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A Survival Guide to Pain Management for Returning Veterans and Their Families
Chapter 1 - To Hell and Back: Derek's Story
American flags mean a lot to me. I fly one from my house in the small town of Waterford, California. On one wall of my home office are three glass-faced triangular frames, each holding a folded American flag used in the military funerals of my two grandfathers and a step-grandfather. On another wall of the office is a flag covered with handwritten notes from 19 of my fellow Marines. The American flag represents the values of freedom and service that I believe in, that I went to war for, and that I sacrificed for.
But three years ago, I was losing my battle with chronic pain. The scene I’m about to share testifies to the power of pain to grind down a human soul.
Picture this: It’s a chilly March evening in Bethesda, Maryland. I’m in a wheelchair, rolling myself along a path on the sprawling grounds of the National Naval Medical Center, where I was being treated for my injuries. It was dusk, and a Navy sailor was lowering the flag from a pole — a ceremony called “evening colors.” Ordinarily, like any service member, I would stop, face the flag, remain silent, and salute until the “carry on” signal was given. That was the tradition I learned and, until that evening, rigorously upheld. But at that point, I didn’t care. I was coming back from a meeting with my medical team — and nobody was listening to me. I was in such pain, and nothing they were doing was working. I was totally pissed off, muttering to myself, “Fuck it, fuck this place, I’m outta here.” I rolled right through “colors” and went inside. It was something I would never do normally, because you think of all those people who have gone before you, and how they fought for that flag. That’s what “colors” is all about, thinking about the people who have gone before you. That evening though, I was too consumed with my own battle to stop.
This chapter is the story of how chronic pain drove me to the point where I no longer cared about one of the most sacred things in my life. It’s also the story of how, with the help of dozens of professionals and the deep love of my wife and family, I finally beat the pain, rebuilt my life, and began helping others who are struggling with the same issues.
I grew up in Fremont, California, a suburb of Oakland on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay. As a kid I was athletic. I loved surfing, skimboarding, and skateboarding. In school I played defensive end and tight end on the football team, and defense on the soccer team. Track was my favorite sport, because it was individual — you’re competing with yourself, trying to beat yourself.
Whenever I got interested in something, I locked on to it and worked hard. I liked biology, for example, and got A’s. But, honestly, aside from sports, my friends, and my high school sweetheart, I didn’t focus on much in school. By my junior year, I was itchy. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wasn’t ready for college, but I wanted to leave the house, be independent, do my own thing.
With veterans on both sides of my family, I figured the military was a good bet. I wanted to be a Marine, but my mom, Barbara, was pushing hard for me to learn a skill that I could build on when I came out. I had always been interested in emergency medicine. Problem was, the Marines have never had their own medical corps, like the other branches of the military. As an advance attack force that had evolved out of the Navy, the Marines have historically relied on Navy Corpsmen who train and fight with them. (In the famous photograph of Marines raising the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima in World War II, one of the six men, John Bradley, was the Navy Corpsman assigned to that platoon.)
So I chose the Navy, because Corpsman training was more extensive than the training given to medics in other branches of the military. Also, there were the beaches. I mean, c’mon—I love the sea! I didn’t want to end up in the middle of nowhere a thousand miles from the ocean. All the Navy bases were on the water, on a beach somewhere, which was cool.
So I locked on to a career in the military. It was 1996, five years after Operation Desert Storm drove Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. Saddam had been defeated, but he was still in power. It was peacetime. The Twin Towers were still part of the New York City skyline.
In the early hours of July 2, 1996, it was still dark when a Navy recruiter picked me up at my home and drove me to the airport for the flight to boot camp. I already looked the partmy good friend Tim had shaved my head several days before. I flew to the Navy’s Recruit Training Command on the shore of Lake Michigan, about 30 miles north of Chicago, and began an eight-week transformation from civilian to sailor. As anyone who’s been through boot camp knows, first they break you down, take away your individuality. Then they bring you back up, as a team. The whole mental game is to get the team working together. Your culture changes, your vocabulary changes, everything changes. (To this day I say “hatch” for “door” and “head” for “bathroom.”)
I was okay with boot camp, but I quickly realized that not having a college degree was a major limitation. I was on the very bottom rung, looking up the ranks, at the officers, and thinking, “Man, all that guy did was go to school for four years and he gets to be an officer? I can do that.” I wanted to be the officer. I wanted to be in charge. But there I was scrubbing toilets.
So I locked on to a new goal: earning a college degree. But before I could start taking courses, I had to become a Corpsman. After boot camp, I flew to the Naval School of Health Science in San Diego to begin my training. It was tough. I wasn’t exactly the academic type in school, and suddenly I was taking classes in anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology. I had a lot of catching up to do. The pressure was on, too, because if you flunk three tests, you’re outta there, back into the fleet, a Seaman. I was really nervous.
Of course, it wasn’t all books and tests. When I wasn’t studying, I was on the beach with my buddies or enjoying liberty in San Diego and Tijuana, just over the border. I was back in California, with some close buddies from boot camp. And we did everything together — PT (physical training), chow, getting into trouble, getting out of trouble. Your buddies and your group become your family.
Excerpted from Exit Wounds: A Survival Guide to Pain Management for Returning Veterans and Their Families, Copyright © 2009 The American Pain Foundation. Click here to learn more about the book.
See BrainLine's exclusive video interivews with Derek McGinnis.
Derek McGinnis, Derek McGinnis is an Iraq War combat veteran serving in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman. He currently serves combat veterans and their families at the Modesto Vet Center. He advocates for veterans coping with pain through the American Pain Foundation and is the author of a book on pain management.
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