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By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs
Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin shared his battle with bipolar disorder during a visit to Division Newport on Nov. 3. Martin was the guest speaker for Disability Employment Awareness Month, which was recognized in October.
“I had what was called, hyperthymia, a near-continuous state of mild mania,” Martin said. “I had unusually high levels of energy, enthusiasm, drive and creativity. It essentially amplified and elevated my natural talents, so with things like athletics, leadership, and school work, I was really at the top of my game. In many ways, you are fortunate because of the boost it gives you, but the downside, is that it puts you at a much higher risk to fall into real bipolar disorder.”
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes dramatic shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and concentration levels. These range from periods of extremely elated, irritable, or energized behavior, known as manic episodes, to very sad, indifferent, or hopeless periods, known as depressive episodes.
Martin, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 58, spent the majority of his military career in a manic state of mind, he said. The son of a World War II Sailor, Martin served in the U.S. Army for 36 years, getting his start in Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of Maine. He graduated from West Point with a bachelor’s degree and was commissioned as an Army engineer.
The onset of Martin’s bipolar disorder didn’t appear until 2003, when he was a brigade commander in Iraq, and in charge of thousands of troops, he said. The thrill and intense stress of combat is what triggered Martin’s predisposition to bipolar disorder. The combination of emotions hit his genes in a way that rewired his brain and sent him in a high performing mania that leveled even above hyperthymia, he said.
“I could run on no sleep, I had tremendous drive, and I could see and envision problems on the battlefield,” Martin said. “I could understand and solve those problems before anyone else knew there was one. I felt like Superman.”
Once his time in Iraq came to an end the thrill and adrenaline of combat was no longer a part of his life and Martin fell into a severe depression that lasted about 10 months. He received a health screening after deployment, but doctors believed he was fine.
For the next 11 years, Martin would suffer from mood changes ranging from high mania to low depression. Eventually, he went into psychosis, where he experienced paranoia, hallucinations and flashbacks of his time in combat. He could see, hear and smell, all of the experiences he had in Iraq, he said. Martin believed that everyone was out to get him and that people wanted him fired from his job, put in jail or even killed.
As a two-star general and president of the National Defense University (NDU), his job performance went from high-performing and successful, to erratic and disruptive. Co-workers began to notice his behavior changes and reported his actions to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 2014, after an investigation and series of assessments, Martin was asked to resign from his post.
“In hindsight, by asking me to resign, the chairman probably saved my marriage and my life,” Martin said. “It is not uncommon for people that are manic to die of a heart attack, because their systems, their heart and organs, are so out of whack that the body can’t handle it. Being in a manic state can be worse and more dangerous for your body than a person on cocaine.”
Martin retired from service as a combat veteran in 2015, after a 36-year career. It was then that he revealed his struggles with bipolar disorder in hopes of reducing the stigma around metal health illnesses.
He later went through three more psychiatric evaluations, all of which came back “normal,” a complete misdiagnosis, he said.
For the next two years, Martin experienced what he called, “bipolar hell.” He was severely depressed and suffered from terrible psychosis. He sought treatment again and was placed as an in-patient at White River Junction Veterans Administration Medical Center in Vermont. There, he was given a final diagnosis of bipolar disorder Type 1, and went through a series of treatments including shock treatment to the brain. The treatment that he finally responded to was the use of Lithium — a natural salt from the Earth that helps reduce the severity and frequency of mania. Within a week of starting the medication, Martin’s depression symptoms eased, leading to his recovery.
“I am now in my seventh year of recovery and healthy living,” he said. “I’ve started a new life and it’s been great.”
To maintain his mental health, Martin lives by what he calls “the five Ps — people, place, purpose, perseverance and presence.
“Surround yourself with people who are positive influences in your life and who love and support you,” he said. “Live in a place that makes you happy, do something that makes you feel like you have a purpose, be willing to persevere. Recovery from a mental illness is hard work and you have to push through the hard times and believe in yourself to live a happy life.”
Martin gave some advice for those who have a mental illness or those who know someone with a mental illness. “Have the hard conversation and encourage them to get help, to embrace what medical professionals say and to embrace the diagnosis,” he said. “Tell them to build connections with others and find people that can relate and most of all, to stay hopeful.
“Without hope, what do you have? Hope is the lifeblood to get better. With hope, there is a glimmer and a reason to keep living.”
To learn more about Martin’s career as a combat veteran, an airborne ranger and an engineer, visit https://www.generalgreggmartin.com/
NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.
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