General James Conway and Master Sergeant Blaine Scott are two Marines with mounds of career accomplishments. Both men have volunteered their time to the Semper Fi Fund to help transitioning veterans, and Military.com caught up with them during a trek to the great outdoors to get their insights about the great leap to civilian life.
For more tips for military transition, see this article: Five Transition Tips from Two American Heroes.
Military.com: Tell us about your military background, and where you are now.
James Conway: I joined the Marine Corps in 1970, and was assigned to my first unit in 1971. I was an infantry officer the entire 40 years that I served, and went to war arguably three times if you include Beirut. I became Commandant of the Marine Corps in 2006 and served through 2010. My wife and I have three children -- both our boys are Marines and my daughter married a Marine helicopter pilot. They all are still on active duty and enjoying life in the service.
Blaine Scott: I joined the Marine Corps back in 1992. I was infantry as well, O311, and when I became Staff Sergeant, O369. I have one daughter, she’s 20, with my ex-wife, and I have an 11-year old son. I married my current wife in 2001, and have been married almost 18 years now. My son wants to be a Marine when he grows up, after he’s done playing football somewhere (laughs). I retired in January 2015. We settled down in Texas, and we have a nice little home there.
M: What does being outdoors mean to you personally?
JC: I love the great outdoors. I was born and raised in Arkansas – most people in my state are outdoorsmen from the time they’re pups. My dad and uncles and I all hunted, fished and so forth. I got away from it for awhile when I was in the Marine Corps, but when my sons and daughters came of age we took them out, and I’ve tried to be part of it ever since.
BS: We didn’t have video games or stuff like that when I was a kid, so I grew up in the woods. It’s my sanctuary, where I can get away from everything. I love introducing other people to the woods too -- take guys out hiking, fishing and hunting. I like getting out, listening to nature, and experiencing it.
M: You actually met for the first time when the general came to visit you at the hospital after your injury. [Master Sergeant Scott was severely wounded by an IED in Iraq in 2006.]
BS: You remember bits and pieces. I don’t even know what we talked about.
JC: Visiting all patients is hard, but especially the burn patients, because there’s so much additional pain and agony that goes into their treatment. It’s always going to be an obvious injury and in some cases a disfiguring injury, so you have a great deal of compassion for those folks -- and for the staff, too. The second time I went I had a chance to talk to the staff, and I was concerned about burnout, because in some instances you lose patients. The master sergeant [became] one of the staff NCO ICs there after he completed treatment successfully and helped others get through what he experienced.
M: What’s it been like for the two of you to go on this outdoor trek together?
BS: This guy’s a legend. It’s good to be here, and get to know him a little bit, talking about old times.
JC: I love his spirit. This guy is indomitable. He’s had some unusual turns in life but you wouldn’t know it, being around him. He has a great sense of humor, loves life, loves his family and nothing seems to deter him from that path. I admire the heck out of that.
But he was crass enough to point out today that I joined the Marine Corps before he was born. [laughter]
M: Transition has often been a major challenge for service members, especially wounded warriors. What does it mean to you to work with those who are transitioning?
JC: You have a sense of responsibility. I don’t care if you’re a platoon commander or the Commandant of the Marine Corps. You have the responsibility to make sure your people are provided for, properly trained, properly equipped. As the first officer in the chain of command, you’re accountable to them, and they want to hear what you’re doing to make their quality of life and success all the more likely. It doesn’t change when we go into combat.
We saw the need for what we call the Wounded Warrior regiment, and that regiment had battalions on both coasts, with a company in Twentynine Palms, California, so that we could get our Marines out of the hospital as soon as we could and back to as normal an environment as we could create. You’re always looking out for their welfare in peacetime as well as in combat.
BS: [When I was injured in 2006] I could have got out of the Marine Corps then, but I love the Corps, and I stayed in, fought the good fight. I even deployed one more time, came back, and I was actually in charge of the Wounded Warrior detachment down in San Antonio Military Medical Center, overlooking all their non-medical needs, and making sure that by the time they got back to civilian life or the unit, that it was a smooth transition. If there were any issues at all, we made sure they were taken of, that’s what we were there for.
When I first got to [San Antonio] we had 72 Marines, with a staff of 25, and when I left we had 17 Marines, and a staff of maybe 10, so I think we were pretty successful returning those guys, and making sure they had something for when they [got out], like going to college, or having a job lined up.
JC: And to the Master Sergeant’s point, that structure was not initially in place. It has to be something that’s created, based on the problem sets that you see. For instance, my wife said that they would get a notification that there would be a C-130 landing with 13 wounded Marines. There would be three, and the other ten would be somewhere where people wouldn’t know how they were, or what they were doing. Then you’d get word that there would be five coming in, and there would be twenty-five. Not to say anybody was doing anything wrong, it was just that it wasn’t organized, and we didn’t have the proper tracking systems along the way to include the hospitals. So we create those things as the need arises and great guys like this figure out how to make it work at the user level.
BS: When these guys come in, they have what I call their “new new.” Their lives have changed. You have a kid coming in with an amputation, they’re upset about it, and their families are upset about it, but three months later they’re walking, and that’s a morale booster for them. Just finding out what they can and can’t do, or how to do things a little differently.
M: Master Sergeant, we understand that you often host wounded warriors in your own home.
BS: I got this room called the Warrior Room. It’s handicap-accessible, and I’ve had guys come over for a couple days. I’ll take them out hunting, stay out there three or four days. It’s good for them to get out because I don’t baby them. I’ll be like “You’ve got to get that blind, I don’t care how you do it but you gotta do it.” It makes them feel a sense of accomplishment and belonging. Getting them to a different setting for a few days is all they need to recharge and get ready to go back and do their thing.
I’m also employed by the Semper Fi Fund part-time, and I’ll take guys out to museums, or take them on small day trips. That seems to help them out as well, just getting them away from life for a while.
JC: We call it mainstreaming, but it’s about trying to get them back to things they can and should be doing, but might not without being pushed a little bit. But once they do, hunting or fly-fishing or riding horses or whatever, in some cases it becomes a passion with these guys because they really enjoy it. They can get good at it really quickly, and he’s right, it distracts them from things that might otherwise cause a little bit of depression.
M: You often hear about how some people feel “stuck” after leaving the military. How do you get past that feeling?
BS: Just get them out doing stuff. I tell them them, Life is good, don’t do anything stupid or think that it’s not that good. Make the best out of the worst thing.
JC: One thing that’s important – and the fund does a marvelous job at this – is to let people know that there are folks that care about them, starting with Americans in general, and their generosity and contributions. But beyond that, you’ve got a visiting nurses program, we got all kinds of people that are calling them from time to time, asking how they’re doing. Because part of the problem is mental. We unfortunately have a lot of Marines, and I suspect Soldiers and Sailors too, that take their own lives because it becomes too much. So if you can generate a positive attitude with these folks, and create some optimism where they might not otherwise be some -- this is my life to live at this point, and I have to live it the best I can -- then I think it’s helpful, but increasingly, as wounds heal, we have to pay attention to the mental wounds, and that may take longer.
I’ll tell you a story that really touched me, and it’s a story that all veterans can be proud of, because all the services were involved. We had a 19-year old lance corporal in Marjah [Afghanistan] who had a grenade tossed over the roof he was on. It went off very close to his head, and he sustained a significant brain injury, so we evacuated him to Camp Bastion. The Army doctors said, This is a serious brain injury, we can’t treat it, and he’s gonna die if we can’t treat it. There’s two people in the world that can perform this operation, one is in Russia and one is in Bethesda. So the Army and the Air Force generals got together, and they resolved to bring in an Air Force aircraft with a medical team on board along with a lot of other patients they were going to evacuate directly to the states, fly at something less than 1000 feet across Europe, refuel over the UK, and get him to the East Coast. They do all that, and got the kid to Bethesda, where the Navy went to work on him, and saved his life. I just think it’s a marvelous story because no other country could, or I suspect would, do that, for a single life. That kid is out there walking around somewhere today, and he’s probably the luckiest man in the world.
M: When did you know it was time to leave the military?
BS: You’re never really totally ready to get out, but you just know when it’s the right time. My family liked it [in Texas], I liked it there, and that led me to the decision to get out.
JC: There’s an important element there, and I give credit to the U.S. government and its policies today. If you were injured coming out of World War II or Vietnam, you would be immediately discharged after they were treated. We now give people the option. If you want to stay, stay as long as you want. You’ve not going to adversely affect the deployment cycle. We can use your experience, put you in a schoolhouse, have you teach others, based on what you’ve learned. You’ll know when it’s time to go, and when it is, we’ll shake your hand, wish you the best, and help you where we can. One of our Marines had his leg blown off and his number one goal in life was to get off the helicopter in Fallujah where he was evacuated from, and he did it 25 months later.
BS: We’re not just dumping Marines out either. We make sure they go through medical discharge when it’s time for them, we make sure the VA is set up good for them, make sure they’re going to school or have that job, we make sure they’re totally prepared to get out. We don’t want some guy to get out of the Marine Corps not knowing what he wants to do. We want them to be successful.
M: You’ve made it point to stay connected with your fellow Marines during your transition, and now help others do the same.
BS: I keep in contact with a lot of my old Marines. They call me up, and ask me for advice to this day, and I help them out as much as I can. That’s networking right there. And if I don’t have the answer, hey, give me a day or so and I’ll find out and get back to you. When I was ready to get out, I had people I knew to help me out with whatever I needed help. Knowing who to ask and when to ask.
JC: Without trying to sound vain, the Marine Corps may be better at that than anyone else, simply because of our size. So many Marines know each other and you know who are the really good guys, and in some ways you can do a person that owns a company or runs a business a favor: “Hey, you may want to grab this guy because he’s a hot ticket.” That connection does stay, you’ve got the Marine Corps League all over the country, you’ve got Marine Corps associations, you’ve got veteran organizations, battalions have reunions and that kind of thing. I wish more people took more advantage of it. I just have a sense that not every Marine is willing to step forward and expose themselves and say, “Hey, I need a direction here, and I need a good job, and you might be the person to help me.”
BS: I agree with you, sir. Some are just too proud, some are just “I’m done with with the Marine Corps,” but they don’t know what they’re missing out on.
When [veterans] come out of the Marine Corps, they don’t have the camaraderie they had, someone they can just talk to -- or they don’t know where to get it. That’s one thing the Semper Fi Fund does, they give you a phone call: “How are you doing? Do you need something? Can we help you out with anything?” They check up on their wounded guys like that. I’ve had Marines call me up and say, “Hey, I’ve been having a bad day… can we just talk or have lunch sometime?” “You know what, I got something better. Let’s go out hunting for the weekend.” Just getting them out and talking to them is good for them.
JC: Part of it is that you’ve got to be ready for transition, you’ve got to tell yourself you’re going to do this and in the end, it’s all going to be good. I was more prepared to be retired than my wife was, quite frankly. I saw excitement and opportunity and things I wanted to do with the rest of my life. She was sitting reading a book about three months after we left, and she closed the book, set it down on the table, and said, “You know this is not working.” I was smart enough to stop and listen to her, and say, “Okay, honey, what part of it is not working?” And she started to tear up and she said, “Three months ago I was helping our wounded, I was helping out families, I knew everything going on in the Marine Corps. Today I’m doing nothing like that and I’m sitting here reading a book.” So okay, we’ve got to get you more engaged, get some non-paying board jobs, some volunteer job, something to get you out of the house.
I also think there’s a level of optimism that has to be maintained. You gotta think like a defensive back. You can’t sweat that you just got burned on a 60-yard pass play. What comes next? You got wins and losses, but you have to say I’m a good person, I’m going to make this work, and here’s what I have to do next to get through it.
M: Any last words of advice for military families going through transition?
BS: Me and my family has been through a lot, including stuff that I don’t talk about a lot. Just take it one issue at a time, think about stuff before you actually commit, and do what you have to do to survive. Be there for your family, be proactive in everything. No matter how bad it gets, there’s always a way out of it. When it comes to PTSD, when it comes to finances, when it comes to marriage issues, child issues, there’s a way out of it. You just have to find that way, ask around, do what you have to do, and get through it.
JC: I think our wounded warriors should be very proud. They’ve living a different life perhaps than the one they envisioned, but their dues are paid in full. They did not have to join the service, they chose to do so in defense of this great country,and they were wounded. It should be a matter of pride to them, though I realize the day-to-day grind can be very difficult. They should realize they stepped forward at a time when their country needed them to do so, they served, they’ve borne the battle scars of all of that. There’s not many people in the room who can say that. I’m delighted that our fellow Americans continue to choose to help them.
There should always be this element of pride, that they served just like our forefathers have served down through the years, and now they’re a part of that legacy.