All Scott Whisler wanted to be was a Marine.
Whisler recalls turning 18, graduating from Yelm High School and shipping out to boot camp nine days later.
Motivated, like many others by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Whisler remembers hanging out in the military recruiters’ office “before they could legally talk to me.”
Revenge was a motivation, he says, as was the “valor of combat” and the idea of “standing for something greater than yourself.”
As a child, Whisler was drawn to “the concept of knights,” he says.
“I wanted to serve my country,” Whisler recalled this week, in anticipation of Veterans Day, from a long table inside a Lakewood Starbucks. “I also wanted to make sure (an attack like 9/11) would never happen again, by taking care of the people who had done that.”
Whisler’s dream, as it turned out, wasn’t what he hoped it would be, ending with a diagnosis of PTSD.
He is being featured as part of a McClatchy Studios documentary series chronicling “the lives of three Afghanistan war veterans who are helping their brothers and sisters in arms cope with the myriad effects of war while themselves grappling with PTSD and other challenges of reintegration,” according to a company news release. “The War Within” launches Nov. 28 on Facebook Watch.
The Marine Corps was a natural fit for Whisler, says his mother, Valerie Schutlz, who now lives in Oklahoma.
She acknowledges needing some convincing, however.
“I remember vividly one night, we were sitting down and having a conversation, and I said, ‘I need you to tell me, face to face, why do you want to do this?’” Schultz recalls “And he said, ‘Mom I want to be a Marine to be part of something bigger. I want to make a difference.’
“How could I not support him in that decision?”
Now 30 and living in Lakewood, Whisler strikes an imposing figure. “Semper Fi” is prominently tattooed on his right forearm, and he wears a long beard that visually puts him somewhere between a recluse lumberjack and a coffee shop hipster.
Whisler is neither. During an active-duty career that spanned five years, Whisler became highly trained before serving a 7-month deployment in Afghanistan in 2010.
“Looking for bad guys to kill,” is how Whisler today describes his experience at war. It was exactly the kind of mission Whisler signed up for.
The outcome was not.
For a year after he got out of the military in 2011, Whisler didn’t speak to another veteran.
He isolated himself, he says, in part because he was ashamed of his service.
During his deployment in Afghanistan, the closest Whisler ever got to “seeing action” was “two clicks,” or two kilometers in civilian terms. In that same time, Whisler’s battalion lost 13 men.
The combat he longed for was all around, yet the exploding IEDs and fierce firefights managed to elude him. At the same time, he struggled to connect with his fellow soldiers.
Whisler felt alone in war and increasingly ostracized by the people who were supposed to be his brothers in arms.
“I felt like a failure as a Marine and as a leader,” Whisler says of the experience. “And I didn’t want to admit that.
“I wanted to go to war so bad, and the fact that I didn’t really eats at me. Still to this day, it’s not something I’m OK with. Like, I went there. I feel like I should have experienced that stuff. I definitely carry a little bit of survivor’s guilt. And that’s part of why I had a hard time accepting the diagnosis.”
After returning to Washington to be close to his young son Caden — who was living with Whisler’s mom and soon-to-be ex-wife — Whisler struggled to adjust. He had a hard time finding work, feeling rudderless.
At one point, he hatched a plan to walk from the Capitol in Olympia to Washington D.C. to raise awareness for veterans’ issues like suicide and addiction.
The trek ended just two days down the road after he received word that his mother was in the hospital.
To Whisler, it was yet another failure in a life that seemed to be collecting them.
Schultz describes watching her son struggle as “gut-wrenching.”
“It was hard times,” Schultz says. “He went through a period of time where he was pretty withdrawn. We used to speak on the phone every day, but he stopped doing that, and he couldn’t see why.
“I would try to help him see where he was at, but he wasn’t ready to address that. He was struggling to find his place in the world and his purpose again and adjust to civilian life.”
Whisler says he also stopped dreaming, suffering from what he assumed at the time was simply depression.
He was wrong.
It would take six years before Whisler officially was diagnosed with PTSD.
“I thought my soul had died. I actually, at one point in time, questioned whether I was still alive — like if I had a soul anymore,” he remembers. “It freaked me out. I thought it was just temporary, but it wasn’t.”
For Whisler, the PTSD diagnosis was not necessarily a welcome one.
Instead of providing relief or an answer to his mysterious struggles since returning home, he says, it mostly inspired confusion and the inescapable feeling that he didn’t deserve it.
“One of our dog handlers lost an eye. We had 13 men who never came home. And I never saw anything. I walked through like it was a (expletive) Boy Scouts’ camp,” Whisler says.
“So why am I getting this diagnosis?”
According to Dr. Cassandra Nichols, the director of the University of Washington Tacoma’s Student Counseling Center, Whisler’s initial reaction was an understandable and fairly common one. A PTSD diagnosis is not one “that most people want to earn … it’s not a positive thing,” she says.
Coming to terms with it, Nichols says, can be difficult.
The medical finding did reveal a new term to Whisler: micro-trauma, or the idea that repeated exposure to stressors over an extended period of time can have the same impact as a singular traumatic event.
As a 2010 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing notes, “It is becoming clearer that symptoms of PTSD can arise from multiple less severe traumas.”
The study states that “multiple micro-traumas … can lead to PTSD symptoms and may even be more destructive to psychological health.”
Nichols wasn’t surprised that someone like Whisler, who never experienced combat firsthand, still could develop PTSD.
“He could have been called to the front line at any time. That alone, knowing that you could be next … it makes a lot of sense to me,” Nichols says. “I would be surprised if a person would not develop PTSD under those the circumstances.”
The story also was familiar to Patti Taylor, a University of Washington alum who served in the Nurse Corps in Vietnam, the Gulf wars and Afghanistan. For more than a decade, Taylor has served as a volunteer nurse case manager for Operation Mend, a program that offers medical and psychological support for wounded veterans.
“When you have these little micro-traumas … your body is just washed with the fight-and-flight hormones. Your body is actually assaulted, and so is your brain,” Taylor explains.
“Actually the little assaults … are more traumatic than one big event, because it actually changes the brain chemistry in these individuals, and we’ve seen that through research.”
To Whisler, the pieces eventually started to come together.
“A lot of (my trauma) came from, No. 1, being under constant threat. There could be action. Every time we walked outside the wire, we were ready,” Whisler says. “Then there was also the fact that I had a lot of social issues with the people in my unit, and eventually came to feel like I couldn’t trust any of them and I didn’t feel safe around them. My (post-traumatic stress) is not related directly to combat, but to the social environment that I was in and the experiences that I had.
“It took me a while to figure out and come to terms with that.”
Team Red White and Blue
Eight years after returning from Afghanistan, Whisler has found the purpose and the opportunity for leadership that eluded him during active duty.
It has come through Team Red White and Blue, a nonprofit veteran service organization that seeks to create the community and camaraderie that the military provides but often dissipates when people return home.
For the last year and a half, Whisler has served as captain for Team Red White and Blue’s Joint Base Lewis McChord chapter. The position tasks Whisler will helping people develop leadership skills — focusing on traits like empathy and compassion — and puts him in contact with close to 1,200 registered members and an active membership of roughly 30-50 veterans.
Many, he says, are dealing with some of the same vexing issues that he’s experienced since leaving the military. Through organized activities like triathlons, strength training, CrossFit, hiking and rucking — essentially urban hiking with weighted packs — Team Red White and Blue helps to provide an important support system for veterans returning to civilian life.
In it, Whisler finally feels at home.
“We help them on their growth journey, so they can heal and recover — the things that I never had,” Whisler explains. “You do something with somebody, and you develop that relationship, you deepen that relationship, and it helps to develop that sense of purpose.”
Victoria Okuly, a 31-year-old former intelligence analyst in the Army, is one of the people who has been drawn to Team Red White and Blue after retiring from the military.
It’s where she met Whisler, and it’s where she’s seen the impact he’s now having on veterans.
Okuly carries her own trauma and has experienced anxiety and depression since leaving the military.
Like Whisler, Okuly also deployed in Afghanistan and has also been diagnosed with PTSD. She, too, recalls her diagnosis as “a hard pill to swallow.”
Okuly’s trauma, she says, is the result of being raped by a fellow solider. Her rapist left on deployment the next day, and she considers the assault “a planned attack.”
“I didn’t have the knowledge that I needed to pursue him. He was gone the next day,” Okuly says.
“I didn’t press charges. I didn’t know how to,” she adds. “Being new (to the Army), I didn’t want that to be my reputation.”
While Okuly says she’s incredibly proud of her military service and “would do it again,” the experience has understandably had a lasting impact — one she’s still dealing with today.
Most acutely, she’s still fearful of crowded places and — even more — of being alone with men
When her therapist recommended “exposure therapy” — or finding a male friend to spend time with in an effort to overcome some of her issues with anxiety — Whisler immediately came to mind.
The friends started meeting regularly at Barnes & Noble in Lakewood, having coffee before perusing the books.
“Scott was the only person I could think of that would be willing to do that,” Okuly recalls. “I said, ‘This is going to sound weird, but I need you to help me not be afraid of you and stress out around you.
“Scott has been there for me, and he continues to be there for me. Anything I need help with, he’s there.”
Finally finding his purpose
More than anything in the world, Scott Whisler wanted to be a Marine.
He wanted to help people, he wanted to be a leader, and he wanted make the world a better place.
For various reasons, it didn’t work out like he hoped it would. He still harbors regret.
But in life after the military, Whisler says, he’s found the purpose and the impact he’s been striving for since he was a high school senior hanging around the recruiter’s office.
You can see it in his eyes, and you can see it in relationships like the one he shares with Okuly.
“I’m not proud of what has happened to me, and my story. And I know I’m going to catch flak from people who are going to say I don’t deserve it, because in the veteran world there are people who think if you haven’t seen combat, you’re not worthy of this stuff,” Whisler acknowledges.
“But at the end of the day there are more people who have stories similar to mine.”
The path hasn’t been easy — far from it, he admits. But if sharing his story can help other veterans in his situation, Whisler says, it will be worth it.
“When I got out of the military I was broken, spirit and mind and body,” he says.
“And here I am standing stronger than ever before. My sole goal, everything I do, is because if I can help people, if I can help them grow and get out of the pain and torture that they experienced, then all of my pain and everything I went through was worth something.”