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In battling PTSD, the strength of the wolf is the pack

Carol Bentzlin had been married 13 months to the day when two Marine casualty officers showed up on her doorstep.

The year was 1991, but Carol remembers it like it was yesterday.

"I ran," Carol said. "I just got up and I ran down the hall."

She ran, but there was no place to hide.

Her husband, Marine Cpl. Stephen Bentzlin, had been killed in action during Operation Desert Storm.

Carol said she was given a $25,000 survivor's benefit and 30 days to move from base housing.

Life went on.

"But there was just something wrong, and I didn't know what it was," she said. "I drank quite a bit and managed to really make a mess of my life."

"You can feel so isolated and completely misunderstood," she said.

About three years ago, out of the blue she received a call from Desert Storm veteran Bill Covington inviting her to attend a reunion of Marines who had fought with the Marine Corps' 3rd Light Armored Infantry/Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. The battalion is commonly referred to as the Wolfpack. Covington is the association's treasurer.

"Come to find out, she's living in a 1968 single-wide trailer, no water, no heat, no air-conditioner and basically just surviving," Covington said.

That was unacceptable.

"We were able to raise funds through the Wolfpack and through some charitable donations to be able to go over there, put a hot water heater in, update her electrical system and put in a brand new heating and air-conditioning system," Covington said.

They also flew her to New Orleans to join them for a Wolfpack association reunion where the battalion paraded through the streets. Carol joined them as a guest of honor, riding high in a horse-drawn carriage.

Carol says it was a life-changing experience.

"They bring me joy in the most tragic part of my life," she said. "All these people have shown me so much humanity and how much people can care. My husband gave his life and these are the people who understand. They completely get it."

Some of them were even there when it happened.

"I've spent time where I've held one of these extremely brave Marines in my arms while they cried and told me about that night," she said. "They had never spoken of it in over 28 years, were never going to, but he told me everything. We help each other.

"It's like I have 300 spare husbands. If I need something, all I have to do is pick up the phone."

Words to live by

The strength of the pack is the wolf.

The strength of the wolf is the pack.

Those words by Rudyard Kipling have become the battalion motto and have inspired decades of Wolfpack Marines as they have gone off to combat.

Now the words are proving just as important to Wolfpack association veterans, active duty Marines and Navy corpsmen as they battle an invisible enemy that can be just as deadly — post-traumatic stress disorder.

Horrors of war can be unimaginable. The inner demons that come later can be worse.

Protecting their brothers in arms from those demons and taking care of the families of Marines who didn't make it back has become the mission of the Wolfpack association.

Association President Chris Sanford, 47, of Edmond, reports that the group has never lost an active member of the nearly 2,000-member association to suicide in the 10 years that it has been up and running.

The Wolfpack has lost more than two dozen Marines before it could entice them to become active in the association, but they've lost none after they became active.

"Get them there. I will ensure Marines live," Sanford said. "In 10 years, I haven't been proven wrong. ... There ain't no VA program that can say that."

The association's accomplishment is remarkable, with the U.S. Veterans Administration reporting more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year from 2008 to 2016.

It's even more noteworthy considering the intense combat and casualties seen by the Wolfpack — a quick strike light armored reconnaissance unit that is often the first into battle.

PTSD

"Imagine taking all the blood pumping through your veins and putting it in your stomach, and taking the puke in your stomach and pumping it through your veins," Sanford said. "You're raw. You're angry. You hurt and you don't know why and you don't know how to stop it."

The emotional scars of war are so horrific that most Marines can't talk about them with just anybody, he said. Often they can't even talk to family members.

"When I came back from Somalia, my wife asked me one night what was bothering me and I was dumb enough to open up my mouth for 20 minutes and ... say the things that were within my head," Sanford said. "Her jaw hit the ground and we didn't talk Marine Corps for five years after that — not one word."

So how do Wolfpack association members fight such a powerful, invisible enemy?

They fight the Marine way, Sanford said.

A Marine is trained to do whatever is necessary to help a fellow Marine, up to and including giving up his or her own life, Sanford said. And a Marine will go even beyond that to help a family member of a fallen Marine.

Left alone, a Marine may succumb to inner demons, but give that warrior an opportunity to help another Marine or the family member of a fallen Marine and nothing can stop them from accomplishing their mission, Sanford said.

The association creates that opportunity, he said.

Every two years, the association organizes a huge reunion. This year's reunion will be June 6-9 in Las Vegas, with a side bus trip June 7 to the Wolfpack battalion's training base in Twentynine Palms, California.

In the months leading up to the reunion, association organizers use social media and their network of Marine buddies to locate Gold Star family members of fallen Marines so they can invite them to attend — promising to pay their way so there won't be a financial hardship.

"Having these Gold Stars attend is critical," Sanford said. "The key to the association's success is the tremendous desire of every Marine to do everything in their power to help family members of Marines that didn't make it back."

"Generally for every one family member that shows up, you are going to get a minimum of five to eight Marines that come that would normally not come to these events just to see them," he said.

And when they get together, "magic happens."

Marine magic

Sanford tells the story of Marine Carl Wickline, who had the grim duty of placing Staff Sgt. Michael Conner's remains in a body bag after Conner was killed in a light armored vehicle collision.

"Carl knew Conner well and knew he had a young son," Sanford said.

Marines carry a Ka-Bar combat knife, which is as meaningful to them as a Samurai Sword is to Japanese warrior, Sanford said.

"When Carl was praying over him, he said, 'I know you have a 10-year-old son and your son would want this,'" Sanford said. "So he took his Ka-Bar. He said, 'I promise you that I will get this to your son and I will tell him what a great Marine you were.'"

Carl carried the burden of that unfulfilled promise for years before he was finally able to meet up with that son at a Wolfpack reunion and return the knife, Sanford said.

"We had Conner's son come and Carl gave him back his daddy's blade," Sanford said. "And that son was a United States Marine.

"It sounds weird, but that's the baggage that they carry and we give them the opportunity, when we put everyone together, to drop that load and just let it go. And it works."

Covington's story

Covington, the association's treasurer, tells his own story.

One of Covington's brothers in combat was Sgt. Garett Mongrella, who was killed in a battle to reclaim Khafji, Saudi Arabia, from Iraqi forces.

Covington said he had borrowed a cassette tape from Sgt. Mongrella the night before Mongrella was killed. Covington said he knew his buddy had a wife, Kim, and a small child, so he made it part of his life's mission when he got home to locate Kim and get the cassette tape back to her.

About 18 years later, Covington said he typed Kim's name onto a social media site and got a match. The two made contact and Covington mailed her the cassette.

"Kim was deeply touched to find there were Marines out there who care for her husband's memory the same way she does and has become an active participant in association reunions," Covington said.

Emotional roller coaster

Kathy Baucus is the widow of Cpl. Phillip E. Baucus, who was killed in 2006 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

She described the reunions as an emotional roller coaster, with plenty of laughter and tears for both the Marines and Gold Star family members.

"It helps the healing process on both sides," she said. "They want to make sure that we're okay because they weren't supposed to leave a guy behind but they had to, and since they had to, they want to make sure his responsibilities are taken care of.... The guys need to know that we're okay and that ... we don't hold them accountable for not bringing ours back."

And family members of fallen Marines get to find out how deeply their fellow Marines cared about them, she said.

There is satisfaction in knowing "the guys that he gave his life for are living their lives the way they should," Baucus said.

"I call them my marshmallows," she said. "They've been toasted on the outside, but they're nice and gooey on the inside and they're just — they want to love and be loved."

Covington and Sanford said it's not always easy to get Marines and Gold Star family members together because of the emotional baggage carried by each, but witnessing how reunions have changed lives has shown them it is worth the effort.

Sanford said there are some things that only another Marine can understand and it has been his experience that the tough love of a fellow Marine is the only effective way to stop a downward spiral.

"I will not fail another brother. I can't. I'm not allowed to. It's not even a thought," he said. "Sometimes that's what it takes for both of them to come out of this. That's what we've developed with this thing of ours."

"When family members lose a Marine, they think about that every day," Sanford said.

The same is true of the Marine's military buddies who survive, he said.

For family members, learning they aren't the only ones who felt crushed can be life affirming, Sanford said.

"It validates them," he said. "It's like, 'Somebody else loved my Marine, too.'"

INFO BOXPTSD is a relentless enemy, but veterans of the Marine Corps' 3rd Light Armored Infantry/Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion have discovered that regularly reuniting veterans with family members of the Marines that didn't make it back changes lives and effectively combats suicide. Donations to assist the Wolfpack association in flying Gold Star family members to attend these reunions may be made by visiting the Wolfpackassociation.org website and following directions obtained by clicking on the donation tab.

Related Photos
<strong>Carol Bentzlin, widow of Marine Cpl. Stephen Bentzlin, was invited to attend a reunion of Wolfpack Marine veterans in New Orleans where she participated in a parade and rode in a horse-drawn carriage. She said she found the humanity shown by these veterans to be a life-changing experience. [PROVIDED]</strong>

Carol Bentzlin, widow of Marine Cpl. Stephen Bentzlin, was invited to attend a reunion of Wolfpack Marine veterans in New Orleans where she participated in a parade and rode in a horse-drawn carriage. She said she found the humanity shown by these veterans to be a life-changing experience....

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-c8f2becf0064ee610c4c3fd1cde783c6.jpg" alt="Photo - Carol Bentzlin, widow of Marine Cpl. Stephen Bentzlin, was invited to attend a reunion of Wolfpack Marine veterans in New Orleans where she participated in a parade and rode in a horse-drawn carriage. She said she found the humanity shown by these veterans to be a life-changing experience. [PROVIDED] " title=" Carol Bentzlin, widow of Marine Cpl. Stephen Bentzlin, was invited to attend a reunion of Wolfpack Marine veterans in New Orleans where she participated in a parade and rode in a horse-drawn carriage. She said she found the humanity shown by these veterans to be a life-changing experience. [PROVIDED] "><figcaption> Carol Bentzlin, widow of Marine Cpl. Stephen Bentzlin, was invited to attend a reunion of Wolfpack Marine veterans in New Orleans where she participated in a parade and rode in a horse-drawn carriage. She said she found the humanity shown by these veterans to be a life-changing experience. [PROVIDED] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-88b43c6475b71a17416c5ea9467f2bfb.jpg" alt="Photo - Chris Sanford, president of the Wolfpack association, looked like this back in his Marine Corps active duty days in Mogadishu, Somalia. Sanford now lives in Edmond. " title=" Chris Sanford, president of the Wolfpack association, looked like this back in his Marine Corps active duty days in Mogadishu, Somalia. Sanford now lives in Edmond. "><figcaption> Chris Sanford, president of the Wolfpack association, looked like this back in his Marine Corps active duty days in Mogadishu, Somalia. Sanford now lives in Edmond. </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-e887562dac55de283bf23f43785fd2f9.jpg" alt="Photo - Marine Cpl. Stephen Bentzlin and Marine Sgt. Garett Mongrella were among seven crew members of Red 2, a LAV-25 vehicle, who were killed in action in January 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. One crew member survived. A Marine is pictured showing his respects at the site where crew members lost their lives. " title=" Marine Cpl. Stephen Bentzlin and Marine Sgt. Garett Mongrella were among seven crew members of Red 2, a LAV-25 vehicle, who were killed in action in January 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. One crew member survived. A Marine is pictured showing his respects at the site where crew members lost their lives. "><figcaption> Marine Cpl. Stephen Bentzlin and Marine Sgt. Garett Mongrella were among seven crew members of Red 2, a LAV-25 vehicle, who were killed in action in January 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. One crew member survived. A Marine is pictured showing his respects at the site where crew members lost their lives. </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-6fe5b221c33b5e58e1eaad13c3182752.jpg" alt="Photo - More than two decades after Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Conner Sr. lost his life in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, his son, Michael Conner Jr., was presented with his Ka-Bar Marine combat knife during a Wolfpack association reunion. " title=" More than two decades after Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Conner Sr. lost his life in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, his son, Michael Conner Jr., was presented with his Ka-Bar Marine combat knife during a Wolfpack association reunion. "><figcaption> More than two decades after Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Conner Sr. lost his life in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, his son, Michael Conner Jr., was presented with his Ka-Bar Marine combat knife during a Wolfpack association reunion. </figcaption></figure>
Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›

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