America's invisibly wounded soldiers
About 500,000 Americans who went to Afghanistan and Iraq came home with PTSD
ADAM DROPS THE baby. The baby, who is four days old, is his son, and there is a moment as he is falling that this house he has come home to seems like the most peaceful place in the world. Outside is the cold dead of 3 a.m. on a late-November night in Kansas, but inside is lamplight, the warm smell of a newborn, and Adam's wife, Saskia, beautiful Saskia, who a few minutes before had asked her husband if he could watch the baby so she could get a little sleep. "I got it," he had said. She curled up in the middle of their bed, and the last thing she glimpsed was Adam reclined along the edge, his back against the headboard and the baby in his arms. He was smiling, as if contentment for this wounded man were possible at last, and she believed it enough to shut her eyes, just before he shut his. His arms soon relaxed. His grip loosened. The baby rolled off of his chest and over the edge of the bed, and here came that peaceful moment, the baby in the air. Then the moment is over and everything that will happen is under way.
Saskia is the one who hears it. It is not loud, but it is loud enough. Her eyes fly open. She sees Adam closed-eyed and empty-armed, and only when he hears screaming and feels the sharp elbows and knees of someone scrambling across him does he wake up from the sleep he had promised he didn't need. It takes him a second or two. Then he knows what he has done.
He says nothing. There is nothing he can say. He is sorry. He is always sorry now. He has been sorry for two years, ever since he slunk home from the war. He dresses and leaves the room. He sits for a while in the dark, listening to her soothe the baby, and then he goes outside, gets into his pickup truck, and positions a shotgun so that it is propped up and pointed at his face. In that way, he starts driving, while back in the house, Saskia is trying to understand what happened. This baby. So resilient. Breathing evenly. Not even a mark. Somehow fine. How can that be? But he is. Maybe he is one of the lucky ones, born to be okay.
TWO YEARS. HE is 28 now, is out of the Army, and has gained back some weight. When he left the war as the great Sgt. Schumann, he was verging on gaunt. Twenty-five pounds later, he is once again solid, at least physically. Mentally, though, it is still the day he headed home. Emory, shot in the head, is still draped across his back, and the blood flowing out of Emory's head is still rivering into his mouth. Doster, whom he might have loved the most, is being shredded again and again by a roadside bomb on a mission Adam was supposed to have been on, too, and after Doster is declared dead another soldier is saying to him, "None of this s--- would have happened if you were there." It was said as a soldier's compliment — Adam had the sharpest eyes, Adam always found the hidden bombs, everyone relied on Adam — but that wasn't how he heard it then or hears it now. It might as well have been shrapnel, the way those words cut him apart. It was his fault. It is his fault. The guilt runs so deep it defines him now. He's always been such a good guy, people say of Adam. He's the one people are drawn to, who they root for, smart, decent, honorable, good instincts, that one. And now? "I feel completely broken," Adam says.
"He's still a good guy" is what Saskia says. "He's just a broken good guy."
It's not as if he caused this. He didn't. It's not as if he doesn't want to get better. He does. On other days, though, it seems more like an epitaph, and not only for Adam. All the soldiers he went to war with — the 30 in his platoon, the 120 in his company, the 800 in his battalion — came home broken in various degrees, even the ones who are fine. "I don't think anyone came back from that deployment without some kind of demons they needed to work out," one of those soldiers who was with Adam says.
"Constant nightmares, anger issues, and anytime I go into a public place I have to know what everyone is doing all the time," another of them says.
"Depression. Nightmares of my teeth falling out," another says.
"Other than that, though," the one who might be in the best shape of all says with an embarrassed laugh, after mentioning that his wife tells him he screams every night as he falls asleep. He sounds bewildered by this, as do they all.
Two million Americans were sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Home now, most of them describe themselves as physically and mentally healthy. They move forward. Their war recedes. Some are even stronger for the experience. But then there are the others, for whom the war endures. Of the 2 million, studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — a mental health condition triggered by some type of terror, or traumatic brain injury — TBI — which occurs when a brain is jolted so violently that it collides with the inside of the skull and causes psychological damage. Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: Every war has its after-war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans.
HE DOESN'T BELIEVE anything is wrong with him. That's part of it. At home, he stares at himself in a mirror, ignores what his red eyes look like except to see with continuing regret that he still has two of them, does the inventory. Two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, two hands, two feet. Nothing missing. Symmetrical as ever. He is physically unmarked, so how can he be injured? The answer must be that he isn't. So why was he sent home with a diagnosis of severe PTSD? The answer must be that he's weak. So why was that diagnosis confirmed again and again once he was home? Why does he get angry? Why does he forget things? Why is he jittery? Why can't he stay awake, even after 12 hours of sleep? Why is he still tasting Emory's blood? Because he's weak. Because he's a pussy. Because he's a piece of s---.
Saskia found the house and bought it during Adam's final deployment, the one that wrecked him. This was where they would claim the life they both had expected to have by his enlisting in the Army: house, kids, dogs, yard, money, stability, predictability. She knew he was coming home ill, but she also knew that he would be better once he was away from the war and back with her, that just by her presence he would heal. "That fairy-tale homecoming" is how she thought of it. "Everybody's happy. Kind of like an it-never-happened kind of thing." When he got home and wasn't happy, she told him she understood, and when he said he wasn't yet ready to be around a lot of people, she understood that, too. Her patience, she had decided, would be bottomless. Saskia decorated the bedroom with a wall stenciling that said "Always Kiss Me Goodnight."
He did. Then, dulled by prescriptions for anxiety and depression and jitteriness and exhaustion and headaches, he didn't. And then she didn't, either, not always, and gradually less than that.
NOW THEY ARE on their way to the VA hospital in Topeka, 60 miles to the east, for a doctor's appointment. The war left him with PTSD, depression, nightmares, headaches, tinnitus, and mild traumatic brain injury, the result of a mortar round that dropped without warning out of a blue sky and exploded close enough to momentarily knock him silly. Between his government disability check of $800 a month and his $36,000-a-year salary from a job he managed to find, he is pulling in about two thirds of what he made in the Army.
It has been eight years since they met. This was in Minot, N.D. She was just out of high school, a girl who never missed curfew and was now on her own in a cheap basement apartment, and one day she emerged from the basement to the sight of a local boy with a rough reputation sitting in the sun without a shirt. What Adam saw was a girl staring at him whose beauty seemed a counterpoint to everything in his life so far, and that was that, for both of them. Soon came marriage and now here they are.
Sometimes after they fight, she counts his pills to make sure he hasn't swallowed too many and checks on the guns to make sure they're all there. The thought that he might not recover, that this is how it will be, makes her sick with dread sometimes, and the thought that he might kill himself leaves her feeling like her insides are being twisted until she can't breathe.
The truth is that he has been thinking about killing himself, more and more. But he hasn't said anything to her, or to anyone, not lately, because what would be the point? How many psychiatrists and therapists has he talked to? How many times has he mentioned it, and where has it gotten him?
"You have suicidal thoughts: You reported daily thoughts of suicide with a plan and a means. However, you repeatedly denied intent to harm yourself due to care for your family" was one psychiatrist's report, which went on to note: "You have the ability to maintain minimum personal hygiene."
Well, at least there's that, Adam thought when he came across that report. Crazy, but clean. He found it when he was going through papers to see what he might need to bring with him to the VA. His medical file is thick and repetitive and soon bored him, and he turned his attention to several boxes filled with letters that he and Saskia had written to each other while he was overseas, love letters all. They wrote to each other just about every day. That's how they were. He read a few, and when they started making him a little sad over what had been lost between them, he moved on to other boxes.
At the hospital now. Adam goes in to the doctor, preceded by all of the previous histories dictated about him over these two years. Saskia waits outside. Sometimes she goes in with him, sometimes not. She is sure she knows what the doctor will say: Adam is wounded. Adam is ill. Adam needs to stay on his medications. Adam deserves the thanks of a grateful nation.
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