I'm finally truly proud to be a veteran.
On New Years Eve 2005, Dustin had been a soldier for nearly 7 years; on New Years Day, he became a civilian discharged at Ft. Lewis, Washington. He had enlisted at 19, following the path of military service by both his grandfathers, an uncle and cousins who had joined the Navy: “I didn’t want to be stuck on a boat for 6 months with a bunch of other dudes.” His parents had divorced when he was 10; he and his younger brother were raised by his mother, who was very religious and a vegan, in the Sacramento, California area. He was homeschooled through high school, earning his GED. Before enlisting, he worked the graveyard shift at a grocery store restocking shelves.
After two, three-year stints, and being involuntarily extended by the Army for an extra year, Dustin was promoted 4 times in his first 22 months: from a Private E-1 to an E-5 Sergeant. He spent a year in South Korea (when the tragedy of 9/11 hit) and in his last year was deployed to Iraq. His primary job there was communicating with close air support and mortars and telling them where to shoot. Midway through his final year, a suicide car bomb exploded next to the Stryker armored vehicle he was riding in—with his upper body exposed above the hatch—receiving second-degree burns across his face and wrist. Dustin received a Purple Heart, and other achievement and commendation medals during his service.
“When I returned from Iraq in late 2005, I spent a large portion of my seven weeks of paid terminal leave sitting on my couch, drinking rum and playing video games. I was really good at being a soldier, and I was bored.” Decompressing and transitioning from active duty, with nothing to do, caused him more stress than his time as a soldier. “The Army spent 6 years teaching me how to be a soldier, sent me to Iraq for a year to fight, but zero timeon how to be a civilian when I came home.” Not sure what to do next, he had always been a ‘gym rat’ and found a job as a personal trainer at a 24 Fitness club in Seattle. “It was good for me at the time because I was forced to talk, and I could be a workaholic, regularly spending 7 days a week at the gym.” During the four years he worked there, he was promoted to managing other trainers, then as the club’s manager. “In retrospect, it kept me alive and moving but delayed the processing that I needed to go through because I was able to convince myself that I was fine, that I didn't have PTSD, and that I was stronger than most.”
“Now over a decade later after multiple jobs, a failed marriage, many failed relationships, and bad financial decisions, I've come to realize that I needed to be healthy. In the summer of 2016, I hit my lowest point and was depressed and seriously considering suicide for about a month. In addition, I have suffered from survivor's guilt after losing sixteen fellow soldiers from my battalion in Iraq. Through research, I’ve come to believe that I don’t have PTSD, but transition stress. In March 2017, a guy from my platoon killed himself and it crushed me. I believe it hit me so hard because I'd been so close to that myself less than a year before. After I posted about him on social media, a friend reached out and told me about MVP—a game changer! With my generation, there was a negative stigma if you sought medical benefits from the VA—especially from the chain of comma
I now have found the family and camaraderie that I've needed since leaving the military. Between meeting with and helping other veterans, and also our 2017 hurricane disaster relief efforts in Houston, I've rediscovered my sense of purpose and drive. It also helps when I dedicate what good I've been able to do to my fallen brothers. I'm finally truly proud to be a veteran. Proud that I came home and that I continue to survive. I'll never be the same person that I was before combat, but I'm finally okay with that. Thanks to my family and friends I was able to pull through. Now I’m proud that I opened my own gym in July 2018 in Redondo Beach along with two business partners and I’m excited about the future.”