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Be a Leader

by Lt. Col. TA Maxwell

I have a story to tell you about a superb Marine. A true warrior. A leader.

His name is Gunny Ski.

With two tours in Iraq, several medals, including two Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart. He had been in major battles and had saved multiple lives. After his second tour he was ordered to go to a new billet. Most people would be very excited about getting a job in which he can stay home a little more often. No combat would also be enjoyable. But Ski did not want to leave. Yes, he wanted to spend time with his two little kids and his wife. But he was concerned about his own platoon. He was worried about their lives, and he wanted to make sure those Marines received good leadership. When he received his injury and he had to leave his platoon for a period of time, all he could think about was his platoon. Luckily, he found out that his friend had taken over the platoon; a friend he trusted; a friend who was very good. He was only gone for a short period of time, and was able to rejoin his attack and take over his platoon. But now, with orders to a new billet, he was not going to be able to come back.

Still, as a Marine, he followed orders. He took the new billet. He was able to transition from his previous job to his new one. His job was to train pilots who have crashed while flying the airplane. It is an important job, exciting and intense. His boss realized that he was especially good at all things. Dedicated. Focused. Soon, his boss knew that he was a critical part of this team. His presence was important.

The problem was that his injury began to get worse.

You see, he had a Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI. On his first deployment to Iraq, his Humvee had been hit by an IED. His brain had been, to use a non-medical term, shattered. The explosion could causes your brain to switch around inside your skull. It's not good. He was medivaced, but before long he had returned to his unit. He then made his second deployment to Iraq, even though he had a TBI. The problem was still there but he just ignored it. He had to stay with his unit.

Back then, in 2004, TBI was not fully understood. When I received my TBI in 2004, it was fairly clear. Blood was dripping down my face. Even us dumb grunts know that that is bad. But when you don't have any blood nor any scar, it was not well understood. I know many Marines who have a TBI of that kind. And I know that things have changed over time.


When I was a patient in my VA hospital, I was the only TBI patients in the entire hospital. And during that time, in late 2004, injuries were very common. Nowadays the VA hospitals have multiple TBI patients. Most of them have that kind of TBI like Ski’s. There is no blood, so you cannot see it, but now they know. And now they receive medical care.


It is hard for the Warriors to understand that. They often ask themselves “Am I just being a sissy?" It is a difficult issue. Thankfully, leaders are more familiar with a TBIs. Not all of them of course, but the number is growing. It is truly a new injury, and it will take time. But it is improving. But back in 2004, when Ski’s brain was shattered, that was not the case. So he ignored his injury. At least he tried to.


But as time went by it was getting worse and worse. Initially, he was drinking way too much. But he had gotten over that. He has stopped drinking. His drinking is an indicator of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. PTSD is very common. He has seen many Marines get killed. And in some cases, he may have felt guilty. He never told me that, but it is common. When you add the fact that his TBI is getting worse, and his billet is less important, it is not surprising. But Ski had beaten it. That is amazing, really. Amazing Ski.


And then God, or the Marine Corps, or just luck, had helped Ski.


The Marine Corps had just opened up the Wounded Warrior Call Center. And within the first month, we had called Ski. There were about eight thousand wounded warriors that the call center had planned to contact. And he was one of the first. There is no reason to put him on the top of the list. There were many Marines who needed to be called. But we found Ski at the beginning. And surprisingly, I had been there that day. A TBI lieutenant colonel was talking to a TBI staff sergeant. Pretty rare.


Actually, I had talked to many people about TBI, and other injuries. But Ski had never talked to anyone. He had tried to ignore it. Remember now, he is a leader. He is a warrior whose presence has been critical. His life has been seconds in his priority. The Marines, his Marines, has been number one. That is the way things have been for three years.

But he was ready to talk about it now. So he and I talked. We talked about the difference between TBI and PTSD. He didn't understand that he just had PTSD. He had been told that, actually, as many doctors used to think that TBI was PTSD. But thankfully I had found Dr. Glen Johnson, a Clinical Neuropsychologist from Michigan. He had developed a simple test. (See it Here) If you can convince a Marine/sailor/army to take this test, and he "fails" it, he will be convinced. Then he will go see a real doctor. Technically, it is a neurologist that he needs to see. And that is exactly what we did. What Ski did.

We got him orders to the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda Maryland. He was there for six weeks. He was fully evaluated and the doctors determined him as having a significant TBI. They were amazed that he was doing as much as he was. I had been told that his ability to hold a job was unusual. His memory was so short; they were surprised that he could get by every day. But being the warrior, the leader that they saw, I was not as surprised.

After six weeks of training, during which he had improved much faster and the normal Marine, we sent him to California so that he could commence training himself. He could also take his wife and kids back near their family. He could be part of the Wounded Warrior Battalion in Camp Pendleton. He was given a house on base. He went and saw his new doctors, both in San Diego and Camp Pendleton. His transportation was provided to and from San Diego.

He was doing well. He was aggressively doing his training. He was working on his degree. A TBI role model, I was looking forward to working with him. I wanted to have him help other Marines deal with their TBI. I was proud of knowing him.

We were all proud of ourselves. We Marines had done so much for him. The house. The move. And his task was to take care of himself. Conduct your training; sleep; spend time with your family. No leadership requires. There is too much pressure associated with that. Just take care of this Marine.

On August 2009, Ski killed himself.

Some people say that he committed suicide due to PTSD.

Of course he had PTSD. Anytime anybody commits suicide, they obviously have severe depression. The question is: why did it come back up? Why did his depression overtakes this man, this true warrior? He had done so much. He had been in so many battles, both during and after the war, and he had won both. He had stopped drinking. He had acknowledged his TBI. He was already improving. His memory, his understanding, his vision had all improved.

So what happened?

It might have been the fact that he is neurologist had told him that he was going to process him out of the Marine Corps. That is a pretty nerve-racking statements. I had talked to him about that, just before my surgery in July of 2008 I told him to fire that doctor. I had explained to him that doctors often have different opinions. I told him to change his doctor from Camp Pendleton to Balboa. I had also explained to him that Navy doctors not have the authority to kick Marines out of the Marine Corps. The final decision is the Commandant of the Marine Corps. And I was sure, completely sure, that he would be allowed to stay in. Still, I'm sure it was nerve-racking.

In late July of 2008, a Marine named Corporal Nelson had just committed suicide. (To read more about Nelson, click here) He was one of Ski’s Marines. He had been in his platoon. Ski had not seen him for some time, but he is still his responsibility. He is his leader. And in his mind, he failed. That would be very depressing. To see of your Marines, when you are a true leader, it is extremely difficult to deal with.

So in July of 2008, things were not good. And combined, they may have been the reason that he committed suicide. But I doubt it.


I believe it is more than that. I believe that Ski is tough enough to deal with both issues. Although I had never had the pleasure of being in a firefight with him, I do understand the battle of TBI and injuries in general. And I know this; it is tough. So tough, unless you have been there, it is hard to understand. Some of my TBI friends have told me that the injury is far worse any battle they had seen. But Ski whipped it. In the toughest time, he had dealt with it all by himself. So he could have handled dealing with Dr."Jerk", and he could have dealt with the pain that came with the death of Cpl. Nelson.

But what he could not have dealt with was the lack of leadership.

The leadership he received, and the leadership he provided.

For the first time in his career, his priority was to take care of himself

No others.

No Marines.

To him, being a Marine is more than just a job. Being a Gunnery Sergeant, his mission is to take care of those Marines. To lead them in both peace and war. A man like this sees his own life as irrelevant. Only those Marines matter.

And when he got to Camp Pendleton, he was restricted, in his mind, from taking care of Marines. So in his mind, his life was irrelevant.

Ski is gone now. Had we used him correctly, he would still be with us. If he had been made a leader of other Wounded Warriors, he would have dealt with his own depression. He even would have seen a psychiatrist if that is what it took. And so many lives would have been better. So many Marines would be dealing with so many different things. Things that Ski would know about.

Ski would know every wounded Marine that he could meet. He would have to check on them nearly every day. He would have helped them with PTSD, TBI, limb loss; you name it, he would have helped them deal with it.

We cannot bring Ski back. But what we can do, what we Marines should do, is learn from our mistake.

Every wounded Marine, every wounded warrior, should be contacted on a regular basis. They should be invited to events, yes, but they should spend some time talking, one on one, with another Marine. They should discuss his/her medication. They should discuss his/her family, to see if they can help in any way. They should help them with their paperwork. They should help them make decisions regarding their future, their upcoming surgery, their financial issues... whatever the warrior needs help with. And sometimes they need pushed along a little. They need to continue moving forward, and sometimes it is very difficult to do that. But it can be done.

By a leader.

Like Ski.

If you want to learn more about Gunnery Sgt. Timothy R. Cyparski:





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