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THEN & NOW: The Shot Plunged My Life Into Darkness. Now I Can See the Light

A Marine reflects on his long journey through war and trauma

Sgt. William Olas Bee, a U.S. Marine from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, has a close call after Taliban fighters opened fire near Garmser in Helmand Province of Afghanistan May 18, 2008.  The Marine was not injured. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic      (AFGHANISTAN) - GM1E45I1NX201
Bill Bee, then a U.S. Marine sergeant, reacts as a Taliban bullet hits a wall just inches from his face during the Battle of Garmsir in Helmand province on May 18, 2008.
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

When I left the Marines, I didn’t think my life could get any worse. Now, I don’t think it could get much better.

people hold up a welcome home sign as someone from the military stands before an american flag. the words aarp veteran report appear above the flag
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For five years following the infamous 2008 photos of my brush with a Taliban sniper at age 26, I battled three traumatic brain injuries accumulated over 13 years as an infantry rifleman, the last from an IED blast in Marjah, Afghanistan.

I was a shadow of my former self when my time as a grunt ended in 2013. I was a staff sergeant and had joined up right out of high school a year before 9/11.

Memory loss from the TBIs [traumatic brain injuries] and the weight of a decision I took that resulted in the death of two Marines were constant. My outlook on life was dark.

It’s now 2022, I just turned 40 and I live in suburban North Carolina with my wife, Bobbie, and son, Ethan, near a creek where I teach him to fish. 

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I may not be fully healed, but I am in a far better place, in many ways, including literally, than I was in 2008 — the sweaty perineum of the world, Helmand province.

A single round cracked

The day that changed my life was May 18, 2008, a month into the Battle of Garmsir. I was washing my cammies with soap and a rusty bucket and laughing that my pants were so crusty they could stand on their own.

I was a squad leader in 1/6 Marines on my third deployment in Afghanistan. When a single round cracked over our building, I threw on my pants and grabbed my rifle. Moments later I spotted a mud hut where the sniper was firing from, took aim — and then my world went dark.

The round had impacted inches from my face and propelled a mass of mud wall onto my head. I woke up strapped to a stretcher. I had been unconscious for a few minutes, but I refused to be evacuated; I had no holes in me and I wanted to stay in the fight.

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Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic showed me the images that would grace the front pages of newspapers and be broadcast on TV screens. The pictures may have looked heroic, but I thought they were hilarious. I was doing my laundry and my response was muscle memory.

Duct-taped to a fridge

That massive blast left me with brain injuries that still dominate my life. At first, I couldn’t walk 100 yards without stumbling. I began suffering flashbacks as well.

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My brain damage caused memory loss and rage. I decided self-medication was better than seeing a shrink, so whenever the grim thoughts rolled in, I grabbed a bottle. I knew it wasn’t solving the problem, but it put off the hurt for a night. 

My darkest point came in September 2010 when I tried to kill myself by drinking two liters of Milagro Tequila as fast as I could. I woke up duct-taped to a fridge after my friend and neighbor, a medic, revived me.

When I was training Navy corpsmen, the problems continued. After I got into an altercation with a student, I realized I couldn’t handle my issues by myself. 

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Opening up

So, for the first time, I sat down with a professional. I opened up about problems, memories and every ugly thing I’d ever done. By the end, I could walk freely in crowded streets without panicking. It was a breakthrough that I didn’t think was possible. 

Now, I have a dream job assisting Marines on ranges that use robotic targets.

My turnaround showed me that one of the hardest things we as veterans need to do is ask for help. We pride ourselves on our ability to suck it up when we’re in, but that mindset is counterproductive in civilian life.

There are organizations dedicated to helping us, but they don't know who needs assistance until we ask for it. Once we take that step, they'll move heaven and earth. They’ve enabled me to see the light again.

This article is based on The Shot: The Harrowing Journey of a Marine in the War on Terror by Bill Bee and Wills Robinson is published by Knox Press on Sept. 13, 2022.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Do you have a potential story that might make a THEN & NOW article in AARP Veteran Report? If so, please contact our editors here.

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