The first person I photographed with my M16 fell face first, like a sack of potatoes, I remembered, pulling at length from a cannabis joint. From a hotel room in Twentynine Palms, Calif., I thought of the person I had shot in the chest the previous month, took a deep breath, and felt the vapors fill. my lungs. The soft smoke rose from my breath like smoldering ruins of war.
It was September 2003. My fellow Marines and I were only weeks away from combat and grateful to be alive. Our regiment – the Magnificent 7th – led America’s historic, though questionable, foray into Iraq in response to terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of thousands of innocent Americans. âBe the hunter, not the hunted,â Mad Dog barked at our last rally, and on March 19, 2003, our unstoppable convoy of overwhelming force set out to invade Iraq like âthe tip of the spearâ.
Six months later and 8,000 miles away on the other side of the globe, I got off a plane in sunny California, leaned over and kissed the tarmac, happy to be back on American soil.
As one of the first home combat units, there was considerable interest in our return. A local radio station gave a video of our bus route while yelling âThe boys are back in townâ by Thin Lizzy. Families and supporters lined the streets, cheering. With so much glee, I didn’t even notice that things were different. This i was different.
I was, of course, grateful to be home, but I thought of my friend, Josh McIntosh, our beloved soldier who missed the fire with his 9mm pistol in his own forehead, killing him. Everyone was far too happy, I thought. Didn’t they know what was happening 8,000 miles right now? Didn’t they know Doc Mac was dead? I thought of all the collateral deaths. All the innocent killed. And the ringing in my ears.
Despite the hero’s welcome, three weeks later I found myself in an interrogation room on base, without a lawyer, being toasted for hours by NCIS over smoking that joint. âI know you and your buddies were stoned,â my interrogator insisted, âyour buddies gave us statements. I faced 50 years at Fort Leavenworth if I didn’t cooperate, I was told. He started taking my fingerprints.
None of this makes sense. I was a remarkable third year sailor with high marks, the first junior navy of my peers to be promoted to NCO. Earlier that summer, the Marines held a battlefield ceremony to quote me and others for “extraordinary heroism in action against enemy forces.” I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly being treated like a full-fledged terrorist for smoking a joint. Outraged, didn’t they know everything was different now?
In an instant, the Marine motto Semper Fidelis (from Latin for “always faithful”) boiled down to a hollow recruitment slogan. The Body I loved and gave my all for quickly abandoned me when I needed it most, after completing the mission. I was promptly treated without supervision and received a ânon-honorableâ discharge just months before my four-year volunteer enlistment ended. The âwell-being of the troopsâ, the second pillar of maritime operations, was never taken into account.
I had no idea then that thousands of other veterans would meet the same fate, or that 13 years later, I would be alongside Tulsi Gabbard and other members of Congress to tell my story on the steps of the United States Capitol. United. For many years, my ânon-honorableâ exit status caused me deep depression and anxiety. As one Vietnam veteran said, “It hurts to feel dishonorable.”
It wasn’t until Veterans Day 2013, when I was in law school and read the editorial “The Vets We Reject and Ignore” that, in a cathartic lightning-type moment , I realized that I was far from alone in my struggle. For over a decade, I felt invisible. I didn’t think anyone knew about my plight, much less would spend time writing an article condemning exactly what I had endured – what hundreds of thousands of comrades had also endured.
I realized the fight was much bigger than me, and in 2018 I joined the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of all Sailors and Sailors. with PTSD who have been denied their honorable discharge since 2001. Since filing the costume, I have heard from countless veterans and veteran families who did not survive.
I met Joanne Mills, whose late husband Peter MacRoberts hanged himself in 1978 after receiving an “unwanted” discharge, and two review boards rejected her requests for an upgrade. His grandchildren, who were born years later and have never met their grandfather, seek solace in the dead stump of a plant he once kept, recovered by Mills, whom they call the ” daddy’s plant dead “.
Icarus Randolph was an infantry marine who developed PTSD while deployed to combat in Iraq, and for treating himself with cannabis on leave he received a very honorable discharge. His sisters saw him shot and killed by Wichita police on July 4, 2014 after being turned away from the VA because of his dismissal status.
When President Lincoln gave his second inaugural address in March 1865, he spoke of healing the nation’s wounds. Lincoln knew that part of the process of ending the war is “taking care of [ALL] who endured the battle. The recent settlement in my lawsuit against the Navy is a major step in this direction.
Now the real work begins to secure upgrades for the tens of thousands of veterans who, like me, have served honorably but have been administratively separated for minor infractions due to post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma. head or military sexual trauma. That’s why I created Lincoln’s Promise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing free legal services to veterans with PTSD who need a refresher so they can begin to heal and continue their life.
We must take care of all who endured the battle. After all, that’s Lincoln’s promise.
Tyson Manker is a lawyer and author of the VA Handbook for Veterans and Advocates. He served in the Marines in Iraq and is the founder of Lincoln’s Promise.
Editor’s Note: This is an editorial and as such the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond or would like to submit your own editorial, please contact Military Times Editor-in-Chief Howard Altman, [email protected].