This blog took a lot longer to write than I'd like to admit. The reason behind this was because I quite honestly didn't know what to say on this platform. I feel a greater and greater responsibility to do my veterans justice when I cover them the bigger this blog gets. The thing that resonated in my discussions with Liam Fuller was the ominous dark cloud of suicide. Liam was a Marine serving in 2/7 (2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Division) and this battalion is unfortunately noted as having more suicides than combat deaths, certainly a black mark that many will remember for a long time to come. Why do so many young men come back and take their own lives? The problem with 2/7 is that it grew to such a level that a formal investigation was opened up by the Marine Corps. "Why even bring this up?" you might be wondering. I went into cover Liam that day and he texted me something to the effect of, "Hey can we hold off on the pictures when you first get here. I need some time." Another of Liam's brothers had taken his own life. This is the reality we now face. Suicide continues to be a persistent problem within our ranks and I don't really know how to change that. I lost my best friend from my unit to the same issue. However, instead of making this all about veteran suicide and the negativity that surrounds the plague; I thought I'd turn this into a message of hope. Liam Fuller for all intents and purposes will tell you that he was a troublemaker as a Marine. He didn't always do things the right way and he's very open about that. It's not to say he was a bad Marine. In fact, I'd say some of the guys that got in the most trouble on the garrison side were some of the best soldiers and marines I've ever had the privilege of serving with.
The point is, Liam could've easily gotten out of the Marine Corps and gone in the wrong direction. Liam openly admitted to not having much direction when he got out of the Corps (something a lot of Marines and soldiers face when they leave the service). There's that big question of "What do I do now?" that many of us face when we reach that ETS date. We felt valuable in our time in the military and now that time is up. We get out and there's no grand finale parade, no fireworks, no buzzing lights pointing us in the direction of wonderful civilian jobs where fellow workers will immediately respect our time in service. Maybe that's an issue of entitlement but I would look a little further into the issue and say that quite honestly our skills aren't as respected as they should be. There's this negativity surrounding the idea of PTSD and that scares a lot of civilian establishments away from the veteran hiring circle. It shouldn't be that way but that's how it is. If you're 2/7 and you're reading this I want you to read Liam's story and realize that you are valuable. I know that when you're in that place there may be nothing anyone can say to pull you out of the hole, but I just want you to realize that you are valuable. The military, the USMC specifically, has given you a set of skills that no other organization can teach. To not utilize those skills would be a travesty. You spent all that time in the Marine Corps serving for ridiculously low pay with a variable set of skills that no other corporation could grant you. You toiled hours on end painfully and here you are now. There won't be a ticker-tape parade waiting for you at the end and Liam can attest to that. Your greatest gift is now built within. Use those skills and make your country a better place. Some of the most driven people in our entire world are sitting in the barracks at 29 Palms right now wondering what they are going to do when they leave the service.
One of the most driven, disciplined men I've ever known (he was a part of this very project) took his own life and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I talked him off of the edge multiple times and I'll always remember those late night conversations. In the end, it just wasn't good enough. There's not a day that goes by where I don't wonder, "What else could I have done?" To be honest, I don't think there's anything I could've done. Somewhere in the vast caverns of his subconscious, he lost that feeling of belonging... or maybe he never had it. I can't for sure say why he took his own life, but I know the persistent problem was feeling that he had no more purpose in his day-to-day. That feeling is a lie. Your leadership ability alone makes you a million times more valuable than the average civilian. Hold that tight, stay afloat, and realize your future is your own. To those civilians reading this, you're not making it easier when you treat us like PTSD-laden viruses. If you're a leader in a business or community, find out how you can help us. It's good for your organization. We are strong, capable, driven leaders that can have a very direct impact on your work. Read this blog on Liam and tell me you can't see that. I've already spoken enough but I had to get it off my chest. To the boys of 2/7 both here and lost, this is for you. I respect you, I love you, I believe in you and I will 'til the day I die. Although we served in different branches, you will always be my brothers. Don't lose that sense of bravado, cunning, and fearlessness that the Marine Corps gave you when you get out. Work hard to maintain that and show others how capable you are. I will hope and pray that they give you a chance. If they don't? Blaze another trail. You're Marines. Blazing trails is your specialty. Here's Liam.
Talk about your time overseas and what it was like to deploy to Iraq.
LF: So when we deployed to Iraq the majority of my seniors had been in the exact same area of Fallujah the previous deployment. This was true to such a degree that my squad leader was having conversations with the same guy at the market who he'd known before on his last deployment. They remembered each other and there was that established rapport that they'd built on that first tour. Rolling into that deployment, a lot of the junior guys benefitted from our senior guys having been in that same area a year before that. Knowing our way around and knowing what to expect was such a great thing for us. The first part of my deployment was seriously pretty boring. I always wondered, "When is this going to happen? When will see some action?" I was asleep in a house outside of Assadan Market when the guys from our unit got into their first firefight. I didn't even know about it until they came back from the firefight for their AAR (After Action Review). They came in and were like, "Yeah we got into a firefight just down the road." I was just like, "Damn, I missed it."
After that though we started to ramp up operations. We'd spend a week outside of the wire living in the villages or living out of our trucks. We would circle up the wagons in the middle of nowhere or run a patrol base out of an abandoned building, which was a lot of fun. I hated filling sandbags all the time, but it was fun because I got to experience a lot of the culture being surrounded by it a lot. I got to experience a lot more by being out there instead of being stuck at Camp Fallujah. It was hard work but those moments of levity where funny things start happening or you could see joy in the people's faces, those moments were the ones I loved the most. You could see some of the townspeople genuinely smiling and glad you were there. That felt really good. I'll always remember the kids being thrilled by my friend Devin Jackson because he was this big black guy. He was a big sweetheart but he'd reach this point where we ran out of candy and he'd lose his patience with the kids. It was hysterical to watch.
The fighting started to get a little more intense after that. We were hitting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) more often and getting into firefights more often. I still remember the first time I got shot at and could see the person shooting at me. That's when things got real for me. I remember thinking, "This is real. This is actually happening. Someone wants me dead." There was this switch where we'd realized before that there was potential for things to happen but we hadn't really seen anything. I won't say that we got complacent because I was always thinking about where guys could pop up at when we were outside the wire, but we probably got a little relaxed. It was a game changer when I had that first face-to-face confrontation with the enemy. The tempo started to change and we started to be more proactive in looking for the fight. The first time that it hit me really hard was when MAP 2 lost one of their vehicle crews. They lost their lieutenant and driver, and my friend Denny got ejected from his turret on the vehicle. We got called out on QRF (Quick Reaction Force) and we had to pick-up our own. We came home from that deployment having lost eight Marines.
I remember in particular one incident that I now think about and laugh. If you've been in combat, you quickly realize that there are situations where you have a choice to laugh or cry. We got hit by, at the time, the largest SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) in the Iraq War. When EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) came out they thought someone had dropped a missile or rocket on us because there was a huge shot-hole. We were set-up in a house that served as a patrol base and a dump truck made it through quite a few of our security measures. I want to say the vehicle made it to within about 55 feet of the house that we were occupying. We ended up CASEVAC'ing (Casualty Evacuation) sixteen of our Marines from the platoon. The blast rolled our up-armored humvees multiple times, it threw a Mark 19 Machine Gun 300 yards away into a wheat field. It was a devastating experience for our platoon. I remember being shaken awake. I'd just been on the roof of that building manning an overwatch position. I heard my buddy John Ahlstrom on the corner calling out on the vehicle. I get handed my med bag, I remember looking at my buddy while my ears were ringing, and there's just dust and dirt everywhere in the middle of the debris. My gunner in my vehicle, John Ellenich was standing there and he had blood pouring off his fingers.
I got him to turn around and he had glass covering his back from the explosion. There were chunks embedded in his scalp and all down the back of his legs. I tried to flick as much glass as I could off of him until the Corpsman got there to wrap him up. I started to realize all the devastation when I saw the collapsed room and saw all my brothers lying there in the debris. A bunch of the concrete had collapsed in on the Marines. One of my NCOs, Corporal Dobbs was trapped under concertina wire and concrete chunks. He'd fractured his elbow really badly as well. I remember one of my buddies was missing the tip of his nose and I was trying to keep the bandage on his face; but he kept moving it so he could make jokes (laughs). Nobody was dead and nobody was critically injured. There was just a lot of carnage and chaos. I remember sitting there at the CASEVAC site and we had to throw like five or six smoke canisters to get noticed. I have this very vivid memory in thinking that this guy had just detonated a massive explosive with intent on killing us all and none of us were dead. In fact, we were sitting there laughing and joking about it shortly after it happened. It sucked for a bit but everyone was kind of in good spirits even shortly after.
Was that the roughest experience for you over there?
LF: My roughest day was showing up as QRF for MAP 2 when they lost their vehicle. I drove Victor 2 in MAP 1 and my platoon commander was in my vehicle. We already knew they'd hit an IED before we got there. We heard the nine line go up but I was very focused on not hitting another IED and getting us there in one piece. I hadn't really had time to process it all. We got there and setup the outer cordon and I just remember seeing the MAP 2 guys with body bags picking up pieces. The dismounts got out to lend assistance to these guys and I'm just hearing bits and pieces going across the radios. When I heard Denny was okay I felt a lot better but then I start hearing about LT Blue and Delatorre. It was really shitty for me because the last time I'd seen Delatorre I was ragging on him really hard. I was being an ass so for me it was like, "Shit, I hope that guy knew that I loved him. I hope he knows how much I cared about him." There was such a rush of emotions and I didn't know how to conduct myself in those moments. I just remember seeing the photos of the vehicle on our sensitive site exploitation camera and being amazed that Denny lived. I still don't know how he made it after being ejected from the turret. Losing those other Marines was tough though. That was my roughest day personally.
Talk about your time in the Marine Corps and what that was like.
LF: I definitely loved being in the Marine Corps. First of all, it brought me the simple pride that I was a Marine and nobody could take that from me. I was very fortunate to serve under some amazing senior leadership. These guys cared a lot about the mission and who conducted the mission. Looking back, I now realize that we bitched about a lot just to bitch and those things didn't really make a huge difference in our lives. We just would much rather be blowing up stuff or attacking the enemy than sitting in the sand at 29 Palms. Those down times are when you start to think, "Wait, maybe I took a wrong turn when I didn't go to college (laughs)." I definitely love the unit I come from and there's so much unit pride in 2/7. The leadership always pushes the pride thing and you really do feel that. We are the Marines that get handed the short end of the stick and are expected to do great things. I felt the weight heavily of carrying the standard of being a part of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. And that's not to say that we didn't have our issues or problems. We just had some guys that were really damn good at their jobs and they took those jobs very seriously.
Why did you join the Marine Corps?
LF: Honestly, joining the Marine Corps was one of the easiest decisions I've ever made in my life. I remember being nine years old when my brother JP came back and we did family portraits for Christmas and he was in his dress blues. That was the moment when I thought, "I'm going to be like my big brother. I'm going to be a Marine." I took it as far to actually follow almost directly in his footsteps. He was a 0352 anti-armor TOW gunner and so I knew when I went into the Marines that I wanted to do that. Growing up, anything that was Marine Corps related was something I was into. I remember my high school football coach asking me what I was going to do when I got out of high school and I answered right away, "Join the Marines." He knew a recruiter but I was living in Alpine, Texas so I had to drive 2 1/2 hours to Midland, Texas just to visit with him. I had a pretty decent job right out of high school so I waited a bit but when I got to Houston I finally pulled the trigger and joined. I graduated boot camp right after my 21st birthday.
What was it like coming back from that deployment?
LF: I deployed at 168 lbs and I came back at 135 lbs so the biggest concern for me was getting back to Texas and getting to Whataburger immediately (laughs). That was my greatest goal. I didn't know what to expect when I got back. I know they'd started to brief families on letting them know what we'd gone through over there. I went on recruiter's assistance when I got back and didn't immediately take my post-deployment leave. I was friends with the recruiter back in Midland, Texas so he asked me if I wanted to help out around the recruiting station for a bit. It was weird to go from being over there and reaching for your weapon and gear all the time. Then you get back and you don't have to do that anymore. Driving felt really weird at first. This is slightly off subject but hilarious.
In 29 Palms, California there's a guy that painted his car to look like an Iraqi taxi with the orange and white panels. I was driving out of 29 Palms to go see my friends and I about lost my shit when I saw that vehicle. The guy is a Marine and did it all in good humor, but I just thought to myself, "Wow, what an asshole (laughs)." I learned very quickly that I shouldn't be driving when I got back so I let family do all that for me. There were a lot of the questions like, "How was it? Did you kill anybody?" There were some of those ridiculous questions of course. A lot of my family and friends knew I'd been blown up and my brother, of course, was in the Marine Corps so they kind of knew how to handle me. Coming home really was the decompression time I needed so badly.
I do remember that when I got off the bus my ex-wife, mom, and other family members didn't recognize me. I'd lost thirty pounds while I was over there so it really changed me physically. MREs suck (laughs). Part of me couldn't wait to get back to work though. I'd been informed before I went on leave that I was picking up a new billet and picking up rank. I was told that I'd be the new vehicle commander for Alpha 2. I was going to keep my old machine gunner but every one else was being changed out in my crew. They were going to be sending me to a bunch of schools like Corporal's Course, SOTG, TSULC (Tactical Small Unit Leader's Course), and they'd already planned all that out. There was no "stand by to stand by" time when I got back. A lot of our senior leadership was headed in different directions when we got back so a lot of us were promoted up into these more senior positions. I think by January of 2008 the unit was mostly new guys then we found out we were going to Afghanistan. The training cycle got even more extensive then I blew out my knee and found out I had all these other injuries. Then I got into this cycle where I started having issues and drinking a lot. After that, I realized I needed help.
The more and more that I started to have fixed, the more and more I realized just what was wrong with me. I thought I was just an alcoholic so I went to treatment. They told me I was self-medicating so they immediately started to try to find out why I was doing that. All my boys were in Afghanistan and here I was sitting there with a bunch of medical issues. We had a plan for me to get fit, get right, and get to Afghanistan. It didn't end up that way and I ended up on a med board. I just remember sitting down with all these regimental commanders and trying to map out a plan for me to either get healthy or make a linear move to another MOS. I ended up going home on Temporary Disable Retired List but I was sitting there looking at the blotter and seeing all our losses while we were in Afghanistan. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt about not being over there. I knew all our guys that were in our element back in RBE (Remain Behind Element) were devastated by not being there. That kind of guilt isn't good for anyone and that guilt compounded my issues.
What's the greatest complication with fighting terrorism?
LF: It's so hard to fight those cowards. I have Muslim friends that I love, trust, and support so I'm not like a major Islam-a-phobe but I'm anti-extremist. I don't like anyone that's willing to hurt someone physically, emotionally, or mentally because they don't share beliefs. I'm not going to stand around and let people behave that way. The idea of terrorism is just plain wrong. We can dissect it 15 million different ways but in the end it's just wrong. We can talk about the environment and the theater of war. The distance and media makes it hard for people back here to understand the necessity of what we do. If it was going on over here people would understand a lot better why we do what we do. They'd understand why the war was so hard.
Our enemy is the biggest bunch of pansies there are. They don't have the intestinal fortitude to stand up and fight us head on. They hide behind women and children. I could have a slight bit of respect for them if they stood directly against us and fought us in front-to-front battle. I mean really it wouldn't even need to be that. I can respect the guerilla tactics they use but hiding behind the women and children is such a chicken-shit move. It's like someone talking a ton of smack to you when they're in a crowd and like a quarter mile away and they're walking away from you while they're doing it. That's what fighting them is like. I remember we got hit by a drive-by. These guys came flying down the road and opened up on us with AKs. Their windows weren't rolled all the way down so their rounds went like way over our heads. I just remember laughing and thinking, "Were you celebrating something or were you trying to kill us? You're going to have to try a lot harder than that if you're trying to kill us." They would take pot-shots from like ridiculous distances where we wouldn't even take cover.
There's a major difference between guerilla tactics and cowardice of course. Packing a kids backpack with explosives and sending him through a crowded marketplace isn't guerilla. Their religion is large, they have a huge community and many rich proponents of Islam. Unfortunately, these peaceful groups of Muslims won't stand against and denounce Islamic extremists. I hear these Muslims whine and complain about getting labeled a certain way. Police your own if you don't want to be stereotyped. It's so rare to see groups of Muslims denouncing these terror groups. That needs to change. I think the whole world would view Islam differently if there were large swaths denouncing the actions of extremists.
A lot of veterans I've talked to describe a feeling of detachment when they get back. Did you experience that upon returning home?
LF: I definitely experienced detachment when I got home in a couple of ways. First, from my brothers because they couldn't accept that I was addressing a problem that most of us had. They thought I was running and hiding from another deployment but I was trying to get my head right. They unfriended me, blocked me, and wouldn't talk to me because I was trying to get right. Then I went to our reunion and find out half of them are now in treatment for those same things. They finally started realizing they actually had these issues. Granted, it doesn't affect everyone the same way but a lot of them were feeling the way I was when I got back. Secondly, I got right back into the job field I'd left before I joined the Corps. When you come back, the company you left to enlist is obligated to rehire you and give you a chance to resume normal duties. So, I went back into freight management.
I remember when I got back they were like, "You're an awesome employee, you're always 15 minutes early, you do all your work, but please quit yelling at your fellow staff members and please be mindful of your language. These 18, 19, 20-year-old kids don't like being yelled at or being told they're stupid." You see all the memes talking about shit we say but is not accepted in the civilian world and it's hilarious because it's true. Most of us have been there. You can't say, "Seriously, if you don't shut your cock-holster I'm going to shut it for you." That's something we can say that's completely and widely accepted in the military. The civilian world isn't so cool with that. I live in Austin, Texas and I love that city for the most part. It's a very intellectual, open-minded, intelligent city but with that, you have people that are more inclined to voice a less than educated opinion on our wars. It's funny to see all the conservative community guys that live in Austin yet it's such a liberal city. However, we have a great support base of veterans here and I'm glad for that. They want to see us transition and succeed in our civilian lives.
I remember I started to bounce on 6th street and everyone kind of thought I wanted to do it because I was looking for a fight. I think there were maybe like five serious physical altercations in the two years I bounced so that wasn't really true. I enjoyed that it put me on edge. That's what I liked about bouncing. It gave me a very specific job and if the need should arise I knew I could physically handle myself in that situation. I did that for a little while but eventually working every night gets kind of old. That's why you don't see any old bouncers. It was very monotonous. I decided at that moment I was going to go back to school. Holy crap, there should be a week long course on how not to get in trouble in an academic setting when you leave the Marines. There should be a guidebook on what to expect. Invest in a good pair of headphones and don't listen to the 18 or 19-year-old kids in your classrooms. My God, it was so hard. I went to an art school as well where I was pretty much regarded as the devil.
Then I made it even worse by deciding to do firearms photography. I was doing all these shoots at "SHOT Show," at ranges, and various military training events. I remember them not wanting to show my work because it was firearm related. There were art exhibits with all these dicks showing but you can't show a gun (laughs). That's offensive. The cool thing though is that all of the teachers actually loved the veteran students and I ended up running the SVA (Student Veterans Association) at Art Institute of Austin. Matt King came over from the SVA at UT Austin and helped us set that up. That was a major eye opener for us and for the administration. They started to realize as faculty that they were legally obligated to put precendents in place to help us through certain things. That was a major help. At one point in time, the veteran population at Art Institute was like 36% of the overall student population. So, we setup that organization and realized there were a ton of issues to address. Interestingly enough, that's what got me back into working with the veteran community.
If you could do one thing to change how you are perceived by civilians or to change a civilians perception what would that be?
LF: Don't walk around on eggshells but if you're awkward we're going to feel awkward. Even the most epic of us working in the world of Special Operations are still human beings. They may have done much cooler shit than you but they're still people. We are all still members of a community. Just treat us like you would any other human beings hopefully, with respect and dignity.
Why do you think there's such a large disconnect between civilians and soldiers coming back?
LF: I think a lot of it has to do with how the wars were covered in the beginning. There was so much media coverage that I think people were burnt out on us. It's like that hit song that keeps playing again and again. The media constantly kept throwing the wars in everyone's faces. Plus, it's the age of information and misinformation anyone with a keyboard and wifi can have an opinion that everyone can see. This opinion then gets shared and shared and shared. How many people are actually going to fact check that article? So now, it's turned veterans and the military into monsters. Society doesn't want to acknowledge us because we got our "time in the light" and it was controversial because of so much misinformation going out. And that's not everyone. There are a lot of people out there that always want to see us grow and flourish. But, quite honestly, I think the country is pretty much split 50/50 on how they see us.
What's been your most memorable experience since you've left military service?
LF: Helping set up the Student Veteran's Association on the campus at my college was my most memorable experience so far. Once we set that up, veterans realized their resources and were able to complete their degrees when they otherwise might not have completed those degrees. A lot of vets didn't realize that the school was obligated to help them in certain ways. The SVA fixed that issue on our campus.
When I moved in with my fiancè I noticed my next door neighbors had the U.S., Marine Corps flag and a "What Would Chad Do?" sign outside their house. I'd started running in the park around there and I'd noticed a memorial bench for a Marine out of the same regiment as me. I'd heard about him and my friends knew him. His name was Chad and he was from 3/7 and he'd passed away in the barracks due to complications from his meds. His parents had started the Corporal Chad Foundation to raise awareness over PTSD. I realized I was living next door to his dad so I got involved with their foundation. I was going through a hard time in fighting the VA, something I'm still doing now, and the Corporal Chad Foundation got me into new doctors and paid for it. I hate feeling indebted to people so I got involved and helped as much as I could. I got involved in some fund-raising and event planning and seeing what Chad O's foundation has been able to accomplish has been a big thing.
Why did you start BlackGuard Customs?
LF: I like making epic shit (laughs). I've always kind of been a "jack of all trades, master of none" type. I know a lot about very few things and very little about a lot of things. I've always been a tinkerer and the artistic type growing up in the family I grew up in. I've always had some really badass friends who helped me grow in my work. I tinkered around in the Kydex industry a little bit when I was contracting and we started a company. We filed for patents, did some company development, and started doing some really cool stuff. Then all three of us wound up on different jobs. One buddy was in Afghanistan, one was in Iraq, and I was back here doing stupid stuff all over the place (laughs).
The company kind of died at the idea phase because of that, but it was an amazing learning experience. When I stopped working with the last company I was working with and I went back to my degree, I was in my garage in my off time where I went back to making holsters and other Kydex gear. I was modifying gear for guys and doing some tactical gear work and two of my buddies were like, "We need a couple of sheaths for our tomahawks because we are going on a hog hunt when we get back." So, I was like "Alright, cool." They sent me a tomahawk and I made the sheaths. They told me to keep the tomahawk which was really cool but I thought, "What the hell am I going to do with a tomahawk? (laughs)" This thing was sitting in my garage and I was having one of those manic nights where I couldn't sleep and I was feeling super creative.
I decided to go out into my garage and just start engraving on this tomahawk. I had it for a couple weeks and I was doing a photography job for Survival Tactical Systems and Rogue American Apparel. They were doing the Raider Project Charity event that night and they were throwing tomahawks. I thought, "Cool, now I can show off my engraving work to my buddies." Everyone just went gaga over my work. They thought it was super cool. It turned into a 25 axe order for Rogue American Apparel. I was expecting that order to take awhile to sell. I was on my way back from dropping off that order and I get a call from Wes (founder of Rogue American Apparel) and he says, "We need more axes." Those axes were gone after two hours.
After that, I was working at SHOT Show as a photographer and everyone was coming up to me and referring to me as "The Axe Guy." I wound up leaving SHOT Show with $5,000 in contracts for custom axe work and no photography work (laughs). That was the point where I realized what I needed to be doing. It's really cool that it's caught on like it has but I still don't really know why it has. I look at other's work and I think, "Man, I wish I was that good." It baffles me that my work is as valued as it is.
What's the biggest issue in our community with veterans taking their own lives?
LF: Do you ever like admitting to someone that there's something wrong with you? Pride is a huge factor in veterans taking their own lives. As recently as last night, I had to find out that another one of the guys from my unit decided to take his own life. The first time that I knew or served with anyone who committed suicide I was still in uniform. It's gotten worse and worse and worse over the years. There've been more and more guys taking their own lives, to the point that my storied historical unit holds one of the absolute worst attributions for any military unit to hold. There are more deaths attributed to suicide in 2/7 than in combat. It's been one of those things when guys first started committing suicide my brothers would be super torn up about it and we'd be really angry at the individual who'd taken their own life. We wondered why they didn't tell us or give us any indication. That turned into us wondering if it was something we didn't do or say.
There are so many ways to dissect the issues that lead to suicide and I quite honestly have one of the most unpopular opinions when it comes to suicide. It's nobody's fault but the individual themselves for making that decision. It is the ultimate selfish decision because you're choosing to end your life and end your pain, but that pain isn't just going away. That pain is transferred onto the people you've left behind in your friends and family. I'm not taking this opinion or stance from anywhere but my own experiences. I was traveling down that path and I've found myself at that crossroads. It's a very terrible thing, one to admit and two to go to that place. I've heard guys say that people who say they've gone to that place are just seeking attention. Really? That's not good attention. A lot of people taking their own lives aren't seeking help, so how do we make them do that? It's like the alcohol or drug addicted. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink. They're basically addicted to their own issues and they don't want to let those go. If you don't want help and people are trying to help you, what else can we do?
How do we reduce that number?
LF: I don't know how we reduce suicides. All I know is that every time my phone goes off in the middle of the night, I'm preparing to either hear terrible news or to talk to a guy who's in a bad place. I'm on guard all the time. If my phone goes off in the middle of the night, that's immediately where my mind goes. I don't know how to help everybody or change this number. I can only try to help one person and that's the person seeking help. I'm not going to try to tell you how I can fix this issue because it's just so complex. Again, how do you help a person that doesn't ask for help or give any indication that they need help?
Talk about the complications of metal work and what's been your toughest project to date?
LF: Toughest project to date... It was probably the guy that wanted to cram $5,000 worth of art work into $50 of axe (laughs). It's kind of a joke at the shop now. No, the hardest work has actually not had to do with the physical task of work. It had to do with the emotional content behind it. Doing memorial pieces sometimes sucks. It really does. You have to think about the amount of pain and suffering these families are going through and they want to commemorate this person's life and existence in a piece of metal that's going to be passed down through generations. Sometimes you have to get up and walk away from the piece because there's so much pressure. You're creating a physical representation of someone's emotions. You want to make them beyond happy and you want to exceed their expectations. It's a very demanding task.
Any artist is worried about how their work will be perceived, looked at, and if people will like it or not. For me, it's making the piece and then getting the reactions. If I miss the mark and they hate it, that is a devastating thing for me as the artist. I could accept it more if it was just a regular custom piece but having it be a memorial piece makes it so much heavier of a task. The most labor intensive memorial piece I did was last year's Chris Kyle Memorial Benefit piece which was a giant Bowie knife, after getting to know Jeff and Wayne. Getting into that circle a little bit and getting to know what they remembered about Chris made the piece even more important to me. It wasn't so much of what we already knew publicly. It was the little things that they remembered that really influenced every aspect of that knife. I worked on that one for a long time.
What do you love most about this country and what would you change if you could?
LF: What do I love most about this country? Texas (laughs). The original idea and intent of this country is what makes it great. It is supposed to be a place for people to be free and prosper and enjoy everything in life that makes them happy. To be able to do that with others that feel the same way is what makes this country great. If I could change anything about our country it would be our party system. I hate our politics. I can not stand our politics. I don't think the people put in position are always the best for the job. We forget that we are supposed to be about the people in this nation.
In your opinion, why is the Marine Corps the best?
LF: The dress blues (laughs). In my personal experience and from my personal opinion, there is no "best." There are Marines that will get upset about that statement. That's okay. We view our job and our branch with such pride and a lot of that pride is earned. Anyone can get into a pissing contest about who's done the most with the least and everyone will have an answer. If you go to the countries we've been involved with, those countries will probably tell you the Marines are the best. Even commanders in other branches of the service have said we are the best. You join the Marine Corps to be a Marine. You're already a little arrogant when you join and that's pounded even more into your head throughout bootcamp. Plus we have "Silkies," or what you Army boys call "Ranger Panties (laughs)."
If you could tell from your past units anything what would you tell them?
LF: I love you. I'd tell the guys from my units, "I love you with everything that I have in me." You guys are only second to my wife and my kids. Any Marine that's served with me or not, you're my family. And, I extend that to vets across the board but I will always have a special place in my heart for Marines. The Marine Corps didn't make me who I am but it brought out the better qualities in me as a human being. It gave me the ability to be more confident in my work and in my talents. I'll always have love for my fellow Marines.
What are your goals going forward with BlackGuard Customs and with life in general?
LF: My goals are to make my company as successful as possible because that'll give me more opportunities to hire veterans. The business provides me with an outlet where I can help charities and foundations I want to assist while providing for my family. We're going to continue to grow, work with the organizations we feel we can best assist, and try to create an overall stronger community through that. At the end of the day, yes it's a business but besides my children, BlackGuard will be my legacy. I want this company to continue on even after I'm gone.
Talk about the superhero mantra that you see associated with soldiers and Marines. What do you think about that?
LF: That mantra exists because we were willing to do things they couldn't, wouldn't or just didn't have the chance to do. The stuff we do isn't easy. Boot camp and training phases are pretty damn tough. If it was easier, more people would be willing to do it. There's such a small part of the population that's willing to step in and fill that gap. Regardless of being combat arms or not, your life is not easy being in the military. It might get easier when you get to your permanent duty station. That's where you see some of those that slip through the cracks. I mean let's be honest. There are some people in the military that probably shouldn't be there. For the most part though, you're talking about people that are willing to risk their lives for an idea.
When it comes down to it, we are putting our lives on the line for an idea. If we were to have a direct global conflict, obviously that small percentage of those serving would have to change. But when you think about it, volunteer service really is an extraordinary thing. You have people willing to step up to the plate in a time of war and that's awesome. I hear the hero thing a lot but that superhero thing is kind of reserved for guys like Tim Kennedy, Nate Boyer, Rudy Reyes, and then guys like Dakota Meyer that find themselves in extraordinary situations and come out on top. Those guys are put on the pedestal because they are the soldier or Marine we all aspire to be. Those guys are my heroes without a doubt.
I'm standing at a service station in Southern California in one of those desolate sectors that you wouldn't be able to distinguish from any long, arid stretch of West Texas. I just passed a sign as I'm heading for the metropolis of Los Angeles and it reads "29 Palms." I watch as an actual, real-life tumble weed rolls across the parking lot. The temperature gauge reads just north of 105 degrees as I wipe my brow. The gas lever clicks letting me know my tank is full and I pause for a second, peering over the bridge of my sunglasses into that desolate, desert wilderness. I think about all of the men who've lost their lives to the silent bullet. There's a strange beauty in the physical characteristics of this part of the country, but the things I know bite hard at my soul. I'm just a passerby in a land I know very little about. I feel chills as that deepening sadness strikes hard within. Too many brothers lost... but I begin to understand the "why" of it much better.
Your time in combat comes to a close and that time was filled with some of the worst fighting our troops have seen in Afghanistan. Your friends are hurt and killed around you while everything moves at 100 mph. You get home and there's nothing but desert and liquor stores to greet you (Google Maps shows four within a five-mile radius). I think back to what my mom used to say when I was a kid. "An idle mind is the devil's workshop." There are few statements truer than this one. As a Marine you're trained to go to war, but what happens when the war is over and you come home? What happens when you settle down and start to dwell on the things that could've gone differently? What happens when there's plenty of time to think about those brothers who aren't with you anymore? I've been asked by many people why there's a difference in suicide numbers between 2/7 and specifically 3/5 when both units experienced heavy losses in some of the same areas. Truthfully, I believe it comes down to the environment Marines are returning to. 29 Palms is truthfully in the middle of nowhere.
Talk to any Marine and that area is described as the "armpit of all armpits." I can almost see the Marine Corps collectively shuddering when I bring up that area. Add some alcohol to that mix and you have the potential for the worst of all disasters. The future can seem pretty bleak when you're surrounded by that environment. The thing I'd like to say to the Marines of 2/7 to wrap things up is, "Look to the example of Liam Fuller." He is one of yours. He went through those same waves of depression, same demonizing thoughts, lived to fight another day, and came out on top. That's not to say he still doesn't struggle. I'm sure he'd tell you he does. When it came down to it, though, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps like the Marine he is and found tranquility in his talents. Now those talents are being used to strengthen our community. He fights with purposeful conviction every single day, using his artistic abilities to give back. I think that's a much better legacy to leave behind than, "I wonder what Liam would've done if he hadn't given in..." That's just my opinion though. If you only take one thing from this blog, enjoy your brother's successes, 2/7. You guys deserve some great post-service stories. I'll be looking for more of you in the future.