Active Duty US Army, Chaplain’s assistant, two deployments
Editor’s Note: James* is a white active duty soldier in his mid-twenties, serving as a Chaplain’s Assistant. He grew up in a military family and moved around the country a great deal. James testifies on a wide array of issues, including his experiences during two deployments to Iraq, the first in his prior MOS as a mechanic, and the second as a Chaplain’s Assistant. As someone serving in a professional support role for other soldiers, James reflects extensively on the struggles soldiers are going through in this era, and how the system can better meet their needs.
I’m kind of from all over. I was born in the Southwest. Mainly raised in the Southeast. But I’ve got three years in the Northwest, and another two or three in the Northeast as well.
My dad was in the Army. He went to Korea after we left the Southwest, and my mom went to the Southeast, so that’s why we ended up there. He was ready to deploy to Desert Storm the entire time. But never did. He got out in the early ’90s, and then he ended up moving up and down the East coast. Then we ended up hitting hard times, and going back and forth between the Northeast and Southeast, and then the Northwest and Northeast. Lots of moving.
My dad’s a government contractor now, and he was deployed to Afghanistan for a year. When I came back from Iraq, he went over. It was in between my deployments that he was gone. But my dad and I don’t really talk.
I enlisted out of the Northeast. It was a last resort. I never was really the military type, per se. But it worked, it was a means to an end.
I couldn’t afford school, and I wanted to get away from the life situation I was in beforehand. I had gotten turned down for any sort of support for school because I wasn’t a resident of the state. And I just had to get away from where I was at, and that was the only way to do it. I was 18.
I actually wanted to go Navy first. And the Navy recruiter blew me off, and I got offered as a job to come in as a diver by the Army recruiter while I was waiting and getting blown off by the Navy recruiter. So I took the job as the diver, and then I got sick in the middle of the training, and they re-classed me to a mechanic.
The diver MOS was in my contract. I Drop on Request-ed, DOR-ed, because I got sick. It’s the only training you can drop on request. I was sick through all of Basic, up into AIT. Upper respiratory infections, everything else, I could hardly do anything. I was fine in the water with the training, ’cause you can’t breathe anyways, but when it came to land stuff I couldn’t do anything, I was just useless.
My first deployment was 15 months. We all knew, essentially, that it was gonna be that long. I didn’t do any ride-along missions or the vehicle recoveries. I just never got tasked out for it. Originally I was on the reactive team, reactive to anything that broke. You would go out and fix it, on command. And then they switched me over to routine service maintenance. So I ended up doing the regular services on the vehicles.
We had the biggest motor pool in Baghdad. By the end of it we had 45 HETs, 75 PLSs, 5 or 6 different 5-tons, and a few other random vehicles. We had a 10 to 12-man team. And we ended up getting people that supported us coming out of Fort Hood, attached to us to help us out. But it was ridiculous. And then, when we were there, it was time for all the HET trailers to have their five-year services. It was general recognition that we got it all knocked out, to the point where people were sending their HET trailers to us, after we finished ours, to have us work on them. And then they attached a bunch of civilians to work with us.
Our chief got to look good for that. We were still shitbags, and got yelled at every night for it, because of how terrible we were. Meanwhile, he was at a luncheon getting an award for our actions.
But I’ve been in now for six and a half years. Your first idea of health care is Basic Training. You’re just pushed aside and ignored. Anything you have to say, they tell you to drink some water or take Ibuprofen, like everyone else. I still have damage on my knee that I haven’t had looked at because of the stuff that went on at Basic Training.
We were going directly from a grenade ranch to FTX, so we did our 8k ruck march in between the two spaces. We had everything for both the field as well as the grenade range in our bags. So we had 80, 90 pounds on our backs. We were almost at the field site and, walking on the gravel, I rolled my ankle and I came down—I want to say it was my left knee, but I can’t remember ‘cause it’s so long ago now—where a rock jammed underneath my knee cap and my body weight came down on top, and then the rucksack came down on top. At first I was okay. And then I was walking funny for at least a week. But I was so close to being done with Basic Training, and on top of the hassle that they would give you, and the ignorance and attitudes that you would get for going to sick call, and the chance of being recycled, I just suffered through it.
My major health issues happened on my first deployment. We were at a meeting in the summer of 2008, and we were getting yelled at for something. It was 11, 11:30 at night. I had this gut-wrenching pain, and I didn’t know what it was. I was digging my fingers into the wood. I ended up having a hard time breathing, and I leaned over and grabbed a hold of one of the NCOs next to me. And he said, “Are you okay?” I thought I said no and shook my head, but I don’t know. At that point I lost consciousness, fell forward, and him and the guy next to me caught me, stopped me from falling on my face. They said that I was shaking in their hands, slight tremors.
Then I sat up, and I was looking around at everybody, and everybody’s looking at me like I was crazy, or thought I was faking it or something. And then my eyes rolled to the back of my head, my body flew backwards, my back bowed, and I continued to tremor. Shortly after that, I woke up with my head shaking and them holding me up in that position, stiff as a board. I felt worse coming out of it than when I went under. There were about 14 people there for witnesses.
And then the automatic first question, “Is he drinking water?” This, that, and blah blah blah. And one of the other NCOs said, “No. He’s one of the only people I always see with a bottle of water. He’s always drinking water.” So they took me to the sick call place. It was after-hours. I got in there and they asked—with their normal attitudes because it’s after-hours and they don’t want to work. They asked, “What’s going on?” And I said, “I think I had a seizure.” And they said, “You ‘think’ you had a seizure?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know, I lost consciousness. My back bowed, my entire body tremored, 14 witnesses, what do you think?” And he asked, “Well, did you have a bowel movement?” And I said, “No, I didn’t have a bowel movement! I know it’s common, but is it mandatory? No.” I knew something had happened. They gave me more attitude. And then they hooked me up, checked me with an EKG, took my temperature, checked my heart rate.
They said they couldn’t find anything, and they flat-out said, “We’re gonna write it down as an isolated loss of consciousness. If it happens again, we’ll probably send you to Germany, but other than that, there’s nothing we can do. Or nothing that we want to do.” They didn’t write it down as a seizure, just an isolated loss of consciousness. I said, “Okay, fine.” About a week later I lost consciousness. I didn’t go back, though. I didn’t want to get mistreated and have more hassle. So I lost consciousness, and reported the losses of consciousness over the years that I’d been in, and from that point on nothing’s been done of it, to this day. And that first one didn’t even make it to my medical record. I found that out after my second deployment, when I came back and was getting looked at for Traumatic Brain Injury. The loss of consciousness wasn’t in my record, and I said, “Make sure that it is in there, because it did happen.”
The same deployment, I had this crazy abscess that a lot of people were getting in different spots. I got mine on my thigh. It got to the point where the red area was about the size of a softball on my thigh—with a giant red infected area right in the center. I went in, and they told me that I should have gone in earlier. And I said, “Well, I thought it was an ingrown hair. I thought it would have gotten better, but it didn’t.” They said, “Well, there’s nothing we can do, as far as numbing goes, because it’s too inflamed.” So they proceed to bring over someone to learn and see what they’re supposed to do in this situation.
I think it was a full colonel that was taking care of me at that point. He grabbed a scalpel, stabbed my thigh, and squeezed the hell out of it. Then he proceeded to grab a pair of clamps, and just started ripping the flesh out of my thigh. Again, with no numbing. And then he squeezed it some more. Eventually it just went numb on it’s own, because he went into my thigh about an inch deep and about as big around as the size of a dime. Then, he was going to use a Q-tip to stuff it with gauze. And he said, “I’m supposed to use the soft end, but it’s more precise with the wooden part.” I said, “Okay.” And he started grinding the wood against the side of my leg on the inside, and naturally I jerk in pain. And the nurse looks at me and says, “Are you sure you don’t want any numbing?” I said, “Really? Now you tell me I can have it?” So they finished stuffing it and put an ace wrap around it. They ended up giving me four days of quarters, but when I got up to walk off the table and I naturally started limping, the colonel looks at me and—with attitude—says, “You can walk normal now.” I said, “Really? I’m gonna walk normal with a hole in my leg? Thanks.”
They never knew what it was. I went in every day for a week and got the gauze changed out. And I went in once a week after that for a month, continuing the gauze change-out, and that was it. They didn’t even give me any pain meds when I came in for the change-outs. They found out later that I wasn’t getting any sort of medication for pain, and they decided to give me some. But that was it. They still don’t know to this day what caused it. But there were five or six other people that were getting it too, in different areas. And a lot of them were worse than me.
I’m just going to stick with mainly describing the stuff that’s been documented. The next big issue would’ve been the care that I got when I had the suicide attempt. I’m not racist, and I don’t care if someone’s Arab or Muslim. I know what a real Muslim is and I know what a radical is, but a lot of the people in the military don’t and they stereotype immediately. There are people going into the Darnall facility dealing with PTSD and all this other stuff, and I thought it was rather alarming that one of the main doctors up there looked like a straight up Hajji, and he happened to be my doctor when I went into the hospital. And I just thought that was off. Plus, he didn’t listen to anything I had to say. As a matter of fact, I caught him not listening to anything I had to say in the middle of one of my meetings, and called him out on it. I had given him all my medical history the day before, explaining that I know what I’m talking about, I’ve been on medications before, this, that, and the other.
But when we had our command meeting, he was trying to talk to me about getting help. And I said, “Do I want help? No. But I’m not gonna have a choice. I understand that my actions have repercussions. It’s fine. I’ll walk the path. I’ll go forward with your quote-unquote help. But do I really want it and do I expect it to work? No.” He said, “You want help but you don’t think it’ll work?” And I said, “No. I don’t want it, either.” And he just repeated himself. And I said, “Fine, whatever, sure. You’re right. Whatever. Just shut up.” And then he says, “Have you ever had any major therapy?” And I looked at him straight-faced, and I thought, “He’s really asking me this?” I said, “Since I was nine. Like I told you yesterday.”
He did a double-take. He said, “What?” And I said, “Yeah, remember? All the medications I’ve been on, and everything?” And he said, “Oh, well, I’m not trying to put you on any medications, blah blah blah.”
That was a fifth floor doctor. As far as I know, he’s still there. He tried to say everything that I was going through was because of my childhood and it had nothing to do with my first deployment, the hours that we worked, the military demand on us, the getting blown up while we were there, numerous rockets coming in. Not even two weeks before we left, we were staying in a tent city and got rocketed left and right. And then, on my second deployment, I had the rocket come and land probably 50, 60 feet from the car that I was driving on base. And it wasn’t an armored car, it was a Chevy Tahoe.
I was driving back to the FOB and we were all there, Julie* and Major Jacks,* retired now. The rocket ended up cracking my windshield, and stuff was scuffed across the top. I’ve been diagnosed with a grade 2 TBI from it. And then the stress, and the fact that I buried about 18 people over my second deployment. And everything I’m going through is obviously from my childhood, according to this man.
But it didn’t end there. I had another doctor who just sat in on the weekends and he looked like he was high as a kite, and he looked at me flat-faced when I told him my story, and he said, “Well, honestly, I don’t think that the best psychologist would be able to help you. You’re essentially a hopeless case.”
And then I had another one—a Major that was an RN—tell me that I needed to get electro-shock therapy, that I’d been through too much, that I needed to just erase everything that I was and start new. I said, “Wow. Great. Thanks. That’s fantastic.” It was funny, because the military and civilian nurses that were working at the hospital, they were more help than anybody else. The hospital gave me a break from life, to where I was able to analyze on my own and re-evaluate myself, and talk to the nurses and voice my thoughts there. The nurses were more helpful than the doctor ever was. But they were saying, “Why the fuck are you still here? It’s obvious we’re out of your limits, that we aren’t able to help you. Why are you still here?” And I said, “Talk to the doctor. It’s whatever. I don’t care right now. I really just don’t fucking care.” I was there for 20 days. Normal stay is usually a week, to a week and a half, maybe. So I went through three different cycles of people. When I got out, I saw quite a few doctors off-post. Just normal therapists. The main bad one was when I tried to get re-evaluated and they sent me over to Metroplex, and I saw a doctor there.
Metroplex is the civilian side. If you don’t go to Darnall, sometimes they send you to Metroplex for their medical facilities off of Clear Creek. They have psychologists there. Because I refused to see any psychologists on post. I was using the nurse advocate’s center for off-post case managers. I went to go talk to a doctor there, and I don’t know how they stay in business. The doctor was rude and late. I sat there for 45 minutes after my appointment was due. I saw him for a total of 15 minutes. He asked me three questions and then tried to tell me that I was Borderline Personality Disorder. Number one, for a full evaluation you need at least an hour. There’s no way you can make that assumption over three questions, either. He asked me about my home life, whether I talked to my family still, and one other random question. And I said, “Okay. You want to know why I don’t talk to my family? Do you want to know why my home life is the way it is? If you’re gonna ask these questions and you just want a blunt answer, I’m gonna give you the blunt answer. But if you’re gonna make an assumption, when there’s obviously more to it than the obvious one-word answer, then at least give me a chance to explain it. And don’t make a rash decision.”
It was rather funny, because I went back and talked to my regular therapist the next week about it, and I said, “No, I’m not going back. That guy was a quack. And I’m actually offended that he told me that I was Borderline Personality Disorder. I knew something about the personality disorder to begin with, and then I did some more research when I got home. I was offended when I found out about it.” I thought, “Wow. That’s nothing like me.” But when I explained that to my regular therapist, he said, “Yeah, normally I don’t take much weight in a lot of people and what they say, coming here with complaints about this, that, and the other. But when you have consistently, person after person after person, saying the same thing about this one doctor, it’s kind of undeniable.” And yet, the army still sends all of its soldiers there.
The fifth floor diagnosed me as Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Emotions. But according to that doctor, everything derived from my childhood. So even if I tried to get VA benefits because of that, unless I got re-evaluated by a VA doctor who validated that it was from military service, the military wouldn’t have to pay for any sort of benefits, because he put in on my childhood.
I wish I could remember that doctor’s name. He’s a civilian. I actually put in a complaint about him when I left the hospital. He was terrible.
There were so many people that had bad experiences on the fifth floor. And there were cases while I was in there. Obviously patients talk and we’re open about our cases. I saw the movie Silver Linings Playbook last night and it’s about this, a crazy-people kind of thing where we’re open. A lot of people that have been on medications or have been through some stuff, they’re a lot more blunt and open, and they see things differently than most people. It was kind of obvious to us what our different cases were, and we knew what was going on with different people. The command had so much power over people’s medical care while they were in there, and command would make promises to get them out, to get their hands back on them, to manipulate their cases—it’s just ridiculous.
For example, your command could say to the doctors, “We want this person out. Is he borderline, yes or no?”
And command even influenced the over-seeing doctor’s decision on one point. A lot of times the commander would just play the game and say what the doctor wanted to hear. And then they would fail to follow through, on every basis of what they said they were going to do to support the soldier, and attack the soldier for it. It was just ridiculous.
A really good example was this one female I was with, her case was unique. She had a suicide attempt and it was because she was raped. When she told her boyfriend about the rape, he no longer wanted to be with her. So she felt like she had nothing left, and she attempted suicide. This all came out while she was in the hospital, and the command was extremely supportive at that point. Then, she got out of the hospital and was going through the process of dealing with what had happened. But all the rape charges toward the man who raped her were all eventually dropped, and he maintained all his rank. And I think—to keep her quiet—they ended up PCSing her somewhere else so she wouldn’t have to be around him. From the beginning of that situation, too, the unit was attacking her for what had happened.
There were cases like that, and then there were other ones where the command would take and switch a person back and forth in between two units, when they knew she had had issues in the past where she was assaulted or something. And they would just go back and forth, saying, “Oh, we’re gonna help you. We’re gonna PCS you. We’re gonna switch you over to this unit.” Well, it’d be back to the unit that she started out with. And then they’d send her back to the other one that was where she had the other issue. It was just a constant, continuous thing. It was to the point where staff at the hospital were saying, “You hear so many stories coming through here, that are so much alike, there’s obviously something wrong.” I have such a distaste for psychology and therapy, and anything to do with the psychological field from everything that I saw and went through myself.
Most people in my unit were shocked when I got hospitalized. They didn’t expect it. There was overwhelming support from people that knew me and talked to me on a regular basis. Other ones looked down on me, but they didn’t ever really say anything, because the sergeant major and the colonel—I was working directly for them essentially—had my back. But more than anything, they wanted to keep everything silent, as quiet as possible so that the unit, the lower ones, wouldn’t be impacted by the fact that the chaplain’s assistant attempted suicide. So they tried to keep it as hush-hush as possible.
And here’s where my issue with III Corps is right now. I’ve gone up the chain the proper way to try to get PCSed to somewhere where I have more of a safety net or a network of people that I can go to for support. And they said no.
I started contesting their answer at least a year ago. And they ended up saying no again. I’ve only got two years left—it was two and a half at the time. The military has PCSed people to Hawaii for a year left in their contract, but they refuse to move me, because they don’t want to. My colonel said that he is perfectly fine with letting me go. I’ve had other people working avenues to try and help me, but the higher-ups won’t. The best they’re gonna do right now is move me elsewhere on Fort Hood, and that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have someone I can go and talk to, or deal with the issues that I have, or that I can trust, without driving a minimum of three or four hours. And for them to get proper use out of me, to where I’m actually helpful to the military, you can PCS me anywhere on the East or West coast, and I’ll be okay. But here in the midlands, I don’t have anybody hardly. It’s just complete disregard in that respect.
Editor’s Note: James returned to speaking about his deployment history, recounting his experiences through two tours in Iraq.
…My first tour was mainly during the Surge, taking Sadr City, and everything else. We took IDF randomly. But everything was pretty calm for the majority of the deployment, until the very end. That’s when we were in the tents, and we got rocketed and everything else left and right.
My second deployment was kind of varied with IDFs, it was a back-washed area. Once a month or so we would get rocketed. And when they did, they’d shoot five or six in. There were quite a few of them that came in and hit stuff. Luckily a bunch of them didn’t fully detonate or detonate at all. The one that I was involved in was a partial detonation. If it had been a full detonation, I would’ve been dead, because I was driving into it. Those were the main ones. Then when I would travel, we’d hit the ones at Kalsu, also known as Killsu, where they got to the point where they were shooting flares in the air to try and deter people from rocketing them. People would drive up to Tampa and just fire right down into it, because it was a terrible location. The other base I was at, same thing—we were rocketed left and right. The night before I got there, they had a rocket hit the basketball courts right next to the chapel, and blow the basketball court up. And there were vehicle-born IEDs that were used against the politicians at the gate.
One VBIED attack woke me up. They were trying to kill a politician. Automatically we were thinking rockets were coming in ’cause it shook every CHU. Everyone ran to the bunkers, and then we found out it was a VBIED. A lot of the combat was on the outside of things, when we would drive through some really bad areas. In one spot we set up a training camp, and people were getting attacked left and right, just driving through the city. We had two different incidents where people passed away from RPGs being fired at them.
And RPGs were fired at the gunner’s hatch. Sometimes it would hit the gunner and a lot of times it would hit outside the gunner. It jerked one of our gunner’s body back and slammed him forward and almost severed his torso. It was all shredded. Other times the blast would come up and it would fry their lungs from the inside out and the doctors would literally make an incision and try and pump their heart for them, and they couldn’t come back. There was Patterson,* Evans,* Clark.* Clark was a passenger, he was with Evans, and shrapnel came in, hit him in the back of his head by the brainstem, and killed him. I had to clean his body. Just one after another, people rolling in from different vehicle attacks, from being out on convoys.
At that point I was a Chaplain’s Assistant. If I needed to talk to anyone for my own care, I would talk to the Chaplain if I needed to, or I could talk to Major Jacks, at the time, just ’cause we had that kind of relationship. But I just kind of shut down on it. I just closed my heart off.
The first experience I had with it really was with Levi.* He was the first one to go, and he got hit by a sniper. I had to tell one of my friends in the unit and I had to be there to try and help him. He found out and he was possibly gonna go on the mission, he was blaming himself for what was happening, and he shut down. I was trying to just be there for him when I could. And then later that night, when we had the hero flight, they had people that weren’t even trained to do it. It was supposed to be us four, and we were supposed to work with the morgue and the body and everything else. And the guys refused to do it—they had our regular clerks for the S1 shop down in the troop level for dealing with it.
The guy was just really superstitious, and he didn’t want to go in there alone so I went with him to help. The RCO came into the morgue while we were in there grabbing his belongings. And we got stuck there when they unzipped the body. My first thought was it looked like a wax figure, to the point where his eyes were still open. I thought that was disrespectful that they didn’t even close his eyes.
But that was my first experience, and it was awkward, in the sense that I was not bothered by it. I felt like I should be, but I wasn’t. And then the second one was dealing with Evans and Clark. I was literally cleaning the body and I thought, “Whatever. I’m not just gonna sit in the room with a dead body, I’m gonna help out the medics how I can.” But it just didn’t bother me, it was just like another day to me at this point. And it was awkward because it always seemed it was a Friday or a Saturday that someone would get hit. We just kind of held our breath every Friday and watched for choppers or any sort of signs for anything to happen. Nine times out of ten I’d be down in the morgue, trying to help out in there, and then the Chaplain would be in the OR, dancing around the physicians and trying to do his thing. He had to not only take care of praying for the soldier on the operating board, but be there for the doctors and the nurses that are dealing with it too.
So it was like we were the fall-back. We were everyone’s support, for Major Jacks and for all them too. And Julie the NCO, she would come to me with her issues, and kind of feed back to me. And then Major Jacks and Chaplain Bancroft* did it back and forth for each other. That’s one of the reasons that this deployment was so hard for me, because I didn’t have anybody like that, that I could fully confide in. I didn’t have that one person I could latch on to. So I really disconnected in a lot of ways. That was a bit of a challenge. I just shut down and a lot of that feeling’s still gone.
We’ve had people die here and it doesn’t bother me. I just think, “Okay, another one. Another senseless death.” The only time it somewhat bothers me is when the memorial ceremony that I conduct doesn’t go like it should, especially when it’s for someone that has a legit innocent death, which has happened. And there’s more of an anger factor than anything else that I don’t feel like we’ve paid the tribute that he deserved, by having the proper memorial.
Since the attack with the rocket, I’ve had trouble sleeping. I’ve only been on sleeping pills. They refused to put me on anything at first. I would get Benadryl. Benadryl just made me more groggy than I was the day before. It worked for about three days, to get me to sleep, and then it stopped working. I’ve been on Ambien. I’m supposed to be on Atarax right now. I take it off and on, but it still makes me groggy until eight o’clock at night the next day. So I limit taking that. I’ve also been on Trazodone. And none of the above worked.
When I went through Reverse-SRP they told me to address it, said for me to try Lunesta because I started having addiction problems where I would get migraines and withdrawals from the Ambien. So they told me try Lunesta. I brought it up to my medics and they just brushed me off and ignored it. That was because the main physician that I was dealing with was that one who said, “Everything’s because of your childhood. You don’t need medications.” I said, “I don’t want to be on medications, but I also realize that I need help right now. And I know that a lot of the medication is what makes a person completely utterly numb, and that’s speaking from experience.” So it’s a hard thing for me to say that I’m willing to try medication. That’s a definite sign. But again, he disregarded everything I had to say.
As far as the TBI itself, I took that ANAM memory test before I deployed the second time, not the first time. But I haven’t taken it since I’ve been back.
I haven’t gotten any treatment for the TBI really. I have headaches, it’s random. I used to never get headaches beforehand. So I have a dissolvable tablet that’s supposedly the fastest reacting headache medication they’ve got. But most time they’re gone before that even takes effect. So I just kind of deal with that.
It’s kind of a lozenge. I wish I could remember the name of it. Honestly, I use TBI and the process of getting looked at for TBI to get looked at for the other issues I was having that are more serious in my mind. Like the fact that I lose feeling in three of the fingers in my hand, and that I get severe pains in my hand to where I can’t even turn a doorknob. So I had MRIs and CAT scans and shock treatments done to try and figure out what’s wrong. And they can’t find anything wrong with me. I was already looked at by a physical therapist while I was overseas, who then told me to go talk to the nerve people. The nerve people can’t find anything either, so they basically told me to go back and see the physical therapist, who already told me they can’t help me. So if my hand hurts, I just don’t do anything that day. If it’s numb, I type with one hand because I can’t type with the other.
That’s how I started getting the sleep medication, from going to the TBI clinic. And that’s how I ended up in biofeedback to try and get my levels to where they needed to be. That was the only place I could really go to as an avenue for actual help. Which is sad to say, that I couldn’t go to a legit, regular aid station to get that. I had to go through a Traumatic Brain Injury place to get the care I needed.
I wasn’t on profile for the sleeping meds. I was on a profile for when I came out of the hospital, which is the mandatory six-month profile—not allowed to carry a weapon, non-deployable. At that point I had six doctors appointments or so a week. It was ridiculous. They had me going to biofeedback, they had me seeing the R&R Center therapy on Wednesdays, or whenever it was. Then they had me seeing the regular therapist off-post, and they also had me seeing the ASAP guy on top of it. And there was something else going on too, I forgot what. It was just appointment, appointment, appointment, to the point where even the doctor was saying, “You have too many appointments, and this is too much therapy.” One of the other chaplains I worked with was laughing, because I was so frustrated about the whole situation. They said, “You’re gonna take this boy and change him from being suicidal into homicidal.”
It’s so enraging, because most of them don’t listen to what you have to say, and they’re contorting it, because it’s such a manipulated area. So many of the doctors are doing what the military wants just so they continue to get a paycheck rather than doing what’s truly right and helping a person. Or they’re manipulating TriCare and just trying to milk whatever money they can get out of a person without actually helping them.
I know about people that have overridden and deployed people that shouldn’t be deployed, or tried to do so. I don’t know about any specific policies about profile violation, never had any briefings. I just know whenever someone starts to violate profiles, when people get really, truly fed up with it, and they go to the patient advocacy center and they work it out there. Or they go to IG.
My position is unique. There are certain people that truly want to help, and I try and point people in need to them as much as I can. I also know where the bullshit areas are. And I have to be an avenue for help for people at the same time. In my position, more than anything, I sit there and act as a sounding board for people that are dealing with frustrations. And I’ve been there, I understand.
Honestly, the system needs a bit of an overhaul. They need to stop looking at us as numbers. As much as they say they don’t, they do. And while they may say that we’re not, their actions say otherwise. There are numerous medics and doctors that I’ve seen that have such a distaste for what is going on in the system. We had a doctor overseas, Dr. Solomon,* that the command couldn’t stand, but he was a soldier’s doctor, he took care of the soldiers. The soldiers loved him. But because he was taking care of them and giving them profiles they needed in order to heal, he was given a hard time, ridiculed the entire time, and knocked down left and right.
And then there are the other doctors who just ignore people’s pain. There was a female my first deployment, Brandt,* who had huge amounts of back pain because she had a small, slender body type, but a really big chest. She was wearing 28 pounds of extra weight on her chest as a small-statured woman. Immense back pain, and spasms. And the doctors said, “Oh, well, you just have back spasms, here’s some Ibuprofen, do this stretch,” and that’s the end of it. They wouldn’t do anything to help her. They just ignore others with spinal pain. It’s just constant stories like that. You don’t even have to experience it yourself, because so many other people have experienced it for you. People you know are not lying, and you see them in pain. It’s just one thing after another.
SRP just feels like it’s checking a box. It takes more time than it needs to, it’s really disorganized. And even if you go through the SRP section and you start filing for stuff to start happening, nine times out of ten it still doesn’t happen.
I’ve seen people who were not fit to deploy go through SRP and deploy anyway, oh yeah. We had that my first deployment. I wish I could remember her name, but she was crazy and she didn’t even make it two months into the deployment. She got sent home ’cause she went to the sick call center and while she was waiting to see the doc, she started sucking her thumb and slamming her head against the wall.
While I was deployed, we had Mercer* and Sergeant Wolff* both commit suicide. Mercer did it while he was overseas and sergeant Wolff did it when he was on emergency leave. It was a huge effect on the unit. Our colonel was told by our regimental commander that if we had another one, he was going to be relieved of command. We had an emergency safety stand-down week, where it was a three-day process. The chaplain and Major Jacks had to create a curriculum while coordinating across the board with other medical centers in the region, and come up with a four-day plan of suicide and resiliency training, where people were stuck in the training for six to eight hours a day over two days. The first two days was all the higher-ups, and the second two days was the lower enlisted.
It wasn’t effective. It was entirely too rushed. The plan didn’t give people time to prepare, and it was just a quick, fast reaction to appease the higher-ups rather than look at the situation for the soldier. And the commander didn’t address the issue that quite possibly and most likely it all had to do with the way he was using his command. He tried to live his command in consistency with Machiavelli. Lead by fear. The fact that people were committing suicide isn’t much of a shock when that’s the case. But he didn’t want to see that, and he wanted to push the blame on someone else.
The process afterward was done way too fast, and it didn’t even give people a chance to fully process the suicide, the second one anyway. The second one was Sergeant Wolff, and that was the one that hit everybody pretty hard, because it was so unexpected. And then we’ve had one suicide since we’ve been back. But that didn’t really affect the unit because the guy was fairly new to the unit and his was in reaction to marital issues. And we have a new command now.
In my position, I’m responsible for battalion size. It boils down differently in size depending on which squadron you’re part of. My squadron, we have right about a thousand people. After the suicides started, they just started sending everyone home. They were scared while we were deployed. The command got nervous and so anybody they had an inkling of a suicidal factor, they were trying to get medically sent home. And then other people that just wanted to go home started to playing it that way. They sent people back to the States from the deployment. Some people were milking it, and other people were just trying to go for help to be better and didn’t need to be home, but got sent home anyways.
Also, there’s so much discrimination. A lot of it depends on the unit. Every unit has a different atmosphere, a different environment. So you’re gonna see some units that are very open-minded and then you’re gonna see other ones that aren’t.
I’m in combat arms right now, so anybody that’s considered weaker in any way, shape or form, is automatically looked down on. It’s ridiculous as far as that goes. There’s always the huge masculinity factor there. And then, of course, being in the military and then being in combat arms too, there’s the whole gay thing going on as well.
People tell terrible gay jokes and straight people are acting gayer than the gay people are. And heaven forbid someone finds out that someone’s actually gay, because then the harassment starts. That kind of thing is just stupid shit.
I’ve seen that stuff from the sidelines. My first unit was a little bit more open-minded, but there was discrimination against a few of the gay people at the same time. But there were so many of them, there was 16 gay people out of 200 people at one point, which was kind of a high number.
There was one case where a guy ended up getting out of the Army for being gay. It was just ’cause he pushed the issue, because he couldn’t take it anymore.
He was getting discriminated on by one person in particular, and thought, “I’m done with it.” Then there was a sexual assault of one of our lesbians in the unit. They ended up turning it to where it was all her fault, and that was the attitude of most of the unit, too. Eventually she got out for being gay. And she struggled with that really hard. It was really because of what had happened to her and the way that the unit turned against her that she wanted out, more than anything. But it wasn’t easy for her to get out. She ended up having to send an 8×10 photo of herself in committed sexual acts to the post general in order for her to get out, on DADT.
My first boyfriend was at Fort Hood. He went as far as to get “Faggot” tattooed in rainbow across his forearm and attempted to get out with that. Waving it like a flag. He got out years ago though, before I was here, and he ended up getting out on depression.
They ended up letting him out for depression. I think the turning point for him was when a female in his unit tried to commit suicide. She had overdosed, and later on it came out that he knew that she had and he didn’t report it. And command said, “Oh, we could come after you! Why didn’t you come to us?” And he explained, “She’s depressed because she hates you. And she has to deal with you every day. Therefore, you’re the cause of her issues. Why would I go to the cause of her issues to try and get her help? Are you retarded?” And he added, “Besides, it’s her life. If she wants to take it, let her fucking take it. What’s your right to say that she can’t?” But that’s coming from a person who’s naturally depressed. “It’s her life, let her do what she wants.”
On MST, I’ve just had the regular safety stand-down stuff. The only other thing I’ve had to do with sexual assault training was at a chaplain training, and it was more to address the issue of sexual assault in the military as a chaplain corps and what they need to do with it. So we sat down and watched The Invisible War.
I was glad that they showed it. It needed to be seen. It was hard to watch. I think they could have made clearer reasoning behind showing it and where they were going with it, rather than leaving so much to interpretation, like chaplains like to do. It turned into a free-fall discussion about “What’s the real point of this?”
Someone in a sister unit of mine dealt with MST, so I know her story. And there were people that tried to help her. But in my unit, not so much. It’s mainly an all-male unit, so not much is gonna come out there. I know who my SHARP is, but we just see them to check the box.
In terms of being gay, lot of people say, “Okay, I’m gay. I can’t show any sign of weakness because I am gay. I’m in a macho man kind of position.” There’s some people still hiding it and then there’s others with the mentality of, “Okay, I’m gay, I already have something against me, I don’t need to give them any more ammunition. So I’m gonna do everything at the top of my game.” And then there’s the other kind, “I’m gay, I’m gonna make the best of what I can.” And then you have the ongoing jokes and harassments—that was kind of me. I just secluded myself from other people.
And I knew where there was a line for joking and I walked around that. I started out in my first unit saying that straight people are gayer than the gay people, ‘good game’-ing each other left and right. And they had the nut-tap wars too. Numerous times with the good-game-ing somebody would smack my ass and hit it so hard and grab ahold of it to the point where they would lift me off the ground. Then there was another time where somebody came up behind me, ran their hand across my chest and squeezed me tightly. They said, “Oh, sorry, I thought that was mine.” I looked at them and I said, “I have nothing I can say to that,” and I just walked away. I wasn’t even out. And I wasn’t super-obvious either, about being gay. But they saw me as a target and thought, “Oh, let’s fuck with him.”
Sometimes it makes people fall apart because of that. When the repeal of DADT was first starting to be talked about during my first deployment, I had an E-7 come up to me and say, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen with that! I don’t know if DADT, blah blah blah. I don’t need no girl trying to rape me in the shower or looking at me!” And I said, “You think they’re not there now? Do you think they’re not in now? And that aside, that’s why we have sexual assault prevention. Isn’t that what that is for? It covers everyone, gay, straight, bi, whatever. It doesn’t matter.” And he said, “Oh, well, I never thought of that.” So a lot of it is just people’s overall ignorance and close-mindedness.
In terms of medical providers, there’re so many medics that I know that are gay. They refuse to come out too because being a medic, they have to deal with genitalia. So many people are close-minded and paranoid. Just knowing the person’s gay, even if they’re ugly and there is absolutely no attraction, they will try and claim sexual assault. So medical providers refuse to come out.
When I was in 5-East, they knew I was gay. Because the providers there were mainly civilians, they were like, “Oh, okay, whatever. It makes sense, makes this part fall more into place, to where I can understand this.” But other than that, as far as my command, they don’t know. But at the same time, for me, my orientation is my personal life, and it shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t affect my work life. It’s not like I’m using that in my work life to do my job.
And the other thing is, on top of everything else, it irritates me that people make orientation such a big deal, to where it has to influence your work and what you can and can’t do. Having to keep that part of myself protected, it’s like I’m still a second-class citizen.
You have heterosexual people get married and their spouses are able to get medical benefits. They’re able to get GI benefits if their spouse passes away in combat. If I was to marry a man, there’s no nothing. He would get absolutely nothing, unless I had allotted part of my SGLI to him or said my paycheck is gonna go to him. He would get no medical coverage, nothing. He would get no help, no health insurance, no housing allowance. It would be just like I was a single bachelor. And I wouldn’t even be able to truly live with him because they would say, “No, you’re gonna live in the barracks as a single man.”
I don’t live in the barracks right now. I have a contract marriage and I’m not ashamed of it. Because I am a 25 year-old man who refuses to live in a dorm lifestyle with a bunch of 18 year-old high-school-mindset children, being treated as though I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. And I’m able to still show up to work on time and everything else. I think the army needs to address that as well.
I’m only out to certain people in my unit, even. Again, I consider it a personal life factor, and I don’t let a lot of people in my unit into my personal life. If they want to build a relationship with me, as a friend, I’ll let them in on it, sure. But most of them I don’t really care for and it’s none of their business. ‘Cause it doesn’t affect my work. It doesn’t affect my capability to do my job or anything else. And as long as I’m not coming on to them, why the hell does it matter? But a lot of people don’t view it that way. They are afraid that “you’re gonna catch the gay,” or that if you’re gay, automatically every man is attractive and that you have no idea how to control yourself.
Last I heard, my squadron is slotted to deploy for January of ’14, to Afghanistan. But I won’t be going, ’cause of my ETS. I have to be back a minimum of three months before my ETS date. This interferes with the timeline. Plus the fact that my colonel and sergeant major wouldn’t let me go at that point anyways. And I’m supposed to be getting transferred out of that squadron anyways, to be on rear detachment.
The latest medical issue I had was when I went in to sick call. It was on a Saturday while I was on leave. I had gotten a phone call that someone I had slept with had gotten a phone call that they had gotten something, but over the phone they couldn’t tell me what it was. So I said, “Well, I need to make sure that I’m good to go. I need to be checked for everything.” The first thing they told me at sick call was, “Oh, we’re not even sure we’ll be able to do this for you today. You might have to come back, blah blah blah,” trying to just disregard me.
Then I went back into the hospital, and the doctor asked me if I’d had any symptoms. I said no, but that I didn’t even know what the other person had. He said, “I’m gonna check you for two things: chlamydia and maybe syphilis.” And everything else I would have to do through a regular provider, but at this point, my aid stations were really weird and I was between providers. I was not even sure where I was supposed to go, to be honest. But that doctor could have easily just done everything right there at the hospital. He was just lazy about it. I got tested for those two things there, and I still haven’t gotten the results back.
Out of frustration and distaste after everything else that I’ve been through and seen, I just said, “Fuck it,” and I dished $750 out of my own pocket to get a full test on my own through a civilian. I had my results less than a week later. And then, while I was on leave, I got really sick, and I had had a sore throat for a week before that. I went to clear my throat in the morning, and blood started coming out. And I thought, “Oh, great.” Someone I was staying with had a doctor’s appointment the next day and the place they were going took TriCare. So I went there and I got looked at. My blood test came back and said that I had Epstein Barr in my system, so I found out I had mono. And I also had a viral and a bacterial infection in my sinuses that was dripping down into my throat, causing inflammation and pain. So they gave me a Z-Pak.
That bill was $250 and TriCare refused it. Right now I’m waiting to find out whether I’m gonna have to pay that doctor bill, on my own, even though I went through the proper channels and put it through TriCare. It was so messed up with TriCare that they sent me a letter back saying that they refused to pay the bill, and the letter showed they were processing the bill to my father as my sponsor for medical care coverage instead of me, even though, even though I’m active-duty and I have been for six and a half years now. So within the last month, I’m definitely $750 out of my own pocket, potentially a thousand. And then they want us to go outside and run in the rain in 30-degree weather. And at this point I’m refusing to, because right now I’m paying for my own medical care.
By now, I’ve spent about half of my time in the army as a mechanic, and half as a Chaplain’s Assistant. I hated being a mechanic. I wrote out a list of everything I was eligible for and I thought, “I could be the guy to push the big red button.” And then I thought, “Wait, I could be the guy who tells the guy to push the big red button.” And I was trying to look at what I could realistically do on the outside, as far as a continuing career. So it was in between being a chaplain’s assistant and a paralegal. And I asked the career NCO at the time to look into being a chaplain’s assistant. The woman then proceeded to just sign me up for it even though you have to sign up for six years. And you don’t get a school date for another year.
I thought, “Are you serious?” At that point I had no choice—it’s either I stuck with being a mechanic or I had to through with this. That first deployment had me dealing with faith issues anyway, and I so I thought, “Okay. I can’t go wrong with going with God.” So I just put faith in it, and in the fact that I hated being a mechanic more than I hated being in the army.
I don’t regret my time in the military, but I’m definitely over it. I definitely have a distaste for the military at this point. But I don’t hold a lot against the military other than the specific situations. The military is a great institution with a lot of possibilities for people. It’s just a matter of knowing how to work the system to get those possibilities to work for you. And knowing what you’re doing going into it is important. A lot of people go into it blind, and get manipulated left and right, and they get screwed over. I’m very aware of that.
But I’m also aware that it’s given me a lot of opportunities, and the fact is that 90% of the stuff that has happened in my life since joining would not have happened otherwise. The people I’ve met, the relationships I’ve fostered, and even me moving out of state. It just wouldn’t have happened, I would’ve been trapped at home. It would suck. It would, and that’s the truth of the matter. So that’s where I have a distaste for the military in certain respects, but I definitely give credit where credit is due.
I also know that it’s time for me to move on. I have a year and a half left.
Becoming a Chaplain’s Assistant was partly because of spirituality for me, and partly a career choice. I wanted to get back into spirituality because I’d lost a lot of the Christianity, the faith that I used to have. No surprisingly though, I’ve kind of been driven further away from my Christianity beliefs since being in a chaplain’s assistant role, and seeing more behind the veil of how different pastors in the military are, and seeing how so many of them should not be what they are. My spirituality is more of a personal factor for me than anything else now. I still don’t go to church unless it’s for work. I work at a church, and I want nothing to do with it outside of work. I’m just done. I wash my hands of it.
Originally I wanted to go into social work, and wanted to go for accreditations and continue my career in that once I got out. And then everything happened with my suicide attempt, and the crash, and the windfall that I had last year. The distaste that I got for that whole field of social work and psychology just washed that idea out of the water. At this point, honestly, do I know what I want to do or what I have a passion for? No. No idea whatsoever. But I’m gonna go to our West, and I’m gonna do cosmetology, because it’s something I can possibly do, that I can see myself doing and not actually hating. But is it a passion, it is something I truly, truly want? No. I’m still trying to figure out a way to live and not simply survive. ‘Cause there’s a huge difference, and the truth of the matter is that for 90% of my life I’ve been surviving.