From the Revolutionary War to the current conflict in the Middle East, Charlie Poole’s family has fought in every major American war. Charlie is 10th generation military. He remembers when he was seven years old being at Camp Lejeune with a cousin who was a retired Marine, and his cousin gave Charlie a USMC trucker cap. “I knew then I wanted to be a Marine,” he said.
Although he had a rough start, Charlie’s focus on becoming a Marine kept him going. “My dad was murdered when I was nine,” he explained. “My mom died when I was 15. At 15 I was raising my little sister, who was six. I was going to school, playing, sports, and working. I was always told, ‘All you’re going to do is work in a mill. You’ll never go anywhere.’ When I graduated high school, I was ready for the Marine Corps.”
Unfortunately, the Marines weren’t ready for Charlie. Because he had gotten several tattoos, the USMC recruiter turned Charlie away. “For nine months I tried to get in and they wouldn’t let me because of the tattoos. Finally, I walked across the hallway and talked to the Navy recruiter. They said ok and I went to Navy boot camp.”
As a Sailor, Charlie was deployed multiple times to Afghanistan and Iraq. Four years into his enlistment, on a visit home, he decided to try to join the Marines again. This time, the recruiter welcomed Charlie to the Marine Corps. “His boss from the recruiting command called me and asked me about my tattoos and what they meant. I had to write a paragraph about each one.” Once the recruiting command was satisfied that Charlie’s tattoos were not gang symbols or subversive, he was in.
“Thirty days back from Iraq, I was 30 years old, and standing on the yellow footprints at MCRD Parris Island, NC,” he recalled. “I was meritoriously promoted twice in the Navy and I was a petty officer first class, but at Marine boot camp they dropped me back down to private. I got my Marine Corps combat training and went to MOS [Military Occupational School] in Ft. Bliss, Texas. I graduated from MOS, got to my unit, and a month and a half later, I was going back to Iraq.”
“I was in Northern Iraq in the middle of nowhere working with the U.S. Army,” Charlie said. “They made me ride in the back of a seven-ton vehicle that wasn’t armored up. They had open seats in an MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) vehicle but wouldn’t let me ride in it. I was raising hell saying this was wrong. We were driving by Fallujah, and I was afraid I was going to die because I was in the back, and we were getting shot at.”
Charlie’s unit was guarding a forward operating base for Special Forces and tank crews, as well as patrolling a local town, standing 24- to 48-hour watches. “I’d gotten to know this little girl in the town,” Charlie explained. “I used to give her food. Just as action north of us was happening, we got trapped in an IED explosion. I watched a car blow up and obliterate that little girl and some other people. The explosion blew the front of my MRAP up in the air and it slammed down so hard it knocked me out, knocked out my teeth, and screwed my back up. A lot of my problems came from that explosion. I’m just now able to talk about it.”
Around that time, Charlie decided to sign up for a billet as a Marine Security Guard (MSG) and went to MSG school. He was assigned to NATO in Belgium. “When I got to Belgium, I’d been up for 24 hours. They didn’t let us sleep and I was up for 14 days. I was hallucinating. They took me to a doctor who diagnosed me with PTSD. I was sent home from MSG duty.”
Charlie had married but was deployed for 17 months out of the first two years of his marriage. When he came home he discovered that his wife had been unfaithful, which launched a long and difficult divorce. “My PTSD kicked into overdrive. I was the number one sergeant in my unit. I was the training chief of MACG 28. I had five squadrons and one battalion under me. But I started having memory loss and other problems.” Charlie felt like his unit was not supporting him, so he filed a Request MAST to see his Commanding Officer, who found that his unit had been negligent and agreed to move Charlie to another unit.
He was assigned to a Special Forces commad in Tampa, Florida. Six months later, he was deployed again to Iraq. During that tour he helped evacuate the US Embassy in Yemen, fought against ISIS, and received an Army achievement medal. He also designed an online program to track troops and units overseas.
Charlie was reassigned to MACG 28 as the training chief, but he felt like some Marines in the unit didn’t respect him because of his struggles with PTSD. “The stress was so bad that I developed a drinking problem,” he said. “In 2015, I was sitting in my truck with a loaded weapon. I cocked it and put it under my chin. It didn’t fire. I threw it down on the floorboard. God was looking out for me. I went to a staff sergeant I knew and said I needed help. I’d been going to counseling but it wasn’t enough. I was bawling, I’d just tried to blow my brains out. They took me to a sergeant major, who said, ‘We’ve got your back. We’re going to take care of you.’” Charlie was assigned to the Wounded Warrior Battalion; however, he wasn’t well and was taking a lot of medications. He got a DUI while driving from his home in Asheville, NC. “I’d been to PTSD clinics and alcohol rehab clinics, trying my best to get clean, but I was taking medicines and drinking. I was stressed. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got out of the Corps.”
Charlie’s medical board claim was denied, and because of his DUI, he was docked 60 days of pay and demoted to corporal. He was medically retired from the USMC in December 2016.
Fortunately, around that time, Charlie was introduced to Sonya Dillard, combat casualty assistance visiting nurse for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. “She visited me in my house, and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ She went with me to the VA and helped me get into rehab there. She helped me write my state representative, who looked into my medical board. It came back with 100% approval and listed me on permanent and total disability.
“If it wasn’t for Sonya, and NMCRS, I’d probably be a dead man right now,” Charlie said. “I would not be where I am if not for her. I’m clean. I go to all my VA appointments. I got my credit fixed. I’m buying a house. Sonya wrote a letter to help me get permanent disability payments from social security and two years back pay. She helped me get into a PTSD clinic in Texas that helped me a lot. She helped me get into FOCUS where I met a guy who became my mentor. All of that is because of the help Sonya gave me.”
Back when he was married, Charlie had gone to the Society for help creating a budget and financial assistance to cover some expenses, but he never knew about the Society’s visiting nurse program. “Now I tell everybody. There are four others who I was either in rehab or combat with that I’ve referred to the Society’s visiting nurse program. Now they all have a Society visiting nurse and their lives are better – just like mine is.”
“Anytime I need to talk to someone, Sonya answers the phone or calls me right back. She’s phenomenal. Sonya helped me integrate back into society like people should be able to. And I know the Society’s visiting nurses are a big family, so if Sonya’s busy and I really need to figure something out, I can talk to another visiting nurse. I’m serious when I say – if it wasn’t for Sonya and the Society, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I would be drunk under a bridge or dead. Because of my combat duty, I’ll probably never be who I was a long time ago, but I am a newer, better me, because the Society helped me.”
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso