Writer’s note: This is going to start of harshly, but then, most stories of triumph do.
We were taught that we were invincible, weapons forged by the fires of trial and competition. That it was our destiny to drop the sensitivity of our morality in exchange for a singularity of purpose. Hope and despair were ridiculous in equal measure, both distractions from the certainty of mission accomplishment or the glory of our death in the attempt. Each and every one of us an island of unbridled strength in the military archipelago. We were all that is fortitude through the synergy of one another, basking in the rabid throws of justified fury, fueled by what we personally held dear so far from where we found ourselves.
We were Marines.
However, more often than not, we eventually came home, bastard children to a country mired in media broadcasting the majority of their air time toward Kardashian drivel and 50 Shades of who-the-hell-cares. Where people were far more invested in having a yellow ribbon on their car than getting to know the extent of what that ribbon actually represented. And worst case scenario, some of us had such a bad experience while in the military that we ran away from all of it, distancing ourselves from the men we once were and the company we once kept, yet still trapped in the understanding that we didn’t need anyone else.
There is no depth of loneliness deeper than that gaping valley between us and the world in which we are surrounded. Any tantalizing beauty we couldn’t touch, or felt we didn’t deserve. Yet those around us, those who hadn’t and maybe wouldn’t know sacrifice, wallowed in the very joy of life we’d lost to whizzing bullets, doubt, and our dead friends. No one to talk to. Nowhere to turn but inside ourselves, where our demons are fermented into a poison that soaks it’s way into everything we perceive. This particular type of chronic despair has killed a lot of us. Hell, it almost killed me.
After ten years of dealing with this, I’d become used to fighting it off. Became comfortable with the security of at least recognizing that the limbo was real, even as hope faded. And eventually, it became the one comfort I had, knowing that it was always there and that I could refer to something that defined me. Finding myself in Spartanburg, SC, a shut-in, not leaving the house for anything but bare necessities, staring at one screen or another to distract myself from the terrible aspects of the future, I had come to terms that I was and would forever be alone.
It was a cold day in October when I met a fellow Marine who’d served two tours in Afghanistan in conditions so grueling as to leave a similar scar on the man, giving him a thirst for more punishment just as I had found. But something was different about him. He’d somehow managed to tame his issues at least enough to become a good father and a good man. I still don't fully understand how. Originally I’d approached him to volunteer at a local jail to teach creative writing to the inmates. Two conversations later and I was impressed enough to swallow the anxiety of steeping myself back into a group of fellow infantrymen, back into the very jaws of the beast I had worked so hard at forgetting, toward a common, noble goal.
They want to better the world around us through outreach and community incorporation, reinventing the idea of the wounded warrior into the pillar of strength that had once defined them. Acting as a blanket for any and all veterans, they offer the gamut of services needed so desperately by our servicemen and women, especially once they’ve left the life of combat for the civilian world. From benefits and compensation to education, career building, and housing, Upstate Warrior Solution saw the problems we faced and met them head on. I had my doubts, given that my view of humanity was the color of jade you don’t normally come back from. But I sat in on conferences where the CEO of the company shrugged off monetary resources in exchange for a broader network of services for the veterans.
That sort of thing breeds hope.
In the time that I worked there, I met with an array of people from all walks of military life, seeing them suffer through not only issues that we had in common, but also those that were beyond my realm of experience. Some I got along with, looking to them as brothers in and through the glory of public service. Others weren’t quite as receptive, though that didn’t matter to any of us. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but we didn’t have to. We were working toward the same goal of empowering one another and through that, we had a mutual respect; one whose familiarity had been lost to me over the past decade. For the first time in a long time, I felt a semblance of home and a reason to doubt my doubt, to question if my perspective toward the military and the world as a whole was as justifiably bleak as I’d known it to be for so long.
But you can’t flip a hard-earned outlook built over the span of more than a decade with a few hints of progress. My fellowship at Upstate Warrior Solution was coming to a close, the darkness at the beginning of the tunnel getting closer with each passing second. Questions without answers peppered my mind like pellets from a shotgun. Would this be the last chance I had to find a new view of life? Would all things military fall back into the routine of might-makes-right and violence is the go-to answer? Would I stay in this bubble of seclusion, ready to fight each and every infantryman I came into contact with, terrified of my own strange perspective? Where would I go from here?
Then the strangest thing happened.
The Marine Corps League of Costa Rica had begun their second annual retreat for combat veterans, an exodus for those wayward men and women caught in the harsh winds of a reality they had fought for. A reality that had let them down. The trip was going to be an all-expenses-paid excursion through a third-world paradise, where verdant mountains reached like prayers to the star swept sky and waves lapped and crashed against ash-black beaches. When I first found out about what they were offering, I raised an eyebrow and smiled, waiting for the other shoe to drop; knowing that nothing in this life is free. In fact, you can fight like no other and be left exhausted, destitute, starved of everything that had spurred you onward. If you haven’t felt this, then just trust me. But I’ll never pass up a chance to travel to another country, regardless of which country that is.
So I, along with another Marine from the same division (only a few years later), landed at the airport in San Jose, the evening heat coaxing sweat out of every pore as though the air itself was thirsty. I was once again soaked in apprehension, prepared to counter-posture and follow through with a quick escalation of force. Instead, three men greeted us right outside the baggage claim, bright green shirts proudly announcing that they were with an organization called Warriors Helping Warriors, a relaxed, sincere smile on each face, smiles that you could tell had been hard won, with beer proffered within the first minute of our conversation. And I thought “Yep. Too good to be true. Stand by.”
As we waited on others to arrive, we tested each other through conversation, gauging what we should expect as well as what was expected. It was casual, the sort of interest inherent when meeting people with whom you’d spend the next week. From there we drove through the city and out into a countryside whose splendor cannot fully be described in words. In my opinion, the word “awesome” is used far too much in our day-to-day life. A cheeseburger isn’t awesome unless you’re speaking of it’s molecular structure and their origins, the relativity of the importance of animal life regardless of quantity, the burger’s impact on the complicated organisms that make up your digestive system, and the fleeting nature of existence in general. So when I say that Costa Rican geography is awesome, I mean to say that you cannot grasp it fully at once, but rather in small, digestible portions.
Strange flora and fauna burst forth as though bragging about the splendor of their own evolution. Flowers of all colors swayed in a breeze so cool that it mocked the heat still tugging at our sweat, birds cawing and spreading their polychromatic feathers over yellow, blue, and brown lizards bigger than house cats and just as skittish.
Even the locals, their bright white teeth flashing through darkly tanned skin under eyes crow-footed by those very smiles, were foreign. Not simply in their ethnicity, but in their casual, contented demeanor that seems to be lost in our rush to live the American Dream. What’s more, they incorporated their environment in quaint, brilliant ways. Fences made of trees lined the roads, attached to one another by root systems and barbed wire, farms laid out with seed waiting patiently for the rainy season that was just beginning to surface, juicy, fat fruit hanging like bats from tree branches struggling with the weight.
We arrived at the suburban-style house of one of the members of the Marine Corps League, located toward the top of a lush mountain overlooking a valley spread before us in a panorama of misty jungle that was peppered with stucco and shanty homes. We’d been met as friends, generations falling away with an ease only found in a land hinting of nirvana, Marines who’d been discharged in the 60s and 70s meeting with Marines who had just gotten out, along with a couple that were still working at the embassy in Costa Rica.
Walking to the edge of the retaining wall, I looked out over this viridescent heaven. As though on cue, a 5-foot iguana rushed onto a tin rooftop thirty yards below us, basking in fleeting sunlight before scampering away into the treeline as the storm clouds loomed just beyond the next mountain ridge.
Sipping on my ice-cold Imperial, I nodded to the gods and joined my fellow Marines in exchanging stories and trying to grasp how we got to such a beautiful, foreign place. One barbecue-sandwich-the-size-of-my-head later and we were en route to our next destination, the sheen of a newly paved road rising to meet us, crossing a bridge over a crocodile infested river, and finally pulling into the parking alley of the Hotel de Pelicana.
Sitting quaintly on a black sand beach, this small establishment offered the perfect example of what the locals call Pura Vida, a life unfettered by self-imposed stresses and fear of the future. The bar and lounge area was put together with what looked like lacquered driftwood, the brick path leading away from it transitioning into fine sand, hammocks, and beyond that, the ocean crashing waves that pounded the surf into powder and beckoned wayward surfers to dare her.
We were each given our own individual rooms surrounding a swimming pool that kept catching and drowning wandering crabs the color of bruises, dark purple with red tinged bodies that belied the comforts in which we had found ourselves and acting as subtle reminders that the world was a harsh, wonderful place.
We unpacked our bags, baptising ourselves in the cool air conditioning before grabbing food and another pint at the bar. We sat together at random tables, eating burgers tinged with a strange, delicious flavor that felt all too appropriate, swapping out our military stories for those of our civilian life, wary of who might be sitting next to us while at the same time knowing we were in good company. From there, we gathered around a gazebo that immediately became our smoking-hut, each of us celebrating the victory of arriving with a cigarette at our lips or a dip in our gums, commiserating about long ago. We might as well have been in Afghanistan. And believe it or not, that was a good thing.
When morning came, we grabbed what we needed and went to our next adventure, a suspended rope bridge canopy tour through the rainforest. With steps built in using old, dirt-filled tires and winding paths that stuck fast to the sides of rock, vine, and tree, the humidity doing it’s best to replace eager fascination and failing.
Frogs chirped at the morning dew as mist rose to catch up to us, the rain from the dark hours of the morning still clinging to leaf and bark as though their existence depended on it. As we climbed across a series of slippery, rickety bridges, the immensity of what we were doing slowly began to eek into my understanding.
The unique nature of the nature around us. The unique ways man harnessed it. And then we began our descent, slowly leading to a pond that collected water falling from the rocks above, colder than any beer, forcing our skin to form goosebumps as we swam.
From there, we arrived at the beginning of our destination, where at the foot of the mountain stood Perro Vida, a local brewery that specializes in over a dozen styles, from porters and stouts to guava lambics and IPAs. Taking a stroll down to a pond burping fish mouths that were scooping up water bugs, I bent down to stroke the leaves of a patch of green surrounded by clover, those very leaves closing as my fingers glanced them; more of the world letting me know I wasn’t alone.
Walking back to the brewery, I saw all of these men and women that had gathered together and was taken aback at how glad I was to have the company I did. Most of us were once killers, carrying the burden of violence like an anchor, yet here we were, smiling, laughing, and wanting to fit in with each other. It was humbling.
After we left Perro Vida and the glorious jungle behind, we went back to our hotel to drink beer and sit under the gazebo, smoking and joking, waiting the few hours until we went to another expat’s house and a spread of sushi fit for god-kings.
Beer and liquor flowing like our crass conversations, we played pool and poured out gratitude, knowing that words wouldn’t do it justice; knowing that we had only just begun, still waiting for the other shoe to drop. The caterers that had put so much effort into preparing our meals also stayed to hang out, giving us a glimpse into what success looks like in this region. Turns out it looks like success everywhere. They were doing what they loved and you could tell with every word they spoke, reiterating the Pura Vida lifestyle that began to pervade even our dark souls.
Later that night, we traveled back in a caravan to our beach retreat, awaiting the next day, the next first for so many of us.
The following morning started off with a light drizzle, customary when Costa Rica begins it’s rainy season. But by the time we reached the Esterillos Horse Stables, the sun had coaxed away the rain, inspiring giant lizards to run across roads and through brambles, just feet from us at any given time. The stables were run by a woman we had met a couple of nights previous, honest, kind, and generous, whose demeanor fit with someone who’d spent her life traveling. She had volunteered her time and given us her hospitality in congenial fashion, as though our happiness were her own. Walking along the tide pools of rocks plumping out of the black sand and ocean, the random wildlife finding purchase where it could, I looked across the beach to the mountains piercing beyond the morning fog before returning to the group preparing to ride.
I was given a white horse, skittish, stubborn, and eager to run, almost entirely independent of my coaxing. I knew the feeling and loved her for it. But she followed the rest up a mountain and through the jungle, the sea coyly poking through triple canopy, her trot gaining and losing pace at random while I did my very best to relax. I hadn’t ridden a horse in almost two decades and the mantra of “stay cool, keep calm,” only served to heighten my anxiety. Breathing deeply and waiting patiently, she took me to a place I had never known, entirely reliant on a beast that could toss me aside like a backpack after a long journey. Not caring about anything but what was happening at the moment, she instead returned me to the stables feeling safe, sound, and curious as to why I hadn’t done this years before.
Settling by the beach under the roof of a guest house, we each took turns getting acupuncture. I had always been hesitant, believing this style of medicine to be more psychosomatic than a utility. But some of us were walking around with wide eyes, amazed at how great they felt afterward. How pain and stress had receded like half of our hairlines. How they were filled with a strange glory. So I decided to give it a try. Why not? And here’s why not. She put those tiny pins in my ears, pointed at her watch, smiling, and said “It’s 12:45 now. Give it thirty minutes.”
Ten minutes later and I was so filled with fury that I was twitching. Realizing that this was exact opposite of appropriate, I got those cursed needles out of my ears with a prejudice. The lady smiled again, sweet and endearing, so I did the same, then left to smoke a cigarette. Having said that, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to try it. On a black sand beach. After horseback riding. In a foreign country.
Another meal on our own that night and we woke up the next day for a catamaran ride out to a small reef. When we arrived at the marina the water was a green-blue, the bright sun weighing down on us lightly, the cool wind enveloping us as we grinned and took pictures. The day was looking good, with jagged mountains complimenting the ebbing waves.
And then it took a turn. Thirty minutes in and my stomach started rising into my throat, the bouncing of the ship wreaking havoc on my booze-lined insides as though to question why “marine” was the profession I’d chosen. But it subsided as we reached the reef, the cool water quickly quelling my nausea. As we swam over to our destination, several jagged rocks jutting out ot the crystalline ocean, I put my face down, feeling the pressure of the water in my ears as the ocean floor slowly changed from sand and the occasional empty shell to a vibrant world where schools of fish teemed around us, multicolored and inquisitive.
It must have been an awkward, funny thing to watch us. Grown men, war fighters, lolling about lapping waves in bathing suits and childlike awe, hands darting out quickly to touch fish so lush and ample as to be practically beyond belief. Every now and then, one of us would pop our head out of the water, ripping off our snorkel as quickly as we could to declare “I touched one!” Then back to the world putting on it’s underwater play. Half an hour later and the reef became crowded, more ships having arrived with other groups of tourists, our little bastion of wonder becoming lost to a lack of elbow room and our own impatience. But we recognized we’d had enough time to ourselves and arrived back to the boat, our stomachs hollow from the exertion, backs red from pointing them at the sun’s unforgiving stare.
After a leisurely meal, we returned to Hotel de Pelicana, exhausted and happy, ice-cold beer waiting to greet us by the pool. We spent our time individually, some of us checking emails frantically in the hard found internet hotspots, others smoking and dipping under the gazebo, compounding crass anecdotes into what would turn out to be the mother of inside jokes. “We’ll let you into C Company, at the low, low price of a hundred thirty seven yen.” Just trust me. There’s a group of us laughing hysterically at this as they read it. And as the evening approached, we all grabbed our Sunday-go-to-meetin outfits and left for a Marine Corps League celebration, of which we were all honored to take part, sweating through tightly pressed shirts and the lingering soap that wouldn’t matter in a few minutes.
The night was serene as we drove through the gentle dusk with our windows down, a cool wind catching in just the right places to dry us off by the time we returned to the marina and the shopping complex next to it. From there we walked up a grand staircase to a strip of shops lit like exploding fireworks, kitsch prejudicially separate from finery and upscale taste. As we walked into the restaurant, some of the older marines approached and addressed us, hands out as fellow warfighters, sharing in an unspoken pride and solidarity. We spoke to them with gratitude and reverence, raising a glass and commiserating about the loss of bygone eras. We ate fresh fish caught that day, some of us drinking beer, others drinking coffee, spiked with the gift of Irish charm called whiskey. We still had a standard to keep.
And after the festivities of the day, we returned to our lodgings to end the evening under our gazebo, trying to top one another with jokes and stories.
I feel there’s something very important to say about the stories we told. They were often hilarious, celebrating the manic craziness that is the world in which we live. But others weren’t. Others were from a bad place, where hell was where we laid our heads, where we thirsted for something water couldn’t quench, but death could. And there wasn’t regret, nor tears to speak of. Only the understanding that we were in the right company to tell these stories.
I didn’t know the band of brothers that was spoken about while I served. But I felt it then. It seemed to stretch beyond that moment, finding roots at Upstate Warrior Solution, then beyond, hinting to moments I had forgotten in my old company. I had been searching for it for so long that I’d given up, only to have it land in my lap without me even realizing it. And then, one by one, we went to our rooms for the next day and the next adventure, that being sport-fishing several miles off the coast.
Because my gut was prone to wrenching in the sporadic movement of keel-to-wave, I chose to sit this one out in exchange for a good night’s sleep. I woke to children playing in the pool just outside my room, laughter and pitter-patter of tiny feet on wet concrete forcing me up with an angry smile, knowing that this could have been a far more rude awakening. Nodding to the mother as I walked past, I made my way to the lounge area of the hotel to eat their typical breakfast, eggs, black beans, rice, caramelized plantains, fresh fruit, toast, and coffee. Sitting at one of the lacquered driftwood tables, I listened to Nina Simone and watched the waves crash onto the black sand, slowly coming to terms with the idea that it was pointless to “wait for the other shoe to drop.” It wasn’t going to. This was simply a gift given to us by generous hosts, kind, understanding, willing, and able. This existed. And it was happening.
As the convoy arrived back at the hotel, tired men weary from a long day of fishing trudged forward like happy zombies as they spoke of their catch-of-the-day, brandishing their preferred brand of hair-of-the-dog and smiling that they’d gone.
We ate a late lunch, then spent the rest of the day relaxing, occasionally finding ourselves under the gazebo, only to split off again to find our own ideas of what it was to relax in paradise. And that evening was a quiet one. Nothing happened, really. Slow evening. No big deal. We didn’t do anything silly or ridiculous. Nothing untoward. Nothing debaucherous. Nothing happened at all. Seriously, stop asking.
Anyway, the final day before our departure was one of transcendent peace. I woke to the same breakfast we had had throughout the week, waiting an hour for it to settle before walking down to the beach, the waves exploding in their grandeur, only to end up as wafer-thin sheets of brine rushing to their conclusion, then pulling back, revealing bicuspids waving small strands to catch food, then digging themselves further under the wet sand. After a quick, cold swim, I left the beach to sit in line for a full-body massage the likes of which I have never received. These women found, then promptly relaxed, muscles I didn’t know existed, using dextrous fingers to widdle away at whatever stress could have possibly been left behind, leaving me a ragdoll perfectly happy to die then and there. As I tipped the woman, I nodded to the acupuncturist from earlier in the trip, returning her enthusiasm gratefully, even as I darted in the other direction.
For most of the day we were left to our own devices, the sun slowly covering with clouds until the afternoon looked like evening, fat rain falling like atom bombs from the sky as though it was waging war with the earth, hard and fast and a perfect goodbye to men whose lives were born from something resembling a thunderstorm. We grilled fish steaks under a shelter, cooked to perfection by our hosts and gobbled up as fast as they were made ready.
By the time everyone was fed, time seemed to slow down, waiting for us to get our fill of this wondrous place before we had to shuffle off to our own realities. The marines from the embassy gathered with those from the Marine Corps League and we all had one last hurrah, drinks flowing like jokes, stories, and cigarette smoke on a gentle breeze. At the end of it all, we said our goodbyes to those we may never see again, then each made their way to their rooms, reeling from the week’s worth of incredible fortune.
The next morning was a forlorn triumph, our sadness at having to leave this paradise only overshadowed by our gratitude at having been given the opportunity to come in the first place. We said goodbye to our hosts, not wanting to leave but knowing our lives weren’t waiting patiently for us to return. Taking us back to the airport in groups, we had just enough time to stop at a bridge looking over a gathering of crocodiles, giving us one last opportunity to absorb the exotic fauna and collect a couple of souvenirs, then back to our final journey in Costa Rica.
Back to San Jose and in turn, our own origins. We arrived at the airport thinking we’d have plenty of time to check in, but the line through the security checkpoint turned out to be two hours, literally a couple of minutes within the time that our flight was taking off. But we made it, body weary, hearts broken, but looking forward to what was waiting on us back home, secure that we were not alone.
Heraclitus once said “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” When I arrived to the offices of Upstate Warrior Solution after this journey that they had afforded me, and after the journey they themselves had provided by their own existence, I realized that I was no longer broken and without company, but rather fording Life’s river in the company of familiar men. That pura vida, rica vida, is found where you make it. And that you can’t do it alone.