Post Traumatic Survival with Ozzie Martinez Jr.
Ozzie Martinez’s grandmother burst into tears when her grandson told her he was joining the military. They weren’t happy tears- they were terrified ones. At first Ozzie had no idea why she was so upset – wasn’t she proud of him for doing his part after the 9/11 attacks?
Only then did Ozzie Martinez Jr. learn the missing pieces of his family history.
His great grandfather was a high ranking officer in Cuba just prior to Castro’s takeover. Raul Castro personally executed Ozzie’s great-grandfather. With her father murdered and her five brothers imprisoned, Ozzie’s grandmother fled Cuba with her husband and young daughter- Ozzie’s mom.
His grandmother’s painful past made sense of her tears, but Ozzie was undeterred.
Four years of service and two deployments later, Ozzie had done his best to fulfill that sense of duty. He’d grown through his experiences but he also suffered from them. On top of the disillusionment of how his specific service experience had been structured, he’d lost too many people he cared about and respected in too many terrible ways. He left the Marine Corps to begin his four year inactive duty status – a mere formality, he thought.
For two years, Ozzie stepped out of the rigid routine, structure, and physical fitness standards he’d lived by in the Marines. He almost forgot that technically, he was still subject to be called upon. One day he got an unmistakable reminder.
In July of 2008, Ozzie Martinez received presidential orders to return to duty.
Still in shock, Ozzie greeted one familiar face after another as he arrived in Kansas City. It seemed he was not the only one to receive the surprise orders. Several of the men he’d served with were just as surprised as he was to be there, but they made the best of it that first night, and celebrated their impromptu reunion.
The party ended abruptly the next morning as they learned they all had one month to get their home situation squared away and report for a one year deployment to Afghanistan. Ozzie and the others had been hand-picked because of their service history. They would now be tasked with training Afghan troops.
It felt like a bad joke to Ozzie. His specialty was amphibious assault. Part of the disillusionment he’d experienced on his former deployments was a result of he and others being plucked from their specialties and sent, without the equipment they’d trained in or needed for maximum effectiveness and safety, into combat. He’d watched a lot of men get killed as a result of those orders and now it seemed like history was about to repeat itself.
The news opened up a Pandora’s Box of PTSD that Ozzie had managed to keep largely locked away until then.
Within a week of returning to Miami, the anxiety attacks began. The smell wafting from a dumpster would take him back in his mind, to a place and time he’d suppressed. Memories came crashing back with a force and impact he could not manage himself. He knew he was spiraling into a dangerous mental state not only for his everyday life but especially for a man about to go into a dangerous assignment.
“I cannot go in this state of mind,: he knew. “I’m going to die – I’m going to get killed if I do.”
With time ticking away, Ozzie scheduled an appointment at the VA. He made no mention of his imminent deployment, only that he was experiencing problems that he would like to address.
Unbeknownst to Ozzie, his visit initiated a PTSD protocol in the system. Before he had time to understand what was happening, he’d been diagnosed as 70% disabled due to PTSD, and received notice from the Marines that he was no longer deployable due to his mental state.
It was a mixed blessing for Ozzie. He had not wanted to go on that deployment at all, although he’d been doing his best to prepare for it. “I was just trying to get my head fixed. I didn’t want to be easy pickings,” he says.
The diagnosis came as another surprise to him, but with deployment now off the table, Ozzie tried to turn the whirlwind of events into a positive one. He may not have been excited about an Afghanistan deployment, but he still felt called to serve. He took his VA letter to the police department and submitted it for veterans preference along with an application to the department.
That’s when he received another harsh surprise: The police department deemed him unfit as a candidate, due to his PTSD. It’s one thing to develop the condition while on the force, and another to enter the force already grappling with it.
Ozzie Martinez Jr. made one more attempt to tap into a purpose he believed in.
The fire department, however, also rejected his application. He was now 26 years old, struggling with PTSD, and repeatedly told his mental condition makes him unfit to serve in any capacity.
The message he got was that he was “damaged goods.” He was 26 years old and all hope of chasing a purpose he felt fulfilled in was gone. He tried to move forward by finding a new career in retail. One day bled into another as he sank further into a rut of unhappiness and unresolved PTSD. He bounced from one job to the next. Drinking became his out. The drinking and unhealthy lifestyle impacted the relationship he’d been building.
Back and forth went his inner battle between depression and hope. Group therapy didn’t work for him. He fell further into depression and his job performance fell with him. Maybe, he thought, if he could focus on healing from his PTSD and find a new career he’d feel better about life. But to do that he’d need time and a way to pay his bills.
Individual Unemployability is a monetary benefit available to veterans who are unable to work due to a service connected disability that meets certain requirements. It seemed like the answer for Ozzie, and he filed the claim.
The VA swiftly denied his claim and declared him 100% disabled due to PTSD, instead. This meant his disability payment went up and made him eligible for health care options but instead of being good news, it felt like another nail in the coffin of Ozzie’s self-esteem.
Now, he says, he had verifiable proof that he was too broken for anyone to see him as a valuable member of society. His girlfriend was the only one who was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, it seemed, and she married him. They’d just had their son and Ozzie could not cope with any area of his life.
The drinking resumed, heavier this time. The cheap booze was too rough to drink so he leveled up to the top shelf for his bourbon, whiskey, or scotch. His meds got mixed into his drink of choice. His wife finally had enough, and asked him to move out.
That’s when Ozzie Martinez Jr. crashed even harder.
Cocaine entered the picture. Life, says Ozzie, no longer held much interest to him. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to die, but he absolutely wanted to kill the life he had and the pain that was in it.
He looked like he felt. According to the Facebook pages of his buddies, he was in worse shape than anyone. Finally, he reached out to a friend, who invited him to a Marlins game. That led to someone in the police department hearing of his struggle, and reaching out to give him a book about how a service dog helped someone else struggling, battle his way back into life.
This, thought Ozzie, was something that could help him too. Because if it couldn’t, he was done. He wasn’t planning on killing himself but he was open to opportunities for death to come find him, instead. He prayed for some terrible fate to befall him, to be released from this life – but he also applied for a service dog.
That’s when Duke entered his life. The high energy Malinois took his job seriously and formed a tight bond with Ozzie. Duke, says Ozzie, saved his life several times just by being present with him. He traveled with Ozzie, and binded with his son too. With Duke by his side, Ozzie found the energy to accept another invitation to a reunion of his battle buddies.
During that event, conversation turned serious when Ozzie spontaneously asked his buddies if anyone else ever felt like they wanted to die.
Slowly, his buddies began opening up and sharing their stories. For the first time, Ozzie realized he was not alone in his struggle. He was not, in fact, “damaged goods.” He was simply bearing the same wounds as so many others.
That event and that awakening of a new awareness inspired Ozzie to recreate that experience for others. Today he runs Operation Wet Vet, a 501(c)3 offering camaraderie for combat vets by taking them on deep sea fishing trips. He’s connected with other veteran leaders like former Navy SEAL Jason Redman and created a network that inspires him to do more with his own life every day.
The strength he recovered and discovered within himself has allowed him to help others, and is what has gotten him through the devastating death of his beloved dog Duke, who was his constant companion for almost 7 years.
“You have to overcome,” he says, “because if not it will drain you.”
The Ozzie Martinez Jr of today is a far cry from the man who once believed he would not have a purpose. He hosts his own podcast, connects veterans, and is a role model for his son. He knows this country is in the midst of challenging times but he also knows it is still packed with opportunity for those committed to overcoming those challenges.People need to stop looking for the American Dream because it’s here. You’re living it. – Ozzie Martinez Jr, Operation Wet VetClick To Tweet
Once, it was his family’s history that made Ozzie aware of the gifts this country holds even in turbulent times. Now it’s his own story.