‘Facing Stigma’ with Adam S.
“I grew up in the area around Salt Lake City, Utah. I spent a lot of time outdoors with my parents and it was my only way to relax and unwind. While I was growing up, I always felt this pressure to perform at a certain level. I had a 4.0 and competed in gymnastics for 10 years. I was going to school and then doing 20 hours a week of practice in middle school and high school. It was extremely stressful, but definitely rewarding. However, even in the middle of all that, I knew I wanted to eventually switch gears and join the military special operations field. I made the decision to graduate high school six months early, and while the rest of my class was at prom, I left for boot camp. I joined the Marine Corps because I considered them the best and the hardest service to be in, but I also knew I’d get that chance to deploy overseas. It was 2005 at the time and I felt that responsibility to serve with everything going on. I ended up getting deployed three different times, but it was really that last deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 that impacted me the most. We were intentionally placed in the worst possible areas to seek out and engage the Taliban. We spent a majority of the summer patrolling around this area called Trek Nawa outside of Marjah. We were supporting an infantry operation that was doing an assault through the city of Marjah and it was our job to engage with the Taliban at night in their hideout spots outside of the city. We were fighting every other day and we became so efficient that they just kept us out in the fields. The longest patrol we did was 45 straight days. We lived out of our packs and got resupplied at night by helicopter. We were so efficient in Marjah that we were pulled out and sent to a city called Sangin. It was an even more hostile place where a prior Marine infantry battalion had gone in and experienced 35 KIA within three weeks. We were tasked with doing a large reconnaissance operation on the side of the mountain where we stayed awake for three days and called in 17 air strike missions.
A couple days later, one of the guys from our platoon was standing right next to me when he detonated an IED. He was severely injured and I was hit by debris and knocked unconscious. I had two surgeries in Afghanistan that were performed by British Surgeons and I stayed in the hospital for another six weeks before being sent back with the rest of my unit. It was an 8 month deployment and we were in over 60 engagements with one lasting 11 hours. We were extremely fortunate to bring everyone home from that deployment. However, that deployment was very unique because we had more than 35% of our guys wounded, with many of them receiving multiple amputations of their extremities. I went home with this adrenal toxicity and hyper adaption to stress. It’s like my whole entire nervous system was recalibrated to operate at that level. When you take that all away, it’s not just a psychological thing, it felt like my whole nervous system was on overdrive. When I first came back, I didn’t realize it would last so long and eventually just accepted it as normal. I felt like I was adapting better, but then I started drinking and having a much more challenging time. I was seeking some sort of therapy or medication to help with my anxiety, sleep issues, and depression. I felt like I needed to do something about my chronic pain from all the shrapnel and that’s when I started getting pain meds. I got so hooked on those narcotics that I was taking them every day. I got to the point where I felt like I needed more and my decision making became unreasonable. I was in the darkness for a while and it felt like the world was crumbling around me. I got kicked out of the officer training program I had started when I got back and my ex-wife left me. That was the point where I became suicidal and actually took steps to do something about it. I took a trip to Denver and the individual I bought drugs from assaulted me and I had to go to the hospital. After I was transferred to the Wounded Warrior battalion in California, I knew I had to get it together and take steps to build myself back up.
I started doing a couple types of treatment and inpatient therapies, but specifically cognitive processing therapy, both one on one and group therapy. With time I was able to admit I had issues that I needed to address and we started targeting and shedding the layers of trauma that had built up. It was still a challenging time, but it was the turning point. I started getting a lot more support and part of that was getting into a stable loving relationship. She met me right after rock bottom and we started as friends months before we started dating. I would talk to her for hours and she’d listen to my stories. Once I was out of the military, we spent the first year just taking it as easy as we could. I tried to keep my stress levels low and it helped doing a long road trip up to northern Alaska and back. We lived in the outdoors for four months, just in a camper trailer barely big enough to fit a queen bed. I started dedicating more and more of my life to being outdoors because I felt like that’s what helped me most. I’ve found that learning to enjoy nature is the best thing for me because it’s simple. It’s being present and I’m not held to expectations because you can just be. I stopped drinking and I had the social support so I was generally happy with who I was and the direction I was headed. I’m also really proud that I decided to continue with this film project called “Homemade.” There were a lot of times I didn’t want to go through with it or felt embarrassed with certain parts of my story, but I’m really proud of all the people involved with the film who were so honest and vulnerable. One of the viewers of the film told me I was a hero for my service, but making this film was a different kind of heroism than combat. That was really hard to grasp at first, but then I thought about the amount of people I’m directly influencing. I guess it would be easy for me to say I’m most proud of being a recon Marine and war veteran with combat valor, and I’m extremely proud of that; but only as it pertains to my brothers out there. If nothing else, I hope this movie inspires them to get help and know better days are ahead.”
- To provide mental health treatment to veterans like Adam, please consider donating to the Headstrong Project at http://getheadstrong.org/donate/