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Afghanistan

Purple Heart war hero fights for benefits at home 12 years after IED blast abroad

A U.S. Marine who suffered two near-fatal brain injuries combating terrorists is in a new fight at home — trying to get a medical retirement from the military so he can receive full benefits.

Bill Bee followed in a family tradition of fighting in every war since the American Revolution and immediately signed up when 9/11 occurred. But the next 13 years in the Middle East brought horrors and heartbreak as he witnessed death on a large scale, unprepared to deal with the mental trauma.

He now has advice for other active military and veterans chronicled in a new book, The Shot.

“Out of all that I learned, I want people to break down and ask for help instead of just sucking it up,” Bee, 40, told the Washington Examiner. “There is help, but it’s looked down upon in some of the units. If you aren’t capable of handling your problems, then you are labeled by some leaders as weak — you don’t need to be there.”

The cover of Bee’s book features a famous 2008 news photograph that was taken the moment he narrowly missed death as the Taliban fired a shot at his head. Bee attempted to shield behind a wall and is seen grimacing as debris from the shot ricochets around his head, his rifle pointed at the enemy.

Bee was knocked out from the blast and carried off in a stretcher, miraculously surviving but also sustaining brain injuries. He continued to serve as a squad leader in Afghanistan and two years later found himself in another near-fatal blast, this time with a booby-trapped house.

Bill Bee is carried off by squad members after narrowly escaping death from a bomb blast in Afghanistan.

This time around, there would be no more battle zone deployments.

“Half my squad was talking to two sergeants standing in a corner. One of my guys called me over to clear a jam from his rifle,” Bee said. “I walked over to him and that building blew, and I woke up a few hours later inside an MRI machine.”

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The soldiers where Bee stood moments earlier were killed instantly. Bee suffered a second major brain injury that caused hearing loss and balance and memory problems. Flashbacks “scared the hell out of me,” he said.

“Sometimes I would hear people calling for me, or if I saw a shade of white, I would start smelling smoke grenades,” Bee said. “I would be sitting there and one second later [visualized] being dragged out by a flak jacket. The next second, I’m sitting on someone’s lawn because I drove there and did not realize it.”

Bill Bee holds a famous news photograph of himself narrowly escaping gunfire in Afghanistan.

It was clear that Bee couldn’t be in combat, so he was assigned to Camp Johnson in North Carolina, where he trained Navy personnel in medical units on how to work in combat situations. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was awarded a Purple Heart but never sought help because of the military stigma that doing so was a sign of weakness.

“I had been told ... ‘Hey, let me get you a straw — suck it up,’” Bee said. “It’s not as bad now, but at the time, there was a huge stigma about talking to a shrink, especially in the infantry. People avoided it like the plague.”

At one point, Bee tried to kill himself by quickly drinking two bottles of tequila. He was rescued by a friend and started seeking the help he needed.

“It forced me to go to a shrink and find out that this actually works. Maybe we need to talk about this stuff,” he said.

While the fix wasn’t immediate, Bee decided that helping others would be a path to recovery, so he became the base’s suicide prevention counselor. He channeled the rage he felt at his teammates’ deaths into something positive.

Bee was discharged in 2013 and became a contractor working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to teach enlisted men and women about their benefits.

He pushed them to seek help and fought for the right to see his own doctor outside a clogged VA network. This became a policy change in 2019. But he continues fighting on another front — to have the Board for Correction of Naval Records award a medical retirement that allows treatment by any doctor without red tape.

The Navy, which oversees the Marines, refused to grant this distinction, and Bee has been appealing the decision for four years.

“It would be nice if it happens, but if not, this is how they have been operating since I got out,” Bee said. “The standard is if the DOD finds you 30% or higher medically disabled, they can award retirement instead of a discharge. I would see dozens upon dozens of people getting out that have been medically retired because of PTSD.”

Bee still has neurological damage, so he has a medical condition as well, he says. The military discriminates against active-duty personnel over others who haven’t served because it believes wartime soldiers should be able to deal with their problems, he said.

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“You see guys [successfully] use it as an excuse, and meanwhile, we have guys who suck it up their entire career, and when it’s time to retire, they get shafted,” he said.

The Navy did not respond to a request for comment.