Wednesday, September 12, 2012

To Whom It May Concern ...


       In my documentary “And Then They Came Home” I ask Marines that I had served with the same thirty questions so that I can gauge patterns in their response eight years after our shared point of trauma. One of my questions is, “Do you think a warrior ever comes home?” I am preparing to film my interview leaving only one Marine in Mexico to be filmed when I return from my wedding. I meditate on my own response. My life-long hometown friend Antonio has been sleeping on my couch for the past few weeks, stringing filmed pieces together so that editing will not be a hassle and we will be able to make our December deadline for the film. Does a warrior ever really come home? I couldn’t tell you because deep in my beat up wallet I bought after my deployment to Afghanistan in 2006 is a National Guard ID tucked behind my plastic cards and license. In April of 2010 I wrote my Guard unit a letter of resignation and have not had to put my uniform on since. I am contracted until December 2013.
 
I don’t know what it is like to come home, I haven’t been there since I watched my southern California suburbia youth haven disappear in the rearview mirror of my recruiter’s SUV bound for Los Angeles to catch a bus for San Diego three weeks after I had turned eighteen in August 2003. You are now leaving childhood, Palmdale California 1986-2003. I survived two combat deployments serving in the Marine Corps from August 2003 to August 2007 as an infantryman. A historian might note that those were the most violent years of the war. One day I found myself honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, I left my home base of Hawaii changed and bound for southern California. I spent a month at home, went to work for my Uncle for a month and caught a train to Portland Oregon to visit my best friend. Signs of trouble were seemingly slow to come, I was still drinking like a Marine which can be compared to twice that of a frat boy, one less than a vagrant and the nights had been bothering me for some time. There is still a hole in my best friend’s apartment from where I threw a hunting knife into his wall. In November I returned to California to start a business with my friend Antonio after coming into a family inheritance. We purchased film equipment and started to film television commercials and court depositions in California’s Antelope Valley. We were the youngest members of our Chamber of Commerce and I found that clients were receptive to a former Marine; my service would be brought up on the first interview and was absolutely an asset. I had no formal training in running a business but Antonio and I seemed to be doing alright during the days and at night I would return to my father’s house, drink like a Marine and watch endless videos of Fallujah on “Youtube”.

 I was in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004 and if you knew me in late 2007 you knew I fought there, it was all I ever wanted to talk about. I had felt zero emotional connection to friends and family since I had returned home and I wondered if I had ever felt anything in the first place, I was sure however that I had been doing a good job at faking it and I would think to myself that the connection would probably come naturally soon. Sleep was so infrequent that all I could remember about it was that I didn’t hold it as a priority at the time and could go for a couple of days on a few hours. I was standing on my porch smoking a cigarette drunk one night when I announced to my father that I was thinking about joining the National Guard unit that I had read in the local paper was getting ready to deploy to Iraq in 2008. My father had this way he would look at me every now and again back then, a sort of deep baffle with a nod of understanding.
In December 2007 I joined the National Guard, I signed a contract to become a tanker…a soldier who rides in a tank, my father had been the same thing when he was in the Army and after working with tanks in 2004 I was convinced that this would be the most enjoyable way to return to Iraq.

 I signed the contract and swore in over the phone on the same day. After I had sworn in it occurred in through the haze of the previous night’s hangover that I was not clear on an important part of the contract. I asked the recruiter how long the contract was that I had just signed? He looked embarrassed and quickly said, “You wanted the bonus right?” I replied yes and he told me, “It’s six years.” I was stunned but thought to myself I guess I’ll just keep doing this for the next six years; I had knocked out four in the Marines and I knew once I had sworn in there was not much that could be done to reverse it. When I got to my new unit I was informed that their status had changed from tankers into infantry because they didn’t need any more National Guard tanks in Iraq. I had joined to return to Iraq in an armored death chariot, I found myself back out in the open and on my feet, this made me uncomfortable. I liked the people in my National Guard unit and was able to make friends with my new platoon as I figured out how the National Guard was different from the Marines. I was surprised and excited by the professionalism of the unit; most of the soldiers had done prior active duty service like myself and joined the Guard after, there were even a handful of Marines in the unit. We would show up to train one weekend a month and the rest of the time we would work at our civilian day jobs.

 I prepared for Iraq and went back to cutting commercials and drinking at night, not sleeping and with a new weight on my shoulders, the next deployment. Some nights I would open my father’s bedroom door and babble drunkenly until he was awake and then shut his door. One night my father came over to the computer to tell me good night, I suddenly began to cry and I told him that I had been thinking of shooting myself with the shotgun upstairs. He was baffled again and I was sure I would have to answer for that slip after we came home from work the next day. The next day came and I did not go to work, I drank and told my friend Antonio that I wanted to go to open microphone stand- up comedy night at a club in Hollywood. By the time we got there I was tanked and quickly sank into an incoherent mess. I don’t remember my routine but I am sure it was nonsensical, after it was over we left the club and Antonio and a friend wanted to get something to eat. I told them to leave me in the SUV. They left and the rest I remember some of and the other parts Antonio filled in for me later. I was trying to kick out the back window of my vehicle when they found me, Antonio let me out of the vehicle, terribly confused and then I disappeared.

I left my friends and found myself drunk and walking through alleys and Hollywood streets, the writer’s strike was going on and screenwriters waved signs in front of one of the production studios. I checked myself into a hotel room and visited a liquor store to pick up a forty of fine malt liquor. I pounded the forty and sat in the hotel room. I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t want to face my father, and I didn’t want to return home to an empty house where I might shoot myself. In the drunkenness I remember that I tried to hang myself but the knot I had tied with the towel had come undone on the shower rod and I found myself on my ass wondering why that thing didn’t hold and then something hit me. I was trying to kill myself, I had been acting strangely and something I had been in denial about was very real, the things I had heard on the news and radio ads were true and something had happened to me in combat that was killing me back home.

 I called my mother who came to pick me up from the hotel and the next day I found myself a twenty two year old combat veteran in a mental hospital. Antonio had spent the night searching for me with my step brother and I was able to explain things when he came to visit me in the hospital. The initial intake and my first twenty four hours was spent being evaluated alongside people with severe mental issues, some criminals and this setting I found to be completely insane and counter-productive to my care. I spent the rest of March 2008 in the hospital. When I returned my unit had deployed to Iraq without me and I began going to Guard weekends as a member of the “rear detachment” comprised of soldiers who had medical conditions that did not allow them to deploy. I had left Antonio and our business behind and went to work for my mother while I attended aftercare in the hospital. The economy was tanking and I wanted to get on my feet a regular way so I moved into my sister’s apartment and found a job at an aerospace factory. I worked on the factory floor with Vietnamese immigrants, some of whom were Vietnam combat veterans, we would tell war stories and they would slap me on the back on the Fridays that I had to dress in my Army uniform to go to a Guard weekend.

After the first hospitalization I began to notice that I would become nauseous before reporting to my unit, a nervousness that would cause me to vomit. As the factory became a victim of the economy I had decided at the end of 2008 that I wanted to move to Portland Oregon, so I put in my two-week notice with my job and showed up to my last guard weekend in California. The acting unit commander wished me well and told me that this weekend he wanted me to watch over a soldier who had been experiencing similar issues. I agreed to watch the soldier, I knew him well and he had told me a bit about his issues. I started to worry about him during the previous Guard weekend; this soldier had been prior active duty Army and had returned from a deployment to Iraq.

I stepped outside with him and we stacked our gear next to each other. I informed the soldier I would be watching him during the weekend and he was alright with that. We lit up cigarettes and I asked him if he thought he would be alright to train over the Guard weekend? He said yes and I believed him. A moment later he was crying and told me, “I don’t know why I am crying Anderson.”  I understood why he was crying and told him that I thought he needed help. I told him it would be a better idea for him to return home. He told me he started a post-traumatic stress disorder program later in the week and when I told the acting commander that the soldier was having problems, he agreed and sent the soldier home. My friend called me to let me know he made it home and I have not seen or talked to him since.

I drove up to Portland Oregon and got a job writing parking tickets for a private company. It took me a few months to check into my new Guard unit because there were no tank units nearby Portland, so in the end I was sent to an infantry unit. I had told the guy placing me that I had been rated non-deployable and asked him not to send me to a deploying unit. My infantry unit had deployed to Afghanistan when I got to it so I once again found myself in the rear detachment. I had saved up a little bit and moved from my friend’s loft into an apartment and found myself truly alone for the first time in my life. At first I thought that being alone is what I had always wanted but the nights got longer again and the same weight had been with me, I felt less than cured and was not sure if there was a cure for how life felt. In January 2010 I once again found myself in a hospital after strong suicidal ideation.

 I got out and this time it did not take long for me to realize that things were still not fixed. I could feel myself running out of patience with myself and one day in April 2010 I was walking in Portland, fearing the next Guard weekend when I realized that the source for most of the anxiety in my life was being a member of the National Guard. I was not a bad soldier and that was part of the problem, it looked like I was fine so why would anyone think I wasn’t? Even with two hospitalizations I was seen as fit for duty though I felt completely unfit for duty and the pressure was building. It agitated my symptoms and I felt like someone was going to deploy me even if they were not and the fear of deployment agitated these things that literally drove me insane. I decided that if I valued my life I would write the National Guard unit a letter of resignation and face the consequences or carry on because I knew I would not survive much longer under the status quo, certainly not to December 2013. In April of 2010 I wrote something that changed my life, a letter of resignation…

With proper military respect and to whom it may concern,

I joined the United States Marine Corps in August of 2003, shortly
after graduating high school. After completing the Marine Corps School of
Infantry in February of 2004 I was stationed in Kaneohe Bay Hawaii where I
trained for a deployment to the Philippines specializing in jungle warfare.
When training was completed we set sail from Okinawa and continued on to
Kuwait. In a few months my infantry battalion suffered the loss of fifty-one
brothers, many of whom I had crossed paths with during my then short stint.
Afterward I participated in a combat deployment to northeastern Afghanistan
where my battalion suffered four KIA. Since the loss of so many close friends
I have never been able to reconcile my belief in service with my belief in
life.
     I no longer cherish the ability to be combat effective, lost in the
most evil haze of hell that a war can produce. I miss my friends and am often
confused as to why I am alive and they are not, I cannot imagine what it is
like to draw the short straw. This thought consumes me, I find myself unable
to comprehend any sort of meaning in this life, and I miss my friends.
     Since my discharge from the Marine Corps I have spent time in two
different mental hospitals, one for an attempted suicide and the other two
years later after the symptoms of a beast of an affliction returned to kill
me again. Being a dumb grunt I do not know much other than that I am still
alive and that I do not have the ability to hurt another human being.
      I will not lace up my boots again, and I am aware that there are
consequences for this action. I write this letter as a resignation and not a
declaration of insubordination, I beg for mercy and for benefits that I
earned walking between steel raindrops twice. I hope that I can someday make
peace with the violence that has consumed my twenties, I pray that this
affliction does not consume my thirties on into the rest of my life. I hope
the reader of this letter a successful and safe career, I hope the reader of
this letter finds what they are looking for in life, I thank God for the
United States Military, full of brave souls and too full of sacrifice for me,
if this is delayed cowardice than a coward is what I now am. I will not be
returning phone calls or allowing visitors into my home without a warrant,
this is not personal, it is simply my own paranoia of a large world that I
have seen destroy good men.
       Lastly I would like to thank ***** for doing everything
in their power to help a Soldier when he was down.

                                    Fair winds and good luck,

                                       Garrett Phillip Anderson

I expected my cell phone to be assaulted by incoming phone calls that morning, but nothing came. I felt a wave of fear sweep over me; I knew military police would probably be at my apartment, maybe after work. I went home from lunch. I was astonished to find an email from our training sergeant that explained I would not have to put on my uniform again and that the unit wanted to help me through this process of discharge but I had to contact them. I did and the process began. Since then I have not had to attend a Guard weekend, I have written for therapy and that has led to this film I am working on. I am getting married soon and live with my fiancé, created a more stable support network. Nothing is fixed but the pressure that has been taken off of me has allowed me to live a more real and fulfilling life. I was told that I would go to two review boards for discharge, the first would be a mental health screening and the next if I was found not fit for duty at the mental health screening would be my actual discharge board. I went to the first board in Madigan connected to Fort Lewis in Washington State in January of 2011. Madigan would later be found to have been lowering PTSD ratings for soldiers to save money at the same time I was seen there. All I can conclude from that is that my story was so fucked up even those dirty shrinks said I was not fit for duty.

 I waited for my discharge board and it never came. In July 2011 I was called by my unit and told to report for two weeks of annual training. I explained that I was still waiting for my discharge board and he explained that my not fit for duty status expired after one hundred eighty days. I called my father and we got in contact with a congressional representative who was able to delay my annual training and start the process again. In November of 2011 I flew to Georgia for another fit for duty board and was again found not. I had a second phone interview after the Madigan story broke and I think that one went well. I am not clear if I will ever be discharged from the National Guard, I wish I knew what it felt like to be truly free again. I also wonder how many more soldiers like me are out there in this limbo? The unit when informed went out of its way to help while following the rules of the system, so if there is blame to be put on delay it is on whatever is happening above. I recently received a letter from the VA apologizing for the delay in my case review but assuring me that they will get back to me when the process is finished.

Combat operations in Afghanistan are slated to end by 2014; luckily my contract ends December 2013. In a decade of service my time will not have known peace. The unit knows I am not fit to serve, the shrinks have found me unfit to serve, I know I am not fit to serve and for two and a half years I have been waiting for the paperwork to be filed. The only reason I am better today than I used to be is because I found another way. I have pages of paperwork from mental hospitals and a film I am editing to verify how it could have been that combat affected a young life so deeply. I urge those in similar situations to seek help, because they will wait for you to die before offering help if you don’t do anything for yourself. I proudly served my country and fought through two combat deployments, I am not ashamed of having been so affected but I am ashamed in how the system treats warriors who have put their lives on the line to protect it, this makes me nauseous and I don’t know what to do with any of this information.

4 comments:

  1. I read a lot of what you write . I feel so bad on what you are going through. But we, your family are out here and want to help you. I think the Documentray you are making will bring to light all the problems all the great young vets are facing and will wake up the nation on what you guys are dealing with.

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  2. Garrett, Wow. What a focused article of honesty. I know you have been busy and obviously it has got your mind to roaming. You are doing the right thing by putting all these thoughts out in print. I told my daughter "Liz" Iraq 06-07 about E.M.D.R. and she listened to me like it was the first time I mentioned it. She even wrote it down which is a first. There is hope and we need to guide people to that hope. Stay the course, on the end of the film be sure to list the varieties of help available. Have you heard of "Team Rubicon?"
    Your friend, Bruce in Nebraska
















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  3. Thank you so much, for such an honest portrayal of the pain and suffering you have endured AFTER you voluntarily stepped up and put your life on the line, to make this a safer world for the rest of us.
    I came to read this blog, from a story you wrote on Business Insider- and find myself weeping on a Saturday afternoon, understanding that for every physical casualty, there is an emotional casualty as well. In spite of the anguish, you found a way to capture the experience in words. You are very brave to relive all, so people like me, that have never been to war and can never, never know that level of fear and sorrow - can see a small glimpse, and that small picture is breaking my heart. . God bless you.

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