‘Facing Stigma’ with Garrett Cathcart

“I was born and raised in Indiana, and was an avid reader in the 3rd and 4th grade. I started reading all of these books about the Civil War, WWII, and all the famous Generals had gone to a school called West Point. So in the 4th grade I decided that was the school I wanted to go to. My dad was a high school track coach, and West Point has these lunches that if you’re moderately qualified for or interested in, you can attend. One of his athletes got invited to the West Point lunch, so in 5th grade I asked if I could tag along with them. When I was in junior high school I actually went back and they remembered who I was. That actually ended up being the only school I applied for during high school and if I didn’t get in I had no other plan. I got into West Point, but then 9/11 happened my sophomore year. My first deployment ever was in Baghdad 2006–2007 after the surge. We deploy to Iraq after the surge and they gave me command of a scout platoon with thirty guys. We’re living in a combat outpost which was a burnt down paper factory. Everyday we were patrolling. Kill capture missions of HVT’s (high value targets), dodging IED’s, talking to these guys to get intel, etc. I’m a Lieutenant and I have no idea what’s going on and feeling really overwhelmed at the time. I’m under this incredible stress to lead these guys and the weight of the world is on my shoulders. Everybody has these dates that are etched in stone that they’ll remember, and one that stands out and is significant to me is April of 06’. That’s when the trauma starts.

My company commander had been in command of our unit for a long time and previously had been involved in an operation to capture Saddam Hussein, so he was kind of a famous commander. He was my greatest mentor and had taught me a lot about leadership and life. He was like my father but also my brother at the same time. He was coming back from a mission with a tribal elder and was killed by an EFP (Explosive Formed Projectile). When he was killed it really destroyed the morale of the unit. We got one day off to salute the rifle and the dog tags and helmet, then the next day we’re back out patrolling like it never happened. There’s no processing, everybody is just numb and you don’t have time to deal with it. You have to just shove it to the side and get back out to killing and capturing bad guys. Everybody has their own coping mechanisms and mine were the guys that were still with me. I just felt like I didn’t have time to be emotional and sit down and think of how much he meant to me, because I had to worry about the rest of the guys in my unit and I just didn’t have the time to sit and reflect on life. Obviously this isn’t exactly healthy but it’s what is needed in that moment. We get a new commander and this poor guy is stepping in for a beloved commander who had just been killed, so no matter how good he is he’s got a long road ahead of him. Fast forward to October and we’re still doing our thing. We get a tip that there’s an IED maker and we have to go get him. We find him, capture him and we’re taking him back, when this bone jarring explosion happens. It’s a complex ambush — a large buried IED and small arms fire. The truck ahead of us is blown off the road about 150 yards away after the explosion. We get the area secure, and I go start finding body parts of my guys and putting them into body bags. All four were killed instantly. These are guys that I not only loved but responsible for their life. That was the second event in the first year, where I lost my commander and then to lose four of my soldiers where we are literally picking up pieces of them off the road. Then the last piece of that year happened with my best friend from West Point — Dave Fraser. We were going to go home and be roommates when he was killed in action his last day in Iraq. He went out just one more time to show the new guys what to do, and was killed by an EFP. Dave and I were supposed to go on a post deployment trip to South America, but after he died I went down there and didn’t talk to anyone and just drank by myself on the beach. I could tell my friends were worried about me.

I tried to get out of the Army like two or three times, and for a number of reasons I was talked into staying in. A troop command in Afghanistan is hard to turn town. Then I was the aide to the commanding General. I learned more about leadership from Joe Anderson than I had in my previous 8 years in the Army combined. To be honest though, I was exhausted after being on the ground for 36 months fighting, two years in Iraq and one year in Afghanistan as a commander. The problem is you get a little time off then you start training, and then you deploy and come back. It’s this non-stop cycle in the operational force, and particularly in combat arms of non-stop deployments all the time. It got very tiring going over there and living in outpost with no end in sight. Plus, I had been set up with this classified job. It was this weird transition where I have this dream job waiting for me but it’s a long clearance process. I ended up taking off eight months and running, traveling, reading books, and going to cooking school. While I’m going through the whole paperwork part of that I meet a girl. I end up following her out to California and getting a job selling medical devices. I find myself going from outposts in Afghanistan to sitting in Beverly Hills with neurosurgeons pretending I know what I’m talking about. It was such a 180. I go from being in command and the service and purpose of the Army, to living in Hermosa Beach in this frat house on the water. I started wondering why I was so unhappy. I live on the water, I’m in Los Angeles, I’m on the verge of making a pretty significant income. I guess it got to a point where I felt like I was using my friends’ deaths and war stories to sell these devices and I started feeling miserable. It’s not normal to go through these experiences. It’s not normal to pick up body parts off a road, it’s not normal to be so in the moment every day for a year, to bury your best friend, or have your mentor be killed. These feelings of deep guilt and thinking it was my fault, and drinking to deal with that. I knew that I needed to figure it out. I didn’t know what was out there and there’s this huge stigma. When I wanted to be an agency guy that was in the back of my head, so I didn’t go. That’s why I love the idea of what Headstrong does, because you can confidentially go see a doctor who is the best of the best in your city without all of this bureaucratic red tape. I’m no doctor or psychologist, but I knew at some point I was going to have to unpack all of this. Talking about it took a while and I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily easier over time.

My friend Joe Quinn actually reached out to me three years after initially meeting him on a hill in Afghanistan, and called me out of the blue telling me to check out an opportunity to help fellow veterans through a non-profit called Team Red, White & Blue. When I was in New York, he asked me to come hangout with him and it was like a sigh of relief. It’s a relief to be around people that get it, who know what IEDs are, and know what it’s like to be deployed. There’s that brotherhood, that camaraderie and I craved that family and that sense of community again. He told me they were hiring a regional director in Atlanta and I should interview. I sat down with Blayne Smith who at the time was the Executive Director, and he ended up hiring me. This began another stage of my life. Being at a non-profit that’s helping and serving other people, and just being proud of what I am doing. Being around other veterans and like-minded, service-oriented people helped me be able to talk about all the stuff that happened during those deployments, and hoping that by talking about them, the names of my friends will live on and other veterans will connect with my story and get help for themselves. I’m trying to serve and help others and I hope what I do with my life is worthy of the sacrifice of my friends. I guess I hope I live my life in a way that’s got some meaning, purpose and impact because a lot of guys aren’t here. Every time I’m in DC, I go to section 60 because I have a lot of buddies buried there. I just hope they’re proud of me.”

Healing the hidden wounds of war