Three times I lay as an inpatient in a Navy hospital, and each time I knew my life had inextricably changed. My first visit was in February 1966 when I was on ward “Six Charlie” at the naval hospital in Balboa, San Diego, CA. The second visit was at the naval hospital in Bethesda, MD, in April 1984. The latest visit was at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, VA, in October 2009. The following comments are intended to simply be from one Marine to another, but not to the exclusion of our Navy brethren. It is basically irrelevant who I am; far more important is what I’ve become.
I was a first lieutenant when I was wounded in a rice field in Vietnam, and as I lay in my hospital room in Balboa on the night of 19 February 1966, I instinctively knew my life as I knew it would never be the same. Prior to joining the Marine Corps, I was an excellent athlete, lettering in two sports at Notre Dame. I had been involved in athletics my whole life. I remember looking up at the ceiling in my hospital room that night and being terrified at the thought of going through the rest of my life with a disability that would seriously curtail my physical activities, and maybe even jeopardize my ability to remain in the Marine Corps. I remained in Balboa for a total of 18 months and, after a series of 11 successful surgeries, I eventually returned to full duty in October 1967, albeit with some physical limitations.
Although I didn’t realize it until much later in life, I am now convinced I was born with a spiritual deficiency, or a couple of clicks off—as I often tell the Marines and sailors—and was prone to becoming an alcoholic. I believe my condition was ignited when, at 17, I had my first beer at a pizza place in Troy, NY. For an innocent young kid to have a beer and have that start him on a journey toward alcoholism, in my mind, demonstrates the tragic nature of the disease.
I began my journey toward alcoholism in earnest after I joined the Marine Corps. After I was released from Balboa in 1967, I quickly progressed from being an alcohol abuser to a functioning alcoholic. I think it’s important to state at this juncture that, while I’m going to discuss two tragic issues in my life, I was a pretty good Marine for most of my career until alcohol consumed my soul.
Over the years, I experienced a considerable amount of pain in my left foot and, while not wanting to take prescription drugs, I self-medicated with alcohol. This self-medication initially affected my relationship with my wife and children and, after they left, it ultimately affected my performance as a Marine officer.
From the period of February 1966 to April 1984, I tried countless times to quit drinking, but the end result was always the same: I could never stay stopped. I always went back to drinking, and each resumption made my condition progressively worse. Eventually my wife and children drove out of my life at Camp Lejeune in July 1977. They left mainly because I was a full-blown alcoholic at home and my wife simply got tired of it. The truth is, I flunked the test as a husband and a father and, upon reflection, and after all these years, I still experience sadness because of my immature conduct. Following their departure, from 1977 until 1984, I quickly slipped into acute alcoholism. I remember my rationale for such insanity: Why not? Who really cares?
During that “who cares” period of my life, at times I endeavored to “get on the wagon” in an effort to remain on active duty. At one point in 1978–79, I literally traded my alcohol addiction for a running addiction, and, on 3 November 1979, after running 60 miles a week for months prior to the race, I completed the Marine Corps Marathon, bad foot and all. After I crossed the finish line, I went up to a beer truck near the Iwo Jima Memorial and drank a beer. After 18 months of being “on the wagon,” I remember saying to myself, “You know, you deserve this, and you rate it.” That dangerous attitude quickly spiraled me back down into acute alcoholism in a very short period of time.
In April 1984, I had an incident in the officer’s club at Quantico wherein I was officially counseled the following day and given an ultimatum: Either deal with my “drinking problem,” or the leadership would. Following that counseling session, I made an appointment with the base psychiatrist, and on Monday, 9 April, I met with him at the medical facility in Quantico. This Navy psychiatrist initially called me into his office and asked me what was wrong. I looked at him, and for some unknown reason, just blurted out, “You know doctor, I’m a drunk. I can’t stop drinking, and I sure as hell don’t know what to do about it.” I knew I had a serious problem with alcohol 10 years before that date, it’s just that I didn’t have the guts to tell anyone of consequence.
After about an hour of discussing my drinking career, the doctor said, “For you, the fight is over. I’m sending you to alcohol rehabilitation in Bethesda tonight. You’ll be there for about 7 weeks and we’re going to get you well.” CDR Funk was the Navy psychiatrist who saw me that day, and in my mind, he’s a saint. He very graciously took the time to listen to me, and, in the end, I’m convinced, saved my life.
After I got to my room for detoxification, I don’t ever remember ever being so low in my life. I simply felt totally alone that night. I wasn’t suicidal, but I surely felt spiritually bankrupt. As I lay there, I reflected on my past. My wife and children were long gone; my career, for all practical purposes, was over; and my health was suffering. When I checked into the hospital, my blood pressure was 160/116, and I had a constant pain in the area of my liver. More importantly, I knew I had contracted a “cancer of the soul” during my drinking career that was likely killing me.
Two incidents had a profound effect on me while I was in Bethesda. The first occurred during my initial screening by a Navy psychiatrist when I was admitted to the rehabilitation center. At one point in the proceedings, she asked me how many friends I had. From the question, I knew she knew her business and was getting right to the core of the issue, or, in my case, my spiritual deficiency. After she asked me that question, I just stared at her and said nothing. She interrupted the silence by asking, “Did I surprise you with that question?” I looked at her and said, “No ma’am, not really.” Sitting there, I instinctively knew I could trust this psychiatrist, so I just blurted out, “You know ma’am, I don’t think I have any close friends anymore. I have a number of acquaintances in the Marine Corps—drinking buddies, if you will—but I think I’ve lost the ability to be a real friend.”
This psychiatrist looked at me and said, “For a 43-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Marines with 20 years of active service, that’s a pretty sad commentary, don’t you think?”
I looked at her, and with a tear in my eye, said, “It is sad, ma’am.”
I didn’t know until sometime later that, based upon that interview, the Navy psychiatrist had classified me as “socially dysfunctional.” Strangely, at that stage in my life, I could somehow take being called an alcoholic, but for her to label me “socially dysfunctional” really troubled me. I didn’t resent the fact that she had made that diagnosis, it’s just I had no idea how far down the social skills ladder I had actually fallen.
Then the second and much more serious incident occurred during my third week of treatment. One particular day I was required to appear before a tribunal of three Navy doctors that constituted the leadership of the rehabilitation center. The purpose of the meeting was to give me a progress report, if indeed I had made any progress. When I first sat down, one of the doctors asked how I thought I was doing thus far in the program. I told him, “Aside from not being able to sleep, I think I’m doing okay.” Then the senior Navy captain, who was the commanding officer (CO)of the facility, looked at me and announced that they had diagnosed me as “alcoholic: chronic, severe.” He then added that it was their collective experiences that guys like me don’t live for 2 years if they continue to drink.
I must admit, it’s hard to describe even now what an impact his prognosis had on me. I knew I was sick, but not that sick. I also knew from that moment on that I was in a life-or-death struggle with alcohol, and I simply had to get sober and stay that way. I had no other choice if I wanted to live.
Not long after the doctors gave me their report, I felt compelled to take a trip to the Washington National Cathedral. I remember that I went there on a Friday night by myself hoping against hope that it would be open. For some reason on that particular night, the doors were left open. I walked in and sat down in a pew near the center of that magnificent building. I sat there in semidarkness for a long time. I knew in my heart I was a stranger in this place and felt awkward, unworthy, and, at best, a big hypocrite. The truth of the matter is, I had no place else to go. I knew I had lost my soul long ago, but I also knew what I had to do. In an act of desperation, I knelt down for the first time in a very long time and had the following one-way conversation with He whom I’ll call the “Big Guy”:
After all these years, I don’t know if You know who I am. I don’t know if You even care who I am. But I’ve heard it said that You will do for me what I can’t do for myself. If that is true—and I somehow believe that it is—I’m not asking You for help, I’m begging You to help me.
I’m not sure if any of you are acquainted with Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, London, 1798), but the very moment I asked for help, something happened inside of me. It seemed, in my mind, that the albatross had figuratively dropped from my shoulder, and I knew it. What I learned months later was that the compulsion to drink alcohol had been lifted from me. To this day, I don’t know why He did that for me, but I’m eternally gratefully.
When I retired from the Marine Corps, and after almost 2 years of sobriety, Gen Alfred A. Gray—who I admired throughout my career—pinned a medal on my chest, but more importantly, whispered in my ear that he was “proud of me.” When he said that, I just knew I was going to make it in this world. Through routine attendance at a 12-step program, over the years, I haven’t found it necessary to take drink. I am currently in my 28th year of sobriety.
During those 28 years, I retired from the Marine Corps, got remarried, went to graduate school, and earned a doctorate in American studies at Washington State University. But sometime during those years, the term posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) slipped into my lexicon and, quite frankly, took me by surprise. I had heard of that disorder in general terms, but I quickly dismissed it because it certainly didn’t apply to me. Among my generation of Marines, we’d never heard anyone say that they had PTSD. In my mind, and at that time, to make such a declaration was to admit that you were less than a real Marine.
Then one day in 2007, the CO, 1st MarDiv Schools, called me and told me he had heard me speak about alcoholism at Expeditionary Warfare School, and asked if I would speak to one of his Marines. Apparently this sergeant was one of his best Marines. He had three deployments to Iraq with an infantry battalion, but was drinking to excess and faced serious disciplinary problems. I spoke with this Marine over the phone, but it quickly became apparent that I needed to meet with him in person. I flew to San Diego and met with the Marine the next day in the CO’s conference room. After our talk, we not only got him some help at the substance abuse center, but he told me his wife wanted to speak to me in person, and asked if I would agree to meet with her.
I talked at length with this wonderful young lady from Ohio, and as she described what was going on in her life, I was dumbfounded. As I listened to her talk about her husband, “the absolute love of her life,” I felt like a huge hypocrite, and knew in my heart I had absolutely nothing to offer her, because after all the years of being sober, I hadn’t done anything about some of the same issues she was talking about. I did get her some help at the base services center that day, and I sincerely hope it helped. Ever since that memorable day, I have been haunted with some personal issues (albatrosses) that I have never dealt with. My mindset—though sober—until that day was that I was sober, so what’s the big deal?
In October 2009, I lay in the hospital room in the Portsmouth naval hospital having developed an infection in my left foot. I met with my surgeon and we concluded that the foot needed to come off. The irony of the whole situation was that I had begged two Navy doctors at Charlie Medical, Da Nang, South Vietnam, not to take the foot off 43 years ago, and now it finally was.
Lying in my room, I absolutely knew my life would drastically change again, and, all of a sudden, all the trauma from the actual explosion in 1966, my prolonged alcoholism, divorce, and other personal issues came crashing down on me. Simply stated, losing a foot was only half the battle. There were so many other personal issues I had not dealt with and had buried somewhere deep inside me, and no Navy surgeon was going to cut them out.
To be brutally honest, for a great portion of my life, I have lived two lives: one I showed the Marine Corps and the public, and the other I lived in the basement of my soul. And what’s it like to live in the basement of your soul? For me, it’s an extremely lonely place; it’s like living in a cave or a black hole where even the “real me” wasn’t readily accessible. While I have successfully dealt with my alcoholism so far, something else had been blocking my ability to take a hard look at my soul, thus at some of my real character flaws—demons, if you will, had been inaccessible or left unattended. I realized just recently that this blockage has a name: PTSD, or, an alternate characterization, “the bleeding of one’s soul.” I know there are some in the Marine Corps who take issue with the term “disorder,” and I accept that. Whatever the correct medical term is, I have it.
What I’d like to leave all of you with is that I just recently volunteered for, and am now on the waiting list to attend, the National Center for PTSD in Palo Alto, CA, and once I get there, I’m going “all in” to stop the perceived bleeding of my soul. You see, my inability to address some of my innermost problems head-on has always been counterbalanced with the attitude that they would simply go away with time. I’ve talked with a number of psychiatrists over the years—both military and civilian—and I learned from them that, while they may be able to lead me to the door of my soul, I’m the one who has to open it and walk in.
So I’m going to tell whoever may listen once I get to Palo Alto that I need help. For, you see, at age 71, I’m tired of not being able to sleep, particularly in total darkness; I’m tired of my inability to be intimate on many levels with all of the people in my life, particularly the love of my life (she deserves much more); and I’m extremely tired of this sadness, or bleeding of my soul. Try as I may, I simply cannot cure myself in these areas.
I know you guys have paid tremendous dues for our country this past decade. For that, I am very appreciative of all your efforts and repeated deployments, and offer my heartfelt thanks. I am not one those older Marines who pronounces your generation of Marines and sailors as the best we’ve ever had. To me, that would be doing a huge disservice to the memory of our World War II Marines and sailors, and particularly to my personal heroes, the “Chosin Few.” In my mind, being as good as them is good enough, and you are.
That said, and if need be, maybe it’s time you take care of yourselves before that face in the mirror becomes something you never thought it would become, and, like me, in the end, you either loose or neglect the most important people in your lives. You only get one chance in this world, so call your moms, your dads, and your grandparents and tell them that you love them. Read to the little ones before they go to sleep. Take the family on a picnic or to a ballgame. Throw the football or play catch with your sons. Take your daughters hiking, fishing, or wherever they might want to go. And, maybe most importantly, hug and kiss your spouses, tell them that you love them, and be there for them. For a great portion of my life, I either didn’t, or couldn’t, do those things that are the real stuff of life, and for that, I can’t tell you how sorry I am.