It’s etched in our minds like a permanent tattoo, the color and the memory fading a bit with time, but always there. Always discernible.
Long before that day, Mark B. had decided as a 17-year-old high school student to join the Marines after graduation. He signed up (inactive year) and waited for his time to serve. He held to that commitment even as he watched in horror as the World Trade Center was struck and the Pentagon became enveloped in smoke. Like most of us, Mark remembers where he was on the morning of 9/11. But it was the events after that would further define him.
Despite his young age and fear of the unknown, he stayed true to his word to serve, saying, “I knew what I was getting into.”
“Basic training seemed to have a different emphasis,” Mark told us. “The Marines knew it was just a matter of time before they were called upon to respond to the largest act of war committed on our soil since Pearl Harbor. I completed boot camp and joined my reserve unit, Bulk Fuel Charlie company.”
Mark’s unit was told that they were preparing to leave. Part of that process included vaccines, but shortly before they were scheduled to deploy, Mark’s platoon commander pulled him aside and said, “You can’t go.” All of the things he needed to do weren’t done, and he would need to stay behind.
Mark continued serving in a reserve unit until 2006. At that point, leadership asked for volunteers to deploy overseas, and Mark raised his hand. “I was single with no kids, and other guys in my unit were married with families. I felt like I should go first,” he said.
Once on the ground in Iraq, Mark was one of 12 Marines selected to provide convoy security for the 6th Engineer Support Battalion. Their area of operation was the Al-Anbar province, and the main mission was to build Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), so they were outside the wire multiple days each week.
“We ran into numerous recently exploded IEDs, which took out whole roads in most cases. We pushed through small arms fire occasionally and while at FOBs, we would get attacked by mortars. Sometimes, the mortars would land so close that I could taste the metal in my mouth.
“It was hard not to get complacent because of how exposed I felt. One minute, we are traveling on a main supply route (MSR) to another FOB, and two hours later, we are back on that MSR, and the whole road is blown apart.
The constant vigilance and constant threat is what created post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for me,” Mark continued. “Eventually, you can’t sustain that level of hyper-awareness, and that’s when the complacency sets in.”
Once the unit came home, the Marines got them back to their families pretty quickly.
Mark tried to assimilate back into society, but it was a struggle and took longer than he expected. He was reckless, hyper-alert, and aggressive in public settings. “It took a while to get back to a level of decency,” he said.
Then, about two years ago, Mark started having trouble swallowing. At first, he brushed it off, assuming it wasn’t anything serious. But one day at work, he was eating an apple when a piece became lodged in his throat. He was choking, and if it weren’t for a fast-acting coworker who performed the Heimlich maneuver, he would have died that day.
It was enough to prompt a visit to the doctor, and he began doing swallow tests, meeting with gastroenterology, and then neurology. He developed gastroparesis - a condition that slows or stops the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine - and lost a considerable amount of weight, down to 145 pounds.
Doctors were able to rule out multiple sclerosis but not ALS. “They still don’t know what’s going on other than my central nervous system was impacted. There are no clear answers,” Mark told us.
He does know that his exposure to toxic burn pits in Iraq has directly affected his health. He was diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome, a prominent condition affecting Gulf War Veterans who experience unexplained chronic symptoms like fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, respiratory problems, and memory issues.
Mark also served in the same unit as a previous Chive Charities recipient named Armando. Both were experiencing similar medical challenges and began talking with each other and other Marines about what they were noticing. “We’ve lost four in our unit to cancer and auto-immune disorders in the last year alone,” Mark said.
Armando referred Mark to a neurologist in Arizona, and he began hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatments, which provided almost immediate relief. He’s also seen huge benefits from using infrared sauna therapy. Both are a long drive from his home, but the pros outweigh the cons. And with a wife and two young children at home, time is more important than ever.
Thanks to your donations, Chive Charities fully funded the cost of a home sauna for Mark to supplement his treatments for a total impact of $2,500.
When Mark signed up to serve in the Marine Corps, he thought he knew what he was getting into. He knew we would likely go to war, but he joined anyway. What he didn’t sign up for was a lifetime of chronic, unexplained illness. He has too much on the line.
It reminds us of the stories we hear from so many 9/11 first responders. They heroically and selflessly went to Ground Zero to help as many people as they could. As the dust and smoke swirled in the air around them, they stayed. Weeks, months, and years later, the full cost of that service began to appear as many suffered life-threatening lung and respiratory disorders from The Pile.
It’s a similar story today from the Veterans exposed to burn pits.
“It’s hard for people to conceptualize how something so toxic and detrimental can make you so sick, but not until years later,” Mark shared. “You would think it would be more immediate, but it doesn’t always work that way.”
That’s why it’s so important to be there for these heroes when those challenges do pop up – whether it’s the first day of their service or decades removed from it. They put everything on the line in service to their country. They’ve earned whatever support they need.
We can’t see the future or predict what will happen next. But when the unthinkable happens, and someone raises their hand for help, we know a community that will step up each and every time. Thank you for supporting Mark and all of the Veterans and first responders like him. Let’s help the helpers - DONATE HERE.