CAMP KINSER, OKINAWA, JAPAN --
“We had a great system,” Staff Sgt. Richard Aguila said. “We would do movie nights where we would watch movies together while FaceTiming. We’d do puzzles… We had really good communication. We had a vision of where we wanted to be in the future. We had talked about marriage. We had talked about a ring. We would go to Ross or TJ Maxx and she would buy baby clothes.”
Aguila was dating the woman of his dreams. The two had met on deployment in Kuwait in 2016 and began living together when they returned to the states.
Two years later, he received orders to Okinawa, Japan, and even through that obstacle their relationship thrived.
“And then I started drinking,” he said.
Beginning in March, 2019, Aguila, a contract specialist with the Expeditionary Contracting Platoon, Combat Logistics Regiment 37, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, started on what he described as a slippery slope. What he could never have guessed at the time, though, is what his own struggle would teach him about the Marines around him.
“It went from maybe a glass a night, to a couple glasses, to me downing half a bottle of Jack,” he said. “You don’t realize you’re that deep until the next day you realize, ‘Woah, I’m almost out of alcohol.’”
Over the next four months, he watched his whole relationship deteriorate.
“It reached a point where I became so toxic to her that she cut it off,” he said. “I was blocked, she said, ‘I’m done, don’t hit me up,’ and I couldn’t understand it.”
Aguila remembered how it all happened so fast; when she broke up with him, it took a while to sink in. When it did, though, he said it was jolting.
“I was in this really dark spot,” he said. “I was depressed, feeling overwhelmed. The water was boiling and the lid was rattling. I realized that I needed to go talk to somebody.”
Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Udell, a psychologist with 3rd Medical Battalion, 3rd MLG, said that Aguila’s experience is not uncommon.
“If we feel better from doing something, we’re more likely to do it again,” Udell said. “Drinking itself is not healthy or unhealthy. It all comes down to why you’re doing it and what happens when you do it. What is the impact it’s having on your life? If what you’re doing is getting in the way of living the kind of life that’s important to you, of what you want to stand for, that’s the threshold to take action.”
Aguila picked up the phone and called the medical clinic.
The receptionist there helped connect him to the different resources available for Marines in distress: the base clinic, the D-Stress line, the chaplain, and the Behavioral Health Clinic, amongst others.
Because of their ability to see him immediately as a walk-in, Aguila chose to utilize the behavioral health resource on Camp Foster.
The moment Aguila decided to get help, he began to see its effects on the Marines around him.
On his way to the clinic, he shared with a gunnery sergeant from his office a little bit of what he had been experiencing and said that he was going to get help.
Aguila said he was shocked by the gunnery sergeant’s response.
“He said, ‘Maybe I should go, too,’” Aguila recounted. “He said, ‘I see myself as a functioning alcoholic.’ So I just asked him, ‘Hey dude, why don’t we just go together?’ It almost felt like I was asking him out on a date.”
The Marine agreed to go and the two drove up to the behavioral health clinic together.
Aguila said that in the 30 to 45 minute screener he shared everything with them.
“I felt great after that initial screening,” he said. “We didn’t talk about why it happened or what caused it, but just talking to someone gave me so much relief.”
Aguila was grateful for how accepting they were.
“I’ve done some things in past relationships that I typically wouldn’t talk about because I’d be judged, but they didn’t do that,” he said. “They just look at you and say, ‘That’s okay. Let’s talk about that.’”
Udell emphasized the importance of creating a space where people do not feel judged. He said that as a therapist, his role is to help people learn tools that can help them be more than their thoughts and feelings.
“I teach people to treat their thoughts like clouds in the sky, rather than being something that has to dictate what they do or don’t do,” Udell said.
At the end of the session, Aguila and the therapists agreed to a counseling plan, but before that started, they gave him some homework.
“It wasn’t like write this down, fill this out, but they said to just think about what kind of man I want to be,” Aguila said.
As a part of that homework, he decided not to drink for a month. To hold himself accountable, he decided to post his commitment on Facebook.
“I posted on Facebook something to the effect of, ‘Hey, y’all. My relationship with alcohol has been destructive and I’ve hurt a lot of people, damaged a lot of people and I lost a person I thought I would marry. I’m trying to stay 30 days sober. I’m doing this to hold myself accountable and I hope you will all send me good vibes,’” Aguila said.
The response from his Facebook audience overwhelmed him.
“There are the Marines who roast you just for being vulnerable, you’ve got officers and your friends, but they were all like, ‘I appreciate this,’ ‘You’ve got this,’ ‘We send you strength,’ ‘We’ve got you,’ ‘Stick with it,’” Aguila said.
What shocked him most were the people who reached out personally.
“This gunny reaches out to me from Quantico, [Virginia,] that I used to work for and she tells me that she’s going through the same thing right now with alcohol,” Aguila said. “It was a side of her I didn’t know because as a company gunny she’s just so strong. She had that command presence, such bearing. I told her, ‘I never thought -- You just seemed so perfect as a hard-ass company gunny -- just a strong woman overall.’
Udell said that Aguila’s transparency created a space where others felt safe to share their own experiences.
“You don’t have to ask too many questions to get people to open up, as long as you provide a space where they don’t feel like they’re being judged,” Udell said.
Aguila said several other people reached out to him online, and then people started reaching out in person.
“A few days later, an officer in my building sees me in the hallway and he’s like, ‘Hey staff sergeant can I talk to you?’ So we go around the corner and he’s like, ‘Dude, I saw your post and I really appreciate it. It was just crazy timing. Literally three minutes before I saw your post, I had hung up with my wife and we were talking about divorce and her taking the kids. You have alcohol, and I have work as my vice.’ He told me, ‘Just know that you’re not alone.’ We shook hands and it was that brief moment of connection and then back to work — back to the fight.”
Aguila was blown away that his post had resonated with the officer, but Udell emphasized that any behavior can become unhealthy.
“It can be alcohol, videogames, potentially even exercising or going to church,” Udell said. “These things on the surface all look like very different behaviors, but they can all be done in a way that is primarily about emotional control. In other words, doing something primarily to feel better, not because it’s something you genuinely enjoy.”
The outpouring of solidarity from other Marines was jolting to Aguila and he said it caused him to realize that Marines need to talk more about how to look out for one another.
Aguila and Udell both agreed that there are little things all of us can do to start making it easier for Marines to come forward.
“We want to help other people, but we want to help them out the right way,” Udell said.
If you’re worried about someone, Udell encouraged checking in on him or her.
One thing Aguila felt could help change the stigma around mental health is adjusting how people talk about it.
“Language is so powerful—it’s not whether this makes you a bad Marine; it’s about how we can make you a better Marine,” Aguila said. “I don’t think we even think about that, but it’s a subconscious thing. But when we’re told, ‘This will make you a better Marine,’ it’s like, ‘Well, I want to be a better Marine!’”
Udell agreed that there is a stigma around his field of work, but said that it’s changing.
“Companies like Google and Intel [Corp.] have mental health programs available for their employees – they don’t call it treatment, it’s training” Udell said. “This doesn’t have to be about treatment, it’s about behavior change.”
“My job is really to maintain the readiness of 3rd MLG,” Udell said, and emphasized that mental health is a key part of unit readiness.
To people who are on the fence about whether to reach out, Udell urged them to look at it this way: “It’s just training, but it’s a training that’s going to change your life.”
“It has changed my life,” he said.
If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 911 or 098-911-1911 (if calling from a cell phone in Okinawa). You can also seek help from a mental health care provider by contacting your base medical clinic.
MCCS Okinawa Behavioral Health: 645-2915
Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255.
Military OneSource: 800-342-9647
Chaplain Emergency Number (Base Office of the Day): 645-7218 or 645-2644
To learn more, visit www.dstressline.com or call 1-877-476-7734