‘Facing Stigma’ with Justin
“I was born and raised in Bellevue, Nebraska. My great grandfather and grandfather were both in the Army and my dad followed in their footsteps as well. My dad would go on to be a police officer, while my mom was on the police dispatching side. Coming from a family of service, I knew I wanted to go into law enforcement or the military. I pretty much had my mind made up by the time I was a sophomore in 1999. It was always cool seeing the older kids join the military and then talking to them when they came back from basic training. Even though I was pretty good at baseball and had a few full-ride baseball scholarship offers by the time I was a senior, my mind was made up and I chose to enlist in the Army in June 2001. I was only 17 so my parents had to sign off, but I was excited because my good friend and I joined the buddy program and we were sent to basic training together. I chose infantry, and when we got done with basic and advanced infantry training, I went to airborne school. After getting stationed in Kansas, we went straight out to the field to prepare for our deployment. All of our orders came in last minute, but finally we deployed in February 2003 to Kuwait. We went out in the middle of the desert right near the Saudi border and we were staged there for two or three weeks before the initial invasion. I was a part of the first wave of the initial ground war in 2003. Our main objective was to push straight through to Baghdad and secure the airport. We were forced to grow up overnight going into this combat situation. We didn’t really know what to expect and I think that was kind of a benefit to us. I think not knowing is better in that environment. Every time we went through a different city, we would always be engaged. It became a daily occurrence. If it wasn’t small arms fire, it was indirect mortar fire, or rocket propelled grenades. We pushed straight through to Baghdad and were a part of the initial assault on the airport on April 7th. It took us four days to secure the airport. Once we were able to establish our area of operation in Baghdad, I was one of the first from our platoon to be injured.
It happened June 17, 2003 while I was on guard post. My guard position was ambushed by insurgents and in the exchange of gunfire and rocket propelled grenades, I took a gunshot wound to the left knee and shrapnel into my lower back. I was medically evacuated to the main hospital in Baghdad. My heart stopped twice on the way to the hospital, and they had to do CPR due to all the blood loss. My heart stopped a third time after I reached the surgery table and they had to paddle me. I was able to make it through surgery, but shortly after that I heard that some of my good friends had been catastrophically wounded and some guys in other units were killed in action. I had blown out every ligament in my knee, but they were able to use part of my hamstring ligament and other cadaver parts to reconstruct my knee. After doing some skin grafts and physical therapy, I just threw a big brace on it and went back to my unit on October 1, 2003. Even after all of my traumatic brain injuries from roadside bombs and a couple vehicle rollovers, I was still good with remembering numbers. That’s why I can specifically remember that we ran 387 more combat missions from October to March before coming back home. Once I returned home, they notified me that I would be going through a med board before eventually getting medically retired. I had just re-enlisted and hoped to redeploy to Afghanistan, but the decision came back and I had 90 days to transition out. I started drinking real heavily and taking a bunch of pain pills. I went through a phase where I was very suicidal. I came close a couple times to actually attempting suicide, but I never did. My saving grace ended up being a Vietnam veteran who I coincidentally met at a Vet Center, and just so happened to be a left leg amputee as well.
He helped me get on the straight and narrow. I stopped doing a lot of the self destructive things I was doing before and started focusing on more positive things. I chose to go back to school again and spent two and a half years in Phoenix going to the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute. I got certified on five different manufacturers as a motorcycle technician and moved back to Nebraska with my family. However, once I got back my health took a turn for the worse. I got diagnosed with brain cancer in June 2013. I went through chemo and radiation and about a year and a half later, I was cancer free. Shortly after, I had my leg amputated. I found out I had a pretty bad infection that we couldn’t get under control and it was only a matter of time after having problems with it for ten years. All these ups and downs takes both a physical and mental toll. After going through all this, I still made it a priority to stay on top of my mental health treatment. It took me ten years to get to that point of talking, but being able to talk about what happened helps tremendously; talking about my experiences, talking about the guys I lost. I try to remember them in a positive way and remember the good times we had together. I got remarried and have three kids now, and I’m really living every day to the fullest because life is good. I’ve started doing more motivational speaking as well. I’ve done public speaking engagements in the past, but the Independence Fund and Tiger Team 7 have been great in encouraging me to share my story with the hope that it will inspire other veterans. I’ve had eleven friends die by suicide since getting out of the military, so what I want to do now more than anything is help vets in any way I can. If I can help one veteran or deter them from making that decision to die by suicide, then I feel like I’ve made a difference. I want veterans to know there are no physical barriers that can’t be overcome and let them know there are great organizations out there like Headstrong and The Independence Fund.”
To provide mental health treatment to veterans like Justin, please consider donating to the Headstrong Project at http://getheadstrong.org/donate/