Adsense for search

Custom Search

Monday, November 12, 2012

Iraq War Veterans Walk to Raise Awareness of PTSD, TBI, and Soldier Suicide

Chess Johnson had assured me on the phone, “You can’t miss us. We’ll be wearing bright orange shirts and carrying American flags.” And he was right.  Along with a reporter and photographer from KOMO TV, I watched for three men fitting that description as I waited at the Point Defiance ferry dock for the 12:10 boat. They soon appeared among the foot passengers from Vashon Island, who disembarked before the cars.

Sunshine illuminated their orange shirts, along with the red, white, and blue of three large American flags that fluttered in the chilly breeze. How lucky to get this break in the weather, I thought. Chess Johnson, Andy Britt, and Will Carroll are all Iraq war veterans who had spent the previous day, Veterans Day, walking 25 miles in the cold, hard November rain to take an important message to the streets. I learned about this walk from Sue Nebeker, the subject of my Veterans Day blog post about American Hero Quilts, and had given Johnson a call. At the dock, I spoke with him, and Carroll, while KOMO's Lindsay Cohen interviewed Britt as part of her story about the event.

“We’re marching from Bremerton Naval Base to Fort Lewis, trying to connect three branches that have posts here in the state of Washington,” Johnson told me, “bringing awareness of Posttraumatic Stress Diagnosis, Traumatic Brain Injury, soldier suicide, and over-medication of soldiers.” He said one of their main goals was to have civilians “integrating more” and doing more research on PTSD, noting that it affects everyone who knows the soldiers, not just themselves.
Post TraumaticStress Disorder (PTSD)—the same condition Johnson referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Diagnosis—and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are invisible wounds, but they are wounds just the same. Johnson has suffered it all. As he walked up from the ferry, I knew who he was at once because of the deep voice I’d heard on the phone and his missing right eye. He lost it while serving as a staff sergeant with Fort Lewis’ first Stryker Brigade (3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division) when a sniper sent two  bullets into his brain—one through his eye socket and another just above. The incident left Johnson with skull fractures, neuropathic pain, grand mal seizures, degenerative arthritis of the spine, and only partial sight in his one remaining eye. He also has PTSD, like Britt, and TBI.

Everything changed forever that day for this soldier. Losing his career, his uniform, and the personal life he’d known, to have all that replaced by both physical and emotional pain, plus financial problems (see KOMO news story from 2007) led to temporary alcohol abuse as a form of self-medication. Johnson wanted to stay in the Army. He wanted to keep wearing that uniform, to go back to Iraq, to fight alongside the soldiers he thought of as family. Fortunately though, life went on. Now, this soldier who has won so many commendations and decorations has a wife who encourages him and a new focus on competing in athletics, such as the 2012 Army Warrior Games. You can read his bio here. He has also been the focus of a documentary film about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, called Exit Wound.

One thing never changed, and that was his love of country and comrades.  Johnson says it best: “Really, all we’re doing is paying it forward. We feel honored that we were able to wear the uniform with the American flag on it and to fight for this country. We feel that a lot of people have forgotten about the sacrifices that have been made. To the veterans who have put that uniform on before us, we want to say ‘thank you.’ It means so much to us to be able to represent this country.
“And when we put these orange shirts on, the rucksacks, and the flags, we’re representing a bigger community, a veteran community, a disabled community, a community of Americans who are just so proud. So we walk because we can, and we’re able to. So many people just take that for granted. The first year that we were in Iraq, you wouldn’t have ever seen an Iraqi walking around, just doing what he chose. It’s a way to say we’re proud Americans. And we’re going to support our brothers who are currently overseas and the ones who will be coming home tomorrow.”

Carroll agreed. “It’s literally another family. It doesn’t matter what generation, if they were in any war they know exactly what I’m talking about.” Johnson and Britt planned the walk and then invited Carroll. He has issues resulting from his service overseas, and is still addressing them. Encouraging soldiers and their families to seek help is part of the walk’s purpose.

Carroll said the hardest problem he’s had is adjusting to civilian life again, after what he calls the military way of thinking. “We’re pretty brash and straightforward. On the civilian side, I really have to be way more aware of what I say and what I do. The civilian world is completely different.”

In addition to talking about emotional and psychological issues, I asked Johnson about something else returning vets may face: unemployment.

He said: “You take a medic who has served in the army, for say…ten years, who has gone on three or four or five deployments, who has put their friends back together, has had to patch and heal wounded Iraqi nationals or Afghanistan nationals… and they’ve done this for one year straight in a combat zone. They come back to America and they try to get a job as a medic. And they have to go through all the school as if they were just graduating high school. I don’t understand why the civilian circuit won’t give us credit for the knowledge we learn in the military. On-the-job training is the most valuable they could ever have and in a combat zone. But they are not allowed to come home and life a senior citizen who just fell and hurt their hip. To me it doesn’t make any sense.

Carroll brought up truck drivers and mechanics, and Johnson gave the example of an army truck driver who drives convoys in Iraq, “. . . getting blown up for twelve months straight. He comes home and he can’t drive a simple big rig down the road.” And he talked about military mechanics and certification. “They work on giant tanks, but they can’t work on a half-ton pickup.”

Lindsay Cohen from KOMO speaks with (L to R) Chess Johnson, Will Carroll, and Andy Britt

I wish I could have had the chance to speak more than a few words to Britt. But the sun went behind one of the clouds that had moved in, and the breeze felt colder. It looked like the rain could return. They still had many miles to reach the end of their journey, the brigade's memorial at Fort Lewis.
This Veterans Day weekend I avoided the malls and the sales and ended up with something worth much more than any retail bargain.  I’m glad I met these veterans and heard what they had to say. I'm glad I caught the sparkle and warmth in Johnson's left eye, heard his intelligent comments, witnessed his smile and determination, and engaged with him instantly in our conversation. But all the while, the empty eyelid on the right side of his face reminded me of his sacrifice.

I wonder how he and his comrades feel about the political battles  dividing our nation right now. At a time when the word “entitlement” has itself been made into a weapon of war, misunderstood and misused, some of his final comments still ring in my ears:

“A lot of people say that we are an entitlement generation. I think my generation is entitled to some things. We’ve supported two major conflicts in ten years. Our generation stepped up and said ‘We’ve got this, America!’ So I’m proud of my generation. I’m proud that we were able to defend our country.”

Copyright 2012 Candace J. Brown

Good Life Northwest now has its own Facebook page.

No comments: