Kevin Carlson: Exorcising The Ghosts That Haunt Us
As our conversation began, Kevin recalled coming home on leave with my brother Tom to visit our parents more than 30 years ago. Neither of us remembered if we met back then, but I can assure you that I will not forget this time, nor will I forget his courage in sharing his journey with us.
“I think Tom still has me by a few screws after this last surgery.”
I’m accustomed now, after talking with these combat vets, to the empathetic physical aches I feel when they share how many times they’ve been “fixed” by scalpel, screw and stitches. I am astonished at their ability, not just to function in daily life, but to do so with very little outward indication of the pain they live with every moment.
His last surgery was 3 years ago. He’s had 3 separate rounds of fusions in his neck and lower back. He tells me he’s all bolted together now, and I think of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, oiling his hinges to move more freely while he searches for his heart. It pains me to learn that most of these surgeries don’t lead to pain free living, but do hold their bodies together so that they can power through life in the face of it.
“We’re really good at wearing the mask.”
So they keep the mask on, and hide the injuries that would stagger most of us. They use alcohol, drugs, disconnection and rage to cover and deflect any notice of weakness that could be used against them. When their life, and the lives of those they love depend on the perception of invincibility, dropping that mask is unacceptable.
That’s when they begin a slow death from the inside out.
Kevin and Tom served together in Germany as Privates and lived together off and on, even sharing a house when they returned state-side to Fort Bragg, until they finally split off and went their separate ways. We laughed as he told crazy stories and remembered Tom and Jenni’s dog Shane who hated people that had been drinking (and they did a lot of drinking). They always knew, when they hit the door, that the dog was going to bite somebody. They didn’t know what it was, but that dog always knew when they’d been drinking. This may have been an indicator of what the future would hold in regards to alcohol, giving new meaning to “hair of the dog that bit you”.
“We were young and full of vinegar.”
Kevin joined the Army in 1986 as a Combat Engineer, and Germany was his first duty station. He went to French Commando school while serving there, and then another course called Platoon Confidence Training. He left Germany, went to Jump school, then straight to Ft Bragg, ending up in the 82nd Airborne Division and going through Ranger school.
Then the real work began. First was Operation Just Cause in Panama, then a few months later, he deployed for Gulf War I, and came back a year after that. Upon his return, he left Ft Bragg and went to Ft Leonardwood where he spent 4 years as an instructor at the Sapper Leader Course, which teaches specialized combat engineer skills and small unit tactics/patrolling. At the same time he was taking classes at night, trying to get enough hours in to apply to Officers Candidate School. When he was selected, he went to Ft Benning, completed the school and became a Lieutenant.
From there, he was approached to join the Army Divers, spent a year with the Navy, and served as XO for the one dive team under the Pacific Command in Hawaii for 2 years. The other 5 teams that exist are based out of Ft Eustis in Virginia and they asked him to go command the company there for a couple of years, which he considered a pretty big honor.
Back to Ft Leonardwood and the Captain’s Career Course, getting his grad school degree in Public Policy and Administration, and being asked to be the Engineer Branch Representative at West Point. He still considers it kind of weird that an old, crusty, non-commissioned officer ended up at West Point, where he served his last 3 years in the Army. He taught Military Science, enjoyed the rich history there, and had a house full of cadets at any given time. I can hear the smile in his voice as he tells me about the birth announcements and wedding invitations they still get from them.
At this point, he was pretty broken up with serious back issues, and after his first back surgery, they put him out to pasture. No more jumping out of airplanes and blowing stuff up, so he hung it up, retiring as a Major.
“I had no clue what I was going to do.”
At West Point, they did a big summer training for the cadets every year, and he asked the company Force Protection down in Charleston, South Carolina, to bring one of their vehicles up. They sent the 26 ton Buffalo to West Point so that Kevin could show the cadets some of the new stuff that was happening with the new Mine-Protected Route Clearance Vehicles, free of charge. The guy that they sent with it happened to be a West Point graduate. He came up to Kevin one day during training that summer and asked him was he was going to do when he retired. When he admitted to having no idea what direction to take, his response to Kevin was immediate.
“Well, congratulations! You’re the new Program Manager for the Buffalo.”
AM General, the makers of the Humvee, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and Kevin ended up in Michigan. It was then that things started getting bad with the drinking. From the day he took his uniform off, he was completely lost. Alcohol consumption has always been a part of the military, but it doesn’t seem to rear its ugly head on active duty because there just isn’t time for it to become a problem.
But it’s always there, waiting.
Kevin never considered drinking to be a problem until he retired and the feeling of loss and being lost became overwhelming. That’s when he reached out for what he knew, that thing that was familiar to him between jobs and deployments. Isolating himself became an issue. He would grab a bottle, go to the basement and begin numbing the loss he couldn’t put a name to.
In his then unfocused and isolated state, the civilian world was foreign territory. Where was the discipline, the focus, the drive and the ability to count on the person to the left and right of you, no matter what? Where was the work ethic and the commitment to the success of the group?
With the loss of his tribe, came the loss of self.
For at least 8 years after retirement, Kevin relied on alcohol to help him sleep at night, and to squash all of the shit in his head that he didn’t know how to deal with. It was a combination of the physical and mental pain that drove him to keep reaching for the bottle, but it was mostly the emotional strain of being cut loose from the world he was used to, the only world he’d known his entire adult life, that held him trapped in the cure that was killing him.
“I just didn’t know anything else. I’d been in the Army my entire adult life, and was pretty good at it. I got out of the Army, and like any typical Army guy or girl will do, your’e the first one to work and the last one to leave at the end of the day, and you’re all gung ho. People love it because you’ve got leadership and you’re good at herding the cats, but on the inside I was a mess…an absolute disaster.”
He felt like he didn’t fit in anywhere, and the loss of being on a team of like-minded individuals crippled him. He had no concept of “every man for himself”, or going to work every day just for the paycheck. He knows there are people who actually go to work to do what they love, but it isn’t something he’s seen much proof of in corporate America. He would hear “rah, rah, rah. Go team, go!” and think it was the biggest bunch of shit he’d ever heard because the actions in no way matched the intent.
His struggle to adjust to civilian life made the loss of his tribe even more painful.
Are we really so negligent and short-sighted that we send our veterans back out into the world with a week long course on resume writing, and a hearty “good luck”?
Kevin bounced around a bunch of jobs in Michigan, and the drinking was just getting totally out of control. He was still a highly functioning alcoholic, but it got to the point where he was having a hard time hiding it. He thought he was the only retired military person on the planet that had this problem. He was terrified to let anyone else know that he was struggling. They just don’t do that. They hide every “weakness”, tossing out everything they can that might disqualify them from performing their duties when called upon.
It got so bad, he became physically sick. His body had finally had enough of the alcohol, and he was panic stricken. In an attempt to place the blame on anything other than alcohol, he spent six weeks going to doctors and having tests run, looking for the disease that must be the reason he was deteriorating. He had brain scans, biopsies and all kinds of work ups that showed absolutely nothing. At the end of the day, he was an alcoholic that was going to kill himself drinking if he didn’t quit. He was at the point, after 40 years of drinking, that his body was starting to revolt. It was unwilling to take any more.
“Thank the good Lord I texted your brother, Shelly. I didn’t know what else to do.”
One morning, in May of this year, Kevin texted Tom.
“I need help. I’ve gotta stop drinking. I can’t do this anymore.”
He hadn’t seen Tom in years, but had been watching the foundation he had started, and saw some of the work he was doing and the difference he was making to other veterans. He felt safe sharing with him the burden he could no longer carry alone.
“If he hadn’t answered that text Shelly, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
There are moments in life that are miracles. Tom responded…
“Give me five minutes and your phone is going to ring.”
The phone did ring, and it was Teddy Lanier. They talked for about an hour, and Teddy told him he needed to go to Warrior’s Heart, the PTSD and addiction treatment center. He explained that he would be with warriors just like him, who were working to recover and rebuild their lives, that he would be safe there.
Still in a panic, Kevin didn’t know how he would get off work for 6 weeks, how he would tell people, or how he was going to pay for it. What he did know for sure was that if he didn’t stop drinking, he was going to die in his basement. That was his certainty.
In true Teddy style, he told Kevin not to worry about it, that something would work out. Then Teddy made a call to the people at Warrior’s Heart, and someone from Warrior’s Heart called Kevin to tell him that there was a scholarship available to help him fund his treatment.
Three days later, he was at Warrior’s Heart.
He immediately felt better when he hit the ground. There were friends of Tom’s there, and a mix of Marines, cops, ambulance drivers and Special Forces. They joked that with the right armament, they would be able to take over a small country.
They took their lives back instead.
They were a dangerous group of individuals, gathered together to talk freely about things that nobody else would get. They could get things off their chests that they’d been holding onto forever, and it made all the difference in the world. A safe place where warriors could gather together to heal themselves and each other.
“The instant I walked into Warrior’s Heart, I knew everything was going to be okay if I did the work, followed the plan, and did what I was supposed to do.”
It wasn’t easy at all. It was work, every day. Up at 6am and done at 8pm, 7 days a week. On Sunday, his choices were church or jujitsu, and he figured with his neck being what it was, he should maybe stay away from jujitsu.
He went to what he fondly calls a cowboy church since some people actually arrived on horseback, and American flags were flying. He laughs when he tells me he was baptized in a horse trough, of all things.
“The whole deal is that we have to get rid of this shit we’re dragging around.”
Pain is an indicator that something needs addressed. If covered up, masked or ignored, it becomes a poison that destroys the body, mind and spirit. It has to be drawn out of us, surrounded by others who can see us and say “Me too”. The stuff the rest of the world doesn’t even know we’re dragging around. The ugly stuff we hide, the painful things we don’t want to share, the memories we wish we didn’t have, all of these things lose power when we drag them kicking and screaming from the dark places where it’s easy to cover them with shame.
Kevin did the work, cried the tears, took the counseling, and shared the experiences. The difference to him was that he could look at a guy who had three tours in Afghanistan, talk about his experiences, and know that that guy knew exactly what he was talking about and vice versa.
“We were living with ghosts we couldn’t get rid of.”
To Kevin, the beauty of Warrior’s Heart is that it was the place he could let them go. His message to anyone reading his story is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. He’s now 106 days sober (not that he’s counting), working to repair broken or damaged relationships, and is amazed at the difference in his outlook on life since leaving the healing sanctuary of Warrior’s Heart.
*This week, another Tier One warrior was lost to suicide, and we are heart-broken that those who tried with all their might couldn’t reach him in the dark place. We cry for the lost one, and all who loved him. Our hope here at All Secure Foundation is that every warrior knows that there is not just light up ahead in the distance, there are steady hands, open hearts, and willing ears to listen.
There is hope, standing right in front of you.