Greetings everyone and Happy Tuesday! Hope everyone is doing well.
Thought I would post a substantially-revised and updated version of a previous blog entry I composed last month in light of the immense significance this present day holds for me: the 17th anniversary of my enlistment into military service. I hope it provides a much more complete picture of my military service and mental health advocacy journey. Enjoy the read.
You know, in recent weeks I had been reflecting on my past military service in the United States Coast Guard with a certain measure of tenderness and pride, perhaps even sentimentality as well. One of the best decisions I ever made, without question, and certainly one of the experiential “pillars” that you could say comprised a good chunk of the valuable perspective, insight and character that makes me who I am today.
I entered as a Radarman (RD) in the Spring of 2001, Sierra-159 company. Yep, that’s right, the famed “It’s Just Eight Weeks” recruitment video company. My “claim to fame” was being the kid who was interviewed while fighting back tears in segment 7 after just learning that I had been reverted after failing the Performance Enhancement Platoon (PEP), which was essentially a mega-boot camp within boot camp (read: absolute unmitigated Hell) for recruits who let’s say needed a little more of a “push” to uphold the very high standards of discipline and obedience demanded of us. It’s not so much that I was a “problem recruit” behaviorally speaking as it was me being a bit scatterbrained from time to time and in need of a good tune-up in the interest of training me to realize and reach my highest potential. And boy did they tune me up alright, even though I still managed to get sent back a company because I continued to make a chain of small mistakes! I did earn a Command Master Chief key a few years later after the CMC of Pacific Area/D-11 showed the embarrassing video to the entire crew aboard the my ship, the Coast Guard Cutter Munro! 😱😂
RD was the rating (specialty) that dealt with everything operations oriented, including intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination, communications, and of course, radar surveillance and navigation. Not long after I enlisted the rating name was changed to Operations Specialist (OS) to reflect specialty’s rapidly-growing purview of responsibility and scope throughout the maritime environment. I learned about the RD rating at ‘A’ school during the summer and fall of 2001, on a base in Yorktown, VA, just north of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area. Structurally and environmentally, it was a rather seamless and natural transition from the relentless rigor of boot camp, combining elements of a salient culture conducive to the upkeep of military bearing (falling in for ‘muster’ and marching to class as a group, regular workout days, etc.) and the general ambience of a university campus. I loved ‘A’ school, and enjoyed the increased freedom very much. Indeed, it would be my first little taste of independence, where I bought my first car, a beautiful supercharged 1995 Oldsmobile 98 Regency Elite, which represented a perfect marriage of subdued luxury and impressive power (my first solo cross-country trip after graduation remains one my most cherished memories). I took an easy liking to the talented and very capable instructors, the study and practice. My favorite subject was maneuvering boards, which I quickly mastered. They were incredibly fun and sometimes very challenging, like puzzles, but with vectors (later on my ship I would become the ‘go-to’ guy for maneuvering board training, tutoring enlisted and officer alike for their qualifications boards and personal edification).
On the morning of 9/11, a Tuesday, the class was learning about plotting and figuring true and desired winds on the maneuvering boards. The drudgery of the morning lesson was quickly interrupted when the lead instructor, Chief Bach, burst in the classroom to tell us that class was over because two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. Some of us in the class chuckled as Chief was well-known for his humorous antics and levity. His red face, the look on his eyes and a deadpan “I’m totally serious” comment immediately convinced us otherwise. The base went into what is called Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON) 1 and closed immediately, no entry or exit, for almost two weeks. There was concern that the class wouldn’t graduate on time and that some of us would even be shipped out in preparation for war. In retrospect, that day and the ensuing weeks pretty much marked the moment I truly realized what it meant to be a member of the armed forces, the moment I truly became a Coastie.
As OS’s, we were charged with coordinating resources and logistics to prosecute search and rescue and other critical missions, and many lives were saved from being stranded on the high seas and other waterways in the process. Sometimes, unfortunately, one of our local units would answer a rescue call concerning a person who jumped from a high bridge in an attempt to take their own life, many of them while at my first duty station in Alameda, CA, right in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area. These calls were always the hardest because they almost always ended up with the person passing away. While attached to the Coast Guard Cutter Munro, I took to the high seas and traveled outside of the country for the first time in my life. Life aboard ship was brutal at times, but humbling and in many ways enriching. You definitely learned to appreciate being on land and doing “mundane” things like grocery shopping or going to the park after months out at sea. Like many young enlisted folks, I lived on board ship even while at home port. It wasn’t terrible; you were able to come and go as you pleased during liberty periods, but the constant checking in and out got old quickly. After ten months, I got my first apartment. That first night as a 21-year old sleeping in his own bed in his own place also remains one of my most cherished memories. There was no shortage of action on the ship; we mostly did counter-drug, counter-terrorism/homeland security and fisheries patrols all up and down the west coast, from the Aleutian Islands to South America. I was chronically sea-sick, and had to take promethazine tablets, skin patches and even a motion-sickness wrist band regularly just to be able to function. Among the highlights of my memorable tour of duty aboard the Munro were:
-A search and rescue case where we located and picked up a British rowboat enthusiast who for some reason thought it would be a great idea to take a 14-ft sport rowboat from Peru to Australia. Needless to say his journey wasn’t a successful one, but he did succeed in eventually winning our admiration and even becoming an honorary member of our crew. Fair winds and following seas wherever you may be, Andrew (“Captain Andy”) Halsey.
-An epic drug bust (one of the largest in history) after weeks of intense tracking, coordination and surveillance. Many metric tons of cocaine. Made national news and got plenty of local and state recognition from politicians and media alike.
-An extended 14-hour pursuit of a drug-filled “go-fast” vessel, the final dramatic moments of which was seen by a big group of officers and crew crammed into our little shop, the Combat Information Center (CIC), via closed circuit TV broadcast by a network of infrared cameras. At the end of the chase one of the occupants torched the vessel while everyone was sill on board, resulting in a tremendous blast of fulgurant light that occupuied the entire screen for several seconds.
-Noting the stark contrast between appreciating the paradisical beauty of the Alaskan landscape and fighting behemoth 60-ft ocean waves and swells during some of our most intense fisheries patrols (I’ll just say that walking horizontally didn’t bode particularly well for my chronic mal de mer, even while heavily medicated).
-Partying it up at some of the hottest dance clubs on Mexico’s and Central America’s west coast, especially spending spring break and the start of the Iraq War in Acapulco, partaking of the idyllic cityscape of Victoria, BC on the weekend of Victoria Day, training the Coast Guards (Guardacostas) of developing countries during diplomatic visits and volunteeering to participate in a tearfully-moving Memorial Day commemoration at the Cle Ellum, Washington gravesite of our ship’s namesake, Petty Officer Douglas Munro, the first and only Coast Guard recipient of the Medal of Honor.
-Unfortunately, though, my tour aboard the Mighty Munro would also give rise to the first salient signs of clinical depression, a condition which I have suffered from since the age of 14, and would intensify significantly during some of our longer patrols.
I’d have to say that the highlight of my career began when I was on overnight watch as the Response Duty Officer at District Eight Command Center the moment Hurricane Katrina made landfall. My LT and I looked at each other and pretty much decided right then to rock and roll. He phoned the Admiral right away and I made other calls. It was time to put all our training and contingency plans into motion, and get the hell out of Dodge.
We reconstituted the District Headquarters in St Louis, and immediately set up a makeshift command center in a small office at a downtown mixed-use office building. During the first week alone we answered over 4,100 calls for assistance while pulling non-stop “port and starboard” watch schedules, 12 hours on, 12 hours off, day in, day out. Many of the calls came from people in search of loved ones, and people stranded themselves but who unfortunately had no clear sense of geographic reference to pass on to the servicing Air Station in Mississippi due to the massive flooding. Many were sick and in need of emergency medications either for themselves or others close to them. Some of the callers were children who were separated from their families, and vice-versa. We were of course exhausted and had a sense of helplessness as we realized there was very little we could personally do to help these people other than take their contact info down and approximate address/general geographic location to pass onto one of a few Air Stations/remote response stations for further coordination. But the adrenaline brought on and kept on by the elevated operational tempo gave us all the momentum we needed to keep pressing on. After about the second week one of the Captains allowed for the crew to take leave in staggered segments, where one group would be allowed to take a certain number of days at a time to return to the New Orleans area to check on their homes, gather their families and coordinate the logistics of where they were going to be staying and so on. Once the first group reported back another group would be free to go and so on. My apartment fared relatively well, but the complex as a whole was ravaged and had to be extensively renovated. If I recall correctly, there was at least one fatality there. The neighborhood and of course the metro as a whole looked like it could have been straight from a Mad Max-type apocalyptic thriller. Some of my shipmates were not so lucky, returning to substantially and in some cases completely-submerged homes.
We ended up staying in St Louis for several months, eventually relocating to a much bigger area to accommodate all of the District Offices, including a larger and more comfortable office to house the command center. The crew was relocated from temporary to more permanent housing and the constant outpouring of generosity, love, support and appreciation from the wider community was very moving. The command center crew eventually found ways to blow off steam and have fun during our free time. And boy did we blow off some major steam! In the process, we without a doubt solidified as a team and became much closer than ever before. We were the “Katrina Crew,” the tight band of officers, OS’s, and Marine Science Technicians (MST’s) who made it through one of the worst natural disasters in US history to contribute to the saving/assisting of over 33,000 lives in our own little way, while up against an unprecedented operational and logistical environment.
Little did I know, after a number of recurrences in my depressive episodes post-Katrina, my career would come to an abrupt and unceremonious end after the fallout from a civilian legal issue I became involved in, which also resulted in the loss of my apartment, security clearance, friends, life savings, dignity and peace of mind (news of the legal situation quickly spread through local news outlets, and unfortunately is still the first thing the world sees attached to my name on the web to this day). The official notice of my discharge in the office of the District Chief of Administration resulted in my first public utterance of suicidal ideation, resulting in my immediate referral to a residential treatment facility in the area pending separation. The two-week stay at the facility was surprisingly productive and eye-opening for me, for it was the first time I would come into direct contact with others who suffered from mental health issues as I did, and would be the first time I would receive treatment of any kind for my depression, marking the beginning of my long and very rocky journey towards recovery. It would even be the first time my creative forces and impulses would coalesce into fruition, resulting in a much more acute awareness and demonstration of my creative potential, specifically in art, music and poetry.
When I raised my hand to enlist, I swore to live by the core values of Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty, instilled in me from day 1 of basic training. These core values are the Guard’s guiding principles in everything we do, from search and rescue (SAR), ports and waterways security, marine mammal/marine environmental protection, drug interdiction, servicing aids to navigation (ATON), to humane treatment of migrants, defense readiness/homeland security, ice ops, diplomatic visits, and so on.
Even though I am long out of the Coast Guard now I still feel that it is my mission to live by these core values as I work to try to save lives in a different way, through being a staunch advocate for mental health awareness and support for all, not the least of whom my fellow brothers and sisters in arms. In the nearly 11 years I’ve been separated, I’ve been to the deepest oceanic trenches of despair with my own battle with depression and suicidal ideation. Indeed, last year was pretty much the closest I had ever been to being one of the roughly 22 veterans who on average succumb to the demons they so courageously and heroically tried to battle. But somehow, someway, I have managed to keep those demons at bay, enough to proudly proclaim my lifetime commitment to:
1) Honor the value of every life.
2) Respect everyone I come across, regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they believe or who they choose to love.
3) Remain fully Devoted to what I consider to be the noble and privileged Duty of reaching out to people who are hurting to show them love and appreciation for who they are and who they can become, and to advocate ceaselessly for those who hurt.
I’m not a trained therapist or mental health professional or anything. Just a regular guy who loves humanity and cries when you cry, always with a shoulder for you to cry on if necessary. I have come a very long way since those early enlistment days and my life has changed far beyond measure, far beyond what I could have ever anticipated. Despite my immense loss and emotional suffering over the years, I made a decision to keep pushing along the path towards redemption and true greatness, and the horizon from this current vantage is indeed beautiful and promising. Of course, I’m still growing and learning, and there will be future conflict, countercurrents, rip tides and other assorted setbacks, but I will keep the sails rigged, keep the ship steady as she goes. Maneuver the speed as necessary, but stay the course overall. It is my only option.
I am above all else a friend. A friend to all. A friend to you. A friend on a new mission, which is to be a lighthouse of hope to all who are hurting, and to urge everyone who has bravely overcome their own personal demons to please, please be a lighthouse of hope to others, for I can’t save everyone by myself, as much as I would like to be able to. Drop a few words of kindness and encouragement to people you come across in the course of your daily lives, online and offline, family, friend and stranger alike. Be especially kind and compassionate to those who make their hurt and pain known, whether explicitly or through suggestion. Together, we can get through this. And we will. Because I am ready for any opportunity that may come my way to help improve the human condition. And I want you to always be ready as well. Why? Because Semper Paratus, that’s why!
Take care. Be well. Love all.