BY: MICHAEL RAPOPORT
I was nervous when I made the phone call to Mr. Mclain Brown, a former United States Marine who had served in Afghanistan from 1988 to 1989, in addition to Kuwait during the Gulf War, between 1990 and 1991. Anxiety took over me, but I was also excited to learn about his story and experiences. I was particularly anxious because of the questions I was going to be asking and hoping that I would not cross any boundaries.
I called and he did not pick up, so my nerves were freaking out. I left a message saying that I would call back in a few minutes. A cascade of thoughts ran through my head, and I feared that I would not be able to complete this interview. I kept looking at my desktop clock and waiting for the time to go by. I fidgeted with my pencil, looked out the window at the trees, and what had felt like five minutes was 45 seconds. My stress got the best of me, and I ended up calling him back within a minute. This time he answered.
When he picked up the phone, he was very lively and apologized for not picking up my previous call. He mentioned that the signal was bad where he currently was and I immediately pictured him on a hike, or outside sitting at a picnic table in the woods.
After breaking the ice, we dove right into the interview. “What were your reasons for enlisting in the military?” I asked.
“I figured the military would be a good choice for getting good training and the experience and also to get away, so, pretty much for those two reasons.”
He went straight to the point and explained that the relationships within his family and his circle of friends were not ideal. He was working a full time job in high school, so education took a backseat and he “needed to focus on survival.” When talking about this, his voice barely wavered, and he was extremely at ease with sharing his life.
“What was your first impression when you were in that situation—such as facing violence, trauma, and fear?”
“You just do your job,” Mr. Mclain Brown replied. “There isn’t any immediacy of war. As I said, we got shot at, we had a couple of scope missiles launched at our base. We had some real moments of being scared and thinking that we would die. I think you don’t really understand what it is that you’re going through. At the time you just do your job and you pay attention to that and that’s it,” he added. “You’re trained very well, and part of that training is desensitizing to your own needs so that you can continue the job that you were trained to do.”
He answered very calmly, but when he began to talk about the training, he stopped briefly to think about it, as if he were recalling what he had undergone years ago. I expected this answer since I have researched and seen examples of military training, and it is exactly how Mr. Mclain Brown describes it. They push you over the edge and farther, but in the end that training keeps those soldiers alive when they are put in difficult situations.
“You’re numb to a lot of that stuff [safety to oneself], but then you have to unpack all of that stuff and that’s what I have been doing for the past twenty years…. The emotional weight of all that is enormous and it takes…twenty to forty years to unpack everything that we need to unpack emotionally.”
Again, he began to pause in between phrases more and more, and this worried me. I felt that we had delved in too deep as he began to remember his past, but he continued with a steady voice. I was mainly afraid because one of the biggest questions was coming up.
“What was your most vivid experience or memory?” I asked slightly hesitantly.
“One of our guys, from our unit, committed suicide. He shot himself in the head in front of me…”
Right when I asked I heard him falter for a bit. He began to recall the incident, and it clearly brought back strong feelings. I was shocked. I was really interested and I should have lain off, but in my interest and inexperience with interviews, I wanted to know more about what occured.
“Was it because of PTSD, or was it ever investigated?”
“I have some idea. He… he was a guy that… a lot of people picked on. He didn’t quite fit in very well with a lot of people. He was a relatively new guy…. I think he came there with a lot of problems already and then that just probably sent him over the edge.”
Again, as he began to grasp for words and pause more often, I thought I had taken it too far. I had also begun to realize the stress of war. Not only are there large amounts of stress from being in danger, but also from daily actions and interactions that we civilians take for granted. I never thought about the army being a tough place to fit into, so when I heard this I was in awe that something so terrible could happen. When preparing for the next question I stuttered a bit, being afraid to push farther.
“After you had completed your tour of duty, how did it affect you in your personal life?”
“Wow, um… I tried to get back and fit myself into my normal routine, and I couldn’t,” he said. “I started to have issues with superiors. I was very belligerent, very angry and I didn’t know why….”
I thought I had delved too deep, as he began to stutter and look for words to describe his experience. I knew that veterans’ adjustment back into society is tough not only to undergo, but also to discuss. Except, Mr. Mclain Brown continued to talk about it.
“Then I talked with one of our chaplains, and he suggested I go to this course called CRATO, which is Latin for belief…. It was a retreat for service men and women who had experienced trauma in some form or another…. I was almost finished serving all my time that I had signed for, so I was close to getting out,” he added. “So, I went to this and it made a big difference for me in understanding that I had a problem. So that was the first step, but then there was a long time, even after I got out, there was a long time between me taking that first step and that second step.”
This is what I was most interested about: the rehabilitation back into normal life and normal routines. I knew that most veterans struggle with their demons, like they are having an endless brawl, but with themselves. The variety of methods that veterans use to cope with these demons is innumerable.
“So when I got back, I got discharged from the military…. I tried to go back to my old life and my old friends, who were still doing the same stuff that they were doing when I left them, years before…. That wasn’t me anymore…. I was changed. I started getting in fights with people I was friends with my whole life…. I started slowly, detaching myself from my family…. I was becoming more and more reclusive, more and more firm….”
I began to understand how difficult being a veteran is, since they have to cope with all the memories from combat as well as adapt to their old life when they are a completely changed person. He mentioned before that the training also deeply affects them since not only are the exercises meant to train them physically but also mentally, and they become accustomed to that. So, when they try to slide back into normal life, they cannot let go of those memories.
“Do you feel that you have emotional or physical scarring from the events?”
“Oh, absolutely. I had three different surgeries; I got injured while I was there, so I eventually had to get out, I did all my time, but I got out on a medical discharge because I was no longer able to do the job that I was trained to do because of my injuries. I had three complete rotator cuff surgeries. I eventually blew out a disc in my back, so I had two surgeries on my back. You know, I have a limited range of motion and my lifestyle by those injuries, certainly, I’m luckier than most,” he added. “You know, I stay active and I’m physically fit, but… it took me twenty something years to unpack the emotional baggage that I had as a result of my time in the Marines. Not just in the time of war but also outside of that as well.…”
The physical repercussions of war are undeniable, but people tend to focus on them more than the mental and psychological consequences. Clearly the physical effects are great, but if it takes twenty years to “unpack the emotional baggage,” maybe people should focus on them as well. Although people are better at recognizing these problems today, there are still countless veterans who struggle with their very existence because of these dilemmas.
“Being in the military, a lot of people have really fantastic experiences because the people they’re with are fantastic people and you know it’s like anything in life, sometimes you’re in with a group of people that are just bad news and you can’t change the people who you’re with,” he replied with a laugh. “I did not have a good experience. While I am proud of having served, very proud of having served, and very proud of being in the Marines, because I felt that I regained my personal integrity throughout my whole experience, it was not easy. It was a very difficult… dramatic six years of my life.”
When he said this, I connected the military with a lot of “human” things, because when I think of the military it sometimes seems “inhuman” to me. The things that they do are just out of this world, but when Mr. Mclain Brown mentioned something as simple as being with the right crowd, I really began to understand the veteran’s perspective on the military. As mentioned above, people do have great memories of their tour, but I never really thought someone could have a terrible experience, because when I think of the military I think of a family who unites against a common evil. It completely changed my perspective on the “togetherness” of the armed forces.
“That said… I’m in a much better place now, obviously, than I’ve ever been. I have a great relationship with my wife; I have an eight-month-old daughter now. I never thought before in my life that I would be able to be a healthy, happy person, and I can call myself that now. It’s not to say that you still don’t have struggles… It’s Veterans Day coming up and certain days of the year, certain times of the year are harder for me than others because I reflect too much on things that happened in the past and I get depressed,” he distantly replied. “So those moments still happen, but I have good tools to deal with those things, and I can actually talk about those things now and I can write about them. Writing for me is my primary way of dealing with my PTSD.”
This is what I imagined he would say, because I knew before the interview that he had struggled with PTSD and had been dealing with his past for much of his life. This is the response that I usually imagine getting from a veteran. I always imagine them telling me that they have not forgotten what they underwent, but they have not overcome that obstacle of complete rehabilitation. This trend is common among veterans and refugees alike.
“Is your experience difficult for you to talk about because you are open about it now, but when you first got out was it difficult?”
“I didn’t talk about it… As a soldier, as a Marine, you’re taught to conceal, not reveal. Revealing is exposing yourself, and exposing yourself is dangerous, because you would get killed. That’s a physical lesson you learn in your training, but it’s also an emotional lesson. I fully believe that there is nothing we do with our physical self that doesn’t have a mirror image emotionally. They’re tied together; you can’t separate the two. Whatever you do to your body, you do to your soul.”
This blew me out of the water. The depth that Mr. Mclain Brown revealed about his past amazed me. I have never met anyone else that had the same idea that he presented. Although the thought of not talking about it and keeping your experiences boiling inside you is common among veterans, the connection to the training they underwent I had never heard or thought about. After he told me this, he got lost in his own thoughts since he asked me to repeat the question. I was happy but, again, edgy, as I thought I was losing him. His voice was cheerful, which reassured me and we continued.
“It wasn’t difficult [talking about my experiences] because I did not do it at all. Complete avoidance. It was difficult when… when I realized I needed help. When I got to the point where I felt like there wasn’t any purpose in anything that I was doing, so why should I even be alive? Nothing makes sense to me. When I got to that point I knew I needed help and I needed help now.”
I have read about this dynamic among veterans a lot and know that it is especially difficult for people to go out and find the help that they need. The only reason they begin to feel that way is because they have not talked about it with someone else.
“Do you have any regrets?”
“That is an interesting question because there is no easy answer to that question. Some people have the philosophy ‘no regrets’ … when you leave that situation you have ‘no regrets.’ Regret is also to some people, depending on your definition, some people regret is defined by wishing you could go back and do things differently, and most people would agree on that definition. You’re sorry that things turned out the way they did, which I am, but I wouldn’t go back and change anything simply because everything that happened had to happen for me to realize to be the person I am now, and I can’t ‘what if’ myself. I can’t change that… I don’t see any positive outcome to that question. So I don’t have any regrets. I live my life in the now, as much as I possibly can, and try to be the best person I can be every day.”
I was speechless. This is some of the best advice I had ever heard, and it answered my following questions as well. After this, the interview was over, and it could not have ended on a better note.
I think that Mr. Mclain Brown is a hero for what he has gone through. He is clearly strong-willed because not every veteran can deal with the monsters that come home with him or her. I felt liveliness to his voice, but whenever he delved deep into conversation about his past, he paused to gather his thoughts and maybe even his emotions, because although he has been able to heal himself, he still has not completely recovered. I commend him for taking those steps towards a better life and waking up every morning and striving to be the best person he can be every day. The ghosts that haunt him are no mere joke, and the fact that Mr. Mclain Brown has made great strides in overcoming them is very inspirational. I am humbled that he shared his experiences with me.