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Marines Stay in the Fight With Hidden War Wounds

Marine Sgts. Guensly Dorisca and Michael Canright and Staff Sgt. Ryan Harshman are members of the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C., after suffering brain trauma in combat.

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Marine Sgt. Donald Canright saw the rocket-propelled grenade round coming at him seemingly in slow motion right before it hit him square in the chest.

The round fired at him in Iraq was a dud, but the impact knocked him out, cracked several ribs, and left him with back pain. He stayed with his unit. He deployed again, and there were other blasts nearby.

Back home, Canright began to sense something was wrong. He was doing things he couldn't explain -- even to himself. There was binge drinking, but in the Marine Corps "nobody cared if you were drinking," he said. Then a friend was killed in a car accident.

"It started to really get to me bad when my buddy was killed," Canright said. "It was the worst day in the world. I started thinking -- where are you safe? It was hard to talk to a lot of people. You get labeled unstable -- it's like, 'we gotta' watch him.' "

Canright turned to the Marines' Wounded Warrior program and was assigned to Wounded Warrior Battalion-East at Camp Lejeune.

Increasingly, the program to help the wounded resume duty or ease their return to civilian life has focused on troops such as Canright who may not even know they've been gravely injured.

They're called the "invisible wounds" of war, and Canright and two other Marine sergeants in recovery at Camp Lejeune told of their struggles against what have come to be known as traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.

Before he was assigned, Canright worried about the stigma that could attach if he asked to be referred to the Wounded Warrior program for what was later diagnosed as TBI.

"You get labeled a skater, a deployment dodger," he said.

At Lejeune, the most important thing was that there were other Marines in recovery who understood.

"You're not alone," Canright said.

As a sergeant, there was a tendency to avoid confronting his own problems by focusing on his troops.

"The thing about coming here is you're not in charge of anybody, you're in charge of yourself," he said.

It was not that way when the Wounded Warrior program began in the fall of 2005. Then it was called the "Injured Support Unit." They set up shop in an unused barracks for 15-20 severely wounded troops and then tried to cobble together services to support them.

Now there is a complex in the Paradise Point area of Camp Lejeune with a new barracks compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act that has individual rooms equipped with flat-screen TVs, cable, internet and local phone.

The barracks is connected to the Warrior Hope and Care Center with a huge gym for physical reconditioning, aerobics and aquatics. The center also provides space for troops and their families to get together, as well as office space for case managers, recovery care coordinators, call center personnel and transition resource personnel.

A new Fisher House for families of recovering troops staying at Lejeune and a satellite of the National Intrepid Center for Excellence for TBI treatment are adjacent to the barracks.

Much like Canright, Staff Sgt. Ryan Harshman had difficulty realizing he needed help. He was hit by an improvised explosive device in Fallujah, Iraq, but returned to full duty and other deployments.

In 2012, Harshman had a seizure in the shower.

"I woke up and thought it was three years prior. I figured that wasn't too good," said Harshman, 29, of Hagerstown, Md.

He turned into "one horrible, alcoholic, impatient, angry man," Harshman said. "I had no future goals."

At the Lejeune complex, "I have my own fire team" of coordinators and counselors, he said. "I kicked booze, quit drinking. I've been sober 14 months." He's now completing a degree in psychology, Harshman said.

The key to recovery was the mutual support of other Marines in the program, Harshman said.

"We can relate to one another. It's just something among Marines. We can allow each other into each other's lives," he said.

Marines assigned to the Wounded Warriors help design their own recovery program in coordination with care managers, and they are expected to stick with it.

"Our mission is to take care of these guys and their families, get them what they deserve," but "you're still a Marine, you're still accountable," said retired Marine Lt. Col. Craig Stephens, command adviser to the program.

Stephens acknowledged that occasionally parent units will view the program as a "dumping ground" for the referral of Marines they regard as slackers.

"In the early days of the battalion, they'd get dumped on -- line units wanted to get rid of people," Stephens said. Now, "lots of times we'll return (referral) packages" and send the assigned Marine back to his unit, Stephens said.

Sgt. Guensly Dorisca said he was called a "malingerer" by a master sergeant when he began to sense something was wrong.

On Jan. 15, 2013, on the last day of his deployment to southwestern Helmand province in Afghanistan, he was doing "left seat-right seat," meaning he was in a vehicle on an assignment to break in a Marine from a replacement unit. An IED went off "and I barely remember anything that happened," Dorisca said.

He was medically evacuated back to the States. He had blood clots on his lungs, but there were other problems he had difficulty in defining, said Dorisca, 33.

"Sometimes, you're just too proud to realize what you're going through," he said. Dorisca now has plans to retire from the Corps and work with the non-profit he's started in Haiti.

He will continue to be tracked by the Marine Corps. As part of the Wounded Warrior program, the Corps has 30 reserve Marines serving as District Injured Support Coordinators nationwide to aid with finding jobs and easing the transition to Veterans Affairs care.

The Marines cite the Latin motto for the Wounded Warrior program -- "Etiam In Pugna (Still in the Fight)."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@monster.com.

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