I was driving through a particularly dry stretch of West Texas on my way back home from an incredible trip, where I'd interviewed three different veterans for the project. But on that particular stretch my mind was drifting back to some things Evan Stratton had said, during my time with him in Denver. He spoke of the moment his vehicle was hit and his life was forever changed. July 19, 2009 at the age of 19, Evan lost his best friend, Brandon T. Lara. The specifics of that moment are what I was thinking about. He described being ready to go when those anti-tank grenades hit. There was a moment of confusion but when things cleared up, he wasn't afraid of the moment. I'd imagine he embraced that moment. He spoke of being ready to do the damn job when it came time to react. There's a very real fight or flight instinct that hits when you're propelled into combat. Throughout my interviews, I've heard guys speak about it quite a bit. The Marine I've talked to all describe that instance as their moment in the history books. I imagined those moments in Evan's experiences as those two high-powered explosives hit the truck, and set things into motion. The thick, metallic smoke, the piercing shrapnel, automatic weapons fire, the utter confusion, and not knowing who is alive and who isn't. But, if you attack a convoy of Marines you sure as hell better kill them all. If you don't, you just put them in their prime space; a space that every Marine dreams of. They don't fear combat. They live for the day. There's almost nothing more dangerous than a pissed off Marine.
I don't have a quote but I remember Evan talking about the history of the Marine Corps and how the worst moment could be one of pride. Marines live for that moment where they are tested in the fires of combat. There's so much history in the USMC and the battles they've so valiantly fought. When a Marine finds himself in combat they know it's their chance to earn their place in the halls of glory. The place is not given out. It truly is one that is earned somewhere on the edge of life and death. Evan talked about things slowing down in those moments of smoke, blood-splattered shrapnel, and machine gun fire. My mission in Iraq was one of handling high-level detainees. Interestingly enough, Evan and I were serving in Iraq close to the same time. The guys my unit had command and control over were very, very evil men who had done some terrible things. My mind drifted back to their description of Marines. I'd heard them speak of two groups in particular that they hated. They definitely respected and feared certain Army infantry units but there were two groups I remember standing out, that generally struck fear into their hearts. They spoke of the Special Forces operators as "Shabah" or in English, "ghosts." They described the Marines as "Shaytan" or in English, "Satan." There was no doubt that these top-tier enemy commanders respected the hell out of the United States Marine Corps. Evan is just another embodiment of that. This story is one of a Marine being a Marine. There is pain, suffering, and through that, the art of perseverance into the realm of the elite. I know you're going to enjoy this story of Sergeant Evan Stratton.
Can you talk about that day and what happened with the injury?
ES: I was 19 years old, I’d been in the Marine Corps not even a year when I volunteered to go on this deployment to Iraq. I didn’t even know what the deployment was. I was on a Police Transition Team and our job was to train and advise the Iraqi Police. There were 13 of us and we ended up acting as a PSD for a Major while he met with dignitaries or whatever he had to do. We were kind of just on a basic mission that day and we went to a police station in the area to check on things. We were basically there for almost no time at all before we turned around. All of us were like, “Fuckin’ sweet…” because we got to get out of there so quickly. There was a chokepoint in the road and I drove the third vehicle out of three. There were some guys in a courtyard nearby and they tossed these anti-tank grenades over the wall. So, two anti-tank grenades hit and one landed on the hood of my vehicle. That shape charge went through my windshield and past my face and impacted my door. The other landed on the roof and blew through the roof and shot the shape charge through the turret. It went through my buddy’s (the gunner) side sappy plate and out his back, so I had shrapnel on my face, neck and arm. There was an ambush attached to that of course. They had a sniper and some machine gunners ready to go up on the second story in that courtyard. So we had to repel that assault and post security.
What was the realization like in that moment?
ES: I mean it knocked me out initially. I remember waking up and thinking, “What the fuck?” (laughs) The cab of the vehicle was completely blacked out in smoke and I couldn’t see anything. My brain wasn’t really processing properly. I remembered this moment when I was 17 and was in a car wreck so I was kind of thinking I was in a wreck. Then it hit me, “No man, you’re in Iraq and you just got hit.” I immediately checked my legs and my legs were good. The smoke started to clear out and the windows were all shattered out. I couldn’t move the vehicle off the x. Ya know, first thing you do is move the vehicle out of the kill zone if you can. I knew my other vehicles would be maneuvering so I pulled the e-brake and my VC (vehicle commander) was asking, “Who’s hit? Who’s hit?” I looked down and I was covered in blood. I realized there was a ton of metal, blood and glass in my mouth so I spit it all out. My VC starts yelling, “Lara! Lara!” I looked up at the turret, he was slumped down in the gunner’s seat, and was like “Fuck, Lara’s hit.” The VC opened the door and we started taking heavy machine gun fire. I was like “Fuck, we’ve gotta go.” I couldn’t see anything because the glass was shattered so I took a deep breath and thought, “I’m going to open this door and drop some motherfuckers.” I opened the door and nobody was there so I was like, “Alright, cool.” My corpsman grabbed me and I was like, “Lara’s hit!” I looked at my sergeant who I knew was the guy to go to (Phil Martinez). I asked him where he wanted me and he kind of looked at me weirdly. He told me to pull security but he was looking at me strange. I kept forgetting I’d been hurt. We finally mounted up when QRF (Quick Reactionary Force) got there and ground-medevac showed up. They took us back to the COP and Brandon died there. They flew me out of there for surgery and that was it.
What was it like coming back from that injury mentally and how do you process that on a day-to-day basis?
ES: I haven’t stopped doing this since I got injured. At 19 years old I watched my best friend die and that doesn’t go away. When it first happened I had so many physical injuries I had to focus on those and get better. I almost compartmentalized it all and just pushed forward. I also think at 19 I didn’t have the maturity to really grasp those life events at the time. It wasn’t until I got out of the Marines that I realized how bad it all was. When you’re still on active duty there’s no real need to focus on it. Your entire support system is right there, all your buddies have lost guys too, and it’s just the way it is. It’s not until you’re separated from them that you realize how different your mindset has become and that civilians don’t understand it all. When I got out of the Marines in 2011 and moved to Utah my day-to-day handling of things was bad. I was angry and pissed off, I was volatile and would go off for no reason. I lived in the gym and spent time working as a bouncer where I would release that aggression.
I picked up a part-time job as a mentor at a residential treatment center for troubled teenage boys. This is where things starting changing for me. I had to set an example for these kids, but I think I learned more from them than anything I ever taught them. I had to start thinking through my anger and resentment and began realizing how I was acting isn’t who I wanted to be. I had lost my empathy for others and realized I no longer had an identity without being a Marine. I spent the next 5 years trying to figure that all out. I’ve been on nearly every anti-depressant, and sleep medication out there and have worked through a team of doctors. I felt guilty about having a life and moving forward when my best friend was dead and I wasn’t. I wanted him to have the life and do these things and I was holding myself back because of it. It wasn’t until I met the most amazing doctor I’ve ever had in 2014 that things started to really turn around for me. She helped me see that I can live a life for Brandon, and he’s with me and would be proud of me. On a day to day basis I still struggle some days more than others. But I always go back to Brandon and what a badass he was, he’d never let me quit, and I live this life for him and for me. I won’t let his sacrifice go to waste by not living the best life I possibly can. If things are hard I just remember I want to make him proud and emulate his warrior spirit and just keep pushing.
What was the most frightening moment for you on your deployment to Iraq?
ES: I’m not saying this to sound tough, but I don’t ever remember feeling afraid. I remember the very first patrol I went on, we were driving out with the team we were replacing to get the lay of our AO, and I was slated to be one of the drivers. As we were driving into hostile territory for the first time I remember thinking, "Oh shit, this is real!” Not scared, not nervous, just knowing that it wasn’t training anymore and really bad things could actually happen. Ever after being hit I don’t remember being scared I was going to die or worried about anything. The only thing I remember doing my in that moment was my job, and doing it really well.
Talk a little bit about that deployment and what your mission was. What was that deployment like?
ES: We were a Police Transition Team aka PTT and were tasked with training and advising the Iraqi police in Al Qaim, Iraq which is two cities Ubaydi and Husaybah up by the Syria border. It really ended up just being a PSD team for our Major who was the team lead. We operated a ton and were outside the wire nearly every single day. I loved it because we weren’t bored and there was a lot to do. Between being a driver, gunner, radio chief, I was learning a ton especially being a boot Marine on my first deployment. I carried a lot of responsibility on the team for being the most junior and it was awesome. It was Iraq in 2009 though so it wasn’t like we were getting into fire fights every single day or rolling over IED’s left and right. We just did our jobs, then got to base and lifted, played Risk or cards, watched movies, and just messed around. I loved being on deployment because life is so simple. It’s do your job eat hydrate and wait for the next mission. There’s no drama or news or anything that’s a worry in the U.S. You just focus on your job and keeping your other Marines alive. It’s a very simple, easy life, minus the risk of death I guess!
Can you explain the complications of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Explain why the battle against terrorism is so complicated from your personal viewpoint.
ES: Man this isn’t really a question I want to get a whole lot into simply because there are so many opinions on it. I always looked at it like this:
Saddam was a really bad guy and the Taliban is a really bad group. We did a lot of good for a lot of people by getting rid of/destabilizing both. I had countless Iraqi’s thank us for being there and embrace our presence. For the most part the population was really cool with us. I was 19 years old and didn’t have much perspective on things at the time. I just knew I wanted to keep my guys safe and do my job so I didn’t get anyone killed. I didn’t care about the government and politics. I cared about the guy to my left and to my right.
What I do see is a lot of ignorance about the whole thing from the general population. It’s one thing to disagree with policy and the war. But people talk like they know what it’s like in Iraq or Afghanistan. They have no clue what it's like because they haven't been there! Those cultures are so vastly different from the USA as far as morals, ethics, customs, and just all around ways of life. It can’t be compared to us and people need to really stop trying to talk like they know how people over there feel or think. America is so sheltered and far removed from countries like that, that even if you’re a world traveler you have no clue what the middle east is like unless you’ve spent some real length of time there. It’s like a different world and a lot of people don’t get that. They just speak from the safety of their undisrupted home.
By no means do I think this was like WWII and there was a real threat of an invading army and we were fighting for “freedom." I think the U.S. Military stands for freedom in general principal, but we are such a strong force the USA and its way of life are only in threat of being destroyed by our own people not terrorism or ISIS. It’s complicated because we’ve made it complicated. We could easily pull off the glove and end the whole thing, but we don’t and I don’t really know if we should be the ones to do that. Instability in those countries goes back to biblical times, and nothing we do or say is going to change those people. They have to want to do it on their own. That’s why as soon as we take out one group another one pops up and another one and over and over again. You can’t undo thousands of years of culture and tribal ties.
What was your most memorable moment in any deployment as far as feeling like you made a difference?
ES: I remember when I was pulling security in a meeting for our Major and some local leaders and this Iraqi teenager had to serve me and the other infantry guy, tea. He was pissed and pulling attitude. Little did I know the infantryman could speak Arabic and started talking to him. We sat there with this Iraqi kid for 30 minutes just talking about ourselves and what it was like to be there. And heard the same from him. He ended up really softening up and being friendly, giving us a hug before we left. That was really cool to see that even with different points of view and different backgrounds we were in the same place, and could overcome that and leave things on good terms.
What was the hardest thing about being away from home?
ES: Everyday conveniences! There’s no internet and cell phones or ordering food or even flush toilets. I lived in the dirt for 2 weeks and had to build my own living space out of scrap wood. Even being homeless in the states is better than living over there. If you’re homeless in Iraq where I was, you were dead in a week. Simple as that. I missed family and friends, but I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids so I just focused on the job I had to do. I don’t think I realized all of it until I was back in the states and realized how good we have it here.
What’s the hardest part about the actual deployment?
ES: The exhaustion. There are times when sleeping and food aren’t really an option. And you can’t let your guard down or relax because complacency gets people killed. When the operational tempo is high you have to learn to keep pushing and not sacrifice the quality of your work.
Did you feel stigmatized or at all detached from society when you came back? Talk a little bit about what that's like.
ES: Coming home was weird. I knew things were going to be hard because I was hurt and everyone back home was dying to see me. My mom showed up at (Camp) Pendleton and surprised me when we got back. I remember not being happy but was angry and I couldn’t figure out why. That carried on for a long time, and I just sort of accepted that’s how I was. Over 300 people were on my street block when I got back to Denver for post- deployment leave, which was really overwhelming. I got inside pretty quick and didn’t really leave my house much for the rest of the time. I didn’t feel stigmatized, but I felt distant from people. They expected me to be the exact same and while I felt like I, was for the most part, I just didn’t relate to a lot of things anymore, and they didn’t seem to get that. I felt like people wanted things from me I could no longer give and it made me angry. That eventually turned into depression, which caused a lot of problems for me. People have always been so supportive of me and I’ve never had anyone say anything bad about me spending time in the military. I just felt like I had changed and no longer related to where I was from or the people I knew there. I just internalized that and faked it as best as I could as long as I could.
If you could tell a civilian one thing in order to help how you are perceived or “handled,” what would that be?
ES: Check your biases at the door. Everyone has their own perception of what it’s like to be in the military or be a veteran. They then like to relate that perception to the veteran they’re talking to and that’s really annoying. Civilians are best served by getting to know an individual veterans story. I don’t want to have to give canned answers about my experiences, but when I’m talking to someone and they’re telling me all the things they know or have heard about veterans I just give them a canned response to get them to stop. I don’t think these people mean to do that, but if they just stopped to think and listen they might realize there’s a lot to being a veteran they don’t know about. Especially since our experiences are all so unique and our perceptions of those experiences are different. Get to know the veteran, what they did, and what that means to them instead of trying to hear what you think a veteran is or hear war stories.
Talk a little bit about what it means to you to be a Marine.
ES: Being a Marine means I can do whatever it is the fuck I want to do! I don’t mean that like I’m irresponsible, but I know there’s nothing I can’t do that I commit to doing. Peter Pace said “You’re making the wrong assumption that a Marine by himself is outnumbered." I think that’s really powerful because I know what I’m capable of. I know what I’ll do when it’s time to kill or be killed. That gives me a level of confidence others walking around don’t have. Not only that but I know I can ask for help from any Marine any time and they’ll be ready to assist. While life isn’t always so demanding I rely on my confidence as Marine to keep me going at work, in school, and other challenging aspects of life. The reaction I love the most when telling people for the first time I was a Marine is “Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense!” To me, that means I’m living up to something and carrying on the reputation the Marines before me set.
What was it like getting to participate in the Invictus Games and medaling? What was the most memorable part of that experience?
ES: The Invictus Games were absolutely incredible and I’m so honored I was able to participate in that. I think civilians tend to be the most interested in wounded warriors and we’re in the spotlight quite a bit because of that. Since we are, I think it’s incredibly important to be an ambassador for all veterans in those moments and that was my goal in being at the Invictus Games. It’s unbelievable the amount of support I received being on Team USA and going to Orlando to compete. The word humbled doesn’t begin to explain how I feel seeing that support and more so seeing my teammates crush it in their competitions. Adaptive sports have been a keystone of my recovery, which has helped me move into a career and other areas of my life. I was less focused on medals and winning going into the Invictus Games and really wanted to come out of it with as much as I possibly could. I think a defining moment for me was walking into the opening ceremonies at night. All the other countries walked out first and I could hear everyone in the stadium screaming and cheering. I was in the first row of the U.S. team as we walked out and the crowd went absolutely wild. It was like a shockwave hitting because of how loud people were cheering. It was such a cool experience because I wasn’t being singled out for individual accomplishments. It was about coming together as Team USA and representing our country in that spirit.
Talk a little bit about the superhero mantra that civilians attach to soldiers. Is there any truth to that or what do you think about it?
ES: I’m really biased about this, because I’ve seen a lot of the guys in the military and they’re by no means super heroes... I think there is an over valorization of our military. That comes from civilian misconceptions and veterans/military members perpetuating it. The majority of jobs in the military are non-combat and most people in the military don’t experience combat. But that’s ultimately the job of the military, so people naturally assume all service members are these war torn combat hardened individuals. The military has a rich heritage of fighting and winning America’s battles. But, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t like WWII where even the admin clerks would be in trenches fighting. It’s the 21st century and war has become smarter and more sophisticated. I think people associate combat to the willingness to join the military and possibly face injury or death. To me those things aren’t one in the same. Just because you were willing to do it, doesn’t mean you did do it. And experience it is an entirely thing all together. Even veterans who never deployed seem to have this Hollywood perception of what combat is like. I wish veterans and civilians would talk honest about military experiences. If you were a logistics Marine and never deployed, cool. Talk about that with pride and the things you did. You don’t need to be some combat experienced soldier to be proud of your service. But what tends to happen is civilian's perceptions of soldiers gets combined with their gratitude of the military and they see the willingness to join the military as the same level of those who went to combat. But that does a disservice to veterans especially as they transition. Let's say you’re trying to get a job but you have to overcome all these stereotypes of being a veteran and having been to combat or having PTSD even if that was never your experience. There’s a lot more to veterans than that, and we need to be honest about our experiences, and civilians need to be willing to change their perceptions.
What about being an athlete is therapeutic and how has that helped you through your injuries both mentally and physically?
ES: Getting involved in athletics helped me get over the major hurdles I was facing as a transitioned veteran. I was having a lot of issues and not doing well in school, at work, or in my relationships. Getting out on the track and in the pool helped me focus on something else and made me work hard. As I started to succeed there I felt great and it motivated me to have success elsewhere like in my recovery and in a career. Knowing I put in my best effort was always satisfying and I could share in the victor's happiness. Putting in my best effort and walking out the victor put me on the next level, and reminded me of what I could do.
Veteran’s taking their own lives is a topic that comes up very often in our community. What do you think the problem stems from and what do you think we can do as a society to bring that number down?
ES: This is a really tough topic to touch on, so I’ll keep this somewhat brief.
1. PTSD is a societal issue not a military specific one. There are far more Americans with PTSD from traffic accidents and sexual assault then there are veterans with it.
2. Keep the D in PTSD because it is a disorder which means it can be treated.
3. I’ve read a lot of different studies about the number of veteran suicides, and they all contradict each other.
What does needs to happen is a general de-stigmatization of mental health issues period. The VA was integral to my healing of mental health issues, but that took a while and I had to fight a lot of battles to get the help I needed. I’m tired of seeing veterans just buck the entire VA system like it’s all garbage because it’s not. Not only that, but it’s really one of the few places we can get help for military specific issues whether we like it or not. What needs to happen is we need to build our own community support with each other as veterans and push each other to keep seeking help professionally. As much as I can talk with my boys about the issues I’ve dealt with, it took real professional help and medicine for me to be okay. Just talking with your boys isn’t going to change the fact that you might have chemical imbalances in your brain that make you want to kill yourself. This stuff isn’t going to end soon, but I’m seeing a really scary trend of veterans pushing other veterans away from the VA and getting help that they really need. Since when did being a veteran mean quitting and giving up because it didn’t work the first, second, third, or however many times? And lastly take that same attitude and apply it somewhere else in your life. When you take the uniform off that’s a huge change in identity. Don’t sit and focus on it likes that’s the only identity that matters. For me, sports got me going and allowed me to belong somewhere else. I would encourage all veterans to go find a new passion, hobby, sport that challenges them and makes them work. You can’t spend your entire time fighting the battles, it’ll become overwhelming.
How do you see our country in the current overall cultural climate? What would you fix if you could and what do you love about the United States?
ES: There’s a ton of division in this country right now. What I tend to see happening is people are focused on issues somewhere other than where they actually are. I never see someone posting about a first-hand experience of a controversial issue. They’re always talking about their opinion on something happening somewhere else in the country. Put down your keyboard and go do some service in your own community and you’ll see how great it really is; and that all of this division is overblown hype. That’s what I would fix. I would say you can’t open your mouth on an opinion until you’ve experienced it first hand, or walked a mile in the shoes of the one you’re disagreeing with. Opinions are cheap. Hit the pavement and go build some relationships with the group you disagree with. I love the USA because you are allowed to have those opinions, and even when things seem tough someone or some group always rises to the occasion and gets through it.
How did your time in service help you from a training perspective as an athlete?
ES: Physical limitations unless caused by injury are always set by our minds. Mental toughness is something I learned early on in the Marines. When things are going to hell or you think you can’t push any further, it just takes an attitude adjustment to turn the situation around for the better.
Who are the people that lift you up on your bad days? Who’s your support team?
ES: I’m just going to list these people by name because I have truly the best group of support anyone on this planet could ever hope for.
Mom/Dad: Dawn and Stan
Sisters: Talyn and Saryn
Justin Reed and Theresa
This is a small group of people that have made incredible impacts in my life. There would be a crater if any of them left. Also, groups like Semper Fi Fund/Team Semper Fi for all of the support they’ve given me in the way of resources and financial. My first real boss Alison Bodor who was always tough but fair and helped me develop professionally to be successful in a career. There are so many others that have come and gone in my life that have helped me when I needed it sometimes when I didn’t even realize it at the time. And my wounded warrior family, who continues to remind that injury is a mindset not a circumstance. I’m the master of my fate, I’m the captain of my soul. Never fucking quit!
There's an old saying that I learned probably about ten years back. "There's no such thing as a former Marine." What that quote embodies is a warfighter lineage that transcends cultures, races, and religions. A warrior that stacks up with the Spartans, Roman soldiers, the Mongols, the Apache, and the Samurai. The USMC will always have a place in the history books as one of the greatest warrior cultures of all time. Men like Evan are the incarnation of the ethos, "Semper Fidelis." The biggest of all "thanks" goes to Evan for spending the day with me and opening up about his experiences.
Secondly, I would not be able to get some of the content I get without a little help. Thanks to 24 Hour Fitness for their hospitality in letting me photograph at one of their Denver locations. Travis the GM was incredibly helpful. A big thanks to DaVita as well for letting me photograph Evan at his place of work. There are some companies that give resistance to photographers coming in but DaVita gave me the red carpet treatment. Thank you for helping support my project.
Lastly, I've been asked by a lot of people how to keep this going. I'll always make The Veterans Project work. However, it makes it a lot more possible when I have your support. Want to help? Share this story! Or, buy a shirt. All proceeds from The Veterans Project shirt go to telling more stories. Also, reach out to a veteran you know today. Through the conglomeration of these stories I think you can see community is one of the defining factors in reintegration. If you know a veteran, reach out and simply ask how they are doing. You'll make a greater impact than you know. That's how you can help.