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.

Thank God for Emotional Pain

Thank God for Emotional Pain

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Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

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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...
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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...
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The first time we took enemy contact was on our first patrol. We had just arrived in country, and we had not yet gained enough experience to conduct a foot patrol that didn't leave us exhausted.  Despite having trained for...
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Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?

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Connection after service among Marines can be tricky at times. Our relationships were fostered in an environment where feelings and emotions were mostly suppressed, or at least not acknowledged or talked about much. When we come together, it can feel...
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I felt sickened. While I could see the need to move the man, seeing a machine do it was so disrespectful to human life. I quickly pushed these thoughts down since there was nothing I could do about it, and...
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I served 7 years in the Marine Corps Reserves, deploying twice to Iraq in some of the most dangerous areas, including the Triangle of Death. This is the same place that the modern day terror group, ISIS, was hiding out...
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Remembering to Remember

My point is we’re on edge. We’re worried about those still fighting; we’re trying to find ourselves and other vets; and we’re seeking the care and treatment we need without feeling like it’s a threat to our warrior ethos. We...
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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. 

Thank God for Emotional Pain

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“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...
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Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

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These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

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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...
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On The Road To Nabatiya

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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...
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The first time we took enemy contact was on our first patrol. We had just arrived in country, and we had not yet gained enough experience to conduct a foot patrol that didn't leave us exhausted.  Despite having trained for...
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Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?

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Connection after service among Marines can be tricky at times. Our relationships were fostered in an environment where feelings and emotions were mostly suppressed, or at least not acknowledged or talked about much. When we come together, it can feel...
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Wake Up Call

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I felt sickened. While I could see the need to move the man, seeing a machine do it was so disrespectful to human life. I quickly pushed these thoughts down since there was nothing I could do about it, and...
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Warrior…for Love

Warrior…for Love

I served 7 years in the Marine Corps Reserves, deploying twice to Iraq in some of the most dangerous areas, including the Triangle of Death. This is the same place that the modern day terror group, ISIS, was hiding out...
Read More
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Remembering to Remember

My point is we’re on edge. We’re worried about those still fighting; we’re trying to find ourselves and other vets; and we’re seeking the care and treatment we need without feeling like it’s a threat to our warrior ethos. We...
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.

Thank God for Emotional Pain

Thank God for Emotional Pain

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Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

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These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

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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...
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Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

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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...
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On The Road To Nabatiya

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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...
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The first time we took enemy contact was on our first patrol. We had just arrived in country, and we had not yet gained enough experience to conduct a foot patrol that didn't leave us exhausted.  Despite having trained for...
Read More
Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?

Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?

Connection after service among Marines can be tricky at times. Our relationships were fostered in an environment where feelings and emotions were mostly suppressed, or at least not acknowledged or talked about much. When we come together, it can feel...
Read More
Wake Up Call

Wake Up Call

I felt sickened. While I could see the need to move the man, seeing a machine do it was so disrespectful to human life. I quickly pushed these thoughts down since there was nothing I could do about it, and...
Read More
Warrior…for Love

Warrior…for Love

I served 7 years in the Marine Corps Reserves, deploying twice to Iraq in some of the most dangerous areas, including the Triangle of Death. This is the same place that the modern day terror group, ISIS, was hiding out...
Read More
Remembering to Remember

Remembering to Remember

My point is we’re on edge. We’re worried about those still fighting; we’re trying to find ourselves and other vets; and we’re seeking the care and treatment we need without feeling like it’s a threat to our warrior ethos. We...
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. 

 
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

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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...
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Leadership and Healing: Creating Space for Transformation

Leadership and Healing: Creating Space for Transformation

The first time we took enemy contact was on our first patrol. We had just arrived in country, and we had not yet gained enough experience to conduct a foot patrol that didn't leave us exhausted.  Despite having trained for...
Read More
Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?

Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?

Connection after service among Marines can be tricky at times. Our relationships were fostered in an environment where feelings and emotions were mostly suppressed, or at least not acknowledged or talked about much. When we come together, it can feel...
Read More
Wake Up Call

Wake Up Call

I felt sickened. While I could see the need to move the man, seeing a machine do it was so disrespectful to human life. I quickly pushed these thoughts down since there was nothing I could do about it, and...
Read More
Warrior…for Love

Warrior…for Love

I served 7 years in the Marine Corps Reserves, deploying twice to Iraq in some of the most dangerous areas, including the Triangle of Death. This is the same place that the modern day terror group, ISIS, was hiding out...
Read More
Remembering to Remember

Remembering to Remember

My point is we’re on edge. We’re worried about those still fighting; we’re trying to find ourselves and other vets; and we’re seeking the care and treatment we need without feeling like it’s a threat to our warrior ethos. We...
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 three 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’s 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.

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
Leadership and Healing: Creating Space for Transformation

Leadership and Healing: Creating Space for Transformation

The first time we took enemy contact was on our first patrol. We had just arrived in country, and we had not yet gained enough experience to conduct a foot patrol that didn't leave us exhausted.  Despite having trained for...
Read More
Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?

Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?

Connection after service among Marines can be tricky at times. Our relationships were fostered in an environment where feelings and emotions were mostly suppressed, or at least not acknowledged or talked about much. When we come together, it can feel...
Read More
Wake Up Call

Wake Up Call

I felt sickened. While I could see the need to move the man, seeing a machine do it was so disrespectful to human life. I quickly pushed these thoughts down since there was nothing I could do about it, and...
Read More
Warrior…for Love

Warrior…for Love

I served 7 years in the Marine Corps Reserves, deploying twice to Iraq in some of the most dangerous areas, including the Triangle of Death. This is the same place that the modern day terror group, ISIS, was hiding out...
Read More
Remembering to Remember

Remembering to Remember

My point is we’re on edge. We’re worried about those still fighting; we’re trying to find ourselves and other vets; and we’re seeking the care and treatment we need without feeling like it’s a threat to our warrior ethos. We...
Read More

One of the most powerful things for me has been psychotherapy. I’ve been in therapy for the past two years, and I just want to address something right now. There are articles and all sorts of headlines about military members, Marines, Army — anyone who feels shame or who feels like, “oh not now” or “I’m fine I’m fine.” Like it’s a last resort kind of thing, but today I was thinking that having a psychotherapist is like having an executive coach on steroids. It’s
really helped me to get in touch with my emotional life. One of the other things I’m learning is that in order to develop spiritually, I need to pay attention to I need to talk about the past.

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.

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 more than ten years, and a lot of personal reflection, I don’t believe this anymore.  I’m more inclined to think that Iraqi men were simply comfortable with openly loving one another.  Damn, that must feel good.

Sociology professor at American University of Beirut in Lebanon, Samir Khalaf, said, “Holding hands is the warmest expression of affection between [Arab] men.  It’s a sign of solidarity and kinship.”

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a good friend, and Marine Corps Iraq Veteran, recently about patriarchy.  He concluded that patriarchy was not a significant aspect of American society, and that it does not affect males in dangerous ways.

While my jaw dropped internally, I was not surprised that he felt this way.  Most of us can barely define patriarchy.  We recognize that it has something to do with fathers, men, control, and family.  Yet what we cannot see is how the deeper, more insidious and invisible system of patriarchy influences all our lives.  Does it operate in your life?

Patriarchy is not simply a way to organize a family or political system, it is a culture and social system.  A way of thinking and behaving that has led to a lack of male love.  It is about men not being connected to and sharing emotions.  It is about the refusal to change in this way, and the belief that men are built differently – unable to be emotionally aware and conscious.  Patriarchy is about denying the love that can make us feel whole, and how manliness has become: withholding, withdrawing, and refusing. It is about the deep internal grief of males, and the torment of our souls when we are unable to love.

The way that I used to deal with emotional pain or anguish as a U.S. Marine and Veteran in my twenties and early thirties, and believe me, there was a lot of it, was to shut it down.  I got really good at it.  When I would start to have negative feelings, I would close my eyes and imagine a thick zipper located near my belly button.  This cold, metal tab would slowly begin inching its way up from my naval to my gut, and upward towards my chest – where it would tighten relative to the intensity of the feelings coming forth. It acted to seal off my stomach, chest, throat, mouth, and mind from feeling or processing any particle of my pain.  This was a way for me to keep everything inside and push my emotions down and out of the way.  I refused them any breath or light.  It worked too, I was a machine that didn’t have to feel, since I figured out how to control them.  This, of course, led to the demise of my mental health, and I suffered for a long time with depression, anger, and often rage.

The above example is the essence of patriarchy.  bell hooks defines patriarchy as:

Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.

Millions of boys in America have their own zipper and inclination towards dominance.  The zipper is formed by a traumatization that begins at a young age: we force boys to feel pain and then deny their feelings.  Men become dominators because mothers, fathers, and society believe that is who they are naturally, and so an environment is fostered where these qualities can thrive.  Patriarchy is a social disease.

This is the reason we have so much male anger in our society today.  Women are angry too, but moreso because they are hungry for male love.  Both genders are collectively yearning for love, which is why it is all the more important to learn about patriarchy, acknowledge it’s affects in our lives, and begin the process of dismantling it.

25 Jul 2019
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 stood resolute and firm. Was their truth to this utterance? I sat down on the bench in the park as...
Keep Reading
22 Jul 2019
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 viciousness was a result of my unconscious desire to avoid difficult emotions - not to mention the fact that the...
Keep Reading
21 Jul 2019
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 another, to do just that.  But what actually are we embracing here?  Are we embracing ourselves in a manner that...
Keep Reading
19 Jul 2019
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 a nanosecond. I then tried standing up as my head spun, and I instinctively strapped the buckle of my helmet's...
Keep Reading
18 Jul 2019
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 over a hundred or more local Iraqi men lined up right outside of the front gate eagerly awaiting to get...
Keep Reading
18 Apr 2019
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...
Keep Reading
05 Feb 2019
Leadership and Healing: Creating Space for Transformation
The first time we took enemy contact was on our first patrol. We had just arrived in country, and we had not yet gained enough experience to conduct a foot patrol that didn't leave us exhausted.  Despite having trained for the past three months, the sweltering heat, and the weight of carrying a full combat load weighed on us.  We...
Keep Reading
12 Nov 2018
Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?
Connection after service among Marines can be tricky at times. Our relationships were fostered in an environment where feelings and emotions were mostly suppressed, or at least not acknowledged or talked about much. When we come together, it can feel like we are picking up right where we left off. And where did we leave off? We left off at...
Keep Reading
03 Oct 2016
Wake Up Call
I felt sickened. While I could see the need to move the man, seeing a machine do it was so disrespectful to human life. I quickly pushed these thoughts down since there was nothing I could do about it, and then told myself, “hey, it’s war”. And then, BOOM!
Keep Reading
23 Sep 2016
Warrior…for Love
I served 7 years in the Marine Corps Reserves, deploying twice to Iraq in some of the most dangerous areas, including the Triangle of Death. This is the same place that the modern day terror group, ISIS, was hiding out and trying to harm my friends and I. My experiences in country, and the training received to become a Marine,...
Keep Reading
20 Nov 2010
Remembering to Remember
My point is we’re on edge. We’re worried about those still fighting; we’re trying to find ourselves and other vets; and we’re seeking the care and treatment we need without feeling like it’s a threat to our warrior ethos. We often hear today by many that every day is Veterans Day. Is it? ...
Keep Reading

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.

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 your eyelids as you whisper hateful obscenities.  The pangs climax into one loud verbal curse.  The pain pulses, but the worst is over, and a little laugh slips out for there is mercy after all.

Was that experience evidence of your weakness? No, it was a clear sign of your vulnerability in this body, and it hurt. 

Under absolutely no circumstance is emotional or physical pain, weakness. Therefore, it could never be “weakness leaving the body” as I’ve heard some Veterans say.  While the phrase, “Pain is weakness leaving the body”, began as a motivational adage that encouraged us to lean into pain as a way to cultivate strength, it has set up many of us to think that the experience of pain is weakness.  That is the first clause in the sentence after all.

Thinking of emotional pain in these terms is extremely damaging to our well being, because it can cause us to conclude that opening up to, talking about, and experiencing painful feelings is something that a strong person should not do: If pain is weakness leaving the body, then why don’t I just disconnect from it altogether? There, I’m strong.

The only problem with this is that pain demands to be felt.

The reality is that brave and wise people are not only open to the experience of emotional pain, but most importantly, they take action when it is causing them undue, incessant suffering.  Pain is our body attempting to communicate with us. Science writer, Kirstin Weir, reminds us, “Pain tells you what’s happening within the world of your own body, [and] your nervous system is in charge of delivering the news.”

If we act on the pain in the scenario above, we might scooch the bed over a few inches, or consciously move with more grace as we enter the room in order to spare our little toes.

Emotional pain works the exact same way.  When we feel the stings of internal hurts, our bodies are providing us with valuable bits of data.  Something within the world of our experiences, past or present, is in need of attention, and talking about it is generally the only way out.  Otherwise, these feelings stay trapped in our bodies, and as my psychotherapist likes to say, “feelings don’t flow with nowhere to go.

In other words, if we don’t talk about our feelings with another human being, they have nowhere to land, and can torment us for days, months, or even a lifetime.  Other people, especially empathic professionals, can be a critical part of this process because they can offer us emotional resonance, and a place to “unload” our heavy feelings, so that we don’t have to carry them by ourselves. 

Have you ever awoken to realize that despite having a home, career, a healthy retirement, friends and family, that you’re living a deeply unsatisfying and unhappy life?  That’s because ignoring one’s inner world leads to a life void of feeling, and since living and feeling are one, the result is a deep unfulfillment which can permeate our existence. Life becomes virtually meaningless and dreadful, as nearly each day becomes a metaphorical banging of our emotional toes on the bedpost of a painful past.

Without seeking real support for our deep aches, we never learn to inhabit our inner or outer space with the kind of grace that would permit us to avoid further self-inflicted emotional and psychological pain.  When we refuse to acknowledge the messages our bodies are sending us, we stunt our own growth, and sadly lose out on the profound gift that lies just beneath all those hurts.  We aren’t able to feel true love for ourself and others, or live by our higher values. We cut down the process of cultivating resilience by avoiding these feelings, and actually become weak.

Paradoxically, our hard fought effort to avoid emotional pain to remain strong actually leads to our demise, and we become weak from our core.  Following our trail of tears is the only chance we have of becoming strong and happy. 

Therefore, pain is never weakness.  In fact, pain, if we allow it to, manifests in our bodies to guide, strengthen, and heal us.  Enlisting a professional to help us unearth, feel, and learn from our feelings, can be greatly beneficial because our psyches are complex, and often difficult to understand on our own. 

Pain connects us to our humanity, and humanity is the rich soil we need to experience a deeper and more authentic happiness, joy, and strength.

25 Jul 2019
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 stood resolute and firm. Was their truth to this utterance? I sat down on the bench in the park as...
Keep Reading
22 Jul 2019
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 viciousness was a result of my unconscious desire to avoid difficult emotions - not to mention the fact that the...
Keep Reading
21 Jul 2019
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 another, to do just that.  But what actually are we embracing here?  Are we embracing ourselves in a manner that...
Keep Reading
19 Jul 2019
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 a nanosecond. I then tried standing up as my head spun, and I instinctively strapped the buckle of my helmet's...
Keep Reading
18 Jul 2019
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 over a hundred or more local Iraqi men lined up right outside of the front gate eagerly awaiting to get...
Keep Reading
18 Apr 2019
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...
Keep Reading
05 Feb 2019
Leadership and Healing: Creating Space for Transformation
The first time we took enemy contact was on our first patrol. We had just arrived in country, and we had not yet gained enough experience to conduct a foot patrol that didn't leave us exhausted.  Despite having trained for the past three months, the sweltering heat, and the weight of carrying a full combat load weighed on us.  We...
Keep Reading
12 Nov 2018
Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?
Connection after service among Marines can be tricky at times. Our relationships were fostered in an environment where feelings and emotions were mostly suppressed, or at least not acknowledged or talked about much. When we come together, it can feel like we are picking up right where we left off. And where did we leave off? We left off at...
Keep Reading
03 Oct 2016
Wake Up Call
I felt sickened. While I could see the need to move the man, seeing a machine do it was so disrespectful to human life. I quickly pushed these thoughts down since there was nothing I could do about it, and then told myself, “hey, it’s war”. And then, BOOM!
Keep Reading
23 Sep 2016
Warrior…for Love
I served 7 years in the Marine Corps Reserves, deploying twice to Iraq in some of the most dangerous areas, including the Triangle of Death. This is the same place that the modern day terror group, ISIS, was hiding out and trying to harm my friends and I. My experiences in country, and the training received to become a Marine,...
Keep Reading
20 Nov 2010
Remembering to Remember
My point is we’re on edge. We’re worried about those still fighting; we’re trying to find ourselves and other vets; and we’re seeking the care and treatment we need without feeling like it’s a threat to our warrior ethos. We often hear today by many that every day is Veterans Day. Is it? ...
Keep Reading

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.

As a U.S. Marine who returned home in 2007 from my second deployment to Iraq, it never occurred to me to get professional help. To deal with emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain – if at all –  I would, for example, carry a very heavy boulder up a large hill near my house.  I tied a chain around the rock and then looped the other end around a backpack.  This way, I could put the backpack on and drag 60 pounds to the top of a punishing hill.  I honestly believed that I could become like one of those actors from the movie, “300”.  Ripped to shreds and ready for war.  Looking back, I realize that this was my way of continuing to be a Marine – and a way to view myself as a worthy person.

This went on for a few months at least, and then I met my counselor at the Vet Center here in Northern California.  I told him what I did, and he smirked and said, “that’s probably not the best thing for you to be doing”.  I looked at him as if he was crazy.  “Just because your scrawny ass can’t do it, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t”, I remember thinking.

Those counseling sessions lasted for a few months before I decided I was finished.  I concluded that he needed to see me more than I needed to see him, and to be truthful,  I didn’t find it particularly helpful at the time.  The next time that I would see a therapist would be exactly a decade later. 

Those years in between though were extremely hard for me.  I struggled with multiple failed and unhealthy relationships, serious depression, drug and tobacco use, and profound anger.  I knew no way out.  I did, however, graduate from UC Berkeley (Cal) during this time.  Yet it was really hard to focus and perform well because I had so much going on internally left unaddressed.  I also abused Adderall during my undergraduate years as a way to cope with the competitive environment, and it just simply felt good.  I could rationalize using it because it helped to treat my “ADD”.  Yeah, not really though, I was using drugs legally, getting high. I wasn’t aware of what was really going on with me.  I will say that using Adderall sent me into the deepest and darkest depression I’ve ever experienced. 

In the years leading up to therapy, I had always wondered why each day seemed so gloomy, and why I wasn’t better at achieving my goals and fulfilling my dreams.  I consistently felt stuck, in pain, and unable to break free from my past.

I hit the workforce after graduating from Cal, and five years later found myself in graduate level Leadership program, which I could do while I worked.  During my final thesis project for the degree, my research focused on the benefits yoga within the lives of returning Veterans.

When doing yoga, I felt extremely anxious, and hated following the teacher’s instruction.  I was also simply resistant to the practice – and at times I completely hated doing it – and I didn’t understand why. There were times that I wanted to run out of the room.  But because I was in an experimental mindset for school, I wanted to learn more about myself and this resistance, and so I found myself face to face with an experienced psychotherapist who took a particular interest in working with Veterans.  This time, I wanted to talk.

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 in my life.  On top of that my therapist was a woman, which felt doubly scary – yet triply supportive I would come to learn.

Turns out, it wasn’t simply anxiety that I needed to address.  Anxiety was just the tip of the iceberg, and underneath lay a whole host, a reservoir, of emotions that I had never been able to psychologically and emotionally process from my past.  The fear and trauma of being deployed twice to a war zone I needed to talk about for sure, but the main source of my pain and depression was primarily the life I had prior to joining the Marines.

We talked a lot about my early years (still do) as a child and adolescent. We painstakingly went back to moments when I was physically abused as a child. The horror. The shame. The embarrassment. The intense physical pain I endured as a little boy. The abandonment I felt by my mother. All of that, and more.  My early experiences and relationships have had a profound impact on my life, and becoming aware of those influences – and talking about them – has helped me to understand and see myself more clearly, dynamically, and take steps in directions that make me happier.  Even without specifically memorable trauma, I have learned that our parents, family members, and others we had contact with, can have lasting effects on how we relate to ourselves and the world.

I’ve experienced some of the most excruciating emotionally and psychically painful moments of my entire life as a result of therapy (still do at times). Reliving the past in order to eradicate its negative affects from my soul.  It is the most difficult work I’ve ever done, despite two deployments to Iraq.  Talking about painful experiences opened the door to a world of emotions that I never knew existed.  That world had always been pushed down, remaining outside of my awareness, yet controlling nearly every aspect of my life.  My shadow. 

This statement (from this article) illustrates what releasing inner pain has felt like:

After the first painful release of negative emotions, you will find a certain relief in the realization that poisonous matter has left your system in a manner that was not destructive for you or for others. After thus having gained insight and understanding, new warm, good emotions will come out of you that could not express themselves as long as the negative emotions were held in check.

To note, much of the actual healing work happens after therapy sessions end and you go home. It’s wholly unlike a Swedish massage, where you typically leave feeling better (although at times I did and do). Nearly every time for the first six months, after I got home, emotions flooded my whole being and I would often beg for it to stop. 

The feelings that I never had a chance to process as a child often came flooding forth, and I would be left feeling like a vulnerable little boy who wanted nothing more than to be in the arms of his mother. But that couldn’t happen and wasn’t meant to since I’m an adult now.  The realization that these feelings were for me to feel sunk in over time, and I eventually succumbed to their full potential.

Through therapy I have truly gotten in touch with my heart again.  I’ve learned to cry again (which feels so good by the way), to feel my feelings and not be afraid, to ditch harmful substances and addictions that don’t contribute to my well-being.  My sleep has improved exponentially, which I attribute to having released a 60 pound pack of psychic pain I had been carrying.  I’ve realized that the body truly does remember, and what’s often beneficial is to talk about our experiences with qualified people in order to release, process, and integrate those old feelings.  

What I’ve take from therapy is the single most important thing any of us have.  My life.  My joy, happiness, and security.  I still have painful moments, but I also now have the most joyous ones.  I am able to connect with people on a level I never before knew.  I feel a joy pulse through me almost every day I pop out of bed.  I no longer use addictive substances, I’m sensitive to others, and I share my feelings with my wife all the time – making our relationship rich and fulfilling.

Talking about a painful past and present with a professional, and feeling our emotions can be vitally important to living fulfilling and happy lives.  We might have a tendency to think that therapy should be reserved as a last resort, yet if you had an open wound that required stitches or even staples, you would probably see someone qualified to help you sew that up rather quickly – before it progressively got worse.  Perhaps you have an internal tape that plays which says, “I’m fine, I’m fine”.  As Veterans who might be hurting, we must venture to begin the journey of acknowledging the sea of depression we can sometimes find ourselves in, and arouse the courage to be vulnerable enough to catch the ring buoy being thrown to us.  We are reminded that real security comes from this process of looking within ourselves (from this article):

So, build your true security. You have nothing to fear from becoming aware of what is already in you. Looking away from what is does not cause it to cease to exist. Therefore, it is wise on your part to want to look at, to face, and to acknowledge what is in you — no more and no less! To believe that it harms you more to know what you feel and are than not to know is extremely foolish.

25 Jul 2019
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 stood resolute and firm. Was their truth to this utterance? I sat down on the bench in the park as...
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22 Jul 2019
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 viciousness was a result of my unconscious desire to avoid difficult emotions - not to mention the fact that the...
Keep Reading
21 Jul 2019
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 another, to do just that.  But what actually are we embracing here?  Are we embracing ourselves in a manner that...
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19 Jul 2019
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 a nanosecond. I then tried standing up as my head spun, and I instinctively strapped the buckle of my helmet's...
Keep Reading
18 Jul 2019
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 over a hundred or more local Iraqi men lined up right outside of the front gate eagerly awaiting to get...
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18 Apr 2019
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...
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05 Feb 2019
Leadership and Healing: Creating Space for Transformation
The first time we took enemy contact was on our first patrol. We had just arrived in country, and we had not yet gained enough experience to conduct a foot patrol that didn't leave us exhausted.  Despite having trained for the past three months, the sweltering heat, and the weight of carrying a full combat load weighed on us.  We...
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12 Nov 2018
Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?
Connection after service among Marines can be tricky at times. Our relationships were fostered in an environment where feelings and emotions were mostly suppressed, or at least not acknowledged or talked about much. When we come together, it can feel like we are picking up right where we left off. And where did we leave off? We left off at...
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03 Oct 2016
Wake Up Call
I felt sickened. While I could see the need to move the man, seeing a machine do it was so disrespectful to human life. I quickly pushed these thoughts down since there was nothing I could do about it, and then told myself, “hey, it’s war”. And then, BOOM!
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23 Sep 2016
Warrior…for Love
I served 7 years in the Marine Corps Reserves, deploying twice to Iraq in some of the most dangerous areas, including the Triangle of Death. This is the same place that the modern day terror group, ISIS, was hiding out and trying to harm my friends and I. My experiences in country, and the training received to become a Marine,...
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20 Nov 2010
Remembering to Remember
My point is we’re on edge. We’re worried about those still fighting; we’re trying to find ourselves and other vets; and we’re seeking the care and treatment we need without feeling like it’s a threat to our warrior ethos. We often hear today by many that every day is Veterans Day. Is it? ...
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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 Concord, CA.


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

“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 stood resolute and firm. Was their truth to this utterance?  I sat down on the bench in the park as a deeply intense sadness pulsed through my body, and a warmth took over my skull.  Do you know the kind? 
 
“What is this”, I thought?  “Doesn’t matter, it’s time to feel, not think”, I replied.  I sat on that bench for about ten minutes until I felt the waves of emotion reduce to low-tide.  I stood up and tried to take in the air I needed, as if I’d just popped my head up from being submerged under water. 
 
I later decided that, yes, it’s true, I’m so incredibly grateful for emotional pain.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sadistic, or happy that bad things happen.  Just glad I’m connected to myself.
 
I’m thankful for being capable of growing and maturing as a human being.  I’m thankful for being able to allow feelings to manifest in my body and reach surface awareness, so that I can come to fully experience my own vulnerability and humanity – a process that actually makes me stronger and capable of living by my highest values.  Through my feelings, I am led to spiritual, intellectual, and emotional maturity. I’m thankful that I feel closer to myself when I allow myself to feel – a kind of intimacy with myself that, while sometimes feels heart-breakingly lonesome, also inevitably leads to a richer connection to myself and the world.
 
In other words, internal pain is valuable. Spiritual gold if we recognize it as such.
 
It’s obvious that we humans would rather avoid internal pain.  We do it all the time.  Who wants to hurt?  While each of us reading this knows that emotional pain is, at times, excruciating – if we were to think of it as just another necessary process of life, like breathing, perhaps we could use it to guide us in the direction of re-kindling with who we really are, and a happiness that we all want.
 
I love how lucid and to the point the following excerpt from this article describes why humans often neglect this aspect of themselves:
 
In the world of feeling you experience the good and the bad, the happy and the unhappy, pleasure and pain. Contrary to just registering such impressions mentally, emotional experience really touches you. Since your struggle is primarily for happiness, and since immature emotions lead to unhappiness, your secondary aim becomes the avoidance of unhappiness. This creates the early, mostly unconscious conclusion:  “If I do not feel, then I will not be unhappy.”  In other words, instead of taking the courageous and appropriate step to live through negative, immature emotions in order to afford them the opportunity to grow and thus become mature and constructive, the childish emotions are suppressed, put out of awareness and buried, so that they remain inadequate and destructive, even though the person is unaware of their existence.

“If I do not feel then I will not be unhappy.”  Wow.  We often avoid feeling because we think that will lead to unhappiness. What a heartbreaking conclusion. When you’re alone, do you ever wish you could be happier?  Does it ever feel like you’re chasing happiness, without ever finding true fulfillment?  I think that’s because we often place so little value on our “emotionality”.  When we begin to recognize the truth of and absorb the following statement, I think we will begin to place more value on this aspect of ourselves (taken from same article as above):

The capacity to experience feeling is synonymous with the capacity to give and receive happiness. To the degree you shy away from any kind of emotional experience, to that extent you also close the door to the experience of happiness.

So, yes, thank God for emotional pain. Without that pain, I wouldn’t have a heart. Without a heart, I wouldn’t be alive. I am learning that I need to feel that pain in order to have direction and joy in my life. 

25 Jul 2019
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 stood resolute and firm. Was their truth to this utterance? I sat down on the bench in the park as...
Keep Reading
22 Jul 2019
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 viciousness was a result of my unconscious desire to avoid difficult emotions - not to mention the fact that the...
Keep Reading
21 Jul 2019
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 another, to do just that.  But what actually are we embracing here?  Are we embracing ourselves in a manner that...
Keep Reading
19 Jul 2019
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 a nanosecond. I then tried standing up as my head spun, and I instinctively strapped the buckle of my helmet's...
Keep Reading
18 Jul 2019
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 over a hundred or more local Iraqi men lined up right outside of the front gate eagerly awaiting to get...
Keep Reading
18 Apr 2019
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...
Keep Reading
05 Feb 2019
Leadership and Healing: Creating Space for Transformation
The first time we took enemy contact was on our first patrol. We had just arrived in country, and we had not yet gained enough experience to conduct a foot patrol that didn't leave us exhausted.  Despite having trained for the past three months, the sweltering heat, and the weight of carrying a full combat load weighed on us.  We...
Keep Reading
12 Nov 2018
Do You Ever Feel Like A Part of You Died in Iraq?
Connection after service among Marines can be tricky at times. Our relationships were fostered in an environment where feelings and emotions were mostly suppressed, or at least not acknowledged or talked about much. When we come together, it can feel like we are picking up right where we left off. And where did we leave off? We left off at...
Keep Reading
03 Oct 2016
Wake Up Call
I felt sickened. While I could see the need to move the man, seeing a machine do it was so disrespectful to human life. I quickly pushed these thoughts down since there was nothing I could do about it, and then told myself, “hey, it’s war”. And then, BOOM!
Keep Reading
23 Sep 2016
Warrior…for Love
I served 7 years in the Marine Corps Reserves, deploying twice to Iraq in some of the most dangerous areas, including the Triangle of Death. This is the same place that the modern day terror group, ISIS, was hiding out and trying to harm my friends and I. My experiences in country, and the training received to become a Marine,...
Keep Reading
20 Nov 2010
Remembering to Remember
My point is we’re on edge. We’re worried about those still fighting; we’re trying to find ourselves and other vets; and we’re seeking the care and treatment we need without feeling like it’s a threat to our warrior ethos. We often hear today by many that every day is Veterans Day. Is it? ...
Keep Reading