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


Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. You might also be interested in this article: How to Stop Smoking Marijuana

Ever since I stopped smoking marijuana, I’ve never felt better.  Marijuana was a habit that began when I was an adolescent.  My mother provided me with the drug when I was a very young teenager as a way to cope with hard times we were having.  We grew up without a lot of money, and were constantly moving around.  One particular day, it was insufferably hot, and the house we were living in was a complete dump, and without air conditioner.  My mom came down the stairs and offered a small bud to my brother and I.  We accepted, and the next few hours were pleasant, in a dreamy, numbing kind of way.

That was not the last time I smoked pot as a teenager.  Of course, I stopped alltogether when I joined the Marines.  For one, I couldn’t smoke or I would get kicked out, and second, I didn’t really feel those urges – not to mention the moral indoctrination the military provided to stay away from illegal activity.

After getting out of the Marines in 2007, I was still strongly personally opposed to doing it – instead I preferred to do things like run and lift weights to ease my stresses.  However, once I transferred from junior college to the powerhouse institution of UC Berkeley, something changed within me.  I gave myself permission to smoke marijuana, and smoke I did.  The environment was stressful, competitive, and high quality weed very accessible.  I remember falling in love with it again the same way I did back on that hot day in Omaha, Nebraska as my youthful teenager self laid out on the couch, smiling, and wandered-off.

So I smoked in college, after I graduated, and off an on when I entered professional life.  I would periodically 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 habit was engineered into my brain as an acceptable response to life-difficulties by my mother who provided it to me at an impressionable young age.

I was addicted to numbing this way, yet truthfully unhappy with my life.  I loved marijuana.  Literally, it was how I felt better about myself, life, my feelings, and everything in between.  Even as I entered psychotherapy a few years ago, I would show up stoned, pretend I wasn’t, and act like I was doing the work I needed to be doing.  Perhaps I was in some way – you know, manifesting my issues in front of a therapist – as a way to resolve them. 

Even after many months in therapy, I still didn’t quit.  Sometimes I would drive directly to the dispensary after a session, as a way to reward myself for having gone, and light up.  It wasn’t until I left my corporate job, and came face to face with all that I had been avoiding in my life, that I finally decided to quit, forever.  I realized one particular day that I needed to grow up and get serious about life.  Get serious about feeling joy and happiness again.  Get serious about a career that I can fall in love with.

So I stopped.

All together.  No more.  The emotional work is more important I said to myself.  I will state now: quitting was one of the most psychologically and emotionally difficult things I have ever done in my life.  All of the pain that I had never felt  because I was either busy working or numbing came oozing forth.  At first slowly, and then overwhelmingly – punishing waves of grief, fear, and sadness took me under.  “Help me.  I’ll smoke a little, it won’t hurt.” “No, I can do this.  I’ve been on 20 mile hikes that nearly killed me, I can do this.”  At last, I made the connection that my next mission was purely emotional.  I directed the turret gun of my soul on connecting with and feeling internal pain – and a month or so later, something changed.  Something big.

I actually began to feel happy.

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.

No one gets excited about being vulnerable – and many men have been trained to stay away from it.  Vulnerability feels weak, and so as men, and Veterans particularly, we avoid feeling that (from feeling at all really) –  especially since  we live in a male-dominated, patriarchal society. 

I had a conversation with a Marine buddy recently who said that, “Being vulnerable means telling your friends how you feel…how you really feel.  That’s scary, because you think they’ll judge you.”

Yes, we men do often live in a state of fear around our feelings.  In fact, so much so, that we often fully disconnect from them in order to assume our position among other boys, and prove our allegiance to the patriarchy.  We are socialized at a young age by other males to believe that being in touch with our emotions is unacceptable.  bell hooks points out that:

Since shaming is often used to socialize boys away from their feeling selves toward the patriarchal male mask, many grown men have an internal shaming voice.

Many male Veterans are often ashamed to acknowledge their inner-most feelings and sensations. I lived this way for a very long time.  We’re barely inside of our bodies, instead we choose to hang out in our heads, and our hearts are simply abandoned.  We self-mutilate our emotional world in service of what patriarchy has told us it means to be man – at the expense of our own humanity, and happiness.  hooks describes how we got here:

The way we “turn boys into men” is through injury: We sever them from their mothers, research tells us, far too early. We pull them away from their own expressiveness, from their feelings, from sensitivity to others. The very phrase “Be a man” means suck it up and keep going. Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity. Disconnection is masculinity.

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 leads to our own happiness, or are we simply trying to love what our lives have become, without calling any of it into question?

We need to stop “sucking it up” and instead start giving ourselves what we really need, which most integrally includes feeling – and getting in touch with ourselves on a deeper, more intimate level.  We’ve done far too much “sucking up”, and it’s time to start giving back to ourselves what the military and others have “sucked” from us.  It’s time to start a very serious self-care practice, not to pamper ourselves, but one that gives us the best chance thrive in our lives as civilians.

Disconnection is masculinity.  Read that again.  We’re not only talking about disconnection from our feelings, but so too from ourselves.  As men, we must stop shaming other men who are in touch with their feelings. We must stop ridiculing them and participating in the patriarchal system, which convinces males to shut that part of themselves down. Doing so is the single most damaging thing that we do to ourselves and our friends.

We have to find a way, any way at all, to make it back to ourselves – to that playful little child we all once knew so well in our early years.  That path begins with experiencing and talking about our emotions as they manifest in us presently.  We need to learn emotional literacy, expression, and re-connect with the profound value of our feelings. As a male Marine Corps combat Veteran myself, I am giving you permission to do this work – you will be OK and a ton happier.  To begin, I recommend reading this article titled, Emotional Growth and It’s Function – to understand the profound value of feeling and its relationship to moving forward and living a happy life.

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.

It was a seemingly normal day in Iraq, in 2004, on a foot patrol alongside a dozen of  my fellow U.S. Marines. We were about halfway finished and in downtown Mahmudiyah – a deadly little town that sat 20 miles south of the capital, Baghdad. Every moment of those patrols was surreal for me – I mean, I’m a 20 something year old kid really – marching around one of the most hostile places on Earth, following my best friends around, looking for “bad guys”. Scared shitless to be truthful, fighting my way through the hell-like heat, heavy gear, and musculoskeletal throbbing- confronting the extremely real possibility that something will explode underneath, or near me, at any moment.

On this particular patrol, as we were walking along, I remember several Iraqis, including women, children, and men, who approached our patrol absolutely insisting that we did not continue walking in the direction we were headed. “Don’t go, don’ go”, as they pointed ahead to an intersection about 150 yards ahead.

The local’s insistence forced us to bridge the language gap, and we did so quickly. Sadly, we learned that a group of insurgents had shot a man’s wife several times in front of him while they were in their vehicle, at which point the man was taken away and kidnapped. Even more alarming to us was the fact that there allegedly lay a large bomb in the trunk of the vehicle.

As this picture developed, we quickly began to take positions on the top of homes and behind well-covered areas that would shield us from a large blast. At this point, there was another squad we linked up with in the area who helped us cordon off the area.

We immediately radioed for our military partners to come and dismantle the bomb, or simply blow it up them selves.  5 Marines or so and myself sat atop the roof of a home, and every now and then peaked over the top to see what was going on.  Despite having a plan to address the explosives, the situation was active.  Insurgents would often blow up bombs remotely using their cell phones.  This is why it was critical not to go anywhere near the vehicle, for that could be fatal. 

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 a bit dazed, and I instinctively strapped the buckle of my helmet’s chinstrap.  Immediately, I heard one of the Marines say, “there were Marines over there”.  In a panicky voice, I replied, “what do you mean there were Marines over there?” As he began to explain, his voice faded, and I popped up over the wall to see what appeared to be two Marines laying on the ground, not far from the vehicle.  I couldn’t believe it.  How did they get there?  The plan was to secure the area and wait for explosives ordinance disposal.  I knew that there were car parts about to come raining down on us. As the larger pieces drifted to the ground, missing us, the debris became dust, and an explosive haze filled the area.

I then stood up after I realized what happened, and saw the engine block laying there smoldering as the two Marines lay their barely moving on the ground, with their flak jackets and helmets narrowly hanging on to them.  Are they dead? I asked myself.

Apparently what actually happened is that a Marine Sergeant and Naval medical Corpsman decided to act on suspicions that the woman was still alive. Through their binoculars, they were convinced that they saw air bubbles coming from her nose. Against all protocol, they approached the vehicle, and just as they pulled the woman out of it, someone in the distance remotely detonated the bomb.  Both men survived without major injuries, and were scolded by their superiors upon returning to base.  They were both awarded silver stars for their actions many years later.

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.

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 over a hundred or more local Iraqi men lined up right outside of the front gate eagerly awaiting to get inside and begin the process of becoming police recruits.

This was a picture taken from that day. Our team was outside coordinating with local police.

Our task wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Marines – it required frisking, looking tough, remaining alert for anything suspicious, and to shoot back if we were getting shot at.  What happened that day caught most of us off guard.

About 20 minutes after we opened the gates to the base, we were checking ID’s, searching locals for weapons, and getting each of them ready to escort onto the base for processing. One man, who was cleared to enter, walked up to me and said in not-so-clear English, “ that man over there wasn’t searched!”, as he urgently pointed at a man in our secure area.  Of course this sent me into serious alarm given where we were, and I began to walk towards the man to confront him.

As I began to walk towards him, I heard a very loud explosion and felt the concussion of a blast about 20 meters from where I was. For a brief moment, it rained blood just outside our front gate, and body parts were everywhere: legs, hands, arms, heads, guts, torsos, and ripped and charred skin – still warm and alive. A suicide bomber had detonated himself.

As I write this, my head spins a little bit.  I am back in that space of time and moment.  I did not enjoy this experience, nor am I particularly pleased about writing it.  I was hesitant to share the bloody details of this incident, but decided that I need to look at it, and others need to hear about our experiences in war.  Some will relish in the violent details because they’re so cut off from themselves and their own emotions that they find it arousing and pleasing.  Some will find it triggering or hard to read.  It should be that.  Some Veterans will turn away from reading this because they feel it threatens their self-worth – perhaps they served but experienced very little violence.  They feel this way because in our culture those who witness and carry out violence, in settings like war, is how we measure manhood.  We live in a system of patriarchy that has made us this way, and until we call out this system for what it is, and begin to get in touch with our loving selves, nothing will change.  bell hooks reminds us that:

As our culture prepares males to embrace war, they must be all the more indoctrinated into patriarchal thinking that tells them that it is their nature to kill and to enjoy killing. Bombarded by news about male violence, we hear no news about men and love.

Moderate chaos erupted.  Iraqi’s began firing their weapons in seemingly any direction, which signaled to me that we were being attacked in some coordinated fashion – so I dropped to the ground and flipped my safety off.  The Iraqi police were screaming, yelling, and shooting indiscriminately.  Potential recruits were bleeding, crawling, and running away, while some begged for us to let them into the base.

One man was trying to crawl into the base for safety, and so I zeroed in on his face with the sight of my weapon.  I was in survival mode and unsure if I was going to let anybody into the base should they not be wearing desert Marine Corps cammies or an Iraqi police uniform.  He was clearly in agony as blood streamed down his forehead and grey dust covered his black hair.  As bullets flew a few feet above his head, his mouth moved open and closed as his elbows scraped against the dry dirt and rocks inching ever closer into the base – probably unsure if he’d be killed for doing so. 

We locked eyes as we both lay on our bellies staring back at each other.  I had to order him to stop, so I did so with the muzzle of my weapon punctuating a non-verbal request, a slight nod of my head from left to right.  Yelling at him to stop was futile given the sound of gunfire, nor did I have the energy.  I had my rifle pointed at him, and that communicated what I needed it to.

One of my superiors, who was behind me in the prone position ordered me to shoot him, at which point I gladly disobeyed, and the man lived.

After the incident, we all went out to assess the damage and secure the scene as Iraqi police officers began throwing torsos and body parts in the back of a white truck.  My gut wrenched as I stared down at the ground at what was left of these precious human beings.  It felt like their consciousness silently hung around even as their bodies lay completely ripped apart.  I could hear their screams despite their absence.  I heard my own internal screams. I was scared and in shock.  It was beyond saddening and devastating.  Just a moment ago, they were alive, talking, excited, bustling about, awaiting their turn to serve their country.  It was the most horrific thing I had ever seen in my life. 

At least seven civilians were killed and 11 people were hurt.

Here’s a link to a Washington Post article that reported the incident.

Noga Welner-Kessler served in the Israeli Defense Force as an officer in the Army Medical Corps, Mental Health Division, Research Branch. This poem was written in memory of those lost in the war, Operation Peace for Galilee, Israel’s first war in Lebanon.

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

THEIR EYES

SO INNOCENT,

THEY SMILE TO ME

COAXING ME, RETURN

TO THE MEMORIES, TIME HAS HEALED

AS THEY ENVELOP ME, I WEAKEN

ONCE AGAIN, LONGING

FOR THE PAIN OF REMEMBERING

THEIR DREAMS,

REKINDLE WITHIN ME

ACHING AS THEY BURN

HOW EMPTY THE WORLD WITHOUT THEM

LOST

ON THE ROAD TO NABATIYA

 

                                                            Noga   1983

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.

Marines inside the C130 during the flight from Kuwait to Baghdad International Airport

We were one of the first flights that landed at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), and in order to avoid rocket propelled grenades or small arms fire from potential insurgents on the ground, the C130 performed a corkscrew maneuver as it landed. The corkscrew began around 18,000 feet, where we were still out of range of a missile, then the plane turned sharply and descended, pointing its nose toward the runway, similar to a child descending down a spiral slide on the playground.  Except we weren’t children, and down below the playground consisted of fighters determined to kill us. We weren’t playing guns with the neighbor kids, we were 2nd battalion 24 Marines, an infantry unit, deployed to replace 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines in the Triangle of Death.  Inside the plane, there was a green hue from lights above us.  We were packed in sitting on bench seats facing another row of Marines.

A C-130 like the one we flew in landing at Baghdad International Airport.

After many turns, the pilot carefully pulled out of the rotation, straightened out, and landed.  It took about eight minutes from that altitude.  After we landed, a member of the flight crew said that a few insurgents shot at the plane with small arms weapons but missed.  The war began to become more real for me. I remember the moment that I stepped down the steel stairs of the C-130.  I saw the most beautiful sunrise, and then heard the sound of .50 caliber machine gun fire miles away. “What’s that?” I thought. Ever since then, something changed within me.

As a Marine, I was only used to hearing those noises when we were training. But we weren’t training this time. We were in an extremely deadly war zone, and the sound of machine gun fire in the distance scared me. We were on the “two-way range” as Marines say. A gun range where bullets are fired not only “down range”, but “up range,” or at you, as well. That adds a different dynamic to everything, a much different one.

Members of Weapons Platoon, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion 24th Marines, sitting in the back of 5 ton trucks.

After stepping off the plane, we all got into the back of trucks and made our way to another location. I remember wondering how vigilant I should be – since I wasn’t sure if where we were was subject to enemy threat. I nervously instructed one of the Marines in my team to put his protective goggles on. In retrospect, we were relatively safe at that time, but I didn’t know it – nor did my nervous system. This was the beginning of living in a constant state of vigilance.

We eventually made our way to a location where we waited for more trucks to take us to our new home.  Once those trucks arrived we all marveled at them, running our hands and eyes across their steel exterior. Not because we’d never seen them before, but because they were riddled with dents and holes from enemy bullets. “What kind of weapon could do this to a solid steel truck like this one? What would those weapons do to my human bones and soft flesh?” were questions that ran through my mind, and I’m certain others’.

Lance Corporal May and Lance Corporal Long loaded up in the back of seven ton trucks with others.

We never talked about concerns like these though. It’s simply territory not acceptable to explore with one another, because if you did, you would be dropping your shield, and acknowledging a vulnerability that we typically dealt with privately.  It was as if while staring at those bullet holes, that bent steel, I was supposed to act as if I didn’t care, was unafraid and un-phased. We never intentionally verbally communicated the ultimate vulnerability about what was at stake in putting our bodies on the line. We did, however, each have our own tell. Some of us nervously chain-smoked, incessantly chewed tobacco, or anxiously yelled commands at those junior to us. Others sat quietly, staring into nothing, absorbed by depths of fear they had never felt.

Once we were all in the back of the trucks, we began our descent into the depths of hell. Just prior to the first Marine checkpoint, we noticed a vehicle scorched and blown to pieces, still smoldering. “What happened?” I asked myself in a mild internal panic. We soon learned that the enemy drove a car into the checkpoint and detonated itself, injuring some of the Marines inside. This was the kind of “welcome to Iraq” that our enemy would have wanted us to have. It struck fear into me, and in that moment, just minutes into being in Iraq, I realized that people desperately wanted to kill me too.

We trucked along and eventually made it to the base that would be our home for the next seven months, Forward Operating Base, Saint Michael, located in Mahmudiyah, Iraq – about twenty miles south of Baghdad.  The base was relatively large, housing about 1200 Marines, and sat right next to a major highway with tons of traffic. We were really in the heart of it all, we learned. Rumor was that since the invasion of Bagdad, and the battle about to take place in Fallujah to the north of us, many of the fighters were pushed south into our area. Hearing about enemy fighters being in our area wasn’t good news, especially since we would soon be traveling extensively across this area on foot and in our vehicles.

When we arrived inside the base mid-day, I stepped off the truck and it literally felt like hell. The heat was extreme. It was 120 degrees or hotter, and the 40 pounds of gear I was carrying didn’t help. As I looked around, I felt a torching heat consume my body. To the left of me was an exhaust pipe of a gas generator blowing even more hot air in my face. It felt like I was standing behind a jet engine as beads of sweat screamed out of my pores, desperately looking for a way out.

A Marine walking down “tent city”, the living quarters where we slept.

“Pick up your shit and get to the tents!” was screamed at us. Unfortunately, I had packed too much gear, and when I tried to pick up my pack and swing it over my back, it didn’t make it. I nor my pack could bear the weight of everything I brought with me, not to mention the gear I had laying on the ground. I looked at my fellow Marines and they responded with how we sometimes treated one another, they let me fail. I felt terrible. I’m in Iraq, already frightened, overheating, and I can’t even make it to our quarters because I have too many things. “What have I done? Am I prepared to even be here? How could I have not known what to pack? See, I knew I shouldn’t have packed all these comfort items. I’m a failure and not ready for combat.” And “what kind of start to a deployment is this? Will the Marines let me fail when we are on patrol and shit hits the fan?” I felt alone, scared, and angry. I wanted my fellow Marines to help me, but if I spoke up, I risked being perceived as the guy who isn’t self-sufficient, who puts the team at risk because he requires help from others. Eventually, one of the junior Marines saw my struggle and helped me carry my things.

What would ensue was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life: a near 7-month deployment in a deadly war zone. I was scared, to some degree, every single moment of the next 200 days. Sure, there were moments where nothing was happening, where I was just laying around in my bed listening to music or dozing off. But I still held the fear. Driving around outside the wire, we were constantly concerned that a bomb would explode underneath our vehicle. While walking around the area on foot patrols, the threats were many: potentially taking small arms fire, vehicle or other explosions, and mortar or rocket fire.

The Mortar Squad on patrol in Mahmudiyah.

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 carried around 60 pounds of gear, and some even more with radios and machine guns. We had already walked around 12 miles, we were driving hard, and the patrol was turning out to be too long.  We were over-extended and running out of water.

A palm grove in Iraq.

Eventually, one of the senior Marines on the patrol reported that he could walk no further, and our squad leader, Sergeant Rivas, took some of his gear. We eventually made the decision to take a tactical pause in an Iraqi palm grove in order to assess the situation, and consider what to do next.  With some Marines facing outboard 360 degrees, we held a defensive position amid the palms, and I began to nibble on MRE crackers and take a much needed breather. I unbuckled my chin-strap, noticed how numb my legs were, felt my aching upper torso pulsating from all the gear, and began to catch my breath.  Sweat-sopped heads, hair matted down from our turtle-shell-like Kevlar helmets pulling down on our skulls for the past three hours, I remember leaning my back up against a palm tree.  Before we had a chance to settle in, in the distance we all heard three distinct THUMP THUMP THUMPS. Being a squad of mortarmen ourselves, we knew all too well what was coming.

A picture that one of the embedded journalist took of a Marine in my company. The blurred effect captures the intensity of the environment we were in.

Choir-like, some of us slammed our Kevlars back on, fucked buckling chin straps, jammed our snacks back into our side cargo pockets, and clung to the ground, scratching our way into the dirt, perhaps a last ditch effort to make a trench, clawing our way ever closer to the planet. My anus puckered and I felt like crawling into the center of the Earth to protect myself from this volley of rockets that were about to land any moment. BOOM BOOM BOOM they fell all around our position.  We all popped up like groundhogs after Rivas yelled “run!” As we sprinted through the open field, I remember hearing more thumps.  The rockets were on there way.  I will never forget this moment, and even today it replays in slow motion in my mind.  The mental and emotional terror of imagining what would happen to me should a rocket land on the top of my skull, poured over me.  In a flash, I thought of the way that my whole body would burst into red fragments, bones exploding, my heart stopping, being no longer — the horror my mother would feel learning of her youngest son being killed. “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die”, I uttered internally as I kept my legs moving.  I just ran. We all kept running.

Eventually we made it to village where we discovered that people were badly injured and homes were completely destroyed. I saw a dead dog lying in the living room of a home, nearly flattened, bloodened, covered in dust. It appeared to be an Iraqi labradoodle. I stared at it as my gut wrenched. Iraqi civilians were crying, screaming at us in Arabic, and rushing their loved ones off to the hospital. Their horror needed no translation.  After this, we eventually made it back to base.

Mortars and rockets were consistently landing inside the perimeter of our base, not far from our sleeping tents, chow hall (or cafeteria in civilian lingo), and company headquarters. Outside the wire, or off base, I was even more tightly wound with alarming vigilance since the prospect of being killed or injured drastically increased. Each moment that my body was whole while outside the wire in Iraq was a good one. And that is how I lived, thought, and looked at life now. The ever-present threat of an improvised explosive device (IED) blasting through the bottom my feet made me live in constant fear. Not to mention the possibility of rockets raining down from above.

To cope with this reality, I began consuming shots of whiskey to help calm my nerves when simply walking to the chow hall or up to the commissary to grab comfort items. I couldn’t help it, I felt nervous all the time, and my speech was affected to the point where I felt embarrassed to talk around my friends at times. I dreaded the thought that another Marine would find out how I was feeling, so I held it in tightly. Each day for nearly seven months I carried what felt like an extra forty pounds of fear among all the other gear I had designed to keep me alive.

Corporal Ryan Berg standing outside his tent in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, 2004.

What changed within me ever since deploying to Iraq is a constant feeling that the world is a dangerous place, and that if I don’t do everything near perfectly, something will either explode underneath my feet, or other lives I care about will be taken from me and I’ll be at fault. Presently, back home in California, I triple check the locks on my back door every night. I leave the house to run some errands only to park on the street and run back to ensure I locked the doors. I daydream while doing the dishes only to feel my heart hit the ground as the garbage truck make its customary loud bang, and the concussion felt teleports me back to Iraq at light speed – which then sends my entire body into panic and fear. I peak over my shoulder and my wife continues to nibble on her breakfast. Meanwhile, I’m now shook up, while feelings of anger, rage, sadness, shame, hopelessness, and depression come oozing fourth, in that order. “No one can know about this”, I utter internally, then implement strategies I learned in psychotherapy: I tell my wife. I open up to her. I allow myself to be fully seen. I trust she doesn’t think I’m a scaredy-cat. Of course, that is the risk.

It often surprises me that more than a decade after deploying to Iraq, I’m just beginning to learn about how the experience affected me. I think for so long I was running around after I got home pretending that I was OK. That it was others I needed to serve and help. While helping others gives me a sense of purpose, the Veteran that I’ve needed to serve the most has been myself. And I strive to do that work, to cultivate a sense of internal safety in my life, to feel my emotional responses to my environment – which I often suppressed during my time as a Marine. What has been most enjoyable yet seemingly contradictory about this process has been discovering the fact that experiencing emotions can lead directly to my feeling safe and whole again. Prior to beginning the work, it was emotion, feeling, and memories that I would avoid – with the help of various addictive and distracting behaviors. Now, I recognize that in order to more fully step into my life and continue on the warrior’s path, I need to recall, talk about, and acknowledge my life experiences, particularly the trauma of spending time in a war zone. And while I’m trying to do so at a comfortable pace, sometimes seeing the perceived finish line triggers the Marine in me, the part of me that wants to win, fight, and kill at all costs – and I’m reminded to slow down. Slowing down, feeling, reflecting, absorbing, integrating, and healing has helped me to feel more hopeful, and guided me as I work to support other Veterans in their transitions to civilian life.

Because I felt such terror and fear in Iraq, I’ve held that against myself for a long time, shaming myself, and believing that I wasn’t a good Marine, and not enough of a man. But I’m learning that we were all scared whether we admit it or not. And I’m finally finding space to be more courageous and compassionate with myself in order to fully embrace the fear I felt and my own humanity – while suspending judgment and blame.

This is the first family that I met on our first patrol. These memories and words are dedicated to them.

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.


This Veterans Day weekend I flew back to the Midwest from California to spend some time with the Marines that I served with in Iraq in 2004.  I stayed for three days with my squad leader from that deployment, and we had a chance to reconnect and celebrate the 243rd Marine Corps Birthday.  The first night we went out to have a beer together downtown.  

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 the end of a combat deployment in an extremely dangerous place.  Where sixteen out of a 1000 or so Marines in our battalion tragically lost their lives.  And I do mean tragically.  For instance, on the Marine Corps Birthday, 2004, as me and my squad leader feasted on steak and lobster, one of our mutual friends, Gino, shook both our hands, wished us a happy birthday, and was shot in the heart the following day.  On Veterans Day.  Upon hearing the news, the only thing any of us could do was hang a picture of him in our tent.  We didn’t talk about it.  It was the only way that we knew how to honor him.  Truthfully, when I heard the words, “Gino died”, I felt nothing.  Those words remained in my head and never made their way to my heart.  

After the deployment, we held no meaningful debrief and reflection about what we just experienced.  That’s not what Marines do.  We do have debriefs of course after some missions to collect potentially valuable intelligence, make better sense of how our behavior either did or didn’t contribute to our effectiveness, and make our next patrol, raid, or action better than the last.  

That beer together downtown grew to one, two, and three.  On the third, with the night in full swing, the music in the bar blared: people were chatting, dancing, and laughing all around us.  My squad leader, sitting 2 feet away, directly across the table from me, leaned in ever slightly to ask, “Do you ever feel like a part of you died in Iraq?”  “Finally”, I thought to myself.  

“This is it, this is where we’ll share a bit about what we both experienced, and maybe even share some of our feelings.”  Think again, we were interrupted by loud music and the festivity more generally.  This was no time to talk.  But my friend was trying to send me a message.  He was trying to say that he felt pain at times.  We then both quickly receded from that space and finished our beers.  

I knew this was an important moment.  My friend asked me a question and I wanted to share my thoughts with him and hear his.  Did a part of me die in Iraq?  No, none of me died in Iraq is my honest answer, although I’m certain I probably used to think so.  At times, I have consciously wished that I did die in Iraq.  I’ve shared this with my mother on multiple occasions after coming home.  

I do, however, wish I felt more alive at times in my life presently.  Sometimes I wish that I was better at handling and feeling emotional pain.  There is truly a well of sadness and grief inside of me, and it’s really hard not to run when it starts seeping in.  I’m talking about, what I share with my psychotherapist as, “pharmaceutical grade” sadness.  High intensity, possesses-the-whole-body type grief.  “Why do I feel this way?”… I catch myself inquiring.  Then try to remember that it’s much less important to know why than to just feel it.  Perhaps wanting to know why is another distraction from feeling it anyway.  As if knowing why would somehow make it go away… “If only I could figure it all out…then I would have more control and be less afraid of these feelings”.

The Marine Corps undeniably helped to make me physically and mentally strong, but we never worked on the emotional part – for good reason.  There is simply no room for feelings or emotional expression in a combat unit.  When bullets fly and mortars land, we fight, we very unfortunately have to kill other human beings.  We typically don’t cry, “check-in” with one another about how the firefight is going, or express ourselves about what we witness.  We are hardened.  

When we come home, however, this hardening often does not serve us.  It doesn’t serve us in marriage, in our relationships with our children, with co-workers, with friends, or anyone really – except a home intruder.  And how often does that happen?  We don’t know how to be vulnerable, nor do we understand the profound value of it.  Be vulnerable?  Vulnerability gets people killed.  In fact, most often, we are constantly looking to seal off any hint of vulnerability.  It’s part of our nature as Marines.

The key to feeling more alive lies in vulnerability.  Coming home, we must brave another kind of fire.  The fire of our own emotions.  This is what everyone talks about when they say that coming home takes a different kind of courage.  Honestly, though, when I hear a non-Veteran talk about courage, I typically shut down.  My instincts tell me to be afraid.  What is this person trying to get me to do?  After combat, I need safety, don’t you understand?  Vulnerability is the last thing that I think I need.

When we are able to change this habit of thought to:  “Vulnerability is important and I need to find ways to be in that space”, we will begin to heal.  We will feel more alive.  We will rise out of the deadness we left Iraq feeling.  We will improve our connection to life in ways that we have truly only dreamed of.  Our goals will become clearer, more attainable, and we can feel true happiness.  

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.

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“No matter where you go in the world people are people and they all want many of the same things”…are words I spoke while standing in front of a large gathering in my hometown Omaha, Nebraska after my first tour in Iraq as a U.S. Marine in 2005. While those words rang very true for me, I remember wondering to myself if the crowd agreed with me.

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, helped shape my understanding of what it meant to be a warrior. In this context being a warrior meant being ready to destroy anything that stood in the way of mission accomplishment. Upon returning home, this perspective, coupled with a severe existential anxiety, and an abnormal response to stressful stimuli, led to an unhappy life. I quickly turned my back on relationships that were meaningful to me. My temper was short and everything that I knew about being successful wasn’t working anymore. To this day, there is a part of me, which has struggled with projecting blame onto the world. How could they have sent me to war when it is so terrifyingly ugly?

Despite these challenges, I was able graduate from UC Berkeley in 2012 with a degree in Rhetoric by using the GI Bill. The degree has served me well in many ways, but my heart yearned for more. I wanted to more fully harness the wisdom embedded in my lived experience, and transform my anger so that I could bring more justice into our world. That’s when I enrolled in the MA in Leadership Program at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Before beginning the program, I held serious doubts about the possibility of learning leadership outside of a military environment. What could they teach me? I gave it a chance and after a values coaching call with a faculty member, I confronted the possibility that my understanding of what it means to be a “warrior” may have to shift. Conveying to a Marine the possibility that he or she may have to change is like expecting a pebble to pierce through his bullet resistant helmet: we’re stubborn.

As I continued the program with my fellow learners, I began to realize that they weren’t the enemy, and more importantly neither was the rest of the world. While my anger didn’t disappear, I noticed that I wasn’t responding to it in the same ways. I found myself “on the balcony” (Heifetz and Linsky, 2009), or a practice which has helped expand my capacity for observing it. Slowly but surely, I began to cultivate an internal sense of peace. This process also included beginning a personal yoga practice that has helped me to relax on a deeper level, and reduce the stress levels that so often prevented me from moving forward.

On the last day of the program, during our final retreat ceremony, I told my cohort mates what the experience and learning among them has ultimately brought forward in me, which is: a more tender heart, a deep desire to love the world once again, to come out from hiding and isolation, to live by my highest values, and be a Warrior for Love – unbeaten by life’s negative forces – always ready to connect with others, feel their pain as my own, and fight the good fight as a Marine on ship…

The good ship, leading…

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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.

We have come a long way since 1954 when Armistice Day was officially renamed to Veterans Day. This change, of course, symbolized our country’s dedication in honoring not only the men and women who served in WWI, but those who were currently serving in WWII, with the likelihood that there would be more veterans to come.

And come they have.

Today they return in the thousands after multiple tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. And even though they are much fewer in number, and causalities pale in comparison, there is something to be said of Veterans Day today, and the tradition of welcoming our troops home.

It’s true the warriors of America’s past wars showed us what it meant to fight and die for our country. Yet they didn’t show us how to deal with multiple deployments in the face of endless terrorism, how to dig our way out of not having a strong local community of veterans, nor truly effective ways of dealing with the trauma of our memories.

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? If it were, surely 18 of us wouldn’t be killing ourselves every day, 10,000 of us wouldn’t be calling for help every month, and certainly the Secretary of the VA’s answer in preventing such tragedy wouldn’t beg the question by insisting on the challenge of it all.

Veterans Day, traditionally, has meant that we remember those who served, celebrate the lives of those who survived and teach our children how to live under the freedoms they have granted.

Today, however, remembrance for them is not only tied to their valor on the battlefield, but chosen methods in their bedrooms. We’re losing veterans at an alarming rate right here in our communities, and while we look to connect their deaths to combat with slogans like, “the war comes home” and the “invisible wounds of war,” defenses against such attacks, namely being around other veterans, aren’t around to help.

We’re distracted, nearly dumbfounded by just how close the wars have come to aggravate our peaceful society. We took the fight overseas and have assumed the sands and mountains are where it stays, neglecting strategies for the veterans’ new mission in coming home.

Today’s Veterans Day calls on us, like the lonesome shoe salesman Alfred King did in 1953 as he urged the country to honor the tens of thousands of returning servicemen from America’s current crisis in WWII.

The current rate of suicides and the rising number of extreme cases of PTSD are today’s equivalent of those thousands of vets, and the demand that we reconsider a better way to pay tribute to them is just as necessary.

This doesn’t mean giving us a new day or simply renaming it, rather: The mission of coming home demands that we be with other veterans, not in merely “coping” with ourselves and the world we live in, but in gaining new perspective. To learn the language of the new mission we’re on, together.

With it, we have a better opportunity to pierce through the crisis that has become the IED of coming home. The kind of improvisation that, if not handled thoughtfully, can be no less explosive than the kind that took our friends in combat. If you want to honor, pay tribute and celebrate veterans today, we must focus on helping them build local veteran communities, in addition to beefing up VA care and resources.

We need this opportunity to make friendships with those who know us, seek advice from those who can help us and observe the leadership of those who came home before us.

My battalion commander would always say before heading out on patrol: “Nothing is what it is until it is proven to be what it is, it is only what it appears to be.”

While Veterans Day presently appears to be a day that we honor and remember our returning heroes, until suicides decrease and the resources are given to help us build lasting veteran communities across the United States, we’re celebrating something else, other than a Veterans Day.