Reclaiming His Life from the Trauma of War

Andrew B.'s #LifeTake2

If you met Andrew B., you’d probably think he leads a charmed life. He went to private school, was captain of his college varsity football team, completed an executive education program at Harvard, served as a U.S. Marine officer during Operation Iraqi Freedom and earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota. Today at age 40, he’s married, has three children, leads a major business unit for IBM, and works with a variety of veterans’ groups.

His military career was especially impressive. In his 20s, he led a specialized team of Marines on a deployment to the Middle East to direct intelligence support, surveillance, airstrikes and artillery fire in support of coalition troops in the ground invasion of Iraq. He personally led convoy segments to Baghdad during major combat operations in 2003. And he coordinated logistics and training to deploy hundreds of Marines to the Middle East for counter-insurgency operations.

But despite all these successes, Andrew’s road has been anything but easy. There was a history of alcoholism in his family. Harrowing memories of his experiences in Iraq followed him home, where he realized that his drinking had become a serious problem. It wasn’t until he went for treatment at Hazelden in Center City, Minnesota, nine years ago that he began to get his life back on track.

Here is Andrew’s story, in his own words:

I joined the Marines in 2000, two years after I graduated from college, for all the reasons most people join—to do meaningful service, to be part of the “tip of the spear” on behalf of the nation.

During my first year of service, 9/11 happened, and it was obvious that the character of my service was going to be a lot different than I expected. After completing officer training, I was assigned to the 1st Marine Division out of Camp Pendleton, California. I deployed to Kuwait in the spring of 2003 and took part in the invasion of Iraq through the end of the major combat operations that led to the fall of Saddam’s regime that summer.

The Corps really prepares its officers well, but it would be dishonest if I didn’t say I was extremely afraid at some points during the operation. On the other hand, I had never felt quite as alive. The initial days of liberating Baghdad were really incredible, for example. I had an intense mixture of fear and pride in the mission that we were accomplishing, being part of a major historic event.

Coming home to civilian life

When I returned home from Iraq, I got involved in the 2004 presidential campaign as a national spokesman on veterans’ issues. In many ways, the excitement of politics was a good substitute for the level of intensity that I missed from my military service. Pretty soon, I started my own campaign for state senate in Minnesota.

At the same time, I began to have some pretty intense nightmares. And I was overwhelmed with an awful sense of guilt that I did not do as much as some of my colleagues in Iraq—that I didn’t sacrifice as much.
Andrew and his family
I’d done a lot of drinking before, but now my drinking increased a lot—I was a binge drinker. It became a big problem for me and my family. And because I was running for political office at the time, it got into the papers. It was an incredibly embarrassing and hard time—but I look back on it now and almost see it as a blessing because it was painful enough for me to realize I needed some help.

That’s when a friend helped me find a path into Hazelden for inpatient treatment.

On my second day there, Don Elverd, the psychologist who worked with me—and a Vietnam vet—told me that my physical assessment showed that drinking had begun to damage my liver. I was stunned. I didn’t think that was possible at only 30 years old.

A normal reaction to abnormal experiences

One of the most important things I learned from Don was that the difficulty I was having coping with my combat experience was not abnormal. What I was feeling—and what so many vets go through—is a normal reaction to abnormal experiences.

Maybe my combat deployment in Iraq pushed my alcoholism into high gear, given my genetic predisposition and where I was emotionally at the time. I’ll never know. But I do know that Don helped me come to terms with the fact that I had a potentially fatal, progressive illness.

The principles of recovery are the same principles that help people survive a combat deployment successfully: a sense of mission, a sense of community, faith in a higher cause, and a sense of humor. Hazelden is making the world a better place by helping people change their lives.

One reason I continue my work with veterans is to counter the perception that veterans with post-traumatic stress issues are somehow broken or incapable of transitioning to civilian life. It’s very similar to the stigma of addiction. Both conditions are fully treatable. Neither is a moral failing. I want to de-stigmatize these issues of people seeking help. They need to know that they can lead a normal life on the other side of it.

Want to help veterans struggling against addiction?

Thursday, November 12 is Give to the Max Day: even the smallest gift can help a patient who cannot afford the cost of care. You can schedule your gift now at
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