Everything is Fine
“Get on line!!!” screamed the drill instructor, face red, veins bulging out of his thick neck.
“Listen up, recruits. No matter how terrible things are here or down range, you are to tell your parents that everything is fine!!! Say it calmly and convincingly - say it like you mean it! Mom and Dad, Suzy, Johnny, or whomever doesn’t need to know you watched your best friend and fellow Marine get killed. They don’t need to know that you took fire. All everyone needs to know is you’re getting fed and everything is fine, understand?”
A resounding, “Yes sir!!!!” erupted from the platoon of fresh-faced recruits, myself among them. We would later find out that a fellow recruit had written home, telling his parents we were being starved and beaten. That didn’t turn out well for us.
Going on, this same thick-necked drill instructor reminded us we had volunteered to be there, that we needed to earn the privilege of wearing his uniform and claiming his title of US Marine. I, like all the other recruits, took the drill instructor’s advice to heart. I became an expert at hiding my emotions, telling everyone--my family, friends, co-workers--that everything was fine, even when it wasn’t.
Especially when it wasn’t.
All Is Quiet
Within a year of graduating our basic training my fellow Marines and I found ourselves deployed to Fallujah, Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. We were ‘politely entering houses’ and ‘gently clearing neighborhoods’ so the city would again be safe. At least that’s what I told my family when I called home. It was a lie.
Fallujah was infested with hardened extremists and we were wreaking havoc upon them and the city. Just a few days earlier I witnessed what a Lockheed AC-130 Spectre gunship was capable of doing to a human body. Its awesomely powerful guns chewed through the sinew and viscera of a human body in the most gruesome way imaginable.
We weren’t politely entering homes or gently clearing neighborhoods. We were blowing doors off their hinges with the charges our assaultmen were so adept at creating. ‘Gently clearing neighborhoods’ was a nice euphemism for showering insurgents with bullets, shooting them at such close range that could hear their last shallow and hurried breath as they yearned for death.
Yet, to my parents, I was fine.
Like the red-faced drill instructor had taught us during training at Camp Pendleton, California, I felt the best way to keep the peace was to keep things quiet. As my career progressed, I kept hearing little phrases like, ‘no news is good news,’ and, ‘Ma and Pa on the farm don’t need to know.’ It was advice I genuinely took to heart. The not-so-subtle implication is that sometimes, the truth is simply too much for others to bear.
The boredom of war is oppressive. For long stretches we would occupy our time by working out, reading the same magazines repeatedly, and trying different types of chewing tobacco. Then unexpectedly, a fight, a bombing, or some sort of kinetic experience would shatter the silence and jerk us back to the reality that we really were at war. And just as quickly as those moments jolted us out of our collective boredom, they would fade away, locking themselves away into our long term memory.
Everything Isn’t Fine
We the ‘initiated’ can always tell if someone has ‘been there’ or ‘done that’. We can also tell if our brother or sister is in a bad way. Most times we see it in their faces; concealed behind their smiles and laughter lies a darkness and anger that only another veteran can understand.
I’ve been home from war for nearly ten years. If you asked me a few years ago how I was doing, I would have told you that everything was fine. However, it was painfully clear for those closest to me, those who know the darkness and anger behind my smile, that my facade was crumbling.
And one such person called me on it a few months ago.
Recently I was talking with a good friend of mine about how we have changed so much since we were kids in high school. He laughed and agreed, and then he called me on my bullshit.
He said, “Seth, this has been kind of worrying me over the years. I was telling my wife about how we used to goof off and do all sorts of silly things. Now man, you are the angriest person I know. Nothing is good in your life, ‘you hate this’, ‘you hate that’…what’s going on with you?“
Like a good Marine I replied with a confident “Everything is fine.”
He pressed on. And I kept denying it. I didn’t want to tell him that I was ashamed of the things I have done. I didn’t want to tell him that I would often go to a bathroom and cry after a restless night of nightmares. I didn’t want to tell him that I felt distant from my wife. I didn’t want to admit that I was in a dark place and I didn’t see a way out of it. I didn’t want to tell him that everything wasn’t fine.
It was only few days earlier that I had been given the ‘get better or get out’ talk at work. At first, it appalled me that others thought I was failing as a leader of my staff, that I wasn’t doing my fair share of work, and that others had to carry the weight that I was unwilling or somehow unable to carry. It was simply too much.
I went to go find help. First, I made a visit the local Vet Center after a long hiatus. I used to go there several years back to meet with the counselors there. Unable to maintain eye contact with this counselor, I jumped from topic to topic, repeatedly glancing at a puzzle on his desk. He asked me if I had trouble concentrating. I did. He asked if I get frustrated with people easily, to which I replied I do. He asked if I ever had thoughts of suicide, I told him didn’t. I went to my doctor and told him what was going on and I was prescribed Adderall. After my first few doses, everything slowed down for me, and the feeling was terrible. Soon, however, things began to change. They got better. I began talking less and listening more. I called my friend Blake to apologize for missing his wedding -- that’s a first for me -- calling to apologize.
However, although things were improving, I was letting on that things were better than they actually were. A few weeks later, Blake told me about Objective Zero, a non-profit organization that he and some friends started to combat veteran suicide. Blake invited me to Salt Lake City, Utah to be interviewed in a promotional video for the organization. Sitting there waiting to be interviewed, I talked to Justin Miller, another veteran who had just finished with his interview. Justin told me about how he had written his suicide letter, but decided not to go through with killing himself after a fellow soldier reached out to him, saving his life.
When it came time for my interview, I put my mask on again, acting as though everything was fine. In my interview I avoided my own issues by talking about friends I had lost to suicide. I also talked about how the mission of Objective Zero was a much needed resource but, again, everything was fine. Until it wasn’t.
During my drive back to Billings, Montana, I repeatedly reassured myself that I was fine. But when I got home the full weight of it hit me: I wasn’t fine. Something about my conversations with Blake and Justin were sticking with me. I was hurting and I was ashamed. I had become everything I said I wasn’t going to become. I have trouble keeping jobs, and I use medication to make it through the day. I have intrusive thoughts and memories which cause me to ‘zone out’ during meetings.
I left my job in lieu of being fired.
Learning to Live Again
I’m on a journey now. I’m learning to live again.
And honestly, everything isn’t fine.
I’m alright with that for now; things will get better soon. In the meantime, I am slowly addressing the damage caused by compartmentalizing my feelings, my memories, and emotions for the last decade. One of the biggest misconceptions is that if you’re not suicidal, if you don’t have a substance abuse problem, if you graduated college and have experienced success, that everything is fine. Nothing could be further from the truth. Shutting everything out, not talking with people, and not addressing issues isn’t fine. It isn’t living. It’s surviving.
I haven’t ever had thoughts of suicide or self-harm, but I have been hurting others and myself with my actions. Leaving any wound to fester is never a good choice. I am choosing to live now, no longer to just survive. Just living and telling people you are okay is a lie. You are lying to your family, your friends, and most importantly yourself. When you lie to yourself, you cause damage that can be irreparable.
Having someone to talk to about what is going on is paramount, whether you are suicidal or not. Find someone, anyone, and talk with them. Objective Zero is about that connection, the connection between two people who may or may not know each other but are there for each other.
Sometimes, it takes someone who has no idea who you are and no idea what you have done to tell you that you aren’t fine. It happened to me. I was at a local sporting goods store and a random old lady who comfortingly looked like my preschool teacher walked up to me and said, “Seth, you don’t know me, but I know you are hurting. I know you are angry and lost. You may not know, but I do.”
I stood there puzzled, both by this lady’s frankness and wondering how she knew my name. Regardless, she hit the nail on the head.
Everything isn’t fine. But it will be.
About the Author
Seth Allen is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Seth served three combat tours in Iraq as an infantryman with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. He is currently an infantry officer in the Montana Army National Guard and graduated from Westminster College with a degree in political studies and pre-law. He lives with his wife and two dogs in Billings, Montana.
Seth's story and opinions are his own and not that of the Montana Army National Guard, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.