by Sandra Danderson
Way back in 1995 I was a young private in the 101st Airborne, my first duty station. There was an infantry soldier tasked out to our unit who could no longer perform infantry duties. He had been exposed to chemicals in Desert Storm and he was referred to by the young soldiers in my unit as “the walking dead.” The mystery surrounding this soldier kept most of us away from him. No one wanted to get close to someone who was facing their mortality.
However, I was assigned to this soldier and spent a good deal of time with him. I asked about Desert Storm. I asked about him. Whatever I asked, he’d simply smile and say “it’s all good.” I was in awe of this man’s bravery. He was a hero.
He died a couple years later. I never got the answers to my questions and thought I never would. Until now.
I recently spoke with another Desert Storm Veteran. This soldier was not exposed to the chemicals, but his issues, his reality is just as disturbing. Carlos Hernandez was on active duty from 1987 to 1991. He was “stop lossed” and deployed to Operation Desert Storm as a part of the ground invasion, out of Germany Task Force 1/41 – Mechanized Infantry 2nd Armored Division, which launched a ground campaign on Feb 24, 1991.
During this deployment six men from his unit died in combat operations. The emotional toll on a deployed soldier when a member of their team dies is overwhelming, mostly because there is no time to process what has happened. No time to mourn. It’s just not the right place or time, so you push it down deep inside of you and continue your mission. It becomes a motivational force.
For a soldier, the death of a battle buddy is the same as the death of an immediate family member. It’s the death of someone very close, a brother. You want justice. You work even harder and become even more determined to get the mission done. It’s all you have. At the time, you have to turn off emotionally. Anger protects us from underlying emotion, fear of death, sense of loss, lack of control. But there’s no manual for how to turn back on.
After rotation out of Desert Storm, Carlos was on a plane back to the USA, and was mustered out of the military within four weeks. No reintegration, no counseling, just a ticket home. That is where most movies and stories about soldiers end, but its actually just the beginning.
It’s a bitter pill because, for combat soldiers, the war rages on without you, and no one back home understands or can relate. Your Military Family, your support systems have all gone their separate ways, and civilians in their ignorance make judgments that amplify the issues rising from your innermost feelings to the surface. Nothing stays buried forever.
Carlos tried to live a normal life, to put the past behind him. But the anxiety, the heightened state of alertness, the anger would not be put aside. His body and mind would be triggered into in combat mode.
He tried to forget. But even if he could have, he felt different from the civilians around him because of his military service.
“I didn’t belong,” he told me. “You come home but home doesn’t feel like home anymore. Being called an assassin and a mercenary by someone I knew before enlisting was not even upsetting to me. It happened around 1995. Someone else was asking me about desert warfare and I, as always, was answering with very general and vague statements, having learned not to share stuff that will upset people. I didn’t say anything to the young man who said people in the armed forces are just paid mercenaries and will kill without thought. And how does it feel to be a paid assassin and a baby killer.”
Carlos went to Veteran Affairs to seek assistance for his paranoia, drinking, tendency to isolate, anger, and anxiety. He was evaluated for mental disorders. VA determined there was nothing wrong with him. Nevertheless, he couldn’t sleep. His emotions were raw and uncontrollable, and his eyes were constantly surveying his surroundings, looking for the threat his body was reacting to.
But the threat existed only in his mind, in his memories. He was not fine. He was not healthy. He was falling apart.
Carlos demanded counseling services and was told it would cost him $100 for the intake and then $80 an hour for the counseling, to which he agreed. Arriving for his first appointment, no one expected him, no one knew why he was there. His paperwork had been lost. Naturally, Carlos felt like they didn’t care about him, and that VA was not there to help him. This made him only more angry and reclusive.
Like so many others, he began using alcohol to cope, and his drinking progressively increased. Anything to dull his senses. He received DUI after DUI. He had gone from a hero to a danger to society.
There’s more. He received no veteran’s benefits and could not keep a job because of his mental state. His short term memory disappeared and his cognitive mental abilities deteriorated. Something as simple as answering “what is two plus two” became difficult, the answer elusive. Six years after Desert Storm, a fellow soldier sent him a small town New Jersey newspaper article stating that the true cause of death of the six men in Carlos’s unit was friendly fire, not enemy fire, as they had been told. Carlos read it in a newspaper, but you can read the official Army investigation reports that details these incidents at http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/du_ii/du_ii_tabh.htm, The Battle of Norfolk.
Over ten years, Carlos received four DUI’s, the fourth being a felony. News about his fallen brothers, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war, plus the war coverage escalated his symptoms dramatically.
And then a beautiful thing happened. A battle buddy who had gotten help finally intervened and guided Carlos to the Vet Center in Culver City, and to A.A. The Vet Center, which is not a part of Veterans Affairs, gave Carlos free counseling for his PTSD, and AA helped him overcome his dependency on alcohol.
Today, Carlos is functioning well, entirely drug and alcohol free. But due to his felony DUI, he is unable to obtain employment other than working as a handy man. He still receives no veteran benefits.
I asked Carlos what society could have done to help him sooner. His reply was simple. “I was out of control, but no one wanted to interfere. Being a combat veteran, you find that either people hate you and judge you, or they respect you so much they don’t want to offend you by suggesting you need help. I needed someone to talk to me without judgment, and to listen. Really listen. I’m not a baby killer and I’m not superman. I’m just a man. I believe soldiers get sick because we don’t have the tools to decompress upon return, the tools we need to process our emotions. Talking with soldiers and family honestly and open. Discussing the terror and fear we feel when we see human beings killing each other. Feelings of helplessness. To be in a setting where it’s OK to cry and to rage without worrying about upsetting others. This process has to be repeated over and over and over until the emotions triggered by the events in combat have “run their course” and no longer have as much force.”
Carlos was lucky to come through his return as well as he did. So many others are not as lucky. They need help. Are we as a society strong enough, caring enough to give it?
Many veterans are going thru issues such as Carlos. How can we help our veterans return home with a since of dignity? If you have information on programs that are available for our veterans returning home, please leave a comment.