Published: Sunday, September 18, 2011, 12:01 a.m.
The battle within: Trying to find the man inside the Marine
Jordan Finley looks over at his girlfriend, Whitney Pahls, from the driver's seat of his car on his way home to Lake Stevens. [Photo gallery]
LAKE STEVENS -- The crowd's shouts were lighthearted.
"We love you Jordan!" "Thank you, Jordan!"
All Lake Stevens seemed to be lining the downtown streets. Kids squatted along the curb, mothers held babies and families got there early to stake out the good spots with folding chairs. The hot sun seemed to gleam off the rooftops just for Aquafest.
Spectators rose as the men of the Lake Stevens American Legion marched past, carrying the American flag and all the flags of the armed forces. Some saluted. Adults covered their hearts with their right hands and moved their children's hands to cover their own hearts, too.
The older veterans, smiling, waved to the crowds. Jordan Finley didn't smile; the furrow between his eyebrows was slight. At 23, he was younger than any of the men he marched with. His white-gloved hands kept a tight grip on the pole flying the red Marine Corps flag. He marched with his head up and his eyes straight ahead, even as the wind ruffled the cloth against his face.
Before the parade, Jordan had sat down in his room and laced up his combat boots. He first tucked his dog tag into his boot laces four years earlier, before he left for Iraq. It was still there, safe. He put his service ribbons, the colored pin showing his deployments -- a tour in Iraq, a tour in Afghanistan -- into the pocket of his white-checked dress shirt.
He'd have it with him to show anyone who asked.
At the last minute, he chose to leave his uniform at home. He'd wear street clothes. His mother, Lisa Finley, and his girlfriend, Whitney Pahls, 22, had asked him why. He didn't have the right words to explain it. They understood.
"From time to time, there is an overwhelming sense of obligation that you feel," Jordan said, "whether it's family reunions, celebrations … It becomes unbearable almost."
"I just want to go as myself," he said a few hours before the parade. "In my civilian clothes."
It would have been the first time since leaving the Marines that Jordan would have worn his uniform. People expected him to wear it. It would've been hard, psychologically, to put it back on, he said, although that wasn't what stopped him. And it wasn't that he isn't proud to be a Marine, or honored to be part of the heroic legacy, but he was trying, in any way he could, to feel like a civilian again.
"I have no problem with going dressed as myself, because the idea isn't necessarily to respect the uniform, but the person who wears it."
The crowd thinned as the parade made its last turn. The flag-bearers stepped out of formation. Jordan seemed to relax. Minutes after he handed over the flag to a fellow veteran and turned in his gloves, he described the parade as "a situation of enjoyment and beauty."
During the parade, though, the cheering of the crowds, and the familiar faces of those he's known since childhood, had little effect on him. Rather, the formality and seriousness of the marching, of carrying the flag, of pausing as taps was played, almost seemed to bring him back to the time of his service.
"It's too close to let go of myself and enjoy myself."
More words seemed hard to find. He paused.
"I am very honored, glad to be a part of a ceremony," he said, and put his sunglasses back on.
Jordan listens to Dr. Lisa McPeak during his Traumatic Brain Injury screening at the Center for Polytrauma Care at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle. Jordan sustained a concussion while serving in Afghanistan. [Photo gallery]
PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. TBI. Traumatic Brain Injury. These words used to have little relevance to Jordan's day-to-day life. They were not words he would think to use in relation to himself.
In the months after his return, Jordan didn't know why he often had trouble finding the right words in conversations. He forgot little things here and there. He started writing on his hand the time that Whitney got off work so he wouldn't be late picking her up. He couldn't sleep at night. Sometimes he woke up unsettled; he couldn't remember his dreams.
Jordan's instinctive reactions sometimes surprised him. He jumped to attention at the dinner table one night when Whitney's mother mentioned standing up. After church one morning he almost dropped to the carpeted hallway when he heard the sudden crash of a fire extinguisher falling off the wall. He looked twice when he saw a flashing red light on a camera.
Sometimes, his response to others is still too quick, or too blunt.
"I can sometimes come off, some might say, controlling, some might say possessive, some might say angry. But I'm not." Jordan paused. "I don't want people to judge me. I want ..." He trailed off, silent for a few seconds. "I want people to be patient."
Jordan laces up his combat boots before the Aquafest parade in Lake Stevens on July 30. Jordan continues to wear his boots in his day-to-day life. The rest of his belongings, though, remain unpacked in his garage. [Photo gallery]
Afghanistan. The air was dry that morning. The rising sun was just beginning to heat up the foothills of the mountains. The stillness of those early hours hung over Jordan and four fellow Marines as they did their routine patrol. Jordan drove the MATV, the armored All-Terrain Vehicle used by the Marine Corps. One Marine sat beside Jordan, two sat in the back of the truck, and the gunner was positioned in the turret.
The explosion of the 40-pound IED beneath them blasted through the calm. Jordan lost consciousness for a few seconds. When he came to, reality had dissolved into "dust and fog and confusion, disorientation." Smoke filled the cab of the truck, smoke "so thick that it clogged your vision." Jordan could see nothing. He heard a ringing in his ears.
Time seemed to be stopped.
Suddenly, the "violent, violent motion" of the explosion came crashing back.
Though initially caught off guard, the Marines now used the tactical skills that had been drilled into them. They were in motion at once, together. A shared, instinctive will to get out of the situation propelled them forward.
All five men made it back to the base. The turret gunner received a Purple Heart. Jordan was told afterward that he had had a concussion.
Jordan got his first concussion at age 7. Lisa Finley was driving Jordan and Jordan's brother Christopher back to their Lake Stevens home one night when they crashed into a car turning in front of them. Jordan, sitting in the front seat, hit his head on the dashboard and was thrown into a two-week coma.
When Jordan woke up, he couldn't speak. He couldn't tie his shoelaces. He couldn't walk. He didn't know the faces of his family.
"There was a faint, very small recollection of the life I lived before, but (I felt) no connection to it."
Jordan relearned what he had lost. He began to walk again, and to talk. His family filled in details. He began to make the connections again, slowly.
Jordan still feels, though, like he has lost those first years of his life.
Jordan Finley in 2007 after graduating from boot camp, before deploying to Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Finley)
This past July, at the first doctor's appointment that Jordan had after getting home, he was immediately diagnosed with PTSD. He had been home for about three months. Sitting with his doctor, hearing the words spoken aloud, Jordan initially shrunk from them. "I got the impression that he thought there was something wrong with me." And when Jordan was told he had sustained a TBI, that was "disheartening as well, to hear that you suffered from a traumatic brain injury, 'cause you connect it with what most people would think of, as you know, like, 'Oh, he's got a problem.'"
The words PTSD and TBI eventually settled into Jordan's mind. He's getting used to them. He has started to use them. It was almost a relief to use them. Rather than sentencing him to a certain kind of future, the terms explained what he was experiencing. And with that explanation came the assurance that the PTSD and the TBI could be treated.
"The Marine Corps is about heritage," Jordan said as he sat in his living room one August evening. Pulling his set of keys out of his pocket, he fingered the small fob attached to the ring. On it was a list of the places where the 1st Battalion 8th Marines had fought. Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan. Beirut. Bosnia. Iraq. Fifteen places in all. The key chain was a few years old, so Afghanistan wasn't yet on the list.
The 1st Battalion 8th Marines was Jordan's battalion, and he's proud to be a part of its long-standing heritage. Those he served with in Iraq and Afghanistan share this heritage with each other as well. It brought them together.
Daily combat brought them even closer.
During his service, a distance grew between Jordan and his family. His life, now spent at war, seemed far removed from his Lake Stevens childhood. His fellow Marines became his family.
The intensity of the experiences they shared forged a bond that exceeded what Jordan could have imagined. Individuality seemed to recede. The feeling of brotherhood took over. "It was bigger than me," Jordan said. "The feeling of esprit de corps carries you.
"It was the glue" between them, and "it was what got you through."
To fully become a part of this brotherhood, it was inevitable, at times, to let go of oneself as an individual, Jordan said.
Jordan flips through his journal of poetry in his bedroom in the Lake Stevens house where he grew up. During his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jordan wrote poetry on any scraps of paper he could find, and when he got home, he compiled them all in his journal. [Photo gallery]
Jordan recalls a conversation he had with a pastor. It was soon after returning from his tour in Afghanistan, to finish his service at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
At the time, Jordan felt exhausted and overwhelmed. He related to the pastor all the things he was trying to do for the people in his life.
"Well, what about you?" the pastor asked.
"That stopped me in my tracks. 'Cause I hadn't thought about that. I hadn't thought about me. I was speechless. I didn't know what to think."
While in Iraq, and then in Afghanistan, Jordan wrote poetry. On scraps of paper, on the sides of military meal ration boxes, whatever he scrounged up, Jordan jotted down lines and phrases. Writing became an emotional release.
When he returned to Camp Lejeune, Jordan rewrote all the poems in a journal. The emotions behind those poems rushed back to him.
Going over the poems again was "an out-of-body experience." Jordan found that he couldn't remember some of the experiences and specific events. The emotions "felt distantly familiar," but his memory was still very spotty.
When Jordan was younger, he burned things that he did not want to remember.
He set fire to photographs from relationships with of ex-girlfriends. After his divorce, he burned his marriage certificate, and in that act, he said, he was "burning a piece of my past."
Now Jordan doesn't want to forget his past. Trying to understand the past four years of himself helps him understand who he is now.
His poems represent "an important piece of my history." Although they deal with hard times, they were times of transformation. "Now, looking back, I feel a sense of closure. In light of knowing where I've been and where I'm going, there's hope."
Jordan titled his journal "The Santa Maria." His inspiration, he said, is from the idea that Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, came upon the Americas and found the future.
"In our lives," Jordan said, "it often looks like it's the end and it's only the beginning."
Jordan and his girlfriend, Whitney Pahls, talk with John Common at the American Legion picnic in Lake Stevens on July 28. Common, a veteran himself, gave Jordan a pocket cross before he left for Iraq four years ago. Jordan carried it with him during his years of service, and in times of trouble, feeling it in his pocket brought him comfort. [Photo gallery]
Now with his fellow Marines no longer by his side, and the structure of military life absent from his life, Jordan is left only with himself. He still feels the intense bond he formed with the other Marines during service. He probably always will. But many of them are still serving. Others live in different parts of the country. That bond, necessary in combat, is now not enough to sustain him.
"After having gotten out, you have to learn how to became a person again. You have to learn how to be a civilian.
"You have to find yourself again."
At its simplest, to Jordan, "it means I can sleep in in the mornings. It means I can watch a movie. It means I can drive my car. It means I can pick what I want to eat for dinner.
"The goal is to become at peace. To be completely at peace. Not carefree ... just to be at rest. To return to your restful state."
As a start at finding that peace Jordan busies himself with projects, like working on things that need to be fixed around the house, and fixing his family's cars.
Being around Whitney and his family again helps. Their relationships have strengthened. His mother's pride in him reads clearly on her face whenever she is with him. "He protects people in a heartbeat," Lisa said. "He's the one who people call on as far as they need something, or they're having a moment where they're having a crisis and they need him to be strong."
Jordan's father, Michael Finley, set up an area in the garage where Jordan can work on his home repair projects. "It's a way for him to express that he cares," Jordan reflected, as he glazed a piece of trimming for a doorway one afternoon.
To the left of Jordan's workstation, resting on the floor and pushed up against some boxes, is the large, olive-green bag he used during combat. It stands a few feet high, and the canvas is lumpy at spots where Jordan's belongings are trying to push out. He has not opened his Seabag since his return.
"You can only talk about so much," Jordan said. "There are a lot of things that remain unspoken."
Jordan and Whitney walk together through the Tulalip Mall after Whitney's shift at Perry Ellis. Jordan regularly picks up Whitney from work. [Photo gallery]
Ultimately, regaining a sense of himself is a personal undertaking. "It's challenging because it's something you have to do completely on your own. And you have to do it for yourself."
Faith has played a major role in this process, Jordan said, "a crucial part in getting back to the old me."
The challenge is to reject complacency. "I'm tempted to remain static. Everybody (who returns from the service) is tempted to settle, because when you come back, you don't necessarily fit in ... After that period of bliss (of the initial homecoming) passes, and reality sets in, um, you know, you either man up or settle. And the problem is so many people settle, and they find themselves, you see it every day, people suffering, or failing to get help."
Jordan's determination to find his footing in a post-military life drove him to apply immediately for his military benefits. It drove him to begin applying to college. His reluctance to settle also meant that he had to directly confront his PTSD and TBI. It meant he had to seek help.
Difficult or painful emotions, and memories left untreated, are harmful, Jordan said. "In the short while I've been back, being able to see that there's a problem, and to start to deal with the problem, I'm seeing results."
His faith, Whitney, family, doctors at the VA and a few older men who have become role models all allow Jordan to relieve the pressure he feels within himself.
"Like a balloon that's been blown up, blown up real big. As you slowly let the air out, you know, it gets much more manageable and something that fits, more or less."
It's getting easier for Jordan to talk about some of the things that were not as easy to talk about when he first got home. It's easier to laugh now. He smiles more.
Jordan Finley and Whitney take part in Sunday-morning prayers at Canyon Hills Community Church in Bothell. [Photo gallery]
When Jordan initially returned home, his plan was to join Whitney at Seattle Pacific University for the spring semester. He would pursue business and communications. He would get a job at Boeing, climb the ranks, earn a steady paycheck.
Jordan's plans have since changed. He will still attend SPU in the spring, but he will join the First Free Methodist school's ministry program. He'll become a pastor when he graduates.
Faith has always been an important part of his life. Yet Jordan only recently realized just how important.
"I've been through a lot," Jordan reflected one evening. And "I have a testimony that's worth sharing."
Jordan believes sharing his life story can benefit people, and he knows that all that he has experienced will help him help others. "No one looks for a hand until they need help up. It's just my hope to one day be that helping hand."
He also knows God has given him a lot, and that it's his responsibility to now do something with what he has been given. At this deeper level, Jordan feels himself pulled toward the ministry, that he has found his calling.
"I'm an instrument. Or a tool, if you will. And God, being a craftsman, or a musician, can do these things." Jordan sees himself, in the role of a pastor, as being just the "hands and feet."
Joining the ministry is similar to the calling he felt to join the Marines. He needs to help. "To become available, that's the calling. To become available. Whether through service, (or) through discipleship. To become available.
"The calling on my life has always been very personal. Whether it be to join and serve, to pursue, now, the ministry, or, in the future, leading a family ... It's all very personal, and decisions that you have to make, you have to make. You have to make the decision to serve. To join and serve. You have to make the decision to follow where your heart's at."
That means not just opening himself up to a possible future but actually taking action to make that future happen.
To fully devote himself to the ministry, and to make himself fully available to serve God, Jordan will again give up a part of himself for something bigger than himself. He'll make certain sacrifices. He recognizes this. Not only is it something he knows he will have to do, but it is something he knows he is ready to do.
Importantly, though, Jordan feels this sacrifice is very different from the one he made that took him to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Being called to give of yourself in something like the ministry would require you not necessarily to lose yourself but to find out new parts about yourself."
The readiness, and the excitement, that Jordan feels for his future does not mask for him the possible challenges his future may hold.
He does not hesitate at those challenges.
"There are safe ways to live our lives.
"In a failing economy, (in) financial struggles, in hardships, in relationships, there are so many different ways which we settle, day after day. We settle for less ... We would take not necessarily the wrong way, but the easiest, or the path of least resistance. And so many times we travel the path of least resistance because it's the easiest one to go down. Or because it's the one that hurts the least.
"Out of hardship is born perseverance, and it produces only great things in your life."