How Empathy Helped Heal a Wounded Warrior
News The traumas of war can feel very isolating. For one wounded warrior, finding out he wasn’t alone was the key to recovery.
Marine Corps wounded warrior Jesse Bergeron was in his early 20s by the time of his second deployment. Like many veterans before his time, Jesse knew at a young age that he would wear a military uniform. He was also aware that eventually he or someone beside him would pay the cost of war. It was not a matter of if, but when.
A terrible moment
“There’s no way to describe what it sounds like and what it feels like,” he said, recalling the improvised explosive device attack that claimed the life of his corpsman, Doc Kent, during a routine reconnaissance mission in Fallujah, Iraq in 2005.
It’s not something Jesse likes to talk about. Trying to save a life — watching a friend slip away before his very eyes. Putting hands in places that hands aren’t meant to be, trying to stop the bleeding. Trying to save the warrior who saved so many others as the unit medic — trying in vain. Then, trying to find the words to tell the rest of the team they lost that battle.
“And then you move on, even though you don’t want to,” Jesse said. “The job requires it. You can’t grieve or decompress. There’s another mission, another fight to fight, another life to save.”
The next battle
Only this time — two weeks after losing his friend — Jesse learned the next life he would be fighting to save would be that of his prematurely born son, who contracted necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). Jesse was ordered to return and remain stateside to be with his family.
“What about my family fighting and dying in Iraq?” he asked, struggling with an internal conflict that many civilians cannot understand. He had two families and a need to watch over both.
But the choice wasn’t his to make. The Marines made Jesse a recruiter, which was the last thing this boots-on-the-ground warrior wanted. Stripped from active combat and forced to deal with the reality of losing his son to NEC, Jesse began to feel alone, isolating himself and not seeking treatment for his diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Putting hands in places that hands aren’t meant to be, trying to stop the bleeding.”
“Before I got involved with one of the largest veterans service organizations serving warriors like me, I was angry all the time. I was just spinning my wheels, not ever wanting to do anything with anyone. This organization helped change that attitude in me, and I credit their warrior-to-warrior support model for being a big part of that change.”
Warrior support that plays a critical role on the battlefield has the same function in recovery at home. When warriors stumble, fall, or become injured, it’s the warrior marching next to them who will pick them up and carry them on their shoulder.
“When I help another warrior, that warrior is helping me,” Jesse said. “It’s a huge honor to walk with them in their walks, struggle with them in their struggles, to have their backs.” That’s why Jesse encourages every wounded warrior to get involved with a wounded warrior organization.
“They gave me a break I didn't know I needed. For the first time since I returned from Iraq, a group afforded me the opportunity to take a hard look at myself and put me first, while also meeting others warriors like me who are coping with their own recoveries. That’s only one small thing — and that one small thing changed my life.”