‘Facing Stigma’ with Dan Sharp

“Like many other people, I joined the military in large part because of 9/11. I was living with my mom in Florida, but my dad and sisters were living in Manhattan. It was a really unsettling time for me at 15 years old, but one that served as a reminder by the time I was eligible to join. I actually dropped out of high school early to take the GED and enroll in the Marine Corps infantry in 2004. I got to my unit in February and seven months later we were in Iraq. They sent us to the Syrian border in the Al Anbar province for seven months. One of the first things we did when we got there was a mission called Operation Steel Curtain that was the third largest offensive behind the battles of Fallujah and Ramadi. The worst of the fighting lasted seven to ten days depending on what part of the city you were in. The remaining four months of our deployment was sporadic fighting. It didn’t have anything that really stacked up to that; nothing was ever really as dire or intense as steel curtain. When you have essentially ten days of nonstop fighting, a five minute fire fight here and there feels like nothing. After our seven months were up, my company had a few guys that didn’t make it back and the battalion had a few more as well. I think the most difficult part about being over there was hearing about people that were in your area that were injured or killed. It’s one thing to see your friend injured, but it’s another thing to not be there because you start to wonder if you could have contributed or helped in some way. Not being there leaves you with this sense of being powerless. After being home for ten months, we were sent back to the same province in Al Anbar. This was during the surge and the quote on quote Sunni awakening which at the time was known as the triangle of death.

The second deployment wasn’t too much different from the first one except that it was more intelligence driven. We would cultivate local sources and get intelligence reports and then do targeted raids at night. My squad captured 53 suspected terrorists and brought them back for processing. We got into some action but nothing like Operation Steel Curtain from my first deployment. The longer the war went on, the more they realized they weren’t going to get the better of any direct engagement so they resorted to using IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). In Iraq it was almost exclusively a munitions war, but by the time I got to Afghanistan, it was almost exclusively homemade explosives. I was sent to Sangin, Afghanistan for my fourth deployment which happened to be the place where a third of all British casualties from the entire war came from. That was much less kinetic in terms of gun fights, but it was a lot worse in terms of dealing with IEDs. As a company, we hit over 100 IEDs and found over 500. I actually volunteered to go to Afghanistan and even one more deployment after that. It almost became an obligation on my end to continue deploying because I had this fostered sense of anger after losing a lot of friends. I wanted payback for the guys we had lost. The other side of it is that you feel this extreme purpose and like you’re contributing to the overall war effort in a way. It’s easy to romanticize the war and think how important or meaningful you are to be over there. People are worried about you and thanking you and more concerned about you than they would have usually been. As a guy in your late teens or 20’s it’s like a drug. Although, I do try to stay humble about my military experience, especially in comparison to WWII or Vietnam, but it’s hard to go over there and experience some of the stuff you’re subjected to and not have it change you.

When I got back from my first deployment, a lot of my friends turned to alcohol and some died by suicide. Throughout my career, I’ve seen how difficult it’s been for a lot of guys that are struggling. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to go through the OSCAR (Operation Stress Control and Readiness) program where I got certified in suicide prevention, suicide interdiction, operational stress management and mitigation. It was partially a way for me to take care of the people around me, but partially a cathartic release to learn more about what was going on internally with myself. I felt better prepared to deal with my own issues, but felt a sense of comfort helping people with some of the stresses they were dealing with. I personally have gotten mental health therapy quite a bit and found it particularly helpful. The biggest benefit I’ve found from therapy is learning how to manage the extreme emotions because the worst decisions are made in the heat of the moment. Just being able to mitigate the extremes of your emotions has been the most beneficial thing I’ve gotten from therapy. I found that I developed a better way to process my emotions before they become overwhelming. It also helped a lot to start my own online veteran community ___ about a year or two before I transitioned out. It’s really developed into this brand with all of the content that’s created; from the podcast, memes, and funny videos, it’s become this comedy platform for military members. We use comedy to draw in the community and then we use the platform to talk about much more serious and pressing issues like mental health, suicide prevention, sexual assault, etc. As much of an addiction that combat was, this brand is more addicting because I feel like if I stop, people who might’ve been helped otherwise may not reach out. It’s a big sense of pride for me to know I was able to help somebody process their emotions, reach out for help and get to a better place in their life.”

Healing the hidden wounds of war