I walked along the seemingly endless rows of white headstones, perfectly aligned in every direction. To my right, through the trees between two marble angels, I could see the church at Vierville-sur-Mer, the beacon that guided so many men across the French countryside after D-Day. Kneeling, I rubbed a crust of dirt away from one of the names. There, among 9,387 graves of the Normandy American Cemetery, the scope of just how many men were lost is overwhelming.
I wondered how they did it, how the veterans of World War II dealt with life after combat. I wondered how the friends of these fallen men lived with such a heavy burden. I found myself wishing there was some guidebook they had passed down imparting wisdom to those who would follow … This is what you do after war.
Unfortunately, I have found dealing with the aftermath of war is a private affair. Talking with those who have also been in combat brings respite, but still, no one else seems to comprehend exactly what you are going through. War is a tricky devil. The things you see, the things you do, affect each of us differently.
My unit, 3rd Marines, 5th Battalion, inherited our area of operations from the British Royal Marines. Almost a third of all casualties the U.K. suffered in Afghanistan came from their time spent in Sangin, Afghanistan. Sangin was a testing ground for improvised explosive devices. Insurgents quickly discovered ways around our use of metal detectors, opting to employ crude cardboard pressure plates with a connector small enough that the metal detectors wouldn’t pick it up. Below the pressure plates were homemade explosives packed into yellow cooking oil jugs. We encountered so many IEDs it felt like a blessing to actually get into a gunfight. By the end of the seven-month deployment, our unit suffered 25 killed in action and more than 200 wounded—the most from a single unit during Operation Enduring Freedom.
During my deployment I had to force all the death and carnage to the recesses of my mind. It is mandatory for survival. But at some point your mind forces you to deal with what happened and, most of the time, you do not have a choice about when to deal with it. It comes in your sleep. The memories will rear their ugly little heads when you least expect it. A certain smell can trigger a memory and all of a sudden you’re back in the fight, reliving moments of bullets and blood.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, a new term for an age-old trauma, has plagued warriors since the beginning of warfare. Over the years there have been many names for it. Regardless of the name, the attributes are the same.
It was not hard for me to acknowledge that there was something wrong after coming home from Afghanistan. The alcohol and pills were the only things that suppressed any of the angst. When I worked up the courage to attempt to explain what I was going through, I was met with looks of utter hopelessness—like pity, sorrow and despair all wrapped up in one. The look was usually accompanied by, “Well you should probably go talk to someone.” It was only natural for me to regress inwards.
Scenes from my deployment played continuously in my head on a daily basis—an infinite reel of adrenaline, horror and sorrow. I felt inadequate, like nothing would ever live up to the importance of our mission in Afghanistan. Only when the VA sent me my claims letter did I start to delve deeper into what exactly the PTSD diagnosis meant. Since this is an internal disorder, I assumed that it must, therefore, be solved internally. So, I read studies and accounts of other Marines and soldiers who had it and talked to psychologists. What I learned is that—even now—little is known about exactly what this disorder is or how to quell the symptoms and feelings associated with it.
I searched for some way to come to terms with what I was going through. Why I was still here when so many others had been taken before their time. The anxiety, depression and loneliness was compounding in my head, leading me further down a dark road. If I survived, there had to be some reason I was still here, something that meant I was not destined to be another lost veteran holding up a cardboard sign alongside the road.
After struggling alone for so long, I knew this was a journey I could not make myself.
While attending school on the GI Bill, I had the opportunity to complete a film project over the course of a semester. Two other classmates—Lexi Dakin, whose father is in the National Guard, and Rebecca Zantjer, who has no ties to military life—were intrigued. They and wanted to know more and to share this search into what exactly veterans go through after war. They were the first students I felt comfortable enough to share my past with.
We set out to delve into the story of my unit’s deployment—to tell the true story of 3/5 Marines in our own words, the good and the bad.
I reached out to my fellow Marines, enlisting three other Scout Snipers from my platoon to be part of the interview process, asking if they would share their struggles with postwar life. I hoped our voice would give others struggling with PTSD insight into what they were going through and help us find our peace as well.
At first I didn’t want to be in the film because I hated the idea of sharing what I was going through. I still felt like it was a weakness, something I had no control over. I feel like everyone knows that person who was in the military and keeps their experiences bottled up. I was the same. It was my burden to bear. Then I realized that I couldn’t ask my fellow Marines to open up without doing so myself.
I struggled throughout the film wondering if I was doing an injustice to the men in my unit by making it. I could never live with the idea that I had somehow tarnished the memory of those brave men or their families or the thought that asking my friends to relive those moments was only dragging them over the coals again.
Throughout the process I held on to the ideal that if this film helped even one person come to grips with what they were going through, then it was all justified. Shortly after the film was complete and posted online, I received an email from a fellow Marine.
“You put together something that helped bring into focus some of the feelings that I have felt, but did not know what to do with. It made me think a lot about my past actions and the effect it has had on my own family and friends. It made me know that there are other Marines going through the same thing when they are over there and when they come home. You have got a gift so keep doing what you are doing brother.”
For the first time since my deployment, I felt that I had done something that lived up to the brotherhood we hold so dear in the military. It gave me purpose and insight, something I had not experienced since Afghanistan. The process, and I know the same is true for my friends, has helped me to feel like it is no longer a burden that I have to bear alone.
Each veteran has to discover that thing that quells the stress of life after the military.
Writing has been my outlet, my way of deductive reasoning. By filling blank pages I can see what is in my head—as if seeing it there on paper makes it real. Taking the time to analyze what I am going through allows me to continue moving forward. Seeing how far I have come in the past couple of years gives me hope. It inspires me to share my story in hopes that others may benefit from the lessons I have learned.
Other times my prescription is physical activity. I recently became involved with an organization called Ride 2 Recovery that helps veterans heal through the sport of cycling. Whether their injury is mental or physical, these are people that understand what you are going through.
In true military fashion these are not short rides through the park but rather grueling multi-day rides where it is not uncommon to cover 100 miles in a single day, often traveling close to 500 miles in six or seven days. It is a place where veterans feel comfortable, where the rigors and trials of civilian life seem to melt away—a place where it is only you and the road and the person you are sharing it with. For many it has become a sanctuary.
One rider said a doctor told him he should not continue to ride due to a debilitating back injury. He told the doctor he might as well give him a gun to shoot himself with if he tried to take away his bike riding.
Ultimately, there is no guidebook for how to survive. Each veteran must take his or her own journey to find the thing or activity that brings back the ethos of the military. Help others, share your story, know that your greatest strength lies in the ability to adapt and survive in any situation. PTSD is just another hardship to overcome, one more long hike with a pack too heavy.
I often recall advice a fellow Marine once offered me.
“When the road is long and you don’t know how you can make it to the end, look down at your feet and with every step say to yourself, I’m still here, I’m still alive, because in life as it is in hikes, everything is manageable one step at a time.”
I recently dug out my old journals from the summer I spent in Europe retracing the path of the allies as they fought their way south into Germany. On the day in Normandy I wrote, “The serenity that I felt in that cemetery will never be duplicated. Never have I felt such a deep peace in all my life. Looping back towards the western side near the woods I stopped looked up and somehow was completely alone. I heard a gentle breeze push through the trees and suddenly even though I was alone I felt surrounded. It was the safest, most comforting feeling I have ever experienced in my life.”
When I take time to remember those lost, there is peace because, in those moments, I am grateful for the life I still have. That solace cannot be duplicated.
—Logan S. Stark, a Marine veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, is currently studying professional writing at Michigan State University. He recently completed For the 25, a documentary about the experience of 3/5 Marines serving in Sangin, Afghanistan.