or years, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Mathew Barr tried to deny the damage done to his mental health during the Battle of Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. But with help from the Military Health System, he was able to face his demons and get the treatment he needed.
“It was a grueling and gruesome fight,” said Barr. “When I got back home from my deployment, that’s when I couldn’t control my emotions and was angry all the time.”
As one of the most storied battles of recent Marine Corps history, the Battle of Fallujah took the lives of more than two dozen Marines and injured many more. Not all of those injuries were immediately apparent. A year later, Barr would return to Iraq, this time losing his commanding officer, a man Barr was responsible for protecting. The mental anguish was almost too much. “My job was to die for him, so I failed. I had a lot of regret and survivor’s guilt.”
Through years of denial and searching for the right treatment, Barr finally got the professional medical help he needed to heal his mental health at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, in 2013.
“I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Barr, acknowledging that he was caught up in the mindset that warriors don’t admit their injuries. “We can’t show weakness, because that could be exploited even within our own ranks. There’s a stigma.”
But Barr knew keeping himself mentally well is just as important as keeping his service rifle working properly. Plus, he knew he had to get help for the sake of his wife and two young children.
“I knew who he was,” said Callie Barr, Mathew’s high school sweetheart she married 13 years ago. When she reached a point after one argument where she considered walking out, he broke down, crying and admitted he has demons. “That’s what I needed to hear,” she said, “and we worked through his issues together.”
“I want to be a good father, good husband, and a good Marine,” he said. “I needed to do something about it, so I just did it.”
At Quantico, Barr connected with the therapy at a traumatic brain injury clinic, where he got treatment for the brain injuries he suffered years earlier, as well as help with his post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of his therapies there included art and music therapies, as well as water therapy that he said helped calm him and become more self-aware of his body and emotions. Not all therapies are available for service members at every clinic. Barr was also able to talk with counselors and chaplains who helped him work through his emotional issues. “It was pretty incredible, and I was really fortunate I got to do that,” said Barr.
“Going to a provider earlier, even if you’re trying to work things out yourself, can help, even with that self-care,” said Public Health Service Lt. Evette Pinder, a psychological epidemiologist at the Deployment Health Clinical Center, a part of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. “If a service member, battle buddy, line leader, or family member sees a person is struggling mentally, engage a provider at that point to get help solving problems and coping. The service member and everyone around them play a role.”
Not only did Barr seek help for himself through his health care provider, but now he’s encouraging other service members to do the same. He’s the latest profile in the Real Warriors Campaign, a multimedia public education effort designed to encourage help-seeking behavior among service members, veterans, and military families coping with invisible wounds. The campaign is key to the Defense Department’s overall effort to connect warriors and their families with appropriate care and support for psychological health concerns, supplementing what the services and Military Health System offer and trying to remove the stigma of seeking help.
“We think service members, such as Gunnery Sgt. Barr, telling their stories will help,” said Pinder. She said those who have returned from the battlefield with the invisible wounds of war don’t have to feel they are alone. There are resources.
Barr said people shouldn’t wait to use those resources.
“Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness; it’s actually a sign of strength,” said Barr. “You need to be there 100 percent, not just to do your job in the military but to be there for your family.”