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Nearly two million Americans have fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On this edition, reporter Aaron Glantz takes us inside the war as it comes home to our communities, with a focus on the special role our educational institutions can play in helping former soldiers adjust to civilian life.
Andrew Berends, The Blood of My Brother filmmaker; Michael Hall, former US Army staff sergeant; Rachel Feldstein, New Directions associate director; Joshua Kors, The Nation magazine correspondent; Zollie Goodman, former Naval petty officer; Barack Obama, United States president; Todd Stenhouse, National Veterans Foundation spokesperson; Terry “T.J.” Boyd, former Marine Corps sergeant; Ron Finch, National Business Group on Health; Catherine Morris, Sierra College veterans’ counselor; Paul Sullivan, Veterans for Common Sense executive director.
This documentary was produced with support to Aaron Glantz from the Hechinger Institute for Education and the Media at Columbia University Teachers College and the Rosalynn Carter Journalism Fellowship program at the Carter Center. Thanks also to Mike Siv of New America Media.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] – This week on Making Contact.
- The war does not end when you come home. It lives on in the memories of your fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who gave their lives. It endures in the wound that is slow to heal. The disability that isn’t going away. The dream that wakes you up at night. The stiffening in your spine when a car backfires down the street.
Nearly 2 million Americans have fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I was just like, I’m done with this. I need to get out of here. Start trying to check myself out, man. And I had a little .45.
On this edition, reporter Aaron Glantz takes us inside the war as it comes home to our communities, with a focus on the special role our educational institutions can play in helping former soldiers adjust to civilian life. I’m Tina Rubio, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, battle ideas, and important information.
It’s not easy to come home from war. Whether you’re a journalist, an aid worker, a military contractor, or one of the 1.8 million American soldiers who have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, you have to get used to the fact that most Americans can’t relate to where you’ve been, what you think, what you’ve seen, how you feel, and what you’ve done. I spent parts of three years as a journalist in US-occupied Iraq, in Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf, and other locales that have become more known for their battles, kidnappings, and car bombs than for their historic architecture, culture, or people.
Even after I got home, I could still see the carnage I’d covered. I would wake up in the middle of the night and pace through the house and into the backyard. I also had visions– usually during the daytime– of people and things I’d seen in Iraq, like the long-dried bones of Iraqis buried in the mass graves of Saddam Hussein, or the freshly-rotting corpses of elderly women killed by American bombs in Fallujah.
Four years removed from Iraq, I still have trouble putting this feeling into words. I think my friend Andrew Berends put it best in the director’s commentary to his award-winning documentary film, The Blood of My Brother.
- The most difficult part of my whole experience of making this film in Iraq was coming home. The first two weeks back in New York were like a honeymoon. I was so happy. I was free. I was safe. I could walk around.
But very quickly, I sunk into depression. I sent an email to four or five other journalist friends that I had met in Iraq, all of whom happened to come back to New York during that same month. I told them I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t focus on my work. I felt depressed. I was having trouble with my relationship with my girlfriend. I couldn’t get up in the morning. Pretty much all of them wrote me back and said they were experiencing the exact same thing.
- Now I realize Andrew was going through the same process I was, a process that is normal when a human being is repeatedly exposed to war.
In August 2004, Andrew covered the Shiite uprising in the holy city of Najaf. In one scene he filmed for The Blood of My Brother, the Iraqi police and military gunned down dozens of peaceful demonstrators who’d come out to protest during a break in the battle. Civilians and fighters alike fall down dead, shot right in front of his camera.
- The strangest thing I remember is feeling nothing at all. No emotions. Feeling very calm. Some adrenaline. I had been given a taste of how easy it is to kill.
After that day, I saw more violence. Dead bodies. Dead fighters in Sadr City. Grieving brothers. Grieving friends.
And again, I found that I felt nothing. No emotion, no tears. I knew in my mind that what I was seeing was messed up, but I think it’s a defense mechanism. I couldn’t process it at the time and still function. And I was working, and living. I had to make decisions.
- When he came home, that bill came due.
It was almost like I couldn’t find a reason to get up in the morning. There were no car bombs. Nobody was being killed. Didn’t seem like anything important was happening here. I felt such a strong desire to go back to Iraq.
But at the same time, I knew that I needed to deal with what I had seen and experienced. I knew that there are plenty of reasons to get up in the morning outside of a war zone. And I just needed to relearn the joys, and the value, and the importance of being alive day to day without violence and death happening around me.
- For me, the process of relearning how to live came through the continued practice of journalism. Continuing to tell stories of war and its long-term effects proved to be in and of itself a kind of therapy. Across the country, I sought out military veterans of the war in Iraq to tell their stories to raise the public consciousness about the difficult transition people have to make when they go from combat to civilian life.
I learned that many returning veterans were faring worse than I was. I learned that 400,000 veterans had returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and filed a disability claim with the federal government. And that on any given night, 200,000 American veterans sleep homeless on the streets of this country. And that some of those veterans had only recently returned from Iraq. Veterans like staff sergeant Michael Hall.
- I was hit by an RPG, rocket-propelled grenade. And I suffer from a compression of the spine. I used to be 6′ 4″. Now I’m 6′ 2 1/2″. I got knocked through a wall.
In Los Angeles, I met Hall at a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans. He walked with a limp, dragging his feet with each step he took. He’d also suffered mental injuries– post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorders, conditions that weren’t evident before he went to Iraq. Hall said his problems really started when he got back to the United States and started using methamphetamines to dull the pain.
The pains of losing loved ones in the battlefield, the pain of not being there for my children, the pain of not knowing how to live in this society. I always stuffed things down deep inside. I never really wanted to deal with them because I considered myself a better individual than that, that I would just stuff stuff and continue to be that hardcore guy. But I came to believe that, no matter how much I stuffed, I was still hurting inside.
After the effects of the methamphetamine went away, I still felt the same. And no matter how much I could do, or how much I could smoke, the results were the same. That was the insanity of it all.
- Paul has four children ages seven, four, two, and one. But his behavior since being released from the military has kept him away from them. In addition to using drugs, he started dealing them as well. Since leaving the military in 2003, he has served time in a federal prison in Oklahoma for felony home invasion, and has had numerous other run-ins with the law. Within three years, he hit rock bottom and became one of 27,000 homeless veterans on the streets of Los Angeles.
I try to be stronger than the drug. I used to always tell my customers, do the drug, don’t let the drug do you. And then I found myself in that same predicament. The drugs took over my life.
Rachel Feldstein is associate director of New Directions. It’s a residential care center for homeless veterans inside the Veterans Affairs complex in west LA. She told me veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming homeless much quicker than Vietnam vets.
These are folks who are coming pretty much straight from deployment to the streets of LA, living on the streets of LA, getting seriously addicted to drugs, and getting involved in criminal behavior very quickly.
[MUSIC – BRENDAN JAMES, “HERO’S SONG”]
(SINGING) Here I am in the desert again, a compass and a weapon, a lost American. I started out with a simple plan and a locket in my hand. But the sun’s so unforgiving, and the wind so hard to stand. Fall out, fall out with the rest of your brothers.
- The nonpartisan RAND Corporation says more than a quarter of veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from either post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury– physical brain damage often caused by roadside bombs. The group estimates 300,000 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or major depression, while another 300,000 suffer from traumatic brain injury. The RAND Corporation reports less than half of those wounded are getting the care they were promised when they signed up, with potentially devastating impacts down the road.
Joshua Kors is military affairs correspondent for The Nation magazine. I spoke with him in December 2008, in the waning days of George W. Bush’s term in office.
- I’ve heard a lot of veterans say to me, when they talked about the government’s insistence that we support our troops during the Veteran’s Day ceremonies, honoring the dead, that honoring the dead is easy. It doesn’t take any money. It’s honoring the wounded and living veterans that really shows patriotism. And right now– in their opinion– the administration is falling quite short in that harder second half of the equation.
Former Petty Officer Zolly Goodman served on the deck of the USS John F. Kennedy, and was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq as a salvage crew operator in 2004. In Fallujah, he saw dead Iraqis decomposing in the middle of the street. So intense was the fighting that they could not be buried. Some bodies floated in raw sewage. Goodman says, to this day, he can still smell the death. Like hundreds of thousands of his fellow veterans, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. And like a generation of Vietnam veterans before him, Goodman is met with long wait times, mountains of paperwork, and an unfriendly bureaucracy at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
I was inducted into what is a processing system set up to deter people from seeking help. I was spoken to with no compassion. Every single phone call I made to the VA, I’m asked if I’m going to kill myself or somebody else in the most inhumane way you could imagine by the most inhumane people you could imagine.
So after going through this process, the first thing they tried to do was medicate me. No therapy was recommended. Medications were recommended. They gave me three different medications. The first was trazodone, the second was Paxil, and the third was gabapentin, a generic form of Neurontin.
My doctor did not give me any information on these medications. He told me that PTSD treatment is not a science. That there is no science to it. And that you can mix and match these medications, and something may work for you that doesn’t work for another vet.
So I left my appointment that day, and I went home. And I did research on the medications that I was given. And I found out that the main side effect of all three medications is suicidal thoughts and suicidal tendencies. And that’s disgusting.
So upon deciding not to take the medication, I decided I would try therapy. So once again, I called the VA and requested therapy. Was told that I couldn’t get an appointment for several months. And I cited the law again, and I was given an appointment 30 days later.
So now I get to go to a 15-minute therapy session once every 30 days. And when I show up to my 15-minute therapy session, there’s 15 other Vietnam vets that have the same 8:00 AM appointment that I do. And we all wait around the lobby.
Every single one of these vets is there, seeking help and treatment for the same thing that I’m seeking help and treatment for. And they’re all 30 years older than I am. They’ve been in this system 30 years longer. They’ve been taking the same medications for 30 years, the same therapist for 30 years.
And they’re still there, and they still have the same problem. So obviously, it doesn’t work. There’s no solution with the current situation.
- After years of neglect, the Department of Veterans Affairs has become so broken that in the six months leading up to March 31 last year, 1,500 veterans died waiting to learn if they would receive a disability check from the federal government. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports 18 veterans commit suicide every day in this country. That’s more than the number of soldiers who die in combat overseas.
For the first five years of the war in Iraq, President George W. Bush did little to stem this crisis. But a new day seemed to dawn with the election of Barack Obama. In the United States Senate, Obama championed the cause of veterans with legislation and votes for additional funding. In his campaign for president, he spoke regularly about supporting the troops, even after they came home from war. And after he was elected, when he announced his plan for a phased withdrawal from Iraq at Camp Lejeune in February 2009, Obama did something George Bush never did during his eight years in office. He spoke directly to the long-term effects of war on the Americans who fought it.
- For you and your families, the war does not end when you come home. It lives on in the memories of your fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who gave their lives. It endures in the wound that is slow to heal. The disability that isn’t going away. The dream that wakes you up at night. The stiffening in your spine when a car backfires down the street.
Obama’s rhetoric was backed up by action. His budget– submitted the same week as his speech– proposed increasing funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs by $25 billion over the next five years, about $1.2 billion more than veterans group said was necessary.
You and your families have done your duty. Now, a grateful nation must do ours. That is why I’ve committed to expanding our system of veterans’ health care to serve more patients, and to provide better care in more places.
We will continue building new Wounded Warrior facilities across America, and invest in new ways of identifying and treating the signature wounds of this war– post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, as well as other combat injuries.
- It’s too early to tell if President Obama’s approach to veterans’ health care will yield different results than President Bush’s. But veterans advocates point out that even if the Obama administration does everything right, it will still take more than just the federal government to support our veterans. Todd Stenhouse is with the National Veterans Foundation, which runs a toll-free hotline for veterans having difficulty readjusting to civilian life.
We’ve always known that, when veterans come home, they don’t necessarily land at the VA. And certainly, the VA is another set of circumstances. But where they do land is in one of four places.
They’re going to land at school. They’re going to land back at a civilian job– something we’re seeing an awful lot of now with this huge mobilization of citizen soldiers, guard and reserve. They’re going to land at home with their families. Or in the worst-case scenario, they’re going to land on the street.
- Stenhouse argues each of these places– school, the workplace, at home, and on the street– represent a different place that veterans can find community and support when they come home. A place where the veteran will either successfully reintegrate into civilian life or fall through the cracks of drugs, alcohol, and even suicide.
- You’re listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information, or for CD copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736. You can also download programs or get our podcast from radioproject.org. We now return to “The War Comes Home– Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans.”
28-year-old TJ Boyd doesn’t look like a disabled veteran. The former Marine sergeant sports a winning smile and shows no obvious wounds in his muscular 6-foot frame. He even runs his own personal training business out of his Sacramento home. On this Tuesday afternoon, Boyd has a full roster of clients coming to work out. He stands over an overweight middle-aged man giving him a full-on Marine Corps workout. He smiles as he makes his client run relays, lift weights, do sit-ups, and ride a stationary bicycle.
Yee, that was for show. You got it! Come on, 20 seconds. Let’s go. Put on another show.
Come on! Get it. Oh, god, you can’t even get it around.
- Looking at him, it’s hard to imagine that Boyd suffers from both of the signature injuries of our wars, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Or that when he returned to his boyhood home in southern Illinois after his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, that he nearly took his own life, pushed to the brink by a combination of combat stress, guilt and isolation, something that’s all-too common among soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
My relationship to the war is guilt. For one thing, I had to get out, because I was tired of fighting. But on the other hand, I did leave behind some Marines who did have to carry on that fight. Guys who came in after me. Who came in just because 9/11 happened.
And they were good guys. They’re still good guys. Some of them are not alive anymore, but they’re still good guys.
- When he first came home, Boyd tried to do everything at once to keep his mind off the war. He worked as a bartender, and tried to numb his pain by picking up single women who came in for a drink. He worked as a park ranger, a truck driver, and for the Army Corps of Engineers. He enrolled at a local community college, but nothing seemed to work. So he decided to try to end it all.
Built a bar in my apartment. Stocked it. Started drinking everything behind it.
Boyd likened his experience to the movie Leaving Las Vegas, where Nicolas Cage plays a Hollywood screenwriter who tries to drink himself to death.
And that’s what I started doing. I didn’t know what was next. I was just say, I’m done with this. I need to get out of here. Start trying to check myself out, man. And what happened was I had a little .45 under my bar. And I was taking Jack Daniels to the head, man. I was just trying to drown myself in it, just to get that liquid courage.
What saved his life was the love of a new girlfriend who urged him to move out to California, and the Boots To Books veterans club at Sierra Community College in Rockland, which organizes charity runs, whitewater rafting trips, bowling nights, and other activities. Through this club, Boyd has been able to share his experiences with other veterans, and see that he is not alone. Ron Finch is a Marine Corps veteran and counselor who works at the Washington-based National Business Group on Health. His son is currently deployed in Iraq.
Many times, the veterans have been involved in the military culture where they’ve lived in very close proximity with each other for months and maybe years on end. And then suddenly, they’re in a new and different kind of environment where they’ve not been able to yet establish the norms and expectations. They don’t know what’s expected. And so when they are able to find that support being around people who have common experiences and common goals, I think that provides that additional support. That takes away that anomic condition.
Colleges provide an ideal place for veterans to find that shared experience. Already, the VA reports more than 300,000 returning veterans are using their GI bill to attend college, with a tidal wave of more than 500,000 more student veterans expected when a newer expanded education benefit takes effect. Catherine Morris is a Marine Corps veteran herself, and the veterans counselor at Sierra College.
Having a place where veterans can meet, and greet, and have that sense– and it doesn’t take a lot of room. It could even be in my office that it happens. But where they can give each other hope, and share stories. You can’t needlessly make everything go away and make it easier, but you can give them that hope, and that meaning, that purpose, and knowing that it is a long road, but you don’t have to do that road alone. And that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and things will get better.
Unfortunately, six years after the US invasion of Iraq, programs like the one at Sierra College are few and far between. They exist only at a handful of campuses, and almost exclusively at the inspiration of people like Morris, who dedicate their evenings, weekends, and sometimes even their personal checkbooks to helping veterans on campus, with virtually no financial support from our state and federal governments.
That’s unfortunate, because when such community spaces exist, veterans’ drive to help each other takes over. The sense of camaraderie and the urge to leave no one behind that exists on the battlefield can be created again in the classroom. Paul Sullivan, of the organization Veterans for Common Sense, says there’s plenty that every teacher or professor can do to help veterans with minimal time and no money.
- For example, some of these veterans may be in journalism classes. They may be in creative writing classes. They may be in public speaking classes.
The professors, at the pace set by the veterans, can encourage them to write about their experiences in the war for creative writing. Write about their experiences possibly for the newspaper, either writing in the first person, or being an interview subject. Or if it comes to public speaking, some of the veterans may want to choose speaking to other students about their wartime experiences to share the meaning and the purpose of serving in a war.
- Sullivan says teachers and professors can also play a vital role in identifying which veterans need help. Then they can connect them with sources that can aid in their recovery.
If the student turns in a paper that indicates that there might be some concerns– for example, the veteran is writing a story about horrific battlefield events, and their sleepless nights after they’ve returned home, and difficulty relating with friends, and spouse, and whatnot. If that faculty member has been given some sensitivity training to understand the needs of the veteran, then that instructor, that professor, may be able to sit down with that veteran and say, you know, I read your essay. Did you know we have a counseling department here on campus?
Today, TJ Boyd is two years removed from the desperation of suicide. His counselor, Catherine Morris, and the community of veterans around him have helped him get into the Department of Veterans Affairs health system, where he is receiving treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder and his traumatic brain injury. He knows he still has a long way to go to fully recover, but Boyd is studying kinesiology to improve his personal training practice. More importantly, the guilt he feels over leaving his buddies on the battlefield while he attends school is being offset by the help he’s giving to veterans who are just coming home from the front. At one recent pizza party, Boyd stood in front of a crowd of fellow veterans, some just back from the war, and offered his support.
You know, being here, raising that money, raising those fundraisers, getting those scholarships together to help us and help those who are coming in after us, it’s just going to be amazing. A lot of my thanks goes to Catherine and those who came to me when I first got here, because I didn’t know what was going on. When you get out of the service, there’s nobody dibbing and dabbing and telling you what to do next, because we’re lost. We’re just in a cycle.
But when we got things like this, when we have Boots to Books, all these veterans bringing in new people saying, hey, man, don’t feel lost. Get over here. Check this out. That’s amazing. That’s what we’re going to do, and that’s what we’re going to do from now on.
[MUSIC – MARGIN GAYE, “WHAT’S GOING ON”]
- Todd Stenhouse of the National Veterans Foundation.
One of the things that we have to really appreciate about a guy like TJ– or frankly, the hundreds of thousands of individuals like him in this country– is that you’re not defined just by the tragedies in your life. You are defined, in large measure, by your ability to overcome them. And why? Because that inspires so many others. There’s something to be said for tragedy, hope, and triumph, in that order.
Even though I’m not on the front lines, Baghdad, fighting over there anymore, I can fight for people who are done with that just like I am. If somebody tells me that, man, TJ, what you pointed me to, man, it was good to go, that makes me feel good. I’m not done. I still got more to do.
(SINGING) –to bring some lovin’ here today, oh.
For Making Contact, I’m Aaron Glantz.
(SINGING) Picket lines, and picket signs–
That’s it for this edition of Making Contact. Aaron Glantz’s new book, The War Comes Home– Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans is available in bookstores now. Or you can find a link to his website at radioproject.org.
This documentary was produced with the support of the Hechinger Institute for Education and the Media at Columbia University Teachers College, and the Rosalynn Carter Journalism Fellowship Program at the Carter Center. Special thanks to Mike Sieve of New American Media. For a CD copy of this program, call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736. Or you can get our podcast at radioproject.org. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.
(SINGING) Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba. Mother, mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong.