Headstrong Project

Jan 11, 2019

5 min read

‘Facing Stigma’ with Evan Van Nostrand

“I was born in South Korea, and at 10 months old I was put up for adoption. I was adopted by my parents, and had a great childhood growing up in Long Island, NY. Then September 11th happened when I was 14 years old, and a lot of us on the Island were impacted. On my way back from school that day, my dad met me at the bus stop very emotional and out of character. I’ll never forget him telling me that my mother and little sister were in lower manhattan that morning, and he had yet to hear from them. When they finally arrived home later that night, I remember us all hugging in the driveway, and I had this thought in the back of my head that I never wanted myself or anybody else to experience anything like that again. At that point I knew I wanted to join the military at 14 years old. I also felt very grateful for the opportunity I was given to grow up here in the United States, so I always had this debt of gratitude to join the military and serve the country that afforded me that opportunity. When I was a senior I had to force my mom to sign the papers because I was only 17. I graduated high school June 26th, and on June 27th I was on a plane to Parris Island for Marine boot camp. I was eventually assigned to my infantry unit at Camp Lejeune to the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines. I showed up there in January of 2006, and then got deployed to Iraq in July of that same year. We were stationed in Habbaniyah, Iraq between Fallujah and Ramadi. Marine forces had just cleared out Fallujah and Ramadi, and pushed the remaining forces right into Habbaniyah. Our unit was tasked with cleaning up the remnants of those forces who had fled from those locations. That first deployment I was hit by four roadside bombs in five weeks. I had a lot of brain damage and lower back problems after going through that, but I was fortunate enough to be awarded 2 purple hearts on two separate occasions. I didn’t start dealing with any issues until later on in my career, but a lot of that centered around the fact that I never addressed them earlier.

I eventually deployed again, and overall I did four deployments in five years. The last of which was to Marjah, Afghanistan the birth place of the Taliban. I lost some good friends on that deployment, and at that point I think it just became too much. When I came home from that deployment I knew I wasn’t right. I tried to put myself on another deployment back to Afghanistan, but my Sergeant Major refused and put me on limited duty. I got put on a medical evaluation board shortly after, and was found unfit for duty and recommended for medical retirement. I was medically retired on September 11th of 2012. When I got out of the military it was tough because I wanted to be a Marine for life. I was looking for jobs after that, but everywhere I went they were requiring a college degree. Around that same time, my friend invited me to a University of Alabama football game to help cheer me up. A lot of people at the game were thanking me for my service and asking me what it was like over there, and it really made me feel good about my service. I started school at the University of Alabama in January of 2013, and my first few months there I got the pat on the back and thank you for your service all the time. It makes you feel good and you don’t think about all the negativity or bad things that happened. Once that started wearing off, I started to notice that it was hard for me to relate to these kids that were so much younger. I found myself lost in a city where I didn’t truly know anybody, and drinking or using illicit substances every night. I started thinking about what I had lost in the Marines, and shortly after found myself with these suicidal ideations. I was twenty pounds lighter than I was in the military from all of the drugs and alcohol. I went back to school after Christmas break, and tried to make it through what was my third semester. However, I returned home from a bender one night and put out a few texts stating I needed help. I was literally about to take my own life, when one of my Marine friends busted through the door to stop me from doing it.

I finally called the hotline and they brought me to the VA, where I did a 45 day inpatient stay at the hospital in Tuscaloosa. I got clean during that time, and had the opportunity to deal with my PTSD symptoms and survivors guilt. I was doing a lot of group counseling and cognitive processing therapy while I was there. I started feeling better, but after being released I still wasn’t quite sure where to go from there. I still had three years of undergrad to go after my release, and it wasn’t until my last year that I finally started to get my life turned around. I had a friend who wanted to know how I felt about being a volunteer strength coach for the Alabama football team. He thought I’d be a good candidate based off my military background, so I came and volunteered for a year. I hid everything I had gone through from everybody up to that point, except my friend and our head strength coach. Finding a purpose and getting this job is what saved my life. Having an affect on young men, and helping them to transform has been an awesome experience. Being around these football players everyday, and getting to do what I do is everything. It reminds me that I went through all that stuff for a reason. I wouldn’t be able to teach these guys about perseverance or fighting if I didn’t go through the stuff I went through. After winning the National Championship last year, I remember sitting in the locker room with my head in my hands, and just being in utter disbelief at how I got to this point. When I talk to people about my experiences, I always make sure to touch on the stigma surrounding the military mindset. A lot of guys have a hard time letting the military go, and they let that define them. The military defines your background, but it doesn’t define your future. I’m fortunate to have been able to adapt, and find who I wanted to be outside of the military.”