Operation Recovery

The Fort Hood Testimony Report

Devon Sawyer *

US Army veteran, Tanker, one deployment


Editor’s Note
: Devon* is a white Army veteran in his mid-twenties, who is originally from suburban Arizona. He served as a Tanker and deployed once to Iraq. A few months before deploying, Devon suffered a TBI when an armored hatch was dropped on his head by another service-member. Although he received medical treatment in the wake of this incident, he was not officially diagnosed with a TBI until returning from deployment. Devon believes he had a TBI from the incident before deploying, and that he should not have been medically cleared—he questions what role his own desire to deploy played in his pre-deployment evaluation. Suffering post-traumatic stress and concussive head injuries, Devon sought care during and after his deployment, and was hospitalized on post for being suicidal. He was subsequently transferred to a Warrior Transition Unit and completed a lengthy Medical Evaluation Board process before being medically retired at 100% disabled.

 

It was the whole Shock Doctrine of 9/11 that really got me. I was a little too young at the time. But that was definitely a big influence in my decision of joining. I was brought up in a family that had a military background, not an extensive one, but my grandfather was in the military, and he talked highly about it. He was in the Army and the Navy. And both of those reasons combined was pretty much why I joined. It was a life-long kind of goal.

I didn’t really join for the money or for the college. I mean, those were things that helped my decision in joining, but I think it was mostly the experience and getting out of my hometown. And being able to be off on my own for the first time. This was in 2006, so I was about 19.

I think I was always afforded pretty outstanding medical health care, when it came to having a cold, scraping my knee, for preventative things. But when it came to things more serious, like mental health and combat stress, there was a really negative stigma attached to that. Not just with enlisted personnel, but officers and higher NCOs alike. It was just very looked down-upon if you went to a combat stress clinic or mental health, or admitted having depression or something like that. But after you got over that and went to the facility itself, the facility and the people there seemed genuinely like they cared, and would try to help you.

I didn’t really need mental health until I deployed. About my eighth week into my deployment, I started having recurring nightmares and dreams, and a lot of stress. And I approached my commander—my boss basically, my first-line supervisor—about it. And he told me, “You know, it’s not a big deal, this is part of the adjustment to war. You’ll get used to it. It’s okay.” And that was the whole end of the discussion. I didn’t like that answer, so I went above his head to his boss. And pretty much got a little bit longer, but the same answer from him.

Eventually, toward the end of the deployment, I actually broke down and went to a combat stress clinic. I told one boss where I was going. Asked him not to tell anyone. And, so when I came back from the combat stress clinic, I was met with a lot of resistance from people for going to seek help.

To see a [medical] specialist, there was a little bit of a wait-time. But it was nothing extremely ridiculous. In general the wait times were pretty good. I would say my overall health care was really good, except for getting time off work, and being able to leave your unit to go to appointments. As long as you can get away from your unit, as long as you can get into the medical system, I thought that was taken care of properly.

There was one part of the care I didn’t really enjoy, I didn’t really feel it was useful, and it was done for a long time. And it was EMDR therapy. They would just basically just ask me about traumatic experiences, and they’d make me follow the therapist’s finger, and they moved it back and forth, trying to bilaterally stimulate my brain. I thought that was ridiculous and pointless. But we tried that for a year. But other than that, I felt I was able to get appointments and I was able to see my counselor when I needed it.

But then again, I was in a totally different unit at this point, too. I was in a medical unit, where my whole job was to make medical appointments. That’s towards when I was getting out of the military. But when I was in the combat unit it was really, really hard to get in and see [providers]. The commanders say, “Yes, yes, you can go anytime. Anytime you have an appointment, yeah yeah, by law what we have to say, yeah yeah. We’ll let you go.” But when it comes down to it, when you’re actually working and it’s really hard to get away from your unit. They don’t say no, but they’ll find reasons why you can’t go, like, “Oh, you need to reschedule this appointment.” It’s not illegal to have them reschedule your appointment, either. “You need to go reschedule your appointment because we have critical training this day. You need to reschedule your appointment because we’re going to the field this day,” or whatever. They can always reschedule your appointment to put off your treatment of being taken care of medically, and you can definitely bet they’ll do it.

Editor’s Note: Devon was asked if he was ever prescribed medication during his service.

Oh God. I would say approximately 30 different kinds. I took antipsychotics, antidepressants, antianxiety, antipsychotics, and I took tranquillizers, muscle relaxants, and they prescribed me one or two pain killers. Generally, just about anything you could think of.

At certain points, I was on multiple different psychotic medications. I tried probably a full array of different kinds. I’m sure at some point I was taking two different kinds. It’s really, really blurry for me to recall a lot of this, ’cause of all the medications.

Editor’s Note: The interviewer followed-up on this by asking whether Devon thought he was over-prescribed or cross-prescribed medications that might have been incompatible.

Oh, yes, definitely, 100%. I was given so many medications that I even showed my list of what I was taking to a medical doctor, outside of the military, and they said that, “You shouldn’t be taking this many drugs in such short a period of time.” There’s so many different cross-levels, medication reactions that could have happened that were really bad.

I actually had procedures done to me that were not cleared medically to be done on US civilians. For example, they injected Botulinum toxin in around my skull—inside the skin, on the outside of the skull, to try to prevent headaches. Which, all it effectively did to me was not be able to make a wrinkled forehead for 30 days. It wasn’t cleared by any medical agency, it’s not even supposed to be practiced. And at that point, I’m not sure if it is now, but they did that to me. That was kind of scary, when he told me that.

When I was on the combat line unit straight after my deployment, I wasn’t on a whole bunch of medications. Maybe a couple antidepressants. But I was going downhill at a bad rate. So I was removed from the combat unit and placed into a medical unit, where I didn’t really have much of a job. So in a sense, I wasn’t able to be a soldier and fulfill my duties as a soldier. I had to be removed from my job and placed into a special unit to be taken care of. I came back [from Iraq] in March. It was around November 2009 when I was put in the medical unit.

I have a list of diagnoses. I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, I’m rated for migraines, my left and my right knees are bad, and my back is also bad. I just had a bunch of biopsies done on my lower intestine and my stomach to see if I have Crohn’s Disease, or ulcerative colitis—I got that disease most likely from the environment from Iraq, from the water conditions or something like that.

[The mental health issues] started a few months before I left Iraq. I went to a combat stress unit, and coming back, the person I’d told in confidence, my boss, had pretty much told some other people, and it had spread through the unit. So they knew where I’d been and what I’d been doing. The younger enlisted people, they really couldn’t do anything, not bullying, but they’d make fun of you like, “Oh, don’t anger him, he might have to go to combat stress,” kind of poking and prodding at you. And then, you would get some of that from the lower higher-enlisted people, like the NCOs, the lower ranking ones, like the sergeants and stuff.

My commander…me and him used to be pretty close, I would be able to joke with him and he would smile when he saw me, and I considered him to be close, for a commander and a Joe, at least, a lower-enlisted personnel. He really couldn’t say anything to me after I went to combat stress, and especially after I was admitted to the psych ward. I was in the combat unit when I was admitted to the psych ward. I had to do seven or eight days in a psych ward, at Fort Hood. And especially after both those incidents, he wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t talk to me. But he didn’t really say anything directly to me.

It was mostly my direct bosses, my NCOs, my sergeants. They would purposefully exclude me from situations, try to exclude me from the group. Which was fine with me, I already hated the military at this point. But I had Under the Hood to support me. If it wasn’t for Under the Hood, I have no idea where I would be. Without that support I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I can just imagine how soldiers feel when they don’t have that kind of support, and they’re being excluded and made fun of.

Once again, all this is illegal for them to do, but they find loopholes in the law. That’s what the Army’s all about, trying to get through the loopholes of the system. And there’s definitely ways to make someone feel excluded.

I was given many profiles. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard this—profiles don’t really have to be acknowledged by your commander. Your commander has ultimate, final discretion over whether you can do it or not. While in the combat unit, any profile I had was just basically broken by my commander, just overridden, like, “No, you’re able to do this, you’re gonna do it with us.” But when I went to my medical unit, I had to follow my profile to a T, and if I was caught breaking my profile it was a serious consequence.

Some of the stuff in my profile at the beginning of my treatment, I would be in treatment for my back, so I couldn’t put body armor on, couldn’t carry weapons. Especially after I said I was depressed, no access to weapons…I think that was broken also, by my commander. But it was nothing too severe, as my treatment progressed, and I actually found a doctor that really took care of me, and he actually hooked me up with some pretty cool things on my profile. Like, I had to be off-base by four o’clock, because at five o’clock on base they launch cannons. I don’t know if they still do that, but it’s the stupidest fucking thing I could imagine, launching cannons with a bunch of soldiers all wired out on PTSD. He told me I had to live off-post, because the sound of revelry and taps being played added too much stress for me. Which was really awesome, I loved living off post.

I’ve had just about anything you can think of on a profile… I was one of the first soldiers to go through the medical system on Under the Hood, and I was very, very outspoken. Any profile I wanted, I just went to my doctor and told him what I wanted, and he pretty much would give it to me. I’m a pretty unique case.

In my combat unit…there was basically no profiles, the commander had overridden every profile that was out there and he just didn’t abide by them. He didn’t believe what doctors said, essentially.

III Corps has that policy [against profile violation], but 4ID doesn’t. 4ID has a completely opposite policy, where they could just say no, basically. You can get away with it. And when they do that, because of the whole rank structure, the captain in my unit is not gonna be yelled at for that. It’s gonna be the two-star general that’s in charge of 4ID that made the regulation. So when I tried talking to soldiers about it, it was pretty frivolous, to try to explain that III Corps had a policy.

I had the Inspector General on speed-dial. I would call and literally every day whenever people were there breaking profiles. And the Inspector General couldn’t even do anything. Because Fort Hood, they had that regulation. Yeah, III Corps is a higher rank. But-a four-star general’s not gonna get off his lazy ass and come out of his office to go yell at a two-star because he made a different rule. It’s just not gonna happen. It’s professional courtesy.

The Army is all about loopholes. So even if 4ID had a law, or had a regulation, saying that you had to honor profiles, commanders would still find a way to break that rule, or just blatantly still break them. This is one of the things that’s happening every day. I don’t know if there’s a way we can make things better. I really don’t. I think we need a huge social change, and that’s not something any government’s gonna be able to do for us. I don’t think there’s really anything we can do. It really has to come from the people, it has to come from the ground-up. We have to want to change the military, and we’re at a point where we don’t want to.

I had a few small profiles, but my major person that wrote me all the profiles was Dr. Samuelson.* I hope he’s still being used at Under the Hood. He was a doctor at combat stress unit. I never received a permanent profile until I had paperwork to exit the military. The way I understood it, all profiles were temporary, until you have a permanent disability that you were getting out of the military for it and you would be issued a permanent profile. So, all mine were temporary until I got my paperwork to get out.

A lot of times, it really wasn’t pressure, it was just kind of known, like, “We’re not gonna honor your profile.” If you want his name, it was Captain Izzo was the deciding factor that made the call on breaking profiles in my combat unit. I would show up to work and my boss knew I had a profile, I told my first line supervisor, “Hey sergeant, I got a profile. Here’s your copy, here’s my copy, okay?” Now, I’ve done what I needed to do—I’m sure he did whatever he needed to do, maybe he told his boss, maybe he reported to the commander like he was supposed to. But work would come the next day, or PT.

Basic example, one day I got a profile saying I did not go to PT formation. So to fuck with my unit, I just didn’t go to formation that day, even though I knew we were supposed to break profile every single time. But I got in trouble, because I didn’t show up to PT, and so I said, “I got a profile that said I didn’t have to.” And my NCO kind of laughed at me and said, “You know we don’t honor profiles in this unit. You should know that by now.” And a lot of times, whenever I would get a new profile, or a different profile, nothing would ever happen in my unit. It would just be like nothing happened. You’d just have to show up to work, and you’d still have to do your normal duties and still have to clean a weapon, even though you weren’t supposed to touch weapons.

It’s a horrible, horrible stigma [for people on profile]. The lower enlisted would do school-yard type stuff, trying to make fun of you. Lower-enlisted NCOs would do the same thing, and you were just kind of swept aside by the people that had something to lose rank-wise, like the higher enlisted NCOs or the officers. They wouldn’t really talk to you, you wouldn’t really be treated like a soldier anymore. You wouldn’t be treated like one of the people of the unit. You would just be treated like shit. Any bad detail that would come up, like, if you’re at a detail where you’d have to go pick up trash on the side of the road for six hours, you know who’d be on that detail? Me. Because I had a profile that I was going to the doctor frequently. I wouldn’t be able to go off and just chill for the rest of the day like the rest of my unit. I’d be on detail and I’d be on special duty all the time. Because I’m just not one of the unit anymore.

That pretty much changed when I went to a medical unit. But not everyone is afforded the opportunity to go to a medical unit like I was. It’s very few and far between, for people to go to a medical unit.

There were some times while I was in the combat unit that people were made fun of and subsequently removed from the unit. They just disappeared. I’m not saying they were killed or anything, they were just moved to other units. They were constantly, constantly being harassed, tormented.

It’s really hard to get to a medical unit, and there’s really only one reason I was able to get to one. When we came back from deployment my company got a new first sergeant, and he seemed to be very passionate for things like this. I wrote him an e-mail, and explained the situation I was in. He basically took me under his wing and made sure I got into the unit I needed to be in, the medical unit. But I had a first sergeant going to bat for me basically. A lot of soldiers don’t have the balls to just go up to a first sergeant or write him an e-mail explaining the situation. For one, they think it’s against your regulations, it’s against everything you’re taught in the military. You don’t go to the top-ranking dude and explain to him. Unless you’ve exhausted all other resources, which I thought I had had at that point. Because I had a high-ranking NCO, a really high-ranking NCO going to bat for me, was the only reason I was able to get the adequate help I needed in the military.

I believe [the stigma] is a social thing. Not necessarily in the military, but in society, males are supposed to be the strong, and fearless, brave. And even more so in the military, that’s the idea and the model, the cookie-cutter model you’re supposed to follow. And even more so in a combat unit, the arrogance, and people’s heads just explode to gigantic proportions. And, “We’re strong Army men, that ride around in tanks all day and kill stuff, hoo-ah hoo-ah,” when in reality we’re human beings. We have needs, we have problems, there’s shit medically we need to take care of. We’re not robots. We’re not what society puts us out to be. I think that’s really where I’d say 90%- 95% of the stigma comes from.

The other five percent would probably be commanders. We have safety briefing, every Friday, they go over every little thing of what not to do on the weekends. “Don’t drink and drive, don’t have unprotected sex, don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t get shot, don’t do this, blah blah blah blah.” It’s downright ridiculous. But during those briefings, they’ll be like, “If you feel like harming yourself, ha ha.” Captain Izzo would be giving the speech, and he’d be like, “If you’re thinking about killing yourself, go ahead and kill yourself. But I’m not supposed to say that, go ahead and go to mental health.” Shit like that. You know, he’s saying it in chosen manner where no one’s gonna take him to court over it, or no one’s gonna act on it, but it’s pretty obvious how he feels about it.

And this is another thing that’s in my head that causes the stigma. I was actually called out in front of my unit, my whole entire unit, when I came back from the combat stress unit, when I was in Iraq, when I had three months left. We had just got a brand new platoon sergeant. I hate this man. Once he found out that I had gone to combat stress the night before, he called a special formation just for me, and called me out in front of the entire company, to ask me, in front of everyone, if I felt like hurting myself. If I felt like I was a danger to everyone else or to myself, in the unit. Just asked me all these stupid, grueling questions, in front of everyone. It definitely was shit that he wasn’t supposed to do. That was a form of direct stigma that I was receiving from the higher-ups.

That was a special occasion—I really think the first sergeant, the one that took me under his wing, kind of grabbed him at this point and said, “Hey, you can’t do this,” ’cause he never did that to me again. It was never anything direct anymore, after that. I think he was told not to.

It would just be passive-aggressive. I owned a motorcycle, and when I came back to my unit, they were like, “Well, I want you to go get evaluated for riding your motorcycle, because I don’t think you should be able to ride your motorcycle with a head injury.” I’m like, “You’re not a fucking doctor. You have never been to medical school. You have just as much education, if not less, than me, fuck you, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” It was just little things like that, where he was technically in the right, yeah, it is something I needed to get taken care of, but he didn’t really need to be a dick about it like that, call me out and that in front of my entire platoon.

[SRP] is a very, very long…I believe it took care of groups of people. I didn’t really have a problem with pre-deployment SRP. You know what you’re getting into, you know you’re going into the Army, you know you’re going to war. Obviously you’re going to have a bunch of tests, a bunch of vaccinations, and shit like that. I have personal beliefs against those vaccinations, but that’s a whole other story.

I felt I was properly screened before deployment, and I felt I was improperly screened post-deployment. I felt that I was not afforded an opportunity to talk to a medical professional one-on-one, when asked if I was having psychiatric problems. I was asked in a group setting, with lots of people. So it was kind of discouraged to speak up in that form, because you don’t really want to say, “Yeah, I’m having problems,” with a bunch of people sitting around. And then, you’d have to go up to him, to the guy who asked you the questions, and follow him, and go ask him later. And you’d just look like a fool. And the other thing about SRP is they try to get so many damn soldiers through there so fast. And I don’t believe they take care, or even take consideration to make sure the information they’re putting in the computer or whatever, it maybe is correct. I don’t think they care.

Editor’s Note: Devon was asked if he had seen anyone who should not have been deployed get pushed through the SRP process.

Yeah, actually, me. I definitely had Traumatic Brain Injury before I deployed. In a training incident, I’d say probably five to three months before my deployment, I was a tanker, and was getting my tank ready for a mock mission. Wasn’t wearing any body armor, no Kevlar on my head or anything. And they ended up dropping a 200-pound hatch, the hatch to get in and out of the tank, on my head, and I was unconscious in the bottom of the tank for a while, and I had to be air-lifted out. It was a pretty bad process. I was in the hospital for a few days after that. I had lesions on my brain. I got a diagnosis before deployment, and it was severe post-concussive syndrome. Which, it basically was another word for migraines, but they didn’t actually give me Traumatic Brain Injury, the diagnosis, until I got back.

But I think it also should be noted that I was not actively trying to get out of the military or trying to get out of my deployment. I was really excited about my deployment. I think that was probably another reason that I was pushed through. I mean, it’s not a good reason, it’s not the right reason, but I think that was also part of the reason why I was pushed through, was because I was wanting to go, it was my first time, I didn’t know any other better. If I was a little older and wiser and had done this before, maybe I would have been able to get out of deployment. But I think I would have been afforded a little bit more opportunity.

I definitely, definitely should not have been passed medically to go to Iraq.

Editor’s Note: Devon continued by reflecting on how the safety and morale of soldiers around him were affected by soldiers who should not have been deployed, or who needed treatment.

We had one soldier snap on patrol, and pick up a puppy, and just like, got a group of kids around, little kids—mind you, in the middle of Iraq. Picked up a puppy and then threw it on the ground as hard as he could, and just started stepping on the head. Lost it, and started walking off by himself, on patrol. I’m not a medical professional or anything, but I’m pretty sure that dude has a problem. He cost us the mission that day, and he definitely cost us our safety. We didn’t get hit… But it did compromise our safety. And there was a few other…situations, I’m not sure if they were all medical reasons, I’m not sure if we just had really incompetent people, but I do know that there were some people in the military that should not have been in the military.

The dude that dropped the hatch on my head had a disfigured thumb. I’m not sure on regulations, but that was something that I saw that shouldn’t have been processed through. He actually had problems firing his weapon, because of his weird-shaped thumb. Which was definitely something that probably shouldn’t have been able to let him go to Iraq, and especially fighting in a combat situation.

There was definitely examples like that. A lot of people breaking down mentally and not being able to continue—or ending up going missing before a mission, or something like that. Just ’cause they freaked out or something. There was a couple times that people weren’t properly taken care of, and they should’ve been screened medically better.

[There] was a lot of steroids going around. I didn’t have any knowledge or sight of steroids. But of course, I wasn’t one of the guys going to the gym every day. I’m pretty sure those guys were pumping steroids. I know it was being used rapidly. I partake, and I knew of people using ecstasy in Iraq, drinking of course. Anytime we went outside the wire, we would get a local to buy us alcohol of some kind. But primarily, I would say, it was ecstasy and steroids, anabolic steroids.

…We had a couple suicides before deployment… I think we had one actually in deployment—put a bullet in his head while they were on patrol. Regulation is: he died on a combat mission, so the family got the 400k. That was in a separate platoon than me, so it really didn’t affect me a whole lot, but I was semi-close to the guy actually.

First it was really quiet. We weren’t really talking about it, it was under investigation. There was a fight that actually happened because of this. They were coming to clean out his room, his barracks room, and I’m not sure what happened, but I do know that something along the lines of they were cleaning up his stuff, like some soldiers from another unit came over and were cleaning it up and grabbed a piece of armor you were supposed to wear, it’s called a flak. And he goes, “Oh—he wasn’t wearing these. I guess his family isn’t gonna get that 400k.” He said it to his friend, and one of these guys just punched the dude, knocked him out. He did get the 400k, but they were just kind of assholes about it. That wasn’t my command. That was just the Army in general. We didn’t have a memorial, it was hush-hush, I guess. We really tried not to talk about it.

…When we had people that died in the line of duty, we had full memorial services. The unit that actually had the killed in action would have x-amount of days off of duty. We would have to pick up slack from that unit. It was definitely treated 100% different.

Once again, [R-SRP] is just a lot of people going through this process really fast. I don’t feel that they were properly screened, they were just, “Check the box.” If you have a problem, no, check the box, kind of deal. I do know they changed it since then, I don’t know how it works now, but when I went through, I was asked in a group setting about having any problems, having any suicidal ideation, having depressive problems, anything like that. And that’s not something that I believe most people would admit in a group setting, or should be asked in a group setting. I think that’s something that’s private.

I got blood work [at R-SRP], I got a lot of physical things done to make sure I was still having full range of motion on my back. I think it was ’cause I was complaining of back issues at that point, too. I’m not sure if that was because I was having extra problems, if they were giving me extra tests or not, but all the tests seemed pretty rushed. They just wanted to get out of there.

They asked us in multiple group settings, “If you feel you might have a Traumatic Brain Injury, raise your hand, we’ll come and help you,” or, “Come with us, and we’ll help you.” I didn’t really feel comfortable at that point to seek help in a group setting like that.

Even if we sat down on a one-on-one basis with a doctor or something, I don’t believe…it would be effective. Just because there’s too many soldiers going through the system, too quick. Imagine yourself in a line going [separately] to go risk talking to a doctor. Everyone knows what the line is for. You know you’re gonna go in there and he’s gonna ask you if you have PTSD. And if you’re in there for too long, explaining, “Yeah, I feel like I have some problems,” it’s gonna cause some suspicion.

I don’t really know how it could be made better. The military sent out some special survey, and had some commander, some major actually come down to Under the Hood, to give me this interview and ask me questions about it. I was just randomly selected. But I told him, “I don’t know if there’s any way that it could be made better.” I really think it has to come down to the soldier, to seek the help themselves. I just think we were not really trained enough to know the problems, know the situations that suicidal people would be in, or depressed people would be in, and what to do when you talk to a vet. Towards the end of being in the military, there were a lot more classes, especially after the Nidal Malik Hasan shooting. There was a lot of things changing, I’m not sure how things are now, but people definitely need to be educated, and I feel that with the proper education, the soldiers would be able to seek out medical help. It sucks.

I think the stigma’s a really big thing that we need to address. I don’t think we really have an answer to how to fix it. I don’t believe there’s much more the higher command could do to fix it. It’s something they need to come from the people…

Whenever my unit or platoon would talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it would be made fun of. Like, if you have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and you feel like you’re gonna kill yourself, go back and go do it. Just put the rest of us out of our misery, or whatever. “Oh, ha ha, just kidding.” It wasn’t really taken serious enough.

The screening process for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder I believe really was a questionnaire. And a plate system off that questionnaire, like, “On a scale of one to five how likely do you agree with this, or do you not agree with this? How much does this describe you or not?” I think to actually get the final diagnosis, you had to sit down with a therapist, and talk with him. And he gave you the questionnaire…

When I was still in-country, I went to combat stress, and I continued going to combat stress clinics when I came back to the States. I bounced around with a few doctors, that kind of blew me off, didn’t really take me seriously, didn’t really help me.

I was really fortunate to find Dr. Samuelson. He bent over backwards, he actually called my unit a number of times, and told them that they were being fucking retarded for not listening to the III Corps policy of listening to profiles. He did a lot for me. But there was only so much he could do, also. He’s the one, I believe, that gave me my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis. I was rejected from that diagnosis from a couple other doctors, at least two. They see so many soldiers, too fast, all these doctors, and they don’t really care. They are getting their paycheck at the end of the week, and they’re just checking a box. That’s how it was with a lot of the doctors there. I don’t know if they’re burnt out on their job, or they’re over-worked, or what it is, but a lot of the doctors there didn’t give proper diagnosis.

After I first got diagnosed with it, after I came back from Iraq, I experienced flashbacks, disturbing thoughts, recurring nightmares, intrusive thoughts. I mean, go Google ‘PTSD,’ if it’s on the list, I probably experienced it. It was pretty rough.

But with talk therapy—no medication, I might add—I really think the biggest thing that helped me was removing myself from the military environment, and not even living in the city of Killeen… That’s still a military environment. Even living there, I needed to remove myself from that area. I believe that was the best course of treatment for me. I don’t know if I would really classify my PSTD now as mild or moderate. Depending on the day, I guess.

I do have an extreme memory problem. I’m currently only taking one class in college per semester. Due to my disability, I’m not really able to keep up with a lot of people and keep up with a lot of conversation. And I get confused a lot of times, real easy, if I try to process information quickly. But that could also be from the TBI, ’cause they play in with each other.

I do have increased anxiety, especially in public events, public places, when it’s really crowded, I’m really on-edge. For example, just last weekend I was in Las Vegas, and I was on a street corner, and it was just so damn packed with people. I was with a group of friends. I had to leave my group of friends, walk across the boulevard, walk across the strip, at eleven o’clock at night, with cars rushing by, without a green light or a cross-walk or anything. I was like fuck this, I cannot stay in this group anymore. And I had to dodge traffic and just get to the other side of the strip. I could not be near people that jam-packed. I get angry a lot of the time, especially when I’m being exacerbated by people or situations, or I’m just really stressed or something. But it’s manageable, I feel every day I’m getting a little bit better, with the PTSD.

I used to be a very extroverted person. I used to be the center of attention, I used to be able to make friends really easy. Used to have lots of relationships with a lot of friends. I would have a lot of friends, mostly. I’ve been in Arizona for two and a half years, and I don’t think I’ve made any friends since being in the military. Even going to college, I’m a very introverted person now. I don’t really talk to a lot of people. I try to avoid people mostly. I would only consider one person to be my friend out here. It definitely affects your personal relationships and stuff.

Definitely, it affected [family relationships] quite a bit. It’s really hard for me to express emotion a lot of the time. And at some other times, I just have way too much emotion. When it first started happening, it was hard for my parents to understand what was going on with me. But as I got better, they kind of understood what was going on with me, and they’ve been able to manage it, so far. I live with my parents.

Medically, the thing that’s helped me the best was speech pathology. I’ve been seeing a speech pathologist for a few years now, and I don’t have a stutter, she’s helped me cognitively overcome some major hurdles. Like being able to read again, for one. It was really hard for me to read, and at one point, I just completely gave up on reading altogether. But little things, that I didn’t even think about, such as underlining key words and using bookmarks, have made me able to read again. I’m not sure if it’s the person I’m seeing, them as an individual, or if it’s the practice I’m getting, the medical practice, but speech pathology probably has been one of the biggest helps, medically, for me.

I’m gonna say ’cause of the memory part that it’s both [for PTSD and TBI]. A lot of the times I’ll get angry, because I’m not able to find something, or I’m not able to do something. And because I’m seeing her, and I’m able to do these things—like, I would get angry ’cause I couldn’t find my keys in my car, or I couldn’t find my sunglasses. Now she’s taught me systems, where you can completely skip the step of getting angry, because I can find the stuff, it’s right where I left it. I have a certain way to do things now. So in that way, it’s kind of helped.

I also have been getting more [help] connected to PTSD, I’ve been seeing a counselor. But I really think the speech pathology was definitely the way to go. The counselor, we’re not doing the EMDR anymore, and we’re doing just a talk therapy kind of thing. But there’s only so much you can really talk out. I mean, I talked out everything, every situation, every encounter, every bad encounter I had in Iraq. And I’m still not 100% better. I don’t think counseling can give you everything. But it does help. I think it has lowered my PTSD. But I really have to give it up to speech pathology.

The biggest thing that I saw with the people that I deployed with—which, mind you, I didn’t stay in contact with a lot of them after I got back, ’cause I was pretty quickly pretty much moved to a psych ward. But I mostly saw, when I first got back, a lot of memory problems in my unit. A lot of people were peering over simple instructions, or would lose little things. Their mind seemed to be going a million miles a minute, where they couldn’t process any information, it just was going in one ear and out the other. They thought about it, but lost it just as quick. And it caused a lot of arguments and fights that were pretty pointless, but it raised the aggressiveness of the morale.

I think that with most people, memory loss was a huge, huge indicator of PTSD. But I was kind of shoved off and ignored, “Oh, man, I don’t have a problem like that.” I don’t really think that they acknowledged it.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the she-man. The she-man is a counter-mortar and artillery device that we have in Iraq. It basically lets a loud siren off, whenever artillery or incoming is coming in, indirect fire, like a mortar. Someone took that sound, isolated it, put it onto their phone, and during a formation, played it. Just about every single person in that formation—and mind you, this was probably a month after we got back from Iraq—dropped to the floor like we were getting mortared. I think at that point that we all realized that we all had PTSD, and all kind of joked about it. But it was never anything serious, to the point where we knew we needed to get help for it.

The people that killed themselves before deployment, we had memorial services, and we had grief counselors come in and talk to us about it. The grief counselors actually said it was pretty common for people to kill themselves before a big deployment like this, which was kind of comforting. But like I said, in Iraq, we didn’t have anything, it was kind of hush-hush, and I think it just caught us all off-guard and we barely knew how to handle it…

They didn’t really affect me directly, because no one in my platoon personally killed themselves, or none of my close friends actually killed themselves. It was sad that they would kill themselves, but I didn’t have a strong emotional attachment to them. So I guess I didn’t really feel it, or I was affected by the suicides in the military that much. I do think when we lost people, it was definitely worse with suicide. I kind of felt with suicide, at least it was their option, they went on their terms, and it wasn’t always that way when we lost people out in combat.

As far as myself, I was actually at Under the Hood when the people here decided that I would not be ‘mentally available,’ we’ll say, and checked me into Darnall, and that’s when I did my eight days in the psych ward. That’s really kind of hazy. Once again, I was on a lot of medications at that point. I do remember that I told people I wanted to kill myself. I don’t know if I had a plan or actually tried to, I don’t believe I did. But I did have suicidal ideations at that point. It was really weird. I know that’s the only time I felt kind of out of body. I was kind of like, checked out mentally. I didn’t really give a fuck what happened to me. I could’ve died and laid in the freeway for all I cared at that point. ‘Cause I wasn’t making the decisions. So it was really weird. I’m not sure if it was 100% me in my depression, or if medication had something to do with it.

I think I was taking a couple antidepressants [at that time]. Nothing too serious—my big stints with prescription medications came after my time in the psych ward. They started putting me on all these kinds of medications, so many kinds. And I was essentially a zombie. But I really don’t know before that, it’s kind of hazy…

Editor’s Note: Devon was asked to reflect on whether he thought multiple deployments affected soldiers’ morale or well-being.

Oh yeah, definitely. First, I can’t imagine going through it with a wife, I can’t even imagine going through it with a partner, a relationship, girlfriend, whatever. That’s gotta be a huge toll on the people. We had a special room in our out-post in Iraq, it was called like, the breakup-divorce room. That alone, being alone from your family, is a huge stressor. And then, adding the whole situation of war, on top of that, [is] an unnatural experience.

When I went on my deployment, I was excited to go, and usually the first tour deployment, people are. The people that have gone their second and their third time look worn, they look tired. You can tell it’s taking shit from them, physically, emotionally, and mentally, all around. I don’t think even one deployment is healthy, or good for you, in any means. Let alone multiple. I’ve only been on one deployment, I don’t have that experience or that knowledge, but I can’t even fathom it. There’s no way in hell they’d have sent me back. I would’ve gone and moved to goddamn Mexico, Alaska, Australia, wherever, not to go back to that place, at least not as a soldier.

[War] is unnatural, as human beings, we’re not programmed to take another life. And when we come to that situation, to do it, a lot of the times we won’t do it. But being in the military, you’re exposed to certain kinds of training, like reflexive fire, and stuff like that. That takes the thinking out of it, and makes you automatically pull the trigger when you bring your weapon up. I really felt that training hurt me a lot, the reflexive fire training. ‘Cause there was situations in Iraq where I pulled my weapon up and discharged rounds when I wasn’t even thinking about what I was doing, it just happened too quickly. But that was what I was trained to do.

I certainly believe anyone that’s even just left the base has PTSD, some form of emotional disturbance, definitely. For two short answers, killing and betraying, was definitely something that caused the trauma for me.

[Counterinsurgency] is kind of like the War on Drugs. We’re fighting a faith, we’re not fighting a group of people, we’re fighting an idea—insurgency. It’s never gonna be over. I believe the best way to stop these insurgencies would be to pull out of this country, because I believe a lot of the ‘insurgents’ that we’re fighting are people in this country that just don’t want us to be there.

Fighting a War on Terror is the same as fighting a war on pot. You’re never gonna eradicate every crop of marijuana in the world, and make it extinct. You’re not going to! Give up… Terrorism, it exists, yes. On the scale of that the US portrays it? No. Is it something that we need to address? Yes. Are we addressing it the right way by invading a country and doing what we’re doing? No. I don’t really have the correct answer of what we need to be doing to stop it. But we all know that we’re in Iraq for daddy’s little fight, to go in there and finish it. There’s no reason why we’re in Iraq. At least we had a legitimate backup for why we’re in Afghanistan—or semi-legitimate, I don’t believe either of them are legitimate wars.

…I personally think any soldier that deploys, any soldier, combat, non-combat, whether you stared at and never fired your weapon all day—I think you need to go through at least 90-day, three-month minimum counseling kind of deal. Because a lot of the soldiers, just because of the stigma, will not admit to having problems. A licensed, fully professional counselor can detect those problems, even if they’re not admitting them. They won’t be able to detect them within a first encounter, they won’t be able to detect them within a week. But after a few times meeting with that patient, the doctor would be able to properly diagnose what was wrong with that person.

…I think it’s gonna cost way, way, way too much to properly take care of it. And the military will never do it. No one has enough money to take care of it.

My unit was kind of special for TBI. We had quite a few briefings about it. Mostly because they were inserting special little chips in our helmets, G-force kind of things to see what our head would be getting. So my unit actually had a lot of explanation of what TBI was, and what the signs were, and why they were doing this. I believe it was randomly selected. I don’t know if it was because of the location we were going or not, but it was pre-deployment, that they determined it was going to be us.

Editor’s Note: Devon confirmed that, while deployed, he was exposed to blast pressure or other conditions that could have caused a brain injury.

Any time that we were next to indirect fire, or anytime we got hit with an IED, EFP, anything like that, the next available time that we were at the FOB we were sent to the medical unit to go get evaluated. They would ask us a few comprehensive questions, make sure we were alert, knew the date, knew the president, stuff like that. They would look in our eyes, do a flashlight, making sure our pupils would dilate properly in sync, and stuff like that.

I think we were checked out pretty thoroughly when it was available. A lot of times we were out at the out-post and we only had one or two medical guys with us. And if anyone in the platoon got hit, they would have to go through and do this test to like, 24 dudes. So I mean, a lot of the times we’d just be like, “Yeah, I’m fine,” to check the blocks kind of deal. But when the post was available, I think we were screened pretty well.

I’d say about 30% of the time I was on the FOB, and that was where all the real doctors were. I had a medic that went with me off FOB. But only trauma stuff, not full medical care.

I’m also rated for migraines, I believe it’s connected to my Traumatic Brain Injury. I’m extremely, extremely forgetful. I’m cognitively slower. I don’t really have a sense of smell anymore. My tastes are different. That’s how my memory is. My memory is shot.

…I just recently was retired from the military at 90% [disabled]. Last week I got my rating from the VA finally, after two and a half years of being out of the military. They’re gonna finally rate me at 100%. I’ve been unemployed the entire time, just because of the disabilities I received in deployment.

This is my first semester back at school. I’m getting pretty—I’m not gonna say overwhelmed, but I’m pretty close to my limit on cognitive capability, with this one class.

Out of my unit, out of my platoon, out of 16 guys, I know for a fact one other person was diagnosed with TBI. Me and him would always joke that we were gonna move in together when we got released from the military. We were gonna own one DVD and watch it every single night, like over and over. You know, ’cause we can never remember shit. He’s pretty much in the same boat I am. He lives over in Kentucky. And kind of the same thing as me, he’s off by himself, doesn’t have a social life much. He’s already done with the school. He tried it and he was done. He said it was too hard. But yeah, the same exact situation that I was feeling, I’ve seen other soldiers go through too.

Editor’s Note: Devon was asked what kind of training he had received in the military on sexual assault and harassment, as well as his experience in MEB.

Really none…when we first got to Fort Hood, we were instructed to be careful, because there was a lot of MST going on, a lot of rapes, guy-on-guy, guy-on-girl. On and around Fort Hood, they said it was really common. Really that’s the only time I think I was talked to about Military Sexual Trauma. But I was a combat soldier, in my unit it’s illegal for girls to be there. There was no girls in my unit, I didn’t work with girls. While deployed we try to get female soldiers to search female detainees, in country. And for that reason we were brought two female soldiers to our out-post. And I don’t know physically went on, I think I was on guard duty when it actually happened. It wasn’t a rape, but it was like, an attempted rape, started happening in my unit. But shortly after that, we had a special unit come out and take the girls away from our out-post and take them back to the FOB, and we never had girls at our out-post again. But that right there was my only experience with military sexual trauma.

Just like any kind of safety briefing, any time they made us get in a group and talk about PTSD in a safety briefing, or military sexual trauma, it was never taken seriously. It was just, “Okay, we’re gonna go home after this. Can we hurry it up?”

…The military is not really a good place. It’s a bunch of kids fresh out of high school, getting a pay-check, a place to live, and a gun, and a sense of authority. They’ve never had any of that, and all of a sudden one day, after two and a half months of training, boom, they have all of it. They get a sense of being invincible and think they can get away with anything. I don’t know if there’s really a way we could stop [MST], let alone disbanding the military in general. Look at the Ukrainian military, or air force, they allow a lot more females in, they let females even do combat jobs. But they still have astronomical amounts of rapes and MST.

I don’t really know if there’s a way to fix it. When you put people in a situation like the military, give them the idea of false power, and make them fight all the time? Assault is going to take a hold. And males are made for pretty much one thing, from an evolutionary standpoint, they’re made for one thing. To breed. And it’s sick that that happens. I don’t know of any way that that could be stopped. I’m not saying it’s right. But I really have no idea, let alone putting all females out of the military. But that doesn’t stop all MST, there’s still guy-on-guy, it goes on.

…The MEB process takes forever. But to get accepted into the MEB process, in my experience, was the hardest thing. One, getting out of your combat unit. Two, dealing with all the stigma. Three, getting to a unit that you can actually go to appointments when you need to. It’s very hard to get that. And then having my commander, from my old unit, my commander from my current unit, and the hospital commander all agree that yes, I was screwed up enough to get into this process and be removed from the military. That’s really, really hard to do, and I can’t stress that enough, how hard it is for soldiers to accomplish that or even do that.

But once I got into the system, God, it took forever. Yeah, I did have some bad experiences with some doctors, like doctors told me, “No, you don’t have TBI,” when I have visible lesions on my brain, that any MRI or I’m not sure what ones would show it, but an MRI shows it. And they’d just be like, “No, you don’t have it.” You have to actually sit there and really fight in the MEB process. Just like anything medical in the military, you really need to fight to your death. And basically not take no for an answer. It’s rough.

My nurse case manager was really mad, she really helped me out and took care of me. I think all the nurse case managers seemed pretty nice, and pretty much on the same page with her. But like, doctors seemed over-worked, didn’t care. And a lot of them did not want to give diagnoses. Because they know the military’s going to be paying for that. And whether it’s said or not, it probably looks bad if you give out way too many diagnoses. Their boss probably looks at them worse. The person gives out the least diagnoses, in my opinion, would probably be looked at more favorably than the person that gives out a shit-load of them. Every diagnosis costs a shit-load of money, ’cause they have to pay them for their life.

They released me on Medical Board, 100% disability, 50% for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and 70% for Traumatic Brain Injury, which with very special math, they told me 90 for some reason. But those were the two that I got from the military. Then, eventually, a few weeks ago they added migraines, and both my knees and my back to that.

It was my captain of my medical unit, a Warrior Transition Unit [who referred to MEB]. The only reason [I got adequate care after that] was because I was in the WTU. I was in a special medical unit. If I was in a line unit, no, I would not have been able to get the access to the proper medical care. But I was one of the few that was afforded proper medical care, I believe.

I saw a lot of providers. I saw primary care doctors, and then I would see neuro-practitioners, neurological people that do stuff with my head, therapists, different therapists. I saw some ribcage specialists for my back and my knee problems. Sometimes it was like, a three-month wait for something like that, but I was able to see some sort of specialist for it. All of my injuries are service-related and connected…

Excluding my time when I was in that combat unit, and I was called out in front of my entire platoon about my medical problems, it has been kept confidential.

I got horrible responses from everyone, except from my first sergeant [when I was moved to WTU]. My first sergeant was very helpful in getting me into the Warrior Transition Unit. He wasn’t really my first sergeant, he was a first sergeant to another company, which tied in with my first sergeant. It’s a weird situation, that’s neither here nor there. But if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I got horrible responses from everyone else. I was very lucky to have him.

Editor’s Note: Devon was enlisted during the troop surges to Iraq and Afghanistan, and was discharged before the drawdown took effect, but shared some reflections on how things were different then from what he hears today.

…ASAP was always full, and all those substance abuse places are always full. They would never chapter people out for substance abuse when I was in. I’m sure they would now, it’s totally different. And as a veteran, being on the outside, I know that it’s hard at the VA, it’s kind of packed, there’s so many veterans. There’s so many of us that have problems.

…My unit was pretty lax. It’s pretty hard to get in trouble in my unit. The other guy I told you had traumatic brain injury showed up late all the time. A couple of times he never even showed up. And people didn’t notice, didn’t care, if he was late and he walked up in the middle of formation when they were talking, they didn’t care.

…I think [the VA] is severely understaffed. I think it is really underprepared. Yes, they have taken some good initiatives, and steps towards providing aid to veterans. But unless you want to fill up auditoriums of people, you’re not gonna have enough room, you’re not gonna have enough doctors, or even be ready enough to deal with the amount of people that are actually having problems with this war…both wars. But a lot of them aren’t gonna actually even get help, they’re just gonna be the crazy 25% homeless people out on the street. Which makes me sad.

My family would tell you I’ve calmed down a whole lot since I first got out of the military. I still have extremely bad road rage, and some things really get me. It’s really difficult adjusting. Like, the first day that I was out of the military, I didn’t eat, ’cause no one told me to. It was really weird. It was a very liberating feeling, ’cause I was trying to get out for so long.

But it was very weird. If I had to go out and get a job, I don’t know if I’d be able to. I don’t think it’s really part of PTSD, but the whole culture of being in the military is weird. You can’t really get fired, and everyone knows that. And that changes some things that most people don’t really take into effect when they’re thinking about jobs. A good example is like, I can go run into a soldier, while working and fart on him and run away laughing. You can’t do that in a normal civilian job. You’d be fired pretty quickly, if not arrested. But in the military, that’s kind of funny. I would run up to my commander and go fart on him and run away.

…And I guess a lot of that culture rubbed off on me. That culture involves little inappropriate pranks like that, lots of cursing, and lots of ‘excited talk,’ let’s say. A lot of times I’m not angry, I’m just speaking very loudly, and people think I’m screaming at them. I’m not angry, I’m just excited. It’s hard for me to maintain relationships, because people think I’m fucking insane! I’m screaming at them, when really I’m thinking I’m talking normal to them.

…Time will heal all wounds, pretty much. Almost all of them. But it’s slow, it’s a slow process. It’s a hard process. But it’s for your own good.

Personally, I believe I’m probably gonna die pretty young. I don’t think I’m gonna live to be the average life expectancy of 80. I’m guessing probably somewhere around 50, just with all the medical things I have wrong with me. My back’s gonna give out, and my knees are gonna give out. I know by the time I’m older I’m not gonna be able to walk. So with those injuries alone, and having to deal with being mentally slower than everyone else around me, and cognitively different, and being angry all the time, it’s difficult.

Editor’s Note: In wrapping up the interview, Devon shared his reflections on what it will take to get soldiers the care they deserve and the right to heal.

Ending the war would be something that would give us the right to heal. I don’t think there’s really much else we could do, besides completely stop doing what we’re doing. Anytime you send someone to do something like war, it’s a maxim, you’re gonna get problems with the person, no one is supposed to be doing this kind of shit. No one’s supposed to be taking another person’s life. We’re not programmed for that…

…We need a full array of things to end these wars, and I believe more direct action is needed. We need to be in the streets, outside of military bases, letting the commanders of the military bases know that we’re not standing for this. As civilians, we’re not standing for wars that for years have been under 50% approval rate. No. We’re sick and tired of sending our fathers, our mothers, our daughters, our sons, to go die in these stupid fucking wars for profit. We need to have that more vocalized.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s