Stories of Our Heroes
Kelse Mcclure, United States Marine Corps, 5 deployments
I guess I should start with what brought me to Strength in Support in the first place. I found this program on accident while searching for therapy options. I had been out of the military for almost a year and was running out of options as far as “figuring it out on my own.” I was medicating through alcohol and marijuana and having severe anger and withdrawal issues that were destroying my marriage and other personal relationships. I was having a very hard time with my transition from military to civilian life. I no longer had an outlet as far as training or the fast paced military environment. I felt like I was constantly being forced to interact with other civilians from a completely different background and very little understanding of where I came from. I was going more into my own element and lashing out at my wife and those who tried to help correct my path. I was very reluctant to seek out any assistance and had never been a fan of putting myself in a vulnerable position and talking to another human being about my issues. Again, I was always the “fix it yourself “ guy and felt I was only burdening others by sharing my traumas and emotions with others. I knew I had to find something though because my way was not working. I was on the edge of losing my marriage and falling into a deeper cycle of depression and failure than I already was in.
My issues are the same as most combat veterans when it comes to adjusting back to civilian life. The sense of duty and responsibility that I used to have are gone. The constant fast paced environment is gone, leaving me bored. I have taken lives and lost friends and never had the time to really think about it in a normal setting. I was always surrounded by like minded individuals that had similar experiences and we kept each other in check. That support was now gone and I only had, what seemed to me, a non-caring and judging audience. I started to drink more on a daily basis to help put a buffer on the pain. However, the drinking only made the memories of my combat experience as well as a previous sexual trauma, not military related, deeper and more real. I started to disconnect from family. I was angry and verbally abusive towards my wife. On the inside I knew that I was wrong. I was stronger than I was acting and knew it was my responsibility to take control of my emotions and pain. I was angry that people could judge me not knowing who I was or what I had experienced. I was angry at my wife for asking me to leave the military and put myself in this environment. I was angry that people were angry at me for drinking and acting like an idiot. They just didn’t understand me or know what was happening. I would drink and I cut everyone off until I was alone. My wife made a simple request that if I did not look into getting myself help I would lose her as well. That’s why I started looking into counseling and therapy. My wife has stood by me through five combat deployments as well as my post military downslide into this depressed alcoholic shadow of a husband. I felt like I owed her the effort.
I found Strength in Support after seeing three other therapists and never making it past the initial session. I feel the approach to my situation was different and more tailored towards military and vet backgrounds. Strength In Support doesn’t offer the blanketed, “It will be ok,” and “It’s not your fault” therapy I felt at my previous therapy encounters. Over the last 18 months I have worked with Strength in Support therapists. This program has assisted me in connecting with other combat vets in the corporate environment. I’ve been given support and a chance to see that we are all having the same challenges and we all have a different way to overcome these challenges. Through my therapy sessions I have been able to develop tools and skills to create other more healthy outlets than alcohol and anger. I have found little bits of peace through meditation and exercise to keep me in a calmer more relaxed frame of mind. I was introduced into AA and have been attending several meetings as well as searching for a sponsor to keep me on a sober path. I have found the therapy helpful and a safe place to discuss my issues with lives I have taken, friends I have lost, and some very terrible situations I have been in. This is a major improvement in my life because only a year ago, I felt alone and certain I would never overcome these experiences. I was living them every day in my dreams, workplace, and at home. With therapy from Strength in Support, I have been able to talk and discuss these situations and come to an understanding within myself. I am still not perfect. I still have difficult moments but I am dramatically more functional as a human being. I have been able to develop a form of normalcy in my life again. I know that I will continue to use therapy and the tools I have been shown to grow back into the husband, son, brother, and friend I used to be.
United States Marine Corps
Sgt 90- 05
The SIS golf workshops have added surprising benefits in several aspects of my life; fellowship with my fellow veterans, learning to to work through my injuries and control my body, and — the most beneficial aspect of the program — peace of mind, trying to remember all the things necessary for a great swing then emptying it, prior to impact for that perfect swing. The brief moment in time of the swing is so crucial that like life to over think it will cause us to miss. Speaking for myself, my mind since my return has been split between the mundane existence of daily life and my idealized memories of my Friends and the war. On the green, I look down at that white ball, and think of only what I need to do to hit it squarely. Whap, look up and see it flying through the air and hear my fellow veterans in the background cheering me on. That is a great moment, one focused thought, accomplishing the immediate mission at hand, having fun. Thank you SIS.
Crystal Perez, United States Army
From 2003 to 2006, Crystal Perez served as a mechanic in the Army. She was always the only female in her platoon.
Crystal was deployed to Iraq in 2004 to 2005 as part of a recovery team that was on call for 24 hours every other day. Her platoon would spend most of the time on the road recovering vehicles that were broken down. Crystal was injured when their vehicle was hit by an IED. She was the Gunner.
That one day of Crystal’s three-year service affected her more profoundly than any other day in her life. She has since been diagnosed with severe PTSD although she still functions and works. Crystal says, “Some days I have to go and sit in my car because I feel out of control of my own emotions. And there are a few days each month where I am just completely emotionally unstable for reasons I can’t explain.” After leaving the military, Crystal spent nearly a decade dealing with random and erratic emotions. She experienced social anxiety and difficulty sticking to a conversation from beginning to end. Relationships weren’t any easier to navigate as Crystal admitted, “Close personal relationships and friendships are difficult. I have no patience and often lash out.” The difficulties of living with severe PTSD make the most mundane daily tasks a challenge. Crystal realized she needed some sort of outside help. She tried treatment at the VA but found it difficult to follow their treatment style and really received nothing to effectively deal with her issues other than medication. You can only put a band-aid on a gushing wound for so long. Crystal had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized in October 2014 for five days. Luckily, a friend told Crystal about Strength in Support and Crystal decided to reach out a few days after she was discharged from the hospital Crystal soon became acquainted with one of Strength In Support’s therapists, Connie.
Crystal now believes that asking for help is a sign of courage not a sign of weakness and she has benefited greatly from taking that first step, “In the short amount of time I have been working with Connie, my SIS therapist, I have gained so much. I’ve learned not to be so hard on myself, like the Army trains you to be. I’ve learned that having someone to sit with and be real and transparent with is not only incredibly helpful but necessary for someone trying to survive PTSD.” In talking about the benefits of therapy with Strength In Support, Crystal says, “Therapy has taught me to feel, which happens FIRST by giving myself permission to feel. It’s still a struggle but I am taking back control of my life and my feelings. Each day I’m one step closer.”
Rory Self, Veteran
“So the way I see it, as I believe many veterans do… I do not like handouts because I do not need pity. I do not like hand-ups because what I have become is not less than what I was. What I do want is an alliance; an alliance between civilians and America’s military personnel. We have a world to offer, and that is no stretch of the imagination.”
“Thank you Strength in Support for an alliance such as this. You have not pitied us, nor have you degraded us, rather you have joined us in our journey of understanding.”
Rory Self is from a small town in Minnesota and enlisted in the Marine Corps in June 2005 at the age of 18. He wanted to “expand his realm” and knew that if he stayed where he was, he would be restricted in life. That decision brought him from Staples, Minnesota to the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, California in January 2006 for boot camp.
When he arrived on the base he followed his fellow recruits. “We all stood on the yellow footprints which formed us into rectangular-shaped formation. Once we were in the formation we together took the Marine Corps oath”. While Rory told me his story, my mind pictured the young men and women who, like Rory, had stepped into a commitment to protect Americans. I began to ask myself, what lay before them? What path did their journeys take them on? The indoctrination into the Marine Corps is a stripping of your individuality. “They tear you down, to build you up.” What a pivotal moment in this young man’s life.
Rory survived boot camp and began serving his five-year term of service at MCAS Miramar. He worked on CH46 helicopters as a mechanic. He liked the work and was confident in the skills he learned. During his term of enlistment in the Marine Corps, Rory deployed on a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). He traveled the world; serving time in the Middle East, Singapore, Australia, and Tasmania going wherever duty called and the ship moved. While on the navel ship the quarters were tight. He had 299 roommates, zero privacy and was always on call. Towards the end of his deployment Rory developed a tic in his lower and upper extremities (2008).
When Rory’s term ended, he decided to pursue a college education through the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill that exists to educate our veterans. Life seemed manageable for Rory. Then, one year after his term ended his anxiety and stress continued to get worse and crept more and more into his daily life. In 2012, he started to have nightmares every night for nine months straight. He continued on with his education trying to re-acclimate to a civilian world.
As Rory told me his story, it made me think about how he as a Marine, kept everything bottled up. There is no complaining in the Marine Corps. There is no feeling pity or sorry for yourself. There is duty first, 24-hours a day, for five years straight (in Rory’s case). Does that mentality take an individual to such a place that a year after their service ends, the trauma sets in? The answer is undoubtedly, YES. The affects and time delay differ, but trauma is still very much real.
Rory, now 27, is doing well. He has found coping mechanisms like golfing with Strength in Support and other exercise to combat anxiety and stress. He founded One-Step Mentoring at Vanguard University and mentors other veterans. Some veterans just need someone to talk with and maybe that means coffee every other week. Others may need guidance selecting their college courses and staying on track. The program is about friendship and camaraderie, in whatever form that takes.
These are a few things I learned about Rory during our talk. Rory would not change his decision to enlist in the Marine Corps. The more time passes, the more proud he is of his service. He came out of the Marine Corps a more respectful person and is grateful he didn’t come out hardened. As a result of his experiences Rory does not tolerate pettiness. He is working towards a career dedicated to helping people, and lives every day with a PMA – Positive Mental Attitude.
Brandon Melvin, United States Marine, came to Strength In Support through a fellowship with The Mission Continues
Although Brandon’s dad served in the Air Force he never thought about enlisting. His best friend’s dad was in the Marines and a Vietnam Veteran and Brandon went with his friend to the recruiting office to help him enlist. When they left the office, it was Brandon and not his friend that enlisted. Brandon thought the opportunity for travel was exciting and while all four branches of the military were represented, he really connected with the recruiter from the Marine Corp.
Brandon was assigned to Parris Island, South Carolina for thirteen weeks of bootcamp. Bootcamp was fast and furious with no time to think. Brandon’s mentality and intelligence made him an ideal Assaultman. His job was to work demolition with rocket launchers and create different charges to blast past any kind of barrier.
His first unit was Fast Company, an Anti Terrorism Security Team. And his first deployment was to Baghdad, Iraq. Brandon was back in the United States for three months when he was re- deployed to Bahrain. That deployment included service in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Brandon explains their job in Riyadh, “We reinforced the embassy because Saudis were fighting local terrorists and we provided extra protection.”
From there, Brandon went to Djbouti, Africa. His unit was often deployed to other “hot places,” needing aid. The time in Africa was dual purpose. Brandon trained as well as served the needs of refugees caught in the crossfire of the Genocide Mission in the Sudan.
After that deployment, Brandon found himself on United States soil for six months at Camp Lejeune. He was assigned to a new unit, an Infantry Battalion called 22. Brandon’s third deployment with 22 was his most brutal. From the moment he set foot in Karmag, Iraq, he was counting the days until he could once again go home. It was seven long months of the most brutal conditions Brandon encountered as a Marine. There was fighting every day. Their unit was mortared every day. Every time they drove down the road, there was the nagging fear of taking a flying IED. There were a tremendous amount of casualties, injuries and deaths; the most of any of his deployments. Brandon says it felt like, “We kicked open a hornet’s nest.”
To be placed in these circumstances day after day wears on the human spirit. Brandon says, “You get to a point where you experience so much trauma and tragedy, you start to not care. You change as a person. Personalities change because you have to adapt to such dark circumstances. You can only handle so much as a human being.” Brandon also talked about the stress of being there to serve a purpose and help people that don’t all want help, “You want to help out the Iraqi’s but some aren’t that receptive. Some Iraqis want you there and want your help and some don’t. People want to help and provide information but they are scared. We had to arrest people that wanted to help in order to talk to them. Sometimes, though it didn’t work and those people who were trying to help were killed. One man had his face ripped off in front of me.” After seven long months, Brandon finally made it home. He spent the next three years on home soil spending part of that time working at Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia.
Brandon’s fourth and final deployment was to Nawa, Afghanistan in July 2009. This deployment brought with the harshest living conditions of any other deployment. But the work was meaningful as his unit was responsible for clearing out a shadow government established by the Taliban. Brandon describes the time spent in Nawa by saying, “We really made a difference in this place. The people were upfront about giving information. We conducted small but crucial projects like building bridges, restoring the area and creating work programs that allowed locals to start working and re-building their city. People cried when we left. It felt good to see the difference we made.”
After Brandon’s fourth deployment, he wanted to start a new chapter in his life. On Brandon’s discharge from the Marine Corp after a decade of serving his country, he decided to focus on Psychology. He utilized the GI Bill to attend Chapman University and Vocational Rehab which focuses on getting veterans aligned with jobs. Brandon’s end goal is to become an Occupational Therapist for anyone suffering from traumatic injuries. He wants to make their day just a little bit brighter and their pain just a little bit less.
Brandon doesn’t regret his time in the Marine Corp, despite what he’s undergone. He went back to his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio not too long ago and hit a local bar where he saw a friend from high school. Talking to his friend reaffirmed that his life was on the right path and the decisions he’s made have been the right ones for him. His Marine Corp experiences, while harsh, broadened his horizons and opened his eyes to a life he wouldn’t have experienced without his military service!
Breanna Stanley, United States Navy
I arrived for basic training in Great Lakes, Illinois on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 2009. Basic training began in the harsh winter of December and lasted until February 2010. Immediately after basic training was finished, I was sent to Parachute Rigging (PR) school in Pensacola, Florida and from there reported to Jacksonville, Florida for two years. I finished out my term with the Navy in Point Mugu, California. My time in the Navy taught me so much about life and more importantly, so many things about myself. I entered the Navy feeling unconfident and unsure about myself with hopes of making a better life. I left the Navy a strong and sure-footed woman with new life and career skills and a positive outlook on what was to come for me. ! On November 7, 2013 I returned home to Anaheim, California and found that I had changed much more than my environment. During this initial time at home, I re-acclimated to civilian life and pondered the possibilities for my future. A really good friend of mine motivated me to enroll at Santa Ana College and even purchased my books to get me started. I was on my way to a college education. Toward the end of my first semester I began working at Santa Ana College’s Veterans Resource Center (VRC). After working at the VRC for a year, a fellow veteran who also worked on campus, told me about an organization called The Mission Continues. Their mission statement is “The Mission Continues empowers veterans adjusting to life at home to find purpose through community impact. We redeploy veterans on new missions in their communities, so that their actions will inspire future generations to serve.” Although it sounded wonderful, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I ended up applying to be a fellow in the program. I was honored to be selected for a fellowship and flew to Chicago for my orientation. My work at The Mission Continues exceeded my expectations for many reasons. The staff knows how to work effectively, how to work hard, and also how to have fun. The formation of this non-profit group shows inspiration, dedication, intelligence, empathy and thoughtfulness. Additionally, while the purpose of The Mission Continues is to give back to veterans, the true reward is gained by veterans such as myself, who are able to passionately serve others once again. ! I am indebted to The Mission Continues which led me to serve my fellowship at Strength in Support (SIS). Before I started my fellowship at SIS, I utilized their services. SIS provides confidential counseling, educational and recreational workshops, mentorships, and more to veterans and their families. I have put all of their services to the test before my fellowship and during my fellowship. SIS provides a warm and welcoming presence with actionable steps for improvement from the beginning to the end of treatment. Personally, I have benefitted from Strength In Support’s confidential counseling which has helped me tremendously in my personal life. I have witnessed my fellow veterans use SIS for confidential counseling in hopes of healing their wounds and also making real progress in their lives. My fellow veterans and I have found a real comaraderie and understanding of each other by attending and participating in both recreational & educational workshops that are part of the Strength In Support mission. From my first encounter seeking treatment with SIS, I had a positive and healing experience, and now I love being a fellow at SIS and helping others the way I was helped. Sometimes the first step is the hardest, but I would recommend Strength In Support to any veteran or veteran family member in need of healing and assistance.
Matthew Hoeffner, US Navy Vet
Prior to joining the Navy I found myself struggling in school, and trying to find a proper direction in my life. This struggle led to me having to go to a Continuation High School for a semester before being caught up enough to go back to my original school to graduate. While I was at the Continuation School I realized that at that time college was not for me, so I decided to talk to my parents about entering the military. Understandably my parents were apprehensive of my decision, so my mom said that the only way she would sign my DEP paperwork, since I was 17 was that I had to get on the honor roll my om saw that I was last year in school. So that is exactly what I did at the while attending Hare Continuation High School, and at Garden Grove High School the following semester. Once my going to achieve that goal while I was at Hare she signed my DEP paperwork, and allowed me to join the Navy as a Cryptologic Technician.
Once I arrived in Illinois for Bootcamp I was in for a high paced 10 week period, where I was so busy I did not have time to focus on anything, but simply making it through. After Bootcamp I went to Corry Station in Pensacola, Florida for Cryptologic Technician Collections (CTR) A School. My first, and second duty station was at the Naval Information Operations Command in Kunia, Hawaii. While working at this command at first I dealt with some struggles on the job that led to me going to a Captains Mast, but after that period of time in which I was placed on restriction for 45 days I transformed into a sort of super sailor. FYI restriction is kind of like being in jail. With this change I pushed hard and became a subject matter expert on my particular job.
After my initial 4 years was up I decided that sitting on shore was simply not enough for me, so I made the decision to go to sea. At first I had orders to Japan, but those were cancelled, and I was assigned to my original command, but on a Direct Support Billet. This means that I could be deployed at a moments notice, and had to always keep my Seabag packed and ready. During this 3 year period I deployed 3 different times for a total 15 month at sea. But in all honesty it was my first deployment that was the toughest. I was onboard the USS Peleliu, and we deployed to patrol the Persian Gulf and perform Naval combat operations, while dropping off nearly 2000 Marines for training in Kuwait and Jordan. The tough part of this deployment was not combat, but was being away from everybody that I loved, and dealing with the death of a coworker and friend on the ship. As we were heading through the Indian Ocean one of our sailors collapsed after dealing with extreme heat, temperatures outside our tin box were 120 degrees, so imagine the temps inside, and passed away from a brain aneurism. Add onto that at the end of the deployment I was sent home by my command so that I could be with my Dad when he went through his open heart surgery.
So with all that happening and the following deployments leaving me with very little time at home I decided that I needed to take a different path in life. So that path started with going back home, getting reengaged in family life, and going to college. So I started my path to success at Santa Ana College where I attained my AA in two years, and transferred to the University of California, Irvine. While at Irvine I got connected with Alpha Psi Omega, which is the Veterans Professional Fraternity on campus, and with that I gained leadership experience and support. It was this group that pushed me to get work with the Veterans Center on campus, and to become the Veterans Liaison for the Student Government. While working in this capacity I came to the realization that this was a group that I wanted to represent in some manner, and help continuously in my life. So as my time came to graduate I decided to become a Mission Continues Fellow, and that led me to the opportunity to work with Strength in Support.
While at Strength in Support I really gained a huge understanding of the struggle that Veterans are going through. I read that there are 22 Veterans a Day dying from suicide, but I didn’t truly understand the significance of that number until my time at Strength in Support. I now realize through my service that I can have an impact on that number. Being able to work with the Veteran clients I have developed a real sense of comaraderie, and connection with the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen that use their services. Now I must admit the reason I chose Strength in Support was because of a chance meeting with them at an American Legion meeting that I was attending, where they presented information on their services, but these things happen for a reason. That meeting and my Mission Continues Fellowship have afforded me the opportunity to become forever connected to their organization, and forever indebted to them for the great opportunity to grow as person and as a servant.