This guest blog was written by karl palmer of cohort 030

As I sit here with racing thoughts over my morning coffee awoken by the nightmares of a life gone by, a thought comes to mind. The common occurrence of a grey shirt in my life when I needed it the most.

As a child, my dreams were not like most. I did not want to be an astronaut, or a sports player, or a fireman. I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to protect those that could not protect themselves. I wanted to serve.

When I became old enough to register for the Selective Service Act I was excited. I took the ASVAB and readied myself to see what Uncle Sam could offer me.

While I was waiting for an Army recruiter to talk to me, a slick Navy recruiter seized the opportunity and invited me into his office. I wasn’t interested in anything that floated on the surface and as soon as he mentioned submarines I was sold.

My trip to MEPS was filled with excitement and anxiety as I wondered what possibilities lay ahead. The early morning duck walk, poking, and prodding was a blur up until the colorblindness test. Regardless of ASVAB score I was now limited in my job selection with a 15% colorblind result. I didn’t care I pressed on and was processed through.

My recruiter said congratulations and handed me my first grey shirt which said “Welcome Aboard”

I was filled with a sense of purpose and excitement.

The time came to “ship-out” to basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes.

Throughout my career and each command, I would report to after that, I would be given a grey shirt. Some said NAVY others had the name of the command I was attached to. But, they all had the same purpose and thing in common. I was a cog in the big machine of something greater.

Fast forward to 2008. Close to nine and half years in, too many sea deployments to list, a trip to Afghanistan with the Army, and an early retirement at the age of 28 due to injuries.

I am now no longer a cog in the machine… Yes, I am a father of two wonderful children and a husband. But I feel adrift, lost… I feel this way for a long time.

I search for meaning and purpose… accepting the labels and title of “Disabled” is not an easy one. Asking for help is even harder. 

I finally suck up my pride and register with Wounded Warrior Project and I am approached about attending a program they call Project Odyssey. I sign up and almost don’t go. Getting on the plane was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. No one wants to go camping for a week with strangers and talk about your feelings around a camp fire. But I arrive and soon realize this group of guys are in the same boat as me. We share, we cry, we bond, we grow. 

At the closing of the trip we are awarded… you guessed it a grey shirt! It is only given to those that complete the course. With new friendships and a renewed outlook on life I return home.

The “Honeymoon” period does not last long though before the backslide into darkness comes. Living in a rural area is not conducive for any relationships outside said area, and I soon find myself searching again.

Adrift and lost again… Going through motions of playing Mr. Mom and husband, I miss the sea, I miss Afghanistan… yes I miss it - the smell of diesel and gun powder. I search for meaning and understanding in god, religion, life, but nothing seems to click. I hit a new low. What is my purpose, why am I drawing breath when there are so many worthier than I six feet under the ground?

I feel like I've failed.

Then just when I'm all out of options and googling whether or not my VGLI will cover suicide, I get a phone call. “Hey brother! This is Jake from Save a Warrior, how the hell are you?” I don’t know this guy from Adam, but soon I’m telling him everything. He tells me to come out to California and I will not regret it.

I buy the plane ticket and arrive apprehensive and closed off at first. I am greeted at the airport with a hug, love, and a "welcome brother!" I am thrown off by the affection.

As I go through Jake’s program with fellow veterans and brothers from all branches and walks of life I realize that I am not alone. I do have a purpose. I am worthy of the air I breathe. I forge new friendships that will last a lifetime and have a new outlook and lease on life. I feel refreshed, happy, full of life and ready to go out into the world to kick some ass again. No longer held back or pulled down by the demons. 

The closing ceremony is one I’ll always remember. A silent walk into the labyrinth to be joined by brothers in the center, that on day one was filled with tears and runny noses, is now replaced by laughter, smiles, and an embrace. 

Upon completion of the week we are given… you guessed it a grey shirt with the Save A Warrior emblem on it. I shall cherish this and wear it with pride as it marks a huge change in my life. I am now part of a brotherhood that is there day or night, high or low, a phone call away. I am not alone.

Filled with a new sense of purpose. I return home looking for something that I can do to give back. To serve again. One of my brothers mentioned Team Rubicon, so I decide why not.

I register and knock out the training and then see that there is an event down in Detroit. “Come earn your grey shirt” they say. I don’t hesitate. The first morning of training to become a Sawyer I am handed my grey shirt and put to work. As each day passes friendships are forged and I feel refreshed. I see the faces of the community we are helping and I am filled with pride and a sense of purpose. I am contributing again. I am a cog in the machine serving a purpose for the greater good.

As I return home I am on a high… yes they warned us about Post Op blues, and it hits. I feel guilty about Ops I can’t attend. But after a talk with a few good friends and the great leaders above me I realize that you do what you can when you can and that's what matters. 

Winter is knocking at the door and an event comes up on the calendar. Outward Bound is doing a week long camping trip for Team Rubicon at Joshua Tree. I don’t hesitate and within a month I am camping and hiking with fellow Tribe members in some beautiful country, reflecting and learning, as well as growing. I find more peace for my soul and my life in a desert of all places. I forge new friendships and leave feeling refreshed again. Upon completion… you guessed it a grey shirt with Outward Bounds quote. “There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, we will be unwilling to settle for less.” -Kurt Hahn

Throughout all of this there are high and low points. Major life changes in relationships and health. But one thing is constant. The grey shirt mentality of “Getting shit done!” I no longer look for excuses or reasons not to do things or hide behind conflicts in schedules. I press on, tired or not, serving others is worth it and fulfilling.

So, as I look back and upon my collection of grey shirts one thing comes to mind. Each one is a reminder that people care, life matters, and we are all a part of something greater than ourselves. Sometimes we just need someone or something else great to show us the way.

So now that the coffee is gone and the sun is up the story must come to a close. A new day awaits and there is shit to get done!