The terrible thing about combat is the thoughts that come afterward. In the moment, you don’t think.
You make decisions, you carry them out. Only later do you wish you had done it differently.
On November 26, 2004, I had a gut instinct that I should have fired a rocket into a building prior to the squad making entry. If I had, an incredible Marine might still be alive. He was killed by an insurgent as he kicked open the door.
November is a terrible month for me. It is littered with such memories, the kind I would give anything to forget. I can’t begin to count the nightmares, flashbacks and angry outbursts I’ve had over the years during the 30 days of this month.
My combat days are behind me now, but I find that I’m still trying to save myself—and still trying to save my Marines.
In November 2004, my battalion lost 17 men, many of them my friends, during Operation Phantom Fury. It was not only the largest battle during the Iraq War, but the largest since Hue City in Vietnam.
In November 2006, my good friend Gary Koehler was killed in Iraq. Though he was one of my peers, I saw him as a mentor. We called him Gare Bear because of a teddy bear he had tattooed on his arm. His loss dealt a significant blow to the entire unit.
In November 2010, a rocket-propelled grenade struck just feet from where I stood during a foot patrol in Afghanistan. I sustained a traumatic brain injury. It’s a miracle I survived.
The injury meant that I now had an “Alive Day.” Many wounded service members have adopted this phrase and celebrate their day annually. It has been two years since I was injured, and both of my Alive
Days found me in a grumpy silence. I still don’t know how to deal with the memory of almost dying. I suppose I will struggle with it for a long time.
Therapy has been instrumental in making each November less troublesome for me. For nearly a year and a half, I have participated in prolonged exposure therapy, repeatedly telling my traumatic stories in order to desensitize myself.
On November 1, 2010, I was not the only one injured from my squad. Three other Marines suffered TBIs in separate blasts. One of them, Mike, was my lead man on patrols. Though it was his first deployment, his tactical knowledge and sound mind put him ahead of his peers. I relied on him daily and he never failed me.
Mike—the name is a pseudonym used at his request—recovered from his TBI and deployed again to
Afghanistan again in 2011, while I was home, focusing on my therapy. His second TBI came that October in an explosion that killed his interpreter.
Mike and I forged a bond while we served together. We stayed in touch through emails while he was deployed in 2011 and we have met up since his return. He is not the same person. He looks and talks like shell of the man he I knew. Others have noticed, too.
I’ve told him about my successes in therapy, but he won’t go. I’m at a loss. I don’t know what I can do to get the old Mike back.
When you are a squad leader, you are in charge of many Marines. You are responsible for their safety and well being. It is your job to get them home alive. I was fortunate that all of my Marines came home—maybe not the same as they once were but home nonetheless. Watching Mike self-destruct has been more painful than reliving my own traumatic memories. It’s a helpless feeling.
On the first anniversary of his 2011 injury, his Alive Day, Mike went out drinking. He felt indestructible.
He got behind the wheel and made it back to his base before he was arrested for drunken driving. He has ruined his promising, and decorated, military career.
The Mike I remember would never have done that.
This is the story for too many veterans. I’ve seen my peers, my subordinates and my superiors tear themselves apart as they struggle with their combat experiences. I’ve done it myself. An Alive Day is a celebration for some. For others, it is reliving a nightmare.
I will keep trying to get Mike into therapy. He is a good man, a strong man. He is a man who has lived through terrible situations and deserves to treat himself better.
I still have an obligation to keep him safe. I plan to do just that.
Thomas James Brennan is a sergeant in the Marine Corps. He served both in Iraq and Afghanistan with the First Battalion, Eighth Marines. Now 27, he is stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He is a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Follow him on Twitter at @thomasjbrennan.