US Army veteran, one deployment, Conscientious Objector
Editor’s Note: Mark is a white Army veteran in his mid-twenties who is from the Northeastern US. He served as a Tank Crew Member and deployed once to Iraq, from December 2008 to December 2009, where he severely injured his shoulder. He was also exposed to blast pressure from explosions while in Iraq and experiences symptoms of PTSD and a possible TBI. Mark’s VA disability rating is 70%, and he says he can handle very few responsibilities due to ongoing traumatic symptoms. Mark has usually been on five to six medications as treatment for physical and psychological issues, including anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, headache and pain medications, mood stabilizers, anti-psychotic medications, and prescription sleep aids. He was not diagnosed with PTSD until his first visit to the VA. At the time of the interview, he had never been screened for TBI. Mark was constantly pressured and ordered to violate his profiles during the last year and a half of his time in the Army. He was subsequently discharged as a Conscientious Objector.
I was going through some personal issues in my life. I was doing drugs, and alcohol issues, and I wanted to clean up my act a little bit. I’d also been very interested in the foreign policies that were going on at the time, about the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War, so…killing two birds with one stone, I decided to clean up my act by going into the military while also seeing for myself what was going on over there. I guess I wanted to be able to be proud of myself, to be disciplined, and a well-rounded member of society.
Healthcare was hit or miss, really. If you wanted some serious counseling or holistic-based stuff it was almost impossible to get any of that. Seeing a psychiatrist? That was reasonably easy. You might have had to be on a waiting list, it might take a few weeks unless you were suicidal or homicidal at that moment. But, once you saw the psychiatrist, they gave you the whole cabinet full of pills and they sent you on your way, pretty much.
To get a referral, first you have to find somebody that is willing to listen to your story seriously and give you what you tell them you need. So in that sense it was difficult, and once you did get the referral, you had to wait like a month. Some people need help, where they’re not necessarily suicidal, but I don’t think anybody should be waiting a month to see a doctor. Especially a psychologist.
The care I got, I would say it was fair to poor. I had physical issues and also psychological issues. The physical stuff, that was pretty fair. I eventually got my surgery done even though it took almost two years for the Army to accept giving me a shoulder surgery. Once I did get it, I saw a doctor somewhat regularly, and he checked up on my surgery and how my arm was healing. But the fact of the matter is that I could have gotten out a lot earlier and my arm might not be as messed up as it is now. Psychologically? Like I said, I only got to see a psychiatrist. I don’t think I ever got to see a counselor. I asked to see one but they really didn’t give me that option.
I was usually on five or six different types of medications at any given time. Once I got to see a psychiatrist, he tried different combinations of it. He tried anti-depressants. Anxiety, sleep medications, headache medications…some kinds of mood stabilizers.
Some of the medications are for the same thing, but I didn’t necessarily take them at the same time. I can’t remember all of them. Some of the stronger ones that I remember are Xanax, Klonopin, Ambien, this other sleep medication…I can’t think of it off the top of my head. But, Topamax…Abilify…Tramodol, it’s a pain medication…I can’t think of what it was called, the other sleep medication. It really messed me up, too. Klonopin, that was an anti-anxiety medication.
It’s been a couple years since I’ve been on those particular drugs. My psychiatrist prescribed them, a civilian doctor. I was diagnosed with sleep disorder, anxiety disorder, depression. I think I had maybe personality disorder…
They would not give me PTSD. I mean, the way I look at it, they would give me everything but that diagnosis. I later would get it at the VA. The first day, I was diagnosed with it.
I was on profile. I could only work eight hours, a nine-to-five hour period each day. So there was no 24-hour duties or anything like that. I couldn’t go out to the field. I’m thinking more psychological stuff, but during that time I also had my shoulder injury, so I couldn’t pick anything up more than 20 or 30 pounds.
I had those two profiles, pretty much, consistently, during the last year and a half of my time in the military. The psychological one was based on, “Okay, he’s on these heavy-duty medications. He shouldn’t be working more than eight hours a day. So that he can get the proper sleep he needs, so that he can function during those eight hours.”
There’s pressure on soldiers to violate their profiles all the time. Me personally, I was pressured to do that, or was told that, “You’re gonna do it anyway. You’re gonna do the work anyway.” And I saw that with other soldiers as well. Soldiers would come back with the diagnosis of PTSD, have a certain work schedule that they could do, and it would be disregarded by the command. They’d say, “Suck it up.”
My psychiatrist at the R&R Center issued the profile for my psychological stuff. The other one was a doctor at the Darnall Hospital, who was my surgeon and doctor. And he was giving me the shoulder profiles, because of my injury. I got surgery on my third AC separation in my shoulder, and there was a ligament that they put into my arm, to re-attach muscle tissue to my shoulder.
Once I got on the profile, I was on it ’til I left the military. A year, year and a half. My psychiatrist would always replace my profile with the same profile, pretty much, very little difference. Obviously, my shoulder, over that year and a half, was recovering, so the profile got a little bit less strict. Eventually I didn’t have to wear my arm in a sling, stuff like that. Or I could now pick up maybe ten more pounds, or something like that.
People in my unit wouldn’t believe that I was having these issues, and would say, “I know you’re on these medications, and I know that your profile says that, but we don’t care. We need you, and we need you to do this work now. And we don’t care if your profile says that you’re to leave at five o’clock, and go home. You’re staying here all night.”
This was from non-commissioned officers, and officers…My chain of command, like my squad leader, platoon sergeant, and lieutenant. And in some cases, higher than that, too. The first sergeant.
Eventually, they [knew about MEDCEN-01], because I brought it up to them. But most people in my position, that were going through the same issues as I was, didn’t know about MEDCEN-01, and I don’t think my unit knew about it until I started showing them.
I found that out [about the policy] through a third party that gave me information about certain rights that I have, when it came to medical issues that I was going through. I think the best way to [work toward MEDCEN-01 being enforced] is to have a third party come in to the units, and have a training on it. It should be somebody that’s not in the unit, and can explain the policy, who can’t dilute the importance of that document.
I’ve heard [NCOs talk about having quotas for combat readiness]. Not in the sense that “We need this soldier, even though he’s messed up, but we need him for the quota.” But I’ve heard those conversations like, “We need this certain amount of men in our company to deploy,” things like that. Usually [those pressures come from] higher up…like battalion, brigade.
[The attitude overall towards soldiers on profile is] that they’re faking it, that they’re weak. That they just want to get out of work. They just don’t have any of these problems, they’re just using the system.
One of my best buddies in my unit had severe PTSD. He actually just got discharged, 60% for PTSD… A long story short, there was an incident in which people saw him have a severe panic attack, to the point where he had to go to the hospital, in the middle of some training for a funeral. And they came to find out that it was PTSD-related. At first they were like, “Okay. It’s okay. Take your time.” But a couple weeks passed, and they’re like, “Hey, sergeant, you need to get your act together and get your head back in the game.” And he obviously wasn’t ready to go back into that environment, to the level he was before. [He] had a few episodes during that time. He was threatened by the first sergeant that he was going to take his rank away, because he wasn’t being the soldier he should have been, because he was seeking medical attention.
I think [negative ideas about people who need care are] part of the military culture that you’re supposed to be strong all the time, and you should keep your problems quiet, and just deal with them. I don’t think a lot of people have conversations about their medical issues unless they’re physical. Psychological issues are quite taboo in the military, even though I think they’re pretty rampant.
A lot of soldiers have families and things like that. And they feel that if they ruffle any feathers in the wrong way by seeking care and being on the radar, so to speak, of their chain of command, that that could negatively affect them and their family in the future, with maybe pay cuts, maybe they try to kick them out of the military, or take away their rank, or something like that. So these soldiers don’t seek care. They continue with their problems. They suffer. Some of them end up in a coffin. Because they’re not getting the treatment when they need it.
My buddy that I mentioned, right before he started getting care, and then he started getting harassed about it, he had called me and he had told me, “Hey, man, I need help. Now. If I don’t get help now, I am going to hurt myself.” And that is when I gave him information about the R&R Center. He called them immediately. They got him an appointment the next day. And he was taken care of. I think he got a profile at that point. They got him some medication. He was going to see a psychologist. Things were going well. And I think eventually they were gonna put him in the WTU. So there are people that are getting to the point where they feel like they’re gonna hurt themselves or commit suicide.
I don’t think anybody thinks it should have to get to that point [before somebody gets help]. I think the idea is, I’m seeing this first-hand, I’m getting the phone call from my buddy that I know very well. But somebody who doesn’t know him as well, that’s in the chain of command, who has these concepts of what PTSD or other psychological issues are, think that that person’s faking it. But I’m actually experiencing it on the phone with him. My best buddy is planning on hurting himself. So I think that any case of somebody seeking help should be allowed to go through that process relatively comfortably, and make sure everything’s okay. And I also believe that people that get deployed should have a larger psychological check-up. Everybody should have a TBI check. Things like that. Why not make sure that everybody’s good, so that they’re combat-ready?
I know sergeants…and some staff sergeants, who were on some psychological medication and probably weren’t supposed to be handling a weapon. Maybe they will take the pill but they won’t take the profile type thing, because they’re afraid that if they do both then they could be looking at their career cut short, or some type of harassment.
They were on medications that you shouldn’t be driving a vehicle on, or handling weapons. I’m sure if you’re not supposed to be driving on them, you’re probably not supposed to be handling a weapon on them either.
I came back from Iraq in December ’09. Just like anything else in the Army, SRP is a bunch of hurry up and wait. And once you get into one of those stations in which they’re checking you up, it’s real quick. You get in there, they ask you a couple questions, they sign your paper, and you go. And the psychological part of it, at least, was maybe five or ten minutes. Which I don’t think is sufficient.
I don’t know. I wouldn’t call it a screening [for PTSD or TBI], if there was a screening. They asked a few questions like, “Have you had any disturbing dreams?” Or, “Do you feel different since you’ve been back?” Things like that. They might’ve asked, “Have you been hit in your head?” Basic questions. But there’s no necessary screening for a particular thing. There’s just a few questions and they said, “Alright. Well, seems like you’re good.” And if you said, “Hey, I’ve had some issues,” they might say, “Okay, we’ll put in a referral.”
I don’t think [people always] answer truthfully [at SRP]. Honestly, you just got back from Iraq. How are you going know within a week if are you that different? I’m sure there are some cases where people come back and they’re really messed up right away. At least in my experience, in talking to other soldiers, that stuff usually comes up two, three months later. After they’ve been really exposed to regular society, they see those differences and are dealing with their friends and family. So I think at Reverse-SRP, asking those questions when they first get back is good. But there needs to be a follow-up or two after that, just to say, “Hey, how you doing? Anything new? You’ve been back a couple months, have you noticed anything this time?”
I think some are nervous [to ask for care at R-SRP], they don’t want to make a fuss about it. Because I had some issues while deployed, around my own personal morality, I was a little bit disturbed when I came back. So I did get a referral, just to talk to somebody. But I don’t know about other people, I don’t know how they felt, to be honest with you.
[Before that], I think there were a couple [briefings about PTSD]. Pretty basic. “Hey, there are all these programs out there that could help you, when people come back and have some issues. And you know, you guys get the help you need, get fixed, and get back in the game.” It was pretty much quick, 30-minute trainings.
I know there were some people who were very iffy about whether they should [deploy] or not. Some of them thought that they shouldn’t be going. They had a couple tours under their belt, they weren’t in the best health, and they were fighting to get care. Some of them got it, some of them got deployed. I’m not a medical doctor, but I think some of those guys probably should have stayed back.
That was during when I was about to deploy…it was very intriguing to me, because they had gone to war already, and they were already having these issues, and I questioned a few times, “Is this how I’m gonna be treated when I get back?” Am I gonna have to deal with this stuff? And then hearing from platoon sergeants, “Look, this guy is trying to do this, doing that. He tried to get out of deployment.” When I would know that soldier, and it would seem like he’s going through some issues. I didn’t know them in detail, they were usually higher ranking than me. So I didn’t get too personal with it.
I knew there was [substance abuse] going on while we were deployed. At least alcohol-related. There were a couple occasions. There was one occasion where a medic who was obviously not right in the head got extremely drunk before patrol, and was unable to go on patrol with us, because he was totally trashed. There’s a larger story and some reasons behind that, but even from the start he was not so good for that tour. That was either his second or third tour.
[Multiple tours had something to do with his state of mind], he was pretty messed up. He had some family issues too. There were a couple times they found bottles. But I didn’t really see any illicit drugs. I’m not saying that it didn’t go on, but at least within my platoon, I didn’t come across it too much.
In my unit, I don’t recall any suicides during deployment. I do recall an incident where a soldier was brought back in, and he was definitely distraught. He just pulled out his pistol in the middle of patrol and just started shooting. I don’t think he was shooting at anybody particularly, but he just started shooting in the air. He was obviously psychologically not right in the head. And they brought him back in, and I never saw him again. I guess they sent him back to a cop. We were on an outpost at the time.
My platoon had just moved to this outpost. This probably was one of the first days we were there. They brought him back in, and they brought him off the outpost, and back to the FOB. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but I would assume was seen by some doctors.
I didn’t really get screened for PTSD. The only time I got really screened psychologically was by my psychiatrist, when I saw him. And that was pretty much it. If you want to call it screening. And that’s when I got medicated, and that’s when I eventually got my profile.
[Before I saw the psychiatrist, I had talked to] maybe two people about my issues. Maybe I went to a clinic on post, I don’t know if it’s still around, I think it was called the Resiliency Center. And you can go there at any time, and just see a counselor, and talk. So you can just pop in. I remember going there once or twice. Then I went to the R&R Center. So yeah, about two or three times.
While in the military, I had sleep issues, anxiety issues, trouble driving. Certain things on the road would freak me out. Anger issues, I’d get angry a lot quicker. I think my memory was a little bit off. It still significantly is. Sometimes it would just be anxiety, and then sometimes I would lose touch with reality, more like paranoia. I also had one other symptom that was strange, where something would trigger me, and I’d be up for 48 hours doing stuff, like cleaning, or just I had all of a sudden discovered ten things that I need to do, and I’d just continuously do them until they were all done. But at the point I’d get it all done, it’d be 48 hours or more, and I’d be really, really tired, and also kind of not there.
While I was in the military, because I had a profile I was working less, which caused me stress, because my unit didn’t particularly agree with that profile. So it was a constant battle. Currently, I’m 70% disabled. I attempted to go to work pretty much right when I got out of the military. It didn’t work out well. I’m currently unemployed. I’ve been unemployed for a little over a year now. I’m thinking about trying to work again, but I can only handle very few responsibilities right now. The more responsibilities I have, the more angry I get, the more stressed I get. I can’t handle it. I can’t juggle as many tasks as I used to.
Personally, I think [the military] has some things that help. They do have counselors available, they do have psychiatrists. I think pharmaceutical drugs can be good in helping psychological issues. But that needs to go along with counseling. And I think if counseling was a lot more accessible, the psychological health of the military would improve, to some degree. I just think the soldiers are purposefully unable to get that access. Or, they don’t have enough people to take in the massive numbers of soldiers that are seeking counseling.
I have a buddy who can barely leave his house. He has an alcohol problem. He’s been in the hospital a couple times for nearly drinking himself to death. My other buddy, that I told you about earlier, he also has a severe alcohol problem, and he is addicted to certain medications. And I don’t really see a clear-cut plan for him to recover and assimilate back into civilian life. Most people I know who have gotten out of the military are struggling to get by and figure things out. Especially the first years are extremely tough for people, outside of trying to find work or going to school.
There’s another soldier I knew that was in and out of the hospital. He was suicidal. Because he had potentially a lethal weapon on him, I had to work with other people to get him into an ambulance and get him to the hospital. He wasn’t in my unit, he was a friend of mine who was in the military at Fort Hood. Nobody directly within my battalion, that I knew of was suicidal or committed suicide.
I think [the way the military is dealing with suicide] is a big smoke screen. We hear all this stuff about stigma, but stigma goes both ways. I think it helps the military, and it also plagues the military. Because it destroys some readiness, but at least it quiets a lot of the masses that are actually suffering and going through these traumatic experiences, and reliving them, and could really use the help. We’ve been in these wars for what, ten and eleven years? And our military is pretty tired, as a whole. They are doing what they can, taking steps to help the soldiers out, but without actually doing it, just to continue getting through each year. It’s like a bandage. They’ll still put out a few programs that usually don’t work that well, as a PR type thing, to say, “Hey, we’re doing things.” But really, people are still suffering and falling through the cracks, and getting harassed for seeking help.
…After your first deployment, you have a different perspective. And the more you get deployed, the more that perspective changes. Some people come back with psychological issues and physical issues. And maybe they really got their heads in the game, they’re ready to go get deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, but now they have these other issues coming back. And they’re trying to get help, and finding out that getting that help is very difficult. Which then puts them into this kind mindset that, “Well, the military doesn’t give a damn about me. I thought it had my back, but I guess it doesn’t, now that I’m not as useful, or having trouble.”
[The major cause of soldier trauma is] the day-in and day-out threat upon one’s life, whether you’re consciously thinking about it or not. Because if you’re on patrol every day, you’re in a state of fear that you’re gonna be killed at every second. You’re on alert, so it’s in the back of your mind, but it’s not normal for a human being to experience that. Whether they’re getting contact every day, or only every so often, this danger is still out there, and it still affects them psychologically. And then, the other half is a morality question. I think that no matter if you’re for the war or against the war, I don’t think it deals with politics. I think the idea of killing your common man can directly affect people psychologically, that have to deal with that. Even if they’re obviously engaged by them, like they’re shooting at them, it still has an effect on that. It will still resonate within the darkest parts of your brain. I mean, who was that person?
I think [we need to hold] the military accountable to respecting the diagnoses that soldiers are given by their doctors, and to give those doctors complete freedom to diagnose those soldiers, without being told by the military that they’re not doing their job right. And when they’re diagnosed with PTSD and TBI, to give them the help that they need. And let them go, if that’s what they need to do.
[I got briefed on TBI], clumped together with PTSD. But I don’t recall [ever taking an ANAM test. I think I was asked a couple questions about if I bumped my head, or if I was unconscious at any point. But that was the only thing that would relate to TBI.
I experienced explosions, but I never was, as far as I know, knocked unconscious. I’ve never been screened specifically for TBI. I’m not familiar completely with [TBI’s] symptoms, but I do know I have issues with my memory, that I’m certain that are from going to Iraq. Because I’m a totally different person now than I was before. My memory’s a lot cloudier now.
[The explosions] weren’t frequent, but there were definitely a few occasions. But I’ve never been screened for TBI.
I think right now they’re trying to get people out [of the military], and if people are having some medical issues, maybe they’re getting treated a little bit better than in previous years. I don’t know if they’re necessarily going through Med Boards. Maybe they’re getting them out on other things. During my time, it was more like they were trying to keep people in, no matter what.
[To get soldiers the care they deserve], it’s something that’s gonna have to take time. Because like I said, the military culture doesn’t allow much room for people to seek psychological help. So it needs to be drilled in now, continuously, even after these wars are over, that getting psychological help is not a problem. If you’re having issues, you need to go get help, and that’s fine. You’ll take that time to do that, and if you’re capable of coming back to the unit, then come on back. If you’re not, then we’ll get you where you need to go and taken care of. Allowing people to feel comfortable with that concept will allow people to seek that help more frequently.
I don’t look at it as something like, a program that you can make. I think it runs a lot deeper than setting up some new facility on Fort Hood, or nation- or world-wide around the military.