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.

Phoenix Rising: Becoming a Survivor

Phoenix Rising: Becoming a Survivor

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

As It Turns Out, I Am Worthy of Love

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

“The Mask”

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

The Fear Within: Nightmares’ Womb

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

Pumping the Breaks on Tears

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

Psychotherapy Has Profoundly Deepened My Sleep

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

I Understand Your Deep Sadness

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

The Heartbreak of Leaving the Marine Corps

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

Therapy and Shame – Veterans’ Voices

In this clip, RVDV co-creator, Ryan Berg, talks about his journey though psychotherapy, and why having a therapist is like having and "executive coach.....on steroids".
Read More
The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

The Damaging Affects of Patriarchy

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

Pain Is Never Weakness Leaving the Body

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

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

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

Thank God for Emotional Pain

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

I Stopped Smoking Weed and I’ve Never Felt Happier

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

Veterans’ Next Mission: Topple Patriarchy, Reduce Suicides

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

These Muslims Wanted Me to Live

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

Disobeying Orders: One Man Lives

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

On The Road To Nabatiya

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