The saying echoes through the halls of the Armed Forces as an undeniable credo. Every military member knows it and even some civilians. “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” There’s no such thing as a former Marine. If you want to see that embodied, I invite you to check out this portion of The Veterans Project and my profile of veteran Jesse Diana. Jesse, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, is absolutely everything you’d ask for in a Marine. He’s quietly composed most of the time, but you can see an underlying ferocity within that quiet composure that would make him a frightening opponent on the battlefield. Through the short time I’ve known him, I’ve seen a compassionate heart that cares deeply about those around him and an unyielding spirit that seeks to help out his fellow warriors. Jesse’s first cycle for his non-profit, “Camp Valhalla” was this weekend at the Robertson (Robertson Pools) Ranch and I got to experience it firsthand. It’s an opportunity for fellow veterans to escape the monotony of civilian lives, and come together in a place of understanding. There are opportunities to hunt, fish, play games, and get in some range time (you haven’t been on a range until you’ve been on a range with men who’ve been in combat). I would tell you more about this incredible man, but I will let him do the talking for me. I hope you enjoy the photographs, and most importantly his story. My pictures will all be viewable as well at my instagram @timkolczak. Big thanks to 22Kill, the Robertsons, and my fellow veterans for making this weekend possible.
What’s the hardest part about the actual deployment?
JD: The hardest part about the actual deployment was losing my brothers. You are always thinking that each day is going to be your time to go and as grunts we accept our fate. When we hear or see the passing of a brother it is devastating. There has not been a single day thats gone by where I don't think about each and every one of them. I wear 2 memorial bracelets, one of LCPL Raymon Johnson and the other of LCPL Steve Sutton. Whenever I look at them I remind myself that it is my obligation to not only live, but to live a great life that would in some way honor them and their ultimate sacrifice.
What was the hardest thing about being away from home?
JD: During my second deployment my wife had decided to leave me and at that point all I could think about was my dogs. I have a beagle (Dexter) and pitmix (Roxy) rescue. My dogs are my best friends and have always been there to comfort me when I'm having a “bad day." I've had them for 6 years now and without them I'm not sure I would be here today
What’s it like coming home? What’s the hardest part of that?
JD: Coming home was not at all what I expected. Everyday leading up to going home I was surrounded by my brothers who had the same feelings and mindset as myself. We didn't even need to express ourselves without already being able to understand what we were feeling. It's a connection that only we can understand. When I returned home to New Jersey I felt completely distant and numb. During family gatherings you could find me alone away from everyone else. I had nothing in common with these people. I didn't think like them, act like them, and we now share completely different thoughts about life in general. No one understood me or got my sense of humor. Aside from maybe one or two others, the only people I could associate myself with were other combat veterans. The hardest part of all this was just being lonely, and feeling shunned by the rest of society.
If you could tell a civilian one thing in order to help how you are perceived or handled, what would that be?
JD: Understand that it is okay to not understand us. Don't try to pretend or relate to us because we will never be able to feel that connection. Don't treat us like misfits to society, and just understand that part of serving your country is sacrificing who you once were as a person.
Did you feel stigmatized or at all detached from society when you came back? Talk a little bit about what that's like.
JD: Of course. I mean just take a look at society nowadays. They have completely different priorities and concerns. Most people will scroll right past an obituary of a fallen marine or soldier but will repost the passing of a celebrity and show there condolences. It makes me sad that most of Americans are ignorant about the wars we have fought in and don't take the time to educate themselves. The biggest issue I faced was getting a job. I desperately wanted to be a cop, but because of what I've seen or done I was looked down upon as a liability. I felt it was my obligation to be honest, I mean integrity is a huge demand of Law Enforcement right?
Talk a little bit about what it means to you to be a Marine.
JD: I have a lot of pride being a marine. I remember my drill instructor pulling the grunt recruits aside and telling us that bootcamp will be the easiest thing we do in the marine corps, he wasn't lying. Knowing that most can, but chose not to do what we do on a daily basis gives me pride. I have a ton of respect for other branches as well, because I know it is not just us that go through hell. When someone asks what branch I served in and what MOS I was, there is nothing but pride in my response.
Talk a little bit about the superhero mantra that civilians attach to marines. Is there any truth to that or what do you think about it?
JD: Yes and no. I remember my perception of a marine growing up, but when you see it from the other side we're all just normal. I've had the honor to serve under great leadership, with men that lead from the front and by example, that alone should speak for itself.
Can you tell me a little bit about why you joined the Marines?
JD: On September 11, 2001 my older brother and I skipped school that day. We both felt bad and decided to call my mom to let her know so that she could call us out. When my mom answered the phone she said “Oh thank God, they cancelled school!?” We had no idea what she was referring to until she told us to turn on the TV; and we watched the second plane crash into the twin towers. I was in 7th grade at the time and swore that when I was of age I would join the marine corps and serve my country. I was highly motivated about it and on December of 2007 I signed a 5 year contract as an infantry rifleman (0311).
What keeps you cool in your civilian life? What are some of the things you enjoy that are now therapeutic?
JD: I've found it important to surround myself with like-minded individuals. Being around people with the same mindset and belief has made a huge difference in my life. For my outlets, I tend to destroy myself in the gym, pushing until I physically can't anymore. I also enjoy going to the range and sending a few hundred rounds through my guns. Both of those help me to clear my head of everything aside from the moment in itself. I've found that the most therapeutic and fulfilling thing for me is helping out other veterans in need, even if that means putting myself in a bad spot, the outcome of it is much more rewarding.
I had an awesome time out at Camp Valhalla. Jesse has a lot of great things going on at the camp, and I see some major life changes in the future for veterans. Having an outlet is key when returning from combat, and he's making that possible with this awesome retreat.