Let me start this post by saying this one is a long one and way overdue. I initially began interviewing and researching almost a year ago, but life’s twists and turns kept delaying the final product. That said, this post isn’t about me. It’s about three men who I admire, support, and unconditionally respect. Before you read any further, I want you to picture where you were and what you were doing in your late teens and/or early twenties. Picture who it was you were hanging with on Friday nights and what you dreamed your future was going to look like. If you’re like me, you probably pictured carefree moments, minimal responsibilities and the faces of friends you probably haven’t seen or talked to in awhile. For the majority of us, that’s a pretty relatable and comfortable trip down memory lane. For others, thinking back to those same years brings an entirely different reality and perspective. For the three men you’re about to read of, those years were spent in service, patriotism, fear, horror and a kinship unlike no other. To be clear, Jon, Neil, and Mike never asked for their stories to be told, as I went to them with the most honest of intentions. While all three come from vastly different backgrounds, hometowns, and family dynamics, the brotherhood of the military, the experience of war at a young age and the longstanding affects from the battlefield equally connect all three. Let it be known up front that this was not written to be a political statement or suggest any type of proclamation. I wrote this to honor these men that I have grown to know over the years and am fortunate enough to call friends. At a time of life usually reserved for reveling in the freedom of culpability, these three were following orders, completing missions overseas and exhibiting the importance of unconditional unity, bravery, and love of country. Ultimately, this post is a humble and gracious thank you not just to these three, but to all of the men and women who have put on a uniform to defend this country.
As the seventh largest city in the state of Wyoming, Green River (population of 12,000) was named for the greenish looking river that runs through town. Green River is the epitome of small-town Americana. A Norman Rockwell portrait if you will, full of hiking trails, fishing holes, little league baseball games, parades, good people, strong values, gorgeous scenery and a relaxed way life. On the flip side, like so many small town across the country, opportunity, especially in terms of employment, is limited. As his senior year of high school was winding down, Jon wasn’t interested in college and knew he wanted change. Proud of his hometown yet wanting to see the world, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps with the intent of continuing a family tradition (Jon’s dad was a Marine and his grandpa an Army vet), and also wanting to make a difference in the world by fighting for those that couldn’t defend themselves. Ironically, Jon’s dad originally tried to talk him out of enlisting being he had mixed feelings from his own experience, but nevertheless, in 2003, an eighteen-year-old Jon left Green River and headed to Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) in San Diego, California. Back then and even to this day, Jon was a fitness fanatic, so the fear of the being ready for the physical habituation of boot camp was never a worry. With regard to the mental aspect of boot camp, Jon’s intrinsic confidence and indoctrinated work ethic allowed for a successful acclimation. That doesn’t mean it was always easy, as getting off the bus in San Diego to screaming and intimidation was definitely a wake-up call. Jon learned pretty fast that there is and was a reason for everything in the military, starting with the initial “welcoming” process. While he smiled through most of the hollering, he admitted that it was still a time of high stress and uncertainty.
Before he went to San Diego, Jon took and tested high on the ASVAB (military aptitude exam) and qualified for a military occupation specialty (MOS) as an aviation mechanic. At the completion of boot camp, however, Jon learned a tough lesson in that sometimes things in the military, much like life, don’t always pan out the way you think they will. Instead of fixing aircraft, Jon was told his MOS was now going to be that of a refrigerator mechanic and was quickly shipped off to Aberdeen, Maryland to learn his new trade. After Aberdeen, Jon was stationed at Camp Pendleton, CA and assigned to a motor transport unit never once using any of the skills he gained related to refrigerator repair. Jon was given additional and valuable training in security forces as the reality of being sent to war was becoming clear. Deployed to Iraq in August of 2004, Jon was delegated to a post in Fallujah and served exclusively in security detail setting up perimeters in and around the city. Fallujah, in 2004, was so unstable that many compared it to the wild wild west. Ongoing attacks, fire fights and explosions became part of daily life for Jon and his unit. American troops were ordered to follow rules of engagement, but at times, not understanding nor being able to separate friend from foe made following orders damn near impossible. At eighteen years old, Jon had to grow up fast not only for himself, but for the men in his unit. Spending eight months in country for his first deployment seemed like a lifetime. Smack in the middle of the chaos of war, Jon saw many of his Marine brothers get wounded and even killed, primarily by roadside bombs and IED’s. With little counseling available in the middle of a war zone and knowing they still had a job to do, fear was not an option if one wanted to survive. Marines are trained to complete missions and despite unimaginable circumstances at times, his unit did the best they could with what they were presented with. That doesn’t mean he or his brothers weren’t scared, they just learned to channel the tension and distress and deal with the immediate situation. As his first deployment came to end, Jon was sent back to the Camp Pendleton in March of 2005 where he continued training in security detail and tried his best to get back to a level of normality. Now nineteen years old and already a seasoned combat veteran, Jon was also a man in love. Having learned that he would be going back to Iraq for a second tour, Jon eloped with his fiancé while on a ten-day leave. Returning to Fallujah just weeks after getting married, Jon was now part of a Military Police convoy security unit assigned to detail high ranking personnel and government officials. Like many deployed, Jon was love struck, home sick, and had trepidation’s of being back in Iraq. That said, he was also a Marine and Marines adapt and overcome anything. Four months into his second deployment, his unit found out that they were being extended to a thirteen-month tour. Those additional months brought on more combat, casualties, losses and dread, yet the bond of brotherhood never wavered. Down time was spent playing cards, working out, enjoying makeshift barbecue, and doing whatever they could to keep their minds focused and distracted from veracity of war. While there were significant age differences throughout the unit, according to Jon, everybody got along.
Jon bid Iraq goodbye for good in February of 2006 as a twenty-one-year old veteran having served his country righteously during two tours of duty and becoming a part of history. Somewhat dejected, Jon’s first memory of returning stateside was, while still in uniform, being spit on by protesters while walking through an airport in San Diego. Politics aside, to this day, the positive interactions with Iraqi locals thankful for the sacrifices made by his unit, to Jon, validated every horrendous scenario he and his unit went through. Frustrated by the current outcome and resurgence of terror in the region, Jon knows the majority of people saw the good, but feels the overall missions weren’t entirely a success.
Honorably discharged from the Marine Corps as a Lance Corporal in 2007, Jon left the military with little to no regrets of his career or the time he spent in Iraq. Openly admitting that he initially struggled with his return to civilian life, he kept things bottled in, struggled with relationships, sounds, airplane flyovers, and nightmares. Hesitant at first to seek help, in 2015, Jon realized the need for treatment and began working through his PTSD symptoms. Technology and social media have allowed Jon to keep in touch with many of his Marine buddies, but there remains an absence of comrade that civilian life doesn’t always offer. Like the battlefield, there’s a constant loyalty of commitment to having each other’s back, especially for mental health and the well being of all veterans. For the most part, Jon has put Iraq behind him, but still maintains there are days he still struggles. The Iraq war and his participation in it will always be a part of who he is, but for now, Jon understands it wasn’t his only life chapter. Jon is open about his service and doesn’t mind being asked about his military experience or post military struggles. Currently living and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jon remains incredibly humble, strong, determined and focused on bettering himself every day. Not claiming to be perfect, Jon lives his life with honor and strives to continue making a difference in the lives of others.
Born and raised in Taylorsville, UT, Neil wasn’t quite sure taking the instantaneous college route was what he wanted right after high school. He knew eventually he would pursue a degree, but for the immediate moment, after twelve years of schooling, he was done with standard academia. Needing a break from school, family, friends and the mundaneness of daily life, Neil was looking for a change. Having always having an interest in the medical field, in the summer of 2004 and at age eighteen, Neil decided to roll the dice on himself and enlisted in the United States Navy with plans of becoming a Navy Corpsman. By enlisting, Neil knew he was not only following in his father’s Navy footsteps, but also securing money for college (via the GI Bill) and a future that would bring challenges and adventures unlike anything his hometown had to offer.
Neil would be the first to admit that his military career didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. Choosing a delayed entry program, he had already shaved his head and came equipped to his Military Entry Processing Station (MEPS) with not only a chip on his shoulder, but also a minor legal issue that almost disqualified his Navy ambitions before even getting sworn in. After getting a waiver clearance to continue, Neil was dubbed a punk and a potential hard case. After MEPS, Neil was sent to Great Lakes, Illinois to begin his boot camp training. Arriving at night, Neil learned quickly that he was going to have to change his ways and adapt pretty fast. While he wasn’t in great shape upon arriving, Neil started to buy into the discipline of Navy life and to this day speaks highly of the Petty Officers that while tough on him, pushed him to become his best self. Neil graduated from boot camp in December of 2004 and stayed in Great Lakes an additional four months for Corpsman A school training before being sent to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina for Fleet Marine Service School (FMSS). FMSS trains Navy Corpsmen into functioning Fleet Marine Forces (FMF), as there are no medics in the Marine Corps. Up to the challenge, Neil excelled at FMSS and at the conclusion of his training, was ordered to Camp Pendleton (missing being stationed at the same base as Jon by about a year).
At Pendleton, Neil was assigned to 31 Area Branch Medical Clinic (ABMC) where he treated both active duty Marines and family members alike in all aspects of medicine. After a few months with the ABMC, in February of 2006, Neil was deployed to Fallujah, as part of the 1st Medical Battalion Surgical/ER Unit. Arriving at night then convoying with sixty other medical personnel including doctors, nurses, and other Corpsman, Neil finally reported to Charlie Surgical Company, 1st Battalion, which was a combination of a surgical shock/trauma platoon (SSTP) and forward resuscitative surgery system (FRSS) providing level 2 care. While treating the wounded in a war zone is never easy, Neil vividly remembers starting an IV on his first patient, a fellow Corpsman, who was severely injured in an IED explosion. Another patient, also injured in an IED explosion, was himself handling injured Marines in the field prior to becoming a casualty himself after receiving a traumatic brain injury. Not even in his twenties yet, Neil was seeing and treating wounded service members with injuries very few his age had ever even heard of, and he was doing so on a daily basis. During his eight-month deployment, there were good days mixed in with many nightmarish ones, but stress was always a constant. To relax, or at least attempt to relax, Neil did whatever was needed to get the visuals and long hours of emergency medical work off his mind. That usually meant moments with others within the unit, chats home, water fights, movies, exercise, meals, and video games. But other times, despite being forbidden, escape meant indulging in alcohol. To this day, Neil openly admits that while proud of his service and deployment, he is still haunted by a certain morning to which he was passed out from a night of hard drinking and couldn’t assist on a mass casualty that came into the ER. Having never gotten caught or disciplined, the idea that he wasn’t there to help those injured was punishment enough and remains a mental struggle. Neil’s tour in Iraq concluded in October of 2006, as he headed back to Camp Pendleton with a lifetime of memories and developing fears.
Shortly after being stateside, Neil returned home to Taylorsville. Excited to see family and friends yet struggling with the beginning effects of PTSD, Neil went on a drug and alcohol fused bender. Now a reservists (Neil’s initial contract with the Navy was that of a “National Call to Serve” contract to which he would serve two years on active duty and two years in the reserves), Neil was training for a second deployment in Utah as a medic for a light armor Marine recon unit. Unfortunately, that deployment never happened as Neil tested positive for cocaine use and was relieved of his reservist’s status, thus bringing an end to his military career.
Like Jon, Neil was now a war veteran at twenty-one, a civilian, and staring PTSD in the face daily. He was angry at himself, angry at the Navy for their decision, angry at the government for their politics, angry at friends, angry at family, angry at just about everyone and everything. As his PTSD symptoms worsened and his survivors guilt mounted (Neil believed that by him not going back to Iraq for a second tour forced someone else to take his place with no certainty of a safe return), the nightmares became constant. He couldn’t close his eyes without seeing the eyes of the casualties he treated. While he didn’t want to admit he was struggling and those struggles only getting worse, Neil started drinking heavily again and his life began to spiral pretty fast. Rock bottom happened after multiple firings from jobs which led to more drinking which led to more firings. After a few years of denial, at twenty-four years old, Neil went to rehab at the VA. Once there, he found a passion for recreational therapy, especially scuba diving. It was in the water that Neil found peace and comfort and a desire to help others again. Being around those that were going through the same pain and had been through the same struggles allowed Neil to know he wasn’t alone. Today, Neil is a certified scuba instructor both teaching and traveling with veterans on scuba adventures across the state and country. Now sober, he is also finishing up his undergraduate degree at the University of Utah, is on the Dean’s List, volunteers as a research assistant at a veterans psychology lab studying ways to reduce suicidal behavior in returning veterans (also at the University of Utah), and has his sights set on master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. Saying Neil has come full circle would be an understatement. While he still grapples at times with civilian life and whether or not others, including his nephews, should join the military (with the region so unstable again, Neil isn’t sure the Iraq war was worth it), Neil knows that he wants a future to which he contributes to society. Brutally honest and open about the mistakes he’s made, Neil simply wants to not be judged by his dark days, but instead, be adjudicated for the good he’s done and continues to do. Although time and aging generally helps us all heal and overcome our pasts, Neil is no different. He is an easy guy to root for because of how he’s turned his life around and because he cares so much about other people. To some, Neil will always be a Petty Officer 3rd class and Navy Corpsman, but to others, and maybe more importantly, he remains a brother, a son, a scholar, a teacher, a researcher, and a friend.
The son of a career military officer, WWII and Korean war veteran, Mike grew up on military bases across Asia and Europe. Before he was even a teenager, Mike had lived in four countries across three continents. No stranger to the military way of life, in his mid-twenties, Mike enlisted in the United States Army in 1968 fully aware he was likely to be sent overseas as the American involvement in Vietnam continued to escalate. Realizing quickly that he wanted to lead and not follow, Mike decided to pursue the leadership route and became a Commissioned Officer (2nd Lieutenant) after graduating from Engineer Officer Candidate Regiment, United States Army Engineer School on December 5, 1969 (class 34-69). Less than a year later, Mike would go on to complete Army Aviation School (class 70-34) and was deployed to Vietnam as a “Slick” UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter pilot. The “Huey” was responsible for transporting ground soldiers in and out of battle zones and medical evacuations known as “Dustoffs”. Mike’s impeccable flying skills, especially under pressure, was showcased on numerous occasions, two of which resulted in Bronze Star medals for meritorious achievement in ground operations against hostile forces in during missions in both 1971 and 1972. After serving multiple tours and receiving numerous other medals and commendations for bravery, flying ability and heroism (twice shot down by enemy fire, Mike was able to safely land his aircraft thus saving the lives of his crew and the injured soldiers on board), Mike was honorably discharged from the United States Army in 1973 at the rank of Captain and did his best to relax back into life stateside. With his last military post being at Fort Hood, Mike chose to stay in Texas where he would remain for over forty years, predominantly living in the city College Station.
Like numerous veterans, Mike struggled to find his post military identity. Although the war ended in 1975 and even though Mike had been home for a few years, he was often shunned and ostracized by his local community. Many of his former friends who opposed the war stopped speaking to him. Nevertheless, he pressed on. Mike got married, had a son, bought a house, spent time at the VFW, and traveled the country to see family he hadn’t seen in years prior to his deployment. But all of the good things he worked hard for didn’t last too long, as he eventually went through a divorce, struggled with alcohol, had trouble finding steady work and spent many years trying his best to heal both physically and mentally. Mike’s generation, like generations prior, didn’t openly communicate or converse when it came to pain, especially mental pain. Talking about his struggles, in his opinion, showed weakness, and soldiers never showed weakness. It was believed by many in and out of the military, Mike included, that you were supposed to bury your fears, conceal your anxieties and toughen up. Mike’s way of dealing with his emotions was to spend his days alone, away from society. Despite all he had done for his country, he was riddled with guilt and confusion over what his life had become. He was proud of his service and loved his country but couldn’t understand why so many had turned their backs on him. One person Mike trusted and would talk to on occasion, a person who himself had battled self-doubt and his own insecurities after a life changing injury, was his younger brother, Jim. Never once judging or criticizing Mike’s words or actions, Jim was simply there to listen and help the best he could because that’s what brothers do. When Mike was serving in Vietnam, he missed out on a lot of family milestones including Jim’s wedding, but none of that mattered to his brother. What mattered was that Mike was alright and he knew there were people that cared about his well-being. Despite many late-night alcohol induced phone calls, letter exchanges, and visits, Mike knew he could always count on his little brother.
Things began to change for the better during the late eighties and early nineties, as Mike landed a job flying again, this time as an offshore oil rig helicopter pilot in the Gulf of Mexico. He loved flying an upgraded aircraft and he loved even more the interaction he had with both his crew and daily passengers. Mike thrived in the industry and was respected by his peers. Unfortunately, after many successful years, he aged out of his pilot licensing and once again found himself at a crossroad. With the support of family and a blossoming new romantic relationship, Mike was able to reinvent himself again and became a master electrician working on campus at Texas A & M University. He eventually remarried and started his own electrical company to which he owned and operated for many years. Life continued to have its ups and downs, but in 2011 Mike suffered another major expressive spiral, as his younger brother Jim died unexpectedly. Survivors guilt hit Mike hard, as he felt an unbearable sorrow for Jim’s wife and two sons. Many of the same PTSD effects Mike had after Vietnam all came trickling back to the forefront. He again descended on a dark path that led to more drinking and isolation. Through the help of family and the VA, Mike battled through his grief. Counseling and medication amended his agony and distress, as Mike made great strides and slowly climbed back out of the hole he was in mentally.
Sadly, Mike died of a massive stroke in 2015 never quite realizing how many people loved and appreciated him. Ultimately, he lived simply, didn’t ask anyone for anything, and never outwardly complained about the cards he was dealt or the demons he faced. He could be intense, misunderstood, socially awkward and quiet, but when people needed Mike, he was always there. He was many things during his life, including a son, a brother, a decorated soldier, a skilled pilot and a master electrician, but the most significant role Mike ever was to me at least, was that of an uncle. My uncle. Personally, my greatest memory of Mike was when he, my dad (Jim), my brother and I took a ten-day rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon when I was a teenager. I had spent time with Mike in the summers when I was a kid, but this was the most significant amount of time I’d been around him at once. I learned more about my uncle on that trip than any other time I can remember. He laughed, told stories, cooked meals, jumped off cliffs, tended to others, and seemed so full of life and at peace with his narrative. Simply stated, that’s how I’ll always remember him. That’s how I hope he is always remembered by others. Like those from the Vietnam era, Uncle Mike didn’t deserve the scrutiny he was given simply for doing what his country asked of him. I was as a kid and to this day remain very proud not only of his military record and commendations that go with it, but even more so, that I get to share the same last name as my uncle.
I started this post by declaring this a tribute to all of those that have worn the uniform protecting our freedoms and way of life and I sincerely mean every word of that. To me, Jon, Neil, and Mike represent bravery to the fullest in that they never had to join the military or put themselves in harms way, they chose to do so, so that others didn’t have to. I wanted to share their stories because while I personally know these three, these men could easily be your brothers, your cousins, your uncles, or your friends. What struck me the most about each one of these guys, is the humility to which they all expressed. On the surface, they all seem a bit timid and cautious, and rightfully so. But at their core, each are incredibly smart, genuine, sincere and kind souls. Each admit that their experiences overseas changed them and left scars they’ll likely never fully recover from. The physical scars may be visible and make for good conversation, but it’s the internal scars, the ones that can’t easily be seen, that still keeps each awake at night from time to time. Following the bravado of the military, seeking help isn’t always an easy options, as it wasn’t for these guys either. I applaud Jon, Neil, and Mike for their courage under fire as they volunteered to do what most of us wouldn’t and never did, but I respect them even more for addressing the darkness of PTSD and continuing to care for themselves and others.
To Jon, Neil, and Uncle Mike, thank you for your service, your sacrifice, and for sharing your stories.