From my sexual abuse as a child to my time in the United States Marine Corps—some of my story is magic—some of it is tragic. I am sharing it with the hope that it will inspire the world one person at a time to help me end child sexual abuse.
I am a former United States Marine and a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, but what I really am is a survivor. I am dyslexic and have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (HDHD). By age twelve, I experienced the death of my biological father and my adoptive father. At twenty-eight, I lost my younger brother in a tragic 4-wheeler accident. I spent almost four years of my life in Iraq and Afghanistan. I even survived my own suicide attempt. But the one event that defines me above all others—I am a survivor of sexual abuse.
My biological father returned from Vietnam wounded by an enemy unseen, when I was four, he lost his battle with Agent Orange. I scarcely remember him, but his death would always have a shadowy yet profound influence on my life. My mother remarried while I was still young and my new father loved me as though I was his own. But other struggles were just beginning.
Even a short conversation indicated, I was not a dumb kid but by second grade I lagged well behind my peers in reading and math, I was basically illiterate. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, public schools in Kentucky were not equipped to address my learning disabilities. In first and second grade, I spent part of each day in a special education classroom. I didn’t belong there, but I could not keep up with peers in a regular classroom. Fortunately, my parents could afford for me to have extensive testing. My mother, also dyslexia, believed dyslexia was at the center of my academic problems and that appropriate intervention could solve my problems. Testing revealed the extent of attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity. I was falling further behind academically each passing month and options in Lexington, KY were limited.
Unfortunately, boarding schools far away from home developed as the best option for addressing my needs with the hope of returning to public schools in the future. The school chosen was near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I remember like it was yesterday when my parents told me I would be going away. Dad, in his usual chair, Mom on the ottoman and I sat on the floor next to them. They told me I would be going away to a special school. I completely broke down. I cried, screamed, sobbed and begged for them to please let me stay at home. “I will do better,” I assured them. The fear that attacked me was more than my eight-year-old heart could handle. Little did we know, this moment would pale in comparison to what I soon experienced. Mom escorted me to Philly for the beginning of the school year. As I sat next to her I proclaimed, “This will be the greatest adventure of my life.” How tragic and how accurate those sage little words became.
I cried myself to sleep every night for weeks. As the youngest in my cabin, I tried hard to conceal my little sobs but my roommate would scurry off to find a counselor. More often than not, it was Fred Van Sant. He became my protector, my confidant, my hero and my surrogate parent for the next two years. Like my biological father and adoptive father, Fred was a veteran. He was a sports fan, built amazing model airplanes and more. I loved him. He took me to Philly’s games to see my idols Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt, to Philadelphia 76er’s games to see The Doctor and Moses Malone. We went to ship yards to see battleships, to Valley Forge battlefields and museums. He somehow knew everything I loved and taught me about all these things and more.
After being at the school a short time, Mr. Van Sant sought and received permission from my parents to take me home on the weekends. Why not? It was a chance for their baby to have time away from the school with someone who seemed to care about him—someone who was loved and respected by staff and students alike. It was a wonderful gift for me.
I do not remember the date. I do remember it was cold outside and winter had arrived. I awoke in Mr. Van Sant’s bedroom in the middle of the night; sometimes I just needed to be sure I knew where I was. I heard the fish tank and smelled cigarette smoke. But something was horribly wrong, something I just did not understand. Mr. Van Sant was lying naked underneath me; I could feel his naked skin pressed tightly to mine. He held me across his chest with one arm and his penis was between my legs, humping me. Though I have faced my nation’s enemies on fields of battle in two wars, the fear that coursed through my nine-year-old body at that moment stands alone. Paralyzed by fear, I could not even cry for help—there was no one to hear. My little mind and heart shattered. I could not comprehend what was happening—why this man who loved me would do this to me. My soul crushed; my innocence gone. This act and others like it occurred every weekend for the remainder of my first year there.
When I returned home for the summer it was evident to my parents I was not the same child. I wanted to tell them but I knew I had to go back and I just couldn’t say it. I felt gut-wrenching fear every day that summer knowing I was going back to him. But I just couldn’t tell Mom or Dad what happened—the shame was too great. At age nine, I felt like a man in the gallows awaiting death. Mom’s intuition caused her to question the Vice Principal of the school and together they decided I would no longer go home with Mr. Van Sant. Mom knew something was not right. The abuse, however, did not stop by ending my visits to his home. Boarding students took trips as a group on the weekends. Though not as often as at his home, Van Sant changed his schedule to ensure his weekends were now with us and on those camping trips his hideous acts continued. It did not stop until I returned home after two years there. I was a ten-year-old who had already lived a lifetime.
Returning home presented challenges of a different kind. My father had terminal cancer and my school year started with the sudden illness and death of my fifth grade teacher. The reality of Dad’s illness crushed and defeated our family. Dad died in a little less than a year. Our family sat with him in our home on October 19th, 1985 as his body gave way to the inevitable. Mom had now buried her second husband in less than a decade. She struggled to keep herself going and be a mother to my brother Mark and me. She loved us deeply but she was shell shocked by tragedy. We continued as a family as best we could, as all three of us stumbled through grief, Mark turned inward and I spun out of control. The abuse suffered at the hands of Van Sant turned into white hot anger coupled with shame and no father. I was a time bomb. I saw more boarding schools, principal’s offices and trouble with law enforcement. All the while, the toxic bile and shame Van Sant injected into my soul ate away at me. I ended up a whisker from prison and, ultimately, at The Cascade School in Northern California, a therapeutic boarding program for emotionally damaged kids.
Cascade School became my salvation but in a last ditch effort to avoid being alone, scared and far from home again, I stole Mom’s rental car and barricaded myself in a hotel room. I informed the police who gathered outside my room, “I won’t go down easy.” In an act of desperation, Mom called the school’s headmaster who asked to speak to me. He said he knew I had been sexually abused and if I would surrender peacefully, he promised nothing like that would happen ever again and he would help me find peace. How could he have known? I dropped onto the floor and sobbed–racking, gut wrenching sobs. I had never told a soul what had happened. It mattered not; it was finally out, it was my secret no more. I relented, a shell of a teenage boy with no fight left in me. I would stay at Cascade for two years.
Those two years were the hardest of my life. I learned soon enough that letting my secret out was the easiest part of the battle to rescue my soul from that room with the fish tank, Marlboro cigarettes and shame. At times, I believed salvation from this pain would be a destination—a place where I would eventually arrive. If it is, I am not there yet. Reality is—it’s a battle you fight every day. For the two years at Cascade, I fought to make peace with myself over the shame, the pain and the anger. I graduated from Cascade and moved on to the next step.
I attempted to play college baseball at Guilford College in Greensborough, North Carolina. Simply put, I was not ready for the real world after the cocoon of Cascade. I failed out and returned home to Lexington. I then got a job as a wilderness guide for adjudicated teens. Again, I found salvation in nature. Through Cascade I witnessed first hand how mountains could heal our damaged souls. Now I had an opportunity to help others to find peace and happiness through nature. This job took a serious toll on me. I bared my soul and shame before those kids (barely younger than I) in hopes they would see, “…if he made it, so can I.” At times, I was an amazing and powerful guide and role model. At other times, my own wounded soul was all I could mange. At one point, I developed a severe ulcer. But this was my calling and I knew it. I would help these kids, I would save their lives, and I would help them stop their pain.
Like all Americans, the events of September 11th 2001, changed my life. While still working as a guide when the towers fell, I knew my calling just changed. At twenty-eight years old, in peak physical condition with nothing tying me down, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Infantry. Before shipping off for boot camp, I was shaken to my core.
While riding a 4-wheeler out to a barn for a college graduation party, my brother fell off and struck his head on a rock. Mark was strong and fought the head injury for a week but there was nothing more that could be done, after eight days his battle was lost. As they wheeled my brother out of the room to prepare him for organ donation harvest, I felt Van Sant’s cold spidery hand reach up from the depths of my soul and wrap around my heart to remind me, I was alone again. Though Mark was my younger brother, he was my port in a storm. He reminded me of the love, happiness and innocence I once had. Van Sant’s abuse rendered me incapable of being close to people; Mark was the exception. Through my marriage, I have come to realize I was not even that close to him. But it was the closest I was capable of being to another human.
In the wake of Mark’s death, I reconnected with my high school sweetheart, Tiffany Corbin. She was the first and only person I attempted to tell about my abuse prior to Cascade. Without her support and encouragement, I would have gone to jail rather than Cascade. Now, ten years later, we reconnected before I shipped out for boot camp. I could not have made it from Mark’s death to boot camp without her. We married July 2003 and she is still by my side, my soul mate.
The Marine Corps became the most defining event in my life outside of sexual abuse–an amazing and wonderful experience in many ways. Being able to say, “I am a United States Marine” is an unparalleled experience in life—an experience that defines and guides you for the rest of your years. I loved the Corps. Boarding schools and wilderness guiding gave me skills for success in the Corps. I was the honor man in boot camp and again in the school of infantry. When I got to my first unit, 1st Battalion 6th Marines, we were training for the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) qualification, a grueling, brutal year of training. In the end, we sailed for Afghanistan, hungry for blood and ready to do our part in the war on terrorism. The deployment was a test of the very fiber of my being. The difference between the fear I felt as a child and the shocking terror of war are different only in their presentation. I will not try to define or explain the experience of war. Those who have experienced it understand and those who have not, never will. I will say this—as I stared into the eyes of the beast for my first time in Afghanistan, I knew I had seen that horrible visage before. I recognized that animal, he had taken innocence from me in the cold of a Pennsylvania winter 20 years before.
Our next deployment, Fallujah, Iraq—a place you could truly feel the darkness of man and our fatal flaw, our capacity to destroy ourselves was on full display there every day.
As my time in the Marines came to an end, I realized as much as I loved the Corps and as much as she loved me, it was either the Marines or my marriage. The choice was simple.
We moved from Camp LeJeune, North Carolina back home to Lexington, KY. However, I had an itch that I still had to scratch. So I began a three year journey as a private military contractor. I still needed to be part of the war, if other guys still had to go, I should be going as well. I wasn’t finished doing my part. As private contractor, I had the opportunity to make good money for my family.
The world in Afghanistan became my one and only reality. What happened next, I suppose, was inevitable. People have always had it wrong about me; I am not courageous and fearless. Van Sant struck a fear and distrust for the world in me that was beyond any other force on earth. As a result, I lived every day of life in fear. So, Afghanistan and Iraq held a certain familiarity for me. Everything was black and white, you knew what you were going to be doing, why you were doing it and you knew exactly what it meant every damn minute. Even trust is easy in this world, they are either your boys or they are not. My fears and trust issues did not exist in this world. If you were willing to live with the fear, (as I had all my life) and you were okay with the price you might pay, there is a horrid and morbid addiction to this world. The contradiction of loving this life and its reality drove me over the edge.
Forty-eight hours into a visit home, I shot myself in the head. I came within a wisp of finishing Van Sant’s work with my own hand. I cannot put into words how ashamed I am for shooting myself. I do not believe it is our place to decide our own fate in such a manner. But I did, so now we move on. Without the love and support of my family, I simply would not have made it. Unbeknownst to Tiffany and me, she became pregnant in the hours before I shot myself. The birth of Payden Elise Bartella, nine months later, gave me hope again in a way only life’s most beautiful miracle could. I knew I could never give up.
As I struggled to get on my feet again, I read an article about golf helping Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I had not played in four years, but why not. I hit golf balls every day. Eventually, golf gave way to climbing and camping. In the hills I found myself again. As I began to feel hope for my soul, the Penn State sexual abuse tragedy struck. I watched it unfold and slipped into a depression. Van Sant’s cold boney hands, once again, wrapped around my heart. I watched every minute of coverage, read every story. What I realized was—in spite of everything, I am still here. I have experienced more of life’s challenges in forty years than most folks will in a lifetime. And I have done it with an anvil hanging around my neck. Jerry Sandusky was killing the innocence of those children like Van Sant crushed mine. I came no closer to death when I shot myself than I have a hundred times before and somehow every time I made it through.
Whether it is God’s will, Fate or Forrest Gumpian dumb luck, I am still here. Someone or something kept me alive. I have determined that child sexual abuse will stop. I will find a way to pull back the curtain on this culture of secrecy and shame and make the world safer for our children. I will create a voice and a presence so large that predators can no longer find refuge or the opportunity to harm our babies. Abusers will no longer run from their crimes by scarring victims so badly that it takes decades before we tell.
In 1982, you could not say the word “breast” on television. Our mothers and daughters were being taken from us by a killer we knew little about. Since then, the Susan G. Komen Foundation gave breast cancer a voice and raised billions of dollars to fight a wicked disease. That fight is not over, but we fight it every day and we are aware of the battle. We must now do the same for sexual abuse. Child abusers speak to us of our greatest fear, our inescapable propensity to destroy ourselves. Child sexual abuse is so heinous, vile and disgusting that we do not like to think or talk about it. We have to. We all know that truth sets us free. Let’s begin to scream the Truth from the mountain tops. Today, I draw the line in the sand, and say, “No further! It stops here.” No longer will you kill the innocent souls of our babies. I will find a way to stop child sexual abuse; I will find a way to stop molesters. Please, will you join me?
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