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What Our Veterans Need and Deserve
“Thank you for your service” doesn’t help those struggling with the crushing weight of their combat experiences.
ON OCTOBER 7, 2001, THE UNITED STATES invaded Afghanistan—and I fell in love for the first time.
Like all first loves, the relationship was intoxicating. It was my generation’s big war, and I was determined to fight. I quit my civilian job and enrolled in graduate school to go through ROTC. In 2004, I was commissioned as a bubbling second lieutenant, deathly afraid the wars would conclude before I got to experience them.
Quickly, the Global War on Terrorism consumed my life. I trained relentlessly and read voraciously, consuming stacks of books on Iraq, Afghanistan, insurgencies, and terrorism. Nearly five years after September 11, I deployed to Baghdad and I was hooked. The camaraderie, the thrill of combat, and, most importantly, the purpose it provided were all-consuming.
Like many first loves, the relationship quickly overshadowed other aspects of my life. I tossed romantic relationships away at the first sign of them taking precedence over the post-9/11 wars. The only thing that mattered was winning, even though it became harder to figure out what that meant with each passing deployment.
Finally, the relationship became abusive. I kept giving, but all the wars did was take from me. I missed important chapters of my life. In 2013, between deployments to Afghanistan, my father suffered a stroke, and I missed the last six months of his life as I was fighting for a hopeless cause. In 2020, I deployed for the final time, leaving behind my pregnant wife. That last deployment, combined with the effort to rescue our Afghan brothers, nearly destroyed me. Watching Afghanistan fall apart while my country barely flinched filled me with rage.
Thankfully, at the twilight of my military career, I was allowed to take a knee. Luckily, I had an exceptional commander who blocked and tackled for me, providing me three months to heal before transitioning to civilian life, a blessing that most veterans never receive.
Those three months were the most trying of my career.
Ninety-six hours after relinquishing command of a 240-man unit, I voluntarily admitted myself into Strong Hope, a mental hospital specializing in care for combat veterans. In the blink of an eye, I went from a commander with near-dictatorial powers to having my every movement watched and every movement restricted.
It was the most humbling experience of my life. I’ll never forget what I saw.
Less than 1 percent of the American population shoulders the burden of combat operations across the globe. Far away from public view, at Strong Hope and other over-capacity military mental health programs, is the crushing effect of that burden—the human wreckage from America’s twenty-year war on terror.
On Strong Hope’s fourth floor, I began my path toward recovery. I was stripped of nearly all of my possessions so they wouldn’t distract me from confronting my demons. Fortunately, the other patients, all active-duty service members, provided me with support to finish the program—and I returned the favor. Nearly all of my fellow patients were combat veterans with multiple deployments. My roommate served 54 months in Iraq and Afghanistan, all on the front lines.
I listened to the stories of my brothers-in-arms and wept alongside them. Some told of holding in their arms their best friends as they died. There were no wise, poignant final goodbyes. Those only exist in movies. Usually, our friends were scared and with their last words cried out for their mothers.
Most suffered from survivor’s guilt. They raged against fate’s cruel twist. Behind closed doors, I cursed God for not taking me instead of my troops. Many wrestled with the inevitable mistakes made in war: civilians, especially children, killed in fire missions gone horribly wrong.
At night, it was common to hear screams from my brothers’ night terrors. I can still hear their cries in the dark, calling out for help for their dying friends. Those screams are a stark reminder of the price we paid—and will continue to pay for the rest of our lives.
Although my fellow patients came from different services and were admitted for various reasons, we all shared one problem: rage. Often, it was stoked by contempt toward American society for not helping us shoulder the burden. Sometimes, it was directed at incompetent commanders. Usually, it was for losing a friend in a conflict nobody seemed to care about anymore. Regardless of its impetus, we all had in common that rage.
While Strong Hope helped place my brothers and me on the path toward recovery, we still feel that rage. It burns deep inside of us—so deep even a month of intense therapy with world-class therapists can’t quite extinguish it.
Knowing the beast
“There’s a beast inside you,” bellows the reverend. “And you have to decide if you want to live or if you are simply waiting to die.”
I’m on the twelfth floor of Fort Eisenhower’s Medical Center, sitting inside its world-class traumatic brain injury (TBI) clinic, and this man is staring straight into my soul. Out of all the counselors, clinicians, and doctors who spoke to us during this four-week intensive outpatient program, the reverend is far and away the most incisive.
Over my career, I’ve heard numerous counselors talk about the effects of combat. Often, they use medical jargon that obfuscates reality. Others tiptoe around sensitive issues, hoping not to step on any landmines. A precious few can connect with their patients. But nobody has ever explained what’s going on inside of me so accurately before.
“When you deployed, there came a point when every single one of you made your peace with death. You looked death in the eyes and said, ‘You might come for me, but I’m still going to fight.’ But to accomplish that feat, you had to shut off your emotions. And you know why, right? Emotions in combat get you killed—and your friends killed,” he exclaims.
The other seven officers inside the functional recovery program nod violently in agreement. I’m not the only one with tears in my eyes. The truth laid bare is hard to hear but necessary for proper healing.
“Downrange, the only emotion allowed was anger. In fact, the military encouraged that anger. They nurtured it,” the revered bellows. “You loved that anger. Didn’t you?” he asked.
We all nod.
“Of course you did. It protected you and your friends. And life was simple there, right? You did the mission, you worked out, and maybe you wrote an email or spoke to your family occasionally. But the rest of life faded away.”
“I loved the simplicity. I miss it,” I interject.
“Of course you do. You were so good at it. You were successful in harnessing that anger. But then you came home—and everyone expected you to be the same again, right? The same loving and caring man your spouse fell in love with or who your kids longed for throughout your deployment. But that man ceased existing when you were downrange. Those emotions were turned off,” he thunders.
The reverend always spoke loudly about our anger. He matched our emotional level.
“So what happens when you get home? The only emotion that comes out is anger. The anger is exacerbated because your family moved on without you. It’s exacerbated because your fellow countrymen don’t understand the wars fought in their names. That anger causes those mood swings that can erupt in a moment’s notice.”
Some of my comrades’ spouses are here for this talk. They’re silent, but you can see the pain in their eyes. They’ve seen that beast in their homes before.
“So your spouse complains about the new you, about that beast. And what do you do? You retreat into a box”—he draws a box on the whiteboard—“and in that box the beast lives and breathes. You love that box. Because when you retreat inside that box you can let the beast out. That magnificent animal kept you safe downrange but your family doesn’t really appreciate him—and that infuriates you even more.”
“The only thing allowed in your box? Your friends from downrange who have their own beasts, and know your beast too. And who else? Jack, Jim, and Jose,” he states. “Ironically, I’ve had many spouses tell me they prefer it when you guys drink. You know why? Because that’s the only time you will let your guard down and show any emotions, even if it’s for a fleeting second.”
The reverend’s soliloquy lasted two hours. It was a tour de force that left everyone speechless.
But it was the ending that stuck with me.
“I’ve laid all this out for you,” he says. “But what are you going to do with it? You can either live with your beast and continue losing your family, or you can choose life. That’s entirely up to you.”
That beast, though, as the reverend said, kept me safe. He is my friend. I feel safe with him. I know that slaying that beast will be a herculean effort, which will require new, unorthodox treatments. And I’m willing to try anything to keep the beast at bay.
A new breath
I’m comfortable with violence. It’s like an old, cozy sweater on a cool autumn day. I’m not some modern-day Rambo. Truthfully, I’m a lousy shot. There are thousands of Iraq and Afghan combat veterans with more combat experience than me.
Nevertheless, after 1,500 days downrange, nearly all of it at the tactical level or advising host-nation security forces, I learned firsthand that combat is addictive—especially killing your enemy. Vanquishing medieval barbarians who take pleasure in brutalizing women is exhilarating. Violence becomes second nature—it’s an easy lever to pull to solve some of life’s nuisances.
And that is an enormous problem.
I can go from tranquility to violence quickly. That beast, the one I keep in a box away from the world, still needs to eat. I’m fully aware of this part of me, and it’s the reason why I often stay at home instead of mingling with civilians.
Not only do I self-isolate, but my wife has to keep a wary eye on me, too, while simultaneously caring for our 2-year-old daughter. It’s incredibly unfair to her. She’s done enough already.
I’ve tried everything to soothe the beast: a month in a mental hospital, intensive outpatient treatment, sobriety, meditation, rigorous exercise, prayer, journaling, and a balanced diet. None of it, however, has helped nearly as much as hyperbaric oxygen treatment.
In September, I spent nearly two and a half hours a day breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber. The science behind the treatment is beyond my comprehension. At a rudimentary level, it boosts the amount of oxygen the blood carries, resulting in increased neuroplasticity. What does all that mean in real life? I’m breathing in pure oxygen, and it’s helping my brain rewire and heal from multiple TBIs and a combined total of four and a half years deployed.
For the first time in a decade, I’m sleeping soundly with minimal nightmares. My energy level is through the roof. While I still get depressed, my valleys are shallower.
The Undersea Oxygen Clinic in Tampa is a first-class facility that treats patients from all walks of life, but, inevitably, combat veterans are overrepresented among its clientele. Luckily, a nonprofit organization that advocates for hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) for combat veterans is covering my expenses—and it is a godsend.
This is a common problem for nontraditional treatments. There’s mounting evidence that THC, MDMA, and psilocybin can help treat TBIs and PTSD. Again, the details of the science elude me, but if the point is to rewire the brain, it makes sense that psychedelics would help. But the VA and the Department of Defense will not cover these treatments, and the DoD will even discharge servicemembers if they use medicinal marijuana.
But the need is enough that a growing number of combat veterans are willing to try all forms of therapy to quell the beast. Not only have they earned it, but more importantly, so have their families, who have borne the burden alongside them.
Which is worse: a bunch of combat veterans doing drugs in controlled, medical settings so they can heal; or more divorces, broken families, homeless vets, addicted vets, and suicides?
Veterans Day 2023
In under sixty days, I will retire from active duty. My time has finally come to an end. While nervous, I’m excited to join the 7 percent of Americans who proudly call themselves veterans.
I’ve made tremendous progress over the past three months. My wife finally feels like she has a partner again. My daughter and I have formed our own bond. I enjoy spending time with her and watching her marvel at the world around her.
The beast, however, is not dead. Like thousands of my fellow combat veterans, the raw emotions from Iraq and Afghanistan still exist and bubble up to the surface occasionally. While I’ve learned to sit with my emotions instead of suppressing them, it will take years before I can fully extinguish the rage inside of me.
Although I’m ready for my transition, I look at my brothers- and sisters-in-arms and veteran friends with increasing nervousness. Most Americans likely believe that with the “forever wars” over, the military can finally take a breather. But they are mistaken. A smaller force is taking on a mission load similar to the 2000s and 2010s. Service members remain in harm’s way in Iraq and Syria, and they are warily eyeing other war zones—Ukraine, Israel—where American allies are now fighting.
Many are still reeling from the haphazard retreat from Afghanistan. It’s been over two years since those fateful weeks, and important questions remain unanswered. Could the thirteen American deaths in the mad-scramble retreat have been avoided? What about all the Afghan deaths? What about those whom we promised to help? The silence is deafening. While the formation of the Afghan War Commission is a welcomed step, we don’t need the commission to tell us that the Taliban’s victory caused immense moral trauma.
The lack of answers feeds our beasts. Righteous indignation ignites the rage. So, we isolate ourselves, further cementing the perception that we are strangers in our country. That rage and anger, fueled by substances and lack of purpose, has to go somewhere, leading many to jail, failed marriages, and radicalization.
The lack of accountability may help explain the service’s inability to meet its recruiting goals and the drop in public confidence in the armed forces. Even veterans and active-duty service members don’t want their families to enlist. It’s been two years since we left Afghanistan, but it’s still affecting national security.
Think of it this way: If we expect our military to out-fight, out-compete, and deter Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and a web of international terrorist organizations at the same time, we’re going to need to make sure that our military is healthy, cared for, and supported. The war on terrorism widened the gap between civilians and the military, but we can start to address these issues together.
This Veterans Day, let us begin an honest dialogue. Civilians must do better than just repeating “Thank You for Your Service.” (That phrase, intended as a kind of patriotic embrace, can feel more like a shove.) They must demand answers to what went wrong in Afghanistan and insist that we bring all of our Afghan allies home now. Active-duty personnel and veterans must be open to dialogue and step outside our close-knit communities. We must be vulnerable and tell our stories—all of them, no matter how ugly.
This country faces serious geostrategic challenges. There is a gathering storm on the horizon.
For now, the threats we face are serious, but not yet existential. We have some time—though maybe a short time—to close the civilian-military gap, to help my comrades quiet their beasts, and to improve conditions for the next generation who will answer the nation’s call.