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.