Ryan Berg is a former U.S. Marine Corps combat infantryman and deployed twice to Iraq. In 2004, he was with 2/24 Echo company, Weapons Platoon, in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. In 2006, he served with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and was in Fallujah, Ramadi and Al Asad.
He studied rhetoric at UC Berkeley and completed his MA in Leadership Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California. He is most interested in understanding the ways that the system of patriarchy in America affects male military Veterans – and argues that this system is fundamental in perpetuating suicides in the Veteran community. He is married to his wife Nataly, and lives in the SF Bay Area.
Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.
The first time I saw a Marine I was seven years old at a college baseball game at Rosenblatt Stadium in my hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. They were in the outfield, frozen, wearing crisp white pants, holding a rifle salute during the national anthem. It captivated me as I locked my gaze onto them. “What are they?” How do they stand so still?” I thought. I just stared and remember feeling deeply touched by their grace, even as the wind blew.
The next time I would encounter the Marines would be exactly a decade later in the halls of my high school as they recruited students brave enough to make the choice. I felt intrigued by their appearance – they were mysterious, professional, handsome, strong, and shared worldly stories of the sea, adventure, and mischief.
In between these two experiences, towards the beginning of my adolescence, I met another Marine who would frequently visit me in the form of a yellowed newspaper clipping that had printed on it the image below, followed by a brief description of his service and moreso who he’d left behind. I would stare into his eyes while adoring the smirk on his face, and allow my mind to wander to imagine what the end of his life was like. I’d be transported back to those deadly islands, hearing gun fire, explosions, feeling his fear, sensing the texture of his boots on Japanese sands, replaying the moment when the first bullet struck him, my body re-enacting the pain he must have felt while lying on the ground, his agony while looking up at the blue sky, gasping for air, fading out, realizing he was dying right there – right now. “What did he think or feel in that moment?” I thought. Did he hope decades later a future relative who needed him would find his life and service an inspiration? Was he assured, in his final thought that someone, someday, would write about the influence his short life had on them, his tragic and painful death touching them, his achievements, bravery, and youthful sacrifice honored – while ultimately, loving him?
While Bert definitely played some part in me joining the Marines, I also must acknowledge that I enlisted because I wanted to distinguish myself. I wanted to feel worthy. I wanted to be loved and adored. Respected. I also unconsciously thought at the time, “If I do this and die along the way, at least I will have played some part in giving pride to my family name.” Realizing this now, over a decade after I’ve gotten out, foregrounds the shame I’ve carried, my longing for love, inherent lack of self-worth, and a previously incessant desire to remain comfortably “dug in” within my Marine Corps identity.
The Marine Corps was the perfect hiding place or “replacement” for a shameful self – I mean, after graduating from bootcamp and two deployments, I warranted wearing a beautiful Marine Corps uniform, ribbons, badges, shiny medals – and I could forever hold an honorable place in society cemented by global military service and violence on my country’s behalf. Unfortunately, I found that even this didn’t fill the void I entered with. I still didn’t like or love myself very much, not to mention the fact that I left the military even more emotionally crippled, self-mutilated, and disconnected from myself than before I joined.
While there are undeniably many positive, life-nurturing and adaptive values that are cultivated in the service, there are also many others which aren’t entirely supportive of personal growth after discharge – namely, the tendency for: domination, superiority, control, violence, shame, obedience, fear, destruction of willpower, anger, rage, warfare, emotional neglect, and indoctrination, among others. While I can understand why an organization focused on killing other human beings, and winning wars, might choose to prioritize these values, I have found that they often don’t work well when trying to apply them to the transition to a healthy and productive civilian life.
The Marine Corps is a highly male-dominated culture, much like American society, and has very little space for healing values like emotional awareness and expression, tenderness, sensitivity, flexibility, openness, vulnerability, self-acceptance, self-intimacy, genuine care, wholeness, happiness, thinking, well-being, critique, humanity, nurturance, playfulness, relationships, truth, talking, and ultimately: love.
In order to continue evolving from who I was prior to and after being in the military, above all, I must continue to learn, integrate, and grow from my feelings and experiences. This is what General Mattis means when he says, “post traumatic growth“. I will always deeply cherish my time in the military, my brothers and sisters, and will truly forever be a Marine, yet this should not preclude me from continuing to develop, mature, and transition as a human being. In other words, the identity that was formed throughout this period of life should not and cannot be the last stop – for the sake of living a happy and rich life.
Lastly, wasn’t I worthy of love before joining the Marines? Perhaps the answer to this question can provide some good news about my future.