Army National Guard veteran, truck driver, two deployments
Editor’s Note: Malachi is a white Army National Guard veteran in his late-twenties. He served as a truck driver, including two deployments to Iraq between 2004 and 2007. Malachi testifies to his own experiences with post-traumatic stress, moral struggles, and the toll his service has taken on himself and his family—his wife and young daughter. At the time of his interview in early 2013, Malachi had recently become Manager of Under the Hood Cafe and Outreach Center, after having been involved in the coffeehouse’s activities for several years.
I was an Army brat, and so I was raised around the military. And I joined because I needed a roof over my head. I was 17. I just needed a place to stay and I wanted to get some college too.
It seemed like the biggest concern [for the Army] was whether or not I could be deployed, not necessarily my well-being. That was largely during the troop surge. And I was in a critical MOS, so I think that’s where a lot of that came from. And then, upon returning from deployment, it seemed like we got ushered through pretty quickly with threats of like, “Well, you’re gonna have to stay here in the Evaluation Processing Center if you have any problems.” And, “Don’t you want to go home?”
In my experience, commanders tend to take a little bit too much liberty with decisions that should probably be left to doctors. You know, whether or not to take troops, and stuff. I think a lot of people end up getting taken on these deployments that, if the decision were made by a doctor, probably wouldn’t be happening.
A lot of times, commanders take discretion over whether or not training overrides medical care, and stuff like that. And I think really, that’s the wrong answer. You shouldn’t be missing appointments and missing out on medical care because the unit has to deploy to Iraq or wherever. That ultimately affects the mission as well. Even if it’s a bunch of injured soldiers overseas, you’re putting the unit’s security at risk. I think the Army’s a little different landscape right now than it was during my deployments, so I’m speaking to some experiences that are from 2004 to 2007.
I was diagnosed both with Bipolar and PTSD, between my two deployments.
My care began when I was in Iraq, after an incident where I pointed a weapon at somebody, and I had to go see a shrink. They had my weapon back in my hands within three days. And I was back on missions. I don’t think the quality of care that somebody who had issues while they’re deployed is very high at all. I think that it’s sort of assumed that the soldier’s trying to get out of deployment, or something like that. I don’t know what they’re thinking. But I think it’s very poor over there. Upon returning, the transition period’s a little weak. I’m actually pretty satisfied with everything I’ve gotten from the VA so far, other than the bureaucracy of it. But I have a much better time dealing with the VA than I had dealing with the military doctors for sure.
I was prescribed Prozac and some other drug, during my first deployment. And that was part of what they said made me suitable to go back on the road so quickly. Like, I had a prescription, so I was good. And then again, in between my two deployments, I got a new prescription for Lamictal.
It seemed like prescriptions were just another box to check for somebody who had an issue. “Well, okay, you have an issue. That adds a box to check, to make you deployable. You need to have this pill.” And so, “If you have this issue but you have this pill, you’re deployable.” I don’t think that care is often considered in many of those decisions, so much as deployability. Like, “Can we get them deployable?” Not, “Can we get them to better?”
I was never put on any of those dangerous interacting drugs. But I don’t feel like the caregivers listened to my input on my own. I’m not a doctor, but I know how these things make me feel. And I don’t feel like they listened to me very much.
And mission tempo was the excuse that they used for people to go out on missions in Iraq…I was given a profile for a few days, when I was in Iraq, that I couldn’t have my weapon. But that resolved pretty quickly. That was pretty much it, I had my weapon back in three or four days.
Editor’s Note: Malachi was asked if he ever saw any pressure put on soldiers by their leadership to violate their profiles.
All the time, especially physical profiles. Again they’re all citing mission tempo and stuff. I think mostly there were just a lot of people in Iraq who shouldn’t have been there. For example, on my second deployment, they deployed somebody that had a profile that restricted them from wearing their flak vest. Even if you never leave the wire, technically speaking, when there’s incoming, you’re supposed to put that fucker on. But you’re gonna take somebody to Iraq who has a profile that says he can’t wear a flak vest?
It’s like, “What the fuck?” They can’t put their fucking protective gear on, wow! It’s ridiculous. That’s probably one of the most absurd things that I saw while I was in the military. That, and there was another guy who was on a cane, the whole time, same unit.
…[To enforce MEDCEN-01] It would probably take a couple people, full time positions—you’d need some sort of hotline, you’d need some sort of check services, some things dedicated just to enforcing that policy. There’d have to be a number of people who would seriously investigate those. And it would have to be disconnected from the military chain of command in some way. I’m normally against civilian contractors, but go civilian. Just because it’s an oversight thing. In fact, I think it would be much better to be civilians for the quality of oversight.
A head doctor in Iraq [issued my profile]. That was sometime during my first deployment. Somewhere near the middle of it. It was probably about a week later that they lifted it, and I talked to some doctors there. It was very disjointed—at the time, I think the medical centers were very disjointed there too. I don’t think they were very good with records. I still got the Article 15, from the time when I pointed the weapon at the dude.
…I was just really stressed and sleep deprived and an NCO got smart with me, and I threw a tantrum. In my version of the report, I lost muscle discipline, ‘cause after the fact I didn’t feel that I was going to shoot anybody. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that the weapon was loaded. I just picked it up and waved it around like an angry kid, and then threw it on the dash. But yeah, when he wrote the report, he made it sound like I had pointed the weapon at him with an intent to kill.
It sounds like an interesting story afterwards, but really I was just throwing a tantrum. I lost my fucking temper, and I blacked out for a minute too. I’m glad nobody got hurt. They took my weapon right after that. And then I went to see the shrink and he gave me a profile saying I couldn’t have the weapon. I got back to Kuwait, did three days extra duty, and then they sent me to see the shrink and he said I was good to go. And I was on drugs. I can’t remember if it was Prozac, or the other one, I went through two prescriptions while I was in Iraq. And then, just before my second deployment, they put me on the Bipolar drugs.
I think the biggest thing that didn’t get addressed was there was very clearly, on both deployments, people who should’ve been receiving care back stateside, who were in fact in Iraq, and before being in Iraq were not receiving the care that they needed. And then, they were a liability to the unit, and they issued them security, and they weren’t being taken care of.
I don’t know what goes on up in the higher levels. But I’d imagine that somebody’s pressuring somebody somewhere [to ignore profiles and health needs]. ‘Cause it doesn’t make sense that one human being would just deny care to another human being for no reason. I think there’s some sort of force being exerted, onto some positions, somewhere, somehow. Whether it’s in policy or under the table, I don’t know exactly. I don’t know what goes on at the top, or at the office. I never really even knew NCOs. I was really just at the bottom, trying to stay out of sight, not be shat on.
There’s all sorts of name-calling [against people on profile]. Really immature behavior, name-calling, and not letting anybody play reindeer games. You get ostracized. The one guy who deployed on the cane, everybody called him “Broke Dick,” and “Faker,” and shit like that. In actual fact, he shouldn’t have even been there, he should’ve been taken care of. But, in fighting to try to get that taken care of, everybody ostracized him and told him that he was lying
Being lower enlisted, I just tried to stay off the radar. Often times looking for care puts you on the radar and most of the time it’s better that nobody even know your name. But like, we’re gonna know your name if it’s all over a bunch of paperwork, which means you’re “The Guy Who Needs Help.” I think it’s definitely discouraged on a cultural level, with stigma and things of that nature.
In both [SRP and R-SRP], they just wanna cover their ass by getting the boxes checked, and getting them checked as quickly as possible. And then on the return trip, it’s even more pressure to just get it over with. It seems more like an administrative process than a clinical health process. It seems less about fitness or readiness, and more about pushing numbers and stats and stuff like that. And it’s really impersonal, and a little bit dehumanizing.
Before my second deployment, like on my first deployment, I kept to myself as much as I could, because I didn’t want to get in trouble. ‘Cause I was always seeming to get in trouble. But on my second deployment here was a lot [of substance abuse]. We had like, I want to say, six to eight DWIs in the six months before we deployed. And I think two people popped the first piss test. They had to write 500-word essays. But then, while we were in Iraq, we took another piss test, and I think somewhere between 10 and 20 people popped. And they all got demoted and/or kicked out, at varying levels.
I thought that was interesting. Like, you pop a piss test before a deployment, and you write an essay. You pop a piss test at the end of a deployment, and all of a sudden we don’t need you anymore. There’s another instance of numbers being more important than individual welfare or health, or readiness or any of that bullshit that they try to say they’re doing.
And then, when I got to Iraq, there was a whole bunch of hash, and there was a whole bunch of alcohol. I don’t know anybody over E-5 who smoked hash or weed. But that went around a lot in the lower enlisted. The NCOs and the ring leader for our side of the camp was an E-6, for alcohol. And when we got there, the KBR folks were running the alcohol game on our side of the camp. But an E-6 took over. He just undercut the prices. Really cheap McCormac’s, half-gallon jugs, refilled them for 80 bucks. He got them for nine bucks and refilled them for 80 bucks. He made more money selling alcohol than he made as an E-6, even with the Combat Duty Badge.
And then at the end of our deployment, one of our more troubled soldiers was selling coke to them. And that started going around. And I remember thinking, “Well, this must just be our unit.” But then, when it came time for us to leave, the unofficial change of command, and all the weed connections and alcohol connections sort of get passed off to the new unit. And there’s a market on prescription pills too, for sure. There were people getting pain pills and muscle relaxers and stuff, and trading those for weed and alcohol, and/or selling them. I don’t know too much about that, but I know it was going on.
There was a suicide attempt on my second deployment. I did not even see her again. She was back in the States in the hospital within 48 hours of her suicide attempt. I think they handled that pretty well. I think there was some people who were probably on the verge of suicide, and the unit was just waiting for them to fucking do it. There was some people who I didn’t want to be around, because I felt that they might be homicidal.
But there was a suicide attempt, and the unit got her the hell out of there as soon as possible. But I think there were plenty of signs beforehand, with her and a number of other folks who should’ve been sent home. Thank God they didn’t try anything. At that point, they definitely pay attention. But that’s a pretty dangerous place to draw the line in the sand if you’re trying to take care of people. “Go ahead! Try and kill yourself! Then we’ll take care of you. But we’re gonna let you get there.”
…When you come home, you don’t get to go back to your shitty life until you clear [R-SRP], and they make that very clear to you, that like, “You’re gonna be on med hold here, eight, nine or 10 hours away from your home, and you’re not gonna be able to go home during that time. Are you sure you’re not okay? ‘Cause if you’re okay, you can go home.” And I think that’s a more common experience in the Guard and Reserve. Just trying to get people to check all the boxes, so they can kick them out the door. ‘Cause if they’ve got people on med hold, they have to have somebody there processing stuff too. They get to go home if you get to go home too. And they know that.
There’s a PowerPoint [about PTSD] near end of the deployment or during the out-processing. I don’t think there was a whole bunch to do about it, just a PowerPoint. And it’s bunched up with the Chaplain’s briefing about coming home, and things like that. Some bullets with the symptoms. There’s just sort of mashed stuff. I don’t think there was any one-on-one time with somebody to talk about it.
I think they’re doing something, but too much of the time it’s big presentations and just push-people-through sort of situations. And when you’ve got that culture that discourages it, and nobody’s allowed one-on-one time to talk through it with anybody, it just seems like those two things might play off on each other to discourage people. You’re not gonna raise your hand in a room full of people and be like, “Yeah, I think I’ve got some of those symptoms!” But you get one-on-one with somebody who’s counseling you about this stuff, you might be like, “Well, you mean like this?” and you might actually find out something. You’d realize that maybe you have PTSD and you’ve just been compartmentalizing it, and trying to bottle it up.
Editor’s Note: The interviewer asked if Malachi had ever received any kind of screening for PTSD.
There’s a questionnaire thing and I filled mine out. It was maybe 50 to 100 questions. They passed around this little electronic gizmo, you checked boxes. Stuff like, “On a scale of one to ten, this or that,” and “Strongly agree, disagree” or whatever. It was a questionnaire. Another mash training, sort of thing.
I think it takes a while to notice [PTSD symptoms]. And I think it can take a while to notice them for what they are. It’s a process, dealing with them. And it takes time to notice that you’ve got them. It takes time to become more aware of them, and it takes time to sort of diminish them as well. Time is a good thing, I think. Time, and being able to talk to folks, and bounce stuff off of folks.
When I came back, I couldn’t drive. ‘Cause I was a truck driver in Iraq. A lot of that was PTSD-related. And sleep problems, I still get those. And the alertness, the hyper-alertness, and the short fuse, and stuff like that. I think over time, you either find help, or you find coping mechanisms.
‘Cause I joined really early, it’s sort of hard to say what the baseline was [for my life]. Maybe if I never joined the military, I still wouldn’t have been able to hold a job. Who knows, ’cause I joined practically right after I joined the workforce. So I don’t know what a normal work-life actually looks like. And who knows, with this economy, maybe it’s the economy that’s the reason I can’t fucking find a job or hold a job, or whatever. But I definitely think at least part of that, of my employability problems, are related to the PTSD, some.
And I think it’s certainly affected my ability to have meaningful interpersonal relationships. I have a sort of hard time attaching to folks. My wife says I’m detached, and my daughter well, I don’t know what she thinks, ’cause life’s just sort of crazy. But yeah, I feel detached, and I think it shows to a lot of folks…sometimes I have to do that to keep myself from losing them. I have to detach.
I had a rough time getting treatment for the PTSD. For example the VA, they told me they have to treat the Bipolar before they can treat the PTSD. And I’m not really satisfied with the treatment methods for Bipolar. I’m not sure there are any out there that I’m satisfied with. So it’s a little bit tough for me to say to the VA, or anybody for that matter, “Hey, I want to try to deal with this PTSD thing, without focusing on the Bipolar thing first,” because I guess they have to take care of the one before they have to take care of the other, or something.
For me, to treat the PTSD, personally, I think anything that you can use to sort of express things, and expel them and let them out, sort of relive them on your own terms. Share them, if you can express yourself in a way that you feel somebody understands your experiences better, you’re not alone anymore. And being alone is the worst I think for any mental illness. Realizing that you’re in your head, and this stuff is all in your head, and everything’s in your head, and you’re all alone, because nobody else is in your head, and nobody else ever WILL EVER UNDERSTAND YOU! And you’re alone!
So just anything you can do to express yourself. And group settings, talking with groups, or art, or really any expressive, creative means, sort of to acknowledge your experience, have other people acknowledge or understand your experience, better understanding through dialogue about the experiences.
…I know folks who can’t leave the house. But they get along in the house pretty well. I think the worst case of PTSD in folks that I’ve seen are people who can’t leave the house. I think TBI really fucks with people in a lot of different ways. Like, TBI’ll make people act crazy in public. I guess PTSD will too, ’cause I’ve sort of stripped my clothes off one time and walked out ’cause they were constricting me, I had a panic attack and walked out of a classroom that I was supposed to be working in.
I think however it affects people, the most common consequence of those is people will just lock themselves up in their house. The most common thing I see is people not wanting to deal with the world because whatever their stressors or their triggers may be, it’s harder to find those when you’re locked up in a place that you control. So yeah, you see a lot of angry people just punching folks out around a military town, stuff like that. Over-medicating, self-medicating with alcohol, and then that compounds it and they act stupid.
I think [multiple deployments] are bad on soldier morale. I think that it increases the likelihood that they’re not being taken care of. I’ve already established that before a deployment you’re less likely to get taken care of. So if you’re deploying twice as much as you should be, it’s twice as likely you’re not getting taken care of. And then, not getting taken care of is gonna hurt your morale. ‘Cause it’s on top of family stress issues, and being away from your family, Jody’s got your girl, all this stuff. The more you deploy, the more you’re exposed to most of the stressors that are related to the military.
On my first deployment, I went through being exposed to IEDs or getting shot at and seeing this stuff, and the ever-present fear of that stuff is traumatizing. But even if somebody’s never left the camp, on my second deployment I left the camp once, incoming mortar rounds, those happen pretty much anywhere you go. Those can be stressful. They were a little less stressful for me, because I was like, “Well, at least I’m not on the road.”
By my second deployment, I thought it was pretty comfy, but watching some of the folks that that was their first deployment, and that was as bad as they’d had it, they were jarred. I think it’s different from individual to individual. And I think you can be desensitized to it. But I don’t think that makes it any better. But even below the common level, it’s traumatic to up and move your family from Kansas to Georgia. And being a military brat as a kid, I think kids are sensitive to that, too. And that’s a traumatic experience that’s not necessarily related to the war, but just the military lifestyle. There’s a lot of trauma-inducing events in many aspects of the military life.
I think the first and clearest sort of thing we can do to stem this [trauma] would be to stop deploying any troop that’s got PTSD, TBI, or MST. Just stop. Don’t deploy them. Because their conditions are gonna be aggravated by the conditions of deployment. If you want to take an honest step forward, that’s the clearest and most obvious thing that will help. Stop it from progressing once you’ve identified somebody has one of those conditions.
…TBI sort of caught on after my second deployment, just after it, so I never really got any information on TBI.
The people I know who’ve had TBI, in my experiences they tend to lose more of their functions than somebody who’s got PTSD. I don’t know, their brain works differently. I’ve seen people with impaired motor skills, and stuff like that, from TBI. The worst cases of TBI I’ve seen seem a lot worse than the worst case of the PTSD I’ve seen. A lot of behaviors even more inexplicable to me. And the memory loss can be worse too.
I didn’t receive any training about MST. We got some EO briefings, and stuff. But MST wasn’t—I don’t even think that was a phrase [when I was in]. If it was, I didn’t know about it.
We got some sort of briefings [on sexual assault and harassment]. Mostly they just tried to encourage women to have battle buddies, is what seemed to be the policy. And there were rapes on both of my deployments. And the way that those got dealt with, especially at the cultural level, was really disgusting. A lot of victim-blame. And, you know, “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” name-calling.
And at that time, commanders had a lot of discretion in dealing with those cases, and I understand that that’s changed, or at least supposed to have changed. I think too much of that was handled at the commander level. I just remember thinking like, in the civilian world law enforcement would be handling this. And it would be less political… I think there’s been some policy change since my experiences being around that.
There was definitely some varying levels of fraternization and coercion…and E-4 females, it seems like there’s a fucking target on their back in the military.
But on my first deployment, it was an E-6 that got raped, by an E-4, which was sort of the backwards experience. So it just goes to prove that you can’t pin anything down, statistically. On my second deployment, it seemed like any E-4 sort of had some NCO or officer sort of relationship going on. I don’t know the specifics of that stuff, I didn’t get into that.
It’s not direct to your face, but you go in a port-a-john and your name’s all over the fucking place, talking about how you’re a whore. That’s sexual harassment too. And that’s like, anonymous, so to speak. It would be like, how do you hold people accountable to that? I think that’s a prime example of why we need to fix the problems at a military cultural sort of level. Because if you just try to deal with it on a case-by-case basis, you’re still gonna have that anonymous stuff, like it’s the crowd discriminating. I think that highlights how wrong culture is there, about sexual harassment.
My first deployment, the E-6 [assailant] was very close in my chain of command, just directly over me. It was really weird, it happened in the tent next to us. And I can’t speak to them a whole bunch, because that’s the sort of shit where the mentality is like, I don’t want to fill out a fucking statement. The mentality was, “I don’t know and I don’t want to educate myself about it, because I don’t want to fill out a fucking statement. I don’t want to get called in.” And “I don’t know! I don’t know!” And I think the same was true the second deployment. Nobody wants to deal with it, everybody wants to pretend like, “Ohh, let’s just not mention that.” And on my second [tour], the victim lived in the trailer right across from me. But she got raped in the tower.
After both incidents there was a response. After the first one, we no longer had co-ed tents after that one. And for the second one, we no longer had co-ed towers after that one. And I don’t know really specifics, other than what I’ve said, about the cases… Because I didn’t want to put my nose into that.
I was supposed to be medically chaptered for some of my head shit, before my second deployment. I threw a temper tantrum, tore up a barracks room, smashed up a guitar, righteous. Got the MPs called on me, and they sent me to see a shrink, and that’s when I got the Bipolar diagnosis. And they said, “Yeah, you’re not deployable with Bipolar.” And they started Med-Boarding me out. My unit deployed, and I was left back on medical, waiting to be chaptered out. And the master sergeants who were overseeing said, “Well, there’s no signature on your paperwork. We’re gonna have to start over from day one, and you’re gonna be here for another three months before the next step in the process. Are you sure you don’t want to just deploy?” And I said, “Yeah, fucking deploy me.”
I’m not sure what’s the technical like, designation of what I was on, but I was being held for probably four months, because I got on it about a month before the unit left. And then I was here at Fort Hood. I’d say [access to care then] was fair. I think there was a person that was on Rear-D, I felt like it was her prerogative to try to get me on the plane, even after the unit had left. But I wasn’t denied any appointments or anything like that. In fact, they didn’t even care what the fuck I did, so long as I made my appointments. I didn’t have to show up to formations, there was no accountability for me. It was sort of nice, at the time. But yeah, I’d have to make my own appointments and show up when I wanted to, and I didn’t have to do anything else, really. And then she was like, “Eh, your paperwork’s messed up.”
Editor’s Note: Malachi was asked if he had seen anyone chaptered out for issues that could have been related to symptoms of PTSD or TBI.
Definitely, a handful. Some on that drug shit at the end of the deployment. And the fact that so few folks popped hot during the first piss test before the deployment, and so many more popped during the deployment, while they were deployed, there’s probably a logical fallacy or something. If they weren’t doing drugs before the deployment, and they were doing them during and after the deployment. I mean, maybe at least look in and see if something happened during the deployment, to sort of lead them to this place where they’re now doing drugs. But no, they just treated it like, “No. They’re just doing drugs. Get ’em out.”
During my military career, one of my main motivators was to get out with a clean slate. Like, not get kicked out, not get put out any other way than honorable. And the prospect of it seemed very frightening. Not because I had any real status, but just because that’s just sort of what you’re conditioned to believe.
[Job prospects] are probably worse for folks that get dishonorables, and other than honorables. Then again, though, there are organizations out there I know who help with specific cases. I don’t think they do much dent in the numbers, but I know there are folks who are sympathetic out there in the world. Like, if I were to go through the process again, I might not be so afraid of it, just because I know there’s people who do care.
It took about a year for my first try [for VA benefits]. I think the military has a tendency of making people distasteful of bureaucracy. And the VA’s full of that, it’s like a big paper avalanche. And you’re just sort of swept up in it. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I’d say mine is pretty good. It took about a year for me to get 30%. And then, at the request of my family, I got somebody to represent me, and it took another year for him to take care of that. But I did get my percentage up, and I think I’m at where I belong right now. At or around the appropriate percentage…
My best advice I could say to anybody though, would be get that representative. Get somebody else that will do the paperwork, and send it to you, and have you sign it. And then, you send it back, and you go for your appointment. Because managing time is tough for somebody to do, especially when they’re dealing with these issues. Especially when the period is over months. If you’re having memory problems within the day or within the week, how are you gonna remember your appointments and all these paperwork processes, and shit like that, months out?
I don’t think that [the VA] will ever be able to really fully prepare. But I do think that it’s gotten better since, I’d say around ’05-’06. So I think they’re trying, but I don’t think they’re there. And I don’t think they can ever really actually get there. I think it’s important to always challenge the level of care that folks are receiving. Because the fact is that people are gonna always fall through the cracks, so you always have to challenge that. I don’t think they were prepared for the folks who came back during the surge time. I think they do better now.
[Adjusting to civilian life] is difficult. And often times, lonely. It’s hard to find a lot of folks who will relate to those experiences. If I didn’t work close to the coffeehouse here, if I was down in an actual civilian population, like when I’m down where I went to college, I don’t feel like there’s a lot of people who relate. Around here though, I think there’s more people who get it, around Fort Hood. Just ’cause there’s so many people who’s all dealing with these issues around here.
Editor’s Note: In closing the interview, Malachi reflected on what it will take to get soldiers and veterans the care they deserve, and win the right to heal.
Lots of counseling. I think we should be prepared to sit down one-on-one with folks, and counsel them individually, on a personal level, on a regular basis. I think that’s probably the most important expectation. And a willingness to try alternative things.
I think it’s honestly an eternal struggle. I don’t think it’s something that’ll ever be fully realized. And to sort of echo [what I said] earlier, I think the first thing that it’ll take is stopping when people are diagnosed with these things, stopping any subsequent deployments. I think that’s where the biggest impact is to be made in combating these things. Unless you’re gonna stop subjecting people to the experiences that caused these conditions. Unless you’re gonna end the war. You need to stop deploying troops that already have these diagnoses.