I didn’t really care for. That period was 2003. That was when I got an all-expenses paid trip to Iraq.
In 2003, like most of the military, I was deployed to Kuwait in support of the buildup that would eventually become Operation Iraqi Freedom. And my unit was some of the first to make our way into Iraq. I was now in war. The brevity of my life decision making skills had come full force. But, this is what I asked for, right? What better way to secure your spot in manhood, than war. My unit was to make a direct path to Baghdad and clear anything that got in our way. I was a .50 cal gunner in a Humvee, and one night we got word over the radio that my vehicle needed to push forward to provide security for some Blackhawks coming in to evacuate some downed Marines. Mind you, it’s the middle of the night and we are obviously not running with headlights on. My driver and Staff Sergeant had on night vision goggles, but not me. In typical Marine Corps fashion, there were not enough to go around. En route to our position, my driver saw what he thought was a shadow on the floor of the desert. It was not a shadow, it was an empty five-foot-deep tank ditch. Next thing I knew, I was being taken out of my turret and placed on a sand berm. I had taken quite the impact. When I came to, I thought I was in California doing desert exercises. After much convincing, I realized I was in fact not in California, but in a war in the Middle East.
Those Blackhawks I mentioned? Well, I became a passenger on one of ‘em. I was taken out to a field hospital to “get better.” Basically I got stuck at a place very confused, hurt and not knowing a single soul around me. But I knew my brothers were out there. And they were fighting without me. I felt alone and useless. I pleaded daily to get back north to rejoin them, almost to the point of getting a court martial proceeding. Then one day there, I got the news I didn’t want to hear. My unit had been involved in an intense firefight with the enemy. And there were casualties, including a bright, up-and-coming Marine Officer, Lt. Brian McPhillips. Who, tragically, was KIA while manning a .50 cal. When I heard that, I almost immediately started blaming myself. That it should have been me. I should have been in that .50. Not him. Not anyone. And it has stayed that way ever since.
For years and years, I blamed myself. Said I should have been out there. That some bullsh*t car accident shouldn’t have prevented me from being out there with them. That I was less of a Marine because of this. That I would never “Level Up” with my brothers. That I would never carry on my father’s legacy as a Marine. That I wasn’t a man. The one thing I sought to gain through all of this, was again taken away from me.
When I got out of The Marines, I decided to completely distance myself from all things military. I decided that time was in my past, and I didn’t want to carry on with it. After all, there was nothing prestigious or courageous that I had done. I wouldn’t even tell some of my co-workers. I was ashamed. And, I had that mentality that if I just didn’t talk about it, it would just go away. Because that’s what happens, right? It goes away? We all know that is not the case. And after years and years of denial and self-torment, it finally caught up to me. I had become a miserable shell of a human being. With a raging drinking problem, to boot.
Drinking for fun had long been gone for me. It was now a coping mechanism. It was a way to feel “normal”. To forget. And even though I used it to numb me, it was the only way I could feel emotion. The times I have cried as a grown man, have mainly been done whilst drinking. My depression and anxiety had escalated to toxic isolation. I would miss out on holidays, important events in my friend’s and family’s lives. Hell, in MY life. I had gotten to the point that a few years back, I came to terms I would not live to see the age of forty. Therefore, I stopped caring about things that all of my friends were doing and achieving. A mortgage? No way. Let my credit plummet. I’m not gonna need it, anyways. A relationship, marriage, children? No way!! Why would I even think of that! None of that matters if you’re not going to be alive in five years.
Fast forward to 2020. I was at my bottom. I was living in my sister’s house on the couch. I had just lost my job in Orlando because of how bad I had gotten. Not just my drinking, but my mental health, as well. My bosses became concerned for my wellbeing. And I had become a liability. And they were right. Everyone was right. I needed help. But, there is a big difference between asking for help and receiving it. While I was in therapy at the V.A. I was still not fully convinced I needed it. I was still in denial. And I was only getting worse. Right in front of my own family’s eyes.
Then it happened. Something came over me one night, while doing shots of Jager out of a dirty laundry hamper. I asked myself, “Mike. What are you going to do? Are you going to live out your prophecy of being dead by 40? A wasted life? Nothing to show for? Or are you going to do something about it?”
For the first time in my life, I truly acted like a man. I asked for help. I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I was WAY too far off. Fortunately enough for me, I have a great friend of over twenty years now, that got me into Transformations. For a while she had been dropping subtle hints to me about this place she worked at in Delray that had a great Veterans program called, “Help for Our Heroes”. I had always dismissed it because of my denial. When I arrived at Transformations, it was weird. All the Veterans seemed to gravitate towards one another. Like, we all knew. And almost instantly, I felt something. I felt a sense of belonging. I felt safe. And it helped ease my anxiety that I wasn’t alone. Like I had felt at that field hospital. I was amongst my own. And we were all in it together. We were again, fighting for our lives. And we were leaving no man behind. And, with the help of Carlos and the rest of the HFOH team, I began to heal. I began talking. I began learning. I began becoming the man I had wanted to be. The man my father(s) would have wanted me to be.
When I left treatment last summer I made a vow to myself. To keep learning and improving on myself. To continue helping myself. And to help others. Veteran or not. But, with a heavy emphasis on other Veterans. I knew there were others out there, just like me. Going through what I was going through. And what I am STILL going through. And that even if I were to help one Veteran, I would be content. But if I had the opportunity to help multitudes of Veterans….I may be happy.
I never imagined the toughest battle I would have been involved in would have come to me while at home. But it did. And thankfully, I learned to ask and receive help. And it is my honor and privilege to be in the position I am, today. Helping others HELPS ME.
So gone are the Veterans Days and Marine Corps Birthdays of self-pity and self-destruction. No more. For the second year, I will be giving back. Doing my best to help my brothers and sisters in arms. Being the man I never thought I would live to see. And I have Transformations and Help for Our Heroes, along with the guidance of Carlos and others to thank for a lot of it.
Before my father’s passing, he wrote me a letter wishing everything in life he wanted for me. And I will leave you with what he left me in the closing of that letter. Because it finally happened when I found my way.
“Be a Man. Love, Dad”.