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thedrifter
06-18-06, 08:54 AM
Lance Cpl. James Tessneer: A broken Marine

By: TERI FIGUEROA - Staff Writer

Editor's note: When Marines come back from the war in Iraq, they sometimes find that their war hasn't ended at all. It goes on in their minds and hearts. They have wounds that never bled, but left them badly injured ---- wounds of heart and mind. They look unchanged, but they are, and chances are they will never be the same again. Here is the story of one such Marine.

He says his last tour in Iraq had him teetering on the abyss.

"My diagnosis is PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), personality disorder, adjustment disorder, disturbance in emotions and conduct," Lance Cpl. James Tessneer explained. He spoke from memory. It appeared, in his mind's eye, that he was reading from the official document.

Yes, the Camp Pendleton Marine said. "That's exactly what it says. I've read it a thousand times to try to figure out what is wrong."

The young man from North Carolina kept a copy of that official piece of paper, the one that gave his diagnosis, the one that recommended him for an accelerated discharge, folded up in his pocket. It's dog-eared ---- "salty" is his description ---- but he kept it there in case he needed it.

In case he blacked out.

Said he's done that three times. Once in April 2005, he said, he snapped out of a spell to find himself attacking his roommate in the barracks.

"Grabbed him and choked the hell out of him," Tessneer recalled. "I realized what I was doing and I let go."

A mountain of a man with a disarming smile, stunning green eyes and a slow, Southern drawl, Tessneer wrings his hands as he speaks of it.

It hasn't always been this way, he says. He hasn't always been like this.

The beefy, 6-foot, 5-inch man who wears Carolina Panthers jerseys was a choirboy in high school. Not figuratively. Literally.

Even though he's a football fan, even though coaches panted after him to play, Tessneer skipped high school sports.

Instead, the young man traveled for choir competitions, took roles in school musicals. Played "Snoopy" in one performance; won the role of "The Tin Man" in another. He laughs, only half kidding, that he had really wanted to play a Munchkin.

Tessneer's mom and dad adopted him and his little sister from California when he was about 3 years old. He grew up with piano lessons, fished with his dad, went cow tipping with his buddies and ran like hell from the angry bovine.

Only about four years out of high school, he grins as he speaks of cruising as a teenager in his hometown ---- Shelby, N.C., population 19,477 ---- and the many times one of his choir buddies would slip the soundtrack to "The Princess Diaries" into the car stereo and turn it all the way up. There they were, three or four high school seniors, all boys, singing and laughing at themselves as they drove down the street. And, yeah, they knew all the words.

Instead of college ---- where his high school sweetheart and many of his peers headed ---- Tessneer joined the Marines. His dad, a factory mechanic and volunteer firefighter, had been in the Army. So had his dad's dad.

The young man who wants to be "even just half as great as my dad" said the military was a natural fit for him.

The horror of what the teenage Tessneer watched on television on Sept. 11, 2001, strengthened his resolve to become a Marine, and on April 28, 2002, he shipped off to boot camp. When he graduated a few months later, his family and friends and even their parents traveled to Parris Island, S.C., to be there. During the ceremony, Tessneer locked eyes with his dad.

"He had a big ol' smile on his face," Tessneer recalled. "I'd never seen my dad smile like that."

After boot camp, Tessneer headed to a training school ---- and met a Southerner who would become his best friend in the Marine Corps.

At 5-foot-4, Jerrell George stands more than a foot shorter than Tessneer.

George calls Tessneer "Big T." With their obvious size discrepancy, they're a vision of the John Steinbeck novel "Of Mice and Men" ---- an image that didn't escape their buddies, who called the pair George and Lenny.

Tessneer, who speaks slowly and is often just plain quiet, likes it when people think he's a "dumb hick." Don't be fooled.

For the most part, the career movements of Tessneer and George paralleled; they were last stationed together in the same Camp Pendleton unit of the 1st Division Light Armored Reconnaissance.

By early 2003, the young North Carolina man and his Alabama buddy found themselves in Iraq.

While there, to stave off boredom, to calm his nerves, Tessneer often sang to himself.

When he sings, what follows is a shock. When the man who always speaks ---- no, mumbles ---- in a deep, low voice opens his mouth to sing, out comes a sweet tenor voice. The tune, a Christian hymn, had been his grandma's favorite. It was the song he most favored to help pass the time while in the dusty, dangerous war.

George often urged Big T to sing a particular Southern Baptist hymn. Tessneer often fielded requests ---- "Guys was always asking me to sing to them," he said ---- and oftentimes they wanted country music. But the most popular song? "Amazing Grace."

And then Tessneer went home for the first time since Iraq.

"I always took everything for granted, until then, until I got back the first time," he said. "And then it is like, a whole new everything."

Home for 30 days of leave, his parents greeted him at the airport in North Carolina. His dad came wearing a shirt that read "My son is a U.S. Marine."

But Tessneer wasn't right, wasn't himself. Fought with his mom, cursed at his sister at the dinner table. Said he sort of began to realize something was wrong with him after his first Iraq tour, when "I couldn't get along."

"I was out with my buddies, and they was complaining about little petty stuff," Tessneer said. "I went nuts and started hollerin' at 'em. They complained about homework and not getting enough sleep, how they only get six hours of sleep at night. Six hours? OK. Try an hour every three, four days. Try gettin' shot at. You all don't know nothin'. Complainin' about stuff that makes no sense to me. I went off on 'em."

Tessneer shook his head. Sighed. Looked down and explained that he was laid-back, easygoing, a get-along-with-everybody kind of guy. Now, no.

"You ain't got a clue what's going on with you until you get back, sit down and start looking around," he said. "Lot of people doing the slightest thing to **** you off. Maybe holding their fork wrong. You want to stab them with your fork."

While in Iraq those three times, five members of his extended family ---- three grandparents and two uncles ---- died. Made him realize that he could die, too. Scared him how hard that would hit his mom and dad.

"It's horrible," he said. "Not knowing if you'd get to go home, and losing a lot of family members back home. And what happens if something happens to me, too?"

Just months after coming home from his first tour, Tessneer volunteered to go back to Iraq for a second trip. That time around, he spent a few more months in the Middle East, mostly Kuwait, and was back home by Christmas 2003.

Tessneer won't give specifics about most events from any of his Iraqi tours. He will say, though, that the "funniest thing I ever saw" was a camel step on a landmine.

"Pink goo everywhere," he said. Mischievous grin.

His third tour in Iraq, the one he claims pushed him to his breaking point, came less than two months after the end of his second trip over there.

That third tour ran from February to September 2004.

"It was worse this time. A lot worse," Tessneer said. "The first time wasn't that bad. Second time wasn't bad either. The third time, it was heinous. We were getting mortared six times a day. And that ain't fun.

"I got shot at a lot more often. A lot more often. ... I seen a lot of things, seen stuff people shouldn't really have to see."

While in Iraq that final time, Tessneer was tapped with a commendation for supplying 90,000 gallons of fuel to the battalion command operations center.

The last line of the award notes that Tessneer's "exceptional work ethic, initiative and dedication to duty reflect a credit upon him and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and U.S. Naval Service."

He kept the commendation proudly displayed in his barracks.

Tessneer says that the beginning of the end of his military service started when he went missing from his Camp Pendleton unit for a few days in April 2005.

Borrowed a car and spent two days just driving around North County, hanging out at the Oceanside pier, to be alone, to sort out his thoughts.

Suicidal thoughts, he says. Homicidal thoughts.

"I was actually thinking of killing other people. I actually thought of killing myself," Tessneer said. "I never thought of that before."

He said when he finally rolled back into work, he told his bosses he needed mental help. They sent him to the chaplain, who Tessneer said told him that his turmoil was an internal religious battle.

No, Tessneer insisted, something is really wrong with me.

The next day, Tessneer went to the base's mental health clinic.

That "salty" form that Tessneer carried around outlines his diagnosis as of May 4, 2005.

The health care provider reported on the document that while Tessneer at the time suffered from "some post-traumatic stress symptoms, the majority of his symptoms appear to be with his personality."

The provider recommended Tessneer get "immediate processing for administrative separation." In other words, Tessneer explained, boot him out of the Marines. No more Iraq.

Tessneer says he hadn't planned on getting discharged from the Marine Corps, but when he learned that would be his fate, he felt a weight being lifted.

"I wanted help," he said firmly last June. "The separation is an extra (benefit), but I wanted help."

For a few months, Tessneer was scared of losing control. Since he began getting counseling last year, it's "just a different kind of scared."

While on his way out of the military, Tessneer spent his Tuesdays in counseling sessions. "Tuesdays," he said last year, "are my favorite day."

The North Carolina man says he spent much of his time last summer "in a drunken haze." And the day after finishing up one of his alcohol counseling courses, Tessneer and a few buddies headed to SeaWorld and drank beer.

Sometimes last summer, buddies stopped by to hang out in Tessneer's barracks room. His buddy, George, was often there, his ever-present cell phone stuck in his ear while he chatted with his wife, who at the time lived in Alabama with their two little girls. And he plays video games with Big T.

The barracks are like dorm rooms: two large dressers, two beds, not much else. Tessneer covered the bare walls above his bed by tacking up a few of his many Carolina Panthers jerseys.

In between video games, Tessneer and George step outside for a smoke. Tessneer prefers Camels.

On this June night, another friend stops by. The three begin sharing the humorous war stories. Just another night in the barracks.

It took Tessneer a few months to tell his parents about his pending discharge. He wasn't really planning on telling them until he walked in the door of their North Carolina home. But his mom called him one night last summer. He was drunk. He got drunk a lot. An "everyday thing," he says.

So, caught off guard when his mom called, Tessneer told her he was leaving the Marines. He was surprised that she and his dad were OK with the news, even though he also told them about his mental health diagnosis.

"I guess the main thing is, they were happy that I wasn't going back to Iraq," Tessneer recalled. "Who wants to send their kid off to Iraq?"

Their reaction was part of the everything-will-be-OK that he needed.

For months after learning that he was recommended for an accelerated discharge, Tessneer was glad to be getting out. Almost giddy.

Until his buddies started heading back to Iraq in mid-August 2005.

It hit him hard that warm Saturday last year when a handful of his friends deployed to the Middle East as part of an advance party. He was in his barracks on a blue-sky morning when he opened his door and saw them loading up to go. He ran down to the parade deck and said his goodbyes.

Those Marines are "my brothers," he said softly into the phone just moments after they left. He had served with them in Iraq, with some as many as three times. And now, they were going back. And leaving him behind.

"I'll probably never see those guys again," Tessneer sighed that day. He knew he would be discharged before they returned.

Tessneer knows he can't take another tour in a war zone. But he didn't know he wanted to go back to Iraq until he saw his friends leave. He wanted to be there, with them, the men with whom he considers it "an honor" to share a drink.

"It made me step back and think, 'damn,' " he said. "Sometimes the only thing you can say is 'damn.' "

Tessneer spent the rest of that morning lying on his bunk, picking at the paint on his wall.

Three days later, the thought of his buddies packing up for Iraq still stung.

"I belonged with them. I've been there with them. I know them," Tessneer said. "That's what I joined the Marine Corps to do. It's what I was taught to do, what I was trained to do."

He paused for a second.

"I knew why I wasn't going was for a legitimate reason, but it's that I've been there with them before. And you do love 'em. Even the ones you hate, you still love.

"The married ones, you meet their wives," Tessneer continued. "If they got kids, you meet their kids. You are kinda like a family. I know I can depend on them."

Tessneer speaks of the good he believes he and fellow Marines did in Iraq, of the soccer balls and jerseys they handed out, of the little kids waving to them on the streets. Knows he was part of something far greater than himself.

"Obviously, yeah, it's jacked me up some," Tessneer said. "I ain't the same. I never will be. But who is? I think I would do it again. I'd go back again. I would. (But) I'm done. I'm burned out. I don't have no problem with going back. I used to have a problem. (But) four times? (Expletive)."

He paused.

"I guess it's seeing the guys leave. I guess that's gonna have to be it. I realize that I didn't really feel like this until I saw them leavin'. I might be lying to myself and saying that we are there for a reason 'cause I see my boys going back," Tessneer said. "But even when I hated it, I didn't agree with it myself, I'd hear somebody else sayin' we shouldn't be there, I get offensive about it and ... say, yeah the (expletive) we did (need to be there).

"I guess another thing that gets me is that I hear people complain," he said, "and I'm the one bein' sent over there and I didn't complain."

"Big T" smiles as he talks about what he misses most about Iraq. The camaraderie. Wrestling with the guys. The time his buddy, Pvt. Anthony Frederick, taunted the Marines in a supply unit, then ran back to the place where Frederick worked with Tessneer.

"When the supply boys came in there, we ganged up on 'em," Tessneer laughed.

An impish, animated Tessneer tells a few more Iraq stories, all with the same theme. There's the many play fights that involved dozens of guys throwing punches and blowing off steam. The time he and his cohorts used six rolls of duct tape on a buddy "because we could." The time Tessneer elbow-dropped and wrestled a box full of Meals Ready to Eat because he was bored.

"That's the kinda stuff I'll miss."

Tessneer accepts that he cannot go back to Iraq.

"It was just pretty much everything building up and building up and not going and doing anything about it," Tessneer says frankly. "First tour built on the second one, the second built on the third, and finally I got back from that one and I snapped.

"I just kept bottling things up," Tessneer said. "Always did that, even as a little kid. Mom said that's gonna get you into trouble someday. Sure did. Mom was right. Imagine that."

Told in May 2005 he could be on a fast-track for a discharge, he was still an active-duty Marine seven months later, waiting for the Marines to give the blessing for his recommended early separation.

While waiting for his discharge, the young man said his good days finally outnumbered the bad ones.

"I was in a deep rut," Tessneer said with a nod, looking away.

Pause. He turns back. Makes eye contact.

"Now, I'm climbing out."

As winter approached, the man who loves all things Duke University (his anesthesiologist mom is an alumna), the man who prefers the mountains to the beach, the man who knows a slew of Civil War trivia just wanted to go home. Hoped to be there Christmas, his 23rd birthday.

And in hopes that he would be, Tessneer signed on for a 63-week mechanic training course at the NASCAR Technical Institute ---- which, as fate would have it, is based in his home state of North Carolina.

He figured his training in the Marine Corps and his experiences in Iraq ---- months of pumping fuel and working on vehicles while watching his back for mortar blasts and homemade bombs ---- would give him the edge in a program designed to turn out trained mechanics with NASCAR-specific courses under their belts.

The ultimate goal? A day job on a NASCAR pit crew.

The NASCAR school's start date in January came and went. Tessneer was still at Camp Pendleton. Started thinking he might want to join the Army.

He's back home in North Carolina now, this young man with three Iraq tours under his belt. He took an early but honorable exit from the Marine Corps.

"I got on a plane on March 16," Tessneer said.

Now that he's home, Tessneer wants to take in his first live Panthers game.

He's already had some time to drive the Saleen Mustang he spent nearly three times his annual salary to buy, money he came up with thanks to his combat pay.

And he finally gave his high school sweetheart the lovely white-gold engagement ring he kept nestled in a ring box tucked into his drawer in his Camp Pendleton barracks room. The wedding is set for the fall of 2007.

Career plans again changed, and he is now working to become a state trooper. "One of my buddies talked me into it," Tessneer explained during a phone call last week.

At the beginning of June, Tessneer made a stop at his former middle school to visit an old teacher, to thank her for pushing him to achieve. And at her urging, he returned a few days later, to talk to the kids about Iraq, about being a Marine. He also told the students that at boot camp, on the days he felt like quitting, he held tight to his teacher's message of never giving up.

By the time he left Camp Pendleton, Tessneer smiled so much more easily than he did months earlier. What were once just flashes of his charm now sit closer to the surface. His eyes, for a while flat and almost lifeless, shined more often.

But in his heart, his life as a Marine still tugs at him.

I miss it," Tessneer said this week. "I miss it."

Contact staff writer Teri Figueroa at (760) 631-6624 or tfigueroa@nctimes.com.

Ellie