Marine Commander Shares Experiences With Others

Col. Drew Doolin served two tours in Iraq at the height of the insurgency. After his first tour, he suffered the first of many panic attacks. Things got worse until he got treatment. Now, he is speaking out to try to help others.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour with a story about American troops - how they cope with their experiences overseas and how the way that they cope can be an encouragement to others. Colonel Drew Doolin is a Marine Corps commander who was sent to Iraq five years ago. He led a battalion of 900 Marines in Anbar province - the heart of the Sunni insurgency. Of the many rough days Drew Doolin lived through, one, in particular, stands out.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has our story.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: The day was December 22nd, 2004. The supply convoys Doolin oversaw were busy trucking food, fuel and ammunition across the deserts of western Iraq. That day, a suicide bomber pulled up next to the one of the convoys. As Doolin recalled in a recent speech, the bomber detonated his explosives just as a truck carrying nine Marines passed by.

Colonel DREW DOOLIN (Marine Corps Commander): The blast, then heat and fire engulfed the entire vehicle and all of its passengers. Men jumped from the vehicle on fire as the ammunition strapped to their legs and body armor exploded, due to the extreme heat.

KELLY: Doolin heard about all this over the radio. That day he was at his command post, 100 miles away from the bombing. So, he hopped in his vehicle and drove to the hospital on base to meet the helicopters carrying back the wounded. Doolin remembers one corporal so badly burned, he was unrecognizable.

Col. DOOLIN: His face and hands looked more like charred marshmallows than skin. He was medicated and motionless. What we didn't know at the time was that he'd taken some shrapnel to the brain, as well, in addition to his massive burns. I didn't think he lived through the air evacuation that night.

KELLY: The corporal did live. Miraculously, so did all the Marines who came under attack that day. The battalion got back to work and two months later, the deployment ended, and they came home. It was then the things began to unravel for Doolin. On a family vacation he took his son to see the latest Star Wars movie. There's a scene where Anakin Skywalker falls into molten lava and nearly dies from horrific burns. Drew Doolin says watching it, he panicked.

Col. DOOLIN: I had to leave the theater. My hands were sweating, my heart was racing, I had a general sense of an emotional loss of control. I covered up the reason why I left the theater from my son, and I told him I didn't feel well.

KELLY: Doolin didn't tell anyone what had happened. But after that, the panic attacks kept coming. Then came word he was being sent back to Iraq - a second tour. This time commanding 1,100 Marines, again, in Anbar province. Doolin flew over for a quick planning trip. He says on that trip he couldn't work, he couldn't sleep.

Col. DOOLIN: The more I couldn't sleep, the more panicky I got. I worried that my career was over and that I was losing my mind and losing control. And I even thought maybe I'd have to be medically relieved of command. Things were crashing down. I couldn't do anything about it.

KELLY: Finally, Doolin broke down and called his wife. She urged him to get help. When he flew home, Doolin called a psychiatrist friend. He started talking about what he'd seen in Iraq.

Col. DOOLIN: The more I talked about it, the less sensitive I became to it. I can give this pitch without breaking up now, which is not the case when I first did it.

KELLY: This pitch is the speech Colonel Doolin has given a few times now to groups of Navy sailors returning from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not a speech that comes easily. Doolin says he worried that speaking out publicly would damage his career. And looking back on it, as he sits today in his office in Washington at the Brookings Institution, Doolin says it felt unmanly to have reacted the way he did to an event he didn't witness firsthand.

Col. DOOLIN: One can understand that if you are kicking down doors in an insurgent stronghold and seeing your fellow Marines or sailors fall in combat, that that would be worthy of having serious response - a trauma response. But for all others like myself who didn't shoot anybody - I never discharged my weapon in two deployments to Iraq - I think most wouldn't feel that they're worthy to have had any reaction.

KELLY: Then there's the particular stigma that Doolin says he felt as a Marine Corps commander - the guy who's supposed to be in control.

Col. DOOLIN: You're trying to lead a battalion of people who are going through issues. You, yourself, you don't want to be the one who's having issues. So, it even adds more stress on top of the situation, right? You're the alpha male. You're the lead sled dog. So, lead sled dog can't go down for a combat stress injury.

KELLY: As it's turned out, Colonel Doolin says the Marine Corps has given him a lot of support. And today, Doolin says he feels just fine. As he delivered his speech a few days ago in Austin, Texas, he had this message for others returning home from war.

Col. DOOLIN: I encourage you to tell your story. Share your experiences with each other. Seek help if you need it and seek it now.

KELLY: A few people around the room are crying as Doolin finishes his talk.

Col. DOOLIN: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELLY: Then the crowd rises to give him a standing ovation. A gesture that touches Drew Doolin and gives him hope that by speaking out, maybe he can help others avoid the trauma he went through.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News.

NORRIS: And that Navy crowd that Colonel Doolin talked to was gathered for something called a "Returning Warrior" workshop. It's a program designed to help sailors adjust back to civilian life. Mary Louise Kelly has that part of the story tomorrow on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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