After war, many veterans confront another battle

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have come home with psychological wounds. A master reporter tells their story


David Finkel
October 13, 2013 8:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Thank You For Your Service"

“ ‘I can’t pay my rent.’

“ ‘I ran out of meds.’

“ ‘I haven’t gotten my pay.’ ”

Patti Walker is reading the messages waiting for her at the start of a new day. She sighs. She is a big sigher, although that may come with a job described as “Soldier Family Advocate” on the business cards she hands out to soldiers, which also include the promise “for as long as it takes.”

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“He’s burned,” she keeps reading. “He needs clothes for the summertime.”

“His wife doesn’t speak English. How am I going to get her a job?”

She is a talker, too, and a hugger, and as Saskia once said of Amanda Doster, “She can put on the waterworks like that.” Unlike Amanda, though, who is defined so much by sorrow, Patti is defined by the stress of dealing with the problems of forty-nine wounded soldiers during the day and then going home at night to the fiftieth. This is her husband, Kevin, who was blown up in Iraq, lost an eye, lost some of his brain, lost most of his hearing, lost his sense of smell, has some facial disfiguration, has a long list of diagnoses, including PTSD and TBI, and among his many surgical scars has one on the back of his head that Patti has affectionately suggested looks like a penis, which may be why he prefers to wear a cap. There are two children at home as well, a young son who at one point seemed so confused by the sight of a fake eye that his father decided to stop wearing it, and a teenage daughter who one day announced that she wanted to dye her hair blue. “We’re not trash,” Patti said. “Why?” “So when we go to Walmart, people will stare at me instead of Daddy,” the daughter said. In Patti’s life, the wounded are everywhere, awaiting her answers, and her answer in this case was to let her daughter dye a small section of hair as blue as she wanted, and when blue hair didn’t merit a second glance at the Junction City Walmart, she let her change it to pink.

So Patti knows things about soldiers and their families and how they get better and don’t. “I think they all try, really, really hard,” she says, awe in her voice, and she gets to help them by having a job that she despises at the most elemental level—not the work itself but the need for it. “Why does my job have to exist?” she wonders.

It exists not only at Riley, but also across the country. There are, on this day, about eight thousand soldiers in the program Patti works for, called the Army Wounded Warrior Program, or AW2. They are the soldiers who have been diagnosed with the war’s severest wounds, and the primary diagnosis for about half of them is PTSD. The diagnosis, in other words, is a psychological wound rather than a physical one, such as amputation (11 percent of them), and to help in their transition to civilian life are a hundred or so advocates like Patti who make up one more layer in a growing army bureaucracy for mental wounds that stretches from a soldier’s homecoming, when he is presumed to be okay, to the WTB, where good endings are still expected, to an advocate’s office, where good endings are still possible, to the Gardner Room at the Pentagon, where all possibility is gone. The fear of a soldier’s killing himself is always there for Patti, and she does what she can to keep that from happening, by telling an employer, for instance, that yes the soldier he hired gets headaches sometimes, but the reason for the headaches is that he got rattled in an explosion fighting a war that most people in the country didn’t think about then and don’t care about now, and maybe, instead of only being concerned about his business, the employer could be so kind as to set up a room with some dark curtains for the soldier to rest in from time to time until the goddamn headache is better.

“Ya know?” she might tack on for emphasis.

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She says that a lot, because in all of Fort Riley, no one feels more about wounded soldiers than Patti, or takes it more personally, and sometimes what she feels is irrepressible anger over their raw deal—the high unemployment rate, the high rates of PTSD and TBI, the high suicide numbers, all of it. “I’m really happy that we’re so resilient, and I’m really happy that we’re doing so good,” she is saying one day, the sarcasm full throttle, the waterworks on the verge. As often happens with her, she is about to say something more, but before she can finish the thought, someone is outside her door knocking.

It is one of her forty-nine. His name is Brandon, and he has come with his wife to tell Patti that he can’t find work, none of the leads she was able to scrape together for him are panning out, they are almost out of money and are moving to Arizona, where at least there is family to fall back upon.

“You’re killing me,” Patti says to him.

“I’m killing me,” he corrects her.

He is a haunted-looking young man who, like most of the others, didn’t know what he was getting into, a good soldier right up until the end, when he was out on a mission to retrieve a blown-up Humvee in which two soldiers had died, and some rocket-propelled grenades landed close by and did him in. He came home and fell apart. His memory is sketchy and his dreams are bad. He knows he needs more counseling, and he has promised Patti he’ll get some, but what he wants most of all is a job. A liquor store showed some interest in hiring him, but he suspects he shouldn’t be around liquor. An airport shuttle company also seemed interested, but he doesn’t want to be driving a van full of people along roads that he sometimes imagines are lined with bombs.

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“We just want to get out of Kansas,” he says, a soldier defeated.

“How’s your marriage doing?” Patti asks.

“We’re doing good,” he says.

“We’re doing good,” his wife repeats.

And the way they glance at each other makes Patti see that they are doing good, that it’s everything else. They live in one of the shabbier apartment buildings in Junction City, their car has bad tires and broken windows, and they’re down to their last eight hundred dollars, which they’re going to use to fix the tires, fix the windows, fill up the gas tank, and get out.

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One thing Patti has learned is that the only thing left for her to do sometimes is wish people the best of luck and tell them she’ll stay in touch.

“As always, I’m proud of you,” she says. Brandon smiles at her.

“Hooray,” he says.

*

Now it is the wife of a soldier who comes to see Patti. He had deployed several times, lost three friends, blamed himself for one of them, and left the war for good after being shot in the neck, and some of what happened next is in his wife’s statement in a court file.

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“As soon as he got home,” he “really wasn’t the same no more at all,” she had written. “He was forgetting constantly even the real easy things like he would put laundry in the washer but then forget about it. He would turn the oven on and forget it was on and a few times he got the food in the oven but forgot about it being in there so I stopped him from using the stove and oven.

“One night we were in bed sleeping,” she continued.

I always sleep in my husband’s arms with my head on his chest. Well this night he started screaming “HELP” which I assume was from when he was shot . . . He was sweating badly and then he started choking me in his sleep. Finally something in him just released and he stopped choking me. He woke up to hearing my gasping for air and crying. He asked what was wrong and turned the light on. I told him he was choking me. He apologized many times and said he don’t remember choking me. But he could see the marks on me and the discoloration of my face and neck . . .

We tried to take a trip over to Topeka one day and we didn’t even get to make it all the way there . . . He started sweating profusely. He said to pull over he needs air and that his head was killing him. I pulled over into a gas station for him. He said he was burning up. When I looked over at him it looked like someone poured a big bucket of water all over him but when I touched him he was freezing . . . I said ok let’s go back home and as soon as I got back on the interstate he started shaking more and panicking and then passed out on me.

Her statement goes on for five pages. It includes twenty-eight examples of her husband’s behavior after he came home, and it is buttressed by other statements from other people also trying to understand what had happened.

“I trust him with my life and couldn’t ask for a better leader,” wrote the soldier who dragged him to safety after he had been shot. “He always upheld high moral values and made sure we did the same.”

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“I am one of his soldiers. I served this last deployment with him and he is the most squared away person I have ever met,” another soldier wrote. “I know he would never do anything to dishonor his family. He told me once that if everything is lost to always keep your honor. He believed in that very much.”

“. . . a devoted father and family man,” another soldier wrote. “When his son was born, he was beaming for weeks.”

“. . . he could not have done any of the crimes he has been accused of,” another wrote. “It is not in his character and it goes against all of the army values that he holds dear.”

A psychologist who examined him and diagnosed him as having PTSD with psychosis, major depression, and dementia wrote that he was “a very ill man who has deteriorated so much that he is now quite dysfunctional.”

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His defense attorney wrote in a motion asking for no prison sentence: “It was only after these multiple instances of physical and mental trauma that [he] engaged in the conduct for which he stands before the court.”

Finally, there was the statement of the victim in the case, who was his thirteen-year-old daughter. “I know that my dad was not himself, like someone had taken over him because he would never done something like this,” she told investigators, according to the court file. “He was always the one who protected us from things like this. When he had gotten back from Iraq wounded he has not been the same person.”

The charges all had to do with sex with a minor. Counts One and Two: “lewd fondling or touching of.” Count Three: “sexual intercourse.” The testimony, if the case had gone to trial, would have included what the daughter also told investigators, that while her father was in her bed, he kept calling her by the name of his wife. And the evidence included “a brown blanket and a Spiderman blanket” that were returned to the family after a plea deal was accepted on one charge of aggravated indecent solicitation of a child.

The terms of the deal were counseling, five years probation, and no contact with the family until the daughter’s therapist said it would be okay. That permission had come fairly quickly after the plea deal, and now the entire family was back together and the most heartbroken woman in Junction City has come to Patti’s office to tell her how things have been going.

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“Come in! Give me a hug!” Patti says, and listens as the woman says of her husband, “He’s doing good. He knows where he is, who he is, all the time.”

“What made the difference?” Patti asks.

“Meds,” the woman says, and then starts telling Patti about what a long road it has been, about the choking, about his running red lights, about his stopping in the middle of intersections and not knowing where he was. “He still keeps to himself,” she says. “He doesn’t go in any stores or anything like that. He keeps himself away from crowds. He doesn’t do crowds.”

“What was his home unit?” Patti asks, jotting notes.

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“Two-sixteen.”

“What company?”

“Oh, that’s a long-time-ago question,” the woman says, almost dreamily. She thinks about it for a moment but can’t remember and mentions instead that even though he was shot, he never got any medals or awards.

“I am so so sorry,” Patti says.

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“Yeah,” she says.

“So so sorry.”

“Poor guy,” she says.

“Regardless of what he did when he came home, he earned what he earned,” Patti says.

The woman leans toward Patti. She takes a breath and sighs. “It never happened,” she says.

Patti looks at her in confusion, wondering if she just heard what she heard.

“We told them about him trying to kill me in my sleep,” she says.

“They did nothing. We told them about him getting rough with the kids. They did nothing—”

“So he did not molest your daughter?” Patti interrupts. “No.”

“I thought he did.”

“No.”

“So you said this—to get help?”

The woman begins crying. Not loudly. Worse. Without sound. “I got the idea from Law & Order,” she says after a bit, and now Patti can barely hear her as she says that her husband was having constant migraines, his worst ever, and his doctor wouldn’t give him an immediate appointment, and she remembered a TV show where some people couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to them until they concocted a story about child molestation, so she called the doctor back and said her husband may have touched their daughter. She did it out of desperation, she says, and it all of a sudden got out of control.

The doctor told her to take her daughter to the hospital right away, the hospital took swabs, the police took statements, the blankets were confiscated, her husband was arrested.

And it didn’t matter that the blankets were clean, the swabs showed nothing unusual, and the daughter later said none of it was true, she says, because her husband was being told that he might never see his family again unless he took a deal.

So, she says, he took the deal.

Patti is dumbstruck. Could this be right, she is thinking—does this make any sense?—and then she realizes it makes no difference. He pled guilty. It’s fact. Just as it’s fact that he went to war and came home different, and he has a daughter, now sixteen, who whether she was or wasn’t molested is suffering lately from crushing headaches, and he has a wife who when she’s at work receives texts from him thirty or forty times aday.

“Do the kids have school today?” he texts. He has already texted this. She has already told him no.

“No,” she replies.

He texts about the children, about the weather, about dinner. Now that his medication is helping, she is allowing him to use the oven again, but she has to guide him through every step. Look in the refrigerator, she texts. Take out the box that says Stouffer’s. Turn on the oven to four hundred. Remove the covering on top. Put it in the oven.

Fifty-five minutes later: Take it out, and turn off the oven.

A few minutes later: Did you turn off the oven?

Those are her days.

As for her nights, because he needs to hold her to get to sleep and she worries that he will choke her, she has learned to sleep with his arms around her waist and her own arms wrapped around her head.

She demonstrates this.

“Are you getting counseling?” Patti asks.

“I did.”

“Now?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because they’ll keep digging,” the woman says, “and the more they dig I’ll break down, and I don’t have time to break down.” They’ve been talking for more than an hour now.

“Well,” Patti says, at a loss.

The woman thanks her for listening.

They’re done.

Excerpted from "Thank You For Your Service" by David Finkel, published in October 2013 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by David Finkel. All rights reserved.


David Finkel

David Finkel is a staff writer for The Washington Post and is also the leader of the Post's national reporting team. He won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2006 for a series of stories about U.S.-funded democracy efforts in Yemen.

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