Sean Paul, left, and his gunner charcoaled their faces as Iraq launched scud missiles just after U.S. troops crossed the border. Troops used charcoal as a way to absorb any chemical agents as they donned their gas masks. Photo courtesy of the author.

Note to Self: When They Come for You in the Night, Don’t Give Up. Fight Back. 

Greetings,

This may be hard to wrap your mind around, but this is the older you. I wanted to take some time to explain a few things, put some things into perspective, and, I hope, provide some guidance that may positively impact your trajectory. This note is intended to find you at around the age of 10, as I feel that is when your life comes to a crossroads. Through all this, always keep in mind that things will be OK: Life goes on—the important concept is that we go on with it.

Life will be OK.

Inevitably, during a lifetime of experience, there will be times when things are hard. It may seem as though the world is stacked against you and that there are no options for success. I want to impart to you that, regardless of how hard things do become, you will be OK. 

Sean Paul cleans a gas mask in Kuwait in 2003, just before U.S. forces invaded Iraq. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sean Paul cleans a gas mask at Camp Ripper, Kuwait in 2003, just before U.S. forces invaded Iraq. Photo by Sgt. Paul L Anstine, courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Your childhood has been challenging. I know—I was there. But this challenging experience will ultimately lead to a life I’m sure is hard to imagine. When you hit 17, you will decide to join the service to escape and to develop a sense of family and belonging.

Keep your chin up, endure, and always remember: It will be OK.

First off, you make the right decision as to which service to join. The Marine Corps will offer you a sense of family, camaraderie, belonging, and personal challenges second to none. These gifts will begin to emerge sometime during the infamous Marine Corps boot camp. You will notice that you start the training as an individual, but you quickly develop into a unit that relies on all its parts to survive. Boot camp will be hard and it will hurt both mentally and physically—but stay the course, and, I promise, you will feel a sense of accomplishment like you’ve never felt in your life. Also, never forget to have fun. Really, where else can you yell and scream at your bosses, get some range time, navigate obstacle courses, and run around like a maniac?

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Do not expect to walk in as the new guy and be accepted as a part of the unit. This is a unit of Marines preparing for war. They want to know that every single Marine will act in the best interest of the unit and the mission. Remember, all you have in the end is the Marine to your left and the Marine to your right. With that being said, hazing is a thing, and they will haze you and the other handful of Marines that get to the unit together. 

Sean Paul, left, and his gunner charcoaled their faces as Iraq launched scud missiles just after U.S. troops crossed the border. Troops used charcoal as a way to absorb any chemical agents as they donned their gas masks. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sean Paul, left, and his gunner charcoaled their faces as Iraq launched scud missiles just after U.S. troops crossed the border. Troops used charcoal as a way to absorb any chemical agents as they donned their gas masks. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sure, it will hurt, but have fun with it. When they come for you in the middle of the night, don’t give up: Fight back. Throw punches and kicks, resist as hard as you can. In the end, they will respect you that much more for it. 

Once the dust has settled, you will have a short few months before it’s time to go to work. During this time, engage in your training to the best of your ability. Show those around you that you are a valuable asset. Always remember the unit does not conform to you; you must, I mean absolutely must, conform to the unit to survive what’s to come. The fleet is a rough environment, but hey, you chose this.

Sean Paul sits in a Humvee just after crossing the border into Iraq in 2003. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sean Paul sits in a Humvee just after crossing the border into Iraq in 2003. Photo courtesy of the author.

We all know what happened on 9/11, and when you see those towers go down, do not fool yourself. You will go to war. You’ve set your life on a trajectory that will take you to the enemy’s doorstep. If you have been successful in your training and whatnot, you will survive this. 

Keep your eyes and ears open for things that may seem out of place, because I promise you they are and things that don’t belong can kill you. There will be times when you think things are over for you. You will adopt a mindset early on that will help you alleviate this fear: You are already dead. This is an important point, because if fear holds you back then you can get yourself killed or, worse, get someone else killed. You are already dead—so don’t hold back from engaging the enemy. Fully commit your body and mind to the objective. 

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Throughout the invasion and subsequent deployments, you will experience things that are not normal. Snipers are a real thing: Keep your head down and eyes open because there will be a number of incidents in which one will take shots at you and your fellow Marines. IEDs are a real thing: Pay attention, because you and your unit are going to get hit almost constantly. Remember I told you to keep an eye out for something out of place? That and pure luck are the two factors that will ultimately lead to your survival. Remember my statement about blame? Through all this, keep in mind nothing is really your fault.

 Sean Paul places a helmet on a battlefield cross during a memorial service for a Marine his unit lost in 2006 in Fallujah. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sean Paul places a helmet on a battlefield cross during a memorial service for a Marine his unit lost in 2006 in Fallujah. Photo courtesy of the author.

You will experience countless incidents of a violent and nasty nature. However, there will be two that will stick with you for the rest of your life. On Valentine’s Day 2006, your unit will patrol in and around Fallujah. As on most other patrols, your team will find an IED. You will follow SOP and cordon off the IED, and the explosive ordnance disposal guys will clear it successfully from the street. Problem is, this IED is a decoy. Your alpha is literally sitting atop another IED that’s buried in the sand. 

It will go off, killing the driver and wounding the gunner. 

A couple of months later, as your unit prepares to go home, you will ride along on a patrol with the next unit in to show them the area of operation. You will provide them with as much information and advice as you can about things that have happened and places where your unit has been hit. You will tell them about the casualties. 

Shortly after you arrive back at the patrol base, your command will inform you that the Marines you rode with drove onto the same spot where the driver had been killed a couple of months before. Several Marines from the new unit will burn alive in their vehicle. Another will lose his hands to the fire as he frantically tries to rescue his teammates. 

Remember my comments on blame? These two incidents, for one reason or another, will lead to a lifetime of self-blame along with substance abuse issues and the slew of things that go along with that. 

But it was not your fault. It’s no one’s fault. 

This is the nature of combat: If you want to blame someone, blame the enemy.

There will come a point where you separate from the service. One day you will be in Fallujah engaging the enemy and the next you will be standing in Boston. The people around you and the environment will feel wrong. There will be a sense that everyone behaves abnormally and your environment is unsafe.

Sean Paul poses with his wife and three kids during a recent visit to Hunter Army Airfield to visit family. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sean Paul poses with his wife and three kids during a recent visit to Hunter Army Airfield to visit family. Photo courtesy of the author.

I want to tell you that this is not true: There is nothing wrong with the people around you or the environment. That sense of wrongness is in response to something out of place within you. You’re still operating on the assumption that people are actively trying to kill you. You’re hypervigilant and critical of the complacency of people around you. You’re also critical of others’ happiness. How can anyone be happy when such bad things are happening? 

The sooner you get help for this, the better. Remember, it is OK to ask for help.

Everything you experience in life, the good and the bad, will ultimately lead you to become me. 

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Change any of it and you change the person you become: 

Me. 

And I am truly happy with who I am and the life I’ve built for myself. I am married to an amazing woman and have three amazing children who challenge me to be a better person daily. I have a fulfilling career as a police officer and am furthering my education to pay it forward. Stay the course, endure the physical and emotional pain, and eventually you and I will meet and become a person who satisfies us both.

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Sean Paul

Sean Paul is a former Marine who served as a TOW gunner with 1st Tank Battalion from 2002 to 2006. During this time, he deployed for the invasion of Iraq as well as a tour in the area of Fallujah. Paul works as a full-time police officer with a major municipality and is a full-time graduate student pursuing a doctorate of psychology. He hopes to serve the first responder and veteran communities. Paul is married to an amazing woman and has three children he adores. During his off time (which is rare), he enjoys training Brazilian jiujitsu, coaching his kids’ sports, and spending time with family and friends.

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