Wounded Warrior

Sperry and his daughter meeting the President and First Lady, 2011.

He sat only five feet away from me, staring down at something beyond the visible. It was clear he was searching for something deep, perhaps even repressed.  Lines formed across his forehead. He looked much older than he actually is. A slight twitch at the corner of his mouth revealed he was going to speak again.

“It took a while for it to sink in. I just started drinking and doing all the bad stuff you can do and it got really bad. I spent seven years locking myself in my room, not coming out of my room and staying inside my house. It cost me my marriage. I was just not wanting to move on.”

Retired USMC LCpl James Sperry recalls the events that led to his rock-bottom, including a suicide attempt and the end of his marriage. People all over the country know him as a hero…but in the years following his time overseas, he felt like anything but.

“It got so bad when I got back, I’d say it was probably the second year I was so down, constantly drinking from sun up to sun down. I decided to take my life.” His cheeks filled with red as he spoke. He cleared his throat, “I ended up throwing a rope over one of the struts in my garage, but something stopped me right before I did it.”

He nervously rubbed his finger tips together, but spoke with calm and casualness. He’s told this story numerous times, and yet it still causes him pain…..

……Keeping him away from drugs and other bad influences, his father was adamant about getting James into golf. He was a great golfer and did well in school because of it. He was offered scholarships into college, but September 11, 2001 changed his future. Seeing this level of patriotism was common for his generation, but there was something else driving James. It wasn’t until later that I realized he was meant for the life he chose.

It was something his father was against, “I know it hurt my dad’s feelings cause he obviously didn’t want me to go in the military and instead pursue a career in golf. He even threatened my recruiter one time.” He laughed.

 But James wanted nothing more than to serve his country. He spent hours every day training for the military, wearing Marine Corps shirts, and doing his best to recruit others. Scoring 96 out of 99 on the entry exam put him in the top one percentile. It was clear to the Marine Corps they had someone special. His recruiters encouraged him to take a career in intelligence or support, but he wanted to be in the fight and joined as an infantryman…..

Sperry in Iraq, 2004.

…..Not long after that, James was attached to 3rd Battalion 1st Marines out of Camp Pendleton.

Six to eight weeks later, he was shipped out overseas. They were initially taken to Kuwait, so they could be acclimated to the extreme levels of heat before being thrown into combat. After a week there, they boarded a C-130 into a base just west of Ramadi.

He remembers his first time being caught in a firefight. “We were being mortar attacked, and one of our senior Marines yelled, ‘incoming,’ so you can imagine 80 Marines scrambling to take cover. Everyone was just running into each other, sprinting in all different directions. It was mass chaos and adrenaline. Luckily none of them landed within the walls of our compound.”

His company didn’t spend much time in one particular place as they were transferred to an old chemical factory north of Fallujah and Al Karmah, in the middle of nowhere. James and his fellow Marines were sitting ducks at this point, waiting for their next move. Eventually, they began training with the unit they were replacing. He spent much of his traveling time in the rear truck of their convoy, also considered the most dangerous position in a convoy.

Sperry on the right grouped with fellow Marines.
In Iraq, 2004.

They finally went into Al Karmah, where there was no military presence; raided a school house and turned it into their safe-zone. James shared numerous stories of his time at the school house, including his encounters with the Iraqi civilians and children. His company took on several firefights that claimed the lives of many Marines. He lost one Marine in particular who he later named his daughter after. He was his best friend during their tour together, and James sometimes blames himself for the death……

“……I remember looking up at a brick wall where enemy fire was coming from. I opened up my flack-jacket and started praying that one of them would come out and shoot me. I just wanted everything to be over with…..”

…..It wasn’t long after that on November 9th, 2004 after James and his company traveled into Fallujah, when his life was changed forever. They received orders to protect a tank in the middle of the city…..

….He remembered trying to place himself close enough to the stairs of a building for protection. “I took a knee. I remembered I looked left and then right down the road. I was trying to keep a low profile. And then all of a sudden I felt a massive explosion and my body flying back.” He recalled the distinctive smell of an explosion just before his memory went blank. A rocket-propelled grenade landed a foot in front of him. The impact and debris shattered through his Kevlar.

“And that was it. I was out.” James doesn’t remember the rescue and only knows what happened to him next from the stories he was told. A rescue team eventually arrived and rushed him away on a helicopter. He was taken to a hospital in Germany. He spent months in recovery, only to learn there was permanent damage to his brain. Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, is an extremely common injury next to PTSD that our soldiers suffer during war. The trauma to his brain caused damages to the areas that control his short-term memory.

Imagine waking up and having no recollection of what you did the day before. Imagine having a daughter and forgetting it’s her birthday. These are the struggles that haunt James each and every day. To top it off, he couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let him go back. He wanted to go back and continue fighting next to his brothers. He spent months, dedicated to all the news coverage of war, looking over the casualty reports over and over, waiting to see names he recognized.

“I couldn’t let go. I didn’t how to move on. It destroyed my marriage….”

…..Sitting across from him, I watched as he paused. There was a strange look on his face. One I hadn’t seen before. I guess I wasn’t expecting to hear this kind of confession. He looked pained to admit what he’d done to her. An honest and good man; and here he was sharing his weakest and worst moments.

“I regret the person she became because of what I’d done to her.” He didn’t want pity for himself or for his behavior. It was about the pain he’d caused his, now ex-wife, and his daughter.

James did eventually seek professional help and now goes to therapy an hour a day. He gives about four speeches a year to the Midwest Marines Foundation and the Wounded Warriors Society. He is actively involved in the recovery of injured soldiers today. When I asked him why he agreed to talk to me his answer was simple and honest.

James says he’s caused a lot of people pain throughout his recovery. And if there’s something he can do to help others going through the same thing, and prevent more suffering; he will do whatever he can.

One thought on “The Story

  1. I happened to read L/Cpl Sperry’s story in The Things They Cannot Say, a book I just bought. I am reading lots of books in French and English about the same painful stories, of service people with guilt and shame. I am no military, have no close acquaintance in the military in France, just a teacher who has lived and worked and developed his own psychology in contact with people and children, in France or abroad.
    I remember coming across a Vietnam Veteran in California back in 1993 and he obviously suffered from PTSD. That was the first time I saw an estranged person, amidst general indifference. I lived next to an old man who had survived Daschau – we didn’t know, he confided his terror to a local history teacher, just before he died.
    A student of mine just told me his uncle has hard times every time he gets back from Northern Africa (Mali, CAR). It would be totally false to say we understand them, because we will never – we’re not in their shoes. My point here is, since I’ve read Sperry’s story, seen the various documents on the Internet about him and others, I have felt the surge to react about his failed marriage, and his feelings. In France, too many military couples divorce because of the pain wives can’t handle, but, in my sincere opinion, I want to tell them: Hell! Getting married to military personnel ain’t a dive-in-head-first decision. In times of peace, it’s OK. But in times of war, lots of parameters need be taken into account – this is what it takes: for better or for worse.
    I understand this couple may have been through harsh and tough moments, but some women just throw in the towel so easily. My parents went thru a lot as I was born with internal malformation and almost and actually died once. From day 1 to age 4 I was a constant concern, but unconditional and unfaltering love got their couple together.
    I would like to tell this Marine that, whatever he went thru, he deserves the right to live happily. He suffered great losses (comrades), and on top of that his marriage got ruined? But, why on earth should he feel guilty? Yeah, right, he went home with physical and psychological problems, the kinds most people do not apprehend. Is he entitled to make efforts to adapt to the surroundings? Hell, no. He’s coping, he’s struggling, he needs help, and above all, he needs understanding. Suicide is unfortunately a “justified” reaction – I lost a friend to suicide! I cannot help but think his wife didn’t try harder.
    We, as civilians, too far gone into comfort and mediocrity, need to make amend to the sacrifices that our military do for our Freedom. They need to know that, we OWE them a great deal and we owe them due respect for the courageous struggles they are fighting to protect us.
    I sincerely wish Mr. Sperry the best of luck, for he deserves to live a new and fulfilled life. May God always keep an eye on him!

    P.S. I am now working on a project to create a new Facebook page in which all the names of the Fallen from NATO countries from the 1980s (for the French) and 1990s (for others) would appear each day of the year….

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