I AM A MARINE — a lieutenant colonel. I know about war. I have studied it for more than 20 years. I have been deployed overseas six times. Three times since 9/11.
Recently, I learned all about another part of war. I was badly wounded during a mortar attack in Iraq in October 2004. It is a traumatic brain injury. My left elbow also was busted. My left cheek has metal in it. It was tough to eat for awhile. It's hard to see.
But that stuff is irrelevant compared to the brain injury. A section of the left side of my brain is dead. I am learning to read and write again. It's tough. My third-grade son reads a lot better than me. Typing this article was exhausting.
But I have learned something too: what it is like to be a wounded warrior.
We tend not to complain about our injuries too much. Most of us know others who are worse off — a guy with a bad leg knows a guy who lost a leg, or both legs. I, with a brain that is "cracked," know youngsters with brain injuries who are unable to walk or talk. We all know someone who died. So, it is not a good thing to complain. We are tough guys. We are all going to whip it.
And that is because in the Corps, we really learn to be part of a team. Not like sports, where players switch teams for more money. I am talking about a life-and-death team. Warriors will not switch teams — if they can help it.
But when they are wounded, they have lost control. They are off the "A" team. All their friends will tell them, as they board the helicopter to fly away, to take care of themselves. Not to worry about the team. They'll be OK. But they want to be back with their team.
It is hard to talk about the injury itself. The guilt that comes from leaving your team in the combat zone. The frustration. And when you do complain to or talk with a noninjured person, it rarely goes well.
When you try to discuss your frustration, people talk positively. Upbeat. That is what good folks want to do. You try to tell them a negative thing that you are fighting with, something that is driving you nutty. Your friend, your wife will try to give you the positive side. Talk about how happy they are just to see you. Even if you cannot run. Or drive.
Use my vision as an example. It's not a complaint, just an example. When I woke up in Bethesda Naval Hospital, I had no vision in the right sides of either eye because of the brain injury. It was very frustrating, and scary. And confusing. So I would talk to a buddy, or my wife, or my mom. Think what you would have said: that I am lucky to be alive; that I can still see. And you do not want me to be depressed. You want to help me stay motivated. You want me to be positive.
And the goofy part? Marines do not whine. Therefore, I shall not whine. I agree with it all. I think it is good for us wounded Marines to whip it — the injury, the sadness and confusion. When you're in the hospital, your morale is OK. You are with other wounded warriors. You can chat about it. Sometimes we just look at each other in the hallway, and nod. That's all. Acknowledgment.
But once you are out of the hospital, it's tough. It sounds great on the day you leave. But there's irritation, frustration.
"Why is it taking so long to learn how to walk (read/see/eat/ …) again?" "Where is my team? How are they doing? Will I make it back to them in Iraq?" "Will my dang leg be good to go at least for the next deployment?"
We can do it. Deal with it. But it is a heck of a lot easier when you are with a teammate.
That, my friends, is why the Marine Corps built the Wounded Warrior barracks at Camp Lejeune, N.C. You can see other wounded warriors, talk about your situation. With someone who gets it. Who knows why you are pissed. You aren't whining, complaining. You are pissed! I get that. So am I.
We appreciate the visits we get, believe me. The commandant of the Marine Corps stops by to see how you are doing. So does the sergeant major. Celebrities. The secretary of Defense. The vice president of the United States. Awesome.
But, we still wonder how the team is. How are they doing? When can I rejoin? That is OK. Because now we are coming together. At the barracks, Marines are working, they are hanging out together, eating together, sharing frustration together. All of this until they can be back on their original team.
As I tell wounded Marines who are checking in: I am just on the "B" team. But so are they. Either way, we still get to be Marines. Semper fidelis.