After Discharge Upgrade, Marine Finally Finds A Reason To Live

Michael Hartnett joined the Marines because he wanted to be a tough guy. But deployments to the first Gulf War and Somalia left him haunted by nightmares. He turned to booze; after a bad-conduct discharge he fell into drugs for more than a decade. Three years ago, he convinced a military board to upgrade his discharge. That change in status gave him the chance he needed. Now he's studying to be a social worker so he can help other vets.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We're reporting this week on what happens to veterans who leave the service with less than honorable discharges; troops who made big mistakes while still in uniform - used drugs, drove while drunk or worse - and got kicked out of the military. Turns out that discharge is something of a life sentence. These vets often lose access to veterans' health care and other benefits, and it's hard for them to find jobs.

Our story today is about one Marine and his two-decade-long odyssey. And it's also sort of a love story, as NPR's Quil Lawrence explains.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: By the time Michael Hartnett met his wife, Molly, he was seven years in on an 18-year bender of drugs, alcohol and self-loathing. Molly was working at a gym in northern Michigan.

MOLLY HARTNETT: I was sitting behind a desk, listening to Michael talking about how he had just been arrested that weekend for smashing some guy's windshield with a baseball bat.

LAWRENCE: And that was the least of it.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: My mental health list runs as such: nine rehabs, seven psych wards, six arrests, five jail stays, two DUIs, two wrecked cars, hundreds of ruined relationships, and a thousand wasted opportunities.

MOLLY HARTNETT: Our first date, he stood clear across the room. I've been into a couple psyche wards, and I have PTSD; I, you know, I'm an alcoholic. So you may want to run for the hills. You know, and I don't know why I found that refreshing. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

MOLLY HARTNETT: ...at least I know there's going to be no guessing with this guy.

LAWRENCE: So rewind 20 years before they met. It's the 1980s. Michael Hartnett is a teenager, working-class Irish in a tough part of Yonkers, north of the Bronx. He's 6 feet tall but scrawny, and he gets beat up a lot. So he joined the Marines to become a tough guy. It redefined him, and he was good at it. Hartnett re-enlisted in 1990. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the Gulf War began.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: Hell, yeah. Let's go. My thoughts were, I had one medal. I had a good conduct medal. My thoughts - was like, how many medals and ribbons are we going to get? This is going to be awesome.

LAWRENCE: It wasn't awesome. Despite predictions of chemical attack, the ground war ended in just four days. Hartnett and the other Marines felt cheated. After the heavy air campaign, Hartnett worked along the highway of death - miles of charred bodies of Iraqi soldiers. What he saw stuck in his head. Months later, back home on base in California, he couldn't sleep.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: I didn't know what was happening to me. Why can I not sleep through the night? Why, when I go to sleep, I have these horrific nightmares? It was a phase; it would eventually go away? And it did not.

LAWRENCE: That's when Michael Hartnett turned to drugs and alcohol. And they worked. He could sleep - or at least, pass out - and not have nightmares. He just couldn't do much else. He got his first DUI, and the Marines got him treatment for his drinking; and then he drank more and got in more trouble, got busted down in rank. Michael Hartnett started to look for a way out of the mess he'd become. And then the Marines gave him an exit strategy - through Somalia.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: I got my chance. I'm going to Somalia, and I'm going to die over there in combat; I'm going to be a hero. How can you talk (BEEP) about a guy who died in combat? The problem is, I didn't die.

LAWRENCE: Hartnett's official job was unrelated to combat. But he found out he could volunteer for convoy security. The trucks delivering humanitarian aid would creep through Mogadishu with a Marine escort. Civilians would slow down the convoy, then snipers would take shots from nearby alleys. People would steal from the trucks. The Marines couldn't shoot unless fired upon, so it was Hartnett's job to keep the crowd back - which he did, with an ax handle.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: On this particular day, a vehicle gets stopped, and one of my buddies aims his rifle. They know you're not going to fire. So they grab the rifle and now, there's this tug of war over the rifle; and we are outnumbered. If he goes over, we're not going to see him again. So rushed over to help him and when I turned back, I start getting hit with rotten fruit and rocks. And I ended up crushing the head of one of one of the boys. And that's not who I am. It is what I became, and it is what I did. How do you make up for that?

LAWRENCE: Hartnett got back to Camp Pendleton but had horrible nightmares every night. He went right back to booze - and meth, and crack cocaine. He got caught. Then, he did it again. After two months in the brig, the Marines threw him out, court-martialed him on drug charges. He was pretty oblivious until he heard the judge say the words: bad conduct discharge.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: When he said that, my knees buckled. You might as well have never even enlisted - worse than being a convicted felon.

LAWRENCE: So it's 1995. Hartnett is a civilian, and he is a drunk. His family wrote him off. He says he deserved it. His brother dropped him at the edge of town and said: Send us your address so we can come pick up the body.

And then he met Molly. They dated for six years. In 2006, they got married. Molly and Michael have a small house in South Carolina.

MOLLY HARTNETT: This is where Michael would drink and usually, a lot of the fights would happen in here. This is a very dark room. He'd sit right there in one of the rocking chairs surrounded by cans of beer, watching TV; and just a lot of negative energy.

LAWRENCE: Michael would go on week-long binges in that room, punch holes in the wall.

MOLLY HARTNETT: Rationally, it's like I got to get out of here. But something kept telling me: You need to stay.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: Molly would talk about the times that the demon, or the beast, was in me. She said my eyeballs would blacken - black...

MOLLY HARTNETT: I don't want to sound nuts; almost like I can walk into the house and just feel that negative energy and then, sure enough, like, you know, walk into the den: Hi, honey. And there he is, just - you know - staring blankly, couple beers in him; and I know exactly what I'm going to be facing for the next five days.

LAWRENCE: Everyone told Molly she should leave - family, friends. Cops told her, and she called the cops quite a few times. But she couldn't leave.

MOLLY HARTNETT: My father was a Vietnam vet, and that could easily have been my father. That could have easily been somebody else in my family who served, that I love. At the end of the day, if I left and he committed suicide, I wouldn't want to go on for the rest of my life thinking I failed him. I'm another person that left. Or said, thanks for your service, now just go die in an alley so I don't have to look at you. So I know I sound angry when I say that. But I felt, for so many years, that I am alone in this.

LAWRENCE: Molly was alone. Because of his bad conduct discharge, Michael had no military benefits, and little access to the VA. But there was a way to fix that. Hartnett had a special court martial, which can be upgraded by a discharge review board within 15 years. His parents knew the clock was ticking, and they got back in touch. They told him to find a lawyer; they would pay. He got one - David Sheldon, who specializes in military law. His advice for Hartnett was simple.

DAVID SHELDON: I told him to tell the truth, and to speak honestly from his heart. And I think whenever you do that, and you do so in a way that really explains what happens - and what happened to him - you see it impacts upon the board members.

LAWRENCE: But Sheldon wasn't optimistic. Michael hadn't done much to reform. He had very recently started going to AA meetings. But it was a pretty fragile recovery. And for Michael, the discharge review felt like his last chance.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: I didn't tell anyone. If they had not upgraded, I was going to take myself out.

MOLLY HARTNETT: I kind of knew that. I kind of had that feeling.

LAWRENCE: Did you have a plan what you were going to do?

MICHAEL HARTNETT: I'd been studying overpasses. There's a - one, there have been several fatal accidents there. I figured, you know, get it up to about 100 or so, take the seatbelt off, and see what happens. I just didn't see much in life anymore. And I mean, I love Molly - I love you, Molly. And I just - it was just too much pain, and bleak; just this bleak outlook.

LAWRENCE: The whole process made Molly angry: Who were the Marines to still be judging Michael?

MOLLY HARTNETT: I just never understood like, the feeling of like, I'm no longer a Marine; therefore, I'm no longer - nothing. I never understood that 'cause I...

MICHAEL HARTNETT: You're not me. It was my whole ...

MOLLY HARTNETT: I know. They're leaving quite a few behind, so...

MICHAEL HARTNETT: ...it was my whole identity.

MOLLY HARTNETT: You know, who are they? They're not - they have no honor.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: Well, I signed a contract saying I would not do drugs. I would not assault people. And I violated that.

MOLLY HARTNETT: I guess I look at it as, like, you're being human. You're reacting to a - you're being human.

LAWRENCE: So Hartnett was only about two weeks sober when he got to the hearing. One thing in his favor: Military attitudes about post-traumatic stress disorder had come a long way in the years since his court martial. At the hearing, the Marine colonel in charge reads Hartnett's record; and he says, here we have a promising young Marine until 1991. And then, the colonel asks, what happened? David Sheldon - the lawyer - says that's the question no one had ever bothered to ask.

SHELDON: He could hear a pin drop in that room when he was describing the trauma that he had went through, and how it impacted upon him.

LAWRENCE: The hearing ended. Michael and Molly went home and waited. About seven week later, a letter came in the mail: a split decision. Three votes to two, in favor of upgrading Michael Hartnett's discharge.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: And I call up my mother, 11 o'clock at night. Now, she's been schooled that if Michael's calling up, there's trouble. I said, Mom - I said, you know, are you sitting down? And I just said, we got it. You're kidding. And she starts screaming.

MOLLY HARTNETT: I think I was just happy that, oh, he's not going to kill himself.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: And to me, it was - I was forgiven. It was the Marines saying, you've had enough, Michael. Just go live your life. Do something with it. And I really eventually would like to write them up and say, look, with the chance that you've given me, this is what I've done with it.

LAWRENCE: What he's planning to do with it is help other veterans. Until he got the new discharge, he wasn't really welcome at the VA. Now, he's thinking about it as a career.

We're here at the VA in Columbia, S.C.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: William Jennings Brian Dorn VA, right outside the mental health clinic. (Laughter)

LAWRENCE: After only a minute in the parking lot another, older vet calls him over to chat.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: Hey, what's going on?

LAWRENCE: Hartnett offers some advice on how to work the VA system, almost a mini counseling session.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: The feeling is, is that you get too graphic, you'll upset the other veterans.

LAWRENCE: With the upgrade from the review board, all sorts of doors started to open. He and Molly refinanced their house with a VA home loan. Michael gets full medical care, and disability for his PTSD. He hasn't had a drink in nearly three years. Hartnett started classes for a degree in social work.

MICHAEL HARTNETT: When I graduate from college and go to work into the VA, they'll be other people in there that will have a load of degrees. They won't be able to reach the combat vet like I will be able to. That's what I'll be able to do. Molly says after everything that I've been through and everything that the people around me have been through, if you don't do something with this gift that has been presented to you, that will be your greatest sin.

LAWRENCE: Molly - she says she's glad just to be a wife instead of trying to save Michael's life all the time. And that dark room in the house where he used to drink and his eyes went black, she painted that room a bright shade of blue.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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