The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN |

September 26, 2012

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: GarrettAnderson0311@gmail.com
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More

In my documentary And Then They Came Home I ask Marines that I served with the same thirty questions, so that I can gauge patterns in their responses eight years after our shared point of trauma. One of my questions is, “Do you think a warrior ever comes home?” I am now preparing to film my own interview, which will leave only one Marine in Mexico to be filmed when I return from my wedding.

I meditate on my own response. My life-long hometown friend Antonio has been sleeping on my couch for the past few weeks, stringing filmed pieces together so that editing will not be a hassle and we will be able to make our December deadline for the film.

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Location shoot for And Then They Came Home. Indiana, 2012.

Photo by C.J. Maddox.

Does a warrior ever really come home? I couldn’t tell you, because deep in the beat-up wallet I bought after my 2006 deployment to Afghanistan is a National Guard ID tucked behind my plastic cards and license. In April of 2010 I wrote my Guard unit a letter of resignation and have not had to put my uniform on since. I am contracted until December 2013.
 
I don’t know what it is like to come home, I haven’t been there since I watched my southern California suburbia youth haven disappear in the rearview mirror of my recruiter’s SUV, bound for Los Angeles to catch a bus for San Diego three weeks after I turned eighteen in August 2003. You are now leaving childhood, Palmdale California 1986-2003.

I survived two combat deployments, serving in the Marine Corps from August 2003 to August 2007 as an infantryman. A historian might note that those were the most violent years of the war.

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Breaking locks and burning blocks; Fallujah. Iraq. November 2004.

Photo by Garrett Anderson.

One day I found myself honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. I left my home base of Hawaii changed and bound for southern California. I spent a month at home, went to work for my Uncle for a month, and caught a train to Portland Oregon to visit my best friend.

Signs of trouble were seemingly slow to come, I was still drinking like a Marine, which can be compared to twice that of a frat boy, one less than a vagrant, and the nights had been bothering me for some time. There is still a hole in my best friend’s apartment where I threw a hunting knife into his wall.

In November I returned to California to start a business with my friend Antonio after coming into a family inheritance. We purchased film equipment and started to film television commercials and court depositions in California’s Antelope Valley. We were the youngest members of our Chamber of Commerce and I found that clients were receptive to a former Marine; my service would be brought up on the first interview and was absolutely an asset. I had no formal training in running a business, but Antonio and I seemed to be doing alright during the days, and at night I would return to my father’s house, drink like a Marine and watch endless videos of Fallujah on Youtube.

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A-Co. clears Fallujah, Iraq. November, 2004.

 Photo by Garrett Anderson.

I was in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004, and if you knew me in late 2007 you knew I fought there; it was all I ever wanted to talk about. I had felt zero emotional connection to friends and family since I returned home and I wondered if I had ever felt anything in the first place. I was sure however that I had been doing a good job at faking it, and I would think to myself that the connection would probably come naturally soon.

Sleep was so infrequent that all I could remember about it was that I didn’t hold it as a priority at the time and could go for a couple of days on a few hours. I was standing on my porch smoking a cigarette drunk one night when I announced to my father that I was thinking about joining the National Guard unit that I had read in the local paper was getting ready to deploy to Iraq in 2008. My father had this way he would look at me every now and again back then, a sort of deep baffle with a nod of understanding.

In December 2007 I joined the National Guard, I signed a contract to become a tanker -- a soldier who rides in a tank. My father had been the same thing when he was in the Army, and after working with tanks in 2004 I was convinced that this would be the most enjoyable way to return to Iraq.

I signed the contract and swore in over the phone on the same day. After I had sworn in it occurred to me, through the haze of the previous night’s hangover, that I was not clear on an important part of the contract. I asked the recruiter how long the contract I had just signed was for. He looked embarrassed and quickly said, “You wanted the bonus right?” I replied that I did, and he told me, “It’s six years.”

I was stunned, but thought to myself I guess I’ll just keep doing this for the next six years; I had knocked out four in the Marines and I knew once I had sworn in there was not much that could be done to reverse it. When I got to my new unit I was informed that their status had changed from tankers into infantry, because more National Guard tanks weren't needed in Iraq. I had joined to return to Iraq in an armored death chariot. I found myself back out in the open and on my feet. This made me uncomfortable.

I liked the people in my National Guard unit, and was able to make friends with my new platoon as I figured out how the National Guard was different from the Marines. I was surprised and excited by the professionalism of the unit; most of the soldiers had done prior active duty service like myself and joined the Guard after. There were even a handful of Marines in the unit. We would show up to train one weekend a month and the rest of the time we would work at our civilian day jobs.

I prepared for Iraq and went back to cutting commercials and drinking at night, not sleeping and with a new weight on my shoulders: the next deployment. Some nights I would open my father’s bedroom door and babble drunkenly until he was awake and shut his door. One night my father came over to the computer to tell me good night. I suddenly began to cry and I told him that I had been thinking of shooting myself with the shotgun upstairs. He was baffled again, and I was sure I would have to answer for that slip after we got home from work the next day.

The next day came and I did not go to work. I drank and told my friend Antonio that I wanted to go to the open microphone stand-up comedy night at a club in Hollywood. By the time we got there I was tanked and quickly sank into an incoherent mess. I don’t remember my routine, but I am sure it was nonsensical. After it was over we left the club and Antonio and a friend wanted to get something to eat. I told them to leave me in the SUV and they left. I remember some of what happened next, and the other parts Antonio filled in for me later. When they found me I was trying to kick out the back window of my vehicle. Antonio let me out, terribly confused, and then I disappeared.

I left my friends and found myself drunk and walking through alleys and Hollywood streets. The writer’s strike was going on and screenwriters waved signs in front of one of the production studios. I checked myself into a hotel room and visited a liquor store to pick up a forty of fine malt liquor. I pounded the forty and sat in the hotel room. I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t want to face my father, and I didn’t want to return home to an empty house where I might shoot myself. I remember that in the drunkenness I tried to hang myself, but the knot I had tied with the towel came undone on the shower rod and I found myself on my ass wondering why that thing didn’t hold. And then something hit me. I was trying to kill myself. I had been acting strangely and something I had been in denial about was very real. The things I had heard on the news and radio ads were true, and something had happened to me in combat that was killing me back home.

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With a member of the former Iraqi National Guard, Camp Fallujah, 2004.

Photo by Garrett Anderson.

I called my mother, who came to pick me up from the hotel, and the next day I found myself a twenty-two-year-old combat veteran in a mental hospital. Antonio had spent the night searching for me, along with my step-brother, and I was able to explain things when he came to visit me in the hospital. The initial intake and my first twenty-four hours was spent being evaluated alongside people with severe mental issues, some criminals, and this setting I found to be completely insane and counter-productive to my care.

I spent the rest of March 2008 in the hospital. When I returned, my unit had deployed to Iraq without me and I began going to Guard weekends as a member of the “rear detachment,” comprised of soldiers who had medical conditions that did not allow them to deploy. I had left Antonio and our business behind and went to work for my mother while I attended aftercare in the hospital. The economy was tanking and I wanted to get on my feet a regular way, so I moved into my sister’s apartment and found a job at an aerospace factory. I worked on the factory floor with Vietnamese immigrants, some of whom were Vietnam combat veterans. We would tell war stories, and they would slap me on the back on the Fridays that I had to dress in my Army uniform to go to a Guard weekend.

After the first hospitalization I began to notice that I would become nauseous before reporting to my unit, a nervousness that would cause me to vomit. As the factory became a victim of the economy I decided at the end of 2008 that I wanted to move to Portland Oregon, so I put in my two-week notice with my job and showed up to my last Guard weekend in California. The acting unit commander wished me well and told me that that weekend he wanted me to watch over a soldier who had been experiencing similar issues. I agreed to watch the soldier. I knew him well and he had told me a bit about his issues. I had started to worry about him during the previous Guard weekend; he had been prior active duty Army and had returned from a deployment to Iraq.

I stepped outside with him and we stacked our gear next to each other. I informed the soldier I would be watching him during the weekend and he was alright with that. We lit up cigarettes and I asked him if he thought he would be alright to train over the Guard weekend? He said yes and I believed him. A moment later he was crying and told me, “I don’t know why I am crying. Anderson.”  I understood why he was crying and told him that I thought he needed help. I told him it would be a better idea for him to return home. He told me he started a post-traumatic stress disorder program later in the week and when I told the acting commander that the soldier was having problems, he agreed and sent the soldier home. My friend called me to let me know he made it home and I have not seen or talked to him since.

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Garrett Anderson and Andrew Rothlein pose in front of Alpha Company's first objective during the battle. Fallujah, Iraq, 2004.

Photo by Jose Moracruz.

I drove up to Portland, Oregon and got a job writing parking tickets for a private company. It took me a few months to check into my new Guard unit because there were no tank units near Portland, so in the end I was sent to an infantry unit. I had told the guy placing me that I had been rated non-deployable and asked him not to send me to a deploying unit. My infantry unit had deployed to Afghanistan when I got to it, so I once again found myself in the rear detachment.

I had saved up a little bit and moved from my friend’s loft into an apartment, and found myself truly alone for the first time in my life. At first I thought that being alone is what I had always wanted, but the nights got longer again and the same weight had been with me. I felt less than cured and was not sure if there was a cure for how life felt. In January 2010 I once again found myself in a hospital after strong suicidal ideation.

I got out and this time it did not take long for me to realize that things were still not fixed. I could feel myself running out of patience with myself and one day in April 2010 I was walking in Portland, fearing the next Guard weekend, when I realized that the source for most of the anxiety in my life was being a member of the National Guard. I was not a bad soldier and that was part of the problem; it looked like I was fine, so why would anyone think I wasn’t? Even with two hospitalizations I was seen as fit for duty though I felt completely unfit for duty and the pressure was building. It agitated my symptoms and I felt like someone was going to deploy me even if they were not, and the fear of deployment agitated these things that literally drove me insane. I decided that if I valued my life I would write the National Guard unit a letter of resignation and face the consequences or carry on, because I knew I would not survive much longer under the status quo, certainly not until December 2013.

In April of 2010 I wrote something that changed my life, a letter of resignation…

With proper military respect and to whom it may concern,

I joined the United States Marine Corps in August of 2003, shortly
after graduating high school. After completing the Marine Corps School of
Infantry in February of 2004 I was stationed in Kaneohe Bay Hawaii where I
trained for a deployment to the Philippines specializing in jungle warfare.
When training was completed we set sail from Okinawa and continued on to
Kuwait. In a few months my infantry battalion suffered the loss of fifty-one
brothers, many of whom I had crossed paths with during my then short stint.
Afterward I participated in a combat deployment to northeastern Afghanistan
where my battalion suffered four KIA. Since the loss of so many close friends
I have never been able to reconcile my belief in service with my belief in
life.
     I no longer cherish the ability to be combat effective, lost in the
most evil haze of hell that a war can produce. I miss my friends and am often
confused as to why I am alive and they are not, I cannot imagine what it is
like to draw the short straw. This thought consumes me, I find myself unable
to comprehend any sort of meaning in this life, and I miss my friends.
     Since my discharge from the Marine Corps I have spent time in two
different mental hospitals, one for an attempted suicide and the other two
years later after the symptoms of a beast of an affliction returned to kill
me again. Being a dumb grunt I do not know much other than that I am still
alive and that I do not have the ability to hurt another human being.
      I will not lace up my boots again, and I am aware that there are
consequences for this action. I write this letter as a resignation and not a
declaration of insubordination, I beg for mercy and for benefits that I
earned walking between steel raindrops twice. I hope that I can someday make
peace with the violence that has consumed my twenties, I pray that this
affliction does not consume my thirties on into the rest of my life. I hope
the reader of this letter a successful and safe career, I hope the reader of
this letter finds what they are looking for in life, I thank God for the
United States Military, full of brave souls and too full of sacrifice for me,
if this is delayed cowardice than a coward is what I now am. I will not be
returning phone calls or allowing visitors into my home without a warrant,
this is not personal, it is simply my own paranoia of a large world that I
have seen destroy good men.
       Lastly I would like to thank ***** for doing everything
in their power to help a Soldier when he was down.

                                    Fair winds and good luck,

                                       Garrett Phillip Anderson

I expected my cell phone to be assaulted by incoming phone calls that morning, but nothing came. I felt a wave of fear sweep over me; I knew military police would probably be at my apartment, maybe after work. I went home from lunch. I was astonished to find an email from our training sergeant that explained I would not have to put on my uniform again and that the unit wanted to help me through this process of discharge but I had to contact them. I did and the process began.

Since then I have not had to attend a Guard weekend. I have written for therapy, and that has led to this film I am working on. I am getting married soon and live with my fiancé, and have created a more stable support network. Nothing is fixed, but the pressure being taken off of me has allowed me to live a more real and fulfilling life.

 

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Location shoot for documentary And Then They Came Home, Colorado, 2012.

Photo by C.J. Maddox.

I was told that I would go to two review boards for discharge; the first would be a mental health screening and the next, if I was found not fit for duty at the mental health screening, would be my actual discharge board. I went to the first board in Madigan connected to Fort Lewis in Washington State in January of 2011. Madigan would later be found to have been lowering PTSD ratings for soldiers to save money at the time I was seen there. All I can conclude from that is that my story was so fucked up even those dirty shrinks said I was not fit for duty.

I waited for my discharge board and it never came. In July 2011 I was called by my unit and told to report for two weeks of annual training. I explained that I was still waiting for my discharge board and he explained that my not fit for duty status expired after one hundred eighty days. I called my father and we got in contact with a congressional representative who was able to delay my annual training and start the process again.

In November of 2011 I flew to Georgia for another fit for duty board and was again found not. I had a second phone interview after the Madigan story broke and I think that one went well. I am not clear if I will ever be discharged from the National Guard. I wish I knew what it felt like to be truly free again. I also wonder: How many more soldiers like me are out there in this limbo? The unit when informed went out of its way to help while following the rules of the system, so if there is blame to be put on delay it is on whatever is happening above. I recently received a letter from the VA apologizing for the delay in my case review, and assuring me that they will get back to me when the process is finished.

Combat operations in Afghanistan are slated to end in 2014; luckily my contract ends December 2013. In a decade of service my time will not have known peace. The unit knows I am not fit to serve, the shrinks have found me unfit to serve, I know I am not fit to serve, and for two and a half years I have been waiting for the paperwork to be filed.

The only reason I am better today than I used to be is because I found another way. I have pages of paperwork from mental hospitals and a film I am editing to verify how it could have been that combat affected a young life so deeply. I urge those in similar situations to seek help, because they will wait for you to die before offering help if you don’t do anything for yourself. I proudly served my country and fought through two combat deployments. I am not ashamed of having been so affected, but I am ashamed of how the system treats warriors who have put their lives on the line to protect it. This makes me nauseous and I don’t know what to do with any of this information.

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Next to the grave of a relative killed on the last day of World War One.

Photo by C. J. Maddox.

Comments

You are very brave for honestly sharing your experiences. Hopefully more of your compadres will follow suit. I can't wait for your film to come out.
Be Well.

Garrett, I am grateful that somewhere in your soul you have a tremendous will to live and a deep moral sense based on concern and solidarity with your fellow human beings. From want you write I know that moral sense gives you great pain for you have violated it, sometimes out of service to your country, sometimes out of your own deep pain. Yet, the work your are doing to heal yourself and your comrades in arms who also suffer shows your strength of character and the true hope you have of one day, coming into peace. You are making real amends through this work. Your story and the stories of your fellow soldiers, our fellow citizens, are stories we civilians need to hear. Rest assured, Garrett, that there are civilians like me, who want to hear and understand as best we can what you all went through and suffered, in our name.

I have a brother and two nephews who served in Iraq. The nephews served multiple tours and one also served in Afghanistan. I will be watching for your movie to be finished and released. I wish you well and good luck in this important work you are doing.

Fair winds, following seas and God’s blessing be with you.

The Rev. Debbie Graham

Garrett:

As part of a college English class, we have been led to this Millblog. I read your story with tears in my eyes, but favor your strength and determination. You may not see your strength in your story, but I do. God has led you down a path to get you where you are today. It hasn't been a wonderful path, but a path that is allowing you to now help others.

I pray that God continues to work within you, for He has great plans in store for your future

Garrett, thank you for sharing your own story and for working to capture others' stories as well. My thoughts and prayers go with you.

I believe that warriors come home, but they do not pass back into the reality before that hellacious experience. My older brother was drafted into the 101st more than forty years ago. He lives a good life, to some extent self medicates with alcohol, and sleeps little. He claims that he never did sleep well. Not my memory. He lives in a rural area with plentiful game. He likes the tracking more than the hunting these days. I tend to believe that a part of him is always walking point.

I am thankful that you are able to continue to pursue the avenues that will help you in the times to come. We lost as many warriors to suicide in Vietnam as we did to combat. This time that effect of deployment is not being as easily ignored.

Garrett,
Thank you so much for posting this. I can't even imagine all the pain you have and still are going through. I hope that one day you may possibly, and truly feel free. I will be praying for your upcoming marriage and film. God bless you for everything you have done for this country. Thanks again!

You show a lot of bravery to tell us your story, I cannot understand exactly how you felt but I can relate because I have family that has went through the same things after serving our country! I'm glad that you stayed strong and got through the tough time in your life. I wish you the best in whatever comes throughout life and the best of luck with your marriage!!

Garret:
I have a tremendous amount of respect for you. You are not only a strong person for serving, but also for dealing with the issues you went through after doing so. It is truly an awesome story of how strong someone can be, going from where you were to now getting married and starting a new part of your life!It just shows how amazing God is. Good luck with everything in your future, it looks like you have a bright one ahead.

Garrett thank you for your life,
thank you for your contribution,
may God please bless your precious soul
and give you grace and peace!!!

Garret, thank you for having the courage to say what needs to be said and for doing what was right.

Thank you all for reading and for your generous comments. I am still stuck in the system for now and I am sure that this will eventually change, however I hope that the beautiful citizens of our country might consider writing their representatives expressing concern with the current VA back-log. There is a story up on CNN.com that further explains how deep this problem runs. I think many people at all levels are unaware of the serious damage this back-log is inflicting, its delay in service is costing lives every day. Thank you again for reading and please feel free to get involved.
Semper Fi,

Garrett

Garrett,
Thank you for sharing your story with us. All my respect goes to you as well everyone who has served.I would like to wish you good luck on your film,I also hope to be able to watch it soon. Reading your story has been a wonderful experience for me and once again thanks for sharing your personal story.

Garrett,

All my respect and best wishes go out to you and your family. You know your strong when you can overcome these obstacles and still be able to tell your story. Creating awareness for all of the soilders that need help is a big step. I wish you the best in your endevours.

Dear Garrett,
Thank you so much for telling your story. Although you don't see it in yourself, I recognize and honor your courage and honesty. It is only through reading or watching unfiltered stories like yours that the rest of us can get a glimmer of understanding about combat and what it does to people. I look forward very much to seeing your documentary. I watched Restrepo over and over because it helped me understand my dad and uncles who fought in WWII. Best wishes to you and your fiance.

Will you ever show your film? I would like to see it.

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