The following short story is part 1 of a special 2-part series sponsored by General John E. Michel related to veteran’s stories and others-centered leadership. This particular story was written by USMC Sgt John Preston, who will be a guest on our Wednesday evening radio program.
It was mid 2004 and the heat of the Iraq desert pushed beads of sweat from my pores. The gleaming liquid poured into my tattered desert fatigues as if they were a sponge beneath a sink. The sweat trapped beneath my flak jacket as my body took action and kept me cool.
“Damn it’s hot…”
…I remember thinking repeatedly every day and nearly every hour I resided in that dreadful desert. I was a leader in Iraq, a Platoon Sergeant to the 2/7 internal guard force and a squad leader to the 2/7 H&S mission squad. I ran over a hundred combat missions: anything from a security squad for EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) to the opening of Iraqi schools. I was awarded a Navy/Marine Corps achievement medal for my leadership and excellence as a marine but that is not what this is about.
There were many things I brought home with me when I returned from the desert and many memories I can’t wipe away. The “heat” and how it makes me feel now on a hot summer day. In those moments I am overwhelmed with emotions, sickness and sometimes even fear. I lost heroes, friends, and brothers in that “heat” and am now cursed with what one might call survivor’s guilt and PTSD but no, that is not what this is about.
This story is about perseverance, hard work, passion, and dedication. This is about overcoming fears, obstacles, and pushing forward to continue to serve my country today with who I have become twelve years after my active service ended. This is about taking the common leadership I learned as a Marine Corps NCO and utilizing it in my life today to overcome the demons inside me.
This story began when I was tasked with a mission. This mission wasn’t brought to me by the company commander and was not drawn up on a stack of papers. There was no briefing before I set forth on my mission and there was no training prior. My mission was drawn by a simple phone call that nearly ripped my heart from my chest. A call from a close friend that was once my Marine Corps roommate and someone I looked up to for his strength and camaraderie. We had lost touch a few years after the war but I could see a decline we both were going through. As I turned to the bottle he used recreational drugs to cut the edge; to make every attempt to make that damn “heat” go away. As I used music and a dream of someday being a famous artist to keep me driving forward he began to battle with the law and fall further into what was now addiction. His call was a confession. He knew if there was anyone he could tell it would be me. Methamphetamines had nearly taken his life, the State had taken his son and his family had left him in the hands of the law. I broke down that day. It was without orders that my mission was set. I had failed my friend and brother and vowed never to let that happen again.
Twenty-two veterans a day take their own lives and one in five of the four million of us that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. PTSD leads to addiction and in many cases loss of the life the sufferer once had or could have had. The numbers are staggering and my mission was now clear as day.
I was once thought to be a rising star in the music industry when I had gone viral before “viral” existed. I had written a song in Iraq. With help from fellow marines, a video was made to the song which got me signed to a record label and doing media all over the country upon my return from the suck. Though my first attempt at a music career is also not what this is about, it laid a solid pavement for where I am today. At the time, I had not found my mission and the “heat” was too hot and the bottle too light. As I blacked out nearly every night, so did my dreams. But again, that is not what this is about.
About to embark upon my second attempt at a music career with my mission in hand, three of the many Marine Corps leadership traits immediately took hold of my actions to create what was initially just a vision. Initiative, courage, and unselfishness drove the incipient stages of this mission. I first needed the courage to believe in myself. I needed to push the “heat” aside and believe that I was meant for something special. I had to know before I made one movement to contact that I believed in myself to assure others would believe in me. As if a wand was waved over me from a fairy princess there it was… Belief.
I then took initiative to set the mission in motion. I had made several friends during my time in the music industry and I had to find a way to bring it all together. I picked up my phone and called everyone I knew from the business and pitched them with my idea. For veterans by veterans, a chance for one of us to tell our story to the masses and bring awareness to the entire country of our fight we now have once returning from war. Damned if that little princess didn’t wave her wand again because within a few months I was signed with Pacific Records and in the studio recording my first EP “Your War is Over”.
None of this was as easy as I make it sound as I spent countless hours and met several moments of rejection that continually filled my soul again with the “heat”. I would again have to find courage and dig in deeper to assure my mission would not fail.
Upon signing my contract, it was unselfishness that stood out as one of my demands was that we would give 30% of every album I release to charity. Much easier than I thought this would be I got my way. And on the release of my first EP on November 11, 2014, 30% of my album sales would be going to Boot Campaign to help fight PTSD.
The media caught wind of my story (or should I say I wrote every reporter in the country) and before the release had even happened there were articles being written about our music and our fight. To be honest the last year and a half have been a blur. I have released two EPs, had countless TV and radio appearances where I have had the chance to speak about PTSD and veteran suicide, and have raised thousands of dollars for different veteran charities through benefit concerts and album sales. I have been a leader for my band mates (also fellow marines) and they have been there to pick me up when I am consumed by the “heat”. With all of that being said, where I stand today is not where this mission ends. I will not stop until our music is at the top of the charts and our mission is in the ears and eyes of every person in this great nation. My mission is not complete until people understand who we are and why we are the way we are. I’m not a politician or a lobbyist but I know how to make noise. I was given a gift and with that gift I will strum my guitar until the roof blows off.
Though every day I continue to battle my own demons, I am a Marine like my father and brothers before me and will continue to charge the enemy lines!
Sgt. USMC 2000-2004