When I joined the Army, I thought I was 9 feet tall and bulletproof. I was Rambo. All it took was breathing in some toxic dust to change that.
My time in the service was cut far too short by a medical injury. (I was planning to retire in the military.) This caused me to go into a downward spiral of self-hate that resulted in me becoming a full-time alcoholic. During the worst of it, I’d end up drunk and sleeping on my mother’s doorstep. But after getting help and recognizing that there is life after injury, I vowed to spend my time helping other vets going through addiction.
In 2001, I was stationed at a port in Serbia with the Kosovo Force. We trekked across dirt roads with the turret doors of our tanks open, breathing in sand and dust that was laced with chemical warfare from when Yugoslavia faced off against the Soviets. We never wore gas masks.
Days later, my organs were shutting down. I had an enlarged heart. I quit breathing for long enough that it caused a brain injury. I was being read my last rites by the station’s chaplain and a plot was being picked out back home in West Virginia.
Miraculously, though, I survived. When I got back to the U.S., I was 100 pounds lighter. I looked like I had a gunshot wound in the chest or had been bit by a shark with all the staples covering my body.
The doctors gave me just a few years to live. I fought to see my children grow up, even though I recognized I probably would never play ball with my son or walk my daughter down the aisle.
But the comfort of family only went so far. After a year and a half of not being able to walk, being in rehabilitation and feeling like I was losing my mind or that my life was over, I fell into a deep depression.
I started self-medicating, and tequila was the easiest substance to get a hold of. I didn’t become a drunk overnight, but it didn’t take a long time, either, because the alcohol became the only thing that helped me function.
After about a decade of watching the disappointment in my children and parents’ eyes, I decided to get help at the Veterans Administration hospital in Huntington, W.V.
Through recreational therapy, I was truly able to turn my life around. It put me among guys just like myself — we were all injured in some way and a bit to ourselves. After I went whitewater rafting for the first time and experienced that thrill, I felt brand new.
I began to recognize that I didn’t need to be depressed about my situation. Sure, I may be disabled, but I’ve gotten awards for snowboarding.
Today, I spend my time volunteering with the VA helping veterans get through their struggles. I have my own home now. My kids and my mom have seen me crawling through a house; now they see me assisting others.
I lost more than a decade of my life to alcohol. Through recovery, I’ve learned that life’s too precious and losing one day is too much.
I joined the military out of a sense of service. And though I can’t continue to serve my country in that capacity anymore, I’ve dedicated my life to other veterans. I guide them through the process, counsel them or whatever is needed.
I want to be there and help them.
As told to NationSwell staff writer Joseph Darius Jaafari. This essay has been edited for clarity and style. Read more stories of service here.