Marines pull up in cars, trucks and on motorcycles. They’re wearing T-shirts with the sleeves cut off, shorts, swim trunks, flip flops. They unfold cots and unroll sleeping bags in one room and light a fire outside. Meat is already grilling and the fish are biting.
“It’s like you’re back on the base at the chow hall, but with way better food,” Corp. David Bachmann, told Connecting Vets, laughing. Bachmann, a nearly seven-foot-tall biker, is one of the "War Dogs" of the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, the first battalion to enter the country during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Reunited with brothers they haven’t seen in years, some they might have given up for dead, the ice begins to melt, handshakes turn to bear hugs. The buzzword in military service is “transition” but for these Marines it was the severing of an artery of camaraderie and comfort that they never recovered from.
“You become so close to each other the brotherhood becomes so tight and then all of a sudden you’re spit out into society again,” said Corp. Joel Cain, a 2/7 Marine who served 2001-05. He now coaches football in his Georgia hometown.
“When you get out, you’re on your own,” said Bachmann, who served 2001-05. He enlisted at 19, just before Sept. 11.
Since leaving service, most erected walls, tried to maintain that mental toughness drilled into them in the Corps.
Until now -- together again in the remote reaches of California, or Texas, often in the sweltering heat of summer -- or wherever they can borrow a lonely piece of land to forge connections instead of defenses. They fish, hunt, four-wheel, toss axes, pilot drones -- anything to be at ease and reconnect. Sometimes they just stay up all night talking. There's love here, and hope.
The Marines of the 2/7 and 2/3 infantry battalions saw some of the heaviest combat, taking fire almost daily at times. They also saw some of the highest losses during each of their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. That loss has only continued to build in the nearly two decades since.
“These were some of the hardest-hit combat units in the entire military,” said Mark Vera, a Marine of both the 2/7 and 2/3. “2008 was a horrible year for them in terms of deployments and loss. Now they’ve lost more after those deployments than during.”
Most of those losses were suicides, the Marines told Connecting Vets in phone interviews from across the country -- combat deaths of a different kind. Some died by suicide while still on active duty, the rest after they separated from service.
The battalion mottos are “Ready for anything, counting on nothing” and “Fortune favors the brave.”
Last summer, the Marines gathered to mourn nearly 100 fallen members of the 2/7.
About 20 veterans die by suicide daily, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, a number that has only worsened, leaving VA leaders and lawmakers scrambling for a solution for years, spending billions on efforts aimed to help. But the deaths have continued. In 2005, the suicide rates for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans began climbing sharply.
Wounded Warrior Project's most recent survey showed that a third of its members said they'd thought about suicide within the last two weeks.
VA officials said they don't track suicide trends among veterans of specific units. The Marine Corps doesn't track suicides of service members once they've left active duty. In 2018, the number of active and reserve Marine suicides reached a 10-year high. It's difficult to figure the exact number, but the Marines estimate 30-40 of them, at minimum, have died by their own hand.
“We’ve been trained to be hard towards life … we’ve been trained to be better and tougher than our opponent. So if we ever feel threatened or in a corner, that’s when we’re going to resort to that feeling or fight or flight,” said Cain. “When you go to war, it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s going to change you.”
These weekends, these retreats, are designed to, in a small way, recreate what the Marines turned to in order to survive war -- each other. The reunions strive to break down barriers in a room full of people who built their defenses up just as high -- to keep out the judgment of the world outside the dust and smoke and noise of a deployment and everything that comes with it.
“This is for us, by us,” Vera said. “This isn’t political. We’re not trying to get anything out of it except helping each other.”
“When you’re at these reunions, that feeling isn’t there because you’re not sensing that judgment,” Cain said. “You’re in the company of prior combatants, veterans who are in your shoes or have been. And it’s very easy to lower your shield.”
These Marines are focused on winning a different fight now, but one no less deadly. They’ve found a strategy that works, and they’re sticking with it.
‘We were conquering the world’
There’s no pressure to talk. They don’t push each other too hard. But those who want to unburden themselves, to shed the weight of fear, pride, guilt, shame, loss or memories they’ve held inside for years, have assurance of acceptance in a sacred circle of carefully forged trust. They can finally unpack their heavy bags and lay it all bare, becoming vulnerable for the only people who might ever understand.
“It’s this feeling of, ‘I can’t talk about this stuff with my family. I’ve got to be that strong provider,’” Vera said. “But then they realize, ‘It’s OK that I feel this way.’”
"The moment of getting to stand around the fire and just a big group of fellow veterans combatants that have been through the same thing you’ve been through and just being around them you forget how comforting that is to have,” Cain said. “You don’t realize just how calming it is to be among your own kind again. You know these guys -- you know their favorite movies, how much food they like to eat -- and they know you.”
The groups span generations and multi-generational conflicts. They deployed in different times to different locations but their stories mirror each other.
"It could have been any units," Vera said. "It didn’t matter that they didn’t know each other before. Their stories, their feelings are the same.”
“We were, as a group, a fighting tool,” Cain said. “It’s kind of a relief of pressure to be able to get those guys to just talk about what went on while you were over there. I carried this certain patrol, this ambush on my back for about nine years.”
The reunions themselves are sometimes guided by what the Marines have begun calling a “trusted doc.” One of them is Shauna Springer, a civilian psychologist and author who specializes in trauma. Springer was permitted to enter the circle of trust to help guide the healing.
“Some of them never got the chance to truly grieve,” Springer told Connecting Vets.
When they lost a Marine, Bachmann said, they brought the body to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq and “dropped them off with the guys who put them in the box and sent them home.
"That was it for us. We didn’t get to go to the funeral. We didn’t get to kiss their families. We didn’t get any closure because we were back out on patrol in two hours. We were still in the fight.”
“Together we’re able to begin to heal that. Together we created something that connects people to hope,” Springer said.
With Springer on their side, the Marines are able to face the enemies within -- invisible injuries of war, trauma, hidden pain and most often, grief.
“We can help people find new meaning and new purpose and be different,” she said. “They’ll never be the same, but they can become stronger and more clear in their purpose than ever before.”
As the reunions advance, they may grow to encompass others admitted into the fold, including soldiers or families of Marines they lost.
“I think when you’re talking about trauma, suicide, survivor guilt -- it doesn’t matter. It’s all the same. Being scared is the same,” Vera said. “You’re with this group of people who literally would die for you and families of people who have. It helps you reach those inner places that are really hard to get to. That’s why it’s so sacred.”
Sometimes the reunions are smooth -- “too good to be true,” Vera said. “Then there’s others where it’s tough and the air is immediately thick because they’re carrying these heavy weights. But the hard parts are important -- it’s necessary medicine.”
“I kept thinking, ‘How many times are we going to get Power Point-ed to death?” Bachmann said, laughing. Now he's a natural leader of the group. “I was real closed-minded about the whole thing. It’s not like that at all. It’s changed my life.”
And yes, sometimes those tough-as-nails Marines cry.
“We get weepy without a doubt,” Bachmann said, laughing. “There’s no shame for that at all.”
It’s not only the past that is brought into the firelight. The present haunts some even more. Health, work, relationships -- all can be a struggle, leave them longing for the battlefield and the simplicity of following orders, taking out bad guys, completing a mission.
"It kinda takes the shame out of it," Bachmann said. "Whether it be suicide or drinking too much or not being able to control your temper with your family, everybody’s going through the same issues.”
Studies of thousands of veterans and service members show that combat deployments aren’t necessarily linked to significant trauma or increased suicide risk. Sometimes, it’s what happens later that is hardest, Springer said.
“What I know from 10 years of being ‘in the trenches’ and working with hundreds of veterans and their partners is that there are other injuries more invisible and potentially more lethal than post-traumatic stress,” Springer said. “We need to understand the whole person and the broad array of reasons they may not thrive in life after the military. These things are silent cancers that can build and grow in hiding and put our veterans at risk.”
The most devastating blow for many is the loss of what they had in the service -- a mission, a purpose, a family.
“When you’re in the Marine Corps, you know what you’re going to do in every part of the day. You know what’s expected of you … You feed into that -- the ‘I'm a Marine’ thing,” Bachmann said. “Trying to adjust back into the real world, with the pretty little house with the white picket fence and the wife and kids -- we don’t want that. It’s very hard to settle for that because we were conquering the world 15 years ago.”
Many of the Marines struggle with trust, and that extends to medical help, particularly the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In interviews, the Marines said they avoided or quit seeking help at VA, frustrated by bureaucracy, doctors and therapists who didn't -- or couldn't -- understand and overreliance on prescriptions.
“The first thing they want to do is put you on drugs,” Bachmann said. “They’ve made a bunch of addicts out of some of these guys. They make you feel broken, like there’s something wrong with you. There’s a big mistrust … we’re not broken.”
“Are they going to prescribe things for you that are over the top?” Cain said. “It’s always, ‘You need this medicine, you need to be in this facility.’"
Many veterans may be used to viewing doctors as people who search for problems that could affect force readiness.
"Military mental health evaluations are a hunt for issues that could lead them to be non-deployable, or that may result in negative consequences for their career," Springer said. "As a result, many veterans don't have a good understanding of what supportive therapy looks and feels like upon discharge. It's up to us to develop their understanding.
"We are just beginning to understand service members and the nuances of their needs."
‘You don’t have to do this alone’
At some point during the weekend, they’ll recognize the brothers who are no longer with them. They’ll say their names, they’ll touch their dog tags, they’ll let themselves remember and stop trying so hard to forget.
Many who can’t sit alongside them at the fire and crack open a cold beer aren’t gone because of an enemy bullet or crude explosives.
“There’s a great deal of shame that goes on with just the thought of suicide because Marines aren’t supposed to do that,” Bachmann said. “But people feel like they’re alone, like they’re a burden to everyone around because they’re dysfunctional. We’re all dysfunctional. At these retreats, we help each other find a way to give that purpose and become dysfunctional together.”
The circle of trust built or rebuilt at these reunions -- at dinner, around the fire or late at night in a room crowded with cots -- continues to exist long after they leave their remote retreats. They become a family again, bound to protect one another.
Now there’s an emergency response network of Facebook and phone connections to help with everything, including stopping self-harm, even if they've never met the other veteran before.
“At the end of the day, we just need to show these guys we’re here together,” Vera said. “Do you need food, your rent paid? We got you, what’s next? Now, if someone reaches out, I’ve got a Marine knocking on a door within an hour. We know we can count on each other. You’re not alone. You don’t have to do this alone.”
“What this did for me is re-establish that tribe mentality,” Bachmann said. “I have guys I talk to once a week now. You have that support system again. Once you know they’re there, if I ever get in that dark, dark spot again, I know these guys will answer the phone and understand.”
“It’s a thing you can’t replace. I would have loved to have had that a little sooner,” Cain said. “That stigma of pride, or maybe you can call it ignorance, is in us all. That’s why there’s such a small percentage of us that are military. We’re born a different type. We need each other.”
“Our greatest power is in the connection they have with each other,” Springer said. "It's a lifeline."
Sparta Project helps conduct retreats in Arizona, California and Minnesota
VA Vet Centers for counseling and support
Headstrong Project provides free mental health care for post-9/11 veterans
Give an Hour for free mental health counseling for combat veterans and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and their families
Cohen Veterans Network clinics offering free or low-cost clinical help for veterans and their families