US Army veteran, Military Police, two deployments
Editor’s Note: Chas is a white active duty soldier and Non-Commissioned Officer in his late twenties. He is a father to two children and previously deployed twice to Afghanistan as an MP. At the time of his testimony, he was negotiating the medical evaluation and retirement process due to injuries he sustained in an RPG attack, including a TBI. After being injured and receiving a medical profile, Chas was given a poor NCO evaluation on account of not being able to perform the physical training component of the evaluation. Chas discussed his own struggles securing adequate care and his concerns after having witnessed the differential treatment of other soldiers. He also discussed his concerns that soldiers are being disciplined for infractions that occurred before deployments or as a result of traumatic injuries.
Chas discussed his own struggles with PTS and how it has affected his family and outlook on life. He discussed the roles of multiple deployments and PTS within his unit and during deployments, including suicide and other issues. Chas provides several examples of the effect of military stigma in accessing mental health services, but is also concerned with the mindsets necessitated by multiple deployments may leave soldiers themselves unable to assess their own needs.
I had a friend from high school who was a year older than I was. We were on the football and wrestling teams together. He got into the service and deployed to Iraq. He came back and I could see that he was struggling with what he went through and was having a hard time with it. I saw myself as being mentally strong, so thought I wouldn’t have issues with [deploying] and I would be able to help others go through it. I thought in my head that the answer was to go be a part of it and try to help out
Obviously, September 11 was still fresh. The war in Iraq had basically just started. I joined in April 2004, so the Iraq war was about a year old. It was almost a patriotic duty for me as a young American to go and be part of that and to support and defend my nation. When you watch mainstream media, that’s how the whole War on Terror was seen at that time.
In April of 2005, I deployed to Afghanistan until April 2006. In April of 2010 I deployed again and was there until April 2011. In 2010, I was ambushed and got hit by an RPG—received shrapnel, blew me up through the air, damaged my neck, my back, TBI, traumatic brain injury—all these different kinds of things took place. I was med-evaced out for four days. I was there with two of my other soldiers that had been med-evaced out as well. They had some guys that were more seriously hurt, so we were put on the backburner. They just did the bare minimum, “Ok you’re here. Go over here for observation at the TBI clinic because we have to handle this stuff.” Which, obviously I’m okay with. I don’t want soldiers dying.
They basically enabled us to make our decision on whether or not we wanted to stay or go forward, and at that point, I was a senior enlisted guy in charge of 25 soldiers. I didn’t want to leave my soldiers behind, and so even though I was struggling with what was going on—having a hard time with it—I made a decision to stay. They didn’t even really seriously check me out there. There was no serious evaluation done all the way until I got back home. It was basically just “Here’s these medications.” I was getting shots in my lower back and in my buttocks to be able to deal with pain constantly and having to pop pills and everything in order to mitigate the pain that I was feeling the entire time.
Upon returning at the end of the deployment in April and going to actually get help, I had missed being paralyzed by an eighth of an inch in my neck. I completely ruptured multiple discs in my back—all these serious injuries that I was causing more damage to by remaining there. We should be taking the medical capabilities out of the commanders’ hands, but we also need to look towards the soldiers. We need to be making sure they’re able to get that care and they’re not able to be stubborn and just be, “Well, no. I’m gonna stay here because I wanna be hardcore.”
I look at it now and think about the mental state that I was in underneath the amount of medication that I was having to take and the risks that I was putting myself and my soldiers under by being in that state. I justified it to myself—that even on my worst day, I’m still better than half these guys—talking myself up in my mind to be able to justify that. But I look at it now, and if something had gone wrong—if I had lost a soldier after that point—what kind of mental questioning would I have gone back through with myself, wondering, “Did this happen because I made a poor decision based off these drugs?” or “Did I not react as well as I would have based on being slowed down from these injuries?”—and just having to live like that.
When I was back home, I made the decision that I was going take care of myself finally. I’d run out of all the medications that I’d gotten downrange. I didn’t have my medic to just go to an aid station and just get me the stuff that I needed. I had to go through the whole system that the Army normally has you running through. Jumping through those loopholes—I just couldn’t do it. I was just in such pain all the time. To the point where I’d be crying—literally in tears in the shower with my wife trying to rub my neck out and everything—and my head, it’s like my brain is swelling.
I felt horrible. To have to go through that for a month—a month and a half? There is no priority list with the way the military does things. They don’t take something like this as a serious case. It just goes into the system and you’re basically a number at that point. They tell you they have 24 or 48 hours to respond back to you and you don’t get a call. You can call them. You can leave a message on the answering machine, and nobody calls you back.
Why am I having to jump through hoops to get care after being through all that? It shouldn’t be that hard. It took me having to do something that a lot of soldiers wouldn’t do, because I was yelling at people who were senior to me. I basically got pushed into a corner to where—I mean, I was in so much pain I could hardly walk. It took me getting with the military liaison and losing my mind—losing my military bearing—being like, “What do I have to do? Do I have to come back with no legs? Do I have to come back in a casket for you guys to actually care?” I got some people to actually make some calls and bump me up in lines. I finally got help.
Editor’s note: Despite his struggles accessing care, Chas felt strongly that he was fortunate as compared with other soldiers. He generally felt his own command respected his injuries, but became disheartened when the time for his annual NCO evaluation came up:
I will honestly say I’m probably one of the luckiest people I’ve seen in the military. I had a great direct command and leadership. Because of the things that I did, and the sacrifices that I made, they really took care of me. One of the soldiers who was in the RPG incident with me and was injured and everything—he still now has conflicts with trying to get appointments. He just gets treated as a lesser soldier in a lot of these cases when he’s [hurt] just as bad as I am, but he just wasn’t one of the guys they looked at positively. That is how a lot of things are with the Army. You have got to be able to separate the commander’s ability to do that, because why are my needs medically any different than his?
Now I’m on a permanent profile. I’ve been in for eight and a half years. I’ve served honorably. I’ve never received anything less than a one-one on my NCO-ER. My whole career. 300 PT guy. Expert weapons qualifications. I get back and I’m injured. And based off this profile, I’m not able to do a PT test. I’m not able to put on all my gear to go fire at a range. The way the Army’s system is established is that I automatically lose my promotable status because I didn’t submit a new PT record.
To come back, after working in a pay grade slots two above my own when I was in Afghanistan for a year—to come back here and then get slapped in the face? Basically, it’s like saying, “We got what we wanted out of you and now that you’ve been injured and you aren’t able to do these things that the Army requires you to do, we are going to take your promotable status away.” After spending the amount of time that I have in the military, when you get out you expect to have achieved certain things. To have that taken away not because of any fault of my own—but from injuries that happened in combat—is just kind of ridiculous.
Everything I went through and I did—staying down there and getting injured and all that—I did for my brothers and my sisters. I was willing to die to help keep them alive. To say that I need improvement in that area is just absolutely ridiculous. The message that we’re sending to our soldiers coming back after being wounded in war is that they are no longer of the same caliber—that they’re no longer of the same worth that they were before.
Editor’s note: Chas went on to reflect on his own responsibilities to his soldiers’ wellbeing as a Non-Commissioned Officer, and how these sometimes conflict with the demands of the Army.
I think that all Non-Commissioned Officers, if they actually care about their soldiers and are willing to sacrifice their own time, they will look out for their soldiers. But the problem is, you’re going to run into mission constraints and you’re going to run into the fact that the mission comes first from the senior side.
And so you’re basically gonna tell your soldiers, “Hey you guys can schedule your appointments this week. This is a week were we have some openings where you guys can go do these things.” Then all of a sudden something gets back-billed or moved and adjusted and they have to cancel. And you push that soldier’s care off here or there based off of what the military is desiring you do.
There’s this real bad stigma around—that if you’re going to go get care during the workday, you’re just trying to get out of work. And I’m sure there absolutely are some soldiers who do that, but do you condemn everyone who is legitimately trying to get care?
If you’re an NCO who is actually worth anything and you’re paying attention, you’re gonna be able to identify the fact that an individual has Army values that are missing. There are ways to help a soldier who’s struggling through those things. That doesn’t happen most of the time. Most of the time it’s, “Hey you’re a dirtbag. You went to go get a profile because you sprained an ankle. Fine, you’re gonna do CQ now for the whole time we’re in the field.”
Prior to going, our unit was so low in numbers that we actually took soldiers into Afghanistan who were on crutches. We’re walking fifteen, twenty cliffs a day at 10,000 feet elevation through the mountains. The guy just got off crutches and you expect him to be able to do that? I mean he lasted a couple of weeks and we had to send him back because he reinjured himself. And then you’re undermanned.
Basically. It show soldiers that they don’t care. The Army didn’t care about whether or not he was okay. They didn’t care if he was ready to be there. Him having to walk a little slower—I can deal with that. But what I can’t deal with is him having to try to run or pick somebody up and carry them off the battlefield, and he can’t do it because he’s physically not capable of it. What message are you sending to his family? His family has to know back in the states, “Hey, my son is going into war right now at seventy percent. If my son dies right now, the United States Army sent him to war at seventy percent.” That’s not a message that we need to be sending to the soldiers, to the families: That our priority is so war-driven that we’ve lost humanity. We’ve lost our touch with humanity and the basic needs of people.
We took two soldiers who had popped hot on a urinalysis. They were pending an article 15 but, they need to go to Afghanistan because we needed those numbers. We punished them. We had them go do extra duty there at the FOB, filling up sandbags, while the rest of us went out to the combat outpost. I thought they had basically served their time by doing their extra duty. But when they finally got their article 15 reading, they told me to start actually ordering their extra duty. So, they had to do their extra duty on the combat outpost too—which is like double punishment.
These guys were E-1s for two years. It happened before we deployed. Some young soldiers, right before deployment, went to a party and did something incredibly stupid. Two of those soldiers were with me when we got hit and both earned purple hearts, but the Army didn’t give them combat action badges, so they are still E-1s. They have no combat action badge saying they were in direct combat because they were flagged. They didn’t get an end of tour award, and the Army still holds this thing over their heads.
One of the kids is trying to get medical care because he was closer than I was to the RPG. He is trying to get help, and they are still holding his UCMJ paperwork over his head and saying that if he goes to get medically chaptered out, that his packets will go up to the commanding general. They will push his UCMJ packet at the same time as his med board packet, and it becomes that one individual’s choice on which way to go—whether this guy will get out and have medical benefits and be able to take care of himself and his family based off having PTSD, TBI, shrapnel wounds—whether he’s going to be able to receive any care falls down on this one guy making the decision.
That happened two years ago. The Army said, “Hey, you’re still good enough to go on this deployment. You’re good enough to go kill people”—which he did. He’s good enough to almost die. After going through all of that, now that he’s trying to receive care and trying to take care of himself, there’s a possibility he may get chaptered out on an other-than-honorable discharge—and receive nothing and hurt his chances of being able to be hired on the outside. To me, that’s just disgusting.
I think there’s a huge correlation between soldiers and their use of alcohol upon returning from deployment. There are numerous soldiers who are in my unit right now who were specialists or private first class on the deployment, who are now E-1s. They are all alcohol-related incidents. And they’re all the guys who were in most of the fighting and who had the hardest times. We’ve got to be able to evaluate that there is some direct correlation between this stuff. It’s not an excuse. You’re not excused to be able to go and do whatever you wanna do—but are there other means trying to actively help these individuals, as opposed to going straight to UCMJ?
Part of the problem with the way the Army does things, is you get back from your deployment and the first thing is they purposely disperse you and spread you out, because they feel you became too close and tight knit down there. So, they take NCOs who know their guys, who would be able to identify the fact that there may be a serious psychological problem going on, and put them somewhere else in charge of someone else’s soldiers.
You could also have an NCO who has those problems and it might be one of his lower enlisted that steps up and goes and tells someone higher: “My team leader is having some serious issues. This guy is not able to act and deal with things the way that he did before.” When you split those teams and that continuity up, you lose all that ability to compare.
I think the reverse SRP process is a very poor process. The way it’s done, everybody wants to get in there and get out of there. And it’s done right when you touch down. It’s done way too fast, inadequately. If they had more people, they could actually give people the ability to have a one-on-one interaction that wouldn’t hold up the line.
On two instances, they had some civilian counselors that the military hires come to our unit and talk. Both times, same scenario where you have everybody wait in line outside the office. It was basically done to ask, “Hey, do you have a problem? Is there something wrong?” Not like, “Hey, I’m here to help you.” It comes off as you being a number, stacked against the wall, waiting in line to go into the office, sign the clipboard, and get out of there so we can be done with this type thing. It’s a horrible approach to actually trying to get someone to get healthcare for a mental issue that they’re having. We shouldn’t demoralize that. We should commend people for identifying the fact that they have these problems and that they’re actively seeking help for it, not condemn them for it.
PTSD has become such a hindrance on commands that they talk down on it in formations now. When we got briefed to go in, they were mocking, like, “Hey, the counselors are here again. If you plan on being in there for a while, stay at the end of the line so everyone else who doesn’t wanna do it can go first, and sign, and get the hell out of there.” When you come off and say that, who wants to be the guy at the end of the line who is actually talking about something?
Like I said, in my unit, you have soldiers who are receiving UCMJ action. You have soldiers who have gotten divorces now and have all kinds of depression and sleeping issues. This last deployment was traumatic. There was a lot of killing involved. There were people getting shot on both sides—our guys and theirs—children being killed in the mix with it all. There were a lot of things that were extremely dramatic.
I don’t think that the Army identifies that that adrenaline in itself is a drug. You get so used to being on that high all the time—24/7 on alert—getting into those fire fights. While we were down there, the only way you could handle it was to love it. When we got in a firefight, people were making jokes. We would literally be laughing and joking around in the middle of firefight—bullets flying all over the place—dirt kicking up on you and everything as you’re stuck underneath the berm that is two feet tall and barely big enough to cover you—and we’re just sitting there laughing about the fact that these guys are shooting at us and that we’re almost dying.
At one point, I remember the interpreter was just like, “What the hell are you guys laughing for? Shut up.” But that was a coping mechanism for it all. You just get so tuned to the adrenaline. That’s all you have and you look forward to it. Then you get back here, and you have got to sit down on the couch and deal with a wife and two kids, and it’s all gone. You don’t really have a slowing down period or a real chance to let that all go. It’s just gone all of the sudden that you are back.
I think that’s why you see so many soldiers coming back dying doing stupid stuff—taking out a motorcycle and driving it 200 miles an hour, just so they can try to get close to having that rush again, that adrenaline. There have been a bunch of soldiers who have come back and just done crazy stupid stuff, but there’s no way to mirror being shot at. You can’t do it. We don’t have any kind of tool or setting to reintegrate people back into what reality is here. It’s just—cut-off line. End of deployment. You’re on the bird. Have a nice day and welcome back.’
It’s almost sad to say: You get back home, and the first thing you wanna do is go back [on deployment]. You want to go back down there. It’s almost easier, because you don’t have to worry about all this other stuff. All you have to worry about is doing your job. And you get that adrenaline rush, that fix that you want.
So, I really see multiple deployments as almost like waving a heroin needle. That’s where you see so many guys waiving their dwell time. They may have PTSD. They may be injured. They might not have their family set up and taken care of, but they want to get back to that needle so badly, that they’re willing to go. There’s no way the Army is going to know how you’re doing with your wife or your kids or what your exact financial situation is. But they don’t take any of those things into account, because you’re just a number. It doesn’t matter, as long as they’re getting what they need for this next deployment. They’ll let you sign that statement and hop on that bird and go take off.
I think the number one thing is for the military, as a whole, to admit that there is trauma. To admit it, and then to embrace it. Not to make it out to be something negative where you’re viewed as weak for trying to get care. I’ve literally been dealing with a new senior enlisted person at work and you can tell there’s an underlying idea I’m one of those dirtbags that’s getting kicked out of the Army through the MEB. Then when I actually talk to them and they find out my story, they are like, “Oh, you’re one of the guys who got hurt in combat. You have a legitimate reason to be hurt and be going through the MEB.” Had I just gotten in a car crash here and had those exact same injuries, it wouldn’t be the same thing? It just shouldn’t matter. If I’m hurt, I’m hurt. Obviously a medical personnel has gone and evaluated my records and evaluated what is wrong with me. You have to be referred to the MEB process. It’s not something that you can just one day decide you are going to go sign up for. Somebody has to say, ‘This person’s medical injuries are bad enough for them to be reviewed by an MEB and be removed from military service.’ And so this stigma just needs to go away.
The Army needs to address the fact that there are people who are going to get hurt in war and there are going to be people who get hurt doing everyday stuff. Out in the civilian world, you get hurt at work and you get worker’s comp. As an employer, you can’t go and be like, “Hey dirtbag, what are you thinking, getting hurt?” You would get sued. So why do we authorize that in the military? It makes no sense.
It [the MEB process] has been an absolute nightmare. It took me six months just to even get into the process. And then since I’ve gotten in, I’m sitting at almost a year now, and they’re saying another seven months or so before I’m actually out. They switched around who was supposed to be taking care of me and didn’t tell me. Luckily, I found out through the grapevine.
Don’t you think people should know who is supposed to be taking care of them—especially when there’s someone going through these types of injuries in this kind of seriousness? The Army doesn’t keep you informed. If I didn’t keep somebody informed as a Non-Commissioned Officer—God help me! I’d be in so much trouble! But if it’s the Army, it’s okay. It’s a contradiction of policy.
The Army now is looking for reasons to get rid of people. I agree that we should not be allowing soldiers to come in overweight. But if you’ve already allowed that soldier to come in overweight, and you’ve already deployed him two or three times overweight and haven’t done anything to fix the problem in the last five years, how are you going to try to kick him out for being overweight now? You can’t use and abuse him.
There is one kid who is six-five, three hundred pounds. He’s a big boy—maybe twenty three. But, he was good enough to go on two deployments over the last five years. He’s got a year left in the Army, but now they are trying to process him out because he’s overweight. I’m sorry, but he was overweight for the last four years. If he was good enough this whole time, he’s good enough now. Let him finish up his time, serve honorably. Bar him from re-enlistment if you want and explain to him ahead of time he’s not going to be able to reenlist due to the fact that he does not meet the Army’s standards. But to say that you aren’t allowed to finish your service honorably or receive the benefits that you have earned is absolutely ridiculous.
I’m still about seven months or so out from finally getting out. I know Texas has the biggest back up as far as getting and receiving VA benefits right now, which is definitely worrisome. I’m just basically ready to get out one way or another. I’m lucky enough to have a wife that’s working and making good money. We’ve saved up money. We’ve been smart with everything we’ve done. So we’re lucky we have no debt whatsoever other than a home and two vehicles. We’re in really good shape compared to a lot of people. If I wasn’t in that position, I would be scared out of my mind.
Waiting as long as I have for the last year, and then having the VA still not give me: “This is what you’re going to get. These are your benefits that you are going to have.” There’s a difference between medically retired and medically discharged. And so until you get those results back and actually know which side you’re going to fall on—it’s a different sets of benefits. It’s different amounts that you’ll receive from them. It determines whether or not I will just receive medical benefits or my entire family will receive medical benefits.
I might not know [what is going to happen] until two months before I’m going to get out of the Army. So if it’s the lesser end of all of that, that is going to dramatically change how I have to approach things. Like, I might not be able to go to school full time to finish my degree. I might have to go do something else. It shouldn’t take that long to get that answer. I should not have sixty days to plan the rest of my life. That’s pretty poor planning by the VA and by the Army in the way that they run the system.
They have every one of my medical records right now. They’ve got that. They have had it for a considerable amount of time. To have all those things and then not be able to give me an answer with it—it shouldn’t take sending a packet to San Antonio—to have somebody put a stamp on it and send it to Washington DC—to actually get an evaluation and a rating sent back to San Antonio—put on a different piece of paper, and finally send it back to us. I mean, that’s just crazy that it has to go through that process.
There’s no reason that somebody at Fort Hood, Texas should not be able to do that. A medical professional hired by these people should be able to evaluate. They have set criteria for how much all these things are worth. They could definitely set this process up to where it would take a quarter of the time that it’s taking right now. Veterans would be able to get their benefits and get out. The biggest thing that they hold over your head is that while you’re going through the process, you’re not able to get any more surgeries. You’re not able to go and get any help because it would change the amount of benefits you might receive. Right now, with the injuries I have in my back, I could have screws put in my back and a metal rod run up through it. Well, I can’t right now, even if I wanted to. If I said, “Yes, that’s something that I want to go through with,” I cannot do it because it would start my whole process all over again. And they tell you, “Just go ahead and wait until you get out and the VA will take care of it then.” And like I said, Texas right now has the biggest back up for VA benefits of any other state. Right now, it’s taking like a couple of years for you to be able to get those things. It’s just crazy.
I don’t know if I could go and effectively be on a work force and not feel like I was letting my employer down and cutting corners on my fellow employees by being there one day and then calling in sick. I still get crushing headaches. It’s a mixture from my neck injury and my head injury. It just feels like my brain is going to explode out of my head—worst pain I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve never cried from pain before, even when I got blown up, I didn’t cry. It’s just something that you can’t escape [the headaches]. The only way to get away from it is to drug yourself up to the point where you basically pass out.
Unfortunately, it’s one of those things where there is no timing or controlling it. I don’t have any warning. I could just be sitting here having this conversation and then all of the sudden: Bam! That’s it. And as far as having a job and going out and driving a long distance somewhere, it affects you as far as being able to do those things. Eventually, when I am out of the military, I could be at work. How do I explain to an employer: “Hey, I have to go right now. This is going on.” And then, hopefully, be close enough to be able to drive back to my home to get to a shower to and take my meds and just try to get my muscles to relax.
When I first got back, I didn’t know how to deal with my situation. I didn’t know how to adjust to being back here and being in the situation I was in. I had to go on leave and take a month away from everything just to find myself. I was depressed about how my body was—with having to be on drugs all the time.
I couldn’t be there for my kids. The kids are running around you—all this stuff, and I’m just sitting there so drugged out and in pain that I couldn’t address it. You can’t pick your kids up and play with them or do the things that they remembered you doing before you got hurt. All those things definitely are a huge deal. They give soldiers training on PTSD but the thing is there’s no training for spouses on it, really. There’s no way for them to really know and understand how to deal with us coming back and having the kind of emotions that we have, the distance that we have and all that.
And my wife basically got to the point where she just blew up on me at one point.
She tried. She was trying. She just got to that point of breaking where she was like, “Fricking stop.” She was just so upset with me not being who I was before. She understood I was upset because I was extremely athletic before I got hurt. I did all kinds of sports, and for me to come back and not have any of that as an outlet drove me crazy. She didn’t know how to deal with it. But through the FRGs [family readiness groups] and things that they have, they definitely could really try to reach out more for those types of things.
I know while we were gone, the FRG was doing movie nights, stuff for the spouses to get together. And that’s great. They should be doing that, but they also need to really be trying to focus on things may cause issues when a soldier get back. Financial classes for soldiers and their spouses. A lot of times you can’t communicate down there [on deployment] so you don’t really have that ability to be like, “Yes, that’s a good idea. No, that’s a bad idea—relating on that.” You can’t make it mandatory for a spouse to do something like that, but offer. Like I said, you go through the reverse SRP process, but they don’t ever offer, “Hey, we’re gonna have an FRG meeting. Bring your spouse in. We’re gonna have counselors here to be able to talk to you guys.” Or trying to offer counseling for your marriage to be able to ensure that you guys are staying strong. That’s why the divorce rate is so high in stinking Army. It’s ridiculous how high it is compared to everywhere else.
They have marriage retreats and stuff that they send these people on. And it’s totally run by the Chaplain. And it’s supposed to be good for them to just go and get away, relax. I think if they were to encompass some form of an Army fund for that, to specifically be able to provide counselors at the retreats—once you get that free time, the counselors are there for people to be able to go and actually talk.
I think that there needs to be more funding for it. It needs to become a priority. I think we need to shift from militarism—we need to shift from buying bombs, wasting 26 million dollars on a spare jet engine that the pentagon doesn’t even want—and take those types of expenditures and turn them back over to taking care of our soldiers. I look at what’s happening right now and it makes sick. All the 9/11 veterans are being made the priority and we’re taking Vietnam vets and telling them that they have to wait in line. Again, we don’t prioritize based off of the injury. And it makes no sense to me that we would hold off on anyone who is a veteran. If they need help based off of whatever their injury is, and that is confirmed by a medical doctor, then we need to have those things available for them and allow them to be taken care of.
Just because you have PTSD doesn’t automatically mean that you need to start taking four or five different drugs to deal with PTSD. That’s not the answer. Basically, all you are doing in that point is making it a disorder. You’re making me feel there’s something mentally wrong with me. Well, I’m sorry that I have a problem with taking somebody else’s life. I’m sorry that seeing a child dead bothers me. But, wait. No. I’m not sorry. Because if I didn’t have those problems, I would be sick. I would be the one with the disorder at that point. The whole policy of, “Let’s just drug and medicate now and we’ll deal with the rest of it later” just doesn’t work.
Even when there are instances in the military where things go the most extreme route—an individual with PTSD goes and takes their life or kills somebody else—part of the problem with the whole thing, is that the military doesn’t even address that. It does not even identify that that’s what happened.
A lot of times if [a suicide] happens downrange, the person died of quote unquote “non-combat-related injuries.” They don’t go and disclose the fact that this individual had serious issues and because of those things, they took their life. One of the two key instances where that’s happened, the Army has gone out of their way to portray it as something other than what it was.
My squad leader on my first deployment had already been on either four or five deployments when he was there with us. He basically just lost it. He had PTSD. He had us driving through known mine fields. He kicked an individual off a motorcycle and beat him up right in the middle of this village that we worked in. It turns out, he was an off duty Afghan national police officer who was going home with his duty weapon. So he beat a cop up in the middle of the city that he worked in. He bit me to where I was bleeding. He was sexually harassing some of the females that we were there with. He was just doing all kinds of stuff.
At the time, we ended up using the open door policy. There were seven of us that used it, and went and talked to him. We went to the inspector general, even CID—the criminal investigation division. They looked into it and started doing some stuff. But they basically all came to the conclusion that we were two months or so away from going home—so just suck it up and deal with it. When we got home, we were all going to be separated, go our different ways anyways, so we wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore.
Editor’s note: In the remainder of Chas’s account of his former squad leader’s story, he describes how after failing the psychological evaluation needed to become a drill instructor, the same squad leader was sent back to Iraq on another deployment, where his actions allegedly resulted in the death of a lower-enlisted female soldier, as well as his own suicide. We have redacted this portion of the account out of respect for the soldier’s family.
The other one is a kid in Afghanistan on my first deployment flat out told people he was going to kill himself. They took him away, put him on two down-days. Private first class. Said he was gonna kill himself and they took him seriously enough to take him away, because he was just doing guard duty in the towers. Twenty-one years old, had just gotten there. Said he couldn’t handle it and was going to kill himself. They pulled him out, took him for two days, took his weapons away. Then after those two days, they said, “Okay, well you’re good. Go back out there.” He still told them: “I’m not okay with being here. I want to go home.” And they didn’t listen. They sent him back out there. They put him on guard duty with another soldier so that he had to be quote unquote “supervised.” Well, the other soldier went to go utilize the restroom real quick and left him up there in the guard tower alone with his nine mil. The soldier went and killed himself while the other soldier was in the restroom.
They gave him two days of down time to be able to rest, recuperate, mentally recover, and re-energize and sent him back out there and let him die. I was going home on leave to go and see my daughter be born, actually. I saw it as a military police officer. I ended up flying next to his casket all the way back to Germany sleeping on the floor next to his casket with the American flag draped over the top of it. And it’s just kind of sickening. You obviously didn’t need him there in the tower because it was a one person tower. You only need one person to be there, so you had him there as a second person anyway. They could have kept him out longer. They could have offered help in different ways. This young kid actually verbalized, “I need help,” which a lot of the times doesn’t happen. He was strong enough to be like, “Hey, I’ve got serious problems.” For the Army to then be like, “Well, we’re sorry about you having problems, but mission needs to get done, so suck it up and just get on with it.”
It directly resulted in the same thing: non-combat related death. The way it’s marked up, nobody talks about the extent of it. I saw the story because I went and looked for it afterwards, after having that connection to the case. I saw the news releases from it. It doesn’t talk about how he died, or in some cases it eventually came out that it was a suicide, but then it never mentions the fact that he had tried to cry out for help, that we knew that he was struggling. Those parts of the story never get told. It only gets told that this individual took his life, and a lot of time people view that as a selfish act.
I think the reason why they don’t inform you that these guys went out and tried to get this help is it makes the Army look bad. And with my squad leader, all these people had come forward and been like, “Hey, this guy is mentally not capable of being here right now.” We wrote 28 official statements and provided it to the inspector general documenting things that were happening: going through known minefields, kicking this guy off of the bike, biting people, sexual harassment—all these things. Nothing was done.
At one point, we were the second vehicle on the convoy and we were driving through his tracks through this minefield. There’s stuff marked around the minefield because they’re actually building a road going through—but he wanted to go see these buildings, so he decides to just cut off the road straight through the minefield. We’re driving—I’m looking from the gun because I was gunner at that point—I’m looking down and I could see anti-tank mines right next to where our humvee tires are. And I ducked inside, thinking that was going to protect me—my soft shell humvee had the armor kit put on it at that point—Little pieces of armor that with sandbags at the bottom because we had no armor on underneath—We would have all been dead had we hit one of them. I said to my driver: “Dude, we’re gonna die right now. Stay in the fricking tracks.” And tried to get him to do it. You can’t see. There’s dust flying everywhere. He’s doing the best he can, trying to drive in these things. The three of us just sat there and accepted it: We’re going to die any second. We’re driving through a known minefield right now.
All those things got documented. I’d be the first to admit: When I originally told on him, I told on him not because I wanted him to get help, but because I wanted him to get in trouble. I was like, “This dude just about got me killed.” I was upset about it. Now, looking at it—the guy was sick. He needed help. But however they addressed it—it didn’t have to be that they took UCMJ—they could have gone and got him psych help. All these different things could have changed and would have changed had the Army taken some responsibility for it.
The only thing that soldiers are asking for is the respect and dignity that they deserve for their actions and for them to be able to receive proper healthcare and benefits for the things that they’ve done. When you go into the military, you have this concept that you’re going to get taken care of. I am signing this document and this contract stating that I’m going to serve knowing full well that I’m going to get paid garbage. I’m gonna work extensive hours. I’m possibly going to deploy off to foreign lands, and I may go to war. I may have to kill somebody. I knew that signing that contract. I understood that was a reality. But when I signed that contract, I also understood that I was going to be able to be taken care of. That that was going to be a priority. That people were going to ensure that the injuries that I had are taken care of and that I was going to be able to provide for my family, and if I was in a situation where I could not, that the Army would be there to take care of me.
Put yourself in the shoes of those people who are living that life. Make your decisions based off of your integrity. Not dollars and cents. I think if more people led that way, the world as a whole would be a better place.
Editor’s note: In 2014, we met back up with Chas to hear updates on how things had progressed for him. He was in the process of going through a painful divorce and his wife had taken his two children to the West Coast. He had processed out of MEB approximately nine months before. Chas described his relief at being out of the Army:
I miss my friends and the camaraderie, but not the mental trauma of the military. And now I get to be responsible for me, instead of twenty other people.
Chas was still having severe headaches every two-three weeks and mild headaches every day. He was very unhappy with the care he was receiving at the VA:
All they do is prescribe meds. I couldn’t get a follow up appointment after a CAT scan and then next thing I know, they send me medication in the mail with a note telling me to follow up if the meds don’t work. They hadn’t even told me I was being prescribed. There was no consultation.
Chas had opted to take himself off the meds and was pursuing alternative therapies. Particularly painful was the fact that a judge had ultimately held his decision not to take the meds against him during a custody hearing.
Chas stressed that the undue length of the MEB process takes a toll on soldiers. After returning from Afghanistan in Spring 2011, it took him until October 2011 to enter MEB and he did not finally leave the Army until March 2013—nearly two years after returning injured.
During that long stretch of time, another mandatory annual evaluation had come due. Chas still felt a great deal of bitterness about the final NCO-ER on which he received “needs improvement” because he could not complete the physical aspects of the evaluation. He felt the evaluation could prove a hindrance when interviewing with employers who are familiar with the Army’s evaluation system, and he stressed that the evaluations should include “could not be rated” scores for soldiers on profile:
In my book, the last thing I see after nine years of service is a bad NCO-ER. That’s what I’m sent into the civilian world with. It’s almost like they want people to have PTSD. You are just a number to them. Once you are no longer good to them, they will toss you aside and refill your shoes.
Chas had spent the previous months doing work in Central Texas opposing US military action Syria. He was sorting through custody issues and hoping his children would ultimately return to Texas. He was living in the house he and his wife had bought with his best friend, also a wounded veteran. When he felt well enough, he planned to enroll in courses and pursue his teaching credential in history.