By Mike Goranson, Chapter Captain – Chicago

 

I still remember the first time I saw Old Glory gliding along the lakefront path in Chicago. I was enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago and living downtown. It was summertime, and I was near the lake, people watching and enjoying a break from my studies. That’s when I saw it. The flag was being carried by a group of red-shirted Eagles, members of the amazing veteran non-profit Team Red, White & Blue shirt. It’s not every day you see a group of people running with the flag—a symbol of freedom paid for by generations of brave men and women. I was one of them. I shed my blood for my country, and I still have the scars to prove it.

As I watched the group run by, I remember looking down at my bum foot and telling myself that I would never again be what I once was. My right foot is completely numb—I have tibial nerve damage. That night at the lakefront, I didn’t think I would ever be able to run again. At the same time, the pity I felt for myself was tempered by the gratitude I felt. I still have my foot. There was a time where the doctors weren’t so sure if I would be able to keep it. The severity of the palsy in my foot was just too severe, they thought.

I was shot in the lower right leg in November 2004, near a forward operating base in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. I was standing outside my gun truck, blocking a T-intersection while the rest of my unit was conducting a door-to-door patrol behind me. I was holding my automatic machine gun, with a 9mm pistol on my thigh. The only other Marine with me was my good friend, who was manning the big machine gun—the .50 Cal—on top of our truck. We were well trained and thought we knew what we were doing.

Then we were ambushed.

The distinctive sound of 7.62 rounds fired from an AK-47 ripped through the air. I was completely exposed outside the truck, so I instinctively dove for cover behind the truck. I could hear nothing but loud cracks as the rounds impacted all around, hitting the wall behind me, my truck, and the street in front of me. The insurgents who engaged us were lucky—one of the rounds they sprayed at us ricocheted off the street and caught me in my ankle. The 7.62 tracer round entered one inch above the top of my boot, on the outside of my calf. Once inside my flesh, it tumbled and blew out the inside of part of my leg. I knew it was a tracer round because I saw the round burning red on the ground. I also knew that the damage it had done was bad and that I would soon bleed out if I didn’t put some pressure on it. That’s when the training kicked in. I dropped my machine gun and used one hand to apply pressure to my leg. With the other hand I called in a medivac.

While I was trying to stop the bleeding, my gunner opened up on the enemy with the .50 Cal, which suppressed their fire and allowed me a little time to get squared away behind the truck. I still had my 9mm pistol on my hip; I knew I could use it to defend myself if I had to. Lucky for the both of us, however, three of our unit’s trucks arrived on the scene and continued to return fire as I was loaded into one of the trucks. I remember jumping on my one good foot, and with the help of the Doc, I made it to safety.

That’s where things get a little fuzzy. The images I do remember, though, will be with me for the rest of my life. Of that I’m sure. I remember being worried that my unit would be ambushed while attempting to medivac me to the main base. I also remember being in excruciating pain. And when the Doc opened up the blouse to my cammies, I remember seeing what seemed like a bucket of blood pour out. Watching the Doc apply a tourniquet was the last thing I remember with any clarity.

The doctors performed surgery on my leg while I was still in Iraq. Their main goal was simply to stop the bleeding and keep the wound clean. I don’t remember much from that time—mostly because of all the pain meds they gave me. One thing I do remember, however, was right before I was put under for the surgery, I could hear mortars dropping nearby. I was lying there, completely helpless. Then I slowly passed out.

From there, I was sent to Germany, where I underwent more surgery. I remember a little more from that time, but not much. After spending a little time in Germany and being deemed “stable,” I headed to Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. My final stop was Camp Pendleton in San Diego.

I’m originally from Elk Grove Village, Illinois, and when I returned there for the first time after being wounded, I was instantly put on a pedestal. It was a little unnerving. I was being treated like a superhuman war hero simply because I had been shot. The second I got off the plane in Chicago, in fact, a crew from the NBC station was there and followed me all the way to my house. The mayor of Elk Grove even personally thanked me for my service. Everywhere I went people either already knew or wanted me to tell my story. It was a true hero’s gala.

After those few weeks of leave, I went back to San Diego to be with my unit. I was so excited to see them, though part of me felt guilty that I had not been there with them for the rest of the deployment. Once they returned, my excitement turned to a feeling of horror. I was blindsided by a story a good friend of mine told me. He said that after I had left Iraq, the gunner who was with me that day I was shot—my friend—told the other guys in my unit that I had abandoned him when we got ambushed. He said I threw my machine gun on the ground and gave up. My heart dropped and I couldn’t breathe; it was both numbing and overwhelming to hear such a vile thing said about me. Still to this day it’s hard for me to describe just how painful it was for me to hear that.

The fact that he thought so little of me tore me apart both mentally and physically. It’s a burden I’ve carried with me every day since. It may sound clichéd to some, but in combat the only thing that matters is the guy to your right and the one to your left. As a Marine and as an Infantryman, I was prepared to die for my gunner if need be, and I knew he was prepared to do the same. We don’t joke about things like that the way some civilians might. In Iraq, that was the only certainty we were afforded. By claiming that I had abandoned him, my gunner was essentially saying that I wasn’t prepared to die for him—that I had betrayed him and everything we as Marines stand for. Sadly, my gunner died in a motorcycle crash shortly after returning from Iraq, and he and I never had a chance to talk about what happened that day in Ar Ramadi.

After I was medically discharged from the Marine Corps, the only way I could think to suppress the shame I felt was with the pain killers I had been prescribed. It didn’t take me long to start abusing those meds, gulping them down by the handful with ample amounts of alcohol. Without the Corps and the brotherhood that comes with it, I had no direction, no purpose. I quickly put on weight, using my injury as an excuse. I was floating through life like a rudderless raft on a winding river.

That day I saw Old Glory being carried along the lakefront path in Chicago, I decided to sign up for Team RWB. I’m not sure exactly what prompted my decision, but I knew in the back of my head that I had to do something to pull myself out of the hole I had dug. The very first Team RWB event I attended was an indoor rock climbing clinic followed by a social at Buffalo Wild Wings. It took every ounce of courage I had to break out of my comfort zone and attend. Like many of us today, I have a very tight inner circle of friends and family, but I didn’t feel very comfortable outside that circle. That’s what social media has done to us—we are closer than ever to our inner circle, but most of us are deeply disconnected from those around us. During the event, I was struck by how many amazing and inspirational people were there—people who genuinely cared about me and wanted to get to know me. I was hooked.

My injury had held me back for too long, and it was the love and support I found in Team RWB that helped me set new physical goals that I would have never thought I could reach. I began pushing my body—and my mind—with others who were in a similar boat. We had all found that missing rudder. We were in it together because we all knew from experience that we couldn’t do it alone. There’s an old African proverb that I think perfectly sums up what we at Team RWB have discovered: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Joining the Marine Corps was the best decision I’ve ever made. The Corps forced me to become stronger both mentally and physically. But when my fellow Marines discounted my service, I lost something. I didn’t feel strong anymore. I felt worthless. Team RWB saved me. Team RWB reminded me how strong I really am. Team RWB has helped me get back to the man I was before I was shot. I realize now that without the Marine Corps, without all the pain and suffering I have survived, and without Team RWB, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. I’m in a much better place now.

 

About ten months ago, I was asked to be the Captain of the Chicago Chapter of Team RWB. I humbly accepted the invitation because I want nothing more than to pay it forward. I was once lost, but now I’m found, and it was seeing Old Glory being carried by a group of amazing human beings that was my beacon of light—my savior. As a Chapter Captain, I prefer to lead by example. I have made it my mission each day to help others who are struggling on their own journey home. I want those I help to turn around and do the same. Now every Monday evening, you can find me running along the lakefront path with Old Glory whipping proudly in the wind. I have become the beacon. Team RWB can save, and it’s my hope each time we set out that someone new will see what we’re doing and be drawn to us. We know there are people out there who need us. If that’s you, just remember that we’re here, and we’re ready for you. The world isn’t such a lonely place when you fly with Eagles!

By Nicholas Jansen, Team RWB Member & Athletic Director, Lock Haven/Williamsport Chapter

 

My name is Nicholas Arnold Jansen. I am a U.S. Army Veteran who struggles daily with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I honorably served my country as a cavalry scout for 14 years before being medically retired from the service in 2013.  I was preparing for my 4th deployment to Iraq.  In total, I spent 39 months deployed and was exposed to a lot of combat and some really terrible things, but until recently I did not talk about any of it.

The training the Army provided me could have never prepared me for what I experienced in war.  The paper targets that I trained on were nothing like the flesh and bone of the human lives I took.  I intimately experienced death, destruction, and inhumanity…leaving me traumatized and racked with guilt.  These feelings manifested themselves in flashbacks, nightmares, sleepless nights, anxiety, depression, anger, fear, and withdrawal.  I didn’t know how to deal with the profound feelings of loss, sadness, and anguish so I isolated myself and tried to stuff away my emotions.  In the process I destroyed relationships with people I loved and nearly lost myself.  Just like someone who suffers from alcoholism or drug addiction, I was unwilling to acknowledge I had a problem.  But I did have a problem.  I was suffering from severe PTSD.  And it took me 10 years to admit it.

Many people experience traumatic events in their lives that can alter their mood, their response to stress, and the way they go on living, and not everyone who experiences trauma has PTSD.  Trauma and PTSD are not uniquely veteran…they’re human challenges.  However, as veterans we often believe we’re superhuman, incapable of feeling pain or being affected by events.  I refused to acknowledge my PTSD for so long that I had myself convinced it wasn’t really there.  But it was.  I was plagued by thoughts and emotions that I couldn’t place.  I felt the world owed me something.  I was angry and frustrated.  I acted out, saying and doing things I would later regret.  I blamed everyone else for my problems and feelings.  In my mind, nothing was ever my fault; it was always something or someone else that was the problem.  I went so far as to admit myself to a local hospital four times, only to sign myself out each time.  The hospital didn’t help me, so why stay?  I took the medication I was prescribed but not much else.

On October 14th, 2014, I sat in my recliner chair in my living room.  I was done dealing with the nightmares, anxiety, depression, survivor’s guilt, anger, and mood swings.  I had been awake for months and no longer saw a reason to fight.  I had the means and planned to take my own life.  But I didn’t.  To this day I can’t explain exactly what happened but something stronger than me told me to go on fighting, to go on living.  I immediately drove two and a half hours through the night to a psychiatric center in Clarion, PA and admitted myself.  I told the medical staff I did not want to be able to check myself out and that I would stay as long as necessary.  The next day I spoke with a psychologist and told him what I had done and how I was feeling.  However, I never explained to the doctor the why.  See I knew the “why” but wasn’t yet able to face it myself let alone share it with others.  I was afraid of being judged or how people would react.  So I remained in denial.

I also remained in the psychiatric center for four weeks.  My stay started with my doctor stopping all my anti-depressants and mood stabilizers.  It was a painful and horrible process.  My insides hurt so bad that for two weeks all I wanted to do was lay in bed.  Once my system was purged I began a new medication regime and it started to work.  While I could physically get out of bed and leave my room, I didn’t want to do much.  Time went on as I ate a little, slept a ton, and dodged interacting with others.  But soon group activities were introduced to my daily regime.  I learned journaling, breathing techniques, and a number of other tools to deal with my triggers.  I still didn’t want to associate with others, but I found myself thinking about what I was going to do when I left the hospital.  So I tried to put up some goals in my mind.  My stay in the psychiatric hospital was certainly not pleasant, but it provided me the space and support to begin to process what I had experienced and how it was making me feel.

I was transferred from the hospital in Clarion to the VA in Pittsburgh where I met my new medical team.  They assured me that my treatments and medication had been working and that I was stable enough to re-enter society.  Before discharge, I saw a social worker, psychiatrist, psychologist, and case manager.  It was the week of Thanksgiving and all my providers were concerned about where I would be and what I was doing for the holiday.  I spent that Thanksgiving with my dad and stepmom in Indiana.  Yet it was the check-in call I received from my social worker the day before Thanksgiving that proved most impactful.  That simple phone call changed the way I felt about myself and showed me that someone else cared enough to fight with me.

Following my visit to Indiana and the many therapy appointments that followed, I still did not feel particularly healthy or happy.  While the medication was working, it also left me feeling sluggish and drowsy.  I only went out at night.  I still felt withdrawn and didn’t want to be around people.  I wanted to feel something more; I wanted to feel healthier.  It didn’t hit me how unhealthy I had become until I weighed myself during a therapy visit…the scale read north of 300 pounds.  I was embarrassed of how far I’d fallen.

In March of 2015 I went to a local gym and started to work on my fitness.  I had not been physically active since my medical retirement two years earlier.  Working out was like a breath of fresh air.  I started to feel better and eat healthier.  I dedicated myself to getting fitter everyday.  I also met new people but found that I was still anxious and hesitant to trust others.  I found myself telling others the “short story of Nick”, like I was building a new self rather than being a better version of my real self.  After three months of working out I felt significantly better physically.   My psychologist noticed it too and was so thrilled with my weight loss and energy gain that he decreased my medication dosage.

While I was improving physically, I still struggled mentally.  I went to counseling but felt as if we were getting nowhere, talking but never really getting at my core problems.  Why was I mentally and emotionally still off?!  I finally had enough of the superficial “chit chat” with my counselor.  She needed to know what was really eating at me inside.  So I wrote it all down, literally putting pen to paper in what became a detailed, 20-page narrative…my story.  At my next appointment I sat down read every word of my story to my counselor.  I was scared and vulnerable but resolute.  When I finished reading, I looked up to see tears in my counselor’s eyes.  She hugged me and said, “now we have a starting point.”  I felt as if a weight had literally been lifted off my shoulders.  The thoughts and feelings and everything that I had buried inside for so long were now out…and I could finally start to heal.  Over the next six months of counseling I slowly but surely started to work through my experiences and my feelings.  And in doing so, something I almost didn’t recognize stirred inside of me.  I was feeling HAPPY!

I found Team RWB shortly after my breakthrough with my counselor, and this organization, this community has provided me the final missing piece to my puzzle…people.  I didn’t know what to expect walking into my first Team RWB event.  I was still standoffish and meeting new people was difficult.  But I was welcomed immediately and felt like I belonged.  I soon learned that the members of this Team invested their time in getting to know the real me.  It’s somewhat ironic that I found my people, my Team in a cemetery…cleaning up headstones and giving back to their community, while also giving of themselves to each other. Since that first event I’ve hiked, trail run, biked, bowled, watched movies, and enjoyed social outings with my Eagle family, all while making countless genuine relationships.  I am now the Athletic Director of the Lock Haven/Williamsport Chapter and each day I strive to engage and recruit new members throughout Central Pennsylvania.  I do not know where I would be today without Team RWB.  The combination of veterans and civilians, along with the amount of support from all types of people with different backgrounds is simply amazing.

I have PTSD, but I’m not PTSD.  I’ve learned that it’s what I do in life and how I handle situations that define me.  I now tell people of all backgrounds struggling with PTSD they can get help from a family member, peer, pet, doctor, or even an inanimate object (yes, I’ve talked to an empty chair to get something out…try it!).  I hope that my story shows others that with some dedication and effort you too can begin to heal.  I’m soon setting off to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.  I’m hiking to fight PTSD.  And my hike, like my fight with PTSD, will undoubtedly see some long and difficult days.  But I’ll keep hiking, just like I’ve kept fighting, one day at a time.  While I’ll spend a number of days on the trail by myself, I’ll never be alone knowing that my Team is with me…and true to form, many Eagles have already reached out offering lodging, rides, or just to walk with me for a few miles.  Wherever your journey takes you, know you’re not alone…and keep on fighting.

 

Editor’s Note:  This blog was taken down after its original posting due to safe messaging concerns.  It has since been edited with the author’s input.  Team RWB encourages everyone to share their story, but we also want to ensure such stories do not unintentionally endanger others.  We’re proud of Nick for all he’s endured, the steps he’s taken to heal and grow, and having the courage to share his story.  Nick is currently on the Appalachian Trail, somewhere in Georgia…moving forward.  You can follow his journey on Facebook here: Hike to Fight PTSD.