“Why would you want to join the U.S. Marine Corps?”
It is a question I have been asked many times. My reply has always been, “Why not?!” I desired a challenge; I wanted to make a difference, to be among the elite, and to set a higher standard for women in the military. I felt I had the right stuff to be one of the few and the proud, so I pursued my dream to become a Marine Corps Officer with spirit and drive.
My career began as a Second Lieutenant platoon commander of a combat engineer platoon comprised of 54 Marines. In 2004 as a ‘gung ho’ 23- year-old Lieutenant, my future was bright. Having played four years of Division One collegiate softball, I was used to teamwork. Thus, that is exactly how I trained my platoon: like a team. As a platoon, we supported one another for the duration of our grueling work on a Joint Task Force with the Border Patrol in Laredo Texas, during Mountain Warfare Training School in Bridgeport, California, and throughout our deployment to the Sunni Triangle in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom III.
Unfortunately, soon after I picked up my new platoon, I developed an illness millions of people underestimate and misunderstand: Bulimia Nervosa. Even though I was living a new lieutenant’s dream – working with demolition and construction, leading convoys and academic classes, conducting weapons and martial arts training, and, of course, engaging in daily physical training – I was simultaneously waging a silent war with bulimia. I asked myself, “Is this really my dream?”
In training alongside my Marines, learning from them, teaching them and mentoring them, I earned their respect through literal blood, sweat and tears. However, my energies were exhausted as I helped everyone but myself. Who was there to mentor me? Yes, I did have a company commander and executive officer, but I would not let them see any sign of what they would consider weakness. I was responsible for lives, hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, and worked hard to maintain my strong female Marine demeanor and reputation I would not tarnish. As I constantly struggled to keep it together I ended up vomiting my frustrations and stress down the toilet. Initially, it was once every other day, then four to five times every day. The Bulimia took a toll on my body, mind, spirit; my confidence waned along with my ability to handle criticism. On the inside I was aching for help, while on the outside I appeared calm so nobody would notice I was desperately struggling. In order to keep my career safe, I internalized all the challenges and took ‘mission accomplishment’ and ‘troop welfare’ much more seriously than I did my own health and sanity.
Ironically, I did not take Bulimia seriously. I viewed it as a disease which silly adolescent girls developed as they aspired to look like models. I was dead wrong! Why I suffered was not because I wanted to be a model. Rather, it stemmed from my lack of balance and self-love. I helped everyone but myself by constantly judging my performance, taking pride only in my ability to mentally push myself to my limits and to never give up. I became a pro at “sucking it up.” The more I covered up my illness, the worse it became. Unless you knew me well and could pick up on the frequently swollen glands in my neck, you could not tell I was sick.
Finally, while deployed in Iraq, I reached out in desperation to my father and a couple of close friends to confess my internal battle as an external one took place around me. My father wrote me beautiful letters during this time, all which offered tremendous support. Additionally, my boyfriend at the time supported me from another base in Iraq, only thirty miles away; he was so close yet dangerously distant in our war-torn province. Although saddled with major responsibility and much to lose, I knew I had to immediately make a change – even in the middle of war. This disease was like a bullet with my name on it!! The Marine Corps had to go on without me.
I had my epiphany after leading a convoy returning to a base camp in the middle of the night over one of the most dangerous roads in our region. My living quarters were an old office building and I was the ONLY female among 100+ Reconnaissance Marines in addition to my own platoon of 50+ men. I worked all day and vomited all night. I was dehydrated, malnourished, with an unclear mind and a weakened spirit. I knew in my heart I had to leave that environment and seek immediate help. If not, I would put my Marines’ lives in jeopardy. Unfortunately, I still would not admit to needing to save my own life. After extensive convincing, I chose to be Medically Evacuated (medevac’d) out of Iraq in the middle of my deployment. My medevac experience was one of the worst experiences of my life. I came home feeling unwelcomed by my command as well as people close to me who expressed disappointment in my perceived lack of effort to “hang in there.”
I never felt more embarrassed. I thought I had made the worst decision of my life. Like a broken record of a very bad dream, I’d think: “I am a leader of Marines, this should not be happening to me. Why could I not suck this up? I have never quit anything in my life. What should I do now?” A Naval psychiatrist told me that if I were to get pregnant and have a child, I would probably rid myself of bulimia. (This was only one of a myriad of ridiculous things I was told upon my return.) A Naval psychologist also asked me what kind of symptoms I was having with Bulimia? Clearly, no one seemed to understand this disease; the helpful feedback and support I sought upon my return from Iraq was almost nowhere to be found. However with a lot of patience and perseverance I eventually received twelve weeks of outpatient therapy to treat my Bulimia.
While the outpatient therapy was very difficult, it was necessary and provided me the tools to view myself differently. The therapeutic theme centered on being gentle with myself, thereby cultivating new thought processes to help me learn to love myself and better deal with life stresses. The therapy was successful but the tools I learned took time to become a habit in my life. However, I learned to acknowledge (through my good friends, older brother who was a Marine pilot, and father) that I had made the right decision and they reinforced that it took leadership to admit to not being able to give 110 % to my Marines and mission.
It was nice to believe that I made a good leadership decision, but deep down I still felt incomplete, like I failed. I did not want to end my time in service early, as I had worked too hard for what I had, but I was told by our battalion JAG officer that because I was medevac’d for Bulimia, I had to go through an administrative discharge process – thankfully honorable – but nonetheless early and incomplete in my mind. I had to swallow my pride and have the courage to continue holding my head up and heal.
With my healing mind and spirit I acknowledge that my battle with Bulimia surfaced while in the Marines, but I do not blame the Marine Corps for my suffering from the disease. Rather, there is no blame to assign. The Marine Corps and much of the world do not understand eating disorders or the prognosis of such diseases. Serving in the Marine Corps was my choice, one I am proud of and because of it had the privilege to work with some amazing and talented individuals who have remained colleagues and friends to this day. I did choose to push myself; however, I did not choose to suffer from Bulimia. I reflect on my experience and am thankful for going through it. I took myself on a crash course of self-criticism, lack of self-love, and a desire to be the best no matter what it took, even if it meant sacrificing my health. The Marine Corps brought out both my strengths and my weaknesses. No matter what happened, I know that I did the right thing in removing myself from that environment. For those few who did judge me, I would like to challenge you to educate yourself about the disease.
My battle with Bulimia finally ended in May of 2007, eight months after my Marine Corps service ended when playing international professional softball in Italy. I decided enough was enough and with unbridled anger for my lingering Bulimia, I wrote a Dear John letter. Writing is a way of expressing myself, and the letter served as a metaphor to see my bulimia as something outside of myself. This activity had a powerful effect on me and helped cleanse my mind, body, and spirit from this life-threatening disease through actively saying “goodbye” and visualizing Bulimia as something separate from myself that was trying to hurt me. The lethal weapon that was more useful than I could have imagined was this simple letter.
To this day, my Dear John letter serves as a mental exercise to remind me to stay strong in regards to my “breakup” with bulimia. Today, I am fully recovered and embarking on a career as a doctor of physical therapy. I enjoy working with a rehabilitation population that includes fellow service members, veterans, and wounded warriors. Treating, teaching, and speaking endeavors with this population through my combination of knowledge and experience about the body are my modes of giving back in a functional and life-giving way. It re-energizes my spirit, increases my love for the Marine Corps, and gives me perspective on myself that I may have never gained otherwise.
Theresa E. Hornick, SPT Prior First Lieutenant combat engineer officer, USMC (2003-2006)
To read the Dear John letter please visit Theresa’s blog: http://msbootcampfitness.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/dear-john/