Inspired by the experiences of Kevin James Rumley
Not Afraid to Die
by Kevin James Rumley
I’m not afraid to die. Not anymore. Although, I carried this fear with me for many years. Suffering became my new normal and I was resigned to accept this single form of existence. Looking back, I can say that my fear of death was only surpassed by my fear of living, my fear of loving and being loved. Sebastian Yunger writes, “While many of our veterans are willing to die for their Country, many return home to find they are not sure how to live for it.”
For years I carried the loss of my best friend (LCPL, Christopher Wasser) as a weight around my soul. Chris was killed in the same explosion that left me wounded in Iraq. I was told by a doctor at Walter Reed Hospital that I would never walk again. But Chris’s family… his fiancé… were told that they would never see Chris again. I was 19 years old when I landed in Iraq (the Syrian border town of Husaybah to be specific), not yet equipped to be an ambassador of peace, prosperity and hope.
I was taught by the United States Marine Corps how to kill, and violently destroy the enemy. The most important asset of being a Marine is the ability to “otherize” the enemy. The Marines provided a cognitive framework for me to understand the world, a simple binary: good vs. evil. This allowed me and the 100 Marine Snipers and Force Recon who served with our 3/7 Lima attachment, the ability to operate free from the moral restraints of civilian life. While an effective/essential battle mindset, these perspectives would later become the source of increased suffering and moral-injury.
Serving on the Syrian Border, I carried the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. We patrolled non-stop on foot around the 4 square mile town, a town neglected by Saddam. I brought a bag of Tootsie Rolls to hand out to the children. I quickly learned this would not fly when my SGT came up and knocked them out of my hand, yelling “We are at fucking war.”
Any romanticized ideas I had about where I was or what I was tasked quickly faded when our first Marine was killed by an IED. The metal tore through his flesh, ripping vital organs and pulling them from the inside out. If we could afford it, we would spend roughly 10-minutes on a make-shift memorial before being right back out on patrol.
For working with the “Infidel,” every one of our translators was murdered. As they continued to kill us, we continued to get angrier. As 19-year old boys, we were in over our heads, but feeling equally invisible. We lost over 26 Marines in 2004, including the Medal of Honor recipient Jason Dunham who jumped on a grenade to save his fellow Marines after hand-to-hand combat with a combatant.
We created a curfew after losing 10-marines, blocking all traffic at the Syrian border from coming into Iraq and all Iraq traffic going back home to Syria (trade routes and commerce were huge across Countries). At 8pm every night, a long line would form of cars that didn’t make it home in time for curfew before the borders closed.
All of this rage was building up. We felt powerless to stop the death and dying by IED explosions. We would be walking and the IED would be triggered by a cellphone a few blocks away. One night my CPRL said, “Fuck this, we’re hotwiring their cars and dumping them in the Euphrates.” I was more terrified of my SGT than anything in combat. I co-signed on this (metaphorically) and followed his commands.
The next day, people would return to find their car was missing, only to find it later in the river. Moral injury is real, operating by a different moral value-system in war. The USMC would not have approved of this, but we had no Brass in Country. The following week was pure destruction, with combatants doubled their IED efforts and effectively destroyed more Marine bodies.
A book was written about our time in Country, it is called Blood Stripes. The title says it all. So many memories of destruction, chaos, and death. Poverty, and trauma. In the end, after losing so many lives, the Commandant of the Marine Corps shut our outpost down. Similar to Vietnam, we fought hard for a small piece of land, only to lose it within a year.
Only now, with time and healing can I speak of this decade long journey with a sense of kindness and compassion. Only now can I see that my greatest suffering would become my greatest strength. While not a linear path, my journey to recovery was only possible because of the ceaseless love and support of others. Not simply the MD’s, Social Workers, or clinicians that fostered my it, but the myriad people that took the time to see and be seen. I learned to listen to others. I learned to break down my preconceived perceptions of how the world is, take in new information, challenge my own deeply held beliefs, and appreciate the process as the destination. Now that I serve as the Program Director for the Buncombe County Veterans Treatment Court, a non-punitive diversion court program for veterans with felony-level charges. The insights gleaned provide a platform for mutual growth and exploration with the veteran participants I serve alongside. I am now a veteran for peace. I became a licensed social worker and addiction specialist.
Perhaps the most healing endeavor has been my drumming. I play in several bands and have toured Europe (w/ Tyler Ramsey from Band of Horses). Music has been so incredibly healing. When I am behind the drum set, I am at peace. I am in the present moment, and it is all perfect. I have come a long way with my trauma, and I now recognize that I can use it to foster creativity and purpose through music. Furthermore, I have learned how to lead. Not leading like my SGT in the Marines, but with an approach that honors my values and moral code.
Reflecting on my leadership style throughout the years, I have been pulled towards what has been called servant-leadership. At the core of this philosophical approach is a sense of curiosity and inquiry. The Center for Servant Leadership asserts, “The difference [between servant-first vs. leader-first] manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served; The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?” (Greenleaf.org) As a servant leader, I continue to explore creative solutions that amplify the collective good. From serving as a Non-Commissioned Officer in the Marines, to volunteering to co-facilitate community meetings, or leading the Special Olympics to celebrate everyone’s capacity, my leadership style is an extension of how I strive to live. Always putting people first. Bear witness. And seek understanding. By empowering individuals within the group, providing a safe place for them to operate and speak, freeing them from the restraints of social norms, the whole is strengthened and the collective can begin to blossom.
Though I am not afraid to die, I am living a life that is focused on healing.