Last weekend, I was truly humbled to be the guest of honor at Miami University’s (Oxford, OH) Naval ROTC Marine Corps & Navy Birthday Ball. Out of all the accolades, events, interviews, and things I’ve done as a result of being a published author and former Marine, this was by far the most important and impactful. When I woke up Thursday morning, I’d planned to write a column about the experience, including the discussion with the midshipmen about leadership, the hard lessons I’ve learned through failure, my time in the Marine Corps, the relentless challenges of their chosen path as future military leaders, and the indefinable and infinite rewards that come with the military lifestyle. Everything I have today – my family, my profession, my writing career, and the opportunity to share my story as a recovering alcoholic – I owe to the United States Marine Corps. Without it, you have no idea who I am, as I’m likely alone, miserable, unemployed, dead, or all of the above. And I wanted to convey that gratitude in a column on this most revered annual celebration of our beloved Corps – its birthday. But then I heard about the shooting Wednesday night and the identity of the killer, and everything changed.
The mass murderer at the Borderline Bar & Grill was an ex-Marine, who likely used his training (based on witness statements) to mercilessly gun down twelve innocent women and men whose only crime was the desire to have a good time on College Night. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I was sickened and outraged. My heart broke at the thought of those families who lost loved ones. As a parent, I empathize to the point of tears when I try to place myself in their shoes on this darkest of days. I thought, How could any man do this? But even worse, how could this monster betray every principle that we hold dear in the Marine Corps – honor, courage, commitment, AND the primary mission to protect the innocent at all costs. It tears me up and saddens me even as I write this piece. And then I read that the killer, whose name I will not memorialize in writing, had served in Helmand Province and allegedly returned home with PTSD and other issues.
A troubled man, he’d had run-ins with law enforcement, an altercation at another restaurant, and even required a psychological evaluation by a crisis team this past April. This wasn’t a terrorist attack but the evil handiwork of a troubled and sick man with tactical training and a history of mental illness. I’ll be brutally honest, when I heard that he’d slipped through the system, that nothing could have stopped his rampage, my first thought was, Why couldn’t you just end yourself and spare the rest of the world your misery, if it really had to come to that? I immediately felt awful to have such a thought, but I thought of the victims and their families when I had it. I also recognize that’s ascribing rational thought to an irrational being. I talked to several veterans who felt the same way and thought the same thing. I wish no one had to die at all. Life is precious. I do not believe that suicide should be an option for anyone. I wish he’d been able to get the help he needed. While I’m not a psychologist, this seemed like the killer lashing out in blind rage to destroy young lives with decades left in front of them.
The older I get, the more I’m convinced of the incarnation of evil in varying forms and degrees. Our society is sick, and I don’t have the answers as to how to cure the cancer of apathy and the devaluation of human life that plagues it. Whatever this ex-Marine suffered is no excuse for what he did – I wish it had never happened. But the system could not stop him, tragically. Then again, is society even capable of mitigating all risks from deranged and mentally ill potential mass murderers?
But then I thought about my speech last Friday night and one of the principles of leadership that I discussed – be accountable for yourself, and when necessary, for those around you.
In today’s society, with the dangers of social media, exposure to violent content, isolation, and God knows what else, it’s critical that we look out for each other, recognize the signs of potential mental health problems, especially the dangerous ones (some are more obvious than others), and when appropriate, be proactive about it. It is infinitely better to apologize for being over concerned for someone than suffer the anguish and guilt of knowing you could have prevented something like the shooting last night if only you’d spoken up about something you’d seen or heard.
I don’t know if anything could have prevented last night. I won’t armchair quarterback that one. More will come out in the following days. But what I will do is continue to look after my fellow citizens, concerned about their welfare, ask questions when needed, and hope that they do the same for me.
The Marine Corps transformed me in 1999 from an unsure, frightened, and insecure young man into something else, something better. With that change has come a way of living that demands that I always look out for my fellow man, that I sacrifice when needed for the greater good, and that I never hesitate in the face of adversity. And I know that my friends, current and former Marines, and other military veterans will always have my back in the same way, and for that I am eternally grateful and in debt to the Marine Corp until I face my end, either by natural or manmade causes, as there are no guarantees in life.
My heart and soul mourns for the families of the victims, the lives ended, and the pain and guilt of the survivors that is just beginning; yet I am encouraged by the acts of bravery and sacrifice in the face of such evil and horror. I pray that I would have the courage like that of Sheriff’s Sergeant Ron Helus, who charged headlong into enemy fire and sacrificed his life, his only concern that of the innocent and unprotected inside.
On this Marine Corps birthday after the events at the Borderline, I am reminded that while Marines will always step forward to fight our country’s battles, courage is not just a Marine Corps trait but a human one. Semper Fidelis.