Triumphing over the lingering wounds of war
Published: September 5, 2012
A year earlier, Matthew Brown was a Marine fighting in Iraq.
Now he sat at home, a veteran with an endless prescription for pain pills and a new habit of crushing the pills and snorting them as he drank one beer after another. He’d started to cut his forearms with a serrated pocket knife. Feeling otherwise numb, he cut himself to feel something. Anything.
He loved the brotherhood of the Corps. He felt it was an honor to serve. One bullet took that all away.
Life after the Marines was brutal. Nightmares overwhelmed him. Memories of fallen brothers were even worse. Each morning, Brown picked up his cane and limped along, the pain in his left thigh constant.
“In the back of my head, I was hoping the next pill or beer would be the one that took me over the edge,” says Brown, “I wanted to die.”
In February 2006, he tried. After spending hours reminiscing about the past, he took so much pain medication that he struggled to breath. He couldn’t find a purpose in living anymore. In his mind, he had lost everything. His career. His body. His sanity.
His wife, then his girlfriend, sat up with him while he refused medical treatment and balled himself up on the edge of the bed in his father’s trailer.
“Back in 2005, you didn’t dare go to the VA hospital for help,” Brown said. “I didn’t want to get locked up in a mental ward.”
He doesn’t remember much from that night, but he will never forget the disappointment on his girlfriend’s face when he woke the following morning.
He shares the story now because others need to hear it and learn from it. Brown almost became one of more than 6,000 veterans who took their lives in 2006. On average now, one servicemember commits suicide every day. Eighteen veterans do the same.
That night, Brown came as close to death as he did in Fallujah. His Marine Corps career ended there on Nov. 11, 2004.
Positioned in a second-story window behind a machine gun, he heard the crack of a rifle firing in the distance. That crack came with a burning sensation in his thigh. The bullet severed his femoral vein and he crumpled to the floor, blood pooling on the warm, hardened clay.
As he writhed in pain, a Navy corpsman clambered to stop the bleeding. Brown nearly passed out as the corpsman fished deep in his flesh to clamp his vein with a hemostat and then apply a tourniquet.
Gazing up at the sunrise through the shattered glass of the window, Brown imagined this was the end.
Strapped to a stretcher in the back of a vehicle driving him to the field hospital, he felt with every bump in the road that his leg was being sliced open with a hot knife.
The sniper had won the day, but Brown survived.
With his retirement on Oct. 29, 2005, came a difficult transition to civilian life. Brown struggled to find a job. He struggled to relate to people who neither understood the war in Iraq or the sacrifice he had made in a distant land. He struggled with the pills.
It took months for him to find work and just as long to find a place to live. Frequently moving from one friend’s house to another, he was too proud to move back in with his mother. He didn’t want her to see him the way he saw himself: A damaged and hopeless war veteran.
“For those of us who had to be medically evacuated, we have no end to our war,” Brown said.
The morning after his suicide attempt, his girlfriend gave him an ultimatum: the drugs or her. He flushed his assortment of medications down the toilet.
Since that day, Brown has received mental health treatment through the VA, including group therapy and individual counseling. He also did bio-feedback therapy at Marine Corps Base Barstow, Ca.
He is also a co-founder of the Love Your Veterans program, which focuses on support and outreach for veterans in need. It was founded in 2011 and has published short stories written by veterans in a book named Triumph Book: Heroes, raising issues such as alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide in the veteran community. Their main mission is to ensure veterans do not feel alone.
He wants veterans to know that the pain will always be there. The memories will never fade. But life will get easier with time and they will learn to cope with the pain and the memories.
Thomas James Brennan is a sergeant in the Marine Corps. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. Now, 27 and still on active duty, he is stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He is a member of The Military Order of the Purple Heart and a graduate of The Veterans Writing Project.