“I was born in Trinidad but I grew up in Guyana until I was 12. Around that time my family migrated to New York City to meet up with the rest of my family who had already come over. As far back as I can remember, I knew I was different and that I didn’t like girls the way other boys did. I always knew I was gay even if I didn’t necessarily know the word for it back then. When I realized my family wasn’t going to be accepting or open, I decided to go into the Navy and see the world. I never paid attention or knew that the ’Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy was a thing and I didn’t realize I was entering into a fighting force that embraced that policy. I had made a commitment in my head by that time and decided to honor that regardless of whatever policies or rules were in place. My family had a history working in medicine so when the time came to pick a job, I wanted to follow in their footsteps and do something in healthcare as well. I enlisted in the Navy in 2002 as a Hospital Corpsman and was sent off to boot camp in 2003. I was deployed to Iraq on three separate occasions. I was always attached to Marine units and for my first deployment, I went to Iraq by way of the USS Bonhomme Richard. It went relatively smoothly in comparison to a lot of deployments, but my second and third deployments were really troubling for me.
On my second deployment we were thrust right into treating a mass casualty event after an insurgent tried to drive a vehicle into an area we were in. There were a lot of Iraqi casualties that day and as Corpsman we were charged with treating them. That day was the first time I had been on my own treating casualties and after it was over, I had this look on my face like I had seen the world end. Then two of my own Marines were shot and another two were hit by IED’s. In corps school they teach you to not show emotion and maintain your composure, but after my guys got hurt it was hard for me to continue on. Even though I knew we were going into a combat zone, it didn’t seem real until it touched me personally. It was hard when it was my guys that were getting hurt and guys that were like my family. We went back to the barracks though and found a way to carry on with our deployment. The third deployment was even harder because one of my good friends passed away. I was with another platoon when it happened, but I remember it coming over the radio. They don’t use your actual name over the radio. They use your kill number to identify somebody who is KIA. I memorized a lot of the different kill numbers for my Marines so when his number came across the radio it was like a blow to the chest. I stepped outside of the room to cry for a little bit before we were called out to patrol the area to figure out what happened. That experience was a game changer for me and something that I still carry with me to this day. After that last deployment, I finished out my last few years at the Navy hospital command. I got out of the military in 2010 and started seeking treatment in 2011 because I realized I needed to talk to somebody about some of the stuff I was dealing with.
The version of the Marine Corps that I grew up around didn’t talk about feelings or seek out medical care. However, when I turned thirty I started having a lot of really bad panic attacks from holding so much in. I started journaling and doing acupuncture to alleviate some of the feelings I was going through, but eventually I decided I needed to try therapy again. My job at the time was to introduce veterans to mental health services, but I felt like I was doing myself an injustice by being a mental health champion for everybody but me. I started the process with Headstrong and it was one of the best decisions of my life. A lot of the allure to Headstrong’s program was they didn’t limit our conversations to just what happened in the military. They understood that I was a person outside of the military. However, I really became a believer when I was matched with my therapist. They took the time to match me with someone that was most suitable for me, and not just a therapist that was available or willing to see me. I have an amazing therapist because he understands the issues I want to discuss and allows me to go at a pace that suits my needs. I talked about issues when I needed to and experienced it when I was ready to. At the end of last year I remember feeling a different level of clarity and a different understanding of myself and others. I’ve gotten what I needed out of this journey to be successful and happy in life. It’s a great feeling to be able to talk openly about my military experience and about my experience in general without feeling embarrassed or shameful.”
*To provide mental health treatment to veterans like Kwesi, please consider donating to the Headstrong Project at http://getheadstrong.org/donate/