Born in 1977, Emilio was raised in San Jose, California, by his mother and his stepfather. Emilio grew up with a half-sister. Only in his late teens did he reconnect with the family of his biological father, who had since passed away. Of Mexican heritage, Emilio benefited from having a large extended family in San Jose; several family members are veterans. From a very young age and into college he was an avid wrestler. He credits wrestling with teaching him “discipline, hard work, and the drive to achieve things you set out to do.” Though he has never married, Emilio is the father of two grown children: a son, Emilio, and a daughter, Seryna, by different mothers. These days, he’s finishing his BA at San Jose State University.
When Emilio joined the Marine Corps in 1999, it was as a reservist because he wanted to stay close to his children. Emilio’s unit was activated in 2003 at the start of the Iraq war; he worked as a Traffic Management Specialist at Camp Pendleton during that initial activation. In 2007, he was deployed to an air base in Iraq as a platoon sergeant, where he worked in security. His duties included patrolling the perimeter of the base in an armored Humvee. On September 5th, 2008, in a period of escalating tension, his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED). Emilio suffered physical injuries that required several surgeries, and he developed post-traumatic stress. Following the incident, the Marine Corps shunted him from base to base and too often left him to fend for himself. While serving in the Marine Corps, Emilio was awarded the Purple Heart.
EXCERPTS FROM OUR CONVERSATION
Vicki Topaz: How would you describe being in Iraq after your time at Camp Pendleton?
Emilio Gallegos: I didn’t know what to expect in Iraq. You don’t know if it’s going to be like the movies—running off the plane and all. On the cusp of something like that, you felt kind of weird because you didn’t know what was coming next. Eventually, we landed at the Al-Taqaddum air base west of Baghdad. People called it TQ.
Everyone went through TQ. We ended up staying there the whole time during our activation and working security on and around the base. We worked eight-hour shifts doing tower security and just basically securing the base, which wasn’t really a hostile place. But a couple of years before, you would constantly hear gunfire and take mortar attacks when you went outside the gate. In our time, it was more established. TQ sits up on a plateau, so we were a little remote.
When we weren’t working security, we had access to everything else. We could talk to our families, use the computers, stuff like that. In off hours, I also trained Marines in martial arts. Halfway through my deployment, I got moved to a smaller base across the road with more intermingling between Iraqis, Iraqi Army, US Army, and Marines. We would do mounted and dismounted patrols as part of a quick response force. We’d respond to things happening at the front gate, for instance, things out of place. Especially at night it was more difficult, trying not to overreact to things you couldn’t see.
A few months into it, my buddies found an IED on our base. They were on patrol and went to check out a cut in the fence. They got out of the vehicle to investigate and wound up standing on top of the IED. But it didn’t detonate.
They called the Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Our whole team went out there and set the perimeter. The IED was a big block of an old shell with a nine-volt battery and some C-4 explosive. It was very crudely put together. The robot that the EOD used to deal with the IED set off a small charge. Even though the main charge of the IED didn’t go off, the robot was messed up.
About two hundred yards outside our gate was a small village with people milling around. We’d see kids and farmers, and I guess they were given stuff to bury there.
So after that happened, we started manning more people at various towers, with a higher level of awareness. That’s when you think, “I’m not at home.” You’re in a place where people don’t want you to be. You can’t lower your guard.
A reminder that you’re in extreme danger.
Exactly. And sometimes it seemed eerily quiet. We would see kids once in a while on our patrol. There was a place where they’d play soccer right outside the gate, or outside one of the fences. We’d talk to them, give them water and candy, whatever. Then a few months after we found that IED, the elders tore up that field because they didn’t want the kids playing there.
The United States had handed power back to the Iraqi Army. We were in the Sunni Triangle. Our presence looked like a slap in the face to people who didn’t want us there, the insurgents, whatever you want to call them. Because basically we were saying, “We have this under control, so now you can have it back.” They were probably thinking, “You don’t have us under control.”
That’s the background to what happened to me.
The day of my incident, other incidents occurred in three different places. It was all well planned. On September 5, 2008, I was driving on a routine patrol in the middle of the day when I drove over an IED that someone else should have found before I got there.
We found out later that our opposite shift didn’t always do everything they should have. For instance, if someone watches my house for a month, they can see when I leave, when I come, when I go. It’s the same thing in those areas. If the insurgents watch our base for a month and they see our opposite shift not being active, they can plan more successful operations. That’s what happened with us.
I think our opposite shifts weren’t doing complete routine patrols. The IED was probably planted early in the morning, before sunrise. We came on about two in the afternoon. I ran over the IED around four. So there was almost a whole day when someone should’ve driven over there to take a look. If you can’t depend on the people you need to depend on out there, when you come home you don’t want to depend on anybody. You feel too vulnerable . . .
When it happened, there was nothing in the fence and nothing out of the ordinary. It was a complete surprise. The IED blew our vehicle up, and we just sat right back down a little to the side.
What kind of vehicle were you driving?
I was driving an armored Humvee. Because we were up on a fifteen-foot-high berm that was barely wide enough for our vehicle, we had to drive a little slower. My first thought was, well, it’s the middle of the day, and I’m tired, so I fell asleep and hit the fence. But that wasn’t it.
There were three of us in the vehicle, and we exited right away. The guy in the top could have had his legs snapped if he had been sitting differently. But he’d put a wooden plank over the hole to sit up there. So when we were blown up, he just kind of sat up and sat back down instead of receiving a really blunt force on his feet.
My right arm hit the radio, my left arm the door. I was out of it for a couple seconds—I didn’t know what had happened. I couldn’t open my door, because it was stuck in the sand. I had to remove some of my vest to get out. My weapon was in the backseat.
My buddy got out through the top and jumped off to see what was going on. My passenger got out. It was just a weird situation because there was nothing going on around us once we got out. But where does all your anger and frustration go? There’s no one around, so do you just fire your weapon in the air?
After we assessed what was going on, we got down from that berm. My leg was hurting. My buddy slid down the embankment. I couldn’t manage that, so I walked back a little and came down the road. I didn’t realize until a couple of hours later that my leg was broken.
A nearby tower radioed in what had happened. When I think back on it, no one was out in the field when we were driving by. So something had changed. The usual farmers or kids weren’t out. If we had looked closer, maybe we would have seen that something was about to happen. But you never really knew.
Mounted patrol team leader/driver, West Camp Habbaniyah Mobile Security Force. July 2, 2008.
Did you receive immediate medical treatment?
They came and picked us up, took us into surgery on our small base, and checked us out. Then they took us back over to the main base—TQ—because they had a surgical center there. By the time I got there, within the hour, there were all these stories about what had happened to us. I had a laceration on my arm—I could see the bone. My arm was split open from hitting the radio. Even to this day I have pain shooting in my hand. I noticed it first coming home from my deployment on the plane. Ever since then, I have issues because the impact against the door and the radio was so blunt.
They sewed up my arm, but they said, “We need to cut your leg open because it’s broken. It’s called ‘compartment syndrome.’ There’s something developing, and we have to operate.” Because the fracture was internal, they had to cut my leg open from my knee to my ankle. Otherwise, I might have gotten gangrene and lost the leg. They couldn’t shut the skin, because it was so swollen. They called the stitching “a Roman sandal” or “a Jacob’s ladder.” Basically, they took a plastic tube like a shoelace, and they laced my skin together with it open. I never looked at it.
Once they opened you up in Iraq, you had to leave because it was a dirty place. So on that same day I was ready to fly out of Iraq and go back home. And suddenly there was all this commotion outside the door, with people coming and going. The doctor who had operated on me came in and said, “We’re not going to be able to get to you for a while because we have things going on out here.” Two other IEDs had gone off in Ramadi and Fallujah. The wounded came in when my buddies were visiting me. The doctor asked them, “What’s your blood type?” She had goulashes and gloves on, and she was covered in blood.
The next day, I flew out to Balad, an Air Force base. I had another surgery there, and they still couldn’t close my leg. Then I flew to Germany, where they thought I was going to have to stay for about a week because they didn’t have time to operate on me. In Balad and in Germany I had an opportunity to see a part of the military that I would never have seen if I hadn’t been hurt.
The support was so different. For instance, after I landed in Balad and was being wheeled in on a gurney from the tarmac to the hospital, I saw a huge American flag hung above me. It was so comforting to see that. That way into the hospital was called Hero’s Highway. The flag was the first thing people saw when they came in injured. That first night in Balad, I was in a room full of cots and temporary housing until I could fly out. On every cot was a bound booklet of letters that kids had written to service members. There were colored pictures, drawings, and letters that said things like, “I thank you for this. Thank you for that.”
September 5, 2008, 16:14 local Iraqi time, 4:14pm, and 6:14am back in the states.
When I flew to Germany, I didn’t have any clothes with me, because I was supposed to have surgery and go back. All my stuff was in Iraq. But I was allotted a certain amount of money for clothes. A guy asked my shoe size, what color I liked, and so on. He went down to the hospital store while I went to get x-rayed. They said, “You’re going to be operated on in a few days.” Back in my room, there was a bag of clothes on my bed, so at least I could shower and change. A few hours later they said, “We have an opening for surgery tonight.” I was only in Germany a day, as it turned out.
Were you able to walk?
I couldn’t walk. I could get around a little bit on crutches. Mostly, I was pushed around in a wheelchair.
My leg was still open when I flew out of Germany and headed for the United States. The bus to take us to the airport had no seats—they just hooked you to the side of the wall. On the bus were a couple of guys who were badly injured. And I was lying on my gurney with no idea of what was going on around me.
On the plane, a big C-17, people who were flying on the sides had netted seats. The middle had what looked like meat racks. That’s where they put me, in a bottom rack. At least I could get up and hop to the restroom. The guy right across from me had his own in-flight surgeon. I think he had an arm missing. He was really burned up, bandages on his face. Another guy, one of his buddies who was injured with him, would periodically hobble over to him and talk.
It was a very quiet, very somber scenario. No one was joking around or laughing.
How were you received stateside?
When we landed, a General and a Sergeant Major came around and talked to everyone, shaking their hands and giving them some little gift. They gave me a Visa gift card and an iPod Shuffle.
When I got to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, they removed my bandage, and my leg still was open, with the laceration. When the doctor removed the bandage, he said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before. People here don’t get a chance to see these traumatic injuries. Do you mind if I call some people in to take a look at you?” Everyone who saw the wound was totally blown away. My skin was open, my muscles were protruding. Then they sewed me up at Lejeune, and my leg was still very swollen.
I had thirty sutures in my leg, which looked like a zipper. They had a tube going up the front of my leg, draining blood out of it. Even days later, the leg was still swollen. They said that my new skin graft might be messed up. It was sad. Everything was sad.
The whole process of coming home was very disconnected. I was left to deal with stuff on my own. A lot of my struggle with trust and pain came from those instances. To me, it seemed too easy to lose a person in the process. But if 250 Marines come back home, you know they need to be dealt with. They need to be checked out.
My reserve unit became part of an outfit at the Cherry Point Air Station in North Carolina called 2nd LAAD—Low Altitude Air Defense. We weren’t really their Marines, though. When I got out of the hospital in Lejeune, someone from Cherry Point came with a bag of candy and took me back with him to Cherry Point. I should’ve stayed in Lejeune. Decisions were being made by people who weren’t well organized
These were times when no one knew how to deal with this stuff. At Cherry Point, they put me in a barracks room by myself. Showering was difficult—I had to drag a chair into the shower. Luckily, I was close enough to one of the small stores on base. I would use my crutches to go out for food. I would try to call the company office when I needed to get to the main hospital on the base to be seen for something. I was very disconnected. Eventually, I got a young lance corporal to drive me around.
Finally, they sent me back to Camp Lejeune, which I should never have left. I arrived after hours, and no one was there to receive me and the two Marines accompanying me. We were in some random building looking for where to go. Luckily, an officer was just finishing working out, and he offered to help us.
He walked us across the way to the Wounded Warrior Battalion. It was very disorganized. I felt like no one was even bothering to take care of the situation. The Wounded Warrior Battalion was a bunch of injured Marines. In the parking lot, I saw Purple Heart stickers on license plates. They had a recreation area, a Ping-Pong table. Every room was equipped with hand bars, so showering was easy. I ended up staying there for only a couple of days because our command wanted to move me again, who knows why. I was moved to a squad bay, which was just a big room full of beds.
“Often tested, always faithful, brothers forever.”
Photograph by Vicki Topaz
Were you healed?
No. The whole time I was still going to doctor appointments, on crutches. The squad bay was a long room with just one guy at the other end. The community showers were down the hallway on the second floor. The shower walls were flat, with nothing to hold on to. The whole thing was very difficult and frustrating.
I would email my family and talk to people at church through e-mail and text. It was very, very, very difficult to understand what was going on with me and why I was having to deal with all this miscommunication and all these issues. I don’t remember how long I was there. I think I finally got to come home in October.
During the time you were there, besides talking to your family and your church, was anyone in the military communicating with you?
No, no one at all. I saw my doctor a couple of times. No one was available. No one seemed to know how to address these things.
It’s not as though the war had just started.
Yeah, exactly. The war was well underway by then.
I built up a lot of frustration and anger about the whole thing. I was still dealing with the frustration about what happened to me and my buddies in Iraq. I knew that that could’ve been prevented if certain Marines had been more effective or cared more.
When I came home it was the same thing. I was being failed by my peers. I didn’t know who to talk to. It was a lot to deal with.
Finally, I got connected with another guy who was hurt. He’d pick me up in his van, and we would go to the mall or to the movies on the base. Eventually, they said I could have my family come see me. Back before I had left Lejeune, when I was still in Cherry Point, my sister had come to see me, but not the rest of my family. I got to see my sister for a few days, going out to eat and hanging out. They might’ve housed the rest of my family on the base for free, but my family needed to pay their own way to the base so they couldn’t come. My parents couldn’t just drop what they were doing and then pay for it.
After my sister left, I didn’t see anyone in my family for almost a month. It was good to finally come home. That whole ordeal caused me a lot of frustration. And I think that people are still falling through these holes.
Before Iraq, I had gone on activation to Camp Pendleton, where I was part of the first group called a Redeployment Support Team. Our whole purpose was to figure out how to receive people coming back home.
When people would land at March Air Reserve Base, we would go receive them. We would say to the person in charge, “We’re going to be your point of contact. We know everything you have to do. When you get to Camp Pendleton, we’ll get with you again.” We’d greet them from the plane with their families: “OK, who’s in charge—you? This is what’s going to happen in a day or so when you find us.” We would get them to their appointment, make sure they’d be there. We had a good team. But that’s not what I experienced when I returned.
I built up a lot of angst. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t coping well. I got some solace from speaking with my family, people from church. But home itself was a whole different thing to deal with. I was blown away by these emotions that would just come up in my life without me having any idea of where they came from. I was just kind of mixed up for a while.
When you realized that you were having trouble, did you see a therapist? Did you go to Veterans Affairs?
A few months after I got back to my Reserve unit, I saw someone in mental health in the Polytrauma Network in Palo Alto because I knew I needed help to do something productive with my life.
On my first weekend home, I picked up my kids, my mom, and my sister, and we went to the movies. Then we went to a bowling alley in South San Jose. I paid for us all—and by the time I got the bowling balls, I started to feel overwhelmed by everything. It was confusing because I had been back in America for a while. I’d been out to the movies and the mall in North Carolina. But the combination of the noise from the bowling, the lights everywhere, and the music and TV playing made me want to cry.
Once we got to our lane, I just wanted to curl up and cry for no reason. I had to pull my mom aside and tell her what was wrong with me. I didn’t want my kids to see me like that, so she drove me around the corner to my uncle’s place while my sister stayed at the bowling alley with my kids. My uncle wasn’t home, so I just sat on his porch, and my mom went back so everyone could bowl before picking me up after. That kind of thing happened a few times. I realized something was not OK with me.
I was doing exposure therapy at the Polytrauma Network. I would write down my incidents. Doing that was like watching a scary movie a hundred times. It’s not as scary after a while.
I learned a lot from the process of writing things down. And I realized my passion for writing. I wanted to write, though I was an art major first in 1995. To me, art, music, and writing, it’s all the same thing basically. I figured I should do something with this passion to write. I went back to San Jose City College and was getting used to being in the flow of things. For a while, I was taking public transportation because I didn’t want to drive. I was lucky to have a couple of professors who really drew my interest to stuff. One of my professors in the poetry writing class said, “A lot of what you’re writing about is subject matter concentrated in the same area. I think you’d like this writer. Check him out.” It was Tim O’Brien, who wrote The Things They Carried. I hadn’t read it. I think every eleventh grader reads that book now. It’s very important for kids to understand these things. That book gave me an idea of what I can do with my life. From then on, I started having more motivation, a better understanding of my process, the process of all of us as veterans. In one of my time-period English literature classes, I realized all these things have been dealt with for centuries. In the Iliad and the Odyssey the things warriors went through had different names, but we’re still going through them. Those life-altering, mind-altering situations still need to be addressed.
One thing I learned from the first person I saw at the Polytrauma Network was that I always felt “less than.” For example, I came home with this guy who was missing an arm and all burned up, while I was OK enough to use the restroom by myself. So I felt my situation was not as bad as his. She spoke to me about making sure that I validate my experience and not throw it aside or think of it as less than someone else’s experience. I came to accept the fact that my experience is worth something. Even if my situation is not as severe as someone else’s, it still needs to be addressed.
Are you diagnosed with post-traumatic stress?
Yeah, they diagnosed me in 2009 or 2010 with post-traumatic stress and a mild traumatic brain injury.
Downtime during Charlie Company’s initial zeroing in of weapons, day 2 in Iraq.
Al Taqaddum Air Base. April 8, 2008.
From the explosion?
Yes. I did a lot of tests, but I didn’t understand the process. It felt like just another in a succession of failed efforts.
I was still connected to my Reserve unit. When my time came up to leave the Marine Corps, the doctor asked me, “Do you want to just get out? Or do you want to go to a board for a medical discharge?” At the time, I thought about being a cop or something like that someday, and I didn’t want a medical evaluation to ruin my future, so I said, “No, I’ll just get out. My time’s up.” I don’t even think the doctor knew about the benefits of a medical board or whether that was a better choice for me. Back then, I looked at it as a negative thing. But in the long run I could’ve had the benefits I have now years ago.
You do have your benefits?
Yeah, finally. That took me till 2013 or so.
Did you have to fight for your benefits?
I just didn’t know about them. I had left the Corps, and I was going to school. I was using up the school GI Bill since I had mostly been Reserve. I had been rated 70 percent by the VA. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something. I was still paying child support and dealing with all that. They just don’t tell you enough about VA benefits or going to school.
It’s about knowing your rights, isn’t it?
Yeah. For a while I struggled with keeping jobs. After a couple of months, I’d realize I couldn’t go into work because I couldn’t get up in the morning to face the job. I didn’t feel well enough. I had too much to deal with.
I was unemployed and going to school when one of my buddies in my Reserve unit helped me out. He was working for the Palo Alto VA. He said, “I want you to come to this job fair we’re having.” It was cool—it was all veterans. I got to talk to a news channel. Someone gave me some paperwork about understanding Social Security benefits. When he asked me about my VA benefits, I said, “I don’t even know what that means.” He asked me about the hospital visit (at Camp Lejeune) and how long I had been in the hospital. I thought I had been in the hospital for about ten or eleven days total. He called his boss at the Palo Alto VA and asked her about that, because if you’re hospitalized for fourteen or fifteen days straight, you’re automatically eligible for a lump-sum payment of something like $50,000. He found out I was a day or two short. When that guy came to get me for who knows what reason back in Lejeune to take me to the barracks at Cherry Point—when I didn’t need to leave the hospital then—he messed up my eligibility.
Did you wonder if that was the reason for the move?
Yeah, it makes you wonder, and those feelings of frustration came back. But in 2013 my friend at the VA got me rolling with putting together a claim.
Are you at 100 percent now?
Yes. I was 50 percent when I was first rated. Then I submitted again and I was 70, and I was 90 for a while. I recently got 100.
It’s been a frustrating process in many ways. They need to help you fit in emotionally.
And then you think about all the Vietnam-era veterans. These men came back home and had marriages and raised families, and these issues affected not only one but maybe three or four or five people’s lives. They raised kids with things going on inside them, and now maybe the kids are affecting their kids because of unaddressed issues. I’m fortunate I didn’t have to sit on this stuff for thirty years.
How is your leg now?
I have a scar and some sensitivity issues. It’s a little more swollen than my left leg, probably forever. There’s dullness and numbness because they cut everything, which affected the nerves.
Al Taqaddum Air Base. June 30, 2008.
Are you able to walk without difficulty?
Yes. The left knee has been operated on twice, and it’s going to be operated on again. I have a torn meniscus. The leg is still painful, but it’s mostly intact.
How did you become interested in writing?
I applied to San Jose State and was accepted as an English major. Studying English gave me more ideas of things I could do with my writing and my poetry.
Had you written before?
Not when I was younger, no.
Was it at the VA hospital that writing became important to you?
Yes. Understanding that I could do something with this artistic need to get stuff out helped me have a place to put it all. I’ve been at San Jose State for a couple of years now. A couple of semesters didn’t go so well because of the personal issues I was dealing with. I’ve had to struggle sometimes with not wanting to go to class. That’s when I started looking into getting a service dog.
The writing gives me a way to connect to things and digest things a little easier, and a way to communicate with people. I have a voice now—I’m not the crazy veteran in the back of the class who doesn’t talk to anybody. I can be the veteran in class who still might sit in the back but who has something to say. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a couple of veterans’ writing groups. And we read at a poetry festival a few months ago.
Are you mainly writing poetry?
Mostly poetry. I wrote a couple of prose pieces for class. I do want to get back and finish them. I did a nonfiction writing class two semesters ago. That was interesting, too. But mostly poetry. I like to write stories—I just haven’t finished anything as best as I want to yet.
Does the veterans’ group you’re in include veterans from different eras?
Yes, and it’s not just veterans. It’s families of veterans, as well. I heard about this group through my cognitive behavioral therapist at the San Jose VA a little over a year ago. The group met at History Park the fourth Sunday of every month. When I showed up, they were so excited to have me. It was three older people and me. I was and still am the youngest person.
The group is called Veterans Write. The lady that heads it had military in her family, her uncles and brothers. And then there’s a gentleman who was drafted out of San Jose State during the Vietnam era, but I don’t think he was in-country. Another gentleman, who was in the Navy, was in Vietnam. And since then we’ve had a few people come to our groups, including another guy who was in Vietnam and another lady whose dad was in the Air Force.
So it’s given us service members and families an opportunity to express our experiences. The Air Force woman in our group went to ten different high schools. We’ve moved to San Jose State because we’re trying to get more people involved. We meet there on the third Wednesday of every month.
A guy who was a World War II veteran came once. He was super awesome to talk to. He flew fifty missions—enough missions that he made his allotted number. He was able to leave the war and go back home because he had done his part.
It’s a good place. You get opportunities to speak with people.
And we had a good response when we read at the San Jose Poetry Festival. At that event, we were invited to participate at the Willow Glen Library reading on one Thursday a month. It’s usually an open-mic reading, but they wanted us to present as a group. Somebody was interested in publishing some of our work, too.
The consumable consumed, doomed
with despair, breathing heavy the air
outside of the womb, hungry
to belong, singing a new song
that sounds like gnashing teeth,
stumbling beneath, an idea of change
and rearrange the foundation of my nation of one.
The wolf I feed, the greed, the need,
convictions outweigh my comfort,
this struggle weighing on me like an albatross,
I’ m lost, falling, unraveling,
traveling, my mind seeking rest.
My heart questions my intentions,
making no mention, I suffer.
Earnest in the city and Jack in the country,
Man Oscar, that’ s Wilde.
It brings veterans and military families together with the rest of the community.
How did you find out about service dogs?
After I started back to school, one semester I got four Fs and one B . . . The Marine Corps instilled in me not only the drive to succeed, but also the drive to avoid being helped. You know what I mean? Asking for help, or even thinking about asking for help, is failure. I would always say, “I’m just going to finish it. I need to talk to my professor. I’ll try to catch up, catch up, catch up.” Though I was in my classes almost every day, I wasn’t completing the work. I didn’t go to two finals. And then it was too late to withdraw, so I got four Fs, and I went on academic probation. I talked to a dean of undergraduate admissions, who agreed to drop that semester.
I couldn’t understand what was going on with me. “Why am I dealing with all this stuff?” I knew it wasn’t medication. I hadn’t taken medication in a long time. I had a bad experience with Lorazepam a long time before. My left eyebrow was falling off, and hair was falling off my head. I wasn’t big on medication, anyway, so I just stopped taking that.
And I’ve started taking medication again that a guy at the VA suggested, because I’m going through more funks. Starting maybe a year or two ago, but more so lately, I’ll get dressed but I can’t leave the house. I don’t want to leave the house.
I’m trying to understand that part of me. About a year ago, I thought about getting a dog. I started looking into programs, seeing what was out there.
After I had knee surgery, I started working in the mornings. Some mornings I didn’t want to get up. I couldn’t be around certain noises. Like, someone slamming something near me would mess my day up. I started noticing things at Trader Joe’s: It was too busy. If I looked up at the line of people, it was overwhelming. I got really introverted. I changed my work times. I would only work certain hours. They were totally awesome with me, but I can see where I wasn’t the best for Trader Joe’s.
I don’t know how I came upon Operation Freedom Paws, but I started reading the testimonials, and I saw how there are so many different kinds of dogs. I thought, “That looks awesome. Maybe that’s the place for me.” So I came down and applied, and Mary Cortani interviewed me on March 5, 2016. Everything sounded good.
She asked me different questions. One was, “What am I not being constructive at?” I started explaining how I couldn’t be consistent at school and how I didn’t want to be around people sometimes. There are issues that I need to address. Mary told somebody to get “dog 7” or “dog 17.” Then she gave me a leash and a little snack bag. There was a knock at the door, and Mary said, “This is Samson.”
I would come visit Samson almost every day just to get to know him outside of class.
Did you feel a connection?
Yeah. I would write about everything we did that day in my journal. As soon as Samson came in, he walked right up to me. That was comforting, even though the experience was scary like anything else that you don’t want to do. Mary showed me a couple of commands, and Samson and I jumped right into class. You don’t ever want to be that guy that’s not doing stuff.
You were the new guy, but you were already learning something.
It was a good place to be and just know that you’re not always successful every day. It’s not a bad thing to look for help. I don’t know what drives me to feel like I can’t ask for help—if it’s my family history or wrestling, sports, or my history in the Marine Corps.
I’m starting to understand more about myself than probably ever before. For instance, my mom’s been in my life forever, obviously. She and my stepfather divorced about nine or ten years ago. I still live with him—we share a house. My stepfather’s my real dad.
It’s a different way of loving, reflecting on my life now, and how I see myself with my kids. I didn’t ever want or need a father figure, because I had one. But I didn’t have “my own” father. My stepfather supported me, loved me, provided for me. But I see now, reflecting, maybe that caused me to feel a little different about who I am and how I am because I didn’t have the feeling of having my own biological dad.
I know I’d like to call someone Dad. I’m never going to get that chance. That’s something I think about. Has that shaped my life? Is that where everything started for me? I think it affects my relationship with my kids, because I tell them I love them maybe more than they want to hear. We’re really close. And a lot of people, if they didn’t know my kids had different moms, they wouldn’t know. It’s definitely made me different, my father leaving us. I love my kids, and that’s not something that I ever learned from a parent. My stepfather was very strict, not a loving or cuddly guy, even with my sister, his own daughter. Loving is something I learned from life.
You’re usually a reflection of your upbringing. If I lived in a broken family, a rough family, I’m going to reflect these things back on my kids. That’s not their fault. I always ask myself, “Why am I me? What has shaped me to be who I am?” I love being a father. To me that’s the best thing.
How long have you had Samson now?
It’s almost eight months.
Are you with him 24/7?
We’re together most of the time. It was hard to get used to at first. Honestly, there were times when I wanted to speak with Mary about whether this is the best thing for me right now. It’s not like I didn’t see the good things that were happening with him, but sometimes I told my daughter, “I might have to see if we need to take him back.” But I love him, and he’s doing things for me and helping me cope with my days. I’d miss that. Even when I had to leave him here for the Sharks game recently, it was totally lonely without him.
We turned a corner a month ago. Sometimes I had to ask myself, “Is it me that’s making this happen? Am I not letting him work for me?” It’s very new to me. That’s why it’s important for me to come to OFP consistently so I can see everyone else and understand things better.
Samson’s totally awesome everywhere. He gets so much praise for his behavior. The issue is not really about us. I’m just a veteran dealing with a lot of things in my life. But through this whole process, he’s giving me time to just breathe and not get so caught up in doing the things I have to do. My days are too full.
When my son was here last year, I’d spend an hour and a half every morning taking him to Sunnyvale and then to South San Jose and back home. It was all wake up, get up, go to the gym, go to school, pick up the kid, and maybe eat. And I was teaching the kids at church. I had so much piled on. I don’t sleep well at night. But with Samson there are parts of the day when we just hang out and watch TV. Or we’ll just lie down in the room, just relaxing. He’s there for me. I have good days and bad days. Some days I know I’m not going to get everything done. Samson helps me understand that I don’t have to carry this load all day.
He can take care of you.
He can. Samson helps me decompress. I talk to him a lot too. When I’m at the store, buying cereal, I ask him, “What should we get today? What do you think? Maybe some Fruit Loops?” People in the aisle are like, “Is this guy talkin’ to a dog?” Having Samson gives me a chance to love someone every day. It’s easy to get lost in aloneness but now, I’m not alone. I’m never alone, you know.
We can just hang out, even it it’s just enjoying ten or fifteen minutes of quietness at home. Or I’ll go early to my daughter’s school, and Samson and I will just hang out in the parking lot. It’s good to have that, especially when I think that, in a couple of years, my daughter will be gone. I think, “Man, I’m going to be by myself pretty soon.” It’s good to have Samson.
I’ve learned that when I’m taking in so much, visually and audibly—school, two classes and a parent meeting, and then my son’s football game—I’m totally done with processing anything by the end of the day. Sometimes, I’d go home and just lie down on my bed for a minute’s rest—and then I’d wake up at midnight feeling so out of it.
Deep in conversation with Samson.
Photograph by Vicki Topaz
Being with Samson’s given me a chance to understand that I shouldn’t lock myself in the house. It feels good to see people, even people I don’t know, like at the gym the other day, where Samson’s usually with me. People I just know casually are concerned for me. For instance, they’ll ask, “Where’s your dog at?” when I don’t bring Samson with me. I’m connecting with the community, understanding people. But sometimes people say things like, “I don’t like dogs.” They might not have good memories of specific dogs, so they think they don’t like dogs in general.
For instance, I was very frustrated the first time we went to my daughter’s doctor. The nurse came in and said, “The doctor is really scared of dogs. She’s asked if you and the dog could wait outside.” I was confused and frustrated. “I don’t want to go outside. I need to be in here to talk with my daughter.” But I ended up taking Samson outside. The whole time I was out there I was so angry.
The next time we went to the doctor, I was asking myself, “What am I going to do? Is it going to be an issue? I don’t want to be upset. I don’t want to see my daughter upset, and I don’t want Samson to get upset.” So I told the receptionist, “The last time we came, the doctor had an issue with my dog. But he has a right to be in here.” Ultimately, if the doctor doesn’t like dogs, that’s her issue, not mine. She’s a professional in the workplace. When the doctor came in, it was cool. Samson was under my legs. She said, “He looks like a super-awesome dog.” So the next time we go to the doctor, Samson won’t be an issue, and I won’t get so tense.
Samson’s so quiet. Sometimes we’ll be driving around at night, and he’s a black dog obviously, and I’m like, “Where’s the dog?” He’s sitting on the floor. I forget he’s there sometimes, he’s so quiet.
I noticed that Samson has a Purple Heart pin on his vest.
As I said, my accident was on September 5, 2008, when I drove over the IED. As far as receiving the Purple Heart, it was very up and down, and sometimes it still is. Receiving it was something I wanted for my family for them to enjoy. I was trying to get the two people who were in charge of us in Iraq, First Sergeant Carter and Captain Hines, who knew me, and all of us, to present the Purple Heart. But they were in Lathrop at their old duty station. They wanted to be here and we tried. Too much time had passed, though. Finally, it was awarded to me by a captain who didn’t know me. It was a disappointment because this was a chance for my family, my kids to really understand my Marine Corps life through the stories of those I served with. But I also had trouble feeling deserving of certain accolades. I would always feel I was less than someone else because I had seen people worse off than me. I’m still trying to digest it.
Tell me about your tattoos?
I had a couple when I joined the Marine Corps, but I got most of them after joining. They give me a feeling of excitement, of that rush that I don’t have in my life anymore since my military experience.
You mean the process of having them put on?
Yeah. The process of getting tattoos. It’s the adrenalin. Maybe if I bungee-jumped I wouldn’t have tattoos. Maybe if I had somewhere to put that energy . . .
Do you have a tattoo on the leg that was injured?
Yeah, I do. When I was at Wounded Warrior Battalion East, I saw a cool little plaque that somebody gave them. I liked the words on it, and I wrote them down on my phone. I have them tattooed next to my scar: “Often tested, always faithful, brothers forever.”
Tell me about your church.
I’ve been going there for a long time. I remember taking my son when he was in a car seat.
There were times when I wasn’t as involved as maybe I should have been. When I came home from Iraq, for instance, the only things that would make me feel better would be working out a lot or drinking with my buddies. I’d numb the pain, and the next morning I’d wake up feeling a thousand times worse. When I wasn’t with my kids, I could easily spend five or six days going to work and then going out with my buddies at night. I was doing stuff that I shouldn’t have. I began to understand some things through reading books by veterans. I recently read a book called What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes that someone at San Jose State recommended.
Marlantes talks about his “empty coupling” when he came home. There were times when I was trying to find happiness in relationships or dating people that I maybe shouldn’t have. I’m afraid my behavior affected people around me. I tell my kids I can never get that time back ever. All I can do is try to become better. I never drank at home in front of my kids, but I drank socially.
I stopped drinking in 2013 and people would ask me, “Why, do you have a problem?” But that wasn’t why I stopped. One day at Trader Joe’s, we were doing a wine tasting for employees. I had a couple of glasses and then I said, “I don’t want to drink anymore.” That was the end of it. I wasn’t the best person when I was drinking. And drinking was not going to help me be the best dad or a productive human being.
I started working more with the men’s group at church and then eventually with kids. Now the position I hold is like a director of youth ministries. But I’m not a youth pastor. I hope I will be eventually. I teach Sundays and Wednesdays. I put together a curriculum. I’ve preached at our church twice in the past year. It is a really good opportunity to share my experiences. I always rely heavily on my Marine Corps experiences. I try to mix in my experiences with writing and things like that.
Everyone has failures. What’s important is what you do with those failures. Are you trying to remedy them? I look at it that way.
I’ve spoken at Gunderson High School the past couple of years. I spoke at my son’s high school when his eleventh-grade class read The Things They Carried. I shared my personal experiences. It just blows me away to see how people are affected.
A buddy from school has been teaching US History at Gunderson for fifteen years. He asked me to come share my personal experiences with his classes. Just sharing about my life, my experiences, writing, how it’s helped me. Last year after class, some kids came up and said, “Thank you. We appreciated this.” One girl was crying. Her dad is a veteran. She often wonders why things happen the way they do at home. Things I shared helped her understand why. It helped her see a different view.
It’s awesome to help build communities and to understand people better. Sometimes veterans are seen in a negative light. But there’s a lot of positivity and experience and wisdom in most of these men. Their experiences need to be understood and recorded and cherished. I have a lot of respect for these men.
Interacting with local children along the base perimeter, West Camp Habbaniyah.
We’ve gotten too far apart.
That’s why I like it when people come and visit and meet the Vets and see people like Mary putting effort into helping with community building.
Are there any suggestions you’d offer to young men and women who are thinking of joining the military?
I get asked that a lot, along with, Have you ever killed anyone?
In classes, some kids do. I just brush it off. They’ll ask what I would say if my own kids wanted to join. I’ve learned a lot of good things from the military. My stance is if someone doesn’t have an idea of what they want to do with their life instead of just spending a couple years messing around doing whatever, they can provide themselves with the opportunity to learn something, to travel, to have an income, to bring stability to their family.
There’s something more: the camaraderie of it, the brotherhood. Any Marine you see anywhere, they’ll talk to you. There’s always that closeness instantly, no question. This is your brother, your friend. Once you’re out of the service, they help you understand what you’re a part of after you’re back in the civilian population, even when you’re overwhelmed by civilian-ness. If you make a connection with someone at the mall or someone at the store, the feeling of being overwhelmed de-escalates. It feels good because my brother’s in line with me at the bank. You know what I mean? I think it’s very strengthening and pride building.
As for joining the military, some people will always be against it. But for me, when people ask me why I joined, I say, “If I don’t join, who will?” I’m not going to discourage anyone from joining.
But you need to think carefully about why you’re joining and what the military is about. It isn’t really about getting $30,000 up front. It isn’t about the pay or the benefits, believe me. Ultimately, it’s about what we are responsible for. You forget during peacetime that what we basically exist for is wartime. It’s hard for many people to face that, especially when the war’s very disconnected. You can be here and firing a weapon in the Middle East from a computer. You’re not face to face with war. And then you watch the old World War II movies where people had a life span of ten seconds. I respect people who did that. Most of us don’t see anything like that, except for a small group of elite forces.
The experience of war seems very different now, doesn’t it?
During a war now, you have instant access to your family just hours, even minutes, after a firefight possibly. Because of technology, it’s very different.
It’s good because you can let someone know you’re alive. It’s bad because the world at home and the world of war become mixed together. It’s hard to separate the worlds when the connection’s so instantaneous. You’re going into war with the thought of being home. These worlds collide a lot faster than they should.
I’ve been an hour removed from a patrol in a pretty hostile place, and then back at base I’d drop my pack and go to the call center to talk with my mom, my dad, and my kids. I had to mask my emotions to speak to them. I couldn’t tell them what I had just dealt with. Your adrenal glands, everything is going on in you, and you’re still processing events yourself.
But then you come home and mask or hide these feelings and deal with them in the wrong way. I would rather have the separation—with maybe six months of transition afterward to deal with the stress. Always going back and forth between two worlds means you’re still at war when you come home.
One of the psychologists at San Jose State teaches a class that’s strictly about veterans. She has speakers come in and talk about real-life things. I learned that in World War I, World War II, and even in Vietnam, it took a while for the troops to come home because they were transported on boats. They had that time on the ship to decompress.
Coming out of combat, we need to decompress as a unit and deal with this stuff together. Of course, you want to see your family, but there needs to be a transition period that also involves the family. And you can’t deal with things just as an individual—it has to be a group effort.
What do you think about bringing back the draft?
I think that’s a good idea. In other countries, people spend a year or two as part of their national service.
Some feel that’s why the civilians and the military have become so disconnected—there is no draft.
There’s no sense of belonging or community. You don’t feel like you’re invested in the country, so you leave it to people like me to go into the military. Most people aren’t aware of the privileges they have. You can’t separate things so much. To me, it seems like patriotism exists only in an emergency and then it just fades away.
Do you think veterans in general are getting what they need?
A bunch of veterans aren’t getting the services they need. My own experience at the VA has been OK. When I first started in 2012, there was a long wait for appointments, a long time for someone to call me back, but now it’s more efficient. But some people fall in the cracks. Getting them what they need should be a priority.
One example: I had lunch with an Army veteran at our church two weeks ago. One of the other guys at the table started asking me questions about my work, my disability. And the Army Vet was asking me, “What do you mean? How does it work?” The other guy at the table was saying, “Yeah, so-and-so has 100 percent disability, as well. And he never set foot in the country—he was on a ship the whole time.” So I gave the Army Vet some phone numbers at the San Jose VA. Sometimes you don’t know what’s available. There isn’t a transition process. Once the military is done with you, they’re done with you. There needs to be a more efficient transition period, definitely.