From suburbia to Iraq and back

darin-onlineIt seems like a lifetime ago, but in reality it was only 11 years. The day I stepped off that bus to stand on those yellow foot prints, as so many have done before me, to earn the right and honor of being called a United States Marine would forever change my life. I grew up in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., in an area called Glen Allen. My childhood was quiet and I spent my time riding bikes, playing Legos and spending my time with family and friends.

I joined the Marines for many reasons, but I never fully understood just how much this decision would change my life forever. This has been the case for many veterans who are now struggling to adapt to the daily-grind lifestyle as a civilian. With the majority of combat veterans suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, I am not alone. When I was one of the first Marines to leave the Corps in 2007, I struggled in some ways to fit in with other civilians. I was one of the first Iraq vets to leave the service and there weren’t many of me around. Fortunately, I didn’t start suffering from PTSD for a few years, but it was still too early for the Department of Veterans Affairs to have a plan to help me deal with my own personal demons.

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Having shot, blown up, stabbed and killed countless of our country’s enemies, I started struggling to function in society and was even fired from my job at the time. The littlest things would set me off, causing flashbacks or strong, realistic memories that made me feel like I was back in Iraq. At least four times per night, I would struggle to sleep, as vivid dreams of those long dead came back to haunt me — friends I’ve lost and those I’ve sent to meet their maker. I no longer felt emotions like joy, happiness and love, and only seemed to feel anger, hate and at times, fear.

After going back to college in 2011, it was the first time I truly realized I wasn’t alone in my torment. I started meeting other student veterans who shared similar experiences with me. I began to realize I wasn’t alone in my struggle. My grandfather has been my hero my entire life — he served in World War II with the Second Army Rangers and fought with them in Africa, invaded Italy, scaled the cliffs at Pointe Du Hoc, fought the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and marched all the way into their country to see the fall of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.

My grandfather rarely spoke about the war, especially about combat and how he dealt with it when coming home. I do remember him telling me only one story after I came back from my first tour. He lost his cool one day when a guy surprised him and ended up beating the man up. He never told me of the difficulties coming back to civilian life after war and unfortunately passed before I had the chance to ask.

I struggled to find a place here at Colorado State University and I still do in some ways, but there was one person I met during my time here to whom I was able to relate. Nick Massarotti was the first combat veteran friend I’ve made since leaving the Corps. He is a little rough around the edges, but with his background as a calvary scout with 27 months in country, who wouldn’t be? I once asked Nick if it was difficult for him to transition back to being a civilian. He told me, “God, I hate these whiny, stupid, f***ing lazy people and I hope they all burn in hell.”

Granted, Nick doesn’t really wish everyone to burn in hell. It’s a militaristic way of blowing off steam. I could tell the question bothered him and I never really asked him directly again, but over the last year of our friendship, I’ve been able to determine that he has struggled worse than I have.

The VA had Massarotti on some seriously heavy drugs to treat his PTSD and traumatic brain injury, which included side effects like developing diabetes. Nick eventually decided to give up on his treatment with the VA. That is not uncommon among veterans frustrated with their lack of progress. He turned to drugs, but not in the way you might think. Massarotti became a user of medicinal pot. I was always strongly against the idea that an item our government has deemed illegal for recreational purposes would be of any help.

However, having seen Massarotti at his best and worst I can confidently say that for this man, weed seems to work for him. There seems to be a growing belief among veterans that medicinal marijuana is more helpful to them then the VA ever was. The American people and their government need to step up and help our returning warriors fight their next battle — the battle over their own sanity.

I’m still struggling with my own personal demons, but with friends and family helping me, it has become less of a struggle for me as I march through the war for my soul. Even with all of the horrible things I’ve seen, what I remember most is not the battles, but the men and women who fought next to me in defense of our freedom and our way of life.