Tom Becka: Hello, and welcome to this interview on tombecka.com, where everyone’s extraordinary and everyone has a story to tell. This story is a story that a lot of people are dealing with, but very few people are willing to tell this story. This is the story of a soldier coming back from three tours in Iraq, who is dealing with post traumatic stress disorder.
Now, I don’t know how many thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of soldiers have come back and are dealing with this, but I do know that it’s an issue that many, many, many people who are coming back from military service have to battle and I think maybe sometimes they think they’re battling it alone.
Ben is a brave man. He’s a brave man, not only for his military service, but also for the fact that he’s willing to come on this interview and be very honest and open and willing to express just what he’s going through.
It’s not whining. He’s not complaining. He’s not saying, “Oh, poor, poor, poor me.” He’s just trying to explain what he’s feeling, what he’s going through. His life is the life of so many others who have gone and fought for this country. People that I think, many times, we just forget about.
The war is not on the front page on the news. It’s over in Iraq. So why even think about it? Well, the war is not over for a lot of people when they come back. That’s why I did this interview. I must tell you, with this interview, I messed up. The recording on this interview is very, very poor. I used the wrong equipment. I wasn’t paying attention. The quality on this interview, quite honestly, is bad.
But much likely, early days of rock and roll, where they didn’t have technology. The quality of some of the old, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly records and that. It’s bad technology, especially compared to what we have today. The energy, the honesty comes through the speakers for a great experience. I think that’s what this interview is.
I thought about bringing Ben back in and re-record the interview. I was afraid it wouldn’t be as genuine. When I got done talking to Ben, I shook his hand. His hand was wet with sweat because he was so nervous about hitting up here and actually talking about this. Bearing his soul, the way he did.
I figured that instead of bringing Ben back and recording with the proper technology, I would run this interview as it is. I think that it’s so genuine, so real that 30 seconds into it, you’re going to forget about the sound quality and be so engaged in this story of this brave man. With my apologies to Ben for my poor performance during the recording, I thank him for his time and I hope you enjoy this interview on TomBecka.com.
Tom: You’re battling some demons, aren’t you?
Ben: Yeah, I’ve got a pretty rich history for my 30 years of life. The last 12 years have taken some really interesting turns. You see me on the street, you wouldn’t pick me apart from anybody else, I don’t think.
Tom: Tell me about your rich history. What are we talking about here?
Ben: Well, normal to start off with up until age 18 and then went down to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln for my first semester for college. 11 days after my 18th birthday, so I turned…August 31st, was 9/11/2001. Right after that, I called a Marine recruiter and signed up and joined the Marines. By January of 2002, I was off to boot camp in California.
Tom: So you’re, just again, starting out college, and thinking you’ve got your whole life planned out. All of a sudden 9/11 happens and you say, “I got to go fight for my country,” and you sign up.
Ben: Yeah, that was one of those moments, I had always been, the report cards that my parents always got, “We love Ben so much, but oh my God, is he a pain in the ass to have in the classroom.” [laughs] I’m just a talker and I love people and that’s who I am.
I wasn’t really doing anything noteworthy, and really hadn’t in my life up until that point. I was a very average, if not slightly below average student. I ran track my senior year just to get something under my belt, to tell my kids when I’m older.
When 9/11 happened, that was the moment where I realized it was a gut-check moment where you go, OK, this is one of those times where I don’t know what’s ahead of me. I know what’s behind me and I have an opportunity to have an impact on what’s coming.
I just thought if my wife was working in that building, or my mother, or my children were at daycare in that building, I can’t sit here now, doing nothing, drinking, being a stupid 18 year old college student, knowing that there’s something that I could have done down the road because that could have been…and the future, my wife, my children. My thought was, “Not on my watch.”
Tom: You went to boot camp and did you fight in Afghanistan? Iraq? Where were you?
Ben: I joined to go to Afghanistan, but by the time that I got done with all of my training, it was August, we were making the pivot to Iraq. I was training up and by January of 2003 I was flying over to Kuwait with half of the Marine Corp, and half the Army, to invade Iraq.
Tom: You were probably initial invasion then?
Ben: Yeah 2003 initial invasion from Kuwait all the way up to Bagdad.
Tom: You start off going in to Afghanistan, going after Al Qaeda thinking OK, red, white, and blue America I have got to do my thing for my country. Now, you’re going into Iraq, did that have any effect on you? Or was it all still the same emotion?
Ben: At the time, no because when you…I will speak for myself, when I joined the military, you know that you signed on the dotted line. You understand that those four years are no longer yours when you sign that contract.
At that point, the politics of it is really a moot point because you’re going to go where you are told to go. You can like it, you cannot like it, but you’re damn sure going to make the best of it because your life depends on it and so do other peoples. We monitored it because you’re wondering where am I going to go?
Aside from that, you focus on your training and you spend so much time training and preparing for a war, oddly enough, you don’t even know or even care where the war is you’re going to.
Tom: Was that the general mood of everyone else on that plane?
Tom: Or were people grumpy saying, “Hey, I fought for Afghanistan. I signed up for Afghanistan, not Iraq.”
Ben: Not at all.
Tom: It was all…
Ben: Now later, I will tell you, because I spent eight years on active duty. I did three tours in total to Iraq. The first invasion we were going, “OK…” And you remember what it’s like… it was like right now, think of Syria. UN Inspectors in Syria checking for chemical weapons, you can feel that energy mounting for justification to send troops or bombs, or any number of things into Syria.
This is the same thing that happened in Iraq 11 years ago, or however long ago it was now; 2003 so 10 years ago. It’s the same thing so we don’t know. All you know is what the “Reliable sources” can tell you. Me, I was PFC Wormington, Private First Class Wormington. My job is to run that way.
Tom: [laughing] .
Ben: I’ll point you run.
Tom: Yeah and you’re happy to do it.
Tom: You come back now and you’re battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, after serving three tours, you’re battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In hindsight with what you’re going through, was all that worth it? Would you do it again?
Tom: You would?
Ben: Yes without a…here’s the deal Tom. OK, here is a way to look at it. What it did had an impact, a global impact. Not to say me specifically, but I was part of something that had a global impact and when you have a global impact, there is going to be reverberations for a long time to come in a lot of different ways.
On the global scale, but also on the personal scale, that impact reverberated in me in a lot of ways. Some of them are very positive and some of them can be perceived as very negative. I think from the outward in, we hear PTSD, this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the reality is it’s only a disorder in America.
It’s not a disorder in Iraq or Afghanistan, or Syria, or Israel, or any number of places where a healthy fear of survival is a pretty good quality to have, or fear of death I should say. When you’re transplanted back into this cushiony, comfortable, superficial day-to-day that is where the shift that your brain went through from all that combat really has trouble settling in.
Tom: In effect what you’re saying, in America you’ve got Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. People that are living in Iraq, that’s just called life.
Ben: It’s called order. That’s their order. It’s life, its acceptance. You accept that I can walk down the road walking my son to school with our three goats and, boom… IED goes off, and my son’s maimed and I’ve lost my vision and now for the rest of my life that’s…Over there they don’t have like, “Oh, I’m going to sue my government now because this happened to me.”
Whereas if something like that happened here, it’s like, “Oh! We have someone to point at.” Over there, existence is just it. It’s on you. It’s a very interesting dynamic and that’s why I’m so lucky that I had the opportunity to travel outside of America, to travel outside and see what the rest of the world lives with on daily basis and what their normal is.
Tom: OK. I want to be a devil’s advocate here. I’ll bet people listening to this one thinking the same thing, some at least are. “All right, dude. You saw how bad it is in other places. You know how good you got it here. This PTSD thing you’re talking about, get over it, man! Come on. You’re married now. You got a wife. You got a family. It was hard. Come on, get over it!” As opposed to talking about, “Look I’m dealing with this post-traumatic stress.”
Ben: Sure. One word, Nikko Jenkins. For those who aren’t in Omaha. Nikko Jenkins is this guy who’s just been locked up. He was released from prison here in Omaha and he went on a random shooting spree, killed four people within 10 days.
The police said that what’s so crazy about this murder spree is that he crossed racial boundaries, gender boundaries and locational norms which is very uncommon for a killer. The last person who died, Ms. Andrea Kruger, died on 168th and 4th Street. She was shot in the head, killed execution style in the street. This is 100 yards from my house.
What I have to say to you all, the royal you, is you’re not safe. The world is a dangerous place, but I agree that this heightened level of awareness that I have is not necessary, but the brain has a very difficult time closing its eyes to the monsters in the room once it’s seen them. When I come home, you can tell me all you want. There’s no monster under the bed, but at one point, I crawled under the bed for eight years and fought the monsters. I’m sorry, but you just can’t tell me that.
Tom: You can’t unring the bell.
Ben: You can’t unring the bell. The way I trying to describe it is you live your entire life in the darkness and you turn the light on and now you see those monsters in the room. Turn the light off. Are you more scared now? Now that you know they exist and you can’t see them because we’re all in the same room here. The job is now for the veterans coming home and don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for anything.
Tom: Yeah. You’re not saying, “Oh, poor me.”
Tom: You’re just trying to deal with the stress that you have in Iraq so that you can maybe not think of those monsters all the time.
Ben: Right. I’m an investment adviser. I have a day job. I’ve got a bachelor’s degree from UNO, graduated summa cum laude. Now, because of my time in the service, I just have a different brain. Like I said, a lot of that is very, very good and it made me so much of a better person. I would include the post-traumatic stress in there because there’s a lyric in a song I used to love and it says, “Every scar is a bridge to someone else’s heart.”
When we go through these things, I could sit here very easily and try and play the poor-me card, but that’s not in my DNA. That’s been beat out of me in the Marines. It used to be. I’ll tell you that. But now I go and I help at Bellevue University, the Veteran’s Initiative for Advancement and I talk to veterans there. I talk with veterans at Lutheran family services. I’m on the board of directors for [inaudible 00:14:22] trying to help veterans transition and go through these issues.
Firstly, I don’t really care what the public opinion is of post-traumatic stress. I really don’t because it’s just a simple fact I’m not going to waste time. There’s people who are dealing with these things on a daily basis who are agoraphobic to the point that they can’t set foot outside their house because they haven’t learned how to dim the light down once it has been flipped on.
Tom: Yeah. Why do you think that you’ve been able to deal with this? In other words, you’re right. There’s some people that are dealing with it to such a point they can’t hold a job, can’t have a relationship and you’ve been able to like you say, get married and have a job and work with others. Is there something that you could teach them to get them to be more like you?
Ben: I was near suicide at a point. I have the whole sleeve of tattoos on my arm that really represents the time period that I went through where I realized that you could quit or you can go. Things became very black and white because the PTSD and all the stuff that we go through and anything else in life, we can tend to get really caught up in the gray but you really just have to make a decision.
Am I going to move forward and forget whatever it is? Whatever baggage I’m carrying is what I’m carrying but we have to at some point forget about the weight of it and make a decision to just move forward and that’s what I went through.
It was 2006 where I had just moved so 2003, I went to Iraq. In 2004, I went back to Iraq so those are two seven-month tours. Then, I had about a year and a half before I reenlisted and moved down to San Diego from my base which is in the High Mojave Desert of California, so just north of Palm Springs.
I moved down to San Diego and I thought, OK. This is really great. I just spent the last four years completely immersed in this Marine world, but what I need to do now knowing that someday I won’t be surrounded by this cocoon of people who have this [inaudible 00:16:45] that I moved in with civilian roommates. I lived out on town in San Diego. I worked on base. I had my Marine day job and the rest of it was just me trying to be a civilian. That’s where I really started having struggles.
Tom: Because the people that didn’t go through to what you went through couldn’t relate to you and you couldn’t related to them.
Ben: Right. In the ways that I did relate to them, I just didn’t find it very…I don’t know what the word is…inspiring. Very uninspiring was what I had seen versus for many years of watching very average, normal, if not below, some people very below average because there’s a whole mix of people.
You may have this idea of six-foot-three, square-jawed Marine fighting the battle, but the reality is like I’m five-foot-nine and was 135 when I went in. It’s like they’re just kids. They’re 18- or 19-year-old kids. Watching them do the things that they did and then seeing what a parallel it is because the moral, I think from the top down when went in to Iraq, was “The best thing you can do America, for these troops, is keep shopping.”
Tom: Yeah. That was it. I remember that. We, on the state side during all of this, we made no sacrifices. The economy might have tanked a little bit, but we made no real sacrifices.
Ben: It is what it is. The way I look at it is we all served in one way or another. Just because you’re wearing a uniform doesn’t mean you’re not a servant, or upholding your civil obligations to our government because everybody can’t serve at one time, so some people need to work and keep the economy going and feed their family.
Tom: Let me ask you this. You and I, we’re having a conversation about this, but I would guess that with most people they don’t get in depth and ask these questions. My guess would be that you meet somebody and you start talking and you come up that you fought in Iraq, you fought in Afghanistan. Well you didn’t fight in Afghanistan. You were just in Iraq right?
Ben: Just Iraq. Three terms.
Tom: OK, so your three terms in Iraq. You fought in Iraq and people don’t quite know how to approach you.
Tom: They don’t know how to deal with you. They don’t know what to say, so they start talking about football or something else.
Tom: Do you want to talk about this though? We’re talking about it and a lot of people would never have a conversation like this, or are able to hear what your thoughts are, but would you want to talk about this to people? Or would you rather just put this behind you and not even think about anymore?
Ben: Not at all. When I came back from Iraq in 2003 I had that attitude as I went over there so that this mess doesn’t have to come home. I think that’s a lot of the tension there because if I’m sitting in a meeting and all of a sudden, for whatever reason, my anxiety starts acting up and I start sweating and my breathing goes shallow and my body temperature shoots up and I just get fired up. That’s really what it is. Just before you’re in combat, that’s what my body does.
I used to have the idea of “Don’t bring that home because this is normal. You don’t want to disrupt normal.” I went over there because I didn’t want my wife, my children ten years from now to feel the pains of war. So now I’m going to bring this home? I’m going to bring this, myself, in to society? I want to protect that society. That’s why I went.
But internally, it’s literally crawling out of my skin to get out. So I realized after my tour in 2004 that I’m not doing myself or America any service by not talking about what’s going on over there.
One of the biggest things is I remember driving, in 2004 in Iraq, on a convoy passing Fallujah, and going in to Ramadi where I was based. We drove by Fallujah and this is, you know everybody knows, 2004 Fallujah might as well be Compton times 20. It was just the worst thing people could imagine in middle America.
I got back to Ramadi. My guys, we sat down after we debriefed and unloaded everything. We’re sitting in the chow hall and we’re eating some food, and we look up and we see on the screen they’re showing this explosion in Fallujah and talking about there’s this huge massive fire fight, but we had just driven through there and we’re like, “No, that’s not really what it’s like.”
There was this huge disconnect between what is reality over there and what is put out there to be reality in America.
Tom: No, but you have to understand. If you’re coming from a perspective of “This is what the battle is,” but from a reporters point of view looking at this it might seem so much more to you than what’s really in it.
Maybe look at it from the analogy of a football game. If you’re the player in the trenches, you see it from a different perspective. I look at it as some guy breaks five tackles and makes a 95 yard touchdown run as being something that took a lot of effort and an amazing feat of strength. This guys looking at it like “Dude, this is what I train to do.” Is that a fair analogy maybe to what you saw versus what you experienced?
Ben: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s a fair assessment. There’s no way that someone who hasn’t done that…and to be fair a lot of reporters have fought that. Have fought, or at least been in a combat zone. Their life was no less on the line than mine was, but when the analysis is coming from a person in a nice suit in New York with the video footage being fed in from Fallujah on auto camera, or auto film, or whatever it is.
I don’t think it’s any secret that the reporting in general these days is not up to par, as far as vetting information. To return to the answer to the question, that is why I decided to say “You know what? If someone asks me I’m going to tell them.” If someone ask me a question I will share with them, and not in a way that…
Because Tom, there are plenty of guys and girls that come home and they plaster this all up. They put this on the wall and “I’m an Iraq veteran!” Big, huge sign on their truck “Combat Veteran!” The way I look at it is they’re dealing with things in their own way, but to me I think, “Shut up dude.”
If you want to try and have people understand what you’re going through and what you’ve seen have a conversation with somebody one on one like we’re doing. Be real about it.
But a lot of people, they’re not sure what they think about it because it just happens. For seven months it’s day by day survival. You don’t have time to process what you went through. You don’t have time to process “Oh, that was a pretty close call”, or “I just saw my buddy get killed. He just went home before I even went to sleep that night and I trained with this guy for six years, but tomorrow we have to wake up and we’re going to go stand in front of the enemy again.”
I don’t have time to think about “How am I going to process this on an emotional level?” That is not a survivalist mentality. Survivalist is “That sucks. Who’s shooting at me next? Who am I going to help from not dying next?”
Tom: Do you miss that, and maybe this is the wrong term, do you miss that adrenaline rush? Do you miss that excitement? Because what you’re talking about, as horrific as it is in reality, it’s also got to be quite an emotional, exciting adventure.
Ben: Missing it is not necessarily the way, but I think what I miss is, I miss the teamwork. I miss the no bullshit. There’s not a lot of room for all this BS we have now because it’s just…That’s what I miss. I miss being a part of something bigger than myself. That’s what I miss.
I do not miss getting shot at. I do not miss having to shoot at people. I don’t miss getting awoken in the middle of the night with a mortar exploding nearby. I don’t miss any of that. No way, no how. Thank you very much. That was wonderful. Glad it’s in my past. Would I do it again? Yes I’d absolutely do it again. I’d probably do it differently. I’d try and it better, but I’m good.
Tom: Yeah. It’s time for somebody else now.
Ben: Yeah, I’m good. It’s a young man’s game.
Tom: Yeah, you’re what? 30? Yeah, you’re an old guy. Yeah, it’s over.
Ben: But eight years in the marines on a body, that can wear you down a little bit.
Tom: Yeah, I would imagine so. Do you suffer with a lot of physical pain because of it? Do you have any injuries?
Ben: Oh, God. Everybody goes through the muscular/skeletal issues just from hiking and all of that. Bad back, bad knees. I’ve got a couple unique injuries. I had a training accident in the pool where it crushed my nose, so I can’t breathe well out of my nose. Therefore; I now have sleep apnea, so I have to sleep with a CPAP every night.
I’m medicated for the anxiety disorder. I’ve got some asthmatic issues that they think was just from being around burning tank [inaudible 00:27:03] and burning batteries and all the stuff that we burned that we considered trash. I was a scout observer, so my eyes were very important, and they did corrective eye surgery on me. But it didn’t heal properly, so I have floaters and my vision isn’t all that great.
I picked up a little bug in Iraq that is now just forever in my blood system, that if it kicks up and it turns in to some sort of infection I’ll be hospitalized for two to three days and there’s really only four antibiotics that can kill it known to medical science right now, and it build up resistance to these antibiotics as you go.
Tom: You’re not bitter about any of this are you? This is just, like you said, you’d do it again.
Ben: Yeah and the VA takes care of me. I know there’s a really bad, “VA backlog!” and that’s all we’re hearing about. Well part of that is the VA’s not designed to do this. It wasn’t originally designed years ago to do this. They’re like a center trying to turn themselves in to running back right now, to go back to the football analogy.
It’s like, it’s just not in their DNA, but they’re trying and they’re doing a good job. Especially here in Omaha, they’re doing a fantastic job, but they’re taking care of me.
I don’t ask for any prolonged existence. I’m 60 percent disabled from the VA. They cut me a check every month for like $1,000. I’d be happy to give that back to them and say “Look, I don’t care about the money. Let’s get this anxiety thing under control. I’ve got something going on with my lungs, or whatever it is related to what happened, can you help me out?” That’s really all I care about.
Tom: Talk about the anxiety. Do you have any survivor’s guilt? I’ve heard of this, people that have been involved in a tragic accident and they live and their friends die. You talked about losing friends in battle. Do you have survivor’s guilt?
Ben: I did for a long time. I worked through that actually and I think that was a big piece of what my anxiety was built around because when I would talk before we didn’t really have time to process what happened. Well in Iraq in 2004, April 9th, 2004, I had a marine, Chance Phelps. I trained this guy, so from the day he set foot in the marine core, we call it the fleet marine core.
So you’re done with your boot camp and all that job training and now you’re in your unit in the marines. From that day until the day he died I trained him. He was my marine. I was his squad leader. In Iraq he was supposed to have…
We had a 42 man platoon doing missions; from convoy operations, vehicle patrols around the camp, quick reaction force to any type of attack on the camp, foot patrols on the camp, a whole number of activities that we were required to do. What we did is we took one guy each day and said “OK, today’s your day off”, so you had a day off every 42 days. That was his day off.
I took a whole bunch of marines over. We did this thing called, it’s a logistics run. You just go get fuel for that camp and all that kind of stuff. I came back and he was gone. Half of the guys were still there. When I left for my logistics run half of the guys were still there, so when I came back, they were all gone. I asked Staff Sergeant Munoz, at the time our platoon sergeant, “Where’d he go? Where’d they go?” “Oh, well, the General had to go somewhere and he needed a convoy, so they signed up.”
This Chance Phelps ended up getting killed. They got the most complex ambush, at the time, that they’d had. That was the first time…that pulled the rug out from underneath me, because when you train a Marine, before we went over there, I was like “Look, guys, you’re ready to go.”
Everything you can do to train, you’ve done. Now, if someone gets killed, that’s war. You could do everything right and still get killed. There’s no bullet out there with your name on it. There’s no fatalistic…it’s just the chaos of war.
I had never considered the fact that one of my Marines would get killed without me being there to just…what if I could have done something? What would I have done differently? That whole thing. At the time, I had a whole 11 other Marines that I was in charge of. This 12th Marine got killed.
These guys do need to grieve at some level, because what you don’t want is then to go outside the wire the next day and they have some vendetta against the world because their best friend just got killed. It’s like, “All right. Let’s sit down. Let’s talk about this. You need to grieve, cry, do what you need to do.”
Then I need to redirect these guys back into the mission, because we still have a long way to go before we go home. I never took the time to grieve, and I never considered the fact that that would happen, to lose one of my Marines without being there. I dealt with that for a long time. I played cat and mouse with his folks. They live out in Dubois, Wyoming for a long time.
Just two years ago, I went out there for the first time to see his grave site and to hang out with his family. I brought my wife and my mom and my sister, and my sister’s fiancÃ© at the time, with us. That was a really weird thing.
So, Tom, here’s what happened. I told you about 2006, when I moved to San Diego. I worked part of the time and then…
Tom: Civilian, part of the time. [crosstalk]
Ben: Civilian, yeah. I actually started to, in a way, form two personalities. I had the Marine Ben, and I had the non-Marine, trying to be everything but Marine, Ben. This happens to most Marines or soldiers because you go and you serve your time wherever you’re based, and then you come home on leave for a week or two. You can’t be this gung-ho guy. You’ve got to come home and talk with your mom and dad and your friends.
Tom: And you can’t use the same language that you’re using with the other Marines back overseas.
Ben: Yeah, no. You have these two sides to you. What happened was as this anxiety grew, and you can lace this with all the survivor’s guilt, which is true, it became harder and harder now. I’m trying to figure out which person I’m supposed to be in which scenario.
When I went out to visit Chance’s grave…they ended up making a movie about this called “Taking Chance” with Kevin Bacon in it. It was about him being escorted home. When I went out to Wyoming to visit Chance’s grave, all my family came with me and I was stressed about this.
I’m like, “OK, I’m going to face something that I’ve had buried deep inside me for eight years now. I don’t know how I’m going to react to facing this.” This is a big enough thing in itself. Let’s go ahead and compound that by bringing my wife and my mother and my sister, and all these other…
Tom: They want to help, but they don’t know what to say. They can’t relate to this.
Ben: They don’t know what’s going to happen. They don’t know. The way I think of it is almost like it’s going to be two atoms colliding in this big…and you know what happened, Tom? Nothing. Nothing happened.
Went up there, had a great time, grieved. My family interacted well. They were at a point, “If Ben says something or shares something, then we can share something.” It was so cool because Chance’s mom, Gretchen, and his father and his stepdad, they’re all there.
They knew him for 18 years, but they didn’t know him the last year and a half. I did. We’re piecing together, I’m piecing this man together of her son that she never knew. She’s piecing together this man to me that I never got a chance to know at that level.
On the drive home, it’s like a 12-hour drive, I’m sitting there going…it’s that term cognitive dissonance. What you think to be true has now been proven to be wrong, or different than what you thought. Now I’m like, “All right. Two atoms were supposed to collide and it was going to be this big atomic explosion, but nothing happened. They actually just started moving in the same direction together.”
Tom: Was that a relief or a disappointment for you?
Ben: It was a huge relief. I’m sitting there going, “What am I doing? What am I afraid of? I’m afraid to just exist happily, is that it? Marine Ben and civilian Ben can’t be one?” That was creating a lot of my anxiety. I describe it as if you have a piece of paper, you can look at one side of the paper and that’s Marine Ben. The other side of the paper is non-Marine Ben.
I have to figure out who knows what about me on which side of this. Then you realize that that’s not it, at all. I’m one person, on one continuous life timeline, from day zero that I was born until now. People know me as pre-Marine Ben, during Marine Ben, post-Marine Ben, all of these.
For me, the most healing therapeutic part of that was to recognize…no, one life, one existence. A whole lot of experience in those thirty years, but that’s when you go…
Tom: I’m not going to talk about…in my life, I’ve got friends that I had in college. They see a side of me which is different than the side that my sister sees of me, which is different than the side that my mom saw of me, which is different than the side that my boss sees of me. It’s the same sort of thing, isn’t it?
Although I didn’t have maybe the war experience that you had, but it’s the same sort of thing. Maybe yours is just sort of exaggerated because of the war experience?
Ben: Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe that’s a lesson for all of us.
Tom: Am I trying to oversimplify this, or…?
Ben: No. No. I think you’re right on. That’s another thing. When I talk with the veterans who are really struggling with post-traumatic stress, the one thing…I always come from a place of “You’re not special.” You’re not special or unique in that you deal with these kind of questions. Everybody deals with these. Soldiers and non-soldiers alike deal with these questions.
For whatever reason, the way that we’re afflicted by these questions, or I’m afflicted by these questions, I’ve been more introspective about how to get over it because at some point, it stopped my ability to exist, in a way. I was near suicidal. I had to find a way to make it work.
Tom: I always found it interesting, being raised in the Vietnam era, but I didn’t serve in ‘Nam, always found it interesting how some soldiers came back and wound up having such great productive successful lives from their experience. Others came back and wound up being emotional cripples. They couldn’t assimilate into society. They dealt with anger issues. They felt like they couldn’t belong.
It was a whole different attitude. For Vietnam, it was a whole different war from what we’re seeing in the Middle East right now. The media doesn’t cover it too much, about the soldiers coming back. You come back from Iraq, and nobody really knows.
We’re still going to be fighting. There’s no big parade. There’s no victory. There’s nothing that says “Wow, look what we did. We won,” like there was in World War II or something like that.
Are there a number of soldiers that the media’s not covering, that people don’t know about, that are just, again, using the word emotional cripple. You guys got issues that you’re dealing with and that you’re going through, but are there a number of soldiers that are at the VA or maybe just out on the street homeless that can’t quite cope and can’t get back into the real world?
Ben: Yeah. Simply, yes. We call them the ones in their mom’s basement. There’s so many people that are trying to do good things for veterans, and they know that this is an issue. The problem is that the majority of ones who need the most help are the ones who won’t self-identify.
They won’t raise their hand and say, “Oh my goodness. I’m having these issues and I need help.” They’ll just sit and waste away. They’ll sit in their mother’s basement with their bronze star or purple heart in a box in the corner and play Medal of Honor video game or combat video game and medicate themselves in booze or drugs and eventually waste away.
Tom: Why do you think you were able to overcome that, and others don’t?
Ben: I guess maybe it’s just the way I was raised. I don’t know. I don’t know why. I’m OK with not being perfect. I’m OK with that. I recognize that I won’t be. Whatever my failures or shortcomings may be as a man, as a person, I’m OK with that but I’m not going to just accept that this is just how it is.
There’s a phrase, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” You just take where you’re at and just take one step. The next day, take another step. What’s the alternative? Sitting in my mom’s basement? That’s not life.
I was to the point, suicidal at one point, where I was sitting on a beach in San Diego, and I’m looking out at the water and I’m just thinking, “This is too much. All this stuff, I don’t know what to do or how to deal with it. It’s too much.”
I just had this, call it a “come to Jesus” moment or divine intervention in a sense, but the phrase that kept running through my head was “Well, that’s just not in me.” It’s just not in me to take the easy way out anymore.
From that moment, I turned around, and you have the whole ocean spread out in front of you and this bay, it almost comes 270 degrees from behind me to either side. You literally feel surrounded by America. You’re on the edge of America, surrounded by civilization, this American society. I just had a moment where I realized it’s just not in you.
Once you realize that, it’s just not in me to end this, then I guess there’s really not a whole lot more to do than get going. That “Shawshank Redemption,” “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
Tom: Indeed, you might have been physically alive, but if you’re staying in your mom’s basement, it’s a form of suicide.
Ben: It’s the ultimate waste. Sometimes that just takes time. Sometimes those men and women just need time to just…
Tom: You came through it on your own time. The guys in their mom’s basement right now will, hopefully, come through it on their own time.
Ben: Hopefully. You talk about the folks coming back from Vietnam, and I firmly believe that it’s because of their experience and sacrifice, coming home from an unpopular war, that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans coming home now are treated with the level of respect and care that they are in society.
I don’t know if most people know this, but there is a general disconnect between veterans of OIF/OEF, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and veterans of Vietnam, Korea even, potentially Gulf War I, and even back to World War II, because I think a lot of them see us as crybabies.
They’re going, “Hey, we didn’t have this. We came home. We got to work.” Maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe part of the problem is we assume that there’s going to be something wrong with you. You come home from Iraq, “Man, I bet that guy’s seen some things. He probably needs lots of help and treatment and counseling.”
Then I start going, “Well yeah, I do. I could use some of that.” Now I’m so introspective, and I’m digging in so deep. I may be unearthing demons from when I was six years old now, because we have this huge assumption that needs to be done.
The same thing could have happened in World War II, Vietnam, Korea, with all these guys. They didn’t have that option. Look, you come home and you get a paycheck to feed your face, and you better get to work. Now we expect you to come home and work, so work. Who knows? Maybe this coddling culture is perpetuating.
Tom: I’ve talked to World War II and Korean vets, and even some Vietnam vets, who belong to the American Legion. They talk about how you guys don’t join groups like theirs. Is that because you say there’s this disconnect, you don’t feel welcome? Or is it that you don’t feel connected to that group? Or is it more along the lines of you saying “OK, yeah, that was then. This is now. Move on.”
Ben: I think there’s a few different reasons behind it. You’re right on for a couple of those. Either not feeling welcome or this is the old guard. This is what they did when they came home. Those places weren’t…that was their VA clinic. The American legion and the VFW, that was where they got their therapy.
Tom: They’d sit around, have a few beers, talk about the war, and then go home.
Ben: And then go home. That was their therapy. Whereas now, we have all these resources and stuff, so the VFW to a lot of us, it seems more like a novelty of yesteryear. I think a lot of us find ourselves going, “What’s the point? We get all of our therapy over here and now I’m trying to just assimilate into this culture. What’s the point of going…” Whereas to them, it was like, “This is our lifeblood. This is what kept us sane.”
Tom: My dad was a World War II vet, and as a kid I remember going to all the Legion hall…my dad’s a [inaudible 00:47:35] of American Legion Post One, and all this. I remember every Memorial Day was a big day in our family. We’d go to the soldiers’ graves, and we’d go to the club. Dad and everybody would have a few beers, we’d have pop and play a little pinball or whatever. It was always a big day for me.
You’re right. I’ve never thought of it. I’ve always just thought of it as a club that my dad belonged to as opposed to a club where he was hanging out with other people that could associate with what he went through. My dad was very proud of his military service in World War II, but it wasn’t until he was almost dead that I got to find out some things about what he did.
In reality, he saw some pretty bad stuff and I didn’t know it. We didn’t talk about it. He never brought it up and any time, even towards the end when we did talk about it a little bit, I always felt awkward talking to him about it. I don’t feel awkward talking to you about what you’ve seen, what you’ve experienced, but when it’s your dad…I couldn’t make that same connection.
Do you have that same thing going on with your family? In other words, is it easier, you telling me and the people listening to the podcast what you went through then it might be talking to your dad or your mom, or even your wife about things like this?
Ben: I don’t feel like it’s any easier or harder in one way or the other. I think at this point I’m desensitized to the conversation. That’s part of it. That was kind of my own personal, cognitive, behavioral therapy. The more times that you talk through these instances and try and…because if I’m talking to you, Tom, and your listeners, then to communicate it properly, I have to try and see it from your perspective.
I have to try and bridge this gap between my view of it and my experiences with it and your view of it and your concept of what that’s like. Every time I do that, you bridge that gap and it gets me closer to seeing things the way I used to, or maybe a more healthy way of seeing things than just being caught up inside the combat side, if that makes any sense? I don’t know.
Going back to your dad, and having the conversations with your dad. Think about these guys who came home, men and women. World War II, Korea, Vietnam. Either nobody cared to ask, or they had that same thought that I did. I thought the war is over there, to leave the war over there. I’m coming home and “Son, you ask me about the war? You don’t even want to know.”
I will not invite that horrible part of what mankind is capable of into this house. I’m not going to invite it into your head the things that I went through and saw and did. I want to protect you from that, and I want to protect me from that, because, for crying out loud, let’s let sleeping dogs lie now.
Then you have these guys coming home like me, where we might as well be shouting it from the rooftops. They probably see it as we’re like the Westboro Baptist Church of veterans. We come home and “We’re not going to take it lying down. VA, you’re going to get us our disability checks.” These guys are going, “Really?” [laughs] That might be some of it, why we’re not connecting. I don’t know. It’s a shame.
I try really hard to talk with the Vietnam veteran. Because it’s funny, I had a conversation at the marine core league a while ago and I was sitting down talking with a guy who was a rat…I’ve heard they call them, like the rat hole guys in Vietnam. They go, “Here’s a pistol, a flash light, and a couple grenades. Go down there and clean up that rat hole.”
He’s talking to me about military operations in urban terrain, in Iraq, fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah and that kind of stuff. He’s going “Man, I don’t know how you guys do it. I don’t know how you do it. It’s unbelievable. I could never do that.” I’m going, “Are you kidding me?! I don’t know how you did that. How do you live in the jungle?”
And among all that just; your body is rotting in the jungle every day. You’re going in and fighting this enemy who, like exists and lives in [inaudible 00:52:21] . And I’m like, “I don’t know how you did that!” And now, because of that we’re like, “We don’t know how either of us did that!”
Ben: “But you know what? You’re awesome, let’s hang out because we’re clearly cut of the same cloth.” And that’s where you find those common binds. The warrior culture, that’s so important to be connected to this American warrior culture of all those people who came before us and laid the groundwork. Because I firmly believe that it is only because of these guys who went to Vietnam. They got plucked, involuntarily plucked out of their lives.
Their government said, “Your life is worth what we say it’s worth. I’m going to send you over here. You’re going to fight a war that you may or may not believe in. I don’t really care! But you’re going to probably y fight because you’re also not going to sit there and just willingly die. Then we’re going to bring you home. The American public is going to spit on you. Then we’re going to forget that it ever happen because we are so ashamed we were ever involved with this war. We are going to wash our hands of anything that’s associated with it.”
I somehow have something to complain about? I signed on the dotted line. I went over there and I come home and I am getting taken care of if I ask for help. It’s because of them that a guy like me is able to walk down the street and someone can’t just instantly identify me as having gone to war. It’s because of their sacrifice and what they went through.
Tom: People are listening right now. We’ve got probably, as I envision this, two people. We’ve got people listening right now that are soldiers who have fought over there or have family members who have fought over there, and others who maybe are just interested in the military or something along those lines.
What would you say to the people that are listening that were soldiers, or whose family members were soldiers over there? What do you want them to know about your experience? What do you think they could benefit from your experience?
Ben: Going to war is profound. Profound not in the very magical sense that the word is used. It’s an absolute turning point in your life. People who have experienced that have to somehow find a way of pivoting back. I don’t know, have the conversation, if people are willing to, ask questions, don’t shy away from it.
That’s on both sides of the table, veterans and family members of veterans. There’s really no simple answer to it, because every single person who goes to war has a different experience. I could be standing right next to somebody who went through every single fight that I went through, and they had a completely different experience than I did.
Tom: Did they really, though? Is that like the Vietnam that you’re talking about? His experience and your experience were completely different, yet deep down inside it was the same thing.
Ben: The fear is the same.
Tom: Yeah, but…
Ben: That level of fear…
Tom: Are you a brave man?
Ben: No. I am a man of principle. Because of that, those principles push me to do certain things that some people may consider brave. Signing up to join the Marine Corps, “Well, that was really brave of you to do that right after 9/11.” Yeah, but it wasn’t bravery that did it. I wouldn’t have a cake flapping in the wind as I signed my [inaudible 00:56:19] .
I just had a foundation principle that said, “Not on my watch.” I don’t know if I made any impact, but, if there was anything I could do, I’m going to try. That’s what it comes down to. It’s the try. I’m going to try to assimilate back into society. I’m going to try to communicate with people and tell them what this whole post-traumatic stress thing is all about.
I’m going to try to bridge the gap between my generation and the generation before me who has gone through a similar experience. I’m going to try to make my world that I live in better than the world that my son lives in, or my daughter lives in. I’m going to try. I’m going to fail, but I’m going to try.
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