Veteran’s Day 2018: “I did my job.”
Corey O’Brien, a US Army and Ohio National Guard veteran, was the featured speaker at the 2018 Cardinal Health Resurrecting Lives Foundation Golf Outing, where $40,000 was raised to support RLF programs and veterans with TBI or PTSD. To a crowd of 150 people, he spoke movingly about his service, his “invisible injuries,” and his recovery through a Transcendental Meditation program for veterans, enabled through RLF. O’Brien is a science teacher at Hamilton Township (Ohio) High School and the Purple Star Liaison for Hamilton local schools. He spent nine years in the National Guard, earned two degrees from Ohio State University, is a married father of five, and has two tours in Iraq behind him. Corey is a member of the Resurrecting Lives Foundation Board of Advisers.
In celebration of Veteran’s Day 2018, RLF is proud to share Corey’s speech.
I met Resurrecting Lives Foundation’s Dr. Gordon just over a year ago at the Dublin, Ohio, Memorial Day parade. If you’ve never been to the Dublin Memorial Day parade, it’s more of a procession; they toss a ceremonial wreath into the river, they have a 21-gun salute, guest speakers show up, and Gold Star family members give speeches.
At the 2017 event, Dr. Gordon gave a speech. It wasn’t a “let’s thank our veterans” type of speech. It was more of, “hey, we as a society have to do more for our veterans.” She went on to explain what she as a physician does for veterans. Instead of saying “thank you for your service,” she said we need to take care of our veterans, pointing out, “here’s an issue – let’s address it.” She really motivated me; she gave a speech that I felt was directed right at me. I’m kind of a wallflower. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. I’d rather hang out and be part of the background. But her speech was so moving that I felt compelled to go up and thank her for all that she has done. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for her moving speech and everything she’s done through the Resurrecting Lives Foundation.
Now, in order for you to really appreciate what she’s done for me and my family personally, I think it’s important for you to know where I’m coming from.
Military service runs in my family. When I say it runs in my family, my grandfather was a B-17 bomber pilot during World War II and Korea. He did 35 years of military service and finished out his career as a Lt. Colonel in the Pentagon. He dedicated a large portion of his life to military service, and he spent time all around the world. He finished his career as a JAG officer, and he was one of the most honorable people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s someone I want to emulate.
His son, my father, was a Marine during Vietnam. He did his time as a Marine, and he came back and he thought, I need something else- I want to do more. So, he switched from the Marine Corps to the Army. He became a Green Beret and joined Special Forces. As a Special Forces soldier, he did everything that was asked of him, and then he switched over to the Ohio Army National Guard, where he finished out his 12 years.
And then came me. I didn’t feel like the Air Force was for me. I didn’t feel like the Marine Corps was for me. I decided to join the Ohio Army National Guard; I did my nine years, and had two deployments to the Middle East.
I mentioned my grandfather. Anytime you walked into my grandfather’s home, right there in the living room, was a huge frame. Inside that frame were the discharge papers for our family members who had served during the Civil War.
When you add up all the military service just from my grandfather, myself, and my dad, we have 56 years of military service covering four wars. That’s just from three generations of the O’Brien family. But if you add in my uncles and my other grandfathers, and the rest of my family’s history, it goes all the way back to the Civil War. I’ve seen the documentation myself – I’ve seen the paperwork, I used to read it every time I went to my grandparents’ house. It’s something that I hold near and dear to my heart. It’s no surprise that I’m a high school teacher, but it’s kind of interesting that I’m not a social studies or a history teacher. My dad claims that he has the documentation showing our family has served going as far back as the Revolutionary War.
So, growing up as a kid, I felt like I knew I was going to go into service. There was no doubt in my mind that at some point in my life I was going to take the oath and enlist, and I was going to serve, and I was going to fight for the red, white, and blue.
My grandfather was an incredible man, my dad is an incredible man; I did my time, but I’m not a hero. I’m not standing up here in front of you today as this hero trying to proclaim, “I did all these great and wonderful things.” No; I did my job. I took my oath. I did as I was told. I followed orders. I did some interesting things while I was in Iraq.
My first deployment happened in 2003. It was unusual circumstances, unusual situation. I did a six-month mobilization, to do 24 days in Kuwait. Six months of my life in training to go to the desert, only to step foot in that country – Kuwait – for 24 days. I’m a combat engineer, I’m a bridge crew member, we like our explosives, we like to build things, we like to blow things up. Those 24 days, we learned a lot about what was happening in world affairs. What was interesting was they sent us home, back to the United States, without a bridge. They gave our bridge away. They didn’t let us go to Iraq. They didn’t let us do what we thought we were going to do. We were at our mobilization station in 2003, watching “shock and awe” happen, knowing that in a couple months we were going to be there, but we never made it. They sent us home instead.
Being a military guy who knew my family’s legacy and knowing I wanted to be part of a conflict if any conflict had come up, I came home feeling very unfulfilled. I felt like my life was lacking. I felt like a failure. I felt like I let down a lot of people.
And so when 2004 clicked over, there was another Ohio Army National Guard unit going to be deployed to Iraq. They were looking for volunteers. They didn’t have 100% of their troops, and said they were looking for volunteers. I had just married the most beautiful woman in the world, and I had to have a very hard conversation with her. I said, “Hey, there’s another unit that’s going to Iraq and I think I need to go.” And what an incredible woman – she said, “If you think this is what’s right for us, I support you.”
And so I went – I had just recently been married, and I went off to Iraq, and I actually lived in Iraq longer than we had lived in our new home. It was a difficult job.
I drove through the parking lot [here at the event]- I saw a lot of military plates, I saw somebody had a Ranger sticker; I saw some folks wearing Navy or Air Force gear; those folks know what I’m talking about when we talk about military deployments, military service: that not only do we call upon the service member but also on the service member’s family. You’ve got to keep that in mind. Because when someone comes home it’s not just the soldier you are going to have to take care of, it’s the soldier and their family.
But getting back to my time in Iraq in 2004-2005- being a combat engineer, one of the first things they said was, “Hey O’Brien, you’re E-5, you’re a Sergeant, you have to hold these UXOs.” If you don’t know what a UXO is, it’s an Unexploded Ordnance. They said, “We need somebody to take care of them.” I said, “Alright, sure- I’m your man. What happened to the last Sergeant who took care of these?” They said, “Well, he kind of had a nervous breakdown, didn’t like being around those things that go boom. So, you’re a late-comer, you joined us late, we think you’d be perfect for the job.”
Being the risk taker that I am, and an adrenaline junkie, I thought this was a great opportunity for me to learn about artillery shells. And just to go into some history here, back in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq, and we made this big push to go for Baghdad, 3rd ID did not really worry about taking care of everything that they came across. The main goal was to get to Baghdad quick, fast, and in a hurry. In the meantime they left a lot of explosives laying around the country. My job was to clean it up.
I am standing if front of you today telling you in all seriousness, my job helped save American lives. I got rid of several thousand 155 artillery rounds typically used by bad guys to make IEDs. I got rid of a couple different warheads. I got rid of incendiary bombs, incendiary rockets, all the stuff that they kept on saving for us to transport for detonation. Being an engineer, we built a big blast pit, wired it up, and blew it in place. But again, I’m not a hero; I just did my job. They said, “Hey, these need to go,” and I made them disappear.
While I was deployed I lost some friends that were close to me. And I’m sure that some of you who served, you also know that pain that I’m talking about.
And I also want to let you know that PTSD is something that I not only saw in my grandfather, and saw in my father; I also found it in myself. It was a hard thing to adjust to.
Being a teacher, one of the things I like to do is try to educate others- I like to inform people of things they may not be aware of, or things they may not understand. So if I was trying to describe PTSD to you, here’s how I would describe it.
Imagine a nice clear glass of water. That nice clear glass of water- imagine it being filled to the very top. Imagine it looking very refreshing, very pure, very untouched. If you were to shine a light on that water, that light would go through the water; you’d be able to see it through the water.
Now imagine that same glass of water- take a black ink pen, snap it in half, and watch that ink drip in to that glass of water. That black ink is going to swirl around. It’s going to make that pureness disappear. It’s going to ruin that glass of water. It’s not going to make it appealing, it’s not going to make it as pure, it’s going to make it dark, it’s going to make it evil. If you take that same light and shine it on that ink-filled glass of water, that light is not going to shine through. The ink in the water makes that light disappear.
If you’ve never had PTSD, never been around someone who has PTSD, or you don’t know what PTSD is, number 1, it’s hard to talk about, and number 2, it’s difficult to admit that you have an issue, and number 3, going back to that glass of water- if that glass of water is ever stirred, that black ink is still going to swirl around, still absorb and take that light.
Some folks who have PTSD eliminate themselves from society. They step back; they like to be in a surrounding where they can control everything in their environment. A lot of veterans who have PTSD don’t like social atmospheres- they don’t like to be in the malls, they don’t like being around large groups of people. We feel most comfortable having our backs up against the wall, where we can see everything.
Now imagine combining PTSD with something as challenging as TBI – traumatic brain injury. Any time we talk about a traumatic brain injury, that could be something from a blast, it could be something from any kind of head trauma, any kind of concussion. Those who have had a TBI could have difficulties with concentration, memory, recollection, impulsiveness, and confusion. When you take those two things and add them together, it’s no surprise that you have a high suicide rate. It’s no surprise that you have a high divorce rate. It’s no surprise that we have a lot of veterans who are having trouble reintegrating into society and becoming functional, or being able to provide for their families that they, at one point in time, had to leave.
We all want to find out what happens when veterans come home; what happens with the veteran experience. Just to kind of give you a real quick visual, there are 10 people at this table; if you look at the number of tables we have, the current suicide rate among veterans and active duty right now is 22 veterans a day. Twenty-two veterans a day. What does that mean? Well, that would mean that every single one of you right now would take your own life within a matter of 8-10 days. Now take a look around this room. That is a lot of people taking their lives on a daily basis, within two weeks. So something has to be done; whatever we are doing right now isn’t working.
I’d like to point to Transcendental Meditation as a viable, functional option. And although it’s a viable and functional option – the VA doesn’t offer it right now. Instead, the VA is going to offer a type of antidepressant medication, which they can do for five cents a day. But a lot of people like myself- we turned down the medication. I was given certain skills: hypersensitivity, hyper-alertness, that kept me alive. I don’t want to take a magic pill and have that disappear. I want to still have those skills. I still want to be able to function. I still want to be able to react quickly when something happens instead of having my senses dulled. And every time a physician was trying to give me these antidepressants I would ask, “Hey, what are the long-term effects on my kidneys? What are the long-term effects on my liver?” And they couldn’t tell me. They said, “Oh, I’m sure you’ll be fine.” That’s not a risk I am willing to take. And so I tried to find another way to help myself.
My last deployment, I came back in 2005; I struggled with multiple different types of demons – trying to figure out how to function, how to work, how to survive. And it wasn’t until 2017 when I finally found a viable option that worked – and that viable option was Transcendental Meditation.
Now, in that meantime, my family suffered. I became a monster. I had a very short fuse. My temper was so intense that at times I scared myself. I found myself reacting to situations with violence. I found myself reacting to situations that if things had gone just a little bit differently, I might have ended up in jail. And I’m a high school science teacher.
Being a high school science teacher, I’m around a lot of students. I don’t know if you’ve been around a collection of 30-32 high school students; sometimes they are going to try your patience. Sometimes they are going to push you to your limits. I pulled out my hair so many times I don’t have any hair left.
My first week being a high school science teacher, I ended up breaking up two fights. The other teachers on the staff had never seen another teacher tackle a student that was throwing fists. They couldn’t believe how fast I had moved. They were impressed. I was worried I was going to lose my job.
I had one chucklehead in class who kept making jokes, wouldn’t get quiet, wouldn’t get quiet, wouldn’t get quiet. The last time I told him, “This is the last time I’m going to tell you to be quiet,” he opened up his mouth, challenging me. The next thing I know, it was raining papers in the classroom. Apparently, I had thrown the stack of papers I was passing out and I had leapt up on top of his lab table and I was six inches away from his face. When I had come to realize what had happened, his eyes were the size of softballs. He had never seen a teacher move that fast, and he wasn’t a problem for the rest of the year. And we talk to this day. “You remember that time you jumped up on top of my desk?” “Yes, sure. Never forget.”
You laugh, but for me it’s kind of a dark moment. I had slipped. I didn’t want to be that guy. But I also pushed that chucklehead closer to graduation; he was the first person in his family to graduate from high school.
But let’s talk about Transcendental Meditation.
Imagine your cell phone. Many of you have cell phones, you can relate to your cell phones. Many of you have low bars, you have poor service. You have very little memory. You have little data. Most of the time when you wake up the phone you’ll have multiple windows open and somebody tells you to search for something – you can’t do it. The phone becomes frustrating, becomes ineffective, and it doesn’t work.
Think of Transcendental Meditation this way – a person hands you a charger, with a password to high speed wi-fi. Now when you use that cell phone, you’re able to search for things, you’re able to guide through things, you’re able to search for information, and it’s useful and functional. You’re the cell phone in that example. Many of you wake up in the morning, you’re not fully charged. Many of you struggle with doing more tasks in a day than just one at a time. And Transcendental Meditation is something that, when you do it, you feel rested, you feel recharged, you’re able to concentrate on multiple things at once. Able to do more, and be more.
And, I owe all that, in part, to that chance meeting with Dr. Gordon, and the gentleman in the back corner, Mr. David Kidd. Mr. Dave Kidd is the person who taught me how to do Transcendental Meditation, how to meditate. And because of that meditation, I feel better. I look better. Well, we should scale that back. I mean meditation won’t fix ugly, ok – you’re not going to start meditating and start being attractive again. That won’t happen. And it won’t regrow hair. Your hair won’t come back (Corey’s balding and shaves his head). And David (Kidd), I’m going to have to point you out here, he’s been meditating 44 years, and we still share the same haircut (David Kidd is balding, too).
David, I owe you my life.
Since I started meditating, I’ve felt more rested; I can sleep better. I get more done at home, I get more done at work. I was actually talking to people- I was talking to my colleagues; up until that time I had been a ghost. I was able to concentrate, I was able to have quicker reactions. And I even started humming. I’m not usually a person who hums, but I guarantee you one thing: you don’t hum when you’re mad. Caught myself walking through the hallway and I’m humming a song and I was like, “Wow- I’m having a good day!” And those good days started to build. And when those good days start to build you start realizing, hey- it feels good to smile.
This is only something that happened a year ago. And within that year, I’m now a veteran who wants to help other veterans, and now I have the energy, I have the thoughts, I have the good ideas, I’m able to actually act on them.
I became human. I became human again. I came back from the dead. I was resurrected.
So when I told David, “I owe you my life,” Dr. Gordon, I owe you my life as well, you helped me be a better parent, a better teacher, a better father, a better husband (at least I want to think so! – I will have to talk to my wife at some point in time to find out if that’s true).
But my colleagues started recognizing changes in me as well. I was actually just recently given a Superintendent’s award in my district. My school is now considered a Purple Star Award school. The Ohio Department of Education made this award for military-friendly schools, and my school – Hamilton Township High School – was the first in the state to win the award. There are now 85 schools in the state of Ohio that are considered Purple Star schools, and other states are adopting our program. So, I kind of brag to say we are the first school in the nation to be considered a Purple Star Award school. I am trying to do more for our military families, I’m trying to do more for the veterans, I’m trying to do more for veterans’ families. And it’s all because of you folks right here, right now – hopefully you’re not falling asleep. I do that to my students.
But thank you – thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for being here today. Those of you who did the event last year- you helped pave the way for me to do Transcendental Meditation. You’re the reason why the program is able to exist. You’re the reason why this program is able to happen. You’re the reason why I was able to do Transcendental Meditation. Not only did you help me, but you helped 19 other veterans… and my father was one of them. I went through the program, I noticed a difference, I said, “Hey, Dad, this is something you gotta give a shot, you gotta give it a try.” Sure enough, he did – and he’s off 3 different types of medication because of it.
So I’m here right now in front of you, telling you, this is a real thing. This is something that gives people their lives back. This is something that helps us be more functional. This is something that helps us reintegrate.
You might be skeptical- that is fine. I’ll be more than happy to talk to you. I’ll be more than happy to guide you. But I just want to make sure one more time, to tell you from the bottom of my heart, thank you.