School Circle 3: Robert Kale’s “Comeback Story”

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On today’s show, Vince, Justin, and Bryan are joined by Robert Kale, a gunnery sergeant who has an amazing story that is the definition of a true miracle.

School Circle: Can you tell us where you’ve been and where you’re going?

Robert Kale: I was born in 1978 to a pretty decent family. We went to church, but didn’t do a whole lot of churchy stuff at home. Dad was gone a lot, since he was in the Navy, and Mom did a lot of stuff on her own. So, she got burned out, and my parents fought a lot and ended up getting divorced. When they got divorced, they were still unable to care for my brother, my sister, and me, so all three of us were put into the foster system with one family. That was where the abuse that I endured as a child really started to take full shape. If you stepped out of line at the foster home, it was straight to the beatings for my brother, my sister, and myself. We were often unnecessarily physically, verbally, and emotionally beaten just for ordinary kids stuff and made to feel less than human at times. They ranged from being locked in rooms and not being feds to just constant beatings. When I became old enough to fight back, I got tossed out of that home and went back to live with my biological mother.

To no fault of my mother, I took advantage of her guilt for leaving us out to dry with the foster system and began to drink, smoke cigarettes, and dabble in some light drugs. Out of all the things that stuck, drinking was good for me because it could numb the pain of the childhood that I had just come out of.

I had tried to join the Marine Corps when I 15, 16, 17, and 18. It was all I had ever wanted to do. When I was a kid I was just enamored with them because I knew that they stood for something good, were the best of the best, and just hard. My dad and I didn’t have a great relationship when I was growing up. He was in the Navy, and I wanted to do something that I felt was better at the time. After high school, I joined the Marine Corps, went to boot camp, went to first duty station, and fell perfectly right into marine life.  There was a lot of drinking and partying. I got married right after boot camp and had my son. Needless to say, I was a 19-year-old kid with a bad attitude and a chip on my shoulder because I made it through boot camp. I thought that I was unstoppable and that the world was going to bow down to me because I was finally a marine. I let that affect me. I was young, immature, and didn’t even come close to parenting the way that I should of.

I was gone a lot for my son’s younger years. When I came back from the MUE, I found out that my now ex-wife was pregnant again with my first daughter. About a year after she was born, we get orders for Okinawa, where we had our third child. Okinawa is a tough place to bring up a family, especially when they are unable to see their family back in the United States and they have as close a bond as my ex-wife had with her wife and her grandmother.

So, that took its toll on my family. Not being a good father or a good husband took its toll. Being gone all the time took it toll. Putting everything and everybody besides my family first took its toll. Drinking more took its toll. I ended up getting divorced. My ex-wife packed up, took the three kids, and headed back to the United States while I was still in Okinawa. At the time that was really hard, but now I actually applaud her for leaving in that situation. I was pretty volatile and not doing the right thing by my kids or her. At that point, I started drinking really heavy, hanging out with marines who were doing the same, and looking for fights and excuses to avoid dealing with what was going on in my life. I got in trouble in the Marine Corps and received adverse paperwork, which made it difficult to get promoted again. I pretty much just through it all away because of the pain and not knowing how to deal with it.

I ended up meeting my second wife over there. When we came back to the United States we got married, and I started my combat deployment cycles. I deployed seven times, four in Iraq, three in Afghanistan. 2007 was a decent deployment. I had a kid in my platoon named Jason Rogers. He was a corporal and I was a sergeant. Later on, he’d get promoted. We became really good friends. I really leaned on him, he mentored me, even though he was junior to me, and he meant a great deal to me. Fast forward to 2011 and by this point I have seen some things and done some things, just like everybody else in the deployment cycles. I was prepping for missions late at night, when I checked my e-mail to make sure there weren’t any last minute changes. When I check my e-mail, I find one from a mutual friend of Jason and I, saying that I needed to call her right away and that something bad had happened. So I called her on the phone, and she informed me that Jason had been killed that day. He had stepped on an IED. We were both combat engineers and we both swept for IEDs.

That was a bad day. Period.

They had lost three guys and there were several wounded that needed to be evacuated. Jason had gone in to save a marine who was a triple amputee. He ran in without any detection trying to save this marine who had been hurt badly. He ran back out to grab a stretcher and ran back in. Then, on his fourth trip, leading the way out, this time with a stick, he detected an IED. He bent over trying to check it out and it killed him. I had dealt with death before with family members and marines that I had served with, but this rocked literally rocked me to my core. It put me in literally the worst place I could have possibly ever been in my life. I continued the deployment and missions, just trying to push it down and not deal with it right then and there. I had things that I needed to care of.

During that deployment, I had a convoy that within a 1500-meter span hit and detonated eleven IEDs, two of which while I was on the ground. So, upon coming back from that deployment I’m in a bad place. I had changed even more so than the other deployments. I was spiraling out of control, drinking a lot more, and not even considering my current wife and our young daughter. I was ready to just go. I started volunteering for just more and more deployments. I took orders out to California so I could keep on deploying. Every deployment just got worse, and I just got worse and worse. I came home in 2012 and tried to get orders for a special duty assignment so I could try to save my marriage that was rapidly falling apart. That didn’t happen, so I decided to deploy one more time. In 2013 we left and got into Afghanistan in October.

On November 26th, my vehicle hit an IED, rendering me unconscious for a while. When I came to I was in disarray. I medevaced off the battle field and taken to the concussion care in country. I stayed there for eight days and did what they told me I needed to do, even if I couldn’t do it, to get back to my marines and continue the mission. On December 11th, my platoon sergeant counterpart and one of my platoons hit a large IED in his vehicle. He was medevaced out of country and we lost Lance Corporal Matthew Rodriguez that day. Due to some manning issues, I switched platoons. At that point, after losing another marine and everything I had just dwelt with, I felt like I just couldn’t get the satisfaction out of these deployments I was looking for. I couldn’t bury everything or get revenge for the marines that I had lost, especially Jason. So, I pretty much took over the new platoon and in my mind, without saying anything to anybody, I told myself that I’m not coming home from this deployment. I was planning on dying in country, whether I do it myself or die by the enemy’s hand.

I remember that we got into a pretty big firefight. It was about 33 hours long. Everything and anything that could of gone wrong that day did. Trucks broke down and got stuck, RPGs, machine gun fire, IEDs, enemy everywhere, jets screaming overhead. Just the whole gamut of a combat situation.  I thought to myself, “This is the day. The day that I could end it all and no one would know the difference. My kids would be taken care of and know that their dad died in combat doing what he wanted to do.” When we took the first RPG round, I called over the radio to my lieutenant and told him we were going back there. We took the truck back there, and I started running around like a crazy man, not even caring that we were taking fire. It has nothing to do with me being a hero or some awesome marine. That wasn’t why I was doing it. I was doing because I was hoping that a round would hit me in the face or somewhere vital that would have taken my life that day. That wasn’t the case. In fact, we didn’t lose any marines that day, which is a great thing. Nobody even got hurt; the worst injuries from earth and dirt shrapnel from close calls with an RPG. Other than that, we were perfect.

We got back to the base and I make it home from that deployment. When I make it home, I get sent to Wounded Warrior, because I couldn’t do my job. I was angry, drinking a lot, and showing up late to work. I was not myself and thank God that my command took care of me. I know there are a lot of marines out there who feel that they aren’t taken care of when they’re in these situations, but that wasn’t me. I had a great chain of command that took care of me. They loved me and they wanted me to get the help. Going there, trying to deal with all that stuff, and trying to fix my life were hard. One of the hardest things that I ever had to do was open up to strange people about things that I had been feeling and going through and not knowing how to come out and say some of these things.

When I got to Wounded Warrior in March, I started to hear about the Mighty Oaks program and that I should go. By September 5th, I was enrolled in Mighty Oaks and was going to go for sure. I went to friend’s wedding and was supposed to be the sword detail, but God works in mysterious ways. One of the captain’s wives was a marine as well and he accidently grabbed her dress blue trousers instead of his own. So, I gave up my trousers, and ended up sitting at the front of the wedding in my civilian dress clothes. I had been to a thousand weddings at that point, but this wedding was different. It was the first time that I honestly felt God reach down and touch me. Everybody there loved each other. Its rare to get 300 people in a room and feel like there aren’t any dirty looks from other people’s families or that nobody is upset with anyone. Christ was the center of that relationship and that wedding. Christ was in that building. It was legit. It was real. The wedding went on and as some songs were sung and the vows were read, the sincerity of the Christianity within that room hit me really hard. I don’t cry a whole lot, but I cried like a baby at that wedding. It wasn’t because people were in love, but because I was feeling something that I had never felt before.

I went to the reception and told myself that I wasn’t going to drink, which only lasted about 10 minutes. I commenced to drinking obsessively that night to drown it all out, to get rid of it all, and get back to what I felt was comfortable in life: suffering, isolation, and just dealing with things myself. Up until this point, I had thought of taking my own life many, many times after coming home and just feeling like I was I an infectious individual. I felt like I was bad for my children, because I was just so hateful and angry. The guilt that I felt every time I saw them for not being a better father got to the point where I couldn’t take it and just wanted to end it all.

Knowing that I had to be picked up for Mighty Oaks program the next day, I decided to sleep in my car. When I woke up and felt that I could drive, I drove back down there, packed my bags, and showed up late for pickup. I ended up making it, and on the way there I told myself that, “If this doesn’t do anything for me or help me learn something to get out of this, I would take my life when I got back home.” I had it all planned out, where I would go, how I would do it, and all the notes I would leave behind.

When we got up to Mighty Oaks, the first things that they said to me, that have been stuck in my mind for maybe forever were “If what you’re doing right now isn’t working, then why don’t you try something different?” and “This isn’t a hug-a-vet program, this is a poke-a-vet-in-the-chest program.” I don’t operate well with coddling. I liked to be slapped in the face and told what’s up so that I could try to fix it. By Wednesday night we received a huge, impactful class and I decided that was the night that I had learned what I needed to learn to make a difference in my family’s life, mostly my children. I rededicated my life to Christ that night and finished out the program. All of my fight plans were centered on my children and the damage that I had done and to include damages with their stepfather, whose relationship with my children I had sabotaged out of jealousy and insecurity. That’s what I’ve been doing up until this point.

I kind of struggled after Mighty Oaks. I was trying to find my way back and to was struggling between a few churches, but after some prayer, some scripture reading, and some help from the Mighty Oaks staff, I was able to put myself where I knew Christ needed me and wanted me. It’s a struggle everyday, but I think that I’m on the path right now that leads to me becoming the man God wants me to be, for my family, for myself, and for others. If I could just do that, that’d be awesome for my family and myself. My kids are the most important people in my life. I’m getting married March 26th to a good, Christian woman. She was a marine too, so she supports me and gets the things that we go through. She’s very driven, very spiritual, and very kind, everything that you would want in a woman. I’d feel bad if I didn’t say something about her.

School Circle: On September 5th, you say that you’ve hit rock bottom. At that point what you say to 19-year-old Robert Kale, whose just graduated boot camp, newly married, and has a kid?

Robert: I would hope that I would be able to tell myself at the age of 19 when I didn’t have to many problems in life, other than stuff from my childhood, that things aren’t that bad. You’ve got a son and there is always a way out.

School Circle: What would the current Robert say to September 5th Robert?

Robert: Current Robert would tell him, “Wake up! Get on off of your butt. Think about your kids, your legacy, and what you’re about to leave behind if you execute this plan of yours. God loves you and Christ paid for everything that you’ve done and everything that you’re going to do. His plan is for you and he bore those burdens for you so that you could walk upright and feel lighter. Put yourself in alignment with God, because when you do that, you won’t feel the way you feel and you will make an impact on your children’s lives and your family life down the road.”

School Circle: When you walked in that day at Mighty Oaks, I thought to myself ‘This guys a lost cause,’ but I hadn’t seen everything that God could do in people’s lives. Now, every time I think of someone as a lost cause, you pop through my mind, because you are evidence that there is no one to far gone. That’s just the beauty of grace. The fact that you can take all of this evil and long suffering life, turn your story in around, and heal the relationships you’ve broken just shows the power of what God can do through you and in you. You can’t do it alone, but you can do it with Christ and brothers that surround you and give you that support and love.

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