Editor’s Note: Allen* is a white Infantry veteran in his mid-thirties who completed three deployments, including one during an overseas engagement before 2001, and two deployments during the Iraq War. At the time of his interview, he was working as a civilian contractor, training soldiers at Fort Hood. He and his wife Carissa* have been together throughout his military career, and she testified with him.
Grew up in Kentucky, but I spent the last 12 years stationed in South Dakota at Fort Meade. And then I got out of the Army about six years ago, so I’ve been bouncing around since then.
Probably well before I remember actually deciding to join the military, my dad was in the Army. I was born at Fort Lee. Both my grandfathers were in the military—one Army, one Army Air Corps. And it’s just something I always wanted to do. I had originally planned on going to college and becoming an officer, but that didn’t work out. I enlisted instead.
I wasn’t really looking to get anything out of it, or I didn’t really think of it in those terms. I know some people will enlist to get college money, or to get job training. I wasn’t really thinking that far ahead. I was planning on doing 20 and retiring.
It was just something I always wanted to do. And I also grew up liking the military toys, the vehicles and weapons. Not necessarily their intended use, but fixing them, taking them apart, putting them together, designing them. So, I wanted to go play with the cool toys.
I don’t know how it is now, because a lot of stuff has changed in the last six years, but while I was in, it was difficult to get mental health care, at least for me. Not because anybody was really against it, but because our schedule and everything else was such that I didn’t have enough downtime really, to go do anything on my own. I was in a tank platoon, and we had 16 people, total. To take care of four Abrams tanks. And that’s it. If one person is missing, then you’ve only got four people on a tank crew, and one of them’s always missing for something. It just doesn’t leave you a whole lot of free time. I mean, you can ask for time off, but then your command wants to know where you’re going, and what’s the appointment for, and you may or may not be comfortable sharing that with them.
I was fortunately blessed, with a fairly good NCO corps above me. When I did go get some mental health treatment while I was still active, of course, I had to tell my platoon sergeant where I was going and why, but not necessarily all the details. And he was the type of person that was able to tell the rest of the platoon, “Hey, he’s got an appointment. Y’all don’t need to know anything more.” But I know there’s a lot of soldiers that are not that fortunate.
But once you get to the health care people, the active duty medical world is geared heavily toward return to duty. So in order to get any appointment up at the hospital, I have to go through my PA, who at the time was a complete jerk. He was under the impression that he was a doctor, and could diagnose and treat everything in-house, and didn’t like to give referrals. So you had to convince him first, and he was hard to convince. And the only way to get around that was to go outside the system, which eventually gets back to him, and then he gets mad at you, and makes it even harder to get more appointments later.
But, once you get up to the mental health guys—I got screened by a specialist, who was maybe 22 years old. They sit down with a questionnaire, and they check the boxes, and then it goes up to somebody who may or may not have any training, and they screen it and go, “Oh yeah, they need help,” or, “Nah, they’re fine.” Maybe they talked to me, maybe they didn’t. At the time, it was just a very broken system.
From pretty much the beginning of my Army career, my knees were shot. Jumping up and down off of tanks, running on concrete—very, very bad for knees. Humans are not designed for the stuff we do to each other. I’d go into the PA, because every time I’d go run, my knees would swell up. I’d sit in the waiting room, waiting to be seen, the swelling would go down. Then, he finally takes a look at me and says, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong. Have a nice day.” I couldn’t even get a profile out of him for the longest time. When I finally went in and he actually saw my knees swelled up for once, he told me it was normal. So I simply suggested to him that the other 75 guys in my company needed to make appointments with him. And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Their knees don’t swell up. Something’s wrong.”
I’ve got two inches worth of medical records, of showing me going in there for “My knees hurt,” or “My back hurts,” or “My knees hurt and my back hurts.” I tore my back muscles the first day of Basic Training, and they still haven’t healed right. That was 1998. Their whole gearing was return to duty. If they can’t prove something is actually wrong, they won’t send you to a specialist to find out, they’ll just send you back to duty. They give me some Motrin, tell me to have a nice day. And now I’ve gotten to the point where morphine doesn’t affect me at all. That makes surgeries really interesting.
I got a bunch of Motrin, I got some x-rays shot of my knees. And cartilage doesn’t show up on x-rays, so they looked at the bones, and went, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with the bones.” They did the same thing with my back. I got diagnosed with torn back muscles. And then I had an x-ray, and a bone scan, and found [nothing].
Editor’s Note: Allen’s wife Carissa* also gave testimony during the interview—her remarks are indicated by the initials of her alias, CD, and are included in the indented text.
CD: There was one time when he came down with the flu. And of course we lived off-post, because we’re married. We lived almost an hour away from post. And he came down with the flu overnight. He wasn’t feeling so well at work the night before, but literally, he slept through his alarm. I tried to get him up, because his alarm woke me up, and wasn’t really able to get him up. And I was like, “He really needs to sleep, he’s really sick.” You know, there’s no way I’m gonna just throw him in the car and tell him to drive an hour to work. He was already a sergeant at this time, he was already trusted.
Even living an hour from post, I was very rarely late to work, through my own fault. You know, if the road’s snowed in, there’s nothing much I can do about it. But other than that, I rarely sleep through the alarm, I’m in there before most of the rest of the platoon, even living an hour away. My alarm was set to go off at four o’clock in the morning. I had to be at work by 6:30am.
CD: …Both of us were very aware of medical stuff. And I’m like, he needs to stay home, he needs to sleep. Have some chicken soup, keep him hydrated…And he’ll be fine, and he’ll be back at work the next day if we just let him rest, right? So I actually called…ended up talking to his sergeant, and his sergeant was like, “I know, I totally believe you, that he’s just sick. But he has to go to sick call.”
…I [had] to wake him up, put him in a car, and make him drive an hour so that he can go to sick call, so they can tell us what we already know, which is he has the flu, and he should stay home and rest…
Editor’s note: Allen continued to testify about his other experiences with health care during his active duty years.
…I [was also] diagnosed with depression… My platoon sergeant, I think I actually told him. He was just like, “Okay. So, we’ll keep an eye on you if we deploy.” And sure as hell, we deployed. He was really cool. He made sure that I was okay. He made sure that nothing was really affecting me. During my first deployment, my grandmother died. And I had already been slated to take leave around that time. He tried like hell to get me on the next thing smoking out of dodge.
…After talking to my parents and everyone else involved, I finally went to him and said, “You know what? Sergeant, just don’t.” ‘Cause at the time it was taking between five and nine days for someone to get from Iraq to actual home. And I told him, “You know, I don’t want to yank somebody off of their leave so that I can go to a funeral. ‘Cause honestly, I don’t really like funerals. They pretty much suck.” …And he actually pulled me off of missions for a couple of days to make sure I was cool, and could sit there and talk to my parents and my wife, and figure out what we were trying to do. So he shuffled people around in the platoon. He said we could still get the missions done… But I’ve also met other soldiers that didn’t have that kind of support from their NCOs.
If he called me today and said, “Hey, I’m deploying and I need you on my crew,” I’d probably go shave and suit up, and go over there. I would go back to war with him, in a heartbeat. Some of the other people I served with, maybe not.
[For my knees, I was diagnosed with] Retropatellar Knee Pain…which means ‘pain behind my kneecaps.’ They told me, “Don’t run as much.” Which, in the Army, is like, “Pretty much ignore this profile, because you’re gonna be running.”
It wasn’t bad enough [back then] for me to need a profile though. It took almost four years for me to convince him [my PA] there was something wrong in the first place. And then we started deploying.
…For my knees, I think I had a five-day profile once. And that was about it. Most of the time I just ran with the slow group. That was where my run times ended up. I was trying to get profiles. But the PA at the time was convinced that he was right and no one else could be.
[I did have profiles for my back] in Basic, where they’re a lot more willing to give you profiles, but they’re a lot shorter-term ones. ‘Cause, of course, you’re in Basic Training, if you can’t do the PT there, then you need to get back out of the Army. And it’s in the period called Initial Entry Training, where you can come in, and if something’s wrong, like you can’t do the PT, they chapter you out, but it’s not really like getting kicked out of the Army or discharged.
… What initially happened [to my back] was, we were lifting railroad ties, and cleaning up the PT pit. And I lifted incorrectly, with my knees and not my back. And something popped in my back. And I’m like, “Okay, drill sergeant, I’m done.” …It’s the first day of Basic Training. Literally, like they picked us up that morning, we went to the barracks, changed into PTs, and went to clean up the pit.
…And he’s like, “Alright, that’s cool, We’ll pick it back up tomorrow.” And the next morning, I missed formation. Because I was laying on my bunk, and I could not move my legs. Literally, they did not feel like they were responding to signals from my brain. And I hear everybody outside the barracks, you know, everybody forms up, and yells, “Where the hell is Dunajs?!” “Oh, drill sergeant, he’s still on his rack, he says he can’t move.”
…He comes stompin’ in, and he’s like, “What the hell is your problem!?” And I said, “Drill sergeant, I am not screwing around, I cannot move my legs.” And he softened up a little bit, ’cause he had already gotten to know me in just two day’s time, and I am not the kind of guy that just complains. You know, I actually wanted to be there, I actually wanted to do this. So he’s like, “All right, roll over, let me take a look.” And he lifts up the back of my shirt, and he goes white. And he grabs two guys, he’s like, “You. You. Carry him to sick call.”
So they carried me over there, and apparently from what the guys were describing…it was a solid 10-inch by 4-inch bruise. So they carried me over to sick call, and by the time I was done waiting in the waiting room, my leg started working again, which was awesome. Because I thought I was looking at a wheelchair. They diagnosed me with torn muscles. Five day profile. That’s the most they’re legally allowed to give you in Initial Entry Training. Anything over that, we start chapter paperwork.
My back cleared up as much as it can in five days. And it was right back to PT. Well, the next month, you know, my back’s torn up again by now, ’cause we’re carrying rucksacks, we’re doing road marches, carrying weapons, all kinds of stupid things that we do in Basic. And I went back to sick call. “My back’s hurting again. Like, a lot.” And they give me another profile. Five days, torn back muscles. Saw the same doctor…’cause that’s all she can do. The fourth time I went back, in as many months, I got a different doctor. He ordered an x-ray and a bone scan, told me there’s nothing wrong with my back, and if he sees me in there again he’s gonna kick me out, I’m malingering. Which is not an honorable discharge.
So I quit going to sick call for my back.
…I haven’t been to sick call for my back since. ‘Cause that’s already in my records, and I didn’t want to get kicked out…And so, I’m not gonna give them any ammunition. They say my back’s fine, okay, fine. [But] it’s not fine.
…It depends on your NCOs, and it depends on your command. I stayed in the same company, in the same unit, for seven and a half years. I got to see a lot of different leadership come and go, under the same framework. So it’s not like I switched units, where things are different, and got different command…And, you know, everybody’d be out there running unless they have an iron-clad, profile—a cast on their leg type of profile. If you can run, you will run.
And I’ve also seen the guys that’re like, “Okay, you’ve got a profile, cool. You’re over in—” and we call it the ‘Broke Dick Platoon.’ …And we would go off and do the PT that we could do. As much as we could do. We’re not trying to get out of it. We’re not trying to be lazy, although people looked at us like we were trying to be lazy, sometimes. But for the most part, we’re trying to get better. The point of a profile is to give you time to heal without screwing it up more. And the vast majority of the time, the profiles were followed.
The times that I saw people break their profiles, it wasn’t command making them do it. It was them trying to push themselves. Because a lot of people…don’t realize that if it’s not healed, you’re just gonna do more damage. They think, “Okay, well, it’s been three days, and it doesn’t hurt right now”—because you haven’t run on it in three days, “I should be good.” And then they go out and try to run, and end up destroying their knees. The majority of the time, it’s their own stupid fault, at least in that unit. I’ve also heard of people, like in Ranger and Infantry units, where profiles are pretty much meaningless to their command. It depends on the command…and whether or not the leadership there takes profiles seriously or not.
I started off in another Armor unit, and couldn’t pass the PT test to save my life. ‘Cause I’ve never been good at running…I stayed an E-2 for a little over a year. Because I couldn’t pass a PT test. And they also had a very big good-old-boy system going on there, and I was the new guy. And they didn’t particularly care for me. But then I switched units, and the first thing my new tank manager did was looked at me and says, “You’re an E-2.” I said, “Yeah, sergeant.” He said, “How long have you been in the army?” I said, “A little over a year.” “So why in the HELL are you still E-2?”
And I said, “Because I have a hard time passing a PT test up here. I haven’t passed one yet.” And he says, “Alright. We got two months [left in] that training. By the end of that, you will be E-3… You will pass a PT test, and I will promote you to E-3 as soon as you do.” And he was true to his word, we went out jogging and running every other day. ‘Cause…he knew that running every day actually makes your run times worse. So I’d go run one day, and then we’d do push-ups and sit-ups the next day, and flop back and forth. And sure as shit, by the end of that two months, I passed the PT test, and two days later, he pinned me with E-3.
[Profile violation is] not nearly as much as people think. Most soldiers, they get a profile, they’ll follow it. Honestly, lower enlisted soldiers are inherently lazy. They will try to get out of work as much as they can. No matter how motivated they are… For the most part. Some of them, you know, get really high-speed, and they want to push themselves. They wanna get back into it. They want to prove themselves… Nine times out of 10, they end up hurting themselves worse.
That was actually a big problem [for me], because I don’t feel right sitting off to the side while everybody else is doing PT. But at the same time, I’m not here to get hurt. I picked heavy armor [as a job] because there’s three and a half feet of steel between me and anybody else that wants me dead. Why the hell would I hurt myself?
So I took those five-day profiles, and I’d go off to the side, because in Basic Training they are adamant about profiles. If you have a profile, they won’t let you do anything. But that’s Initial Entry Training, and it’s kind of like a whole different world. Because the drill sergeants will get strung up if they violate someone’s profile… They will cease to be a drill sergeant. And that looks worse on a resume than not having been a drill sergeant looks. In Basic Training, they’re really careful about profiles.
“Oh, you have a profile? Oh, you’re off to the side.” And I would sit over there and do stretches, and you know, an hour of stretching will still wear you out. And it’ll still make your muscles hurt. But having been a student athletic trainer in high school, I know what stretching does to muscles, and it helps build them back up. So I was over there stretching myself until I was about to cry. ‘Cause it flippin’ hurt. But I was still trying to get better. I couldn’t do the push-ups, I couldn’t do the sit-ups, whatever. But I can at least try to better myself either way. For a lot of the soldiers, it’s just a point of pride. Not only do you not want to be seen as lazy, you don’t want to be lazy. You know, you didn’t join the army to sit behind a desk and push paper. Those that did, do. But you don’t join Combat Arms so that you can take it easy.
Between my two tours in Iraq… I came down on orders for recruiting. I only had a year left on my contract. Recruiting is a three-year stint. They said, “You have to re-enlist… You’re on orders for recruiting. You don’t have enough time. You must re-enlist.” I said, “You’re going to have to delete the orders, ’cause I’m not re-enlisting.” So we went back and forth like that for a little while, and they said, “Okay, well, we’re making you go recruiting anyway. And we’re going to involuntarily extend you for two years.” And I was like, “Oh, this oughta be a cute trick. So you’re going to stop-loss me two years so that I can recruit? Yeah, I’m gonna get kicked out in the first week. I guarantee you.” ‘Cause right now I’m the last person you want recruiting people. And one of the steps to be qualified for a recruiter is you have to go through a mental health eval. I already had my diagnosis for depression.
So I went up to [the hospital], where the mental health people hang out, and I had to go get their little health eval questionnaire filled out. Yay. So I sit down in the office, and this little E-4 comes in, and sits down in front of me with the questionnaire already filled out and signed. And she’s like, “Well, this is pretty much just a formality, you know, if you came down on orders for recruiting, then all of these answers should be correct. Are you under any treatment for mental health?” And I said, “Yes.” She went, “Uh oh…It’s marked ‘No’ here.”
I’m like, “Well, that’s not mine… Yes, I’m under treatment. In THAT office right there across the hall…every other Thursday I come up here, and go to that office and get treated, so your questionnaire’s wrong.” She said, “But, if you answer ‘Yes’ to this, you don’t qualify for recruiting.” And I’m like, “Then you better change that damn answer, ’cause I’m not re-enlisting either.” So she had to go get a blank form and actually fill in the correct answers. ‘Cause the way the system was set up, generally if you come down on recruiting, you’re qualified for it. And you know, at that point, yeah, the questionnaire is pretty much a formality. Well, I was different. And it kind of bugged me that she sat down with one that’s already filled out and signed and stamped and sealed and, I’m like, “Your answers are wrong.” …And I haven’t been a recruiter.
CD: [And they also] tried to tell [him], “Well, if you don’t go recruiting, you’re just gonna get stop-lossed and get sent back to Iraq.” And he’s like, “That’s fine, and it’s still not two years extra.”
I’d rather go drive a tank than go sit in an office… I told them straight out, if you send me to recruiting, I’m gonna be honest.” And they’re like, “Good, you should be honest!” And I’m like, “No, you don’t understand me. I’m going to tell them the truth about being in the Army.” They said, “Don’t do that.”
They didn’t know about [my treatment], because mental health is confidential. It doesn’t go into your medical records. It stays in your mental health records, they are a separate file. At least at the time when we were still dealing with paper. I don’t know how it is now, with all the electronic stuff. But my PA had no idea that I was going to mental health. It didn’t go through him. It went around him.
My command structure knew that I had an appointment at the hospital. My platoon sergeant knew more details, ’cause I trusted him. But my first sergeant, he’s like, “Hey, I need you to do something Thursday afternoon.” And I said, “I can’t, first sergeant, I got an appointment.” He’s like, “Oh, that’s right, you got that recurring appointment.” He knows damn well where I’m going! Recurring appointment at the hospital on Thursday afternoon at three to four. And I’m not coming back with bandages or x-ray films. It’s for mental health. It doesn’t take a genius. But he knows better than to blab it all over the place. You know, whatever’s wrong with me, I’m getting help for it. So, he’s happy. He’ll live without me for an hour a week, so that I don’t go postal and shoot somebody with a damn tank.
There wasn’t a profile. I was under treatment, which automatically disqualified me for recruiting. The reason it disqualifies you from recruiting is because if the Army’s taking care of you, and you’re receiving treatment for something, you’re supposed to be seen at a Tri-Care facility. If you go recruiting, there’s no guarantee that you will be within three hundred miles of a Tri-Care facility…since I’m already being treated for it, they’re not allowed to stop that care to move me around.
CD: And that was one of the concerns they had with [his] deployment. What they were telling him was, “We have no power, even though you’re under the mental health care, to stop you from getting deployed. I mean, we could write stuff up all day, but…” The rules weren’t in place.
Depression was not a sickness that would put you on non-deployable status. Simple depression. Depression with threats of suicide? Definitely Rear-D. You get stuck on rear detachment, you don’t deploy.
I said, “I’m deploying, what do I do about my meds?” They said, “Go down to the pharmacy.” And I go down to the pharmacy, and I shit you not, they gave me a six-month supply of Wellbutrin. That’s a huge bottle.
And I’m like, “What happens after six months?” They said, “As soon as you hit ground in Kuwait… The first person you need to see is this doctor that runs the hospital there. The mental health guy.” And they gave me his name and his rank and his office phone number, in Kuwait. They said, “As soon as you hit ground, go talk to him.”
And I did. I hit ground, I told my platoon sergeant, I said, “Hey, I need to go talk to this dude about, you know, my appointments.” And he went, “Okay! Have a nice time.” You know, try not to get blown up on the way. And I walked across camp, talked to this doctor. I said, “I was given your name because I’m on Wellbutrin and being treated for this.” He said, “Oh yeah, no problem.” Reached in the cabinet behind his desk, and gave me another six-month supply. Without even signing for it. He was just like, “Oh, yeah. You got your six-month supply, you brought that over?” I said, “Yeah, it’s in my duffel bag.” He goes, “Okay, here’s enough for the other six months. If you get extended past that year, call me.” And, “Here’s my phone number, here’s my radio frequency.” You could actually call him on the radio, from anywhere in-country. He had a satellite phone number.
CD: Personally, I see a huge problem with that. Because now you’re unsupervised on the medication. And even in the civilian world, the minimum after you’ve been on it for a while, you will have a med supervision appointment every six months, which he’s not getting. And not to mention, with depression, most of the time antidepressants are a great way to kill yourself. So if he does become suicidal now, he has a whole year’s worth of pills to take to kill himself with.
The reason they were able to do that is because I had been stabilized on the Wellbutrin for over eight months before the deployment. And had been going to the monthly appointments, and was supposed to go to our mental health provider once we settled down to the camp. The only catch was, the camp that I settled down at didn’t have one. Because it wasn’t big enough. Big enough for two battalion’s worth of tanks; not big enough for mental health provider.
Honestly, the appointments [before deployment] were just for the medication. I wasn’t getting counseling appointments at that point. ‘Cause the psychiatrist who was prescribing the meds is not a counselor. And the counselors at the hospital were so backlogged that there was no way I was getting in before I made General. I asked them for a counseling appointment, and they tried to schedule me a year and a half out. And I was just like, “You know what, I’ll come back.”
Generally, [for mental health needs, you see a psychiatrist first]. The one that prescribes meds. Because the Army figures if they give you a pill and make the problem go away, then we don’t even have to talk to your ass.
[The only counseling I had was between tours], through Army OneSource. Three appointments for free, and then you could extend it from there. And I think we ended up going until 12 or 15 total.
[My depression] had been going on, in all honesty, probably before I was even in the Army. I didn’t notice any difference. One of the questions they asked was, “What is your mood like most of the time?” And I said, “Flat.” And they just look at me and they say, “That wasn’t one of your choices.” And I’m like, “You asked me a question. I gave you the answer.” And like, “No. Happy or Sad?” …“Neither. In the middle. Just…there.” And they’re like “But…but that’s not one of the choices. That doesn’t make you manic or depressive.”
I’m like, “Well, then, you’re screwed. You need to figure something else out.” You know, what do you want me to do, make up an answer? Fine, I’m happy. Can I go now? …Dysthymic depression screwed up all their questionnaires. Because most of the time they’re looking for someone who got depressed [recently]. I’m like, “No, this has been going on for eight years…” So they come back with, “Oh, then you’re not depressed.” Like, okay. Should I go back to the motor pool now?
The person had no training…they wouldn’t have known the difference. They were just doing a questionnaire.
That was when I got the diagnosis of depression through the Army OneSource [between tours]. It wasn’t even the hospital that did that… So I went to OneSource, and I talked to the lady for what, all of 30 minutes. And she’s like, “You have dysthymic depression. Take that [diagnosis] back to the hospital.” …So I walked back into the doctor at the hospital and said, “Apparently I’m depressed.” And he says, “Take Wellbutrin. Go back to work.”
Okay. Drive by the pharmacy, get Wellbutrin, go back to work. Wellbutrin didn’t work worth a crap, by the way… I bounced around to a couple other [medications], and they all had pretty much the same effect.
…So I told the doctor, “I don’t want to keep taking this.” And he said, “Okay.” Like, “You’re not going to ask my WHY?” He goes, “Oh yeah, why?” I’m like, “Because the side effects are screwing with me.” And he says, “Oh. Try this one.” “What’s the side effects on that one?” And he says, “Pretty much the same shit. It’s just a different drug.”
One of them made me get the shakes, which is crappy. You know, try gunning on a tank when you’re [shaking and jerking]…Right. Ain’t nothing safe on that range but the targets. One gave me the shakes, one gave me lack of libido, I suppose would be the technical term for that. One made me want cigarettes like nobody’s business.
So I was smoking like a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. No shit, I can’t sleep. You know, I’m fried out on nicotine all day, and I get like an hour and a half of sleep, and now I’m exhausted. Need more cigarettes. ‘Cause I won’t drink energy drinks…I actually tried energy drinks for a while. Those just make my blood pressure skyrocket. So I just couldn’t win. I eventually just quit taking the meds.
I was an NCO for the better part of four years. While I was in, brain injuries pretty much didn’t exist yet. I mean, believe me, they existed, but they weren’t something that was looked for or treated. Because the Army medical system as a whole didn’t see them as a disorder yet. In ’03, we were one of the first units in Iraq… We were sitting down in Kuwait loading ammo onto the tanks when George Bush said, “Major combat operations are over!” And we said, “Shit, can we put this shit back on the racks?” And they said, “No.”
…In fact, we were so early in the current conflict in Iraq that we didn’t even have IBAs yet. They didn’t exist yet. They were ordering them, and Point Blank was making them by the thousands, but they didn’t get to us until about halfway through that first tour. So the nice, thick body armor, we didn’t have. Not because the Army funding wasn’t there, or because our unit was getting screwed, but simply because they didn’t exist yet. And we were in tanks. What the hell do we need body armor for? And then they started giving us humvees, which was dumb. And they’re like, “Oh yeah, y’all might want body armor.” And I’m like, “No shit.” You know, this canvas wall isn’t really gonna do much. We were able to run around in un-armored humvees. Because that was all we had.
We had what I like to call “laminate cellulose granulated silicon armor.” That would be plywood and sandbags. It sounds really high tech. It’s actually just plywood and sandbags.
…We started getting IEDs, and they went, “Dude, this crap ain’t workin’. We need to figure something out quick.” That was a response to what we went through in 2003.
…Here and there, most of the time you get PTSD, but you get diagnosed as depression. Because even the DSM-IV hadn’t caught up yet. You know, they’re still running off of late-’70s, early-’80s technology as far as diagnosis. So they look at what problems you’re having, and it fits into this list, and “Okay, you are diagnosed with [this].”
CD: That’s assuming you even sought treatment…a lot of times, if you’re at a small camp or whatever, the medics aren’t trained on anything psych, for sure, and TBI looks a lot like psych… The regional care manager for DVBIC, Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Coalition, she runs the hospital care in Texas, and she does the whole Western region. And basically, [she said] they were finding that they were treating people for blast injuries, and then a couple years later going back and realizing that the physical injuries they treated, there was also a TBI there and they have to go back and treat the TBI.
If you got blown up, you know, they were treating your blown up arm, and fitting you with a prosthetic and doing physical therapy, and sending you home. And not even treating the TBI in these patients who were unconscious for two weeks. So the guy in the field, who’s unconscious for 30 seconds, it wasn’t diagnosed, there was no structure to do that.
…I had been through EMT class… And I had my Combat Lifesaver. But none of that [TBI information] was in the training. It didn’t exist yet. I mean, obviously the injuries existed, but we didn’t know about it. You [treated] it as a concussion. You watch it for 48 hours, make sure they don’t fall asleep.
That was just common knowledge. When I landed in Kuwait in 2003, there was one psychiatrist in theater…to my knowledge. There may have been more, but there was only one I had access to. And that was the doctor in Kuwait. More than 2,000 miles from where I was based.
[The Chaplain Corps] were our mental health guys… They’re not a qualified psychologist, but they are trained in counseling, to a certain extent. Like going to your pastor for counseling. And, to be totally honest, our Chaplain Corps does the best that they can. I’m not saying they’re doing great, because they’re not. But they’re not trained for it. It’s not their job. And they are winging it the best they can. And they are really trying hard.
But our regiment has a Chaplain. For 6,000 people. How much time you honestly gonna get with it?
[People talked about PTSD] a little bit, on the second tour. ‘Cause we got the new ACHs, we got the new helmets and body armor because they had figured out that the blast injuries were screwing us up. The whole first tour and in between tours, the Army R&D was going haywire. We’ve had the same helmet since mid-’80s, the old Kevlar with the suspension straps. And they figured out rather quickly that that helmet [was] not protecting us from brain injuries.
…And now I’ve seen research from, I believe it was the Australian army, that there is absolutely nothing you can put on your head that will protect you from blast injury. It’s just not gonna happen. But God bless ’em, the Army was trying. And they tried like hell, they were developing stuff and pushing it out to the troops as fast as they could, without even testing half of it. They’re just like, “It might work. Here. Wear this, and let us know how it does.”
It started to [get better] a tiny bit, right at the end of my second tour. Because the unit that came in and replaced us, their medics had had the training. But it was very miniscule, at the time. It has expanded since then. They were just getting the beginnings of, “This is what you look for, and write it up as a TBI, so that when they get back, they can get treated for it.”
[PTSD came up] a little bit. At least, our second tour, the policy was if somebody died in your company…the company would get 24 hours, no missions. Everybody else would just have to cover for them for 24 hours. You know, deal with it. If you were on maintenance day, tough shit, you’re not on maintenance day anymore. And we had to cover for other units that lost guys. And it worked both ways, and nobody had a problem with it. But you would get 24 hours of downtime. Where you could sit back, you don’t have to worry about going out on missions, you don’t have to worry about prepping vehicles, going on guard, nothing. ‘Cause companies are pretty close-knit… And that really helped, I think, alleviate some of the PTSD. But it only goes so far.
Pretty much [that was the only PTSD treatment in theater]. I mean, you still gotta go back on a mission. You can’t have everybody down until they feel better. Because, you know, you still got a mission to accomplish.
If the mission can support it [you get time off]. You know, our company only had 72 people. And we had two tanks out on the route 24 hours a day. We were working 12-on 12-off missions. So you lose one person, you’re screwed! You have to have three people to operate that vehicle! It’s not like we roll out there with one dude asleep in the seat. You have a driver, you have a commander, you have a gunner. We’re already stripped down as low as we can go, ’cause we’ve eliminated the loader. And so, you lose a person for two or three weeks? You’re done. You don’t have enough people to accomplish the mission.
If you go out there even more short-handed, somebody’s gonna get hurt. ‘Cause you don’t have enough pairs of eyes. Our second tour, our whole job was protecting this one section of road, one of the main supply routes… I watched almost every one of those convoys roll by me. Fuel, every day. Thousands and thousands of gallons every day. Trucks full of food, and stuff for the PXs. And ammunition, and you name it, it was going through our area. We were tasked with, “Keep this road open. Don’t let them put IEDs out there.” “Okay, roger.” Well, you got three pairs of eyes out there on one vehicle, so six total—with two tanks you’ve got six pairs of eyes, on a six mile stretch of road. And you lose one person? How much is gonna get past you?
When we took [that road] over from the Marines, they were getting over a hundred IED hits a day, on that one five-mile stretch of road. In less than two months, we had that reduced to one a week. Because we were watching that close. Even with just six pair of eyes. We would roll the tanks up and down the road. If a car stopped for more than two seconds, we’d be on them like white on rice. With a tank, going, “What’re you doing?” Half the time, they just drive off. Go plant their IED somewhere else, or whatever. It got to the point where, instead of burying them, the best they could do was to drive down the road at 60 miles an hour, open the back door, and kick it out the door. Because they knew if they stopped for more than two seconds, we would drive a tank up on top of them, and ask them what they’re doing. And even if they detonate it, it’s not gonna do anything to the tank.
CD: His second tour, they had two big focuses, for mental health, basically. And it was, “Don’t drive tired,” and make sure no one else is suicidal… So you’re supposed to run around asking everybody if they had a plan.
That was hilarious. Their whole suicide prevention was, “Ask them if they have a plan.” And my only thought at that time was, “I am required, by policy, to carry a loaded 9mm pistol, at ALL TIMES. Okay, if I am ever more than arms length from one of my weapons, I am in deep shit. How much planning is this gonna take?” …Although, in the one year [in Iraq]… I don’t remember anyone from our squadron committing suicide…out of that whole year. We lost plenty of people out on routes and stuff. But, you know, it’s combat. That’s what happens in combat… I think there was one or two over in [another squadron].
…After we got back, you know, it kind of goes to the wind.
CD: We were hearing it almost weekly in the papers, about soldiers committing suicide, after he got out.
But there were also what, over 500,000 troops over there. So, you come back, and every week one or two commit suicide. And you’re just like, “I didn’t know him.” And, as callous as it sounds, we went through the same thing with the phone centers over there. You come back from a mission and it’s like, “Hey, the phone center’s shut down.” And you’re like, “Dammit, who died?” “I don’t know, somebody from [the other squadron].” “Well then, I don’t give a fuck.” And it’s not that you don’t care that an American soldier died. But it’s like, I didn’t know him. I just want to call my family, and let them know I’m okay… And that wears hard on you, when you come back off of 12 hours of sheer terror, and you just want to talk to somebody. Preferably not somebody you just spend the last 12 hours with. And you can’t, because somebody else 50 miles away, had the rudeness to die on you. It’s like, “Quit dying, I want to call my wife.”
So it wasn’t really pressure to ignore the injuries. We didn’t know they were there…
CD: what makes me mad is when I was researching what could be wrong with him. I found scientific papers that had been published more than 10 years before the war, talking about this kind of injury, that there have been studies done in Northern Ireland, about blast type injuries. And that it had been pointed out to the Senate and to our military leaders before any of this happened, that if we have this type of war, and this type of thing occurring, with the IEDs, and everything else, that we’re gonna see a lot of injuries like this. So, it was known in the higher levels. It wasn’t known to the medics, it wasn’t known to the average soldier.
The higher levels weren’t expecting us to get hit that much… They were under the impression that, just like in ’91, when we went into Iraq, it was gonna be a quick in-and-out, crush them, and let’s move on. They weren’t expecting a long, drawn-out war. My first tour, I got hit with maybe three IEDs over the whole year. My second tour, I got more than 300.
It escalated that fast. My tours were 11 months apart. So in less than a year, it went from one blast every four months to one blast every five minutes. It escalated that fast. Mostly it escalated when Al Zarqawi came into power, as it were, which happened between my two tours… We came back a year later, and tried to un-fuck it. And it didn’t work.
It just kept escalating. We were expecting our heavy armor to protect us, we were expecting the body armor and helmets to protect us, and they found out rapidly that it wasn’t doing the job. Because it’s not designed for stuff like that. I’ve really got to hand it to the R&D guys, they tried like hell to protect us. It didn’t work, because there’s nothing you can do about it. But they tried. They really did… And consequently, they didn’t know about the injuries, so they tried to protect us from them. When they found out that didn’t work, then the treatments came in…
Having more mental health professionals and people trained in such things, in theater [would help]. Like I said, we were going to the Chaplains. And they’re not trained for it.
CD: And having the ability to give you time off, so that you could see the help.
…[Maybe] train the medics on it, because the medics are with every unit. And I know they’re not gonna be fully qualified or anything like that, but you know, more training than they usually get. Maybe the PAs. Maybe one mental health aid station, even. ‘Cause I can always get to my Battalion Aid Station. Even if you put one psych nurse at each aid station, that would probably help quite a bit.
They didn’t have enough psych nurses. There was maybe a few hundred in the Army, total. You know, you can’t push those down to every unit, there just aren’t enough of them. And it’s not like you can go down to some civilian clinic, grab a random psychiatrist or psychologist, and say hey, “You wanna deploy to Iraq?!” They’ll diagnose you as Fucking Crazy.
CD: And you gotta remember, what kind of treatment did he get when he went to the Army hospital at the time, in between his two tours? …And that was this side. Forget deployed.
Deployed, they look at you and go, “Go out to the rifle range and shoot shit?” “Fuck it, alright.”
CD: Or, “Let’s go lift weights.” You get a lot of that.
Well, that’s how each individual person handles it. Some people have a rough day and they want to go lift weights. Some of them go over to the coffeeshop, get fried out on caffeine. Some kick back with porn. Well, whatever works. Some of them just go to the phone center, and talk to somebody that cares, or talk to somebody that doesn’t care! Whichever they call!
We [helped] each other out. You know, with this unit, especially our second tour, when most of the injuries and PTSD were happening—one thing you got to understand: the company, we all got together right before first tour. Some of us had still been together since [we deployed] in 2000. We were a pretty close-knit group. And, through the entire first tour, only one person from our company got evac-ed out of country. And, he did it to himself. In fact, the commander refused his Purple Heart, for getting injured in combat, because the way he got injured was by being stupid.
Our second tour, within four months of landing in country, we lost our commander—he’s still alive, but he got evac-ed; a platoon leader; the commander’s humvee got hit, and tore up a damn fine sergeant, who didn’t make it, and then severely injured three others who were evac-ed out immediately. And it was a big shock to us. You know, we’re tankers. We’re in tanks. These are the most impregnable vehicle on the battlefield. And all of a sudden, we’re riding around in coke cans. You know, something just ripped through the side of it, and we’re just like, “What the fuck.” What the hell happened in the last 11 months, since we were here last? But most of us had all still been together. So you knew the guys you were with.
I had to tell one of my good friends, Langley,* that Glover,* the E-5 driver of that humvee that got vaporized, wasn’t making it home. And we sat down, he started crying on my shoulder, and I pulled him into my barracks room, and basically tossed his ass down on the bed. And I’m just like, “Alright, Langley, hang on a second.” I told my roommate, “Hey, run over to the chow hall, and get me a case of Mountain Dew.” He’s like, “You don’t even like Mountain Dew.” I said, “Just go get the case of Mountain Dew! What the hell is wrong with you.” He’s like, “Why would you want that?” I said, “‘Cause we don’t have beer.”
You know, ’cause that’s what normally guys would do, we’d go out and get fucking shit-faced. Except, in country you can’t do that. So I’m like, “Go get me some sodas. We’re gonna be up all night. Fuck it.” And we sat there for the next about 36 hours, just talking. Told him old war stories, ’cause Glover and I were together [overseas before 2001]. So we’d been in the same company for four years at that point. So it was cool to be able to help each other. But for my unit, there wasn’t a whole lot of stigma attached to going to seek help. And like I said, we had a really cool NCO corps above us, that if you needed help with something, “Go get it. We will do whatever we can to help that happen.” When the help isn’t there, there’s nothing you can do about it. But, I told my platoon sergeant, “Hey, I need to go to the hospital for appointments.” And he said, “Okay, go.”
CD: But it was a huge deal when [he was] trying to decide to go. He was afraid that it could hurt his career… We had heard stories about soldiers in other units being teased, by basically, up to and including the commander, for getting treatment for something mental. I mean, that’s why he knew the name, it was Three West. And then it became like, Four North, or whatever. But that wing that was the ‘crazy ward.’ That’s the psych ward. And you didn’t even want to be seen going there.
And yes, that’s individual people, and that has to do with society’s stigma. His command turned out to be cool, but it was a huge decision for him to even decide to seek treatment in the first place.
“He’s a Three West ranger…” The Army culture as a whole…doesn’t see getting mental help as a good thing…while it may not be detrimental to your career, it’s definitely not something you’re gonna put on your resume. What it boils down to, though, is individual people and individual commanders. You know, some commanders are cool about it, and they’re great. And some commanders are dicks. And it’s honestly luck of the draw which one you get.
[The stigma comes from] the United States as a whole. I’ve met commanders from California, who have no problem with people seeking mental help. You meet somebody from Georgia, it’s a problem. Because in Georgia or even New England, to some extent, you don’t go get mental help. You fix it yourself, dammit. But out in California, dude, everybody sees a therapist.
I think [the military] tries hard not to promote either, but it fails miserably. It still boils down to individual people and their prejudices against it. You can make a policy that no one will be teased about it all day. Is it gonna change their way of thinking? No.
CD: …When he was in, the big thing was the sexual harassment trainings. So, does that stop soldiers from like, checking out, you know, another girl’s butt? Hell no. But it does make them more cautious about how they do it, and maybe not do it so openly. And even having those kind of trainings in place for mental health issues, which definitely weren’t there at the time—that would’ve helped. It just wasn’t there.
And then when we’d ask people about it, they’re like, “Well, we’re afraid that if we make it okay, then everybody will want to go.” Like, so they can get a mental health profile and get out of stuff.
Yeah, I mean, if you think about it, if I were to make a policy right now that said, “If you are under mental health treatment, you can’t be deployed,” there would be a line out the door, down the block, and around the building, for mental health, because people don’t want to deploy.
When we went to Sierra Leone, there was an MP unit that went with us. Three out of five of their female soldiers popped up pregnant within a month of deployment [notification]. Now, one of those three had been actually trying to have a baby… So I don’t fault her. So out of four female soldiers, two of them are pregnant. The unit deploys. Within a month of that deployment, those two girls were no longer pregnant… They’d got pregnant so they could get out of deployment. And admitted as much. And then went and had abortions, actually, on both of them. And when their command found out that they were no longer pregnant, they were on the first thing smoking to Africa. Said, “Oh, you’re no longer pregnant? Pack your gear.” And the command is afraid that if you make it okay to go seek mental help, you get any mental health profile that says, “Okay, now you can’t be deployed, because you’re depressive, or PTSD, or whatever.”
Then, where’s your force gonna go? You have an awful lot of soldiers that will do anything and everything to get out of a deployment. You know, before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, there were people saying that they were gay. Just to get out of going overseas, or getting out of the military. Whether they were gay or not is not my decision or my judgment. But I met more than one that was like, “I’ll just tell them I’m gay, and then they’ll kick me out.”
They need the trained people that they have in. You can always sit back and say, “Well, if they lose this soldier they can replace him.” Do you have any idea how much it takes to train a soldier through Basic Training? It’s almost two million dollars. Per soldier. To get them through Basic and AIT, depending on their MOS.
“Stand in line…” that’s all I remember about SRPs. “Quick, quick, back of the line, back of the line.” There’s long lines to get through all these stations that are essentially meaningless. We check your dental records, we make sure you have glasses, make sure you have dog tags, make sure your SGLI is updated, and then we send you away. There’s more stations than that, but you get the point. It’s making sure that all the paperwork is straight, and you’re done.
Our commander was pretty good about identifying people that weren’t going to be deployed, and they were on Rear-D. And they got put on Rear-D before everyone else SRP-ed. With the exception of, “Oh crap” problems, and then you get quickly shifted to Rear-D.
Maybe [I deployed with] depression [when I shouldn’t have]. But at the time it wasn’t considered that bad. I was being treated with medication, and they had the capability to give me enough medication to last me through it. So, they did.
Anyone that I saw that had started having problems [in Iraq], the command was pretty quick to jump in to take their weapon and their ammo away. And then get them the best help we had at the time. Which was not anywhere near adequate, but I saw people get escorted over to the Chaplain, over to the medics, more than once.
…While we were in Iraq the first tour, they caught some of our medics breaking open the auto-injectors for nerve gas defense. There’s two different auto-injectors, one’s Atropine, one’s Diazepam. Diazepam is a severe depressant. And they were breaking apart the Diazepam injectors and shooting that up. So they came down and took away all of our auto-injectors. Put them in a huge box up at headquarters. And we’re like, “Just out of curiosity, what happens if we get hit with nerve gas?” I think [the limit] is up to five minutes to take your auto-injectors. They said, “If you get hit with nerve gas, we’ll pass them back out.”
…After we come back…you basically sign back in. You pick up your linens, and sign for your room key, get your shit out of storage. You go to the “Welcome home, how you doing?” ceremony.
[Screenings for PTSD or TBI] didn’t happen until about 48 hours later, and they just had the one sheet of paper, both sides. It’s like, “In the last month, has any of this changed?” It’s like, dude, 48 hours ago I was in Iraq. So I don’t even know yet.
And there was no follow-up screener after that, yet. It was literally one screener, as soon as possible after redeployment, which usually meant in the next 48 hours, before you went on leave. They’d give you this one sheet questionnaire.
CD: They’d give it to you, like before you could see the wives. So everybody’s like, “Oh, I’m fine. I wanna go see my wife! She’s in that room right over there! Let me go!”
“If I say no to this, they keep me here, right?” “That’s correct.” “Yes, yes, yes, yes. Can I go home now? I wanna get laid.”
[We were briefed] a little bit on the anti-suicide stuff. You know, you check if they have a plan. The PTSD, no [briefings]. [It] was actually in the medic book, that I managed to snag a copy of and read, but I wasn’t a medic… Our medics, part of their tasking and training is to deal with combat fatigued soldiers. Which is the very old term for PTSD. They don’t call it PTSD yet, even in the books. It [was] woefully incomplete. It’s just, “Try to keep him happy, and make sure that they don’t have any ammunition near them, and then take away anything sharp and pointy.”
I am diagnosed with PTSD now. [Describing how that has affected my personal life] would actually be more her department, ’cause I really couldn’t tell you.
CD: It pretty much destroyed his personal life. He lost all his friends, and our relationship was really tough, when he was not doing so hot. And actually, work, for him, was kind of better because of it. Because everything was rigid and structured. Except for when the guys wanted to be a jackass and like, somebody brought fireworks to work one day.
I started work as a military vehicle mechanic. As a civilian contractor, to work on military vehicles. And it was vehicles that I knew forwards and backwards and inside out…very structured, step-by-step type of stuff. And then one day, some of the geniuses decided to throw fireworks out of one of the trucks. Which is really not a good idea with a bunch of combat veterans… I swore to them and the supervisor that if they did that again, I would beat them with a pipe.
EMDR helps a lot for the PTSD. I personally don’t really believe that you can actually cure PTSD. I may very well be wrong on that, and I hope I am. But right now, I don’t see it happening. So treatment and the cure for it is to learn how to cope with it, and EMDR is a big help… I think I’ll always have it, and it’s always kind of this specter sitting there on your shoulder. But I’ve learned to kind of ignore it now—better now.
Multiple deployments, God, it tears us apart. Some of the soldiers that I teach now as a contractor, they’ve had three and four deployments, and they don’t want to go back. And some of them are all gung-ho and they’d love to go back…that’s cool. If they want to do that, then by all means, go for it. But, you know, three and four deployments, they’ve missed their kid’s first, second, and third birthdays, they’ve missed all the first steps, they’ve missed this, they’ve missed that. All in favor of these deployments. Some are happy about it, some are not. You know, the single guys, they come back and buy a new car. You know, it’s like, “Dude, I’ve been deployed like three times in the last six years, I own my freakin’ Escalade outright.” Awesome! …If that’s what makes you happy, go for it. But the guys with families are really sucking it up…
What I think actually caused my PTSD, wasn’t so much of what I saw or what I did. Because, to be totally honest, we didn’t do a whole lot. Mostly we sat on the side of the road and watched for people to do something stupid. What really affected me was the fact that I spent an entire year, one, outside of my life. My life stopped, and was put on pause for a year. But it kept going around me. You know, I get back home and it’s not when I left. I don’t think I’ve changed. I put my life on pause for a year, but nobody else did.
And that’s rough. And you’re sitting in situations in a whole different world while you’re deployed, where normal rules don’t apply. And nothing makes sense. And it just screws with your head the whole time.
For one example—I finally got it explained to me later by one of the translators—I can point a tank gun or a machine gun at somebody in Iraq, and they wont care. They’ll just keep walking. If I hold up a nine millimeter pistol, the car that’s 200 yards out will stop dead in its tracks. At 200 yards I can’t hit him with this pistol. It wont fire that far. I can point the tank gun at him, a gun that’s capable of vaporizing the car and leaving nothing more than gravel, and he wont care. If I hold up a pistol, he’ll stop dead. And I watched this for a year and a half, and I’m just like “WHAT THE FUCK is this?” He knows damn well I can’t even hit him from here.
So I finally asked one of the translators, and he says, “Oh, it goes back to the times when Saddam was in power.” …He said, “Most of the men around here have been in the military. They had mandatory conscription. And the 1999 Gulf War, everybody was involved. They all know machine guns. Hell, most of them carry AK-47s in their car for personal protection.” We consider that an assault weapon. They consider it a personal weapon. “Machine guns don’t bother them, they know what those are. They carry them, they operate them. When Saddam was in power, the only people that carried pistols were his personal death squads. His execution squads. You hold up a pistol, it means someone’s getting executed. You hold up a machine gun, it’s just another soldier.” And I’m like, “Okay, well, that makes more sense.” But after a year and a half of it not making sense, not really helpful.
CD: Honestly, just the whole climate, they never really had any place where they could feel safe. Even on base, the round came through the bathroom.
I mean, even on camp, in our barracks, where we’re supposedly safe and we can take off our flak vests, we had a mortar round come in and blast through two floors. Didn’t detonate, hit the bathroom, and there was a guy next to it on the toilet, in the next stall over. It completely destroyed the porcelain.
…It’s just like, even where you’re safe, you’re not safe. Mortar rounds…and our first tour, we got really jaded to it. Initially, a round would land in our camp. There was these two guys that liked to fire rockets at us. Two rockets, between nine and ten-thirty, every night, for three months. Literally. Like clockwork, between nine and ten-thirty, there would be two rockets, and that’s it. And they’d drop away. And the first couple of times, the rockets land right outside the camp, and we jump on the tanks, and we try to find these guys. But we never could find them. ‘Cause it takes a good half hour to get a tank started up. These dudes were long gone by then. So after a while, we’d be kicked back watching a movie—[a mortar hits] and like, pause. “Did it hit inside the berm?” “Nope.” …Okay, fuck it… We ended up catching them later on a checkpoint. Found the big semi truck, with two rocket tubes bolted in the bed. We were not gentle with them.
[This trauma] is the nature of war. My grandfather dealt with the same thing in Europe in 1940s. My dad missed Vietnam, but he knew people that were in Vietnam, and Vietnam was the same way. You’re never safe. There is no downtime.
CD: [It would help to have] enough people so that you could actually get enough sleep. They’re doing all this stuff about, “Don’t drive in convoys tired,” because it was killing people. And then they have them working 12-on, 12-off. And then they get into a fire fight, and they’re all dehydrated, and they’re still out there 24 hours later. You know, they’ve been on shift for like, 36 hours…you get back in and you’re thinking, “Oh, it’s my 12 off now,” and somebody else’s died and you gotta cover for them.
And when they say ‘12-on, 12-off’—I was in a tank unit. It was a 48 minute drive from camp to our route, in a tank. It’s actually only about 20 miles. But tanks don’t go fast. Especially not through a city. So we’d work either the 7am to 7pm shift, or the 7pm to 7am shift. So say the 7pm to 7am shift, the overnight shift. I have to be out on the route by 6:50pm, to relieve that unit at 7pm. So if we do backwards planning from that, it’s a 45 minute drive, which means I have to leave camp at 6:05 or 6:10pm. It takes us about an hour to eat dinner, prep the vehicles, get all the gear on, get radio checks, get the weapons mounted, and all of that. So now we’re back to five o’clock. It takes about an hour before that to get your personal gear ready, and you know, your flak vest ready, and water filled, and anything you’re gonna take with you, ready. So by four o’clock in the afternoon, I’m starting to prep for my shift. To get all our convoy briefs, and everything else out of the way, so we can be out on the route by seven.
Well, I get off of work at 7am. I don’t get back to camp ’til eight. I have at least an hour of maintenance on the vehicle. My time is not my own until about 9am. So the only downtime I have is actually 9am to 4pm. I’ve got to eat, sleep, do any paperwork on my soldiers—’cause I was the NCO—any maintenance issues that weren’t covered in that hour to get fixed. If I’ve got to go over to Finance, or PSB, or want to watch a movie, or want to go to the coffeeshop, or go to the PX and get my hair cut, take a shower—I’ve got eight hours to do it. And then back into prep for the next 12-hour mission.
CD: So they were constantly short of sleep… And that’s assuming they don’t have a debrief because they had some kind of action.
Editor’s note: While wrapping up the interview, Allen and Carissa discussed other traumatic injuries, including TBI and military sexual trauma.
I came out of [the Army] with a TBI, but I was diagnosed after the fact…
CD: …He didn’t take an ANAM test because that was something that we screamed about—they had no…pre-test to find out if there had been changes. He wasn’t actually blown up, but he was exposed to over 300 IED blasts, specifically the blast pressure wave. And he was also in a tank roll-over in training, between his first and second tour. He didn’t get any TBI screenings after those incidents, unless they did one at the hospital after the tank roll-over.
Yes, he has experienced all those symptoms [of TBI]. They’ve completely changed his whole personal life and work, and even his personality. What type of treatment? We did it ourselves, because we couldn’t get help from the VA, and he was already out of the Army. And yes, many other soldiers we know have been affected by TBI, but most of them were out too, and part of the support network that we were involved in.
…In about 2000, was when sexual harassment became the huge thing in the military. When I was a private and PFC and a specialist, it was supposed to be annual training. We went through it like six times in two years. Because they changed all the rules—before I came in, the rules were basically, “Sexual harassment doesn’t exist, we’re not gonna deal with it.” Which obviously went well.
The sexual harassment then switched, because of stuff that was happening up in Washington, with Clarence Thomas, and a bunch of other things going on in the country. They changed the rules on sexual harassment, and it actually switched too far the other way. To where, basically, all the woman had to say was she was harassed, and the guy was screwed. It was her word against his, and her word was going to win… He could lose rank, get kicked out of the Army, get thrown in jail. In a heartbeat, just because she said so. No evidence was required.
…And then about three or four years later, they went back and said, “You know what? This is bullshit.” And actually, at this point now, it’s more evened out to where the woman has to provide evidence that she’s actually being sexually harassed, not just her word. Because there were an awful lot of people that were like, “Well, I’ll just scream sexual harassment.”
Editor’s Note: The conversation turned to Allen’s discharge from the Army, and looking ahead at what could be done to protect soldier well-being.
CD: His outpatient purposefully left any question that could have required him to be Med Boarded blank.
Because of [my] unique situation—I was stop-lossed and my unit was moving. So there was legally nowhere they could put me except out immediately. If I had answered “Yes,” and they’d actually put it down, they would have had to keep me in. Which means they’d have to PCS somebody who’s already stop-lossed. Or switch me to another unit, already stop-lossed. And since neither can legally happen, because I’m stop-lossed, there was really nothing they could do for it… And I was past the re-enlistment window. I couldn’t even re-enlist. Stop-loss actually extends before your actual ETS date. But once you’re passed your ETS date, you can’t re-enlist… The best they could have done was hospitalize me.
CD: Yeah, they said, basically, “We can look at you for Med Board, but then you’re gonna have to go with your unit, and then another stop-loss is gonna come down. So you’re gonna miss your chance to ETS, with the possibility of being Med Boarded. But because another stop-loss will come down, if you’re not Med Boarded, you’re going back [to Iraq].”
And I would’ve been looking at the unit in question. If I had stayed with them, less than a year and a half after I got out, they were back in Iraq. With new tanks, but they were back there.
[To protect soldier well-being] for the active guys, you’re gonna need a lot more mental health professionals, in uniform, deploying with them, embedded with the units.
CD: And you’re gonna need, honestly, a lot more troops than you think you need, in general, so that they can have the off-time to go see them.
Like, when they do the surges overseas and double the troop concentration for a few months. You’re gonna need to send in twice as many troops as you think you need, because half of them are gonna be hopefully seeking that medical care. And they may only be out of the loop for two or three days. Or maybe a week or two at the outside, and then they are good enough to go back out on the route. And that’s fine. But for that couple of weeks, they’re gone. So, a lot more mental health people, and more down-time for the troops. I’m talking like, R&R trips.
When we were in Iraq, supposedly you could go down to Dubai or UAE, or whatever the hell base that was. But you only get one R&R leave per tour. Supposedly there’s a policy in my company now that if I’m deployed or away from home for more than 45 days, I’m supposed to get a weekend home. If you have the extra troops there on the ground, and you can afford to have the guy gone for a couple of days. Send him out of country for a couple of days.
Even if it’s, you know, a weekend in Kuwait, where he can take off the flak vest, and not worry about a rocket or mortar landing. Where he knows for a fact that he’s not gonna get blown up. I could come back to camp in Iraq, and take off my flak vest in my room, but I happen to know there’s a bunker three feet outside my door, in case a round lands. I need to go to some place like Kuwait, where we take off our flak vest, and put it in the duffel bag, because we know we don’t need it. Even if it’s for 24 or 48 hours, it may be enough.
I would’ve killed for the chance to take off my vest and not mess with it—when we went on leave, you have to wear the flack vest all the way down to Kuwait, because you’re flying over obviously hostile territory. But it was so nice to get down to Kuwait, and they have these big Connex inserts, where you stack your gear and tag it, and all this other shit, because you’re not gonna take it back to the States with you. And it was so nice to take that flak vest off, and set it in there with your name on it, and go, “I don’t have to fuck with this for two weeks. This is gonna be so nice.” But it was the only chance I got, over a full year. Two weeks, in a year? That I’m actually able to feel safe? It’s not enough.