Active duty US Army, Mechanic, two deployments
Editor’s Note: Paul Avett and his wife, Julie, completed a joint interview. Paul, a white Army service-member and NCO in his mid-twenties, enlisted in 2005, seeking financial help for college and economic stability so that he could start a family with Julie. Paul has had two deployments, once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. Although not in a combat-related MOS, he was in the field frequently while deployed, traveling with missions as a mechanic qualified for vehicle recovery. During his second deployment, he suffered a severe blow to the forehead when an armored truck hood fell on him, knocking him unconscious, and causing what he believes to be a TBI. He describes the care he received after this incident as negligent, and reports being denied follow-up TBI care, including a brain scan, although he has reported symptoms such as headaches, impaired short-term memory, sleep problems, anger issues, depression, and suicidal ideation.
Many of these symptoms continue to affect Paul at the time of the interview, three years after his head injury in Afghanistan. Despite having seen multiple mental health providers to attempt to address these issues, he has never received a diagnosis, and reports that providers have told him that his symptoms could be related to PTSD, TBI, or ADHD. He has been prescribed Strattera (traditionally an ADHD medication) to alleviate his symptoms. While seeking care, he has continually experienced long wait-lists to access providers, as well as long wait periods between appointments, at times seeing a provider only once every 60 days. He has also had chronic knee problems since Basic Training, and has not received adequate care for this condition. He describes a hostile attitude towards soldiers on profile for medical and mental health conditions in his unit and at Fort Hood in general.
Paul and Julie now have two children, and both describe the Army as a very stressful factor in their family life. Although Paul works overtime many weeks (with no over-time pay), their family has had to be on WIC benefits, charge basic needs to credit cards, and take out emergency loans, just to get by financially and cope with circumstances such as mandatory relocation. Such stresses have placed great strain on their marriage, for which they have received some counseling services, but in general they have felt grossly unsupported by the Army and related resources.
As an NCO, Paul feels a profound sense of duty to help take care of the soldiers in his unit, and often goes out of his way to help advocate for them in seeking mental health care, financial support, and other concerns. He describes this as an uphill battle, as his supervisors in command frequently attempt to block or delegitimize his attempts at soldier care.
Originally, [in enlisting] I was hoping for college money, and to set myself up financially. I was planning on getting married to Julie. She was not really for me joining the military. But I didn’t want to marry her without having a good job, something contracted. I knew I wasn’t really gonna get fired from the Army, at that time. They weren’t doing any cutbacks or anything. So I pretty much just joined to start a family.
JA: I begged him not to join. Period. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Army or the military, in any way. I begged him to go straight to college, which would’ve been the longer route, because he wouldn’t be making money right away, the way he saw it. But I didn’t have much say in that, so he joined anyways.
Both my brothers were Army, when I originally signed up for Marines, I was supposed to go to MEPS, and both my Army brothers told me they would beat me up. So I switched over to Air Force, because everyone I have ever spoken to in the military says, “Air Force is the way to go.”
JA: You get higher pay, better equipment, better respect.
They say it’s the same pay across all the branches, but that’s for base pay. Your rank pay is the same. But your BAH and your Substance Allowance, everything like that, is higher in the Air Force. They actually make more money, per paycheck. So I signed up for the Air Force, the Air Force recruiter told me I could leave soon, so I quit my job. And we got to MEPS, and they told me at MEPS it would be like four months before I could go to Basic Training for Air Force. And I guess there was an Army recruiter with his ear to the door, and he told me, “I could have you in Basic Training in 10 days.” So I walked over there with him, and 10 days after that I was in Basic Training.
…The biggest [health issue] was [my] Afghanistan deployment, in 2009. I was working on the new RG31s, and the hinges that raise the hood, the welds on them weren’t that great. So when I raised up the hood and I was working on the vehicle, the hinge snapped, and the 500-pound armor hood hit me right in the forehead. It knocked me off the truck, I fell about five feet on the ground. I don’t remember the hood contacting my forehead. I don’t remember falling, or anything. I just remember opening my eyes, and I was on the ground. And a couple of people who saw the hood fall were running to me. My immediate leadership was pretty good, asking me if I was okay. They checked me for blood, they asked me if I knew my name, and all of that stuff. They got me up to the [medical station] on the FOB pretty quickly. They really didn’t do anything for me, at all. He told me five words, and kept asking me to repeat them. And then, I was able to repeat like, four out of the five words. So he just said, “You’re fine. Don’t worry about it. Here’s some Ibuprofen. You can go back to work.”
[I was back to work] immediately after that. But my immediate supervisor told me to go home and rest. But I’m a hundred percent positive that I had a concussion and some type of brain injury from that event. They had no equipment to do a MRI or a CAT scan at the FOB. I never saw a doctor. The person I spoke to was an Army medic, who was a specialist. I don’t think he had the proper training to determine whether or not I had a concussion. I haven’t been through their training, I don’t know.
But I do not feel satisfied at all with the care I received from that.
That was about six months in. We were still there for another six months.
When we came home, we had to go through the return home process, talking to everybody. And they asked me if I had head injuries, and all the other stuff. I told them about the event. They sent me over to the TBI portion. They had me fill out a questionnaire, and still never gave me an MRI, CAT scan, nothing. They just said, “Well, it’s been six months, your brain’s probably healed and it won’t show anything. So it’d be pointless to even look for anything.” And they sent me on my merry way.
I’ve had memory problems. I’m not sure exactly how bad they were before, but I know after that, my memory has not been what it used to be. Long-term is not so bad, but short-term memory is definitely not good.
My anger issues got a lot worse after deployments. Headaches, and my sleep schedule’s pretty messed up. I can sleep maybe three hours, and get good sleep. And if I go over three or four hours of sleep, I can’t get out of bed. I’m pretty sure that’s not normal. But I’ve sought help for anger, and depression, and all kinds of stuff. We had to go through Military One Source where we were stationed before, to see somebody pretty much weekly. Chain of command there didn’t like losing me for a couple hours every week, but they didn’t stop it or hassle me too much about it.
Here, Fort Hood does not have the resources to deal with it. I mean, it’s the most populated Army base. And every time I seek help, they’ll give me a number, they’ll take down my information. A week or two later, someone will call me and try to set up an appointment. After I tell them I need help, they’ll wait two weeks before they call me and try to set up an appointment. And then, when they call me, they’ll say, “We have something in a month and a half,” or something in two months! And then I’ll say, “Fine.” And then I’ll go to that appointment, and they won’t be able to schedule anything for another month and a half, or another two months out. And that’s not going to help people, seeing somebody every 60 days.
We did marriage counseling through Military One Source, and I think they approved 10 to 12 marriage counseling sessions. And individual for me was about 20. For my wife it was something else.
We have the Brigade Medical Personnel, that’s pretty much a couple of medics, and I think one nurse and one doctor, maybe. I have not been diagnosed with anything.
The ADHD wasn’t a legit diagnosis. I mean, we talked to them, and they said, “Well, you could have PTSD. You could have TBI. You could be ADHD.” And from what I can gather, all of those symptoms are fairly close together. So at my last base, one of the psychiatrists in the Air Force prescribed me Strattera, which has helped out a lot. But I’ve never had a real diagnosis.
…If you have an appointment slip, they can’t tell you not to go. So they haven’t really had any issues they can deal with, other than just being annoyed about losing somebody from the shop.
The only profile I have ever gotten from the Army is for what they’ve been telling me is runner’s knee, for the last five years. Ever since jump school, my right knee has been messed up. And the first time I went somewhere, they said it’s runner’s knee, and I thought that could make sense. Because we were running seven to eight miles every morning for PT. All we ever did was run. So at first it kind of made sense. They put me on a no-running profile for a little while. It would seem to kind of get better, and then almost right after I’d get off the profile, it would get worse again. And I don’t think runner’s knee lasts five years. Six years after I’d been in the military complaining about my knee, I finally get to Fort Hood, and they gave me an x-ray. And they didn’t even tell me anything about it.
…My current unit hates soldiers on profile. They look down on profiles in this unit, and I think a big part of that is in this unit we’ve been rear detachment, and everyone who wasn’t on profile pretty much deployed. So everyone that we’ve had available for work for the last year is on profile. All the work we need done, we have no one to do it, because they’re all broke. So the unit now really looks down on profiles.
Being in the leadership position, I see some of my soldiers who are on profile, who still show up on time, and they do everything they can. Some of them try to break their profile all the time to work, and I have to tell those people, “Stop breaking your profile. When the doc signed it, that was an order from an Army officer to not do that. So stop breaking your profile, you’re gonna get all of us in trouble, and you’re gonna hurt yourself.” And then there’s other soldiers that will just ride their profile like you wouldn’t believe. They don’t do anything. They have profiles that they can walk at their own pace, they can’t stand up for more than 15 minutes, they can’t do all kinds of stuff. The Army’s pretty loose with giving out profiles, sometimes.
I haven’t received any training [on dealing with profiles]. I don’t really think that there is much training, as far as profiles, unless you’re part of the medical field. I know we look over them to see what [soldiers] can do. We try to adjust their PT to what they’re allowed to do. But that’s about as far as it goes. They pretty much tell you it’s common sense. If they have a no-push-up profile, have them do something other than push-ups. And that’s all the instruction I’ve ever had on dealing with profiles.
I think that’s the only job of an E-5, to take care of the E-4 and below. Because they’re all the ones that are doing the work. The leadership that I am under does not allow me to take care of my soldiers’ problems. I had a soldier, they were taking meal deductions out of his paycheck, two months in a row. So the soldier had lost almost $700. I tried to take the soldier up to Finance to get it fixed, and the first sergeant in this unit told me that we had stuff going on, we needed to go out and pick grass to make the yard look pretty in front of the Motor Pool, and that that was more important than the soldier’s finance issues. And to me, that’s ridiculous. She won’t let me take care of my soldiers at all.
He’s not the only soldier that happens with. There are soldiers who are getting ready to get out, ETS or Med Board. I try to take care of their ERBs, because all their ERBs are missing awards, schools, none of their stuff is updated properly. So I get all that stuff together, I’ll pencil in on a copy of their ERB what needs to be added, and go up to Brigade to get them to fix it in the computer. And the first sergeant will tell me, “No, that’s not important. You need to go pick grass.” It’s always picking grass. Like that’s not that important, when a soldier has an issue. They’re about to get out, they need their paperwork straight, for the VA, for their civilian job records. They’re not gonna be able to do this when they get out. No one’s gonna talk to a soldier that’s already out. And there’s a lot of NCOs that I’ve talked to, that once a soldier’s out of the Army, they’re not going to deal with them, at all. I had an NCO tell me that a soldier got kicked out of the Army, and since they have to escort him off base, he said, “I just dropped him off at Wal-Mart. Because he wasn’t our issue anymore.”
Editor’s Note: Paul was asked what would happen for him as an NCO if he was ordered to do something he didn’t have enough people to do.
We do that all the time. The sergeant major apparently does not like grass sticking up out of the rocks. Anywhere on base. So he passed it out to all the units, and then for a week, our whole job was a quarter-mile strip that was gravel and rock, that the grass was growing up. He wanted everyone out there picking the grass that was growing up out of the rocks.
It was me and two soldiers. They said, “We’re gonna give you 20 soldiers to go do this with.” And they tasked out everyone, and the last person to get soldiers was me, and then there were only two people left standing in the formation. So it was me and two soldiers picking grass out of probably a two acre spot of gravel… And then, I got in trouble because we didn’t get enough done.
I think [stigma toward profiles] stems from the people who really do ride their profiles. There’s one guy in our platoon that has two appointments almost every single day. And he’s admitted to a couple of people that he will purposefully schedule one that’s about an hour before lunch, so that can show up to formation, and then say, “I have to go to an appointment,” so he’ll be gone for an appointment, and then he’ll have his lunch hour when his appointment is over. And then he’ll schedule his second appointment for about an hour after lunch. So that he can just say, “Well, travel time, I have to be at my appointment early, so I won’t make it to formation after lunch. I have to go to this appointment.” And then his appointment will last the rest of the day.
[Other soldiers on profile] probably try really hard, because they hear the way NCOs talk about the other people, about them being lazy, and not being good. And they don’t want to be stuck in the same category as the people who are abusing the system.
I haven’t seen a whole lot of people not ask for help because they’re afraid. I’ve seen a couple of people who were saying, “If I go up there, they’re gonna put me on profile, and then everybody’s gonna look at me like I’m a crappy soldier.” I think most people who really need it, they will wait until it’s really bad before they go ask for help.
When I got here and went through SRP, it was pretty quick. It was just an assembly line of stuff, stamping papers and pushing soldiers through. I’ve seen a couple of people deploy who shouldn’t have deployed. Either they weren’t mentally able to handle the stresses of deployment, or they were be physically incapable of doing what needs to be done, wearing that much gear, dealing with the heat, and all kinds of stuff.
I’m not sure how it affected this unit. I didn’t deploy with them. My last unit, there was a couple of people who just couldn’t handle deployment. We knew it before we left, and we got over there, and the soldiers ended up with suicidal or homicidal ideations. And it took a lot of time. We had to have someone watching them all the time. So not only was that soldier not available to work, but it had to be a leader who was watching that soldier, to make sure they weren’t going to harm themselves or somebody else. So when each leader is responsible for four or five people, at a minimum, and then they’re gone, depending on how many leaders you have, one person is not going to be handling five, they’re going to be handling nine or ten soldiers now. Which is normally how it works, one other NCO will take the remaining soldiers that aren’t being covered. And it’s harder to deal with.
There was one that was like that, and everybody was mad. That soldier shouldn’t have deployed to start with. I don’t know about the other NCOs, but I didn’t look down on that soldier, because I saw it coming. It’s not his fault. But some of the other NCOs were saying, “That guy’s crazy.” And, “Something’s wrong with him.”
He made it home. He got out and we met him back, when we got back to home station, and he seemed to be okay. But all the suicide training and everything that we have to go through, it really doesn’t help. The Army does it so much that the training we have to go through now is annoying. No one wants to be there, no one wants to pay attention. And then the Army tries to do something to make it more fun, so that we’ll pay attention, and then it ends up being a joke. With the suicide prevention, the sexual harassment training, the sexual assault training, everything. I’m guilty of it too. When we have to sit there, it’s the same video over and over and over. After two years, you have all the videos memorized, because you have to see it so much.
Editor’s Note: Paul said what we thought needed to be done at Fort Hood to help prevent suicide.
Just have health care more readily available. That’s really all they could do. It might be changing. Right now a lot of the higher leadership was brought up pre-9/11, and there weren’t a whole lot of the issues we have now. Like first sergeants and all that, they just don’t deal with these issues as much, and their attitude carries down, down the ranks. They think, “If you’re suicidal you’re crazy, and there’s something wrong with you.” I think that’s pretty much where it all stems from.
I know some people, they don’t mind deployments, they like deployments, deployments are easy. When you’re a single soldier, there’s danger to it, and there’s some scary stuff, but overall, it’s pretty easy. You just get up, go do your job, and then most people will get off at a certain time, and they’ll hang out at a coffee shop or something on the FOB, and play video games and watch movies. It’s an easy life, for a lot of people.
A lot of other people, they’re constantly going out, and it’s not the occasional fear of a rocket or a mortar attack, but constant fear of an IED or an ambush. And living like that constantly for a year is really hard to deal with. And then, when you come back and you still feel that way, when you’re safe at home, after you finally adjust to feeling safe again, you get thrown right back over into it. I think the dwell time now has changed, 24 months. Which I think might help a lot, but still.
The Reverse-SRP was incredibly fast, at my last station. I don’t know how it is at Fort Hood through personal experience, but I’ve seen my soldiers finish all that stuff in one day. It’s basically just the exact reverse of SRP. It’s just an assembly line of people stamping and signing paper. It was like, quick questionnaires on paper [for PTSD and TBI], and then a two to four minute interview by somebody with an Associate’s degree, probably.
We have occasional briefings on [PTSD and TBI]. They’re pretty few and far between. The Army really likes to focus on suicide and sexual assault. As far as the PTSD and TBI stuff, it’s pretty sporadic. There’s no real focus on the subject, or letting soldiers know where to go to get help.
Spouse: In his last unit, I was part of the FRG, and it was the worst thing I’ve ever been a part of. It was all drama. It was like high school. Nobody had information, nobody cared, everybody wanted to talk about everybody else. It gave me the worst impression of the Army ever. I never wanted to be a part of another FRG ever again. It was run by the Company Commander’s wife. You could go to an hour-long presentation and walk away with nothing. They threw a couple names at you like, “Okay, this is Army One Source, and this is what they do.” But that was it. There were no pamphlets to take home.
We didn’t go on a marriage retreat until we got down here, because before it was impossible to get on that list. If it was even put out for his unit. We actually broke up for a time, when we were about to move down here. I called his Commander, I was really worried about him. He was telling me awful things, and saying he was suicidal. I called, and they put him on watch. They didn’t even watch him. They just wanted to get rid of us. We went to the Chaplain on post, and we said, “Okay, we’re having so many problems, we can’t stop yelling at each other. We can’t stop fighting. We don’t know how to fix this. And the Army doesn’t seem to care.” And he pretty much told us, “Wait until you go down to Texas, and they’ll deal with it.” We were gonna sign divorce papers. They didn’t care.
The only support we got was through our family. Nobody in the Army gave two licks. They thought, “Well, these people are about to move, so let’s wait until they move, and see how that goes for them there.” We got orders, to move, to pack up everything, to figure out where we’re going, to look up places where we’re gonna live, in less than 30 days. And in Hawaii everything’s more expensive. We lost so much money moving here. We couldn’t afford our cars, because there, a $500 car payment? Nothing. Here, it’s ridiculous. But we bought all our stuff there because he was there for six years. They don’t compensate for that. They tell you to budget better, when you were budgeting off Hawaii, and then you move here and it’s not the same. It’s not the same at all.
A bunch of people I know would get orders about four months before their PCS date. It was getting close to three months, so I kept asking people, “Do I have orders yet to somewhere?” And when it got down to 30 days, and I started asking people, “Do I have orders anywhere?” I called my branch manager, the person in charge of sending mechanics all over. And he told me, “No, you don’t have orders in the system yet. It shows that you’re supposed to PCS soon.” And then my leadership told me, “Well, if you don’t have orders now, it means you’re gonna be in this unit again, for our next deployment.”
They were getting ready to deploy. And then, I knew I was gonna be stuck in that unit again, so I went and I bought my new truck. And then, 20 days before my date that I was supposed to sign out, I called the branch manager, and then I ended up calling the branch sergeant major. I called the command sergeant major directly, to his office, and I told him the situation. I sent him an e-mail. 48 hours later, I got an e-mail from the branch manager with orders. The sergeant major asked me where I wanted to go. He said, “This is ridiculous. I can’t believe the branch manager waited this long for all of this stuff.” He probably saved me.
JA: Because we were at each other’s throats so bad. I was blaming him, he was blaming the Army.
But at that point, we had 20 days to try to sell a house, at a time when everyone’s getting ready to leave. The whole unit was getting ready to deploy again. Nobody was going to buy a house, and then deploy, because all the wives go back to their homes when their husbands deploy. So we were just stuck. We had to rent it out.
We moved here. We still had a big mortgage payment, and then my truck, which we couldn’t afford now that we’re making $2000 a month less. I started telling everybody, “Look, I’m losing 2,000 a month, I’m having some financial problems.” They didn’t send me to a financial counselor or to Budget Planning, or anything. I just had to look at all my stuff. And even now, our bills are more than my income.
I had to adjust my paycheck with an allotment. Most of our bills are due on the first. So I had to change it so most of my stuff comes out on the first. I’ll pay everything off, and I will have nothing in my bank. We have to buy groceries and fuel with the credit cards.
…And there was a program, where Army people will own a house, they’ll have to PCS somewhere, and the program would help you sell it back to the bank, and close out the mortgage. But that program only existed for the bases that had been shut down, and they sent everyone somewhere.
JA: Even though we couldn’t live on base. There was a seven-month waiting limit to even move on base. And there’s no temporary housing. We forked out two grand for two weeks, just to hurry up and find a place to stay, because there’s no living on base, no room in the hotel on base. There’s nowhere to go.
And for some reason, if you move stateside to stateside, you’ll get a temporary allowance for housing for ten days to find a place to live. But you have to pay ten days out of pocket, and the Army will reimburse you. If you come from overseas, you get five days, so how are you gonna set something up faster from being out of the country?
When I first got here, the entire brigade formed up together. And the acting first sergeant and sergeant major, they were fantastic about putting out information, everybody knew what was going on. And then, as soon as we started getting ready for the guys to come back, the different battalions started breaking up, and going back to how they normally would run. And the first sergeants did not put out information that well. Sergeant First Class Johns,* when I first got here, he was fantastic, putting out information, letting everybody know when marriage retreats were, and the single soldier retreats.
JA: I went through everybody [for support]. We had close friends that were Army friends, and I went and stayed at their house for a little bit. And I kept asking him, because he was in the Army, “What do I need to do? I don’t know what to do.” Nobody ever told me, “Okay, this is what you do if your husband goes off the deep end.” Nobody ever talked about anything like that. So he said, “You just need to call his superiors.” And I was afraid it was going to get him in trouble, and I called them, and they didn’t care.
And then, after she called the commander, my platoon sergeant showed up at my door in Hawaii. He said, “Get some stuff, let’s go. You can’t stay here. You gotta go stay in the temporary barracks for 72 hours.” Whether there’s violence or not, the Army does a 72-hour cool-down period, where you’re gonna get out of the house for three days, while you and your wife cool down. And you don’t talk to your wife for three days, ’cause it would just keep the fight going. Both of you cool down, and then you can start talking again. But she was really worried about me being suicidal. All he did was pick me up, I drove my own car, he followed me over. I signed for a room, and then he said, “Alright, you’re on your own for three days. Have fun.”
JA: They wouldn’t have known if we had contact. We lived up to that, but they wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t. In fact, we only had contact so he could see his child. Because they had said, “I don’t want him to see his child.” And I said, “I’m not gonna take away his child, that would make him more crazy.” So I left her at a friend’s house, and let him go over and play with his child. I couldn’t imagine somebody taking away my child. And they didn’t keep me informed. I kept calling them, saying “Is he okay? Is everything okay?” This is my husband, I care about him. They didn’t care. And finally, at the end of it, they said, “You need to contact the Chaplain. This is what he does. This is what he deals with.” It just didn’t seem to matter to them at all.
And we have another soldier here at [Fort Hood], who had a fight with his wife. He’s been kind of a problem soldier. But they picked him up, it was in his apartment. And he said, “Well, I can stay with my buddy, he’s two doors down.” So they just let him stay with his buddy for three days, two doors down from his wife. And how are you gonna make sure they don’t bump into each other, or talk to each other?
JA: And nobody’s working out the problems, they don’t ask you any questions, they don’t mediate, they don’t care. All he asked me was, “Has he ever laid a hand on you and the child?” And I said, “No.” And that’s it. That’s the only concern they have.
And then, with this soldier, the leadership here didn’t understand that the policy is a 72-hour cool-down period. They told the soldier that he had a no-contact order for his wife indefinitely, until the first sergeant says otherwise. And they already had marriage counseling stuff set up. And I was like, “Well, how is he gonna go to marriage counseling with his wife if you have a no-contact order for him?” It’s supposed to be three days. You are not the ultimate authority on the wife. She’s a civilian, you can’t control her.
I’ve seen a lot of leadership who do not understand policies, and then they will use some things as punishments for soldiers. Like, their way of punishing him was to keep him away from his wife and his child.
JA: When we had marriage counseling, I didn’t realize how lucky we were in Hawaii to actually get an appointment. Here we can’t even get an appointment. We have not been to counseling here. Even me, as a civilian getting a counselor, there’s none right here, it’s all the way in Killeen. And it’s still a month out. I did it over the phone because it was quicker, and even then, it’s only once a month. And that’s the fastest you can get it.
I didn’t realize, but in Hawaii it was much more convenient, because they did have a lot of counselors. We could pick who we wanted to go to, and they were somewhat open. It was hard, because I would go to counseling sometimes, and he wouldn’t know if he could come or not, because of getting off work. And I’d be sitting there in marriage counseling, and it was just me. Several times.
Yeah, which is really hard. I keep thinking it’s the MOS I chose. Mechanic is a really bad job in the Army. Mechanics and cooks. Cooks get there at three in the morning to start cooking breakfast, and then they have to stay late because dinner starts when everyone gets off. And they’re there for another two hours, then they have to clean up. If you have a really good system set up somewhere, it’s scheduled as shift work. Sometimes they don’t have it scheduled as shift work, so everyone is there all the time.
JA: And there’s no over-pay in the Army.
Not for cooks. And then, with mechanics, we have to coordinate with a lot of the civilian people who do our parts ordering and our parts pick-up. We can’t go pick up our parts. Someone else goes to pick them up, holds them somewhere else, and then we go pick them up from them. And our last unit, we couldn’t pick up our parts until after lunch, but after lunch the one person that was on the list to pick up parts had additional duties that he had to do at 13:00, right when we get back from lunch. So he couldn’t go pick up parts until two in the afternoon, and it would take him an hour or two to get the parts back to us. So we wouldn’t even receive parts until an hour before close of business. So we’d be sitting around all day with no parts to put on, and then an hour before close of business, we have a bunch of trucks that are non-operational because they need parts, and the Motor Sergeant doesn’t like his paperwork to say, “We have six trucks that are waiting on parts.” And every day, it says this. So as soon as parts come in, we stay until all the parts are put on, every day.
Apparently, there’s a lot of Motor Pools that work that way. So as a mechanic, you sit around waiting for your work to start until an hour before COB, and then you stay at work until eight or nine o’clock at night. And there’s no coming to work late.
JA: You still have to be out there for PT.
The whole time I’ve been here has been Rear Detachment. The civilians have been holding the Motor Pool. We don’t have any trucks to fix or anything right now. And the III Corps policy, I know, is everyone will be released at 17:00, unless there is a mission essential, something going on. And I don’t see chain of command saying, “Okay, it’s 1700, go home.” I see the soldiers saying, “It’s 17:00, why can’t we go home?” And then the Motor Sergeant and the First Sergeant say, “Well, this is your mission, to fix trucks. This is mission essential, you’re gonna stay until they’re fixed.”
JA: Every counselor he’s seen pretty much has told me, “I can’t discuss anything with you.” They can’t even discuss with me if he’s going. So I have to take my husband’s word on everything. Which, in the Army, it’s not always the best policy, to take one person’s word. I know my husband has lied to me several times just to protect me. Because he doesn’t want to tell me, “The Army won’t let me go get help.” I get mad. And I understand he doesn’t want to hear me get mad, when there’s nothing he can do about it.
It doesn’t seem like the FRG is a help at all. I have to trust him on his chain of command, who these people are. If I want any information, it has to come from him. I can’t go to anybody else. And they don’t seem to care about mental health, at all. We have gotten into countless fights of me saying, “When’s your next counseling appointment? When’s your next counseling appointment? You’re going, right? You need to talk to them about your medication. You need to do this and do this and do this.” There’s no rush for them, they don’t care. And there’s so few counselors here, it’s unbelievable. It’s so under-staffed, for the Army, for the families. We haven’t gotten to see a single counselor, and we’ve been here a year. And now, all they keep saying is, “Keep waiting.”
When we went to marriage counseling, the number-one thing they kept telling us is, “Y’all don’t need marriage counseling. Y’all need separate counseling.” Because you have to fix that first, before you can have marriage counseling. It’s so much easier to get marriage counseling than it is to get individual counseling. I don’t know why that is. And it seems like all you can do in counseling is vent. Nothing ever gets fixed. Except when you go above somebody’s head, and make a lot of noise, it seems like that’s the only time somebody goes, “Okay, here.” And they give you something.
I don’t know if the Army could do this, but giving people more time, more information of, “Okay, you’re gonna move, you need to prepare for this move”—that would’ve helped our marriage a lot. We didn’t even know how much we were going to make when we finally got here, until we got the first check. I think having open lines of communication would help. You can’t even put your name on a waiting list until you get orders. They told us we were going to Fort Hood in 20 days. We didn’t get the official orders until we almost got down here. We can’t sit on a waiting list. I kept calling housing saying, “Please put us on that waiting list. Please.”
Yeah, the notice I got for 20 days before the move, it was an e-mail from the branch manager saying, “You’re going to Fort Hood on this date.” But my orders were not published and printed until four days before I left Hawaii.
JA: If it wasn’t for our family, I can’t imagine dealing with all the stuff we did, at all. And it’s not even like our family did that much. They just listened to us, or helped put things in perspective. That’s it.
A lot of the big stressors on military service members is finance. We have a decent paycheck. I make more than a lot of people. But I work 70 hours a week doing my job.
JA: There’s no extra-pay. You can’t get over-time if you need extra money. We couldn’t even get an emergency loan for that house being unrented for a month. We did get a loan once, and we had to pay it back.
…And he doesn’t even get time off. I can’t tell you how many times my husband has called me, or I’ve called him during lunch, because that’s the only time he picks up his phone. He does not pick up his phone all day, because he’s always working. He does not eat lunch. He’s still working through his lunch period. And I have to question sometimes, because I’m a civilian, “Why would you even work so hard for a company that doesn’t even care?” He’s gotten denied leave so many times, it’s unbelievable. They don’t care about the family, and they care even less about the soldier.
Another example of just how messed up the Army is with knowledge and help—I had a soldier who, just a couple weeks ago called me up and said, “I really need you. Like, right now.” He was having some mental problems. I was in the middle of a class. I said, “Okay, well, I’m gonna take my test real quick, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I rushed through my test. I take college classes during lunch. It’s the only time that I can get approved to do it.
I drove over and met the soldier. He was having severe paranoia and an anxiety attack. His peripheral vision was blurred. He said he felt like everything was moving. He feels like there’s people behind him all the time. I asked, “Are you seeing people behind you?” And he said, “No, I know they’re not there. Like, logically I know they’re not there. I turn around and they’re not there. I just constantly feel like someone is there. I can’t drive right now. I’m messed up.” He broke down into tears. He was crying. It was really, really bad.
So we went up to the [medical clinic], to see the primary care provider. I said, “I think something’s wrong with his medication.” He said it had started when he was at the rehab clinic for alcohol. They gave him a prescription. He said about two weeks after he started taking that prescription, he felt a little bit paranoid, but it wasn’t that bad. He thought maybe it was just one of those days, maybe he watched a movie or something that got him kind of paranoid. So he ignored it. And then he said it got really, really bad. So I took him in and said, “I think it’s the medication they put him on. He said the paranoia started after he took the medication. He never had the problem before.” And then the primary care provider said, “We don’t have a psychiatrist here at the clinic, so go to the ER.” We went to the ER, and the ER said, “The ER doesn’t have a psychiatrist here.” So the ER sent us to the R&R center. We went to the R&R center, and they said, “Well, we didn’t prescribe it to you.” And they sent us somewhere else. And we kept going in circles to the same people. We called the R&R to get them to check out his medication. They sent us to the primary care. Primary care sent us to the ER. The ER sent us right back to R&R.
By this time, the medication had started to wear out of his system, and he said he started feeling better. And we were at the ER when this happened, so they just said, “Well, if he’s feeling better, then set up an appointment to see a psychiatrist. There’s nothing we can do for you here.” So I had to go back to R&R, and talk to the OIC of the R&R clinic, again. Because I had to deal with him previously for another soldier. We had to go all the way to the top, to get another soldier fixed. So we went all the way back up to this guy, and he set him up with an appointment the same day, to see a psychiatrist and go over his medication. And found out that one of his PTSD medications, when he was at the alcohol rehab, they prescribed him a medication for Schizophrenia instead. And the psychiatrist said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Why would you prescribe Schizophrenia medication to a patient who was not Schizophrenic?” And it took us three days of him going crazy on this medication to get it fixed. All day long, he kept saying the most uncomfortable place he could be in was in a car. But we had no choice but to be in a car all day, driving from place to place, driving in circles.
…I had ten soldiers to take care of. And all of this stuff was an entire week, taking care of just one person. I’m on the phone all the time trying to talk to people, trying to get their stuff fixed, and sitting in my truck after hours, staying late to fix all their stuff.
JA: There’s always little stuff, like the 24-hour duty, somebody can’t pull a shift because it’s conflicting with something else. The Army’s not efficient at all, in any aspect. Like, somebody didn’t have a locked gate, so Paul had to go and stand out there. And nobody gets in trouble. Because there’s nobody you can blame. It’s always somebody else’s job.
There’s no accountability. And with all the 24-hour duties, the Army is set up where there’s a DA-6, an alphabetical list of everyone who can pull the duty. And it’s just supposed to go straight down that list, every day. Once it gets to Z, it goes right back up to A. The unit I’m in now is not doing that. They split it up by the battalions, and the battalion splits it up by which company pulls it that day, and they send the first sergeants the list. They say, “Your company has it these days.” Then they just fill in the slots with whoever they want to pull duty that day.
JA: Paul had it every weekend, Friday or Saturday, which are the two worst days to pull 24-hour duty. At least during the week you would’ve had to work a half day anyways. But Friday or Saturday—Saturday being the worst—you don’t get a next day off. Your next day off is the weekend anyway. Or, if you have a four-day—he got a couple of four-days he had to work—he never got off duty. I see everybody on this road home before him. They’re like, “Your husband has to be cheating on you.” I’ve had so many wives say that about Paul’s job, because he’s at work all the time, when he’s on 24-hour duty. Either he’s messing up at work and people hate him, or he’s cheating, and I’m like, “Nope! I’ve gone up there, I check up on him. He’s where he’s supposed to be.”
And I’ve brought it up to the command before, saying, “Why am I working longer than everyone else in the brigade? Why am I responsible for all of this stuff that’s above my pay-grade?” And I’ve had leadership tell me, “Well, Sergeant Avett, you’re dependable. So they give you the important stuff. That’s why you’re working harder. Because you can do it.” And that’s the answer I got.
…And when I asked him directly why he wouldn’t promote me, he said, “Because an E-4 turns wrenches, and you’re good at turning wrenches. You fix a lot of trucks. And if I make you a leader, you won’t be turning as many wrenches.” And I said, “You won’t promote me because I’m too good at my job.” And he said, “Well, it’s not that. It’s that I’m not promoting you because the Army needs you in the position you’re in right now.” And I said, “That’s really the only reason?” And he said, “No, the other reason is that you’ve never had an Article 15. And if you have a soldier who’s going through an Article 15, you won’t be able to help that soldier unless you know what he’s going through.” Those were his legitimate reasons for not promoting me, I’m too good at my job, and I’ve never been in trouble.
JA: So we see tons of soldiers that have messed up, been in less time than Paul, and they’re higher than him.
The favoritism is outrageous in the Army. And in the military in general. There were two other soldiers who went to the Promotion Board before I did, both of them came up hot on the urinalysis for cocaine use, twice. They were demoted twice for cocaine. Another one had been demoted for DUI twice. Two different instances. All three of those soldiers were also sent to Promotion Board before me, because every weekend they were at the Platoon Sergeant’s house drinking beer and hanging out.
Editor’s Note: The interview transitioned to return to Paul’s experiences with various traumatic injury screening and training processes. He was first asked if he had ever taken the ANAM test.
…We took it before my second deployment. But when we got back, I didn’t take another one. Or at least I don’t remember taking another one. But they knew they were supposed to. That was three years ago. I remember taking a test, I just don’t remember taking it once or twice. [Other than that] no screening [for TBI] other than filling out a questionnaire that says, “What happened?” And every questionnaire, I put down that the 700-pound up-armor hood hit me in the forehead and knocked me off a truck, where I was unconscious for less than a minute. And then I do some questionnaire on how often I get headaches, and I always put, “Yes, I’ve had more headaches than normal since that event. My memory has been worse since that event.” But nothing ever comes from that. And then, I was refused a brain scan. I requested one. And they said, “It’s been too long, it wouldn’t even show up from an event that happened nine months ago.”
Every civilian counselor that I’ve ever been to tells me, “You have all these symptoms [of TBI].” But they keep saying, “From what I can tell, these are the same symptoms that are also associated with PTSD. And all these symptoms are also associated with ADHD.” And they keep telling me, “Look, we can’t diagnose you. You have one of these three, but we don’t know which one.” I’ve gone to a psychiatrist, and they pretty much say the same thing, “I don’t know which one you have. But here’s Strattera, and it will help you with all the symptoms you’re having.” But they don’t diagnose me with anything. As far as I know, I’m just hyper and try to concentrate on eight different things at once.
Editor’s Note: Paul and Julie also shared thoughts on what kinds of support Fort Hood should put in place for soldiers and families, as well as what they see happening amidst the drawdown.
JA: There need to be checks and balances. If you have a problem with somebody, there needs to be a way that that person’s actually going to see some retribution. Everything that Paul’s been through, there is never follow-through. Except if a soldier does something. If Paul messed up, if he was late one day, you can bet they would drag him out and take away his E-5, or something. But it seems like the higher up you go in the military, the less you can be touched, and the more you can control, the less you can be touched.
Like, Congress has to demote an E-7 to an E-6. No one in the Army can demote an E-7. And every time I have a problem with someone who’s an E-7 and I go to the commander, he pretty much tells me the same thing. “Well, leadership positions change all the time. Just wait until they’re gone, because there’s nothing we can do.”
With the drawdown, I’ve seen a lot of people come up for ETS, within a certain amount of time, and they’ll be given the option, “Do you want to get out three months early?” A lot of people get out three or four, or six months early. I’ve also seen a lot of people getting chaptered out. But it’s not for anything different than it normally was. Most of the people I see getting chaptered out, before the big drawdown, those people who came up hot for cocaine use, they would’ve been kicked out, in any other unit. They would’ve been kicked out immediately for cocaine use. But that unit decided to retain the soldier. They said, “Well, you know, he’s learned his lesson and he’ll be a good soldier from now on.”
Because we were about to deploy. And our unit had the same people for almost six years. We did not get one new soldier. We started out, when I got to that unit, with 50 people in the Motor Pool. We deployed to Iraq, and then we got back, and a lot of people either ETS-ed or PCS-ed, and we were down to maybe 30 people. And then we went to Afghanistan, and we came back, and a lot of people ETS-ed and PCS-ed. When I left, we had 15 people in a Motor Pool that should’ve had 50. And we still never got any new soldiers.
But that unit decided, we need soldiers, so we’re not gonna kick them out under any circumstance. And now with the drawdown, I’m seeing people get kicked out for spice and for marijuana, and for all the other stuff. So they’re not getting kicked out because they were late one day, or something like that.
…I’ve had several soldiers who have been diagnosed with something, they’ll be given sleep medication, and then they’ll just oversleep, and they won’t make it to the first formation. And then that soldier will get an Article 15, not after the first one, but after three or four times. I’ll talk to them and they’ll tell me, “I can’t sleep, so I’ll take my medication, and I can’t get up in the morning.” And with some soldiers, I’ve found out it’s because they’re staying up playing video games until midnight or two o’clock in the morning, and then they’re taking their sleep medication at 2am, expecting to wake up in four hours.
I do things on a case-by-case basis, good leaders do that. That soldier, I gave an Article 15 to. I told him, “Look, stop staying up until 2 am. You need to take your medication at eight, nine o’clock at night.” And on the times I came by to check on him, and physically watched him take his medication on time, those next days he got up on time, and he was always on time for work.
And then another soldier, I’ve seen him take his meds on time, he just still can’t wake up. I go knock on his door, I hear his alarm going off. I’ll call him on the phone, his phone doesn’t wake him up. I’ll have someone go get me the master key, so that we can go in, because at that point we don’t know if he’s in there dead. So I’ll tell him, “Look, I need to know if he’s alive. You need to go get the key, and unlock this door now.” After I fight with them, they’ll open the door and we’ll find him in there, asleep. His medication’s just knocked him out. And then, the leadership says, “Well, you need to counsel him. He needs to be Article 15-ed.” And it makes no sense to me why you would Article 15 someone for a health condition. But some leadership will still do that, and instead of saying, “Okay, take him up to health care, find out if he needs a smaller dosage, or find out what’s going on.” They don’t want to fix the soldier, they just want to get him in trouble.
The Army has good leaders in it. Like, I consider myself to be a good leader. I’m proud of what I do, I enjoy taking care of soldiers. I feel like I make a difference in peoples’ lives. There are other NCOs who do that, and I feel like the Army is just so screwed up, I am tired of having to go through what I go through. I get punished all the time, for fighting uphill battles to try and take care of them. So much that I don’t want to be in the Army anymore. I’m just fed up with it. And then all these other soldiers now are stuck with the NCOs who don’t care. They’re here for a paycheck.
…There’s no reward for taking care of soldiers.
JA: Or even bettering yourself. Him going to school is an imposition to them. They hate it. He has to beg to go to school. In four years, he’s only gotten a couple credits of school.
And the Army’s all about, “Join the Army, and we’ll pay for your school! You get 100% tuition assistance!” And then, you get to where you’re not deployed, and you’re back here, there’s nothing important going on, there’s no time for you to go to school.
…The Army doesn’t really recognize anything more than, “Sign for three million dollars worth of stuff, and don’t lose it. And if your soldier’s late, write him up. And don’t let anyone die.” Those are the only qualifications you need for the Army to think that you’re an outstanding Non-Commissioned Officer. And there are people who do that. They do the bare minimum.
And a lot of them don’t even counsel their soldiers. Soldiers will show up late, and they’ll just have him do push-ups, or they’ll yell at him. Nobody cares about your personal life. They want you to leave that at home. I had one soldier whose grandfather died, and just because she had had maternity leave, they didn’t want to let her go on leave to her grandfather’s funeral… I said, “Her grandpa wasn’t dead when she was on maternity leave.” So I had to go above her head, and talk to the commander. I got her leave approved, and she went on leave, and then I got in trouble.
JA: I know this sounds bad, but I’ve begged him just to take the easy way. I’ve said, “Just don’t care about your soldiers. Don’t go in. Don’t pick up that phone call. Please don’t do that.” We have no family time. Extra stuff around the house is done by me. There is no husband in this house 90% of the time. It probably is really easy to go, “Okay, I don’t care anymore.” We’ve met a lot of his first sergeants, and they’re mean people. They’re just mean, nasty people. It’s almost like they’re purposefully wanting to hurt you. And I can see why. I can see how climbing up through the Army will make you mad, all the time.
Editor’s Note: In closing out the interview, Paul and Julie spoke about what there plans are for after Paul’s ETS.
We plan to stay here, because we like the house we’re at, we like the school that our daughter’s in. I have an application in right now for State Troopers. I don’t know why I wouldn’t, but if I don’t make it into the State Troopers, then I might try to apply to work on an oil rig.
JA: We’ve talked about him going officer. They make that information unbelievably unattainable. Besides the fact that he hates the Army now. He absolutely hates it. But we’ve talked about going Officer, because it’s a different side of the Army, and we’ve heard it’s better, and enlisted is just crap. And he has his Associate’s now, and he can go green to gold. But there is literally nobody to talk to about that. Nobody wants you to be promoted. Nobody wants you to change sides. Everybody wants you to stay on the enlisted side, because you’re so much cheaper.
…There is a surprising amount of Officers that were prior enlisted, but I did not know that until my brother went from an E-5 to an O-1. He tells me Officer life is so much better, so much easier. And you make SO much more money. It’s ridiculous how much more money Officers make, for the little amount that most of them do. Some put in a lot of work, just like NCOs. I think my brother is a good Officer.
I think that’s probably him used to being an NCO. That’s how he learned the Army, was taking care of soldiers. But as a part of that, though, if they were prior enlisted, all of their retirement time from the enlisted side carries over.
Editor’s Note: We followed up with Paul in 2014, and after several months of life away from the Army after his ETS, he had decided to go back as an officer. He was studying criminal justice and working as a handyman when he was well enough to do so. His wife was in nursing school.
He had applied for VA benefits for his head injury, but since there had been no CAT scan when he was injured in Afghanistan, his injuries were difficult to substantiate. Additionally, he had had a difficult time getting appointments to follow up on his head injury once back at Fort Hood. He had been shuttled between primary care and mental health and ultimately an off-post sleep specialist. He was prescribed medication but never diagnosed. Ultimately, he decided to wait and seek care once he was out with the VA, but the lack of diagnosis from the Army compounded his difficulties receiving a disability rating. Once out, he found that he had to travel long distances for VA appointments, which were just as difficult to come by as medical care in the Army had been.
He had filed VA claims for depression, ADHD, his head injury, back and knee pain, nerve damage in his right hand, and chronic bronchitis. He was awarded 30% for PTSD and ADHD on account of his combat action badge. He said some of his symptoms had improved since leaving his unit, because of the stress from negative leadership and the constant overtime hours that had been demanded of him.
Still, the combined income from unemployment and the 30% disability he was granted meant he was bringing more home than when he had been active duty, and that was a relief. Since he had not been able to receive a decent disability rating, he was considering re-joining as an officer after finishing school. Though he described feeling let down by the Army and his command after being passed over for a long awaited promotion after eight years of service, he had high hopes for life as an officer. His brother, who had first enlisted and later become an officer, had described officer life as a relief from constant subjection to impossible demands.