- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Chris Marvin was a fourth-generation Army combat veteran. Proud of his country and his heritage, the Bloomington, Illinois, native responded to the call of duty, serving in Afghanistan as a Blackhawk pilot and platoon leader. Then, one fateful day in 2004, his helicopter crashed along the Pakistan border. Mr. Marvin broke his ankle, both legs, right arm, the right side of his face and experienced permanent damage to both knees, hips and shoulders.

Mr. Marvin would spend the next four years enduring 10 major surgeries and thousands of hours of physical therapy. During his convalescence — and subsequent retirement from the Army — he saw firsthand how the general public views injured veterans. “Usually they see us as charity cases or a group of people that deserves pity,” Mr. Marvin said.

But being pitied was the last thing on Mr. Marvin’s mind. He fought back from his injuries, earned his MBA and saw the call to help others like himself after a mysterious check for $500 arrived in his mailbox one day from a veterans nonprofit. He was convinced it was time to give back.

Mr. Marvin joined a nonprofit called Got Your 6, with the aim of giving his fellow veterans the kind of support that he himself received.

“A lot of people talk about veterans coming back from combat and how weary they are,” Mr. Marvin said, “but I like to refer to veterans as ‘battle-tested’ and ready to come back. I think that most veterans have that attitude, especially when they’re in the military. I think the disconnect is sometimes the way that people look upon us. If a veteran were to lose his or her confidence in their ability to take on the next challenge, it’s a lot less of who they are and what they’ve done and a lot more because of the expectations of what society is holding for them. So what we try to do at Got Your 6 as a cultural change mechanism is we talk about the idea of raising expectations for veterans.”

Mr. Marvin and other veterans are in the unique position of being able to empathize with combat trauma and recovery. He saw his mission as being larger than himself, inspiring others to bounce back from the brink. At the same time, he often takes a tough love approach.

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“As a wounded veteran myself,” Mr. Marvin said, “I could walk up to any other person who was dealing with their own pity or sorrow and tell them to get off the couch, stop playing video games, get back in their community and find the sense of purpose that we know that they’re looking for.”

When asked what he might say to a homeless veteran seeking spare change on the street, Mr. Marvin again emphasizes an approach of sympathy combined with motivation.

“I would deal with them as an individual who is dealing with a problem that is most likely disassociated with their veterans status,” he said. “I believe that all homeless people deserve a roof over their head, whether they’ve served in the military or not. And if there is a homeless veteran, it’s very unlikely that his homelessness is caused by his veteran status. It’s more likely caused by something else, maybe substance abuse or loss of a job or a mental health problem, which are the same typical factors that cause homelessness for nonveterans.”

It goes back to his belief that veterans are battle-tested.

“The fact that they’re a veteran would only lead me to say once you get back on your feet, I would have higher expectations of you than someone else,” Mr. Marvin said.

Got Your 6 has gotten some recent extra publicity thanks to the Twitter hashtag campaign #IAmUnbroken, so named for the new Angelina Jolie-directed film “Unbroken,” which tells the real-life tale of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who served in World War II, was shot down over the Pacific and endured 47 days on a life raft only to be detained and tortured in a Japanese POW camp before finally returning home to his family at the war’s end. In civilian life, Zamperini dedicated his life to helping others.

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“I’m a big fan of Laura Hillenbrand’s book and was really pleased to learn that it was being made into a film,” Mr. Marvin said. “It’s a story that needs to be told. It’s also a story that resonates specifically with me and my personal story. I feel that resilience and growth after trauma has been a very significant influence on my life, and when we heard from our partners at NBC/Universal that there was this hashtag #IAmUnbroken campaign going on, we felt that we could contribute to it by sharing my story and the fact that what has happened to me in the sense of being ‘unbroken,’ if you will, has led to the formation of Got Your 6.”

Like Zamperini, who died this past July at age 97, Mr. Marvin also ran track in college while at Notre Dame (Zamperini went to USC), although he says that running and jumping are about the only things he can no longer do. Mr. Marvin was able to see a screening of the film about Zamperini, which opens to the general public on Christmas Day, hosted by Tom Brokaw. “I think it’s an incredible statement of resilience; it’s an incredible statement of who we are as Americans and who the Greatest Generation was,” Mr. Marvin says. “People didn’t have to endure everything that Louis did to come back and be better for it.

“Tom Brokaw said there’s just so many more of these stories. And I think stories like Louis’ are in every conflict that we’ve had — in Vietnam, in Korea and in Iraq and Afghanistan for sure. It’ just a question of how much of an appetite does the American public have for that versus a story of a person who is really down on their luck. And we’re hoping, we’re betting on the idea that Americans have more of an appetite for the growth and resilience stories.”

Still, veteran suicide remains soberingly high. Got Your 6 works with mental health experts to help veterans deal with trauma and steer them away from self-harm. “If you watch the movie, resilience is the movie,” Mr. Marvin said. “Not only can someone have difficulty because of their time in the military, because of a trauma they’ve endured — whether it was in the military or not — but we can also grow from it. They can bounce back from it and become stronger because of it. So that’s kind of where we frame all of our work that would relate to mental health or suicide prevention.”

Mr. Marvin stresses that American veterans are as diverse as our population from all walks of life. “I think that sometimes gets overlooked: Veterans are people too,” he said. “And I always felt that despite the fact that my leg literally was broken for two and a half years, that in general I was ‘unbroken.’ It’s up to me to figure out what I’m going to make of that situation. It’s up to me to figure out what my path forward is, and if anything that happens to you seems detrimental, if you can make something good out of it, then it’s actually a benefit to your life. And so as I look back over the last decade, almost everything I have and everything I’ve done has come from the fact that I had a very significant change in the trajectory of my life when I was wounded in Afghanistan.”

His own story could serve as the template for a motivational motion picture in the future. However, ever humble, Mr. Marvin laughs it off, saying, “They won’t be making a movie about me anytime soon.”

To get involved in Mr. Marvin’s campaign, visit www.GotYour6.org.

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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