PTSD Changed My Life…Part 4 – Wilson Bautista Jr.
Continuation from PTSD Changed My Life…Part 3
The Basic School (TBS) was a proving ground for 2nd Lieutenants in the Marine Corps. It’s where young men and women are put together in platoons and put through another gauntlet of tests of academics and physical fitness. If there was another way to put it, I would call it TBS, The Big Sexy. Why? We did a lot of sexy stuff…automatic grenade launchers, machine guns, hikes in the woods, 7 miles of Spartan Race like obstacles with combat gear…just talking about it to someone who has never been sounds like the ultimate adventure experience.
While that may be a fantasy to some, every Marine Corps officer has been through this 6 month long crucible. There were men and women who have seen their fair share of combat who were responsible for shaping the minds of Lieutenants. These “Staff Platoon Commanders” (SPC) are seasoned Captains of Marines who are charged with mentoring young officers and preparing them for their roles. My SPC was Stephen Boada and he was my platoon’s example of Captain of Marines. Stoic, confident, and a combat veteran. He was a Silver Star recipient for his actions in Afghanistan.
“The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to First Lieutenant Stephen J. Boada, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy while serving as Forward Observer and Forward Air Controller, Company K, Third Battalion, Third Marines, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Central Command in support of Combined Joint Task Force-76 and Operation ENDURING FREEDOM from 5 to 9 May 2005. While operating near Shatagal Village, First Lieutenant Boada’s platoon received intelligence that Al Qaeda and Associate Movement fighters were setting up an ambush position from which to attack the platoon upon their departure from Shatagal. Despite the barrage of intense enemy fire, he calmly directed the tactical employment of the unit and directed fires from an A-10 aircraft onto enemy positions. During the ensuing firefight, First Lieutenant Boada and members of his squad were wounded. Ignoring his injuries, he continued to fearlessly lead his Marines as they fought off a tenacious enemy while other members of the unit extracted their fallen comrades. As the platoon maneuvered over five kilometers of arduous mountain terrain with the injured Marines, First Lieutenant Boada called for and directed AC-130 aircraft to cover the unit’s movement. This action resulted in the destruction of the besieging enemy. Without question, First Lieutenant Boada’s tactical acumen in directing these aircraft saved many lives in the platoon as the enemy’s ambush positions controlled the high ground through the terrain in which the platoon was conducting its retrograde. By his bold leadership, wise judgment, and complete dedication to duty, First Lieutenant Boada reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
We were walking among living legends of Marines. True heroes that have “been there” and “done that”.
Would I be able to live up to that?
At this time I was sure that every Marine officer would say “Yes” to that statement…I’d later find out that this wasn’t the case. More on that later.
TBS was meant to prepare us for the fleet. The fleet was the wider Marine Corps, it was where you wanted to be as a Marine.
Just like any kind of training in the Marine Corps, TBS was meant to be tough. Let’s talk about the different stressors that are involved with TBS.
TBS was the place where Lieutenants who did not come in on a flight or law contract, compete to get their jobs. Unlike other services who guarantee their young officers their Military Occupational Speciality (MOS), Marines are not provided this luxury. They go through every job that officers can do in the Corps because they want to see the young officer’s aptitude in each role. We would have to earn our job based on multiple factors:
- Needs of the Marine Corps
- Class rank
- SPC recommendation
- Prior enlisted MOS
If you wanted to be an intelligence officer and the Corps didn’t have a spot, you were out of luck. If you wanted to be in the infantry, there are only 4 spots, and you were the 5th person in the pecking order due to your class ranking, you were looking for the next best combat arms MOS. If you told your SPC you wanted to be a supply officer but they thought you would be a better fit in a tank…you might find yourself in a tank. If you were an aircraft mechanic as an enlisted Marine, you may find yourself in as an Aviation Supply Officer.
With all of the academic and physical evaluations that take place, peer reviews give an opportunity for your fellow platoon mates to report observations on your leadership. Members of the platoon are asked to give adjectives for each Marine. This serves as a barometer of perception from the platoon for the SPC and the evaluated Marine. Is this Marine a team player or a loner? Are they strong or are they weak?
Our first lesson is that one of the most difficult things to do as a leader is to effectively lead your peers. In six months of living with each other going through misery, you know who is the strongest, the smartest, as well as the weakest person is. How does the physically stronger motivate their peer who is physically weaker? How does the lowest academically ranking platoon member lead those who are higher? It makes for an interesting argument that you do not want to be either on the bottom or on the top. You can be looked at as an poor performer academically but physically more fit than the rest of the platoon. Does that make you a better leader? Or you can be top of the class and be a complete jerk to your platoon mates…again, does that make a better leader.
It was a first for me to be in an environment where people have to subtly play politics in order to motivate but not piss off the people around you. You have officers from all walks of life in one place, trying to lead one another. It was a lesson in being adept to cultural nuances in communication. All the while you do your best to keep up physically and academically to be competitive.
During my time at TBS, we were gathered in a room receiving the orientation briefing of how training will be conducted. The term “stress inoculation” was something that was being used to prepare us for the rigors of being an officer.
“Stress Inoculation Therapy (SIT) is a psychotherapy method intended to help patients prepare themselves in advance to handle stressful events successfully and with a minimum of upset.” (https://www.mentalhelp.net/stress/inoculation-therapy/)
Let me try to break this down in the way I understood it:
- We will undergo level 1 stress for a week and then have one week of less stress
- We will undergo level 2 stress for a week and half and then have one week of less stress
- We will undergo level 3 stress for two weeks and then have one week of less stress
Each level of stress was equated to the amount of misery you have to endure. This was to help us cope with highly stressful situations and gave another point of evaluation for our instructors to gauge.
How well can this officer handle stress?
- If they can handle X amount of stress, then they would be a fit for Y jobs.
- If they can’t handle X amount of stress, then they wouldn’t be fit for Y jobs.
Friction was a word that was used most often at TBS. The more friction that was imposed, the more uncomfortable it would be. How were we going to react?
Why this matters
Competition. Marines Win.
If you were going to be a good officer, you would have to learn how to push through the pain, push through the suffering, and push through the bullshit that you are going through because there is a higher purpose. That is because there are enlisted Marines that are looking at you for leadership, they don’t want someone that they have to hold up, they want someone to look to in the chaos.
You were not going to be that person if you failed at your academics. You were not going to be that person if you dropped out of hikes. You were not going to be that person if you can’t handle the stress.
If that is you, then it is better to resign your commission and go home. The weak are not wanted here.
The Marine Corps has an amazing process of placing it’s officers to the right roles. As with any corporation or business, the Corps wants the right officers in the roles where they will be successful. If you wanted something, you had to earn it.
I had a lot of things riding on me at TBS.
- Veronica and I decided that TBS was not the time to move from New York to Virginia. Although she was in school, working, and a full-time mom, TBS was only 6 months and then we would have to move again to my MOS school. So I would be 6–8 months away from my family during this training.
- I needed to prove to myself that I was worthy of being a Marine Officer.
- I needed to make sure that I did well so that I can be competitive with my peers. This needed to be from both the academic and physical fitness side of things. I didn’t want to be the fastest or the strongest, that was impossible as everyone was much younger than me. I just wanted not to fail.
- The war was winding down and retention rates for first term junior officers was very low. The first evaluation was from TBS and in order for me to compete for retention and retire from the Marines, this one needed to be great.
I set these high expectations for myself. If I failed, it was my own fault.
When you built your adult life around the notion that you are going to do great things and actually do them, that is a huge confidence boost. I did that while I was enlisted and couldn’t be any more proud of what myself and my Marines have accomplished together. One would think that accomplishment would be transferable in other parts of the same organization, but it wasn’t the same.
After OCS, TBS was another challenge to undertake which brought me to the realization that I had a lot of things to work on still. I struggled with hikes and physical fitness. I also struggled academically as the courses were taught in quick succession with exams shortly after. I struggled, remediated, struggled, and failed again. It was a viscous cycle and I was not really achieving what I thought I should be achieving.
At what point does one stop and say “screw it” let’s just pass and get through this. Is that the right answer? My best is mediocre? I started to become resentful of myself.
“How can you be so dumb?”
“You should’ve known that?”
“If you did this…then you would’ve been able to do that…”
As the weeks and months went on, my mind went down further into questioning my worth.
“Who would want to follow you?”
“Why would they want to follow you?”
I started to not trust people
“What are they saying about me now?”
“I’m not part of their clique, I’m not going to get any good feedback from them.”
The way you think is the way you feel.
“Feelings…Marines have those? The nation’s elite fighting force are not supposed to have feelings. Feelings are for the mentally weak. You need to be tough. Did Chesty Puller have feelings when he went into war? How about all of the Marines in Fallujah? No, they did what needed to be done…that is what Marines do, do what needs to be done….and here you are, feeling bad for yourself. Boohoo. You probably weren’t good enough anyways…”
That is how it went…questioning and doubting myself. It went on after TBS and into my MOS school.
At this point, I’ve been away from my family for 1 year with a few visits here and there. As this training was also 6 months, we didn’t feel that would be good to move the family in the middle of school to then move again. I would have to live alone. Andrew was 12, Devin was 3, and Daniella was 1.
Depression = weakness
Maybe there was a reason I was failing academically so much? I just didn’t get it, there must have been something wrong with me. With the help of my instructor, I went to Mental Health to be evaluated for ADHD. I started to use Adderall in hopes that it would help me concentrate so that I could pass my tests. Well it didn’t…I felt like a fraud. I felt like an idiot…the doctor asked me “Are you depressed?”
At the time my thinking was that admitting to being depressed is equivalent to saying that you are mentally weak. It is career suicide. I’ll probably be kicked out and I’ll never get to lead Marines.
This is how it was back then. Weakness has no place in the Marine Corps.
I didn’t know it back then, but I was depressed. I haven’t spent more than 2 weeks with Daniella, my sons were growing up without a father, and my wife was doing it on her own. After all of the setbacks, my heart and my soul were torn of who I wanted to be and who I was.
Did I make the right decision?
After 6 months of low-crawling and getting my elbows and knees bloodied I (barely) passed my MOS school. I graduated and was off to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to be part of 2nd Marine Division, Communications Company. I’d soon be transferred to 6th Marine Regiment to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
The previous articles are setting the stage for you where I was mentally and emotionally before I deployed. I was in a state of desperation for my family to continue my career in the Corps. While I fought my way past TBS and my MOS school, I didn’t think very highly of myself with my performance so far.
In short, I was vulnerable and what I didn’t know is what that really meant. Next article will be a little longer, I want to talk to you about mobbing, manipulation, abuse, gaslighting, and cowardice.
Everyone has good days and everyone has bad days. Some days are just more terrible than others. If you need to talk about it please call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1–800–662-HELP (4357).
You are not alone.