Biographical Non-Fiction posted May 12, 2019


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Mindset after experiencing combat

My Struggle to Overcome the War

by Terrence Francis


The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.

Holding on to secrets can often be viewed as a virtue in our society, but after dealing with my transition from military to civilian life, I quickly learned that isn't always the case. In fact, maintaining a secret nearly destroyed my life until realizing that hiding my Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from family members was haunting me and ultimately preventing my successful reintegration into civilian life. This period made me feel like I was stranded on a boat suffering sea sickness with land nowhere in sight to provide relief.  

      Going back to my days as a US Marine in Iraq, I experienced the random mixture of dread and boredom that comes with any combat deployment. During the intense phases, I experienced everything from being caught in an ambush by insurgents to riding along the roads while quietly dreading the random explosion of an improvised explosive device (IED) that might kill a soldier or innocent civilian. The boredom was welcoming by comparison, but it also forced me to reflect and take in my strange new surroundings. I felt like a paranoid tourist, happy to be in the cradle of civilization known as Mesopotamia but also aware that, at any moment, this could be the place I take my final breath. In this ancient land, it was very easy to focus on the obvious threats, but being a fan of horror and superstition, I became aware of the idea of invisible spirits known as jinn in Islamic culture. Belonging to Creole culture from southwest Louisiana, a region rife with Catholic and voodoo superstitions, I was particularly curious about the Iraqi belief in jinn as demon-like entities. But while dealing with this complex environment, I always longed for a return to the United States and the normalcy that would come with being back home.

     Unfortunately, things became disordered in my mind, and I struggled to come to terms with this new frame of thinking. While I struggled to adjust, I hid my fear and anguish from loved ones, choosing instead to deal with my misery in secret. Bottling my emotions inside, though, only hid the fact that I was actually dealing with what would later be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I managed to survive two combat deployments without any physical injuries, but others weren't so lucky, and I had to live with the sights of Iraqi civilians and insurgents strewn carcasses across the streets of various cities. One Iraqi man's face was forever etched into my memory after walking up to his lifeless body while staring into his remaining eye and the bloody space where his other eye once was. I immediately felt sympathy for the man but also came face to face with my own mortality, knowing that I could suffer a similar fate at any moment. Hearing about the deaths of fellow Marines only increased that fear of losing my own life, but the accidental death of a Marine in my unit ended up being one of the worst experiences I struggle with to this day. PFC Gurtner's M249 SAW unexpectedly discharged next to him in his sleeping bag, and by the time we realized what had happened, he was already bleeding out from the gunshot wound; Gurtner was rushed into my vehicle and taken to an Aid Station, but he ultimately succumbed to his injury.
 For the remainder of the deployment, I ate, slept, and worked in that same space where he had died. These incidents, along with the constant stress of a combat deployment, left me counting down the days until I could return home, and after what seemed like an eternity, my final deployment ended.
On boarding the plane to leave behind all that death, misery, and stress, I literally felt like a weary soul being plucked from the depths of hell. Once I made it back on American soil, that relief became a reality. While at the Marine Corps base in 29 Palms, I immediately began thinking about my next moves, who to visit first, and where I would go while in California. This joy lasted only lasted a few days, however, before realizing I had just two months to decide whether I would reenlist or become a civilian again.
After considering my two previous combat deployments to Iraq as well as the fear of losing my life during any future deployment, I decided to return back to the real world and focus on my personal and family life. On June 5, 2005, I received the coveted DD-214 signaling an end to my four-year enlistment with the United States Marine Corps.
With my luggage and release papers in hand, I boarded another plane and returned home to Louisiana. On arrival, I was greeted by family members at the airport, and it truly felt that day like all was right with the world. We later drove to my mother's home where I enjoyed some crawfish �©touff�©e, my favorite dish. But the best part of my entire trip was spending time with my grandmother who had always been my biggest supporter and never failed to give me reasons to smile. Despite being surrounded by such positivity, though, I sensed that something was off and felt strangely disconnected from the people I had always loved and relied upon. While hanging out with friends and family, my mind would often drift back to Iraq and fellow Marines. There were also times when I would drive around my hometown, and after noticing trash alongside a street, instantly jump to the possibility of an IED being planted there. I knew my thinking was forever changed, and I felt as though I needed to be closer to Marines who could understand me. I eventually decided to return to California to settle with a girl I had been dating during my enlistment. This transition proved difficult, however, as I struggled to connect emotionally with her, and it genuinely felt impossible to invest the time and care needed to love anyone during that period. I soon found myself often wanting to be alone to seek comfort in solitude since this was the only time I could be free from the burden of trying to please others. Before long, this behavior had alienated me from my support structure in California. Although the relationship with my girlfriend was destroyed, I was still able to maintain other friendships that helped me adjust to my new life. After that relationship dissolved, I moved into my own apartment and reached out to a friend from the Marine Corps who offered to move in and help with rent. After only two months, however, my friend decided he couldn't afford to stay, so I was forced to pay out the lease on the apartment. My income at that time was barely enough to cover rent, car payments, and a steady supply of ramen noodles. Life had suddenly become so difficult again that I essentially began feeling as though I was back in war given the uncertainty of survival deriving from this financial stress.
That whirlwind of events essentially sent my life into a tailspin, but I wasn't quite ready to give up. I felt like my future was in California, so I sought out a career with the Orange County Sheriff's Department while remaining close to the Marines that lived locally. Unfortunately, I didn't have any furniture at the time, so I often found myself coming home from the Sheriff's Academy and just sitting on the floor while wondering what my next move would be. This was when my mind began heading towards dark thoughts as the unabated depression felt like an invisible force dragging me down while every negative memory I had tried to repress soon came surging back like a storm flooding my mind. Adding to this mental stress was the fact that I was still in the academy and unsure of any future employment prospects. Eventually, the bodies of Iraqis and dead Marines combined with memories of my own close calls to consume my thoughts day and night. It was during this dark period that I began to break down both physically and mentally.
The time soon arrived for me to decide whether I wanted return to Louisiana or work through the stress and graduate from the academy. I chose to remain and pursue a career in Law Enforcement because it felt like a natural transition, so I completed my academy training and eventually started working with the Sheriffs' Department. I thought my problems would disappear, and while this new position did provide some relief from my negative thoughts and the financial strain, it was unfortunately short-lived. By this point, I was becoming startled easily and had trouble sleeping due to nightmares which always focused on some entity trying to take me from this world. That's when I realized my mind was still trapped in Iraq, and I soon found myself at the internet cafe near my home reading about those supernatural beings I heard about in Iraq called jinn. The jinn that stood out most to me were a type known as the ghoul, a monstrous creature that would roam around graveyards and feed on human flesh. And while I've never been a superstitious person, I still couldn't help but wonder whether something like that had followed me from Iraq where it could live on in my nightmares.
My secret finally came pouring out after experiencing a severe nightmare that made me face my own death. The nightmare began with a dark figure creeping up my apartment staircase before bursting through the door to strangle me while I lay there awake but paralyzed. I awoke in fear and remember picking up the phone afterwards in a panic to call my mom and tell her everything I had bottled up inside. The sound of my voice certainly must have frightened her because I soon found myself on a conference call with my uncle and two aunts all offering me love, support, and encouragement. That call proved critical in embarking on the path needed to find answers and improve my life. And after growing comfortable enough to speak with fellow veterans about my personal struggles, I suddenly realized I was not alone. I discovered that many of the Marines I served with also had their own confrontations with what sounded to me like jinn. I spoke about all the fellow Marines I had met throughout the years, some who made the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield and others who committed suicide after losing their own personal battles with the same mental ghouls I fought. Even to this day, I remain connected to a few Marines here, and we occasionally get together to exchange stories and secrets from past deployments over a few glasses of whiskey. Those glasses of whiskey seem to chase away the jinn and open our minds to the more pleasant memories of our shared experiences. While speaking to one fellow Marine, I learned his wife worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and she helped me complete the paperwork necessary to get the assistance I needed. After speaking with a counselor and unburdening my mind of all these secrets, I was taught how to cope with what finally became known to me as Post-traumatic stress disorder.
I've since come to the realization that anything taking a toll on your life, whether physical or invisible, must be addressed immediately. Accepting this new way of thinking is what ultimately helped me integrate back into my civilian life at both the professional and personal levels. And while I still occasionally find my mind drifting back to Iraq, I now realize that this is just something I must learn to mentally fight off. In closing, I now understand that holding on to a secret isn't always noble or honorable but can instead eat away at your soul and cause real mental suffering.



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