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“After graduating college, I enlisted in the Navy because I’m from a long line of service members stretching back to the Revolutionary War. Almost every generation of my family served in all of the major wars of their era. I joined as an Intel Specialist and my first assignment was overseas. I got to Spain and was sent to Kosovo to help on missions over there. In 2000, I decided to crossover to OCS (Officer Candidate School) and do things from more of a leadership perspective. Ironically I was in a counter terrorism class when 9/11 happened so all the events around that day I remember very vividly. We started prepping after that and my unit got deployed in 2002; unfortunately, I wasn’t able to join them after a couple of drinking incidents led to a non-judicial punishment. Missing out on that deployment was really heartbreaking and caused a lot of guilt on my end. It really weighed on me and that was then compounded on top of later deployments. I did finally get the opportunity to deploy to Iraq twice. One was during the surge in 2006–2007 and that was easily the most stressful deployment because we were out on patrol 2–3 times a week. We had quite a few run-ins, but one in particular was really disturbing. One night the local Mosul police — who were very corrupt in their own right — pulled us over and started harassing us. The officer screamed for us to get out of the car and then put a gun to my head until our translator was able to deescalate the situation. …


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This Veterans Day, Starbucks is honoring those who have served with a free tall (12-ounce) hot brewed coffee for veterans, military service members and military spouses at participating U.S. Starbucks stores on Nov. 11. Starbucks is also donating 25 cents for every cup of hot brewed coffee sold nationwide on Nov. 11 to be divided evenly between Team Red, White & Blue and Headstrong to support the mental health and the wellbeing of military communities.

“COVID brings a whole new host of stresses and challenges, especially for veterans and military families,” said Matt Kress, senior manager of Veteran and Military Affairs for Starbucks who served more than 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. “Seeking mental health treatment and providing opportunities through organizations like Headstrong and Team Red, White & Blue are an important way to help veterans meet the challenges that are happening this year.” …


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“I grew up in a pretty poor environment in Kentucky and had to raise myself for the most part. My mother was into drugs and a lot of the men that she brought in and out of my life were abusive in one way or another. There weren’t a lot of options in a farming community so I decided to join the military. I graduated high school early and enlisted with Army infantry in 2002 at 17 years old. It was nice to do something I felt like I could control and allowed me to be my own man. After going through basic training, I ended up breaking my ankle and missed our unit’s first deployment; however, I ended up deploying to Iraq in 2004. I was attached to the 1st Cavalry Division and we were sent to Baghdad and all the surrounding areas. We saw quite a bit of combat over there, even for an infantry unit. We were tasked with clearing out the insurgency threats and securing their first voting site which obviously wasn’t a popular thing amongst the insurgency. We experienced a lot of death and destruction like many other infantry units. There were times where we’d hear bombs and then have to go collect body parts and over time that really wears on you. It got to the point where mentally I went numb and wasn’t able to be myself. Things only got worse as the deployment extended into the next year. I couldn’t understand the reason we were doing a lot of things we were doing or how I fit into the bigger picture. I separated from the Army after that deployment and was naive enough to think I could transition into the civilian world and be fine. I came home and stayed with some friends for a while, but ended up applying to the police department and becoming a cop. I was already dealing with pretty severe PTS, but after becoming a police officer I was involved in some incidents that made everything worse. I got into an altercation with an attempted murder suspect and tore my ACL in half. …


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“When I signed up for the Marines I had to get a parental waiver because I was only 17. I left for boot camp in September 2000 hoping to get my life started and unknowingly about what was to come. I went in as an airframe mechanic and was stationed in North Carolina when the towers got hit on 9/11. After working the night shift, I was woken up and got to the hanger just in time to see the second tower get hit and the buildings collapse. Two months later we were deployed to Saudi Arabia in what would later be known as Operation Enduring Freedom. For 6 months our job was to patrol the airspace above Iraq to make sure they weren’t operating in any other air space or no fly zones that they weren’t designated to be. When I got back I had an NCO recommend me for the Marine Security Guard Program which is a force protection assignment at embassies around the world. I was sent to Quantico, VA for training and graduated in 2003. I was assigned to my first embassy in New Delhi, India shortly after that. Your main function and duty at the embassy is to be a mini SWAT team in case something like Benghazi happens. If there were an attack on the embassy, we’re the first and hopefully last line of defense. I worked in India for 18 months before rotating down to Sri Lanka in 2004 for disaster relief for four months. I came back and got assigned to my next embassy in London and I was there for about a year from 2004 to 2005. I dealt with a lot of stuff while I was there and I was involved in a rather significant incident. I sat on the edge of the roof of the embassy, contemplating suicide while on duty. I was having a hard time dealing with that incident which inevitably swayed my decision to get out of the Marine Corps. …


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“I grew up in a rough part of Atlanta. I had gotten into some trouble while driving on a suspended license, getting a few tickets, etc. Unlike most, I was given a second chance to do good. I was encouraged to sign-up with a Marine recruiter in the back of a courtroom. Although I was encouraged to go that route, I was involved in a near death car accident in which I ended up with my left lung being collapsed shortly after that. I waited to sign-up, but by that point some friends and family had been killed, and signing up for the military seemed like the best bet to make it out; especially after watching my sister find success by joining the Army. I went in as communications but I worked closely with the infantry so I ended up doing a lot of grunt work. I got to my first duty station in September and was deployed by November. We went to Okinawa from late November to February and from there we pushed to Iraq. I ended up in Fallujah for Operation Phantom Fury. It was the hotspot of Iraq. I was actually there with my sister who was in Baghdad and we spent close to four months over there together but separated obviously. I think I internalized everything my mom was feeling at that time having both of us in Iraq and not knowing what’s going on. I was with 3rd battalion 4th Marines which at that time was the most combat deployed battalion in the Marine Corps. Between work, regular Marine Corps duties, and husband life, there isn’t any time to breathe and reset especially with your kids. I started having trouble sleeping and having nightmares. I knew something had changed but I couldn’t pinpoint it so I ended up just going through the motions. There’s never any time to stop or assess what’s going on internally because the mission always comes first. I knew something was really wrong though after I separated from the military. I took my terminal leave and I was just at home playing video games, smoking and drinking, and acting like I was going to school so I could collect my BAH. …


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“Growing up in Mississippi, I fundamentally knew we were descendants of slaves. That being said, much of our family history was lost so finding out that my great-great uncle was in the Buffalo Soldier’s Division during WWII really made it clear that there was this deeply rooted service in my family. He went missing in action during the war and we just found out a few years ago that he was buried in Florence, Italy. My grandfather and father would go on to serve as well. Being in this new generation of women in my family who serve, it’s just an interesting dynamic that I want to be close to this uniform. My service has been more about continuing my family’s legacy and ultimately the reason I decided to go to West Point rather than Harvard. After graduating, I commissioned into the HR field and was sent to Fort Bliss in Texas for my first duty assignment. When people think of HR, they don’t realize how different it is in the Army. It’s made up of sexual assault response and prevention, equal opportunity and diversity inclusion, suicide prevention, etc. They all fall under the HR individual’s purview at the unit level. I shouldered a lot of that burden for almost four years with the unit I deployed to Mosul, Iraq with in 2006. A large portion of my deployment consisted of preparing to process the paperwork for individuals who had been killed while we were there; however, what I wasn’t expecting were the suicides that happened over there. We had one in my unit that shakes me to my core this day because his battle buddy was going to get him help when it happened. It reiterated that our approach back then put the onus so much on the battle buddy and not necessarily the individual. I left my deployment with that continually in the back of my mind. I think of the Soldier all the time, but I think even more about his battle buddy who had to carry that and the impact it probably had on him. …


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“My older brother joined the Army when I was in middle school. He told stories of his time in Germany and other places so I already knew I wanted to join when I was in junior high. I enlisted in the Marines in 1987 and got sent to Okinawa, Japan for my first duty station. I was there for five years and we provided a lot of direct support for Operation Desert Storm and Shield. I fell in love while in Okinawa and decided to reenlist after my wife got pregnant. We got sent to Hawaii after that and my wife got pregnant with our youngest daughter while we were there. We would bounce back and forth between Japan and Hawaii for years before I was commissioned as a Warrant Officer and sent to Iraq in 2004. I was in Iraq for six months; I worked in the airfield and was tasked with sending military remains back to the US. It was an eye opening experience because I was truly able to see the toll the war was taking. I was sent home briefly before being sent right back over to Iraq for a second deployment. I worked as a watch officer on that second deployment which meant I reported significant events to the commander so he could report it to higher headquarters. You deal with a lot of difficult emotions in that position because you see and experience so much. I remember reporting on a big truck that was wrecked while carrying a bunch of Marines. The truck was washed down the Euphrates River: we lost seven Marines and one Navy corpsman. It took us three to four weeks just to find the bodies further down the river and conclude reports. That and other KIA’s (Killed In Action) I experienced on my first and second deployments really took a toll on me. When I got back from my second deployment, I was at the 19 year mark. I ended up doing 27 years and retiring as a Limited Duty Officer at the rank of Major. …


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“We didn’t grow up with much; my dad was a single father after my mom left us when I was 9 years old. He was in the military and I would go on to join as well because I wanted a more structured and positive environment than what I grew up in. I followed in his footsteps and joined the Army and got a job in finance. I only did one enlistment and probably would have stayed in if not for having a baby. After becoming a mother, I received orders to deploy to Kosovo and Macedonia. I didn’t have much family support so I had to leave my newborn baby with my friends in the barracks. I was distraught and actually had people try to take my place; however, I was a dispersing agent so I was one of only a few people authorized to do that job. I was deployed for nine months and a majority of my job was to go around the country with security and make sure the contractors were getting paid. While we were there, our humvee got in a wreck and it tore my shoulder out of the socket. I had my arm strapped to my chest for a year while it healed. It wasn’t just the physical toll that the deployment took on me. I endured a certain level of mental distress every day due to the separation anxiety of leaving my little girl behind. I decided to separate a year later rather than having to cycle on and off deployments while trying to raise my child. …


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“I entered the Air Force Academy to become a fighter pilot in 1987. After pilot training, I stayed as a T-37 instructor pilot for three years before transitioning to the F-15C, and flew the Eagle until 2008. I deployed to Iraq in 2008 as an Air Liaison Officer and operational-level planner, coordinating our daily air support missions and strikes for Coalition and Iraqi forces. We would figure out the best way to support the Coalition and Iraqis, including pre-planned and dynamic strikes against insurgent targets. After that deployment, I served in a variety of positions including Joint Staff operations officer at the Pentagon where I did deployment and mission planning for the Secretary of Defense; policy assistant to Secretary Clinton’s military advisor supporting her travel all over the world; Vice-Wing Commander in Mississippi; and Wing Commander at Randolph Air Force Base where I ran flying training pipelines for the US Air Force. In 2016 I deployed to Iraq, where I advised and supported the Iraqis in the liberation of their country from ISIS. Our job was to provide Iraqis with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and support them with kinetic strikes. During that period we conducted between 50 to 200 precision strikes per day to help the Iraqis re-capture terrain that ISIS had taken. One of my duties was approving strikes against ISIS, as part of a team of 20 joint operators and intelligence personnel supported by live feeds from aircraft overhead and electronic tracking of Iraqi forces. We took every feasible action to build an accurate picture of the enemy, friendly forces, and civilians so we could make the most accurate and timely determinations on positive identification. When things went well, the Iraqi forces moved quickly and safely, and we were able to inflict great damage on ISIS. However, not every day was good. There were hard days where the Iraqis were taking a beating and we weren’t able to support them as much as we wanted for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that ISIS increasingly used civilians to protect them from strikes, and there was no way we could do what the Iraqis needed us to do without significantly harming civilians. There’s also times when you do everything right and catastrophic things still happen. …


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“My dad was in the Army and he had a chance to work with SEALs. Back then, you couldn’t find much information on them, but hearing my dad talk about how elite they were, I definitely knew I wanted to go down that path. I was very young when I enlisted in 1992 and went straight into SEAL training which is obviously very challenging. I just accepted that it was designed to be unfair, it was going to be hard, and I had to figure out a way to overcome it. After graduating and staying busy with pre-9/11 deployments, I got my commission and came back as a SEAL officer post-9/11. I deployed six times total during my service but we were very active in the War On Terror. In 2007, on my second deployment to Iraq, we were going after a high level leader in the Al-Qaeda organization. The initial target we wanted to take down was not there, but as soon as we were about to get out, we saw some activity another 150 yards away. As we moved on that target, the individual we happened to be looking for was with that person. We walked into a well-executed ambush and had a pretty intense firefight for about 30 minutes. I was pinned down in front and got hit, as well as two other team members. We called in a fire mission on our location and luckily we were able to take the enemy out before the medivac came for for the three of us. I was hit eight times between my body and body armor so there was some urgency as I was flown into Baghdad for stabilization. I was then sent to Balad for my head injuries and more stabilization before ultimately going to Germany and then Bethesda in Maryland. I was in and out of there for four years as I received forty surgeries all together. …

About

Headstrong Project

Healing the hidden wounds of war

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