-The Debrief Series is a venture to collect and publish the thoughts, memories, past failures, and lessons learned from leaders all across the force. These leaders can be Active Duty Enlisted, Former/Retired Enlisted, and civilians who have made incredible contributions to the military community. –
On this day, I have the honor of interviewing William Ressler, a former Staff Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. He served in a niche of the marines that most people don’t think of, Parachute Rigging, specifically attached to some higher-level units. He is now a proud disabled veteran whose battle with mental health is a testament to his strong will and perseverance. In this interview, he holds nothing back as he expresses wisdom and has advice that everyone should take a moment to listen to. Everyone is fighting a battle and you may not be able to see it. This account may just give you a reality check.
Let the questions begin…
How long were you in the service?
I spent just shy of nine years on active duty as a United States Marine.
What commands were you attached to?
CLR-17, Landing Support Company was my first command aboard Camp Pendleton, CA. After roughly two years there I had the privilege and honor to serve with 1st Reconnaissance Battalion for three years before completing my remaining time with 2nd Transportation Support Battalion aboard Camp Lejeune, NC.
What family do you have? Kids? Spouse? Pets?
I was with my ex-wife for approximately six years, being married for two during my time on active duty. After the divorce, I was a single Staff Non-Commissioned Officer (SNCO) and had one cat because they were much more independent than a dog at the time and more suitable for the active-duty lifestyle while single. Currently have one amazing dog and a couple of cats keeping me company.
Where are you originally from?
I was born and raised in Lancaster Pennsylvania till the age of 13. Following that, I moved to Maryland leading up to my time in the Marine Corps.
What was your favorite duty station?
I enjoyed Camp Pendleton more than Camp Lejeune. As a young Marine, there are so many different hobbies or adventures to explore during your off time. For instance, you could learn how to surf while also being able to drive two hours north and learn to snowboard or ski. There are too many campsites and hiking trails to list. Regardless, of the nearly five years spent aboard Camp Lejeune, I rarely had a boring week.
What are you reading right now? Books, podcasts, articles, websites, etc.
I am currently reading the Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind. This is a long series of books that displays a fictional fantasy world built through the eyes of Terry Goodkind. I was recommended this book series by a reconnaissance marine on deployment to keep my mind occupied and have just recently decided to pick them back up. I have actually been trying to stay clear of websites due to misinformation and the ability of nearly everyone to post opinionated content that often proves to be misleading.
What makes a good leader in your eyes? What examples have you seen?
A good leader is knowledgeable both in their field and outside, while also being understanding and considerate of their juniors. I’ve seen many great leaders but one that stands out specifically to me would be a Gunnery Sergeant who was in my last unit. This Marine has a family, has plenty of experience and knowledge while also having the ability to flip a switch and speak to you about real-world problems you’re experiencing. Many leaders will say they have an “Open door” policy which indicates that you can come to them whenever about most anything. A true leader stands by this policy and understands there is a big picture to being a Marine and Sailor. Whether it’s financial issues, relationship issues, mental health issues, or anything else under the sun, these issues lead to much bigger issues if a leader is unable to connect with their juniors. The Gunnery Sergeant that I spoke up to was there for these issues with every single one of his Marines.
What makes a bad leader? What examples have you seen?
A bad leader typically sees one thing in the military, taking care of themselves in order to get to the “top”. I’ve seen selfish leaders who place themselves above the welfare of their juniors. I’ve witnessed leaders throw peers to the wolves to gain an advantage over them. I’ve witnessed downgrading to the point of destroying one’s mental confidence. At the end of the day, my opinion is there is no such thing as a “bad leader”, you’re either a good leader or you’re not a leader at all.
What is something that shook you to your core? Emotionally/Mentally/Physically, that helped to shape who you are today?
Panic attacks, not just the first one, but every single one I’ve ever experienced along with anxiety and depression. This helped me to be understanding, to know that people are not flawless. This allowed me to see the good in even the worst of people. Sometimes that is a curse, most of the time though, I am able to relate and understand and as an SNCO I was able to open up to my juniors. While this might not seem like much on the surface, after opening up about many of my own struggles I had several Marines come to me and I was able to get them help. So, aside from the cons, I would say these issues led to helping many people who otherwise may have gone to a darker place.
If you could write a book, what would it be about? If you have authored a book, what did you write? Tell us about it. What motivated you to write it?
I would write a book about my experiences in the military while dealing with anxiety and depression. Things that worked, things that didn’t work, what to stay away from, and how to get help before it becomes debilitating.
What is an example of a time when you have failed as a leader? What did you learn and how did you bounce back from it?
In 2015, I was selected to go through Recruiting School. I withheld information during the moment of truth and did not disclose information regarding my depression and anxiety medications and treatment. This was a foolish decision but I did it knowing I could complete the assignment despite my issues. This came to bite me and I was removed from recruiting school. The first and only school or course I was ever dropped from. As a Sergeant, this was a big deal because I received an adverse fitness report. The only thing I could do was work hard and try to receive commendatory fitness reports which I did. Two years later I was promoted to Staff Sergeant and able to continue in the Marine Corps.
What was the most challenging thing you have accomplished in your military career? In your personal life?
The most challenging would be ten months of pure stress while acting as a Parachute Safety Officer on the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit as part of 1st Force Reconnaissance. Those men are a different breed, many I still stay in touch with. There are hard courses as well, Military Freefall Jumpmaster, SERE, HRST Master, none compare to not wanting to let down your brothers and the men you look up to.
What is something you wish you would’ve been told as a junior enlisted person?
Take care of your mental health, the Marine Corps will always be there but you will not be. The stigma that mental health is a quick way out of the Marine Corps is a dangerous one to believe in. I wish I would’ve taken care of my mental health earlier in the Marines, if I did I would probably still be there today.
What is a skill you hold, that the military has helped teach you?
Understanding would be the biggest one. Understanding that everyone has their own battles, understanding that every day is a blessing no matter how terrible it may seem, and understanding that the friends and family you make in the military are going to be unlike any you’ve met before.
What are you nervous or anxious about?
This one seems like a trick question because I’m always anxious. I would say since my time in the military I have been anxious about living in the moment. I’m anxious about finding my place in life because I used to think it was the Marines, the reality though, is that your time in the Marine Corps is limited and eventually everyone has to hang it up.
What is something that you would change about the military?
Mental Health Awareness. This should be a priority, we have the resources, we have people who want to help. I would help to let people know it is okay to get help and it is not career-ending. I also think this starts at the very top. This should not be a check in a box or a brief given by an SNCO or Officer who draws a short straw. Make it a TRUE priority and watch the number of suicides decrease and the efficiency of the Marine and Sailors increase. I personally believe any “leader” who shrugs this off as nothing more than a check in the box and places zero effort towards the issue should be removed from leadership.
What would you say are your life tenets? The things you live your life by. That guides you.
Friends, while friends may seem like family and may very well hold a higher place in some instances I would say true friends genuinely look out for your best interest when without being biased. Unconditional love, this one can bite you but understanding that no one is perfect and seeing the good in everyone can help a lot of people. I am working on knowing when to shut that off and recognizing the ones who deserve that unconditional love and support and those who do not.
How would you help to change the mind of someone who wishes to get out of the military?
I wouldn’t, I would however discuss the options and expectations which ultimately could sway that person in a different direction. Ultimately the goal is to make sure that person knows what they’re doing and whether or not it’s the right choice for them.
What do you think of the spike in suicide rates over the past few years? What would you do to change this increase?
This touches mostly on what I covered about something I would change in the military. I am not happy with it and again I believe it starts at the top. I’ll tell a quick little story about my issues with the military and mental health. Counseling tends to be bi-weekly because there is not enough manpower to support all the men and women trying to be seen. Yet, most everyone in different fields throughout the military can list hundreds of thousands of dollars of gear that are not being used or get thrown out. Our priorities are backward. Medication is thrown around like candy, medication is also something that is not cheap. Push the counseling, acupuncture, therapy, cognitive brain therapy, and nutrition over medication. Funds are limited because we spend them unwisely, would you rather a Marine or Sailor working for you that is able to function while being pumped full of prescription medications OR, would you rather them go to counseling weekly or any of the things listed above and be genuinely healthy?
With the looming threat of war in the future, what can we do to prepare? Besides Physical fitness, technical prowess, and mental agility.
We can take care of our family and support one another. Get your priorities in line at home in the event that something does happen and we do go to war.
Who is your go-to motivational speaker, leader, spiritual leader, or philosopher?
Lately, I have become a fan of Elon Musk. His ideas on education are phenomenal and I like that he practices what he preaches. I also enjoy Joe Rogan’s motivational speeches, he tends to lean more towards the literal side of things and doesn’t have much of a filter.
What is a piece of advice that you liked to give to your juniors?
Be the leader you wish your leaders were.
What are your decision-making processes? How do you implement them?
I’m pretty impulsive, I’ve also been going through a rough patch in life. I would say there needs to be a fine line between worrying about oneself and worrying about others. I got in the mindset to make decisions based on others’ desires and needs. Which was good when it came to the welfare of troops and looking out for their best interests. Obviously, I needed to make a judgment call on my end also while considering them. However, this is a dog-eat-dog world and it’s a huge adjustment to focus more on yourself when you get out and make decisions in your best interests.
How do you feel about how your life has turned out? What have been some of the greatest obstacles and challenges?
I’m grateful for Veterans Affairs, and I am happy to know that I am taken care of for the rest of my life. Some of the greatest obstacles have been on the mental health side. Struggling with the issues that arose while in and have progressed since I’ve gotten out have made things extremely difficult. Alcohol has also been an issue. As Marines and Sailors, we tend to jump on that wagon especially being in the barracks as a way to cut loose and rid yourself of the past week’s issues. I will say monitor it, I wish I did. When you get out of the military it is not socially acceptable or healthy to drink like it is in the military. Take care of yourself while you’re in so you set yourself up for success when you get out!
What are some social issues we experience in the military? How would you solve them?
It’s a new environment, learning right from wrong and understanding. Teaching everyone what the uniform is, is something to keep in mind. Basically, you need to dump any ignorant thoughts or ideals you were taught from your parents or the location you grew up. Try to leave politics out of your military career and understand colors don’t matter. Some of the most influential persons I’ve had throughout my time in the military were not of the same race. That’s a learning curve for a lot of people. The other would be taking the good from your leaders and not the bad. Someone might upset you and not agree with you in one area but teach you everything you need to know in another. That is a big social issue some people can’t see.
Who is your mentor? Why should people gain a mentor in their lives?
I won’t list my mentor because he is still on active duty. I will say that people should gain a mentor because it will shed light on so many things you do both in and out of service. A mentor should be a person you can call and talk to about anything even if it is not directly related to the service. I know personally, I could call this person during a time of need and they would answer my phone call. This mentor did tons of training with me towards the end of my career and was always open-minded and willing to take criticism when needed and so was I. That makes for a great mentor-mentee situation.
Lastly, is there any additional wisdom or knowledge you would like to pass on to other leaders?
Always remember where you came from while being open-minded to where your juniors came from. Be considerate, understanding, and go home every night knowing that your juniors know they can call you, and know you have their best interests in hand.
William “Billy” Ressler was a Staff Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, serving as a Parachute Rigger for nearly nine years. He served with various units including Combat Logistics Regiment (CLR) 17, 1st Recon Battalion, and 2nd Transport Support Battalion. He had the opportunity to attend a few rigorous military training schools such as Military Freefall Jumpmaster, Survival-Evasion-Resistance-Escape (SERE), and Helicopter Rope Suspension Techniques (HRST) Master. He was medically retired from the Marine Corps and now resides in Maryland, taking care of his animals and pursuing higher education.