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.

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 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 quickly volunteered to deploy back to Iraq with the next unit that would have me.  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.”

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.

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

In this clip, RVDV co-creator, Ryan Berg, talks about his journey though psychotherapy, and why having a therapist is like having and "executive coach.....on steroids".
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
Thank God for Emotional Pain

Thank God for Emotional Pain

“Thank God for emotional pain”… was a thought that I had as I entered the park on an afternoon walk a few weeks ago. “Wait, what?”, I said to myself internally. “Did I really just utter that?” Something within me...
Read More
I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

So I smoked in college, after I graduated, and off an on when I entered professional life.  I would quit because I felt ashamed, and then fire back up again.  It became a vicious cycle.  I realize now that this...
Read More
Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

As Veterans, we know all to well what it means to suck it up.  "Embrace the suck" has become so common place that we often live our lives from this place, and even tell our friends in one way or...
Read More
These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

As I sat up against the wall of the roof with my back towards the street where the car was, I was rocked by the most powerful explosion I've ever experienced.  It shook my chest cavity. I passed out for...
Read More
Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

It was a bright and sunny morning in 2007 at the downtown Fallujah, Iraq, police station where a dozen or so Marines and I were tasked with providing security for a day of police recruiting.  There seemed to be a...
Read More
On The Road To Nabatiya

On The Road To Nabatiya

ON THE ROAD TO NABATIYA THEY COME TO ME AS IF I’VE CALLED THEM BACK FROM A PLACE I’VE LEFT BEHIND THEIR FACES, YOUNG...
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.

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

In this clip, RVDV co-creator, Ryan Berg, talks about his journey though psychotherapy, and why having a therapist is like having and "executive coach.....on steroids".
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
Thank God for Emotional Pain

Thank God for Emotional Pain

“Thank God for emotional pain”… was a thought that I had as I entered the park on an afternoon walk a few weeks ago. “Wait, what?”, I said to myself internally. “Did I really just utter that?” Something within me...
Read More
I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

So I smoked in college, after I graduated, and off an on when I entered professional life.  I would quit because I felt ashamed, and then fire back up again.  It became a vicious cycle.  I realize now that this...
Read More
Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

As Veterans, we know all to well what it means to suck it up.  "Embrace the suck" has become so common place that we often live our lives from this place, and even tell our friends in one way or...
Read More
These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

As I sat up against the wall of the roof with my back towards the street where the car was, I was rocked by the most powerful explosion I've ever experienced.  It shook my chest cavity. I passed out for...
Read More
Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

It was a bright and sunny morning in 2007 at the downtown Fallujah, Iraq, police station where a dozen or so Marines and I were tasked with providing security for a day of police recruiting.  There seemed to be a...
Read More
On The Road To Nabatiya

On The Road To Nabatiya

ON THE ROAD TO NABATIYA THEY COME TO ME AS IF I’VE CALLED THEM BACK FROM A PLACE I’VE LEFT BEHIND THEIR FACES, YOUNG...
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.

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.

I read a story in the news several months ago where some hunters from Alaska snuck into a bear den with a mother and her cubs hanging out inside.  For fun, they shot all of them to death.  The article described how the baby cubs shrieked as the attack occurred.  I felt devastated. I balled my eyes out over a period of a few weeks thinking about it. It still hurts to think about as I write this.

A few days ago, a new addition to my own “family of bears” joined our den in the form of a two month old German Shepherd, “Pacha”.  She quite literally resembles a bear with her puffy black fur, huge paws, pointed ears, and sharp teeth.  A few days after I brought her home, I found myself soaking in a salt-laced spirit bath in the early dawn hours, trying to feel and process raw emotions I opened up in psychotherapy the evening prior.  Now that I’ve spent ample time exploring the experiences of my hurricane of a childhood, I’m focused intently on my time in Iraq.  Whenever I talk about this time in my life, I feel like I’m literally right back in the war torn country.  I feel the deep fear, the dread, the uncertainty, the hopelessness, the vulnerability – I feel danger lurking.  It’s not a good feeling – my chest tightens, I get anxious, and it’s harder to get the oxygen I need.   

As Pacha lay with all fours spread on the cold bathroom floor, she squirms and wiggles as the soft flesh of her underbelly cools on the tile floor.  Meanwhile, I’m held warmly by the water.  I cup my hands, bring my palms above my head and let the water wash over me.  As it drips off my face and chin, I gasp for another breath, and glance over to see that Pacha has re-positioned herself.  Now stretched all the way out with only her head peeking out of the door frame, looking down the hallway to the left – as if to say, “I’ve got the door, don’t worry, we’re safe in our den.”

My whole body and beingness responds, first, with a warmth that begins in my belly, and next with an unrestricted outpouring of tears.  For the first time in my life, I feel safe. I’m wailing.  Sobbing.  My face contorts in grief and gratitude, my eyes squeezed shut, lips and cheeks pulled back – the contrast of my past experiences and this moment converge: danger and now safety.  I’m safe. I’m home. I cry.

No matter how I look at it, deploying twice to Iraq has left me to deal with trauma.  I realize that some of my peers reading this might dismiss the idea, or perhaps consider it shameless self-pity for talking about it openly and publicly:  the “I need attention” kind.  It isn’t, and I don’t.  Further, if we trace it back, in Latin, pity points us to “loyalty, duty, and mercy”, and in French: “compassion, care, or tenderness.”  This resonates with me because I believe that being loyal to myself means being compassionate and caring about my life and experiences.  While wallowing in one’s pain and maintaining comfort as a victim of life is typically how we understand self-pity, I’m referring to the kind of pity for oneself that permits us an intimate connection to our deepest pains, which can lead to healing and an emotionally and mentally healthy life.  So yes, I do take pity on my self  in this regard as it relates to the trauma I’ve endured in my life.  I have a duty to care for myself.  Who else is going to do it?  How else am I to heal?

Further, let me say now that even if you served in the Green Zone in Baghdad – simply being in a war zone leaves us with some level of trauma, no matter how minor we may think.  I address this because in the Marine Corps, a culture is created where we take for granted our engagement with violence, and we often minimize big moments, or those that have affected us, to our detriment.  We are conditioned to think that war is normal – that it is our calling, to love and pray for it. Realistically though there is a soft-fleshed and completely vulnerable human being underneath all of that armor – and nothing can change that – no matter the denial we summon or how distorted our views. 

In order for me to continue healing, the fear I felt in Iraq must be reckoned with, acknowledged, talked about, and felt. It’s hard and at times excruciatingly painful emotional work, and requires that I venture beyond the walls I’ve built to protect against feeling vulnerable.  It’s a journey that requires I walk all the way down the spiral staircase of my life, winding down and around to the depths of darkness and terror I once felt, to the place where trembling quakes: Nightmares’ womb.

Admittedly, I have had a series of traumatic and fear inducing events occur in my life – from sadistic physical abuse at age three by one of my mother’s boyfriends, running from violent gangs on my way home from school as an adolescent, and Iraq twice. Collectively, these experiences have left a deep psychological and emotional imprint on my sense of safety in the world.  Iraq stands out of course – because it was war: other humans beings were actively attempting to kill me with serious determination, sophisticated tactics and weaponry – and Marines were indeed being killed in the area.  Of course, while deployed I didn’t notice that this experience was gradually having an affect on my psyche, nor would I have wanted to since at the time I very busy simply trying to survive.

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 us to our limits in the area, and exposing us to the fight.  Nay, we were bringing the fight to the enemy. I don’t particularly blame him – I understand that he wanted to establish superiority quickly.  I deeply respect and admire him, particularly because prior to the deployment he looked out for us by providing extensive education about the human response to violence.  Looking back, I can see that he was preparing us psychologically.  He cared about and loved us.

It wasn’t long into my first deployment before we lost the first precious soul.  I was in the food freezer, assigned to mess duty, temporarily removed from my infantry squad for minor “trouble” that found me, when a Staff Sergeant tasked me and a few others with clearing out a 6 foot space inside.  “For what, why?”, I asked. “A Marine was killed and we need a place to put him.”  Shocked, I scurried, began to move boxes of food as my heart dropped and thoughts about the young man pinged around.  “Who was it? What was his name?  Did I know him?  How did he die?”  I thought of his mother and family who didn’t yet know their beautiful son, dad, brother, or uncle was lying dead in Iraq – who were perhaps back home at work or grabbing a can of diced tomatoes from the grocery store – completely unaware that the horrific fate of their son would soon crash land in their hearts.

But in that moment, I knew.  A knot appeared in my stomach, and death became a very real possibility for me too.  It is this feeling, among the many of being deployed, that has lurked within me most insidiously.  I could die here, just like the many others like me who violently and tragically did so each month.

All I can do now is remember that I’m home.  Cuddle up to my bears, love them, protect them, and continue to work towards talking about and healing past pain.  If you’re out there and any of this has resonated with your own experiences, I am here for you.  Quite literally, I will listen to you talk about hard and true things.

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

In this clip, RVDV co-creator, Ryan Berg, talks about his journey though psychotherapy, and why having a therapist is like having and "executive coach.....on steroids".
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
Thank God for Emotional Pain

Thank God for Emotional Pain

“Thank God for emotional pain”… was a thought that I had as I entered the park on an afternoon walk a few weeks ago. “Wait, what?”, I said to myself internally. “Did I really just utter that?” Something within me...
Read More
I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

So I smoked in college, after I graduated, and off an on when I entered professional life.  I would quit because I felt ashamed, and then fire back up again.  It became a vicious cycle.  I realize now that this...
Read More
Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

As Veterans, we know all to well what it means to suck it up.  "Embrace the suck" has become so common place that we often live our lives from this place, and even tell our friends in one way or...
Read More
These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

As I sat up against the wall of the roof with my back towards the street where the car was, I was rocked by the most powerful explosion I've ever experienced.  It shook my chest cavity. I passed out for...
Read More
Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

It was a bright and sunny morning in 2007 at the downtown Fallujah, Iraq, police station where a dozen or so Marines and I were tasked with providing security for a day of police recruiting.  There seemed to be a...
Read More
On The Road To Nabatiya

On The Road To Nabatiya

ON THE ROAD TO NABATIYA THEY COME TO ME AS IF I’VE CALLED THEM BACK FROM A PLACE I’VE LEFT BEHIND THEIR FACES, YOUNG...
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.

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 remained in touch intermittently.  I was drawn to Alex because he made me laugh hysterically every time I saw him – without fail. 

About a year ago, we conversed about toxic masculinity on Facebook, and he commented that he was the kind of person that “doesn’t cry”.  Of course, when I learned about his passing, I was heartbroken, but I also couldn’t help but be reminded of our conversation.  I wondered to myself what could have happened should Alex have permitted himself to cry.  Would he still be alive?  I’m also aware that Alex struggled with alcoholism.

He shared with me just days prior to his death, and less than a foot from my face as we sat in my car, that he was affected by childhood trauma.  He described in detail the punishing physical, verbal, and psychological abuse his father put him through.  He detailed how his mother tried to protect him but didn’t do enough.

I know what harsh childhood abuse is like because I’ve experienced it, so I could relate to him, and it hurt me to know he was treated so horribly.  I also know what it’s like to “pump the brakes on tears”, or to not allow myself to cry.  I had just done it one week ago from today during a therapy session, as I recounted a story I read in the news that touched me so deeply I couldn’t speak.  It described how horses on the east coast survive hurricanes:

“A bunch of majestic horses that spend their days frolicking on the beach in North Carolina’s Outer Banks will not be evacuated. 

With Hurricane Dorian quickly approaching, the colonial Spanish mustangs will huddle together and ride out the storm using a trick horses have used for centuries.

They will move to higher ground and gather under sturdy oak trees to shelter from the storm.  ‘They’ll likely ride out winds and rain as their ancestors did before them — in huddles, butts to the wind.’ ‘Remember, they’ve been doing this for 500 years!’

My childhood and adult life has often felt like a hurricane, which is why this story resonated so deeply with me.  As I described this story in therapy, it felt as if fireworks were going off in my gut and chest.  My whole body was shaking.  As this happened, my right foot began moving upwards and back down – repeatedly.  “Why aren’t you allowing yourself to cry?”, my therapist said.  I wasn’t sure.  She continued, “It looks like something is happening with your right foot……. as if you are pumping the breaks on tears?” 

I was dumbfounded and completely unaware I was doing this, yet not surprised.  For most of my adolescent and adult life, I pumped the breaks on tears.  Unlike the majestic horses, I never had the huddle, the sturdy oaks, or higher ground.  They weren’t there to retreat to when things were chaotic.  There was no effective and safe way for me to “ride out the storm”.  It felt more like “just get your ass beat by the storm, completely spun around by the harsh winds, and drenched by the rain with no protection.” 

I think about how Alex must have felt right before he killed himself.  No sturdy oak trees.  No huddle. No higher ground. 

Only hopelessness.

And from what he said himself “no crying.”  

This is the essence of toxic masculinity for anyone out there wondering.  It’s not a term meant to shame men for simply being males.  It’s a real behavior and mentality that dangerously affects the lives of men and women.  We need to find ways step into a higher order of masculinity.  One that permits us to feel a fuller range of emotions, and cry when we need it. 

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

In this clip, RVDV co-creator, Ryan Berg, talks about his journey though psychotherapy, and why having a therapist is like having and "executive coach.....on steroids".
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
Thank God for Emotional Pain

Thank God for Emotional Pain

“Thank God for emotional pain”… was a thought that I had as I entered the park on an afternoon walk a few weeks ago. “Wait, what?”, I said to myself internally. “Did I really just utter that?” Something within me...
Read More
I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

So I smoked in college, after I graduated, and off an on when I entered professional life.  I would quit because I felt ashamed, and then fire back up again.  It became a vicious cycle.  I realize now that this...
Read More
Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

As Veterans, we know all to well what it means to suck it up.  "Embrace the suck" has become so common place that we often live our lives from this place, and even tell our friends in one way or...
Read More
These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

As I sat up against the wall of the roof with my back towards the street where the car was, I was rocked by the most powerful explosion I've ever experienced.  It shook my chest cavity. I passed out for...
Read More
Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

It was a bright and sunny morning in 2007 at the downtown Fallujah, Iraq, police station where a dozen or so Marines and I were tasked with providing security for a day of police recruiting.  There seemed to be a...
Read More
On The Road To Nabatiya

On The Road To Nabatiya

ON THE ROAD TO NABATIYA THEY COME TO ME AS IF I’VE CALLED THEM BACK FROM A PLACE I’VE LEFT BEHIND THEIR FACES, YOUNG...
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.

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, behavior, and feelings so far — but there’s one I’m particularly grateful for. 

Sleep. 

I have never in my life slept so well.  Nor have I ever gone to sleep feeling so much hope in thinking about the following day – or awoken in the morning with so much joy and excitement to be alive.

When I expressed my awe about sleeping better to my therapist, she replies customarily, “And what do you make of this?”  I smirk, and reply honestly: “I feel like my sleep has improved because I have taken off an eighty pound pack of psychic pain.  My head feels lighter.”  She nods. 

Yet there are also other factors.  Namely, that my habits before I fall asleep have changed.  No matter how I’m feeling, I always take a hot shower, light incense next to my bed, do a few of my go-to yoga poses very briefly, drink hot tea, and put lotion on my hands, face, and feet.  Yes, Jocko, I moisturize.  Not because I’m so concerned about my skin, rather because it feels good.  It further calms me down and is a routine that fosters internal safety, and emotional and spiritual nurturance. 

Of course, I’m also winding down around 8PM, and falling asleep at 9PM.  I intentionally do this because I often can’t fall sleep right away, and so I give myself the time I need to adequately start getting drowsy.  Sidenote:  Who knew that hot, decaffeinated tea was so damn enjoyable in the evening?  It’s feels like a warm internal hug, and often makes staying awake impossible.  First its the yawns, then the eyes begin to water, and then it’s: goodnight, Chesty, wherever you are.  Hot tea is now a staple of self-care and self-love in the evening.  By the way, I can’t help but be reminded of how many men reading this are likely cringing about now.  Why is this? 

I then drift away for six or so solid, deep hours.  And since I’m resting deeper, I require less sleep to feel energized the next morning.  I no longer begrudgingly force myself out of bed in the morning – you know – feeling dread with a tinge of fear attached not knowing how this day will play out.  I’m now completely inspired to awaken, without fail, every single morning – and I do so at 4AM consistently, with no alarm clock.  Some who I’ve sent emails to at this time reply back around 10AM concerned about my welfare, “Ryan, are you having trouble sleeping?” 

What they don’t know is that this time is the most sacred experience of the day for me.  This is my hour with God.  It’s my time with myself.  Where I go on walks through the pitch darkness of my neighborhood and breathe in in the cold, crisp, newly born oxygen – and experience the deepest possible feelings of gratitude while looking up at the galaxies.  “I have reclaimed myself”, I utter internally.

Despite these positive improvements, I still have chronic sleep issues at times.   I am occasionally haunted by very disturbing dreams, filled with anxiety, fear, sadness, and sometimes terror before, during, and when I wake up.  This is typically when I am processing something deep and important in therapy.  It is a sacrifice I am willing to make in order to continue with the process of self-reclamation. 

What does self-reclamation mean to you? What might help you facilitate that in your life? If you’re reading this and we know each other, don’t hesitate to mention it next time we see each other – I’d love to learn more about you.

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

In this clip, RVDV co-creator, Ryan Berg, talks about his journey though psychotherapy, and why having a therapist is like having and "executive coach.....on steroids".
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
Thank God for Emotional Pain

Thank God for Emotional Pain

“Thank God for emotional pain”… was a thought that I had as I entered the park on an afternoon walk a few weeks ago. “Wait, what?”, I said to myself internally. “Did I really just utter that?” Something within me...
Read More
I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

So I smoked in college, after I graduated, and off an on when I entered professional life.  I would quit because I felt ashamed, and then fire back up again.  It became a vicious cycle.  I realize now that this...
Read More
Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

As Veterans, we know all to well what it means to suck it up.  "Embrace the suck" has become so common place that we often live our lives from this place, and even tell our friends in one way or...
Read More
These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

As I sat up against the wall of the roof with my back towards the street where the car was, I was rocked by the most powerful explosion I've ever experienced.  It shook my chest cavity. I passed out for...
Read More
Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

It was a bright and sunny morning in 2007 at the downtown Fallujah, Iraq, police station where a dozen or so Marines and I were tasked with providing security for a day of police recruiting.  There seemed to be a...
Read More
On The Road To Nabatiya

On The Road To Nabatiya

ON THE ROAD TO NABATIYA THEY COME TO ME AS IF I’VE CALLED THEM BACK FROM A PLACE I’VE LEFT BEHIND THEIR FACES, YOUNG...
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.

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 to mention the fact that I’m human and inherently vulnerable to a universal spectrum of suffering.  By the way, did you know that suffering comes from the Latin word sufferre, which means to “allow to happen or endure”?  This has always been a challenge of mine: not to escape suffering through drugs, alcohol, or other numbing behaviors when discomfort or pain comes knocking – but to allow difficult feelings to play out in my body.  I’ve only recently begun to feel all of it and even embrace myself when doing so.  Perhaps I’m now suffering the “right way” by directly facing it?

During emotionally and psychologically challenging times, it isn’t always easy for me to connect with others, including my wife.  I typically want distance.  I don’t want to be close.  If I am close with her, I sometimes feel threatened.  My therapist reminds me that this response is not all that different from animals when they’re injured.  They too might be defensive when a human approaches them.  They aren’t sure if that person is there to hurt or help them.  She also said that it is only when we let our guard down with trusted others and allow them “in” that we are able to heal, and get what we are needing.  That was powerful for me to hear because it made me aware of why I behave this way, and of a healthier path to take.

And in most cases, awareness allows us the opportunity to change for the better.  We become a “manager” of our lives instead of remaining on autopilot, controlled by our impulses.  This is one of the reasons that therapy is so powerful.  It gives us the opportunity to step back and see ourselves, our experiences, and lives through the lens of a loving and caring third party.  This objectivity can be profoundly healing over time because it can help provide us the distance we need to see ourselves and our pain in a humanizing and compassionate way.  Rather than through the eyes of shame or guilt.

I read something recently from my old UC Berkeley college notes where Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Don’t criticize someone who is taking steps back, for they could be articulating a very large leap forward.”  Therapy has been this step back for me.  I’ve never talked more about my past, cried more, or felt such excruciating psychic and emotional pain in my entire life.  Yet, I have never been this far ahead in my healing either.  Therapy works serious wonders and is the furthest thing possible from what one should feel ashamed of doing.  It is the most intelligent decision I’ve ever made.

Back to the story of me being in the space of intense pain.  I was feeling alone and isolated and my wife was doing her thing and I was doing mine.  I was at home, and she was at school.  She knew I was going through something, and spontaneously reached out to say she had been thinking about me and to say: “I understand your deep sadness“. 

When I read those words, I was instantly put at ease and I took a deep breath.  I felt understood, despite not having told her every detail about what was happening with me.  I felt supported and loved, and nothing else needed to be said, except thank you.

Which brings me to something that a returning military Veteran said to me a few days ago as I checked in on how he was doing.  He said: “I have been in a dark place. Isolation, depression, sad, confused. I don’t really know anyone [in this area]. I’ve been hanging on by a thread.”

My message to the military Veteran community, whether you’re a Vietnam, Iraq/Afghanistan Veteran, or Gold Star Parent, is this:  I understand your deep sadness. 

 
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

In this clip, RVDV co-creator, Ryan Berg, talks about his journey though psychotherapy, and why having a therapist is like having and "executive coach.....on steroids".
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
Thank God for Emotional Pain

Thank God for Emotional Pain

“Thank God for emotional pain”… was a thought that I had as I entered the park on an afternoon walk a few weeks ago. “Wait, what?”, I said to myself internally. “Did I really just utter that?” Something within me...
Read More
I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

So I smoked in college, after I graduated, and off an on when I entered professional life.  I would quit because I felt ashamed, and then fire back up again.  It became a vicious cycle.  I realize now that this...
Read More
Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

As Veterans, we know all to well what it means to suck it up.  "Embrace the suck" has become so common place that we often live our lives from this place, and even tell our friends in one way or...
Read More
These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

As I sat up against the wall of the roof with my back towards the street where the car was, I was rocked by the most powerful explosion I've ever experienced.  It shook my chest cavity. I passed out for...
Read More
Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

It was a bright and sunny morning in 2007 at the downtown Fallujah, Iraq, police station where a dozen or so Marines and I were tasked with providing security for a day of police recruiting.  There seemed to be a...
Read More
On The Road To Nabatiya

On The Road To Nabatiya

ON THE ROAD TO NABATIYA THEY COME TO ME AS IF I’VE CALLED THEM BACK FROM A PLACE I’VE LEFT BEHIND THEIR FACES, YOUNG...
Read More

To protect the author’s identity, RVDV has withheld the name and biographical information of this Veteran.  He served in the Marine Corps and deployed twice to Iraq as an infantryman.


I served in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2007.  That last day was one of the hardest of my entire life.

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 were about to read their verdict that I would be demoted to corporal and discharged from the Marine Corps.  Honorably, but career over nonetheless.  “Do you have anything you want to say, Sergeant?”

With my lawyer and a hellbent prosecutor to my left, my face quickly became contorted and a waterfall of tears were on their way.  I couldn’t speak.  It was too much. 

“Do you need a moment, Sergeant?” 

No words, now hyperventilating.

Lawyer:  My client needs a moment.

Marines: Granted.

I got up, stepped outside and hovered around the door.  I took a breath, went to the bathroom, and came back in. 

I knew I had to speak.  I had a moment for God sake.  Crying, then sobbing, I spoke: “I am just sad that I won’t ever get to put my feet into another pair of combat boots.”

I don’t remember what I said after that, but they did listen, and we all learned how much the Marine Corps meant to me. 

Eight months prior I was serving my second deployment on an Air Base in Iraq assigned to front-gate security with a squad of Marines.  I was a sergeant and “assistant squad leader”.  We were on the last leg of our deployment and one evening during guard duty, we found ourselves consuming hard alcohol.  While we would typically only drink off duty, this time we decided to celebrate while on post.  We had a party.  In the days that followed, our command learned of the incident, and began confiscating electronic equipment and taking statements in order to learn more about what happened. 

The senior sergeant and myself were prime suspects during the investigation because we were in charge that night.  All of my belongings, including computers, digital cameras, and personal journals were taken by the company commander.  This captain also happened to be a government prosecutor in his civilian life, so he did not relent in his pursuit of ensuring that “justice” was served.

Of course, he did find video evidence of the night in question. He also found photos of me and other Marines having fun with the Ugandan security force on base.  We would drink alcohol with some of them and simply bond.  They were some of the most special people I’ve ever met. Filled with the kind of heart and spirit that could only be found in Africa I’m sure.  Because of this, myself and others felt comfortable being ourselves and having the kind of crazy fun that only Marines in a combat zone do: we took pictures of ourselves hanging out, and even a few with our trousers pulled down, in our underwear – all in good humor.  You know, normal stuff.

When all of this happened, I was deeply worried and mentally distressed.  We were only a few days away from leaving Iraq, and instead of being excited about returning home, I felt doomed.  On top of that, the captain began spreading rumors about me related to my journal entries.  I journaled a lot about my inner thoughts – anything and everything that came up.  Life goals and hopes, and obstacles that stood in the way of living my values.  He decided to tell Marines he was close to that I had “squirrels running around in my head”.  He also spread ideas about us likely having had homosexual relationships with the Ugandan security force because of the underwear pictures. 

This made me sink even deeper into feeling isolated, angry, and depressed.  “This person is out to get me”, I thought. 

After returning to the states, I began the long process of a summary court martial, and somehow escaped the proceeding with an honorable discharge.  The panel of “judges” claimed that they had no other recourse but to let me go since there was such substantial evidence of negligence while on duty.  The senior sergeant was not so fortunate and was demoted to private, and given a bad conduct discharge.

In retrospect, the punishment seemed a bit too harsh for the violation.

The Marine Corps meant everything to me.  I joined to become part of a family.  I gave my soul to the organization.  Every bit of heart I had.  I risked my life for it.  And in the moment that they read the verdict, I was heartbroken.  It was hard to accept that I would have to leave my family in this way. 

Being a Marine was an important part of my identity, and still is.  In the years since returning home, I felt ashamed for the way that I left.  Rejected.  Kicked out.  Unwanted and unappreciated, despite all I had given to them. 

I am learning, however, that I can and should still be proud of my military service.  I did a lot of good things and served with honor.  One night of “unauthorized” festivities should not taint my self-perception of a career committed to service.

“Take me to the Brig. I want to see the real Marines”.
– Major General Chesty Puller, USMC – while on a Battalion inspection.

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,...
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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...
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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...
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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

In this clip, RVDV co-creator, Ryan Berg, talks about his journey though psychotherapy, and why having a therapist is like having and "executive coach.....on steroids".
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
Thank God for Emotional Pain

Thank God for Emotional Pain

“Thank God for emotional pain”… was a thought that I had as I entered the park on an afternoon walk a few weeks ago. “Wait, what?”, I said to myself internally. “Did I really just utter that?” Something within me...
Read More
I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

So I smoked in college, after I graduated, and off an on when I entered professional life.  I would quit because I felt ashamed, and then fire back up again.  It became a vicious cycle.  I realize now that this...
Read More
Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

As Veterans, we know all to well what it means to suck it up.  "Embrace the suck" has become so common place that we often live our lives from this place, and even tell our friends in one way or...
Read More
These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

As I sat up against the wall of the roof with my back towards the street where the car was, I was rocked by the most powerful explosion I've ever experienced.  It shook my chest cavity. I passed out for...
Read More
Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

It was a bright and sunny morning in 2007 at the downtown Fallujah, Iraq, police station where a dozen or so Marines and I were tasked with providing security for a day of police recruiting.  There seemed to be a...
Read More
On The Road To Nabatiya

On The Road To Nabatiya

ON THE ROAD TO NABATIYA THEY COME TO ME AS IF I’VE CALLED THEM BACK FROM A PLACE I’VE LEFT BEHIND THEIR FACES, YOUNG...
Read More