Looking Back: Five Years of Transitioning
Five years ago, I was standing in the bedroom of my college apartment with a loaded shotgun in my mouth. It was the scariest night of my life. I drank every bottle of alcohol in the house and grabbed a shotgun to see what it would feel like to finally feel something. It’s something that I never thought would happen, and I still don’t understand it; it’s also something that was entirely avoidable.
A few weeks later, I joined my first Warrior 100K bike ride with the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative and became part of “Team 43.” Team 43 made it easier for me to understand that others were facing the same challenges I was. Since that first ride, I have learned that rather than bury the burdens of war, I should address them head-on. To do this, I have made use of numerous veteran transition resources that have allowed me to become the absolute best version of myself: married to the woman of my dreams, working a job I love, and being happier than ever before.
At my most critical time the veteran resources were scattered and not connected. I had to learn about and make use of each one on my own. It was admittedly difficult navigating the thousands of veteran service organizations to figure out which were most effective. But, I found that each organization offered unique approaches to transition and wellness, and as a result, I bounced back and overcame the biggest obstacle in my life: myself.
Today, many of those resources that I used have become part of the Bush Institute’s Warrior Wellness Alliance, which consists of a series of care providers as well as some of the nation’s leading veteran peer-to-peer networks, such as Team Rubicon, Team Red White and Blue, Hire Heroes USA, and Team 43. By connecting these groups with effective medical resources and care, transitioning veterans can better connect with the people and tools that will allow them to heal and recover, as well as seek purpose, development, and personal growth.
Veterans are not a monolithic group; we have different backgrounds and experiences, therefore finding the perfect mix of resources is best solved when you have others to help you along the way, providing mentorship and guidance.
Many veterans can be reluctant to speak about their transition and to seek out services because of stigma or fear that those who lack military experience will not understand or relate. Often, veterans reaching out to other veterans is the key to showing that it’s okay to ask for help. The desired outcome of the Warrior Wellness Alliance is that more veterans will understand that it’s OK to ask for help, and they will have better access to care and resources they need.
Everyone makes mistakes in combat and wishes that they could have done things differently, but this isn’t a video game and we don’t get to hit the reset button. Simply living with fear, anger, guilt, shame or whatever else keeps you up at night and hoping that things will get better isn’t a solution. Seeking out the right resources is a solution and one you will thank and respect yourself for. Invisible wounds are the most painful and cause us the most damage while they remain hidden. But, once you are willing to open up, seek help, admit what’s bothering you and work towards a solution, they heal rather quickly.
If there is one key lesson that I’ve learned over these five years, it’s that vulnerability is strength. You can’t overcome obstacles if you’re not willing to admit they exist and usually you’ll need help getting over them. For me, much of the help came from my experience with Team 43 and the W100K.
2012 W100K Rider
David J. Smith joined the Marine Corps in 2003 and served as an Infantry Rifleman and Team Leader with Alpha Company “Raiders” of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. He was deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During his service, his unit was engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the war to date including the battle of An Najaf in August 2004. Dave was honorably discharged in 2007, but upon his return to the States experienced severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
One event, in particular, hurt him the most. During an intense gunfight one night, he caught movement and muzzle flashes out of the corner of his eye coming from a nearby alleyway below his position. He didn’t have his night-vision mounted because his team had been clearing through the building. Acting on instinct, he shot into that group of targets moving toward their position. It turned out to be a group of Marines and David wounded one of them. That warrior was sent home and had part of his foot amputated. David lost contact with him for many years and he didn’t know how well he was doing. It was the single most painful, regrettable moment of his life. Knowing that he had injured one of his own, “It haunted me for years.”
Afterwards, David says, “I had a very hard time admitting that something was wrong. Instead of taking responsibility for my transition like I should have and asking for help, I tried to ignore it all because it was painful and embarrassing and I didn’t want to appear weak. Ultimately, I found myself staring down the barrel of a shotgun. That’s when I realized I just couldn’t fix the problems on my own and I needed help.”
David participated in his first event with the Bush Center in 2012, riding in the W100k just a month after he had contemplated suicide. At that time, he remembers feeling like his heart was going to explode every day from all the emotions he was finally feeling again. It was really nice to be biking and laughing among other warriors. Since then, David works towards providing transition assistance for fellow veterans and eliminating the stigma of post-traumatic stress. In February 2015, David participated on a panel discussion with President Bush and three other veterans about transition in hopes it helps someone else avoid the same big mistake he almost made. “Seek the help you need and you’ll respect yourself for it.”
Today, Dave is a great example of life after post-traumatic stress. He has shown incredible growth, overcame obstacles, and is living a rich, fulfilling life. After graduating from UC Berkeley, Dave interned on the New York Stock Exchange, delivered disaster response with Team Rubicon in the Philippines, and traveled to almost 30 countries doing missionary and humanitarian projects. He finished those projects in December 2014 and moved to Norway, where he lives with his fiance and works as the Chief Marketing Officer for a software start-up company.
“Day-to-day life is amazing,” says Dave. “I don't struggle with depression and anxiety, I'm not afraid to fall in love or show my emotions, and I work hard to be a great man every single day. I refuse to let past failures or experiences shape the way that I view the world. I’ve never been happier, healthier, or more at peace than I am today.”
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