This picture was taken shortly after Cpl. William Justin Cooper’s sniper team was ambushed. Cooper received terminal wounds that ended his life way too soon. The news of this death was passed to my team before taking this picture. As you can see, with what we had available, we were trying to enjoy our last meal before the sun went down and before we had to move out to hunt the Taliban ambush team. There were multiple Taliban teams that were responsible for ambushing grunt patrols from 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, and Coop’s death.
The following night, my team split up and set into multiple ambush sites. Shortly after the sun rose, a squad size Taliban team walked 25 meters from my ambush site. It was like a dream, the guys in my ambush site looked at each other and nodded. Without saying a word, we opened fire and were synched without skipping a beat. After a few bursts from our machine guns, we were able to recover the enemy targets and hopefully brought some peace to the minds of our brethren.
I share this story because most of us made it home in one piece or had superficial scars. The one scar that we couldn’t see was the effects of war. We were too good for the Taliban to take us, but overlooked the issues of substance abuse and PTSD. Unfortunately, from this team, I’ve had to bury a few of my good brothers who became victims of substance abuse and PTSD. What I ask of you is to remember, during the holidays please remember the vets that gave all or could not be home for the holidays.
Some of you might be wondering, but why the holidays? Why not remember them, every day? I say, in my personal experience, I have been away from my family for most holidays. I was either away training in preparation for a deployment, deployed, or I was mentally away. The holidays for myself during times like these were numbed, replaced, or forgotten. There are many years that my wife would ask me “do you remember when…” and I would stop to think, “do I remember that holiday, or was I even state-side?” Apparently not. And, I’ve had many times throughout my military career when I tried to remember what my brothers and I did during a holiday that fell in a deployment.
The military is one of the most diverse institutes. I have served with guys that graduated from Ivy League Universities to guys that grew up in a broken home with very little. The only thing we had in common was a calling to serve others and do something greater than living for ourselves. Training and deploying may be our calling but how the holidays affect us when we have time off can be so different for many of us. For some, time is spent with loved ones (family and friends) meanwhile, for others turning off the noise and distraction of training can be hell. Spending time in one’s own head and analyzing the past can be a horrific and difficult process to break. Due to this and several other reasons, many guys turn to alcohol and reckless behavior. This cycle can be difficult to break, especially when left undiagnosed or untreated.
The holidays serve a purpose for so many- whether it is to celebrate a birth, celebrate joy and love, peace on earth, etc., the holidays for many men and women who serve in the military can be a difficult process to enjoy. Holidays can raise memories from the dead, open old wounds, and for many, they can create problems at the home-front.
As we turn a new page and head into a new year, let us not forget those who have been left behind, those who are suffering to get oneself sober and clean, those who struggle through PTSD and horrible memories, and let us reach out and be neighborly to those who need a helping hand. You never know who is struggling, and you never know how many lives can be saved when we work to heal those around us that need help.