Ryan Berg, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran deployed twice in Iraq. In 2004, he was an infantryman with 2/24 Echo Company, Weapons Platoon, in the Triangle of Death. In 2006, he served in various roles with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and deployed to Fallujah. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and a Master of Arts in leadership studies at Saint Mary’s College of California. He’s 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.  It was written for individuals addicted to cannabis interested in quitting.  The author is not a licensed psychologist.

I used to sneak outside into the backyard, in the early morning hours before my wife awoke, to use marijuana. It numbed me, and that’s how I made it through the day. I couldn’t feel, and I hated myself. I was addicted and depressed.

You’ve landed on this page because your search for answers brought you here.  Perhaps you feel desperate.  Up to this point, you use marijuana compulsively.  You’ve often felt guilty about the habit, tried to stop, but the substance continues to hang around in your life.  You know that, technically, it’s not physically addictive, but in other ways — it’s entirely enslaving.  Deep down, you really want to stop.  You sense it holds you back.  I should warn you, however, the answer you seek on this page is one you may not want to hear.  Why?  Because it will likely hit your defenses, and that defense is what composes the thread which binds the substance to your life.  You use cannabis to avoid feeling emotional and psychological pain.  From dealing with what actually needs attention inside of you.  Read that again. Are you willing to go deep and solve the problem from its root?  You’ll have to go deep, that’s the only way.  Here’s what I’ve learned, myself being a daily, hourly, compulsive marijuana user, who’s completely left the habit behind, and moved on to grow in all sorts of exciting ways, which continues.  I’ll say now, it’s more than worth the struggle.  You’ll have to decide if you’re worth it.  Is that part of you which you neglect each time you abuse, worth it?  Are you worth it?  My therapist used to tell me: “the reason you smoke marijuana, Ryan, is because you don’t feel whole, and you unconsciously reason that by putting something from the outside — inside — it will make you such.”  This helped me to understand what I was doing, so after many more weeks and numerous relapses, I finally asked myself, “why don’t I do this the other way around, and give myself something that originates from inside to help me feel good and whole?”  I then began the arduous journey of putting it down, and ever since my life has completely changed for the better. I’ve never possessed more focus, motivation, and spiritual drive.

First, reckon with and acknowledge the following: there will be no quick-fix to move beyond this behavior.  I say this because you need to hear it.  Cannabis use itself is a “quick-fix” — one that doesn’t always help. So it makes sense that in attempting to quit, you would seek a solution that’s similar in nature.  What you’re facing is a serious adaptive challenge.  This means it requires experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places within yourself.  It’s an addiction.  You must recognize that the underlying issues are emotional.  What you’re battling is a fire-breathing dragon, and in order to slay it, you will need to practice.  You will need to go inward, into the blackness of yourself, stay there for sustained periods of time, and stare into you — uninhibited by any substances.  Of course, the behavior has a psychological dynamic too, but what you need to know right now is that you’ll likely have to bear intense feelings of anxiety, sadness and anger, among others — in order to let the habit go.  You’ll want to seek to understand what you are avoiding when you use cannabis.  You’ll have to get down and dirty.  The good news, however, is that the difficult feelings will dissipate, I promise.  I’ve been through this.

There is no getting around the fact that you will have to face discomfort.  Are you willing to say “fuck it”, and let your inner strength scream primally?  In letting this go, you sacrifice short-term discomfort for long-term and lasting positive change, happiness, and growth.  This is not merely about kicking a habit, it is one part of a revolution of self.  A reclaiming of agency.  Of the you that you desperately want and need back in your life.  It’s a revolt against that which stands in the way of you loving you.  Are you willing to dig deeper than you’ve gone before?  You’re going to have to summon that thing within you that allows you to win a street-fight you’ve consistently lost.  Do you know that thing?  What is that thing?  Put your finger on it.  Hold it.  Cultivate it, and embrace this phase of growth with the most profound patience, determination, and focus you’ve ever attempted.  The pain will be intense, but it will not kill you.

Let’s be real, you use marijuana to numb yourself.  So, you’ll need to educate yourself about dissociation.  Like 70% of Americans, myself included, you may have some trauma or painful events that occurred in your past, which have gone unacknowledged and untreated.  My traumas began when I was a small child into my adolescence, and continued with my two deployments to Iraq. You can read more about my experiences on this blog.  Here’s a brief snapshot of dissociation from the book, The Body Keeps the Score:

The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed.

Dissociation essentially means that we are severed from parts of ourselves, our experiences — painful yet important ones.  It’s “checking out”, and in order to heal, you will need to get back in your body and start loving that part of you.  That’s when things start to feel better.  Instead of numb, love.  This excerpt above about dissociation does us no good on its own.  You must go back and actually process what happened to you on an emotional and psychological level.  Otherwise, like it says, experiences will continue to replay themselves.  Your numbing is a continuance of the “splitting off” you did during a past, overwhelming experience.  You turn away from reality when it gets tough by consuming.  Eventually, you’ll want to stop doing that, and face things head on.  It will hurt, reality can be piercingly painful, yet you’ll be profoundly happier because of it.  You’ll survive, you already have.

The power of talking is profound. Emotions don’t flow with nowhere to go, my therapist told me.  You will likely also need to talk about the habit, specifically what gravitates you to it — preferably with a professional since friends are often unqualified.  This is part of breaking the autopilot routine of using.  Sparking flow into our emotional lives will help heal the wound you’re numbing with cannabis.  As humans, our emotional lives were not meant to stagnate — we’re designed to live and breath and process.  By maintaining our addictions, we delay the process of feeling, achieving health, and feeling joy again.

Remember, cannabis is a powerful drug that is often used for pain. If you rationalize using it by telling yourself you have pain or require it for sleep — be sincere with yourself.  Are there other options available to you?  Consuming marijuana when you don’t have a medical condition it warrants is not taking good care of yourself.  Further, ask yourself, “is it actually helping my symptoms decrease, exacerbating them, or are they staying the same?”  In either case, you have a grueling emotional journey ahead. I’m right here with you.

How to Stop Smoking Marijuana

How to Stop Smoking Marijuana

Perhaps you feel desperate.  Up to this point, you use marijuana compulsively.  You've often felt guilty about the habit, tried to stop, but the substance continues to hang around in your life.  You know that, technically, it's not physically addictive,...
Read More
Scraping the Skull of My Psyche with a Scalpel

Scraping the Skull of My Psyche with a Scalpel

I've traveled to the center of my soul.  Doing this has been the single most profoundly difficult, exhaustive, and emotionally arduous inward journey of my entire life.  As I write this, my heart feels battered, bruised, its veins are sore,...
Read More
The Soul Crushing Pain of Family Estrangement

The Soul Crushing Pain of Family Estrangement

My mother was sexually abused by her father.  Growing up, I was completely blind of this horrible fact.  Yet I experienced its profoundly devastating ripple affects: from countless men entering and exiting our lives and home, exposure to my mother's...
Read More
How I Transformed My Relationship

How I Transformed My Relationship

I met my wife on the internet.  Eharmony to be precise. It was early 2015 and I just got out of a tumultuous short-term relationship, which ended because the woman forgot my middle name -- I became enraged, packed up,...
Read More
Torture in Mahmudiyah: An Unbearable Chamber of Suffering

Torture in Mahmudiyah: An Unbearable Chamber of Suffering

Standing a few steps into the room, we both watched in horror, yet were mesmerized as we traded smirks.  We'd never seen anything like this before.  "If this person was responsible for plotting to kill us", we reasoned, "perhaps he's...
Read More
Ali Baba: A Marine Squad’s Brush With Death

Ali Baba: A Marine Squad’s Brush With Death

The boy came up to our first team and yelled out “Ali Baba!” while pointing northward. Long radioed details back to me and I made the decision to take the team in that direction, the target would have to wait,...
Read More
For Me, The Marine Corps Was a Suicide Mission

For Me, The Marine Corps Was a Suicide Mission

I joined the Marine Corps in hopes of dying an honorable death and restoring dignity to my family name.  My reaction to knowing that I would be deployed to Iraq in 2004 was nothing short of hysteria.  "Finally", I thought,...
Read More
For U.S. veterans, what does it mean to heal a moral injury?

For U.S. veterans, what does it mean to heal a moral injury?

The two corporals smiled at the chance meeting, their first in the war zone. “Happy birthday, Marines,” Giannopoulos said to Berg and a few others seated by him. Berg chatted with him for a minute before Gino, as most called...
Read More
Phoenix Rising: Becoming a Survivor

Phoenix Rising: Becoming a Survivor

It’s November 6, 1993, and I’m enjoying a beautiful evening on base in San Diego. I’m 19 years old - out with shipmates dancing and having a few drinks at the club on base. Feeling tired as the night went...
Read More
As It Turns Out, I Am Worthy of Love

As It Turns Out, I Am Worthy of Love

The first time I saw a Marine I was seven years old at a college baseball game in my hometown, Omaha, Nebraska at Rosenblatt Stadium.  They were in the outfield, frozen, wearing crisp white pants, holding a rifle salute during...
Read More
“The Mask”

“The Mask”

I am sad and lonely, I have nobody to comfort me, So I wear a mask that always smiles, To hide my feelings behind my hurt.
Read More
The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

Iraq was hellish.  It was insanely hot, extremely physically and mentally demanding, and imminently dangerous all of the time.  Our late battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mark Smith, a man for whose picture adorns the wall in my study, was pushing...
Read More
Pumping the Breaks on Tears

Pumping the Breaks on Tears

My friend Alex committed suicide a month ago. For context, he was not a Veteran. A week prior to his death, he visited my wife and I at our home. I met Alex in community college in 2007, and we...
Read More
Psychotherapy Has Profoundly Deepened My Sleep

Psychotherapy Has Profoundly Deepened My Sleep

As the whole world knows by now, I am a patient and advocate of psychotherapy. And ever since about nine months into treatment, there was a major shift. There have been several major, profound life-changing positive shifts in my outlook,...
Read More
I Understand Your Deep Sadness

I Understand Your Deep Sadness

A few days ago I was having a really rough time emotionally, feeling heartbroken.  To be up front, today isn't all that glorious either.  Things periodically get difficult since I'm currently in psychotherapy talking about very painful things - not...
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The Heartbreak of Leaving the Marine Corps

The Heartbreak of Leaving the Marine Corps

Just a few hours prior, I sat in the confines of a fluorescent lit conference room with 3 field grade officers, all built like brick shithouses, chizzled, professional, determined, yet compassionate, staring back at me.  They had just stated their...
Read More
Therapy and Shame – Veterans’ Voices

Therapy and Shame – Veterans’ Voices

One of the most powerful things for me has been psychotherapy. I've been in therapy for the past two years, and I just want to address something right now. There are articles and all sorts of headlines about military members,...
Read More
The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

When I was in Iraq, I saw men holding hands all the time. As you might imagine, most of us Marines assumed there was something homosexual about doing this, and all sorts of jokes sprung up as a result. After...
Read More
Pain Is Never Weakness Leaving the Body

Pain Is Never Weakness Leaving the Body

...You walk into your bedroom and clang your pinky toe on the sturdy, round wooden leg of the bed frame. A mind-numbing ache ascends instantly from your foot to your skull. You lie down on your mattress and clinch hard...
Read More
As a U.S. Marine Infantryman, Psychotherapy Has Made Me Even Stronger

As a U.S. Marine Infantryman, Psychotherapy Has Made Me Even Stronger

The experience of therapy was new to me.  I wasn't used to someone listening.  To caring.  To someone asking questions about my feelings, and affirming the validity of them.  To someone simply being present as I cried about hurtful events...
Read More

Ryan Berg, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran deployed twice in Iraq. In 2004, he was an infantryman with 2/24 Echo Company, Weapons Platoon, in the Triangle of Death. In 2006, he served in various roles with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and deployed to Fallujah. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and a Master of Arts in leadership studies at Saint Mary’s College of California. He’s 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.

I’ve traveled to the center of my soul.  Doing this has been the single most profoundly difficult, exhaustive, and emotionally arduous inward journey of my entire life.  As I write this, my heart feels battered, bruised, its veins are sore, the wound still bleeds through capillary walls — has yet to clot.  This is all a welcome change from the deep-water arterial surges of depression, anxiety, and panic that have crashed over me as I lay at the mercy of grief.  I understand more fully now why we humans tend to avoid experiencing pain, particularly the soul-shocking fear, anger, and sadness pang waves that begin in the gut, travel up to the brain stem, and settle in for the heavy haul at the core of the amygdala. “Who would pay to feel this way?” I’ve often asked myself rhetorically.  It’s difficult, tiring, pulverizing, and requires inconceivable endurance.  I’ve taken myself to the inner-most nucleus of my emotional universe: scraping the skull of my psyche with a scalpel.  Two years of constant, direct, and intimate facing of my emotional reality, and painstaking examination of influential aspects of my early relationships and cultural identities which have shaped and injured that world.  It’s been extremely dark, lonely, scary — at times screechingly loud — and others: frighteningly desolate and quiet.  I’ve faced my demons: the mountainous pain that’s been held up in my heart nearly my entire life and embodied and directed my every move, imprisoning me.  I’m keenly aware, however, it’s not over, for I’m still alive — a fact I can now feel authentically grateful for.  Although, because I chose to make this voyage, I’m now “guided by soul”, and my life is much less dictated by history, circumstances, or past trauma.  I’m reclaiming my life, spirit, humanity, and deep hope — which had always been there, faintly pulsing like a distant star, disappearing when faced, peripherally visible — buried and suffocated beneath dense layers of rage, confusion, depression, and heartbreak — beating frantically on my chest to get out.

This journey has been formidable, deeply humbling, and transformational.  I’ve had numerous thoughts of suicide throughout, and recently, as I experienced the granular, raw, fibrous, and potent roots of depression, I fantasized of committing a murder-suicide, where I shoot my dogs, wife, and self.  As I drifted fully into the thought, my head hung from the edge of my bed, I stared down towards the tan wood floor, and a deep, dark, whole-body misery tingled through me.  Instantly, and in order, I saw bullets lodge in each of their skulls.  It frightened me.  Not only would this act provide me an escape from overwhelmingly difficult feelings, but my immediate loved ones one too, spared from agony caused by my tragic absence.  I would be doing them a “favor,” I depravedly reasoned.  “What kind of person am I?” I thought as I left the trance.  I debated whether to share this with my therapist because I was so embarrassed, yet I did, and it turned out to be the most supportive action I could have taken. The reality is that I had no control over this thought, it simply arrived, and it spoke to the intensity and difficulty of experiencing my feelings.  “Thoughts and actions are very different things,” she reminded me.  I also told my wife, and while I initially feared her reaction, she listened and understood.  I felt seen and accepted, giving shame no place to hide.

Is all of this worth it?  Yes.  Do the hard feelings actually let up?  Yes, in fact, they do.  The beauty is that when we sincerely look inward, and feel, we end up coming out the other side, landing in a beautiful prairie of a healing heart; where what once tortured us emotionally and psychically is somehow much smaller and seriously less painful.  We gain self-worth, confidence, profound resilience, and increase our capacity for intention — which improves traction and tightens the needles on one’s compass towards goals we’ve always had — yet elusively chased.  Nothing in life feels better — this I can assure you.  A feeling perhaps inconceivable at present, yet it will not disappoint.  We get many of the things we want out of ourselves and life.  Direction, clarity, and best of all, we emphatically increase our capacity to receive and give love.

Fortunately, I did not listen to common sentiments consistently expressed in society, like; “It’s easier not to feel.  There is no future in the past.  Live in the now, you can’t change the past, plus, you aren’t headed that way.” The great benefit of entering the wilderness of the past is that I’ve truly awakened joy, self-acceptance, confidence, and the seeds of resilience have sprouted.  I’ve opened my eyes to come out of the nightmare my life has hereto seemed.  Rather than killing my whole self, I’ve allowed parts of myself to die.  Parts that needed to end in order for others to sprout.  By allowing parts of me to shed, fall away, like leaves in autumn, I’m now able to enjoy a fuller, happier existence — evolve, live, love, and lead.  Living, I’ve learned, is at once; dying.

Author’s note: Because of the nature and content of this post, if you are alarmed in regards to my mental health, don’t be. I’m doing quite well and in good spirits, am supported by my wife, three dogs, and a gifted psychotherapist.

How to Stop Smoking Marijuana

How to Stop Smoking Marijuana

Perhaps you feel desperate.  Up to this point, you use marijuana compulsively.  You've often felt guilty about the habit, tried to stop, but the substance continues to hang around in your life.  You know that, technically, it's not physically addictive,...
Read More
Scraping the Skull of My Psyche with a Scalpel

Scraping the Skull of My Psyche with a Scalpel

I've traveled to the center of my soul.  Doing this has been the single most profoundly difficult, exhaustive, and emotionally arduous inward journey of my entire life.  As I write this, my heart feels battered, bruised, its veins are sore,...
Read More
The Soul Crushing Pain of Family Estrangement

The Soul Crushing Pain of Family Estrangement

My mother was sexually abused by her father.  Growing up, I was completely blind of this horrible fact.  Yet I experienced its profoundly devastating ripple affects: from countless men entering and exiting our lives and home, exposure to my mother's...
Read More
How I Transformed My Relationship

How I Transformed My Relationship

I met my wife on the internet.  Eharmony to be precise. It was early 2015 and I just got out of a tumultuous short-term relationship, which ended because the woman forgot my middle name -- I became enraged, packed up,...
Read More
Torture in Mahmudiyah: An Unbearable Chamber of Suffering

Torture in Mahmudiyah: An Unbearable Chamber of Suffering

Standing a few steps into the room, we both watched in horror, yet were mesmerized as we traded smirks.  We'd never seen anything like this before.  "If this person was responsible for plotting to kill us", we reasoned, "perhaps he's...
Read More
Ali Baba: A Marine Squad’s Brush With Death

Ali Baba: A Marine Squad’s Brush With Death

The boy came up to our first team and yelled out “Ali Baba!” while pointing northward. Long radioed details back to me and I made the decision to take the team in that direction, the target would have to wait,...
Read More
For Me, The Marine Corps Was a Suicide Mission

For Me, The Marine Corps Was a Suicide Mission

I joined the Marine Corps in hopes of dying an honorable death and restoring dignity to my family name.  My reaction to knowing that I would be deployed to Iraq in 2004 was nothing short of hysteria.  "Finally", I thought,...
Read More
For U.S. veterans, what does it mean to heal a moral injury?

For U.S. veterans, what does it mean to heal a moral injury?

The two corporals smiled at the chance meeting, their first in the war zone. “Happy birthday, Marines,” Giannopoulos said to Berg and a few others seated by him. Berg chatted with him for a minute before Gino, as most called...
Read More
Phoenix Rising: Becoming a Survivor

Phoenix Rising: Becoming a Survivor

It’s November 6, 1993, and I’m enjoying a beautiful evening on base in San Diego. I’m 19 years old - out with shipmates dancing and having a few drinks at the club on base. Feeling tired as the night went...
Read More
As It Turns Out, I Am Worthy of Love

As It Turns Out, I Am Worthy of Love

The first time I saw a Marine I was seven years old at a college baseball game in my hometown, Omaha, Nebraska at Rosenblatt Stadium.  They were in the outfield, frozen, wearing crisp white pants, holding a rifle salute during...
Read More
“The Mask”

“The Mask”

I am sad and lonely, I have nobody to comfort me, So I wear a mask that always smiles, To hide my feelings behind my hurt.
Read More
The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

Iraq was hellish.  It was insanely hot, extremely physically and mentally demanding, and imminently dangerous all of the time.  Our late battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mark Smith, a man for whose picture adorns the wall in my study, was pushing...
Read More
Pumping the Breaks on Tears

Pumping the Breaks on Tears

My friend Alex committed suicide a month ago. For context, he was not a Veteran. A week prior to his death, he visited my wife and I at our home. I met Alex in community college in 2007, and we...
Read More
Psychotherapy Has Profoundly Deepened My Sleep

Psychotherapy Has Profoundly Deepened My Sleep

As the whole world knows by now, I am a patient and advocate of psychotherapy. And ever since about nine months into treatment, there was a major shift. There have been several major, profound life-changing positive shifts in my outlook,...
Read More
I Understand Your Deep Sadness

I Understand Your Deep Sadness

A few days ago I was having a really rough time emotionally, feeling heartbroken.  To be up front, today isn't all that glorious either.  Things periodically get difficult since I'm currently in psychotherapy talking about very painful things - not...
Read More
The Heartbreak of Leaving the Marine Corps

The Heartbreak of Leaving the Marine Corps

Just a few hours prior, I sat in the confines of a fluorescent lit conference room with 3 field grade officers, all built like brick shithouses, chizzled, professional, determined, yet compassionate, staring back at me.  They had just stated their...
Read More
Therapy and Shame – Veterans’ Voices

Therapy and Shame – Veterans’ Voices

One of the most powerful things for me has been psychotherapy. I've been in therapy for the past two years, and I just want to address something right now. There are articles and all sorts of headlines about military members,...
Read More
The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

When I was in Iraq, I saw men holding hands all the time. As you might imagine, most of us Marines assumed there was something homosexual about doing this, and all sorts of jokes sprung up as a result. After...
Read More
Pain Is Never Weakness Leaving the Body

Pain Is Never Weakness Leaving the Body

...You walk into your bedroom and clang your pinky toe on the sturdy, round wooden leg of the bed frame. A mind-numbing ache ascends instantly from your foot to your skull. You lie down on your mattress and clinch hard...
Read More
As a U.S. Marine Infantryman, Psychotherapy Has Made Me Even Stronger

As a U.S. Marine Infantryman, Psychotherapy Has Made Me Even Stronger

The experience of therapy was new to me.  I wasn't used to someone listening.  To caring.  To someone asking questions about my feelings, and affirming the validity of them.  To someone simply being present as I cried about hurtful events...
Read More

Ryan Berg, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran deployed twice in Iraq.  In 2004, he was with 2/24 Echo Company, Weapons Platoon, in the Triangle of Death.  In 2006, he served with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and was in Fallujah, Ramadi and Al Asad.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and a Master of Arts in leadership studies at Saint Mary’s College of California.  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.

I met my wife on the internet.  Eharmony to be precise. It was early 2015 and I just got out of a tumultuous short-term relationship, which ended because the woman forgot my middle name — I became enraged, packed up, and left her.  In hindsight, I was acting out anger rooted in childhood trauma of neglect, abandonment, and emotional unavailability by my mother (and father). “We’ve been together for several months, and you can’t remember my middle name?  You don’t know me, aren’t paying attention to me, and simply don’t care about me!” was the accelerant that ignited me to flee.  I’ve come to realize that I found myself in relationship with this person because she unconsciously reminded me of my mother, and I was attempting to “work out” these old wounds with her.

I couldn’t fathom actually being alone, however, and desperately wanted her to chase me, say she couldn’t live without me, and beg for my return.  She didn’t, and I spent the next several weeks feeling punishingly alone and frightened.  I was primally panicked: my sense of security and safety was shattered, and I felt in literal danger without her.  Unknowingly, I hungered desperately for safe emotional connection with another human being, and believed I might actually perish without it.  To cope, I returned to my routine: sending dozens of online messages to prospective mates.  I went on a handful of dinner dates that all fizzled out, leaving me frustrated, lonely, and empty; feelings I’ve carried nearly my entire life, and futilely escaped by grasping at a myriad of girlfriends and flings — a pattern preserved through perpetual infidelity.

During my frenzy of online “outreach”, I messaged a Peruvian woman named, Nataly.  Like the others, I only spent a few seconds on her profile, and was solely interested in her appearances.  She responded a day later: “Hello, I live in Japan, is that OK?”  “Sure, that’s fine” I replied.  We would end up communicating nearly everyday for the next year, and she eventually came to visit me in California.  When she returned to Asia, however, the distance created uncertainty and confusion about our future, and we came close to breaking up.  “Why am I in this long distance relationship?  Relationships are about intimacy, I need someone who’s closer!” I rightly reasoned.

What made me feel compassion for her and never quit over the course of that year, though, was that I saw myself in her.  I saw a woman who experienced a difficult upbringing, lacked love as a child, had a big chip on her shoulder, and carried anger.  Yet, I also saw someone whose strength, internal and external beauty, went as deep as our universal origins — a person whose soul reached outward to connect with one like itself.  I knew I could trust that no matter what future conflict may hold, she would never quit.  She was in it.  She possessed the fire and strength of an Incan warrior and would defend our sacred bond, permitting us to grow together, have children, and eventually — a tightly knit and loving nuclear family: something I never had but always dreamed deeply for.

And so, when she called to tell me that she was quitting her job, selling everything she owned, and traveling back to California to spend more time with me, I was nervous and excited.  I saw this move as an unspoken commitment to a potential future together, so I asked her to marry me on a peak at Mount Diablo.  Surprised and in disbelief, she initially snatched her hand away from mine.  Her entire life she believed she wasn’t worthy of love, nor did the man exist whom hers belonged — so as the moment arrived, naturally, she pulled away.  A second later, shivering, a “yes” fell out, and she permitted me to press the ring onto her finger. We hugged and laughed with nervous joy as we turned towards the quiet, yes bustling valley below  — and tried to take it in.

Neither of us realized how challenging marriage would actually be, particularly between two people who lived with unhealed childhood trauma, never observed a healthy relationship model in their adult caregivers, were members of entirely different cultures (and spoke different languages!), and one of us had served in a warzone.  We didn’t have the skills to effectively identify, navigate, and communicate our own emotions, causing conflict to often erupt volcanically —  leading us to assume separation was the only choice.  “Surely, this is not the relationship I want to be in”, we thought.  Eventually, we got wiser and individually committed to psychotherapy in order to confront our pasts, face our pain head on, heal old wounds with a professional, and gain insight into the experiences that have shaped our present selves.  Doing this has led to great benefits in our individual lives, and thus our relationship.  It has helped me to see that conflict arises in all relationships, and that by creating space for and talking about it, we can heal not only our pasts but our present too. We’ve been married since May of 2016, and while future conflict is completely inevitable, we’re moving towards healing and greater unity.

Nataly Valdivieso-Berg, the author’s wife.

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How to Stop Smoking Marijuana

How to Stop Smoking Marijuana

Perhaps you feel desperate.  Up to this point, you use marijuana compulsively.  You've often felt guilty about the habit, tried to stop, but the substance continues to hang around in your life.  You know that, technically, it's not physically addictive,...
Read More
Scraping the Skull of My Psyche with a Scalpel

Scraping the Skull of My Psyche with a Scalpel

I've traveled to the center of my soul.  Doing this has been the single most profoundly difficult, exhaustive, and emotionally arduous inward journey of my entire life.  As I write this, my heart feels battered, bruised, its veins are sore,...
Read More
The Soul Crushing Pain of Family Estrangement

The Soul Crushing Pain of Family Estrangement

My mother was sexually abused by her father.  Growing up, I was completely blind of this horrible fact.  Yet I experienced its profoundly devastating ripple affects: from countless men entering and exiting our lives and home, exposure to my mother's...
Read More
How I Transformed My Relationship

How I Transformed My Relationship

I met my wife on the internet.  Eharmony to be precise. It was early 2015 and I just got out of a tumultuous short-term relationship, which ended because the woman forgot my middle name -- I became enraged, packed up,...
Read More
Torture in Mahmudiyah: An Unbearable Chamber of Suffering

Torture in Mahmudiyah: An Unbearable Chamber of Suffering

Standing a few steps into the room, we both watched in horror, yet were mesmerized as we traded smirks.  We'd never seen anything like this before.  "If this person was responsible for plotting to kill us", we reasoned, "perhaps he's...
Read More
Ali Baba: A Marine Squad’s Brush With Death

Ali Baba: A Marine Squad’s Brush With Death

The boy came up to our first team and yelled out “Ali Baba!” while pointing northward. Long radioed details back to me and I made the decision to take the team in that direction, the target would have to wait,...
Read More
For Me, The Marine Corps Was a Suicide Mission

For Me, The Marine Corps Was a Suicide Mission

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Read More
For U.S. veterans, what does it mean to heal a moral injury?

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Ryan Berg, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran deployed twice in Iraq. In 2004, he was with 2/24 Echo Company, Weapons Platoon, in the Triangle of Death. In 2006, he served with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and was in Fallujah, Ramadi and Al Asad. He earned a bachelors in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and an MA in Leadership Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California. 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.

When I was in Iraq, I saw a man being tortured. It was 2004, and I was at the police station in downtown Mahmudiyah — an actively lethal city a few miles south of the capital, and one vertices that made up the “Triangle of Death”. The area is also known as the Gateway to Baghdad, and at the time, because of the major push into Fallujah to the north, it was rich with angry insurgents who came south. They were angry because we moved into their neighborhoods, disrupted supply routes, and all methods of escape were cut off — with the help of our counterparts, the British Black Watch. Not to mention the fact that we’re American invaders through their eyes. The insurgents imposed a militant strain of Sunni Islam, also known as Wahhabism, which offered rewards for the execution of Iraqi police, National Guardsmen, Shiite Muslims and foreigners — and they often carried out killings in the street, which we saw the horrible aftermath of on a few occasions. Our supreme goal was to establish conditions for a fair and free national election on January 30, 2005. And so, we waged the full spectrum of combat operations against them. As a young marine, I didn’t understand all of this when I was on the ground, but surely felt it. My squad was constantly patrolling the area, raiding homes, performing surprise checkpoints, making arrests, and taking part in special regional missions, like Plymouth Rock – a battalion wide anti-insurgent sweep on November 23rd, 2004.

This day, I was with my platoon and Iraqi security forces. My squad leader and I were roaming the light blue halls of the small compound, and heard screaming coming from a room in the far back. We entered and witnessed a man being violently caned and shouted at in Arabic. He was crying, pleading in agony as he sat with his back up against the cold, scarred concrete wall in a dark room with no windows. A room designated for this type of horror it seemed. With each whip he convulsed and pleaded, torquing and turning his body in a futile effort to avoid the strikes. His hands were tied. Literally.

Standing a few steps into the room, we both watched in horror, yet were mesmerized as we traded smirks. We’d never seen anything like this before. “If this person was responsible for plotting to kill us”, we reasoned, “perhaps he’s getting what he deserves.” We walked out feeling concerned and debated whether to tell someone. We returned a moment later to see that one of the interrogators was urgently fumbling with a small battery and one long red wire. “What are you going to do with that?” I asked the young Iraqi Army soldier. “We’re going to electrocute him” he replied. “Then, he will tell us everything.” I felt a knot form in the pit of my stomach. “This is not a good idea, but I want to see” I thought — as my desire to tell our captain strengthened equally.

Wires ran from each port on the battery to the Iraqi soldier’s left and right hand as he sparked the two together, and a brief blueish glow zapped lit. He then placed the live wire near the man’s chest, the other on his foot, and the current instantly sucked through his body to the tips of his toes as it sped for the ground. Loud screams. An upgrade over the whips. He was prodded multiple times as Arabic that I couldn’t understand, and the man’s agonious shrieks, bounced off the hard walls, creating an unbearable chamber of suffering.

My squad leader and I had to do something. We told our platoon commander and he made the moral case for why it needed to cease, and so it did. The Iraqis concluded that he was ultimately innocent, and that this was a case of mistaken identity. I went to the roof and watched as the man in the white robe, staggered and limping, broken and hurting, disappeared into the open market of downtown Mahmudiyah. My stomach turned as I realized that this man was tortured by accident, and felt a consuming sorrow fill my heart. I paced around and surveyed the ocher colored structures below, felt the cold come on as the sun set, and shivered as I listened to the ominous call for prayer.

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The boy came up to our first team and yelled out “Ali Baba!” while pointing northward. Long radioed details back to me and I made the decision to take the team in that direction, the target would have to wait,...
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Read More
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Eddie Diaz served in the United States Marine Corps from 1998-2005 as an infantryman. In 2004, his unit, Echo Company 2nd Battalion 24th Marines, was mobilized to deploy to Iraq. After completing his service in the Marines he married his girlfriend, Angelica, who supported him and his family while he was deployed. They are raising three children in Perry, Iowa. Eddie has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Iowa State University, a Master’s of Arts in Teaching and a Master’s in Educational Leadership from Drake University. He spent 10 years as an educator in PK-12 education, first as a high school teacher in history and economics, and then as a principal of a PK-8th grade school. Eddie currently serves as a director in higher education at a Des Moines, IA, community college.

Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.

This story is my recollection of an operation that nearly ended my life in an area of Iraq that came to be known as the Triangle of Death. Special thanks to my fellow Marines: Ryan Berg, Brandon Long, Mark Kistler, and Jim Schlehr who were present in my squad that day. Although they didn’t find any factual errors, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is my perspective of that day, and that the fog of war and time have surely impacted my recollection. The narrative and video below have foul language by civilian standards but perfectly normal language for Marines.

2nd Battalion 24th Marines’ Area of Operation extended as far north as Al Rasheed, but primarily focused on what became known as the Triangle of Death (in red). Our battalion lost 13 Marines, while our Iraqi partners lost dozens of soldiers, and several hundred civilians were killed during our tour.

Prior to deploying to Iraq in 2004, my infantry unit trained at Camp Pendleton, California, for three months honing skills that our leaders thought would help keep us alive us when we arrived in Mahmoudiya, Iraq. In addition to the rigorous physical and marksmanship training that could be expected in the Marine Corps, we practiced room clearing, detecting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and Arabic customs and language. The phrases and customs we learned would eventually help us interact with the Iraqi people in our quest to win their “hearts and minds”. Unfortunately, much like those that have taken Spanish in high school only to discover that most of what is learned is obsolete in the real world, the Arabic that would truly help us we discovered once we arrived — most of it slang. The term, Ali Baba, for example, we would come to know soon after we made it to our new home. For Americans, the name Ali Baba may bring images from the Aladdin animated movies of the 1990’s, yet for those in the Middle East, the 18th century folk tale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is evoked when hearing the name. Still, for the Marines of 2nd Battalion 24th Marines, the name Ali Baba was slang the Iraqis used to refer to run of the mill criminals or even hardened terrorists that were prevalent in our area of operation (AO).

Search and arrest missions had become fairly standard by the last quarter of our deployment. One particular day our intelligence folks provided a grid (latitude and longitude) and the name of an insurgent that needed to be arrested. We didn’t know his specific crimes, but many of the insurgents we hunted were accused of killing, sometimes decapitating, members of the Iraqi National Guard (ING) and Iraqi police who worked with us. Often times the target of our missions had moved on by the time we knocked down their doors, yet on at least three occasions I remember nabbing accused terrorists. Whenever we failed to find our target, we would transition to conduct security and presence patrols. These served to provide safety to the locals, and gave us an opportunity to confront any Ali Baba that we may come upon in the streets.

Our infantry squad routinely patrolled the city of Mahmoudiya. In this picture, our team traveled with our interpreter, Komi (2nd man on the right), but often times there were not enough interpreters to go out on each mission.

On this day, we arrived at the grid a couple hours into the mission but could not locate the target. It was too early to head back to the FOB (forward operating base), so I decided to take the squad to patrol the open-air market in the center of the city. My intention was to make another attempt to capture our target on the way back. After some time in the market, we took a water and chow break on the top of a roof, and then began to make our way to find the insurgent. Typically, I would be leading the point team and serving as the navigator, but on this occasion I was near the middle of the patrol as the squad leader. Lance Corporal (Lcpl) Long had moved from his typical duties as the point man to 1st fire team leader. He was one of my good buddies in the squad, and his wise cracks were made more fun by the southern cadence that came from his childhood in Arkansas. He made the most boring Marine Corps tasks bearable with his non-stop bullshitting. On our way back to the target grid, a chunky boy, not much older than my eleven-year-old son, Diego, approached him. In fact, chances are that if the boy lost a few pounds he would look a lot like Diego does today. The boy came up to our first team and yelled out “Ali Baba!” while pointing northward. Long radioed details back to me and I made the decision to take the team in that direction, the target would have to wait, since there was an Ali Baba that called for our attention. The young man walked forward with our point team while I stayed near the center of our patrol with Lcpl Schlehr, our radioman, to my side. Long remembers that as the team made its way north, more and more kids joined the parade, and eventually two adults did too. We didn’t have an interpreter in our patrol that day, but Long could tell that Iraqis were trying to tell us there was danger ahead. We made it to the “playground” – one of the busier intersections in Mahmoudiya, directly adjacent to a park. The intersection was on Alternate Supply Route (ASR) Jackson, which was heavily used by coalition forces to run supplies from bases in Baghdad to the southern part of Iraq. The typically busy road was empty, except for one sedan in the middle of the road. It was stopped at an odd angle in the middle of the street, like a bumper car at the local theme park that had run out of electricity. This car had no driver, this car had an open trunk, and this car had a young woman slumped over in the passenger seat with blood streaming down the side of her face. In my mind, she couldn’t have been more than thirty years old, but then again I never saw her close-up, and her bloody face made it hard to discern if she was even alive.

This rooftop was a great resting spot because it provided relative safety and good over-watch of the open air market in Mahmoudiya. The “park” is only a couple miles north near the trees in the background.

Our squad sprang into action like the well-trained team that we were. One team secured the south end of the street, another secured the north and east, and Corporal (Cpl) Berg took the third team and went to the nearest roof to provide over-watch security. I radioed Berg, asking him to let me know what was in the trunk of the car, since I was anxious to find out before we attempted to extract the girl. But no luck, the team couldn’t see what was inside. I then radioed the details I had to headquarters, and requested that an explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) team and their robot come to our location. As luck would have it, it was a busy bomb day in our AO, and the robot, or R2D2 as I called it, was occupied and we would have to wait.

I asked myself, “was there even a bomb in the vehicle? Did we really have to wait for EOD and R2D2, or should we attempt to retrieve the woman?” I decided to find out once and for all what was in in the trunk. I started my walk towards the car as my fellow Marines and dozens of civilians looked on from a safe distance. I made it fifteen yards from the vehicle when my body froze: my mind told my legs to walk but my legs told my brain to fuck off. They wouldn’t comply. I was sweating profusely. The sweat on my brow came from many places; it came from the Iraqi heat, it came from all the gear that weighed me down, it came from the pressure of having dozens of people watch me freeze, and, of course, the intense fear of breathing my last breath.

Then the good Lord intervened.

Our squad was often approached by kids looking to get some free candy or on occasion to provide valuable information to our team.

As if a mirage appeared in the middle of the Iraqi desert, a convoy of ING vehicles came barreling down the street from the north. They quickly deployed their teams and secured the perimeter, utilizing skills one of our platoons had trained them on for months. Much like us, they were curious to know what was in the trunk. Unlike us, they sent their youngest and most disposable soldier, an apparent teenager, to look inside. The Iraqi teenager walked to the vehicle, peeked in the trunk, turned around pale faced, and ran away as if his life depended on it. I ran like mine did as well. He eventually made it to me and began yelling for a few minutes in Arabic, unfortunately my Arabic customs and language classes could not help me in capturing all the details. I think he was angry because we had not informed him that there was a bomb in the car. My limited Arabic skills could not express how sorry I was that I couldn’t tell him, or how happy I was that it wasn’t me that had to find out.

Our Iraqi National Guard partners would on occasion shoot at us on accident, and often times lacked the professionalism of U.S. forces. When called upon, however, they performed.

It was time to hunker down, since there was not much else for us to do but wait for EOD team and their robot to come disarm the bomb, so we could go get the girl out. At this point, we were about four hours into our mission, and the chances of the woman surviving were slim — yet we held out hope. Another squad of Marines arrived and they quickly began to support us. I provided the squad leader a situation report with an update on what was happening, and a few minutes later my Navy medical corpsman (Doc) informed me that he was going to pull the woman out. I was surprised, and thought the heat made him delusional. There was no way in hell I was going to give him permission to do this, but he then said that the squad leader from the other team recruited him and their corpsman to go get her out. I told him that the other team could do as they pleased, but that he was going nowhere. He appeared relieved.

Next thing I know, the squad leader and his “Doc” are walking towards the car. They dropped their weapons, approached the vehicle, did a half-loop around, and made a dash towards the Iraqi woman. I made my way towards the auto shop near the intersection, and found cover behind a three-foot wall near some junk cars and equipment. I watched them grab the woman from the car and carry her towards the opposite side of the street. Then I lost sight of them as the shock wave of large bomb knocked me on my ass. I stood up to see a surreal scene straight from Hollywood, as a dust storm engulfed the area. My stomach was in my throat as I ran towards the bodies of the Marine and corpsman. “How am I going to explain this to my superiors, to their families? How could I have allowed them to go through with it when I knew there was a bomb in the car?” I thought. I was angry with them for being so foolish, and upset with myself for being too weak to stop them. As I made it through the dust cloud, I found them both stripping themselves from their body armor and feeling themselves up and down to make sure they had no major wounds. The next 30 minutes or so were a blur. An ambulance picked up the Iraqi woman and took her to the hospital. The second squad that arrived gathered their men and headed back to the FOB. I radioed headquarters to let them know that the bomb had detonated. There was nothing left of the car except the engine block. Headquarters let me know that the EOD team was already on their way, so we stayed to provide security and provide an update. EOD arrived and gave us their professional analysis, and they let me know that the car had a big bomb in it. R2D2 didn’t even have to come out from the Humvee to investigate.

We made it home about eight hours after we left the base on our original mission. We later found out that the young woman had died of her wounds. She was married to an Iraqi officer who had worked with the Americans. The insurgents had ambushed them on their way to Iraq, kidnapped the husband, shot the wife, and placed a bomb in the trunk — and hoped to take out a few Americans to top it off.

I’m not sure what God’s plan for me is but I do know that I have been given the opportunity to live and I’m going to make the most of it. I’ve seen too much death and destruction to not feel blessed to spend my days with three beautiful children, a great wife and awesome family and friends.

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The boy came up to our first team and yelled out “Ali Baba!” while pointing northward. Long radioed details back to me and I made the decision to take the team in that direction, the target would have to wait,...
Read More
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Read More
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I am sad and lonely, I have nobody to comfort me, So I wear a mask that always smiles, To hide my feelings behind my hurt.
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The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

Iraq was hellish.  It was insanely hot, extremely physically and mentally demanding, and imminently dangerous all of the time.  Our late battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mark Smith, a man for whose picture adorns the wall in my study, was pushing...
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Ryan Berg, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran deployed twice in Iraq.  In 2004, he was with 2/24 Echo Company, Weapons Platoon, in the Triangle of Death.  In 2006, he served with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and was in Fallujah, Ramadi and Al Asad.  He earned a bachelor’s in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and an MA in Leadership Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California.  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.

I joined the Marine Corps in hopes of dying an honorable death and restoring dignity to my family name.  My reaction to knowing that I would be deployed to Iraq in 2004 was nothing short of hysteria.  “Finally”, I thought, “If all goes ‘right’ (or wrong) I can put an end to feeling unworthy and living this miserable life in one of the most honorable ways possible.”

Needless to say, my upbringing was traumatic.  I was sadistically physically abused at age 3, there was a constant (high-capacity) revolving door of men coming through our home, I often ran from gang members as an adolescent on my way from school or to the market, and while my older brother was there at times to protect me – he more often than not used me as a punching bag to cope with his own anger.  Further, the love I received from my mother felt like a low-watt current designed to power a small light bulb, rather than a highly charged connection that could sustain and nurture the soul of a human being.  I lacked loving attention, care, and parental guidance.  On occasion, my mother would also give me marijuana to cope with life.  By the time I was a senior in high school, “just kill me” was a thought that ran deep in my unconscious mind – and the Marine Corps became an appealing option.

My abuse as a toddler was horrific.  One time, Steve was his name, he repeatedly dunked my head in the toilet after he used it and drowned me as he flushed it.  Dozens of other times he would whip my back with a belt, and others he would forcefully strike various parts of my body, or make me run in place with soiled underwear on my head.  He would lock me in a closet or verbally assault me as I tried to figure out how to work the TV remote.  This was the most painful, terrifying, and formative of traumatic experiences – especially given my tender age.  This went on for months.

A few weeks before I left to go to Marine Corps bootcamp, my brother and I learned that my mother slept with one of our childhood best friends on my brother’s twenty-first birthday.  This person was a lot like my brother to me:  friendly at times, but ultimately an angry bully when he needed to get it out.  I still remember the moment that my brother told me about what happened.  I walked up the stairs from my room in the basement, entered the kitchen, and saw him sitting in a chair at the dining table.  He gazed out of the kitchen window, appearing lost and visibly shaken.  He acknowledged me and said in an angry and nervous voice, “do you want to help me break [this person’s] legs?”  My heart dropped because I knew he meant business.  I couldn’t fathom what could have happened that would make him want to hurt a close friend.  They even lived together at the time.  “What do you mean, why, what happened?”  “He fucked mom,” he said.  In that moment, everything stopped. “What?”  Disbelief.  Confusion.  Horror.  Fear.  Rage.  I paced around the kitchen.  He proceeded to give me the details, and then we quickly hatched a plan to physically assault this person. 

When I arrived at bootcamp, I remember often lying anxiously awake at night, staring through the bottom of the top bunk into darkness.  Into myself.  Into my pain.  Into confusion and heartache.  I needed my mother during this challenging time, yet inside I held so much emotional pain and resentment because of her behavior.  My sadness and rage solidified.  I felt alone, especially since my brother could no longer accept what happened.  He joined my mother by falling back into denial, so that he wouldn’t have to feel the hurt it caused.  I would later realize that this action by my mother embodied all of her previous promiscuity with men.  This was her capstone and I lay alone at the summit of my pain.

When I returned home from my combat deployment to Iraq in 2004 and stepped off the plane to see dozens of families hugging their sons, yet the absence of mine, I was devastated.  While I knew ahead of time that they wouldn’t be there, it didn’t make it any easier.  I wanted the hug, squeeze, and kiss that I saw so many of my fortunate fellow Marines receiving.  I would go on to never truly get that, and eventually deployed back to Iraq with the next unit that had space.  My next suicide mission.

I think often about the ways that many servicemembers must have experienced trauma as children or adolescence, and then join the military or go to war as an escape, only to come home to confront a mountain of unresolved internal pain.  I believe this is a major cause of suicides in the Veteran community.  The Department of Veterans Affairs would serve Veterans well to take this into consideration when providing treatment.  I pay $800 out-of-pocket each month to a psychotherapist in order to address the whole of my emotional and psychological wounds, to which the VA has declined to help reimburse.  It’s unfair.

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This story was written by  and originally appeared on the Christian Science Monitor here.  With permission, Returning Veterans of Diablo Valley has published it below.

The Marine Corps observes its birthday every Nov. 10. On that day in 2004, as the Corps turned 229, Peter Giannopoulos spotted his friend Ryan Berg inside a mess tent on a U.S. military base in central Iraq.

Both men had deployed weeks earlier with the Marine Corps Reserve to an area known as the Triangle of Death. By then, less than two years after American forces had invaded, bloodshed and chaos engulfed the country as the Iraqi insurgency burned to full flame.

The two corporals smiled at the chance meeting, their first in the war zone. “Happy birthday, Marines,” Giannopoulos said to Berg and a few others seated by him. Berg chatted with him for a minute before Gino, as most called him, strode outside to join his platoon for its next mission.

The following day, after returning to base from a patrol, Berg stood talking with his squad leader. Another Marine from Giannopoulos’ unit rushed toward them. Distress choked his voice. “It’s Gino! It’s Gino!” he said.

Insurgents had attacked their platoon. Gino was 22. He died on Veterans Day.

The loss of Corporal Giannopoulos on a distant battlefield 15 years ago lies at the heart of Mr. Berg’s complex emotions about the Iraq War.

“When you’re there, everything has extreme significance. It all really matters in the moment,” he says. The demands of combat left little time to ponder the reasons for the U.S. military’s broader mission or to grieve for Gino. “You’re trying to survive. That’s it.”

The passage of years has brought the fog of war into focus for Mr. Berg, who deployed again to the country in 2006 and whose doubts  about the conflict’s purpose have sharpened. He regards the ongoing turmoil in Iraq, where security forces in Baghdad killed more than 100 people during anti-government protests last month, as a repudiation of the U.S. war effort.

“What did we come away with? Did we really influence the country and make it a better place?” asks Mr. Berg, who lives in Concord, California, northeast of San Francisco. He mentions the deaths of almost 4,600 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians since the invasion in 2003. “I do feel let down. There wasn’t much of a plan to create order after we got there, and a lot of people have been killed. It’s really hard to say it was worth it.”

His perspective aligns with the majority of veterans who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as revealed by a poll earlier this year from the Pew Research Center. The survey found that most of the men and women sent to fight the longest wars in U.S. history now question whether the cause justified the risks they endured and the lives that were sacrificed.

The violence that persists in both countries – the latest peace talks between U.S. and Afghan Taliban officials collapsed in September – magnifies war’s personal toll for many veterans. Their pride in once wearing the uniform collides with a feeling of futility about what their service achieved and a belief that military leaders failed or deceived them and their fallen comrades. The sense of violation can contribute to a lingering crisis of the conscience and spirit – a concept that behavioral health providers call moral injury.

“After nearly two decades of these wars, there has been less clarity about the purpose and the value of fighting them,” Dr. Shauna Springer says. A psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has counseled hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans coping with combat trauma. “For some service members, the question of what they were really doing can become harder to answer.”

For Mr. Berg, the hazy intent of the Iraq War compounds the piercing absence of his friend. “Did Gino losing his life there matter? I don’t know,” he says. “We were expendable – that’s how it felt.”

The toll of moral injury

The unintended effects of America’s “forever wars” include a dawning awareness among clinicians about moral injury. Endless conflict has wrought greater insight into the unending anguish that combat can impose on troops.

Researchers describe moral injury as a breach of a person’s ethical code that inflicts lasting behavioral, emotional, and psychological damage. This “wound to the soul” most often occurs when individuals commit, fail to prevent, or witness an act that cuts against their moral beliefs. The experience burdens them with acute guilt and shame that at once distorts their self-identity and provokes reflexive distrust of others.

“It’s something that obliterates your expectation of life as you understand it,” says Dr. Brett Litz, a psychologist with the Veterans Affairs system in Boston and a leading researcher into moral injury. “It reflects a profound and intense and debilitating experience that changes how you see yourself and the world around you.”

In the context of troops at war, moral injury arises from diverse causes: killing an enemy combatant or civilian; giving an order that results in the injury or death of another service member; failing to save the life of a comrade; witnessing the death of civilians.

A moment from Anthony Anderson’s first tour in Iraq in 2004 still shadows him. Rockets and mortars fired by insurgents had wounded civilians outside the perimeter of his unit’s base. His platoon later rolled out in a convoy for the day’s mission, and beyond his truck’s windows, he saw bodies splayed on the ground.

His eyes met the agonized gaze of a man whose white shalwar kameez had turned crimson from a stomach wound. Mr. Anderson asked over the radio if the troops could stop to provide medical aid. The order came back to keep moving.

His shame over what he perceived as a betrayal of the Iraqi people has never waned. In the wounded man’s stare, he glimpsed a nation’s misery, a covenant broken – an entire war gone wrong.

“Do I think getting rid of Saddam Hussein was something worth doing? Yes,” says Mr. Anderson, who works for a legal services company in Houston. “But you can’t point to any part of life – in America or Iraq – that’s better because we invaded.”

His second combat tour in 2007 further battered his conscience. Six years later, he joined a fellow Iraq War veteran on a 2,700-mile hike from their native Wisconsin to the California coast. The duo traversed the contours of their guilt and grief in a journey captured in the documentary “Almost Sunrise” that sought to draw attention to moral injury.

During the five-month trek, Mr. Anderson began to resurface from his desolation, and he since has reclaimed his self-worth through fatherhood and serving as a veteran peer counselor. Yet his memories of war are embalmed in remorse.

“Even though I was proud to have served, I felt like a fraud,” he says. “I feel guilty because I contributed to the problems the Iraqi people continue to have today.”

A deepening regret

Psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay introduced the idea of moral injury through his work with Vietnam War veterans in the 1980s and ’90s. More than a quarter-century later, the concept remains unrecognized as a formal diagnosis, less studied and understood by mental health providers than the clinical condition of post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD refers to a mental and biological reaction that recurs for months and sometimes years after an individual endures or witnesses a traumatic event or series of events. The anxiety and fear that linger can induce abrupt mood swings, avoidance of public settings, and withdrawal from family and friends. Combat veterans diagnosed with the disorder also tend to exhibit hypervigilance, a state of extreme alertness that carries over from the war zone.

In treating veterans of America’s 21st-century wars, Dr. Litz and a coterie of clinicians have expanded research into moral injury, framing the condition as related to yet distinct from PTSD.

Their studies identify guilt as a crucial factor that distinguishes moral injury, even as other symptoms – anxiety and despair, flashbacks and nightmares, social isolation and suicidal thoughts – overlap with PTSD. The findings suggest that guilt and shame typically emerge over months or years as combat veterans gain perspective on a morally injurious act or event.

As returning troops readapt to the ethical dimensions of civilian life, the rationale for their behavior in war can appear indefensible in hindsight, clashing with long-held personal beliefs and perceptions of their own humanity. The lack of a peaceful resolution in Iraq and Afghanistan can intensify that self-reproach as they second-guess their faith in the military and the mission.

“If they feel the sacrifice has a degree of nobility and the war has the right outcome, it moderates the damage done psychologically,” Dr. Litz says. Without sustained stability in either country, “there will be some who say, ‘I feel like a sucker.’”

Former Army Sgt. Nate Vass deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 convinced he had entered a just war. His view of the U.S. occupation, then in its fifth year, changed over the ensuing 16 months as he learned about the Afghan people and culture. He remembers wondering, “Why are we trying to westernize a country that really does not want to be westernized?”

Soon after his tour, Mr. Vass left the Army and returned home to California, disillusioned with the military and himself. He drank to submerge his anxiety and anger. He grew more detached, his days bereft of meaning, his nights suffused with dread.

VA clinicians diagnosed him with PTSD, and since moving to northern Montana two years ago, he has found solace in the serenity of the Rocky Mountains. His therapy takes the form of hiking and skiing, yet as his mind has calmed, his service in a war he deems misguided weighs on his spirit, a millstone heavier than any military medal.

“I feel a sense of bitterness about all of it,” Mr. Vass says of a conflict that has killed nearly 2,300 U.S. troops and passed the 18-year mark last month. “Not so much about what I had to deal with. But I have friends who came back and committed suicide and other guys who were killed on deployments. For what?”

U.S. military and civilian forces in Afghanistan expanded access to education for girls, strengthened voting rights, and trained and equipped Afghan security forces. Mr. Vass lists those examples as evidence that America’s intervention held potential to benefit the country – before adding that much of the progress has stalled and soon could vanish as the Taliban reasserts its influence.

 

He hears about the strife in Afghanistan and Iraq from friends in the military who have deployed in recent years. His regret deepens as the unrest passes almost without comment in America.

“We mourn our soldiers who die there. But we don’t mourn Afghan and Iraqi civilians – the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of civilians – who have been killed. What about them and their families? What do we owe them?”

Mending the spirit

Dr. Litz and his colleagues developed a treatment regimen for moral injury a decade ago called adaptive disclosure. One phase of the eight-week program involves a clinician guiding a veteran through a conversation with an imaginary and benevolent “moral authority” to talk about the act or event that has caused suffering. The patient then describes the regret and sorrow that has followed, and asks for forgiveness or a chance to atone.

“It’s akin to secular confession,” Dr. Litz says. “It’s to help the person divulge and unearth memories and details so those emotions can be felt and explored.”

An estimated 11% to 20% of the 2.7 million men and women who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have received a diagnosis of PTSD linked to their service. The percentage of former service members coping with moral injury appears comparable. A study last year showed that 9 in 10 veterans diagnosed with PTSD also exhibited at least one symptom associated with moral injury.

But with the VA’s prevailing emphasis on PTSD as a mental health diagnosis for combat veterans, the authors of another recent report warn that moral injury “can often go unrecognized and ignored” by clinicians.

Treatment for PTSD attempts to alleviate fear and repair the mind. Therapy for moral injury seeks to ease guilt and mend the spirit. Research showing a potential link between moral injury and a higher risk of suicide among active-duty troops illuminates the perils of providers missing signs of the condition.

“There’s an incredible urgency and need to elevate awareness around moral injury,” says Dr. Springer, who has treated veterans for the past decade, first within the VA system and now in private practice. She points out that most people diagnosed with PTSD either recover from or learn to manage their symptoms. “We have to make people familiar with moral injury in the way we’ve done with post-traumatic stress.”

Noel Lipana survived a therapy gauntlet in his journey toward recovery from moral injury. In 2008, he returned from Afghanistan without truly coming home. An Air Force major at the time, he trained U.S. troops how to detect and disable improvised explosive devices planted by insurgents.

He worked with two Army soldiers who died in separate explosions during his deployment. Mr. Lipana blamed himself for their deaths and those of four Afghan children killed in another blast.

He received a diagnosis of PTSD a few years after his discharge as he struggled with anger, flashbacks, and insomnia. VA clinicians in California prescribed medication and enrolled him in successive programs of long-term therapy. Nothing assuaged his guilt. His outlook darkened.

“Obviously, I forfeit my membership card to humanity,” he recalls thinking. “I don’t deserve to be healed.”

His spiral stopped with the help of a pair of clinicians in Sacramento who run a group therapy program for veterans beset by moral injury. The sessions enabled Mr. Lipana to excavate his unresolved guilt and grief as he and his fellow veterans discussed the scalding emotional extremes of war, its random cruelties.

As part of the program, he wrote letters to the two soldiers and four kids who died to request their forgiveness. The process allowed him to remember, to mourn – and, in time, to heal.

“The fact is, no one’s moral architecture can withstand the exigencies of combat,” says Mr. Lipana, who co-founded the Center for Post-Traumatic Growth in Sacramento to promote recovery from psychological wounds. He has mined his ordeal to create a performance art piece titled “Quiet Summons” that translates the internal torment of moral injury through music, dance, and storytelling. He wants to offer hope to veterans edging toward the void.

“The basic message is, ‘It’s OK if you’re a little jacked-up, a little broken. We all are.’”

Searching for closure

Bobby Ehrig deployed with the Army to Bosnia-Herzegovina and neighboring Croatia as part of a peacekeeping mission in 1998. The region’s recent war had hollowed out cities, villages, and everyday life.

A couple of years ago, a friend of Mr. Ehrig’s visited Bosnia and sent him photos of areas where his unit had patrolled. The images elicited a stunned smile. He saw cities reborn and landscapes restored. The scars of violence had faded.

“That gave me a sense of elation,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, the sacrifice we made did something. We made a positive difference.’”

A veterans advocate in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Mr. Ehrig deployed twice to Iraq. A bomb blast in 2006 caused third-degree burns over 40% of his body, cutting short his second tour and military career. He seldom tracks news about the country but realizes the odds for peace are long. “There’s no sense of closure,” he says.

Mr. Ehrig avoids dwelling on whether the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were worth fighting. “That doesn’t help anything,” he says. Yet the ongoing upheaval in both countries can exacerbate the moral injury of veterans who consider the conflicts a betrayal, who believe they were duped, then discarded.

Kristofer Goldsmith deployed to Iraq in 2004 at age 19. Before flying over, he recalls his Army commanders referring to the unit’s role as that of a “cleanup crew,” as if the war would end any day. Driving from Kuwait to Baghdad with his platoon, he noticed troops replacing tents with semi-permanent structures at bases along the route.

“I knew we’d been lied to,” he says.

Mr. Goldsmith’s job required him to photograph mass graves, civilian casualties, and other grim scenes of war. The work preyed on his mind, and rather than deploy again in 2007, he attempted suicide. Army officials charged him with misconduct and kicked him out of the service.

“I don’t feel like my year in Iraq was worth anything. But I’ve still been dealing with the effects of it for most of my life,” says Mr. Goldsmith, who after leaving the military launched High Ground Veterans Advocacy, a nonprofit group in New York. He suggests that only a lasting peace could begin to redress the war’s costs in troop deaths, civilian casualties, and veteran suicides.

“If Iraq were a place I could return to as a tourist – and every veteran could return to – I think that would do a world of good and would help a lot of veterans heal,” he says. “Because now it’s like, ‘Does anybody remember what the mission was?’”

A devotion to fellow veterans

War shaped Ryan Berg. He wishes some days he had chosen another path. He wishes every day his friend Gino had lived.

The intensity of two combat tours in Iraq cast Mr. Berg adrift within himself after his discharge in 2007. He fought against the feral memories of war, the specter of death close at hand. He sprayed anger at family, friends, strangers. He sought escape from himself in drinking and drugs.

Mr. Berg revived his spirit by degrees. He finished college and graduate school. He co-founded a veterans support organization and began hosting a TV program about former service members. He learned to look ahead when stray thoughts wrenched him into the past.

Each time he fills up his car, the smell of gas reminds him of Iraq, where the oilfields burned and his friend perished. The question arrives unbidden. “How did Gino losing his life in Iraq make sense?”

Mr. Berg answers with his devotion to veterans of the forever wars. He knows some remain trapped on an unseen battlefield. He seeks to bring them back.

“It’s been hard for me to feel proud of what I did in Iraq,” he says. “I don’t want them going through that. I don’t want them to feel alone.”

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It’s November 6, 1993, and I’m enjoying a beautiful evening on base in San Diego. I’m 19 years old - out with shipmates dancing and having a few drinks at the club on base. Feeling tired as the night went...
Read More
As It Turns Out, I Am Worthy of Love

As It Turns Out, I Am Worthy of Love

The first time I saw a Marine I was seven years old at a college baseball game in my hometown, Omaha, Nebraska at Rosenblatt Stadium.  They were in the outfield, frozen, wearing crisp white pants, holding a rifle salute during...
Read More
“The Mask”

“The Mask”

I am sad and lonely, I have nobody to comfort me, So I wear a mask that always smiles, To hide my feelings behind my hurt.
Read More
The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

Iraq was hellish.  It was insanely hot, extremely physically and mentally demanding, and imminently dangerous all of the time.  Our late battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mark Smith, a man for whose picture adorns the wall in my study, was pushing...
Read More
Pumping the Breaks on Tears

Pumping the Breaks on Tears

My friend Alex committed suicide a month ago. For context, he was not a Veteran. A week prior to his death, he visited my wife and I at our home. I met Alex in community college in 2007, and we...
Read More
Psychotherapy Has Profoundly Deepened My Sleep

Psychotherapy Has Profoundly Deepened My Sleep

As the whole world knows by now, I am a patient and advocate of psychotherapy. And ever since about nine months into treatment, there was a major shift. There have been several major, profound life-changing positive shifts in my outlook,...
Read More
I Understand Your Deep Sadness

I Understand Your Deep Sadness

A few days ago I was having a really rough time emotionally, feeling heartbroken.  To be up front, today isn't all that glorious either.  Things periodically get difficult since I'm currently in psychotherapy talking about very painful things - not...
Read More
The Heartbreak of Leaving the Marine Corps

The Heartbreak of Leaving the Marine Corps

Just a few hours prior, I sat in the confines of a fluorescent lit conference room with 3 field grade officers, all built like brick shithouses, chizzled, professional, determined, yet compassionate, staring back at me.  They had just stated their...
Read More
Therapy and Shame – Veterans’ Voices

Therapy and Shame – Veterans’ Voices

One of the most powerful things for me has been psychotherapy. I've been in therapy for the past two years, and I just want to address something right now. There are articles and all sorts of headlines about military members,...
Read More
The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

When I was in Iraq, I saw men holding hands all the time. As you might imagine, most of us Marines assumed there was something homosexual about doing this, and all sorts of jokes sprung up as a result. After...
Read More
Pain Is Never Weakness Leaving the Body

Pain Is Never Weakness Leaving the Body

...You walk into your bedroom and clang your pinky toe on the sturdy, round wooden leg of the bed frame. A mind-numbing ache ascends instantly from your foot to your skull. You lie down on your mattress and clinch hard...
Read More
As a U.S. Marine Infantryman, Psychotherapy Has Made Me Even Stronger

As a U.S. Marine Infantryman, Psychotherapy Has Made Me Even Stronger

The experience of therapy was new to me.  I wasn't used to someone listening.  To caring.  To someone asking questions about my feelings, and affirming the validity of them.  To someone simply being present as I cried about hurtful events...
Read More

Tiffany Chinn is a mother, wife, and Navy Veteran.  She’s currently an insurance agent, but her deeper passions lie in being the creator of the Veteran Love Foundation, which provides meals, cooking lessons, and education around healthy living to Veterans – which she’s hopes to do full-time someday. Tiffany is married with 2 children, 2 dogs, 2 cats, and 2 bunnies. In her free time she enjoys hiking, playing games, reading and creating recipes. She has been a member of Returning Veterans of Diablo Valley since July, 2019.

It’s November 6th, 1993, and I’m enjoying a beautiful evening on base in San Diego, California. I’m 19 years old – out with shipmates dancing and having a few drinks at the club. Feeling tired as the night progressed, I decided to walk back to the ship early without my friends. It was raining sporadically that week, like it often does, so I was looking down towards the concrete, dodging puddles in the parking lot. What happened next was the most traumatic event of my life and would alter it forever.

I was grabbed from behind and thrown against a car as my head slammed into the side of a door. Warm blood streams down my forehead and a punch lands deep in my gut, slapped twice across the face, and choked until I nearly blackout. I’m on the ground, on my back, with my arms pinned underneath me, as he presses his knees into my thighs, yanks my skirt up, and rips my underwear off.

I’m being raped.

I went into shock – there, but not really. As I write, I can remember the smell of his cologne, mixed with blood, sweat, rain, mud, and finally, semen.

When it was over, I laid in the mud and sobbed between cars – frozen and terrified. After what seemed like hours, I stood up, straightened my tattered clothes, and leaned over to pick up my torn underwear – shoving them in my pocket. I wiped myself off with scraped and bleeding hands, and somehow garnered the strength to continue the walk back. I was numb.

As I neared the entrance to the ship, I dug down and pretended like nothing happened. When I peeked up, the Officer on Deck asked, “Why are you dirty and bleeding?” “Oh, I tripped on my way home” I quipped, and then proceeded immediately to the berthing area. I felt ashamed that I was unable to protect myself and thought that it was my fault for wearing a short skirt and drinking.

I took a long and scolding hot shower in an attempt to “wash it all away”, yet I couldn’t stop shivering and presumed I would get in trouble for exceeding the five-minute time limit. The water did turn off, but kicked back on after I waited a very long minute. I felt glad to be alone because I couldn’t bear another person learning of what happened. “It was my fault, after all”, I reasoned.

I wrapped myself in a towel, sat down for a moment, and then one of my shipmates walked in. She knew instantly something happened, “What happened to you?” “Nothing.” I replied. She pressed, “clearly something, you’re shaking, bleeding and bruised all over.” I looked down at my battered legs and then told her everything. She soon convinced me to go the Master at Arms on duty to report the incident.

I got dressed and made the long walk – each step heavier and more painful than the last. My heart hurt, my body ached, and I was full of fear, doubt, shame, and negative inner dialogue. He was not happy to see me and quickly ordered my friend to leave. She squeezed my hand, as if to leave some part of herself with me. The officer begrudgingly took my statement, harped on me for not reporting the incident the moment I came aboard, and berated me for showering. “Aren’t you smarter than that?” He said.  He sent me to medical, where I was instructed to undress for an exam and photographs. After being raped, this felt even further exposing.

As morning fell, I was escorted to base security, and asked to tell the story all over again to a room full of officers and enlisted. It was embarrassing and further traumatizing. What I needed was a chance to breath, some emotional and psychological support, and sleep – since I was extremely tired, aching from the core, and sore. I remember a sailor leaning over to one near him and saying, “shouldn’t she be crying?” His insensitivity knew no bounds. What he didn’t realize was that because I was beaten, nearly killed it felt, and raped, I detached from my emotions.  Dissociated, standing next to my body, watching a horrible movie for which I could not stop.

I sat in a room for hours pouring over thousands of photos of men on base, expected to find my attacker. While I couldn’t recall his face, I did remember his smell, hand, Levi’s, and the speed of his pants flinging open in one movement. Yet there I sat, for countless hours and then days, confusedly glossing over thousands of photos.  Futile.

One week after the horrific night I was raped, I began to feel intense pain, and would soon experience even further trauma.  I learned from doctors that the rapist gave me herpes. They prescribed me medication and back I went to continue reviewing photos.

By this time, I was removed from ship, isolated from friends, and eating by myself. I was breaking down, my soul was hurting, and at one point, simply couldn’t take it anymore. I cracked. I wanted this to be over and to have my life back – I didn’t have capacity to be overly concerned with justice at the time. I felt trapped, exhausted, and in serious pain. I wanted “my captors” to give up, so, similar to a prisoner giving a false confession to escape harsh punishment or torture, I looked at one photo and said, “I think this might be him.”

I prayed that the man had an alibi and didn’t consider what would happen if he didn’t. They quickly tracked him down and ordered a lined up so we could be sure. Staring at men that all looked similar, I said, “I don’t know, maybe number 4?” It happened to be the same person from the photo, yet thankfully he had an alibi.  I couldn’t remember the face of the rapist, yet it felt as if I was expected to, and that it was not OK to not know. I think we all reasoned that, “If I couldn’t confidently identify someone, then perhaps it didn’t really happen.”

When I was finally allowed back on ship, I thought I would be safe and could start to find my way forward –  yet that is not what happened.  Instead, I faced countless questions and endless harassment. I would soon learn that the superior of the person I wrongly identified was pressing charges against me for defamation of character. Everything that followed would become a haze. In court, I pleaded with the judge that I was exhausted, in intense pain, and under immense pressure from investigators to identify someone. Somehow, despite being the one who endured one of the most sadistic acts on the planet just a few weeks prior, I admitted to guilt in all of this. 

Numerous character references read in court could not stop the forty-five day prison sentence handed down. Let’s just consider: a month after I was savagely raped I was headed to prison.  A rush of overwhelming shame again took me under. “I did this. I brought this on.” I thought.

Thinking back, how is it that Navy officials didn’t know that what I needed was psychological and emotional support after the incident? Why was I treated like a POW, pressed to the brink of exhaustion to provide information that I admitted to not remembering? I was essentially forced to identify a suspect. Did they think that making me incessantly pour over thousands of images would somehow jog my memory? It only served to confuse and wear me down even more than I already was.  

I didn’t tell my parents what was happening with me, despite needing them the most. They would soon catch on though once they realized I was only calling them collect once per week. My cellmate convinced me to tell them everything, so I did. They were in disbelief and extremely angry about how I was being treated.

When I reached out to a counselor for help while in prison, they didn’t listen nor care, and suggested I voluntarily discharge from the Navy, go home, and “start over.” By this point, I was so broken that I followed their inept and misguided “advice.”

Writing about this experience was and is extremely difficult. For two decades after my Naval service, I never spoke about it, pushed it down, and thought I could lock it up and not deal with it. As a result, I gained more than a hundred pounds, bounced around to several unhealthy relationships, was an emotional mess, always drank when socializing, and ultimately stopped having sex – due to the STD and memories that would come up. 

It was only when I got professional help that I began to realize how unjustly I was treated during that time, and how my life was so deeply altered because of it. I’m so grateful for my dear friend, Jenna, who encouraged me for five years to apply for VA benefits. I don’t think I would have ever confronted and dealt with this experience without her presence. It has been an extremely arduous and challenging journey to find, forgive, and love myself again – and to confidently believe that I am worthy. At times, it can be a moment-to-moment process, where I struggle with emotional and psychological trauma caused by the incident.

I do know one thing for certain though, which is: I will not give up anymore. I will not let this experience take me under. I am taking my life back, because it does not belong to anyone else, but me. I grow stronger each day.  I survived.

How to Stop Smoking Marijuana

How to Stop Smoking Marijuana

Perhaps you feel desperate.  Up to this point, you use marijuana compulsively.  You've often felt guilty about the habit, tried to stop, but the substance continues to hang around in your life.  You know that, technically, it's not physically addictive,...
Read More
Scraping the Skull of My Psyche with a Scalpel

Scraping the Skull of My Psyche with a Scalpel

I've traveled to the center of my soul.  Doing this has been the single most profoundly difficult, exhaustive, and emotionally arduous inward journey of my entire life.  As I write this, my heart feels battered, bruised, its veins are sore,...
Read More
The Soul Crushing Pain of Family Estrangement

The Soul Crushing Pain of Family Estrangement

My mother was sexually abused by her father.  Growing up, I was completely blind of this horrible fact.  Yet I experienced its profoundly devastating ripple affects: from countless men entering and exiting our lives and home, exposure to my mother's...
Read More
How I Transformed My Relationship

How I Transformed My Relationship

I met my wife on the internet.  Eharmony to be precise. It was early 2015 and I just got out of a tumultuous short-term relationship, which ended because the woman forgot my middle name -- I became enraged, packed up,...
Read More
Torture in Mahmudiyah: An Unbearable Chamber of Suffering

Torture in Mahmudiyah: An Unbearable Chamber of Suffering

Standing a few steps into the room, we both watched in horror, yet were mesmerized as we traded smirks.  We'd never seen anything like this before.  "If this person was responsible for plotting to kill us", we reasoned, "perhaps he's...
Read More
Ali Baba: A Marine Squad’s Brush With Death

Ali Baba: A Marine Squad’s Brush With Death

The boy came up to our first team and yelled out “Ali Baba!” while pointing northward. Long radioed details back to me and I made the decision to take the team in that direction, the target would have to wait,...
Read More
For Me, The Marine Corps Was a Suicide Mission

For Me, The Marine Corps Was a Suicide Mission

I joined the Marine Corps in hopes of dying an honorable death and restoring dignity to my family name.  My reaction to knowing that I would be deployed to Iraq in 2004 was nothing short of hysteria.  "Finally", I thought,...
Read More
For U.S. veterans, what does it mean to heal a moral injury?

For U.S. veterans, what does it mean to heal a moral injury?

The two corporals smiled at the chance meeting, their first in the war zone. “Happy birthday, Marines,” Giannopoulos said to Berg and a few others seated by him. Berg chatted with him for a minute before Gino, as most called...
Read More
Phoenix Rising: Becoming a Survivor

Phoenix Rising: Becoming a Survivor

It’s November 6, 1993, and I’m enjoying a beautiful evening on base in San Diego. I’m 19 years old - out with shipmates dancing and having a few drinks at the club on base. Feeling tired as the night went...
Read More
As It Turns Out, I Am Worthy of Love

As It Turns Out, I Am Worthy of Love

The first time I saw a Marine I was seven years old at a college baseball game in my hometown, Omaha, Nebraska at Rosenblatt Stadium.  They were in the outfield, frozen, wearing crisp white pants, holding a rifle salute during...
Read More
“The Mask”

“The Mask”

I am sad and lonely, I have nobody to comfort me, So I wear a mask that always smiles, To hide my feelings behind my hurt.
Read More
The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

Iraq was hellish.  It was insanely hot, extremely physically and mentally demanding, and imminently dangerous all of the time.  Our late battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mark Smith, a man for whose picture adorns the wall in my study, was pushing...
Read More
Pumping the Breaks on Tears

Pumping the Breaks on Tears

My friend Alex committed suicide a month ago. For context, he was not a Veteran. A week prior to his death, he visited my wife and I at our home. I met Alex in community college in 2007, and we...
Read More
Psychotherapy Has Profoundly Deepened My Sleep

Psychotherapy Has Profoundly Deepened My Sleep

As the whole world knows by now, I am a patient and advocate of psychotherapy. And ever since about nine months into treatment, there was a major shift. There have been several major, profound life-changing positive shifts in my outlook,...
Read More
I Understand Your Deep Sadness

I Understand Your Deep Sadness

A few days ago I was having a really rough time emotionally, feeling heartbroken.  To be up front, today isn't all that glorious either.  Things periodically get difficult since I'm currently in psychotherapy talking about very painful things - not...
Read More
The Heartbreak of Leaving the Marine Corps

The Heartbreak of Leaving the Marine Corps

Just a few hours prior, I sat in the confines of a fluorescent lit conference room with 3 field grade officers, all built like brick shithouses, chizzled, professional, determined, yet compassionate, staring back at me.  They had just stated their...
Read More
Therapy and Shame – Veterans’ Voices

Therapy and Shame – Veterans’ Voices

One of the most powerful things for me has been psychotherapy. I've been in therapy for the past two years, and I just want to address something right now. There are articles and all sorts of headlines about military members,...
Read More
The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

When I was in Iraq, I saw men holding hands all the time. As you might imagine, most of us Marines assumed there was something homosexual about doing this, and all sorts of jokes sprung up as a result. After...
Read More
Pain Is Never Weakness Leaving the Body

Pain Is Never Weakness Leaving the Body

...You walk into your bedroom and clang your pinky toe on the sturdy, round wooden leg of the bed frame. A mind-numbing ache ascends instantly from your foot to your skull. You lie down on your mattress and clinch hard...
Read More
As a U.S. Marine Infantryman, Psychotherapy Has Made Me Even Stronger

As a U.S. Marine Infantryman, Psychotherapy Has Made Me Even Stronger

The experience of therapy was new to me.  I wasn't used to someone listening.  To caring.  To someone asking questions about my feelings, and affirming the validity of them.  To someone simply being present as I cried about hurtful events...
Read More

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?

PFC, USMC, Bert M. Berg, 19, KIA November 23rd 1943, Tarawa

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.

How to Stop Smoking Marijuana

How to Stop Smoking Marijuana

Perhaps you feel desperate.  Up to this point, you use marijuana compulsively.  You've often felt guilty about the habit, tried to stop, but the substance continues to hang around in your life.  You know that, technically, it's not physically addictive,...
Read More
Scraping the Skull of My Psyche with a Scalpel

Scraping the Skull of My Psyche with a Scalpel

I've traveled to the center of my soul.  Doing this has been the single most profoundly difficult, exhaustive, and emotionally arduous inward journey of my entire life.  As I write this, my heart feels battered, bruised, its veins are sore,...
Read More
The Soul Crushing Pain of Family Estrangement

The Soul Crushing Pain of Family Estrangement

My mother was sexually abused by her father.  Growing up, I was completely blind of this horrible fact.  Yet I experienced its profoundly devastating ripple affects: from countless men entering and exiting our lives and home, exposure to my mother's...
Read More
How I Transformed My Relationship

How I Transformed My Relationship

I met my wife on the internet.  Eharmony to be precise. It was early 2015 and I just got out of a tumultuous short-term relationship, which ended because the woman forgot my middle name -- I became enraged, packed up,...
Read More
Torture in Mahmudiyah: An Unbearable Chamber of Suffering

Torture in Mahmudiyah: An Unbearable Chamber of Suffering

Standing a few steps into the room, we both watched in horror, yet were mesmerized as we traded smirks.  We'd never seen anything like this before.  "If this person was responsible for plotting to kill us", we reasoned, "perhaps he's...
Read More
Ali Baba: A Marine Squad’s Brush With Death

Ali Baba: A Marine Squad’s Brush With Death

The boy came up to our first team and yelled out “Ali Baba!” while pointing northward. Long radioed details back to me and I made the decision to take the team in that direction, the target would have to wait,...
Read More
For Me, The Marine Corps Was a Suicide Mission

For Me, The Marine Corps Was a Suicide Mission

I joined the Marine Corps in hopes of dying an honorable death and restoring dignity to my family name.  My reaction to knowing that I would be deployed to Iraq in 2004 was nothing short of hysteria.  "Finally", I thought,...
Read More
For U.S. veterans, what does it mean to heal a moral injury?

For U.S. veterans, what does it mean to heal a moral injury?

The two corporals smiled at the chance meeting, their first in the war zone. “Happy birthday, Marines,” Giannopoulos said to Berg and a few others seated by him. Berg chatted with him for a minute before Gino, as most called...
Read More
Phoenix Rising: Becoming a Survivor

Phoenix Rising: Becoming a Survivor

It’s November 6, 1993, and I’m enjoying a beautiful evening on base in San Diego. I’m 19 years old - out with shipmates dancing and having a few drinks at the club on base. Feeling tired as the night went...
Read More
As It Turns Out, I Am Worthy of Love

As It Turns Out, I Am Worthy of Love

The first time I saw a Marine I was seven years old at a college baseball game in my hometown, Omaha, Nebraska at Rosenblatt Stadium.  They were in the outfield, frozen, wearing crisp white pants, holding a rifle salute during...
Read More
“The Mask”

“The Mask”

I am sad and lonely, I have nobody to comfort me, So I wear a mask that always smiles, To hide my feelings behind my hurt.
Read More
The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

Iraq was hellish.  It was insanely hot, extremely physically and mentally demanding, and imminently dangerous all of the time.  Our late battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mark Smith, a man for whose picture adorns the wall in my study, was pushing...
Read More
Pumping the Breaks on Tears

Pumping the Breaks on Tears

My friend Alex committed suicide a month ago. For context, he was not a Veteran. A week prior to his death, he visited my wife and I at our home. I met Alex in community college in 2007, and we...
Read More
Psychotherapy Has Profoundly Deepened My Sleep

Psychotherapy Has Profoundly Deepened My Sleep

As the whole world knows by now, I am a patient and advocate of psychotherapy. And ever since about nine months into treatment, there was a major shift. There have been several major, profound life-changing positive shifts in my outlook,...
Read More
I Understand Your Deep Sadness

I Understand Your Deep Sadness

A few days ago I was having a really rough time emotionally, feeling heartbroken.  To be up front, today isn't all that glorious either.  Things periodically get difficult since I'm currently in psychotherapy talking about very painful things - not...
Read More
The Heartbreak of Leaving the Marine Corps

The Heartbreak of Leaving the Marine Corps

Just a few hours prior, I sat in the confines of a fluorescent lit conference room with 3 field grade officers, all built like brick shithouses, chizzled, professional, determined, yet compassionate, staring back at me.  They had just stated their...
Read More
Therapy and Shame – Veterans’ Voices

Therapy and Shame – Veterans’ Voices

One of the most powerful things for me has been psychotherapy. I've been in therapy for the past two years, and I just want to address something right now. There are articles and all sorts of headlines about military members,...
Read More
The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

When I was in Iraq, I saw men holding hands all the time. As you might imagine, most of us Marines assumed there was something homosexual about doing this, and all sorts of jokes sprung up as a result. After...
Read More
Pain Is Never Weakness Leaving the Body

Pain Is Never Weakness Leaving the Body

...You walk into your bedroom and clang your pinky toe on the sturdy, round wooden leg of the bed frame. A mind-numbing ache ascends instantly from your foot to your skull. You lie down on your mattress and clinch hard...
Read More
As a U.S. Marine Infantryman, Psychotherapy Has Made Me Even Stronger

As a U.S. Marine Infantryman, Psychotherapy Has Made Me Even Stronger

The experience of therapy was new to me.  I wasn't used to someone listening.  To caring.  To someone asking questions about my feelings, and affirming the validity of them.  To someone simply being present as I cried about hurtful events...
Read More

Damian Zuniga served in the Marine Corps from 1989-1992 with the 3rd Marines.  He was stationed in Kaneohe Bay Air Station in Hawaii and served in Operation Desert Storm as a 3531/3533 Motor T Operator. He’s been a member of Returning Veterans of Diablo Valley since early September of 2019.

I am sad and lonely,
I have nobody to comfort me,
So I wear a mask that always smiles,
To hide my feelings behind my hurt.

Back in the day, I had many friends;
With my mask, I was one of them.
But deep inside I still feel empty, I am still missing a part of me.

Nobody hears my cries at night,
For I designed my mask to hide my hurt.
Nobody can see the pain I am feeling,
For I designed my mask to be laughing.

Behind all my smiles are my tears,
And behind all the comfort are my fears.
Everything you think you see, Isn’t everything there is to me.

Day by day
I am slowly dying.
I can’t go on,
There is something missing..

I’m still searching
For the thing that’ll stop my crying,
I want to erase my fears,
I want to wipe my tears….

But I’ll keep on smiling,
Hiding behind this mask I’m wearing.
Hoping one day I can smile,
Till then, I’ll be here…waiting.