Operation Recovery

The Fort Hood Testimony Report

Jake Leighton *

Active duty US Army, Infantry, three deployments in seven years

 

Editor’s Note: Jake is a married infantryman in his late twenties from the suburban West Coast who did not identify his race. He has had three deployments during his seven years of Army service.

 

I’ve been wanting to be in the military since I was little. First it was a cop, and then I started seeing soldiers walking around, and I was like, “Huh, I can do that.” I enlisted in 2003. I hadn’t even graduated high school yet, and I was already taking the ASVAB. So as soon as I could, I was in the Army. I was 19.

I wanted a little more discipline, and something to be proud of. And the big reason was, to actually fight for the country. Especially after 9/11.

On my second deployment, I got hit by a pretty big IED. And I was having problems with it. I was angry all the time, and all kinds of stuff. And when I went to my platoon sergeant to tell him what was going on, he just said, “Oh, stop being a pussy. We’re in the Infantry, stuff like that happens.” So at that time, I thought, “Maybe you’re right, maybe I should just suck it up a little bit,” and keep doing my job. And then stuff kept happening, and kept happening. And same thing, “Stop being a punk. You’re in the Infantry, you’re supposed to be the hard ass of the Army.” And again, I thought, “You know what, maybe he’s right.”

And then, it started affecting my job. Most of the time I couldn’t think, concentration was all messed up. I’d be walking in a patrol, and I’d just zone out. I would be there, but I wouldn’t be there. And that’s not good. I was supposed to be watching the rear… It makes me angry.

I also lost a lot of my hearing from that IED. So every time somebody would talk to me, and I could barely hear them, it brought up that experience, of the blast. So I couldn’t get away from it. And I still can’t, because I still have ringing in my ears. And they just say, “Oh, that’s normal.” I’m sorry, I’ve had ringing in my ears since 2006. When you go out and shoot weapons, you get a little bit of ringing for five minutes, and then you’re good. But this is not normal.

And at that point, this was still kind of new to me. It was my second deployment, but I hadn’t been through this stuff yet. My first deployment nothing really happened, we didn’t lose anybody. So the platoon sergeant actually got mad. And he just said, “Oh, why are you acting like a little punk now? Like you can’t even do your job.” And I told him. And he said, “You need to stop being a punk. Now get ready to go on a mission.” So I get ready. And we go on a mission, like nothing ever happened…

It shouldn’t be that hard, you know? If you go up to somebody and tell them you have a problem, right then it should be, “Okay, we’re going to fix this problem first. And if we can’t fix it now, we’re gonna fix it soon, and you’re going to come back and work.” And that would’ve been fine. But they just kept saying, “No, you’re not going off work. No, you’re not going. Get ready for the mission; no, you’re not going; get ready for the mission; no, you’re not going; get ready for the mission.”

Physically, of course, you’re not ready. If you’re physically hurt, of course you’re not gonna be able to go do it. But mentally, that’s what people don’t understand. If you’re not ready mentally to go out and do that job, guess what? Either you’re gonna end up getting killed, or you’re gonna end up getting somebody else killed. And if that happens, it’s gonna end up being even worse on you. So after a while, I just said, I don’t care, I’m gonna go get help. I gotta help myself before I can help you guys on a mission.

So I went to mental health. But I didn’t like it so much, because yeah, you got to talk to people, but once you talked to them, they’d just say, “Oh, here are these meds. You should be fine.” And like I said, at the beginning, you think, “Okay. If I take these, I’ll be alright.” But then you take them, and then you don’t feel any different. I’m still pissed off all the time.

And then, all they say is, “We’re gonna increase your dosage, so you can just sleep through it.” That just makes you walk through it like a zombie. So I stopped going. I didn’t think they could help, after that. And I was in Iraq, so I just went back to work. Apparently, I was gonna have suck it up anyway. I went back on missions, and everything pretty much fell back into place. I put it all in the back of my mind, and just said, “Whatever, I’m gonna just get this deployment over with. And once I’m done, I’m done.”

But then, I got hit again. And I just thought, “Oh, man. Here I go again.” This is the time I got my Purple Heart. I had shrapnel everywhere, in my neck, on my arms, my knees. I was pretty bad. I was in the hospital for a while. And while I was in the hospital, I found out that one of my really good friends passed away. He got hit by an IED, in pretty much the same spot that mine was. But his was a bigger one. And that sent me down… It was bad.

But after that, I healed up, everything was fine, all the shrapnel was out. And I needed something to take my mind off of what had happened. So I went back to work. I just thought, “Alright, I’m gonna go back for these last couple of months and get it over with.” But when I went back, they said, “You know, you’re not ready to be back on a line yet.” So I stayed at the main FOB, with all the injured people. But there, all I could do was think about it. And whenever I thought about it, about my friend dying, I would get worse.

It was weird, because I felt guilty, even though I was in the hospital when he died. But I thought, “If I would’ve been there, maybe it wouldn’t have happened to him.” All that stuff you feel when you lose somebody that’s close to you. But a couple months after that, I got put on a plane back to Germany. I thought the care might be better there, and I went to mental health. They just said, “Here’s some meds. They’re gonna make you tired.” The meds make you walk around like a bunch of zombies. And so again, I just thought, “If you’re not gonna help me, then I’m not gonna come back. I can help myself more than that!” But then, it was horrible, because I started drinking. I used to drink in the past, but it wasn’t enough to be scared.

Other people in my unit knew I was having a hard time. I used to talk about it. But they would just look at me like, “You know, you’re a piece of shit. It didn’t scare you that bad.” So I was like, “I almost died!” I’m sorry, but you sit in your office, and you’re chillin’. And I’m out there actually bleeding. You have no idea how I feel. And they would just give me looks. My platoon sergeant would just look at me like that. That’s one of the reasons why I waited to go to mental health until at the end of my tour in Germany, the first time I went. At the end of it. Because I felt like, “I’m clear now. So you can’t say shit to me. I’m not even in your unit anymore now.”

So yeah, command knew what was going on. They just didn’t address it. They didn’t care. As long as you’re ready to deploy, they don’t care. They don’t give a shit about you, as long as you can deploy and do your job. But like I was saying, you can’t do your job if you’re thinking about tons of other stuff.

When I went back Germany, though, after my second deployment, I started drinking heavily, every day. I didn’t even care if I had to work. I would just go out and drink. I thought that might help a little, but of course, it didn’t. For a while I was in a pretty bad place. Never thought about hurting myself, but it was bad, and everybody could see it. I wouldn’t hang out with any of my old friends. Because they all had that same mentality—“Suck it up. Don’t be a punk. Just go out and do your job, and come back.” It was weird, like they got brainwashed. I felt totally alone in the whole situation.

The drinking made it worse, and worse. And then, it got so bad that I really couldn’t even do anything but sit there. Some nights I would just cry all night. It was horrible.

Eventually I got in trouble, because of the alcohol. So they sent me back to Fort Carson. At Carson I was still a big drinker. Every day after work I’d have like, a 30-pack of beer, wake up in the morning and go do PT. So I got in trouble for drinking again. They gave me Article 15s . I just thought, “This is horrible.”

I went to mental health there, and they actually helped. Of course, they still gave me meds. But I also went to an anger management group, and it helped. But a lot of people there really didn’t go through the experience that I did. So when I would talk about it, everybody would be like, “Oh my god. That’s so—” I didn’t think they could relate. I had that feeling again, of just being alone.

So I stopped going to the group. I got a little bit better, since I stopped drinking so much. And then, they started talking about deployment. I was still nervous. But then, for the deployment, I made team leader, which made me feel a little bit better. It made me feel like I was still in there, I’m still good, still doing my job, and apparently I could do it good enough to be a team leader. To actually go out and lead four guys, take them to Iraq and bring them back. So I thought, “Okay! It’s alright.” And I got deployed. My third tour. And the beginning was easy.

But then, we all went down to the detention center. And for some reason, an American soldier hadn’t been in this place for about five years. So I just thought, “Here we go again.” It was the same story in the last city. I just couldn’t get away.

We kept doing patrols, and nothing happened. It was okay until the last three months. And then, in not even a week, I got hit by three IEDs. The first one they had set off wrong, so the only thing that went up was a blasting cap. Which was good, because it was a 155, and if it had gone off, it would’ve been bad. The second one was again, set up horrible. But the weird thing about that one was that, for me, I don’t want to see what is going to hurt or kill me. We were rolling around looking for stuff on roads, and I saw a plate. And I didn’t have enough time, because once I saw it, we were already on it. It didn’t kill the truck, and nobody got hurt, but for some reason, that was the breaking point for me. I was a passenger, behind the driver. And I just sat there in the backseat and I cried, the whole time. I was broke down.

And so, we went to go look for them. Of course, they’re so stealthy, they were gone. As soon as it went off, they were gone. And that pissed me off. I felt like since the new ROE came up, we couldn’t do anything. It was really frustrating.

When it was over, I called my wife, and said, “I got some news. I got hit.” And she was stunned. She couldn’t even talk to me for 20 minutes. I was fine, but it scared the hell out of her. This was when I was in the unit that was actually cool about going to get help, and actually giving us time to get over it. They talked to us and said, “You guys get a couple days to relax.” I chilled out, played video games. And a couple nights later, I was sitting in my room, and my squad leader came in and said, “You guys don’t have to, but if you guys can, we really need your help tonight.” And I feel like, if you’re okay, you’re not hurt, then you’re thinking, “I really don’t want to leave my platoon like that.” So everybody just said, “Okay. Let’s roll. We’re down.”

It was weird. The street that we rolled down to get to the Initial Point, there was a street and then a burg, so we couldn’t go past that. We had to take a detour around it, on a little path, so the trucks barely fit. On the other side, there was a river.

When we were heading out, everything was good. We stayed out there for three or four hours, and then we were told to go back. I thought we might get back alright. So we’re rolling. We hit the detour. And once our back wheel was in the detour, the IED goes off. And this one was huge. It was so big that the windshield broke out of the truck. And you can’t even break that thing with a 50-cal round. We almost flipped. The back end raised up. We were at about a 45-degree angle in the air. I hit my head on the glass. I was knocked out. When everything was settled, I kept hearing yelling. I was still dazed. I went to open a door, but the blast had blown a tire off on the opposite side of me, so the truck was standing at an angle. And the doors are 450 pounds, easy. The truck was on fire, and I was just thinking, “Man, I gotta get out of here.” I still had my seatbelt on. Fire was right next to me, and all around in front. I was looking around like, “I don’t know about this.”

I’m trying to open this door. I got it a little bit open, and then it closed. So I was like, “Dammit.” And then I heard a whisper. It was weird. Everybody was yelling, but I heard a whisper. And the door opened. I pushed it a little bit, and it opened. I still had my seatbelt on. I unhooked it. But this time I was stuck. I couldn’t even move. The guy that was sitting behind me had shattered his whole arm. The driver broke his neck. He didn’t die, but he broke his neck. The gunner got a piece of shrapnel in the leg. Lucky we didn’t lose anybody. And I had a bad headache. When we got out, we got behind this building, and I just sat there. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even cry. It scared me so much I couldn’t do anything. And my platoon sergeant, again, he came up to me and said, “You alright?” I just said, “No, I’m not alright. I’m not okay at all.”

The next day, we had a meeting about the IED. Saying what happened, how we felt about it. And it really pissed me off, because we had injured people, and the medivac bird took two hours to get there. If I had known where they were, I’d have probably went in there myself. But everybody was pissed. Everybody thought, “Forget this.” And I was sitting there feeling like, “Whatever.”

I really stopped caring about stuff. I felt like it didn’t really matter anymore, who cares? I talked to the Chaplain, and he asked me how I felt, since I was in the truck. And I said, “Mentally, it’s hard.” So the next day, I got sent to mental health in Iraq. I stayed back from work for a few days, and it was alright. I was still very, very angry. But everything was okay. I was drinking heavily. So after that, I went back to Germany. I didn’t deploy again. I was still injured from my third deployment, with mTBI.

Back at Fort Carson, I went to the clinic, but they were full, from everybody coming back. I went to the hospital, because the blast blew my ear drum out again. I had already gotten surgery on it, and then got in that next IED, and blew it out again. So I got surgery, and went to Germany, on Rear-D. Everybody was already deployed. That was the perfect time to go just drain everything out. I went to the mTBI clinic, and that was it. They started checking me out, seeing how my memory was, and diagnosed me with the mTBI. I found out my long-term memory was good, but my short-term was pretty rocky. You could tell me something, like at the beginning of the interview here, where you were naming off a list of things to say about myself, and I would forget most of them. Somehow my vision got messed up. I had 20-20 vision before, and then I had to get glasses. But they did the same thing, just said, “Oh. We can give you some meds.” And I told them I was getting tired of it. I said, “Every time I come in here for something like this, all you guys do is try to give people meds.” People don’t understand that you don’t only need meds. That’s not gonna solve your whole problem. It may take one symptom away, but then all the side effects make it even worse. So why even give a med if one of the side effects is thoughts of harming yourself? I said I’m tired of it. And they just said, “Well, that’s all we can do for you.” And I thought, “Man, there has to be something else.”

After my second tour, I was on anti-depressants, I was on nightmare pills. They actually gave me pills for nightmares. It said that on the bottle, “For nightmares. Take one before you go to sleep.” My headaches were bad, migraines. Horrible. But they gave me Tylenol. So I was like, “Maybe I shouldn’t go back there. I could buy Tylenol.” I still have the headaches.

After the third deployment, I was on anti-depressants again. And when I got to Germany after that, they put me on the nightmare pills too.

They told me, “Take one each day” and, “Eat before you take one.” That’s it. And, “It may make you drowsy.” They gave me paperwork. If you wanted to know anything else you had to read it yourself. But I would take some, and I would get bad headaches. But headaches were one of the side effects.

I went to follow-ups. I guess you could say I was evaluated. They would ask if the meds are working. And if they weren’t, they would just up your dosage.

They said I had mild PTSD, after my second deployment. And mTBI after my third. But they never scheduled me for an MRI, they never did any of that stuff. Nothing really happened after I got diagnosed with the mTBI. Actually, I think I need to go for that now, because I’ve been getting really bad headaches. On a scale of 1 to 10, sometimes it’s a 5. And sometimes 7, when I just need to go in a room, turn off all the lights, and just ride it through.

I want to go to mental health here. But I’m nervous that all they’re gonna say is, “Oh, here’s some pills.” If it’s just going to be pills, I would just rather do what I’m doing right now. I’m just getting through it myself. Which is working, but not really. Because I could flip out over the littlest thing. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t matter.

You always go through SRP before and after, but it’s a joke. I was like, “This is it?” Is that all you have to do or say to us? I saw plenty of people get pushed through that shouldn’t have been deployed! It was crazy. It’s horrible.

Look at me, alone. I was okay to deploy, apparently. They just whispered, “Oh, no, you’re good. Actually we just need people to deploy. So you’re good.”

I didn’t see anyone about mental health at SRP. It’s just medical, and not even actual PAs. They were like, line medics. And actually, they didn’t even start telling us about mTBI until the middle to the end of my third deployment. I didn’t even know it existed. But I’d already been blown up twice. I was thinking, “Oh, okay. Maybe if you would’ve told us that a little bit sooner, maybe we wouldn’t actually be ready to deploy.” But like I said, if you got the big thing with the diamond in the middle, you’re like God. You can do whatever you want.

And it affects the unit. Because if one person walks around sad, pissed off, everybody’s gonna worry about them. Everybody worries about them, and then there goes a whole platoon. It’s all gonna fall apart. So to me, if it’s gonna be like that, why even take them? Because if morale’s gone, complacency’s gonna start. And then what’s gonna happen? Somebody’s gonna get killed.

But for me and my team, every chance I could, I took them outside, away from everybody. And we did our own thing. Whatever they wanted to do, I said, “What do you guys want to do?” Throw a football? We could throw a football. Go play a little bit of video game? Okay, cool. So that last deployment, I was good. Because we actually had time to get away. But I’ve seen it in the other squads in the platoon at the time. All they would do is run, run, run, run, run.

We didn’t have any suicides in my unit. But when we were deployed, right around where we lived, a guy committed suicide. Put his M-4 in his mouth, and that was that. I think that woke us up to what was going on. And that’s when my platoon got big on, “If you guys have a problem, go get help. Because we don’t want that to be you.” As long as it took. For like, the last four months of that deployment, I didn’t even go on patrol. Because I didn’t feel I was ready to go back. My platoon sergeant just said, “This is how you feel. It’s all about how you feel. I’m not gonna call you anything.” He said he had even gone through it. But it just sucks that that needs to happen, for somebody to actually say, “Oh, so this is what’s going on.” And you can see it for miles away, if somebody’s feeling like that.

We got a big briefing on MST during my third deployment. It was huge, the division commander did it. So yeah, we’ve been briefed a lot. But me personally, I don’t know of anybody. But I know there are people.

If we were going to prevent MST, the Army would need all new leadership. And they would need the rules just beaten into them. And then, if it did happen again, the leadership would have to make sure that the person who did it is absolutely hammered. I mean, just take everything. You know, make that example. Some people need it.

When I got back from my third deployment, in 2009, I got a non-deployable profile, after they diagnosed my mTBI. It was for mental health reasons, for PTSD and TBI. But, because the treatment didn’t really help me, I stopped going. So the non-deployable profile got lifted.

They just lifted it. I didn’t go to one appointment, before that happened. I checked my meds, and it was lifted. It was gone. They even tried to make me deploy again. But they looked at the duty roster for Rear-D, and the deployment roster, and they read over my record, and it said I had been going to mTBI treatment. So they said, “You stay back. You can do some staff duty.” But it’s just a bunch of garbage. Horrible.

When I got to Germany that time is when I got married to Nora. And everything started to get better. She helped me a lot. Just sit down and talk to me. That’s really all I need.

Going on multiple tours is hard. It’s draining. I am exhausted. Physically and mentally. I mean, if I had to deploy again, would I? Yes I would. Because yeah, I did join the Army to do a job. But it’s exhausting. Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, exhausting. And when people don’t understand that, that’s when I get pissed off. Like, if you were that exhausted, but somebody said, “Okay, this is how we’re gonna work this. We’re gonna give you two days of patrol, a day of rest, and a day on the guard tower.” It would be a little bit better, because you would actually lie down, and get your mind right, to go back on patrol. But it’s not like that. They want you to push, push, push, push, push. Which I understand, we got a war to win. But if everybody’s not there, it’s hard to win the war. It’s hard work. And a lot of people don’t understand that, how hard it actually is. I wish it was easy. I wouldn’t care. I’d say, “Sweet. Deployment? Let’s go.” But it’s hard work. Especially being on three deployments. That’s just insane.

That’s why I’m glad I did get married when I did, because the memories were still pretty fresh right then. Because you go on so many deployments, all the memories get shifted around, and all you have is memories of stuff blowing up, and buddies with their legs blown off. You have those memories, and that’s all you can think about. I don’t even know how I actually deal with it. I know a lot of people that have been through the same thing, but they’re gone. They’re gone. If I was still a civilian, and I knew, I wouldn’t even know what to say.

Then we came to Fort Hood. You can ask her—I get pissed off easy. I could snap easy. But it’s a lot better than what it was. Yeah, I have a temper. I can get very angry. I still have headaches every day. I still think about what happened, of course. It changes your life, either for better or for worse. And at the beginning it was for the worst. You can’t really do anything but get better. You have to. We have a kid on the way. I can’t be just snapping on a little baby. And then I hear the same stuff here at Fort Hood: “Oh, you don’t need it. You don’t need mental health. You don’t need that.”

The leadership is just weird. I understand that you guys been through some shit too. Nobody is the same. I know you have problems. You just need to take care of it differently. Some people need help so they don’t go out and do something stupid. Like either kill somebody else or themselves. You never know.

This unit I’m in now is the first unit I’ve been in that’s actually pretty respectful toward people on profile. It’s because of the leadership. Like, even if you don’t have a profile, and you just aren’t feeling well, or they know you’re all pissed off, they’ll say, “You know what, just chill out. Just go into an air-conditioned room and take your mind off of it.” If you have any kind of profile, they tell you, “You better sit down [laughs]. Don’t break your profile. You break your profile, I’m gonna give you an Article 15.” And that’s how it should be. If you break your profile, you should be hammered, just like if they try to break your profile. But of course, it doesn’t work like that.

I think everybody here at Fort Hood is scared to actually go get help. Just like me at the beginning. I was thinking, “Don’t want to be a punk. So I’m just not gonna go.” And then I learned, to me, you’re a punk if you don’t go.

But people are scared because if you do go to mental health, you’re titled. People say, “Oh, you’re a piece of shit,” “Oh, nobody’s gonna want you in that unit.” Because you’re not showing that you’re ready. Because when you join the Army, you’re thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna be on high speed.” And then you get that title, and people say, “Oh, you see that guy Leighton? He’s a piece of shit. No, don’t put him in your platoon.”

People have said that about me. They say, “Dude, you’re a punk.” And I tell them, “You know what, I’m smart. I’m getting help.”

It depends on your job, how much shit you get. If you’re 11-Bravo like me, and you even talk about mental health, they think you’re a piece of shit, and you’re not supposed to be there.

It depends on your unit too, whether they respect your profile. Some people say, “Okay. You have a profile for this? You don’t come to work until nine.” Because we have one soldier that is going through mental health problems. And they say, “Okay. We’ll honor that.” He comes in at nine. So to me, it’s all about the commanders here. Because it used to be a profile is a recommendation. They didn’t have to follow it. And I guess that’s how they still feel. But it says in III Corps policy that you’re supposed to follow the profile as orders. So what’s going on?

It needs to be enforced. Because you never know what that soldier’s capable of. One day you could piss him off, and he’ll come back with something, and it’ll be a bad day. You never know.

To get it actually enforced, I think we would need brand new leadership in III Corps. Beat it into their heads. That’s the only way they’re gonna get it. These old commanders, they’re old school. They don’t care. They’re just like my old platoon sergeant, saying, “You’re a punk.” And there needs to be consequences for not following profiles. Because if there’s no consequence, they’re just gonna look over it, like everything else.

I’m not on the meds now, I stopped taking them because they weren’t helping. I didn’t see the doctor before stopping. They’re supposed to tell you, if you want to stop taking them, that you should wean yourself off of them. So that’s what I did.

None of the meds have ever helped. And whenever I said they weren’t helping, they would just up the dosage. They wouldn’t even try other meds. And I never felt anything different after they upped the dosage either.

I guess now I just live with it. It’s hard, though. Because I know that if somebody pushes me the wrong way, I’m really gonna snap. And I know myself. It’s not gonna be good. Somebody’s gonna get hurt.

I feel like if I really snap, I’ll hurt somebody. When I’m at the verge, I feel it. Stuff starts getting darker. It’s weird. And I don’t want it to get that bad. But I don’t want to go try and get help if all they’re gonna give me is pills. I’m sorry, that’s not all people need.

The stuff I go through, it even effects my mom. When I went home, when I wasn’t married, she whispered, “You changed.” And I said, “Well [laughing], a little bit!” She said, “I could see it.” It changed me. I changed from the little nice one, running around, playing, to the one who’s angry most of the time. Sometimes it’s like, don’t even talk to me today, because I’m really not in the mood. And when people don’t want to talk to you, because they’re scared that you’re gonna flip out, or that you’ll yell at them, it starts to put a strain on relationships. For a while my mom didn’t even talk to me. Because I was angry. She didn’t even talk to me. I’m calmer with my wife. That’s just because I started to cope. I started to say, “You know what? I’m not gonna let it get me down anymore.” I’m gonna just push through it. It’s in the back of my mind. If somebody said the wrong thing, I would snap. But other than that, I just feel like nobody else is helping me, so I might as well help myself.

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