Ryan Berg, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran deployed twice in Iraq. In 2004, he was with 2/24 Echo Company, Weapons Platoon, in the Triangle of Death. In 2006, he served with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and was in Fallujah, Ramadi and Al Asad. He earned a bachelor’s in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and an MA in Leadership Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California. He is married to his wife Nataly and lives in the SF Bay Area.
Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.
I joined the Marine Corps in hopes of dying an honorable death and restoring dignity to my family name. My reaction to knowing that I would be deployed to Iraq in 2004 was nothing short of hysteria. “Finally”, I thought, “If all goes ‘right’ (or wrong) I can put an end to feeling unworthy and living this miserable life in one of the most honorable ways possible.”
Needless to say, my upbringing was traumatic. I was sadistically physically abused at age 3, there was a constant (high-capacity) revolving door of men coming through our home, I often ran from gang members as an adolescent on my way from school or to the market, and while my older brother was there at times to protect me – he more often than not used me as a punching bag to cope with his own anger. Further, the love I received from my mother felt like a low-watt current designed to power a small light bulb, rather than a highly charged connection that could sustain and nurture the soul of a human being. I lacked loving attention, care, and parental guidance. On occasion, my mother would also give me marijuana to cope with life. By the time I was a senior in high school, “just kill me” was a thought that ran deep in my unconscious mind – and the Marine Corps became an appealing option.
My abuse as a toddler was horrific. One time, Steve was his name, he repeatedly dunked my head in the toilet after he used it and drowned me as he flushed it. Dozens of other times he would whip my back with a belt, and others he would forcefully strike various parts of my body, or make me run in place with soiled underwear on my head. He would lock me in a closet or verbally assault me as I tried to figure out how to work the TV remote. This was the most painful, terrifying, and formative of traumatic experiences – especially given my tender age. This went on for months.
A few weeks before I left to go to Marine Corps bootcamp, my brother and I learned that my mother slept with one of our childhood best friends on my brother’s twenty-first birthday. This person was a lot like my brother to me: friendly at times, but ultimately an angry bully when he needed to get it out. I still remember the moment that my brother told me about what happened. I walked up the stairs from my room in the basement, entered the kitchen, and saw him sitting in a chair at the dining table. He gazed out of the kitchen window, appearing lost and visibly shaken. He acknowledged me and said in an angry and nervous voice, “do you want to help me break [this person’s] legs?” My heart dropped because I knew he meant business. I couldn’t fathom what could have happened that would make him want to hurt a close friend. They even lived together at the time. “What do you mean, why, what happened?” “He fucked mom,” he said. In that moment, everything stopped. “What?” Disbelief. Confusion. Horror. Fear. Rage. I paced around the kitchen. He proceeded to give me the details, and then we quickly hatched a plan to physically assault this person.
When I arrived at bootcamp, I remember often lying anxiously awake at night, staring through the bottom of the top bunk into darkness. Into myself. Into my pain. Into confusion and heartache. I needed my mother during this challenging time, yet inside I held so much emotional pain and resentment because of her behavior. My sadness and rage solidified. I felt alone, especially since my brother could no longer accept what happened. He joined my mother by falling back into denial, so that he wouldn’t have to feel the hurt it caused. I would later realize that this action by my mother embodied all of her previous promiscuity with men. This was her capstone and I lay alone at the summit of my pain.
When I returned home from my combat deployment to Iraq in 2004 and stepped off the plane to see dozens of families hugging their sons, yet the absence of mine, I was devastated. While I knew ahead of time that they wouldn’t be there, it didn’t make it any easier. I wanted the hug, squeeze, and kiss that I saw so many of my fortunate fellow Marines receiving. I would go on to never truly get that, and eventually deployed back to Iraq with the next unit that had space. My next suicide mission.
I think often about the ways that many servicemembers must have experienced trauma as children or adolescence, and then join the military or go to war as an escape, only to come home to confront a mountain of unresolved internal pain. I believe this is a major cause of suicides in the Veteran community. The Department of Veterans Affairs would serve Veterans well to take this into consideration when providing treatment. I pay $800 out-of-pocket each month to a psychotherapist in order to address the whole of my emotional and psychological wounds, to which the VA has declined to help reimburse. It’s unfair.