An Ally in the Battle at Home

The Northwoods River News
By David Chrisinger
30 Jul 13

By Andy Hildebrand

Northwoods River News

This is the story of two childhood friends who, in a time of great uncertainty for the United States, chose two very different paths but ended up marching together in lockstep.

After graduating from Rhinelander High School in 2005, David Chrisinger played college football while Brett Foley trained for war.

The friendship that would one day span oceans began simply enough, many years before.

“Brett and I played football and baseball together,” Chrisinger said. “When we got into junior high and high school we played paintball together. His family owned all this land and we could set up courses and barriers and played all the time.”

“We were always playing sports and hung out together through high school,” Foley said. “We went to parties and had a lot of classes together. It was a lot of fun.”

While the two focused on sports and the usual high school drama, America was expanding its presence in the Middle East. Although still teenagers, the two paid close attention.

“It was a really strange time to be a senior in high school,” Chrisinger said. “It was the summer of ’04 and we had just invaded Iraq, but we didn’t know yet that there were no WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). There was a lot of patriotic fervor and there was kind of that call to serve.”

Only a few years removed from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the culture surrounding the conflict in the Middle East was largely supportive, especially for two high school athletes who loved playing paintball.

“All these patriotic songs were coming out on the radio and we saw everything going on the news at the time. When you’re 17 and you have no concept of your own mortality, you think nothing bad can happen to you. You want adventure and you want to be a part of something that’s bigger than you. I got caught up in that the same way Brett did. I just had parents who talked me out of it.”

For Foley, the decision to serve came easy.

“A lot of people started enlisting after 9/11,” Foley said. “It was a spur of the moment kind of thing. I didn’t have a whole lot of money to go to college and neither did my parents. One day I said to myself, ‘Damn, the military sounds like a good option.’ I went down to the recruiter that day and signed up.”

As high school was ending, the two prepared to go their separate ways. Chrisinger was off to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to play football, and Foley was headed to boot camp.

“The summer after we graduated, I threw a party for him right before he left,” Chrisinger said. “The two of us crawled out on the roof to talk for a little while, mostly about the past. I didn’t see him much after that.”

Foley left for boot camp and Chrisinger moved into the dorms at UWSP. Both had moved away from home for the first time, but under very different circumstances. For Chrisinger, football presented its own set of challenges. After some self-reflection though, he realized they paled in comparison to what his friend was going through.

“I wrote him a letter while I was in two-a-days at football at Stevens Point,” he said. “I wrote him a letter complaining about how hot it was and how they were making us do the county fair drill that was a bunch of stations with pushups and jumping jacks. It was a tough conditioning drill.

“He wrote me back a letter while he was in boot camp and said they have something like that but it lasts four hours and you have to run six miles afterwards.”

For Chrisinger, the realization that his childhood friend was serving in a way that, at one time, he envisioned himself taking part in was hard to swallow.

“I felt guilty about my decision for years,” he said. After Brett joined, we found out there were no WMDs and all this terrible stuff was going on over there. I looked back and could think it was a good thing I didn’t end up doing that, but he was already living it.”

Foley said for him the Marines were an easy choice. He wanted to serve with the best. When it came to finding his niche in the service though, the process proved to be a little more complicated.

Foley began his service training to be a part of a presidential security outfit but requested to deploy into more of a combat role.

From there, he was stationed all over the world, including stops in Cuba, Israel and Spain.

While serving, Foley thought about his friends back home, like Chrisinger, who were pursuing degrees.

“I felt a disconnect,” he said. “I always wanted to do the college thing and be with my friends. I knew I had something to do and needed to do it though. You disconnect yourself from a lot of your family and friends to be able to do what you have to do, but I was homesick a lot.”

He served in Iraq, but when the fight took him to Afghanistan, it was like nothing he’d ever experienced before.

“Afghanistan was a lot of shooting and running around and chaos,” Foley said. “It was a really hostile place. Everyone remembers the combat because it’s dangerous. There’s the chance of losing your life.”

Between tours, he had the opportunity to return home to Rhinelander for stretches of time. He’d spend those days with family and friends, trying to forget what awaited him overseas.

Each trip home made it harder for Foley to separate his job in the Marines from his life at home.

“You get two or three days left in your leave and you realize that you’re not going to see these people for a long while.

“You kind of have to dissociate yourself from friends and family when you’re over there. You have a job to do and you need to keep from being distracted from what you have to do. For me, that happened until the end of my deployment.”

When Foley’s final tour of duty came to an end, he returned to Wisconsin where his wife, Whitney, was waiting with their new dog, Leelah. The trip back from Afghanistan was one he never thought he’d make.

“I was in awe,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen. A couple times in Afghanistan I thought this was it. I thought I wasn’t going to make it out of there.”

Reassimilating to civilian life proved to be a battle in its own right. Foley was experiencing post-traumatic stress and didn’t have any real methods to cope.

“It took me a couple of months to readjust and realize I’m really home,” he said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it. My wife was frustrated with me. I didn’t have intense nightmares but I’d drink and I’d think about it frequently. Certain smells would remind me of something we got into over there. It was emotional. I was up and down. I was angry and sad.”

Post-traumatic stress is common for returning soldiers. Tim Bahr runs peer support recovery programs in northern Wisconsin through the Veterans’ Association. He served as a Marine for more than 40 years, including 23 years of active duty. His last tour was in Iraq in 2006, and he’s no stranger to post-traumatic stress. He said there’s still a stigma attached to it.

“Vets are less than one percent of the population,” Bahr said. “The majority of the population doesn’t care and don’t understand, which is a big struggle in our groups. What people need to understand is it’s a normal reaction to an abnormal situation you find yourself in, whether it’s slamming your hand in a car door or having your buddy disintegrate in front of you or pull a dead body out of a car.”

Meanwhile, Chrisinger had gone through changes in his own life. He got married and moved to Washington, D.C. The two friends hadn’t been in touch for some time but a late night online chat changed all that.

“I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and one night I saw he was on Facebook,” Chrisinger said. “I hadn’t talked to him in a long time and my wife was pregnant. I couldn’t sleep and I was up at 1 a.m. on the computer. I saw Brett was on there and started chatting him up and eventually the conversation got serious. He opened up to me that he was having a hard time. He couldn’t sleep and he was anxious all the time. He was having trouble turning off that hyper alertness.”

Foley had been home already for a few months, but Chrisinger had no idea. It didn’t matter though. He jumped at the opportunity to be there for his friend.

“I offered myself as an ear to listen and Brett felt comfortable enough to talk to me,” he said. “The next day we talked again, and then again the next day. Eventually, he told me he had written some things about his experiences. He knew I was a writer and asked me to look at some of his stuff.”

They were memories from combat and thoughts he had about his return home. The messages were personal, only meant for him, but for some reason Foley trusted Chrisinger enough to share.

“I felt connected with Dave because there’s not a whole lot of people who really care,” Foley said. “People say support the troops, but he really is interested and cares. He researches topics and is genuinely interested in helping people with their PTSD and readjusting to life at home.”

Chrisinger suddenly found himself wanting to help his friend, but knowing very little about post-traumatic stress. So he did what any writer would.

“I was trying to understand what Brett went through the best I could and eventually I was reading book after book about what it’s like for soldiers’ everyday lives,” he said. “I started to educate myself on PTSD and the science behind it so I could be a better listener for Brett.”

Time went on and the two continued to talk while Chrisinger kept researching post-traumatic stress.

Foley had turned a corner in his own struggle though. He quit drinking and made it a priority to get his life back on track.

“My wife helped me through a lot of that,” he said. “She pointed me in the right direction and talked to me. The dog was great therapy for me too. The contact with the dog was great. It relieved stress and tension. I slipped up quite a few times, not doing what I should do, but eventually I figured it out and set goals for myself.”

Foley had to learn how to live with post-traumatic stress, something that Bahr says is a challenge for all veterans returning from combat.

“We don’t get cured,” he said. “There is no cure. You learn primarily that you’re not alone and learn to accept that it’s not going away. It’s not an abnormal thing and it’s not something to be afraid of.”

Foley set his sights on becoming a police officer. He believes the skill set he learned in the military makes him a fit for the job and, most importantly, it will allow him to continue to help people.

As Foley was working to build a healthy civilian life for himself, Chrisinger continued his research. He had become fascinated with the process veterans go through upon returning from combat. He found a program called “The Mission Continues.” It’s a program designed by veterans that assists in the adjustment process by providing structure and an opportunity to serve through community-based projects. Chrisinger was fascinated by the group’s concept.

“Brett was just starting to get his life back together,” Chrisinger said. “He was feeling better, exercising and wasn’t drinking anymore. He was off his medication. I realized that the program is a lot like what Brett was doing himself. He was training to become a police officer so he could continue to serve.”

Foley thought the structure of “The Mission Continues” made a lot of sense. For him, the key was having something to work toward. This group provided that for veterans.

“I think a big problem with veterans coming home is they don’t know what to do,” Foley said. Everything has been scheduled for so many years. The Mission Continues gives them structure and something to do and goals to work for.”

The hardest part of Foley’s battle with post-traumatic stress was behind him, but Chrisinger still had the collection of Foley’s writing and after discovering “The Mission Continues,” he thought the two could still do some good.

“Around Christmas of last year we kind of had amassed this knowledge about Brett’s experiences and we wanted to find a way to help people with all we’d discovered,” he said. “We started a website to tell his story, but wanted to figure out a way to bring people to the site. It was Brett’s idea to combine the site with fundraising.”

So was born. The site works as a kind of running journal about Foley’s experiences with post-traumatic stress and thoughts Chrisinger has come across through his research.

While the site’s message was there, the two still needed a way to attract readers and raise money at the same time.

“Brett thought we should run a marathon, but I didn’t think that was enough, so I said, ‘What about 50?’,” Chrisinger said. “I expected him to say that’s crazy, but he jumped right in and said he would run it with me.”

The ultramarathon, a 50-mile trek, is not something that can be done on a whim. They decided to run in December though and picked a race in October, giving them 10 months to prepare.

They set a fundraising goal of $10,000 which would be donated to “The Mission Continues” upon completion of the race.

Foley said while the race is a challenge, it doesn’t compare to the fight soldiers go through with post-traumatic stress. That’s why he hopes the website can do some good.

“If we can change one person’s life, then it’s worth it,” he said. “That’s our goal. There’s been a lot of reaction already and emails from soldiers. Even some of the guys I deployed to Afghanistan with told me we’ve got a good thing going. They can relate to the stuff and it’s helping.”

The process has brought the two childhood friends closer than ever. They’re working to benefit a cause they both believe in, and Chrisinger said there’s no end in sight.

“Their motto is ‘Find renewed strength and purpose,’ and that’s exactly what it does,” he said. “We both feel very deeply that it’s something we have to do. This whole experience will give both of us closure.”

When the race is over, Chrisinger plans to continue his work. He’d like to take his experience and Foley’s writing to the next level by turning it into a book. If that happens, he said any money the book generated would be sent to “The Mission Continues.”

“It would be wonderful if someone was interested in this story,” Chrisinger said. “We’ve already got this incredible archive and just last week, we had 2,000 unique visitors to the site, so word is getting out. Brett’s story is one of redemption. People sometimes think veterans are to be feared. That’s why this experience is so valuable.”

Although he lives in Madison now, when Foley completes his law enforcement training, he’s planning on moving back to northern Wisconsin. That’s where he used to play paintball with Chrisinger growing up before the call to duty took him around the world.

Two different friends who took two very different paths have somehow ended up with the same goal in mind. Running 50 miles is one part of that process, but it isn’t the endgame. For both of them, the mission continues.

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