Man Behind the Mask
John Priestley II

I served a one-year tour on the staff of Commander, U. S. Naval Forces, United States Central Command, during Operations Desert Storm/Southern Watch/Restore Hope. I replaced a Navy Chief who lived in an apartment “off base” and whose only daily function, as far as I was ever able to determine, was to compile the daily personnel status report of naval forces in the area of responsibility.

Early on, I decided to forego the off-base living privilege my billet afforded, choosing to live on board the flagship like my men. Indeed, many jobs seemed “compartmented” with incumbents jealously guarding their turf. One of the first things I did was to inventory classified material and shift the command protocol from centralized to decentralized. Supervising junior yeomen proved difficult, also. They were used to a “free hand” and initially resented my taking back the reins of leadership.

Adapting to the environment on Bahrain and the flagship, USS La Salle, was one more major adjustment. Unlike other countries I have served in, Bahrain was an Islamic culture where we did not fit in. Even with limited recreational opportunities, the long, empty hours seemed destined to invite trouble. I had to remain vigilant over my consumption of alcoholic beverages. The arrival of the vice admiral and his hand-picked senior chief inaugurated profound changes, shifting the headquarters from afloat to ashore. By the end of my difficult tour, I was exhausted.

Two more years of sea duty on the staff of Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group 5, homeported in San Diego, proved to be only marginally better. While I was allowed to research, document and set up the command awards program, I did not foresee that generating awards for the battle group was about the only thing the flag secretary was interested in. Being an administrator in an “operator’s” world created friction and difficulty in maintaining morale. I never had a chance to regain my balance and stamina.

I barely survived one year on the joint staff in Washington before long-term psychological difficulties spiraled out of control. Two weeks of in-patient therapy helped me to bounce back, but it proved to be only temporary. I returned to Walter Reed, and it was determined that medical separation was in order. It was against my personal wishes, but submitting an appeal would have made the already lengthy Physical Evaluation Board last even longer.

Part of milieu therapy involves creating and talking about artwork. It is evaluated by the resident art therapist and the patient’s psychiatrist. Making and painting a paper-mâché mask was one project. I had been thinking about yin-yang philosophy, and I crafted my mask accordingly. Later in the day, my psychiatrist’s junior partner came rushing in, obviously agitated. He asked me to explain what I meant by my mask, so I coolly explained it to him. I later found out that they had read suicidal intentions into the mask.

It was over one year before I was evaluated formally by the board. I was issued a medical separation after more than 23 years of highly distinguished service. I was placed on the Temporary Disability Retired List for five years with yearly reevaluations by psychiatrists at the naval hospital in Portsmouth, Va. Three evaluations did not find improvement, and I was given a final examination at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. I received a final disability determination.

It has taken years of medical management by both private and VA medical personnel to get my condition back to normal. I am a happy, well-adjusted and thriving person. I have never found any reason to discredit anyone else for my long decline in health. The clash of my perfectionist work ethic in highly demanding work environments was bound to cause problems. I hope this article will provide some solace to other military members who have experienced their own trauma.

Isolation is the enemy!