EXCLUSIVE: Marine Veteran Injured Fighting ISIS in Syria says He Was “Betrayed” by the Service
A former Marine artilleryman says he was neglected and unjustly treated by the branch after suffering brain injuries during a 2017 campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria
Original Article in The EPOCH Times here. [reprinted with permission.]
By J.M. Phelps Updated: May 8, 2023. This is part one of a two-part series.
Javier E. Ortiz wanted nothing more than to become a Marine. And after a humble beginning, he quickly devoted himself to the Corps. In return, he says he was stripped of his dignity and left to fight an uphill battle alone.
Ortiz was born in the Dominican Republic on Dec. 22, 1994. He was a boy when his father left the family to build another. In search of the American dream, Ortiz moved with his mother and older brother to New York in November 2003. A month later, they moved to New Jersey and Ortiz entered the American school system. His mother’s cash stockpile slowly deteriorated as she cared for Ortiz, an older brother, and other family members in the home.
Taking the opportunity to live closer to his grandparents, Ortiz moved with his mother and brother to Kissimmee, Florida, in 2005. As his mother continued to struggle financially, he eventually was adopted by an aunt and uncle in 2007 who began to provide the stable environment he longed for.
Distancing himself from the family’s rocky start in America, Ortiz began to cultivate the idea of serving in the United States Marine Corps as one of “the few, the proud.” “I decided to do everything I had to do to be able to join the Marines,” he told The Epoch Times.
With frequent visits to the local recruiting station between 2012 and 2015, Ortiz grew increasingly motivated to join the Corps. In 2014, he gained naturalization for work, which allowed him to apply for a Social Security card. And in 2015, he was able to do what he had always wanted to do: join the Marine Corps.
Ortiz traveled to Parris Island, South Carolina, for boot camp during the fall-to-winter cycle of 2015. “The first night I arrived, there was a meteor shower, a complete affirmation I was doing the right thing,” he said. Thirteen long weeks of training were “good,” he said. “I adapted well due to my long-awaited goal of protecting my new homeland.”
Not only did Ortiz earn the Marine Corps’ Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, he became a U.S. citizen shortly after completing boot camp. And with that, he was ready to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, even to the point of death. In 2016, Ortiz was attached to the Headquarters element of the 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division in Camp Pendleton, California.
“I was in Headquarters for only a couple of months before 1st Battalion, 11th Marines [1/11], Alpha Battery was rumored for deployment to Syria,” he said. “I was eager to perform, and I was eager to deploy,” he added.
A fellow service member was recovering from a personnel incident and another was attending to an ill family member, opening the door for Ortiz as the next in line to join a combat element he had long desired to be part of.
“Alpha Battery’s reputation was that they were extremely accurate [and] the tip of the spear,” he said. “And within a couple days, I was in formation with Alpha Battery, ready to take that deployment.”
His performance and willingness to deploy on short notice also led to a meritorious promotion from the rank of Private First Class to Lance Corporal in October 2016.
Enter Alpha Battery
Ortiz found himself aboard an amphibious assault ship—the USS Makin Island—in October 2016. 1/11 Alpha Battery was deployed and served as the artillery unit for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).
For the remainder of the year, Ortiz was on the ship “on the other side the world,” he recounted. At the end of 2016, he said, there were finally talks about artillery batteries being dispatched into Syria as ISIS continued to gain large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
Aboard the USS Makin Islan in December 2016, Sergeant Major Ronald Green told those on the ship, “We are here to impose our will onto our enemies—to change their minds or their zip code!” Ortiz recalled.
Prior to Ortiz’s deployment, Special Operations troops had already been in the country since early 2016, training and advising local forces in the fight against ISIS in northern and eastern Syria.
In March 2017, the Washington Post reported that an undisclosed number of Marines assigned to the 11th MEU had secretly entered Syria to “fire artillery in the fight for Raqqa,” the self-identified capital city for ISIS. Ortiz was among that group—and the deployment was said to have marked “a new escalation in the U.S. war in Syria” against hardened terrorists.
It was the first time American forces, other than Special Operations, had entered the Middle Eastern country; and by May, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis would be calling U.S. involvement an “annihilation campaign.”
Ortiz and Alpha Battery began conducting training exercises in Kuwait in early 2017. Prior to being transported to the deadly fight ongoing in Syria, MEU Commander Col. Clay C. Tipton told 1/11 Alpha that “not all of us will make it back,” Ortiz recalled.
“At that point, it clicked, and I began to understand the sacrifices we were all about to make,” Ortiz said. Shortly after, he and his fellow artillerymen were flown into Syria on a Boeing C-17 Globemaster, a massive military transport aircraft.
1/11 Alpha was tasked by the 11th MEU to provide direct and indirect fire in support of the mission to defeat ISIS, dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve, in February 2017. “We were some of the first Marines in Syria, literally the first artillery battery with a mission task,” Ortiz said. “I was part of a series of artillery batteries, being the initiating force to overtake Raqqa.”
“I was the ammo driver for Gun 4, responsible for chucking rounds, ramming rounds, and providing powders [into an M777 howitzer],” he explained. And the first time he pulled the lanyard, he had confirmed kills. To this day, he still has the primer from that round he fired.
Ortiz recalled at least three different occasions where he also was threatened by incoming fire high explosive rounds. “But we were obliterating ISIS,” he said. And after about two weeks, Alpha Battery “pushed outside the wire” beyond the perimeter of a secure base of operations. His unit was required to sign the equivalent of a nondisclosure agreement while outside the wire, stating they would not discuss anything, about their mission in Syria or otherwise, on social media and other channels. This was, and remains, unprecedented, according to service members who spoke to The Epoch Times.
Marine Corps officials were once “tight-lipped” about the 11th MEU’s contributions to the campaign in Syria in 2017. Many of its missions during its deployment were not discussed publicly. But reports quickly surfaced about powerful 155-millimeter shells from M777 howitzers beginning to rain down on Raqqa. One of the secretive details of the onslaught, the number of artillery rounds fired in Syria, was disclosed a year later.
According to Army Sgt. Major John Wayne Troxel, the artillery battalion “fired more rounds in five months in Raqqa, Syria, than any other Marine artillery battalion, or any Marine or Army battalion, since the Vietnam War.” During a Marine Corps Times roundtable discussion in 2018, the former senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said 35,000 artillery rounds were used to kill ISIS terrorists “by the dozens.”
For comparison, 60,000 rounds were fired by the Marines and the Army during the First Gulf War. And during the initial invasion of the Iraq War, over 34,000 artillery shells were fired.
In the time period Ortiz was confirmed to be there, MEU spokesman Maj. Craig Thomas was quoted by USNI News, saying, “The task force executed over 400 fire missions and fired more than 4,500 rounds from M777 howitzers to support our coalition partners fighting to isolate and then liberate Raqqah from ISIS.”
Between March and May 2017, Ortiz participated in the Battle of Raqqa. At one point, a howitzer was fired every hour for 47 consecutive days, Ortiz said. During that time, there was also a 14-hour fire mission where all four [1/11 Alpha howitzers] were active.
“We were shooting a lot,” he said.
The numbers appear to have exceeded what is safe for service members to be exposed to.
Gun 4—the specific howitzer Ortiz was assigned to for Alpha Battery—was the first to fire over 1,000 rounds within the first few weeks of landing in Syria. During one particular mission, his gun ran out of ammunition and had to be resupplied from Kuwait and other countries that held ammo points to continue.
Considered some of the most destructive and powerful artillery rounds in the Marine Corps arsenal, Ortiz said, Gun 4 averaged “25 rounds per day with 12 to 17 of these rounds being charge 5 [the maximum level].”
According to the Fort Sill Public Affairs Office, subject matter experts at the U.S. Army Field Artillery School said “at maximum charge, when all prescribed personal protective equipment [PPE] is used, 12 rounds in 24 hours” is a safe number of rounds for human exposure. All field artillerymen of the Marine Corps are trained at Fort Sill.
Reported and Ignored
After the initial, unprecedented bombardment of Raqqa, 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines (2/10) Fox Battery replaced 1/11 Alpha in May 2017.
On Oct. 20, Raqqa was publicly declared liberated.
The damage was done—not only to the terrorist stronghold and its inhabitants, but also to artillerymen like Ortiz and his fellow Marines.
“A few of us were not feeling well and we brought it up as we noticed,” Ortiz said. “But at the end of the day, none of us wanted to stop, nor could we stop during an active battle; we just wanted to let the officers know we shouldn’t be shooting that much.”
“The order to go above standard operating procedure was above everybody’s pay grade on the ground there,” he continued, adding that “we couldn’t afford to lose anybody, so we just continued to exhaust all our ammo until things went back to normal.”
Early on, Ortiz said he experienced nothing more than a daily headache as a result of the constant firing. Three weeks later, however, abdominal pains began to emerge; all of which he reported. Some of the other soldiers were experiencing the same. Four of the eight artillerymen assigned to his howitzer had problems, he said.
“All that exposure to the blasts messed up our stomachs, our hands were swelling, and nosebleeds were happening,” he said, adding that as a result, he and others were lining up for doses of ibuprofen to combat the growing number of symptoms. None, however, were evaluated to find the root cause.
“Even though we knew something was wrong, each of us continued to give all for the Marines,” he said. “We had trained hard to be there, and nobody wanted to leave.”
On May 16, 2017, Alpha Battery’s deployment came to an end. “When we left, some of us were not well mentally or physically,” Ortiz said. The cause of the psychological and physical issues were unknown, but he began to associate them with the number of rounds he and others were firing.
Invisible Long-term Consequences
According to protocol, the symptoms experienced by these artillerymen should have been addressed by the Marine Corps.
The U.S. Marine Corps Traumatic Brain Injury Program (MARADMINS 294/12), states that “TBI [traumatic brain injury], including mild TBI (also referred to as concussion), is a leading combat injury in conflicts.”
“These injuries can have a significant operational readiness impact as well as potential long-term health consequences,” the document adds.
But when asked, Ortiz said the Marine Corps had not followed through with their protocol. He became confident that the headaches, which were not random, were directly related to the injurious effects of blast overpressure. This, along with other problems, like abdominal pains, nosebleeds, and swelling, were not addressed by the Corps.
Due to repeated exposure to artillery blasts, the men were exposed to an excessive number of concussive events. A concussion is recognized as “an invisible injury” and “requires careful management by leadership and medical personnel,” the protocol states. One of the Marine Corps’ primary preventative measures includes “limiting exposure to potentially concussive events through the proper provision and use of PPE [personal protective equipment].” A second preventive measure includes “minimizing the adverse impact after a concussive exposure occurred, especially by limiting additional exposures during the recovery period.”
According to the policy, “commanders will also ensure that all Marines exposed to a potentially concussive event, whether in garrison or deployed, are placed in a 24-hour SIQ [sick in quarters] status and referred for a medical evaluation; direct their Marines to a medical evaluation in any other concerning circumstance such as repeated exposures to potentially concussive events or patient concerns or behavior that could be related to a concussion or TBI.”
It also states that “all units are required to ensure a post-deployment face-to-face clinical follow-up for all Marines diagnosed with a concussion or TBI during a deployment within one to four months of redeployment.”
But none of that happened for Ortiz or the men of 1/11 Alpha.
Blast TBI and PTSD
In an unclassified report (pdf) released by the Marine Corps in 2019, a blast overpressure (BOP) injury is defined as an “injury caused by the effect of the blast wave on a body.” Gas-filled organs such as the middle ear, lung, brain, and bowel are “most susceptible” to primary blast injuries, the report states. It’s similar to having repeated concussions over and over again.
The Epoch Times spoke to Dr. Robert Beckman, co-founder and executive director of TreatNOW.org, an organization that has had success treating concussion, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder with hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The former Air Force KC-135 pilot and veteran of the Vietnam War said, “the rapid compression and decompression, ricochet and rebound, of air emboli [gas bubbles] from the effect of a blast wave cause damage to the body—even to the point of death.”
Dr. Mary Lee Esty, a leading researcher in the field of neurotherapy, agreed, describing the blast wave injury as “the pressure wave pulsing with lightning speed from zero to massive pressure, as it passes through the entire body, damaging all body tissues.” The repetitive pressure causes cavitation, a process that produces tiny bubbles that damage all body tissues, she explained.
“The longer each exposure, and with multiple exposures,” Esty said, “the more damage occurs in our veterans’ bodies and brains.” And according to her, “The symptoms of damage are invisible, unavoidable, but explainable.” Based on years of neurofeedback treatment and research, she said, recovery of function is possible with appropriate treatment of the symptoms.
For thousands who survive an explosion, blast overpressure injuries that go untreated can lead to long-term behavioral, psychological, and physical degradation, Beckman said. This typically manifests as traumatic brain injury (TBI) and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he explained. “To say that a blast and TBI and PTSD are related is ‘axiomatic,’” he added.
Incidents of TBI, sensory, and musculoskeletal injuries have steadily increased since 2015. In collaboration with the Navy Marine Corps Public Health Center in 2018, Headquarters Marine Corps Force Preservation Directorate began to examine the health of 56 service members from 2/10 Fox – the battalion that took over when Ortiz and his battalion ended their tour in Syria.
Like those in 1/11 Alpha, service members from 2/10 Fox “fired an unusually high number of artillery rounds” during their April to September 2017 deployment to Syria. Unsurprisingly, according to the study, “initial analysis revealed that these [service members] suffered a higher rate of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) than the rest of the artillery community.”
The service members’ post-deployment medical encounters increased exponentially. According to the report, 25 percent were for conditions or illnesses related to overpressure and/or noise exposure. Considering the force as a whole, “approximately 7.5% of the force experiences at least one TBI, and 3% experience multiple TBIs.”
Over 25 percent of combat-deployed Marines will have a previous diagnosis of a sensory injury or TBI. “Once these artillery Marines suffer a TBI, they will suffer, on average, 1.2 additional TBIs per year of service after their initial TBI,” the study indicated.
Ortiz’s Ongoing Battle
Years later, Ortiz continues to experience multiple symptoms and ailments, including abdominal pain, bilateral hearing loss, chest pains, chronic aching, double vision, and posttraumatic headaches. The Epoch Times has viewed Ortiz’s medical file and documentation corroborating his claims.
“I have a lot of physical pain, more than someone 28 years old should be experiencing,” he said.
But the vigor of his ambition to serve his country came at an additional cost. Like thousands of other soldiers before him, he was haunted by the atrocities of war which were vastly underreported at the height of the conflict. Media interest was waning, and the experiences of these men were being forgotten.
In addition to the physical pain caused by his time in Syria, Ortiz said, he soon began to suffer mentally from the experience. Post-deployment, he said, “is when things got a little different” and he had come to the realization that “a lot of people died.” At the time, it was easy for Ortiz to engage in warfare because he was driven to be the best, even if his best would mean others would have to die. He was determined that nothing would stand in the way of the deadly job he was called to do.
Despite decreasing interest in the war after 2016, according to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a London-based nonprofit, 2017 became “the deadliest year for civilians in Syria from explosive weapons.” The deaths are partly attributed to artillery shells fired by U.S. forces. The group discovered that online reporting “captured but a small fraction of the war’s violence.”
A photograph taken in March 2017, and subsequently posted by the Pentagon in May, exhibited Marine M777 howitzers in Syria with a pallet of white phosphorus munitions. According to the Washington Post, “footage shows [white phosphorous] munitions bursting relatively high off the ground over a cluster of buildings [in Raqqa].”
At the time, it was unclear how many ISIS terrorists were in the area, but it is apparent that thousands of civilians were present.
“When it comes in contact with flesh,” the Washington Post reported, white phosphorous “can maim and kill by burning to the bone.” The use of this artillery-delivered agent in a populated area raises serious questions about the protection of civilians, whose deaths clearly contribute to a service member’s mental stability and more.
“Seeing the burning city, those visuals stuck with me,” Ortiz said. “A lot of innocent people passed away and there’s a lot of anger towards me because of it,” he added. “It’s one thing to have PTSD—but it’s another thing to have people communicate things to you.”
As in many other documented cases, hallucinations related to PTSD are commonplace with people returning from war. “People that I killed have communicated to me,” Ortiz said.
“I began seeking therapy when I returned from Syria, but it wasn’t categorized as PTSD right away,” he said. “I was diagnosed with PTSD in September 2017.” According to the National Center for PTSD, up to 20 percent of veterans may experience PTSD, particularly affecting those with a history of war zone deployment. But the diagnosis of PTSD still did not address all the physical health issues he experienced.
To help Ortiz ward off the effects of PTSD, a doctor prescribed multiple medications for Ortiz in 2017. He reports taking “a cocktail of five medications” at one point in time.
“I do not recall very well, but I was definitely on some of them for one or two or three months,” he said. “But my time was coming for eligibility to reenlist, and I couldn’t reenlist if I was on profile [with psychological limitations].”
Making a decision he would later regret, Ortiz began using alcohol in early 2018 to cope with his struggles and open the door to continuing his service to the country. “I started drinking a lot and reenlisted as a functioning alcoholic,” he added.
So just 13 months post-Syria, in July 2018, he reenlisted for four more years. A few months later, he received a Good Conduct Medal. Roughly one year later, in August 2019, Ortiz was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. And years later, he received orders to the Marine Corps’ esteemed Officer Candidate School.
But while showing signs of improvement externally, Ortiz continued to suffer on the inside.
“I’ve had meltdowns with occasional thoughts of suicide,” Ortiz said. “More than anything, I was detaching myself from reality, living in a constant daydream and experiences of constant episodes of déjà vu.”
At the prompting of a combat veteran in the family, Ortiz, rather than seeking medical help that wasn’t working, continued the path of self-medicating. He began experimenting with cannabis on Oct. 31, 2020. “Cannabis never interested me and was never in the picture, but I didn’t know any safe way to keep myself grounded,” he said.
“I needed guidance and help from the Marine Corps, but I didn’t get that,” Ortiz said. “People knew something was going on, but they just kept ignoring it,” he said.
In November 2020, just three days after the initial use, Ortiz felt compelled to report to his healthcare provider for “experimenting” with cannabis. “In reality,” he said, “I just needed treatment for PTSD.” With the help of therapy, he was “holding strong” at the turn of the year.
But things came tumbling down again. Ortiz was presented with administrative separation proceedings in February 2021. “It blind-sided me, because that’s not what I expected at a time I was back giving everything I could to the Marine Corps.”
“I knew I did something wrong, and I tried to make it right,” Ortiz said. “But they presented me with involuntary separation anyway and eventually stripped me of my rank.” There was no positive urinalysis, only his verbal report. And now, officer candidate school (OCS) was also “off the table.”
“In March, after a related failed surgery, I had relapsed,” Ortiz said. “And now I didn’t know who to trust, and I didn’t know who to talk to.”
At this time, he began to recall what he had given to the Marine Corps. “I risked my own life; my own marriage was at risk while I was deployed,” he said. “I felt betrayed, knowing I gave everything, but the Marine Corps took a different approach”—an approach Ortiz considers unjust and abusive.
The Marine Corps didn’t return inquiries from The Epoch Times.
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