I’ve always been a fighter. Perhaps to a fault. So why then, when I was recently faced with an unexpected personal fight did I remain totally flat footed, getting out-flanked, and taking direct hits? Pride. It’s the same pride that prevents many firefighters in crisis from calling mayday on the fireground.
My personal standard operating procedure for dealing with experiential trauma was fairly routine, and probably necessary at times:
Step 1: Laugh about it, even if it really wasn’t funny at all.
Step 2: Bury the unlaughable.
I believed I could do this indefinitely. Unfortunately, burying these heavy things actually made everything worse because I allowed them to take root. When my mother got sick with terminal cancer and entered into a level of pain that I can’t put into words, I reverted to my SOP of bury, bury, bury.
Suddenly, I encountered something unfamiliar. There was no more room to bury anything.
All at once, I suddenly found myself facing every single thing that I had buried. It was like I had suddenly fallen through the floor at a structure fire. Instead of calling a mayday, I proudly thought I could bust my way out of there.
I manufactured a false hope that once my mom was no longer in pain, and the funeral was over that I could square myself away. I put on a smile and sucked it up. Meanwhile, the idea of a funeral absolutely terrified me. On top of the pain of burying my mother, I knew that the funerals of past were going to have to finally be faced. Lots of unburned fuel.
My childhood best friend was also named Eric. Eric was killed in action by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad. I got leave approved, and made it to his funeral. Hearing his wife and mother mourning, just rocked me.
I thought about how Eric always did everything I did. I thought about how I had helped him get into physical training shape, and how he had enlisted after talking it over with me. I did what I had to at the time, and I buried the guilt and pain.
That next week my battalion left for Fallujah.
As a grunt marine, it was exactly where I wanted to be, but it was also different than I expected it to be. In what seemed like one really long day, a lot happened, much of which was untrainable.
155 of my brothers were wounded in action, and 13 more were killed in action. A week after returning from that deployment, we stood (or wheel chaired) in formation before a long row of rifles bayoneted into the parade deck.
The mothers of 13 of my brothers mourned while the sergeant major completed final roll call. More guilt, more pain. I didn’t want to go to a funeral ever again. Shortly later, my enlistment was up, I hit the road and pushed it all down as far as I could.
Last summer, when my mother passed on, the funeral did not go well. Instead of being able to square myself away, the opposite thing happened.
It was complicated. I could equate this to fire conditions worsening. Still refusing to call a mayday, I made the situation worse by stirring up fuel while trying to climb out on my own.
A couple weeks after the funeral, and with the fire conditions nearing flashover, I took a good hard look the situation and at myself, and I thought, “Really? Am I really not going put up a respectable fight? Am I really going to let myself turn into a lousy father, burn down my marriage, or become a drunk? Is this the legacy I’m going to impart?”
No! I did the only brave thing I’ve ever done and decided to face it all and get help.
I “popped smoke.” I called in the mayday.
For me, calling mayday meant enrolling in a faith-based program for combat vets called the Mighty Oaks Warrior Program. During the course of a week, I met everything head on which was really intense but very healing.
The instructors there are all combat vets who were all former students of the program themselves. Hearing men like me share their similar and relatable experiences surprisingly allowed me to unpack everything that I had buried.
What a relief! I didn’t just come away with restoration, I came away with a renewal I didn’t know was even possible. I also came away with no fear to speak of.
I’ve been talking about this because I chose to. It’s personal. My former unit has lost more to suicide than any other unit, not just of the Marine Corps, but of the entire military. It’s ongoing.
First responders continue to lose more to suicide than we do in the line of duty. Countless more veterans and first responders end up like I did, walled off emotionally, trying to cope while suffering in silence. Families get hit by collateral damage. I believe all of this is the result of not dealing with things properly.
Obviously not every ugly fire call, and not every personal hardship ends up in crisis! But, if your SOP is anything like mine was, I humbly say it’s time for a complete overhaul.
When the really serious things of life come your way, don’t just pack it away as unburned fuel, deal with it properly, and deal with it real-time. And when life throws you lemons, don’t make a whiskey, make the darned lemonade.
With all that said, I’m going to end with a well-intentioned, bare-knuckled shot. You owe it to your crew (family and legacy) to call in the mayday if it’s needed! There is no good excuse! If you find no RIC crew established, know you still have a brother in your corner. I’ll listen, and you won’t scare me off.
These are some additional and free resources that I know of to do some “controlled burns:”
1. Spouse/family. (I was terrible at this, now the opposite is true.)
2. Firehouse. Pride is petty. Sometimes we see and experience things that are untrainable.
4. Find a solid mentor that will poke you, not enable you. I have a mentor that punched me in the face when I needed it.
5. Go aggressive if needed and literally go somewhere that specializes in whatever you are hung up on. Mighty Oaks Warrior Foundation has my support 8 days a week. They also now have a separate program for first responders. (Free to attend, they do not even accept payments).
Apply to our Programs
The Mighty Oaks Warrior journey begins with intensive peer based programs that utilize instructional sessions, camaraderie, and team building activities that are designed to challenge our Warriors to overcome their past experiences and move forward into a life of purpose.