Treatment of Ten Campaign Extension Until Memorial Day, May 28, 2018

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Guess what?

Because of you, the Treatment of Ten fundraising campaign is becoming a success.

We’ve raised almost enough funds to send one Combat Veteran to our medical facility in Idaho so that he can receive the treatments and therapies that he needs. Now, we need to send the other nine!

To do that, we’ve extended the campaign until Memorial Day because we’re determined to follow Hack’s “orders” to take care of his men and women who are forever on the tip of the sword, whether it be physically when in combat or mentally when at home. These ten Broncos whom we’re committed to help heal are struggling with Traumatic Brain Injury and /or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder here at home, constantly reliving their tours in Iraq!

I’ve been reading some statistics, old and new that have re-broken my heart:

• About 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (or 7-8% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives. About 8 million adults have PTSD during a given year. This is only a small portion of those who have gone through a trauma. About 10 of every 100 women (or 10%) develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about 4 of every 100 men (or 4%). Learn more about women, trauma and PTSD. (https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/ptsd-overview/basics/how-common-is-ptsd.asp)

• Two-thirds of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in one major sample had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — a much higher rate than in earlier cohorts of homeless veterans, who have PTSD rates between 8 percent and 13 percent, according to a study in press in the journal Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research. (http://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/03/ptsd-vets.aspx)

• For many service members, being away from home for long periods of time can cause problems at home or work. These problems can add to the stress. This may be even more so for National Guard and Reserve troops who had not expected to be away for so long. Almost half of those who have served in the current wars have been Guard and Reservists. (https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/ptsd-overview/reintegration/overview-mental-health-effects.asp)

• Another cause of stress in Iraq and Afghanistan is military sexual trauma (MST). This is sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that occurs in the military. It can happen to men and women. MST can occur during peacetime, training, or war. (https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/ptsd-overview/reintegration/overview-mental-health-effects.asp)

• One early study looked at the mental health of service members in Afghanistan and Iraq. The study asked Soldiers and Marines about war-zone experiences and about their symptoms of distress. Soldiers and Marines in Iraq reported more combat stressors than Soldiers in Afghanistan. This table describes the kinds of stressors faced in each combat theater in 2003:

• Soldiers and Marines who had more combat stressors had more mental health problems. Those who served in Iraq had higher rates of PTSD than those who served in Afghanistan. (https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/ptsd-overview/reintegration/overview-mental-health-effects.asp)

• Thousands of men and women continue to risk their lives in the United States military to protect the freedom of citizens like me. Their psychological and physical well-being of every human being is important. It is particularly important to care for those who get injured while protecting all of us. Why not reach out and help us today to at least take care of our first cohort of 5 who served and sacrificed.
(https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/curious/201409/11-reasons-combat-veterans-ptsd-are-being-harmed)

Let’s keep the needle moving. Please give today to help send the Broncos to Idaho.

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Vietnam Combat Veteran Brian Delate Goes Back to Move Forward

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The post that follows comes from my dear friend Brian Delate who I first met in 1996. We were at a party at my daughter’s house, as Brian’s late wife Karen and my daughter were in graduate school together. I was immediately taken with both Brian and Karen, it was hard not to be. They were attractive and warm, funny and smart and they both loved movies, a passion we shared. Brian and I soon realized that we shared another passion, a commitment to helping veterans heal from the invisible wounds of war. As a Vietnam veteran, Brian knew, respected and came to love my late husband Hack and he always told me that if SFTT ever needed support, he would help us — and the veterans we strive to heal — in any way he could. In honor of Treatment of Ten, I asked Brian to write a piece for us. And he did. Beautifully and poetically. Thank you, Brian.  ~ Eilhys England Hackworth.

It is January 2013 and I am back in Vietnam as both an American Combat Veteran and a writer/performer of MEMORIAL DAY (when remembering makes you want to forget… and being forgotten makes you want to die…), a one-man show I enact.  In each performance, I must step into the limits of human experience, which for me is my time spent as a warrior in a specific war during a specific year: 1969-70.

I had visited Vietnam the year before.  In 2012, I stood on the hallowed ground, where death once danced wildly with (my) life, realizing that my invisible wounds of PTSD needed deeper exploration. I broke away from the group I was traveling with in Hanoi to spend 24 hours in Chu Lai – my area of operation where thousands of my fellow American soldiers were also stationed.  To “go back” was a challenge because as we all know Life Goes On. Or tries to. Once in Chu Lai, I saw some old hangars that are dormant, but now resemble something out of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. The runways that were vibrantly active in 1969 are now barely discernible. In another few years they won’t be visible at all.

Now, in 2013, I am back in and around Chu Lai, with a driver, a translator and a cameraman. We drive around kind of hit-and-miss on different roads to see what I could remember. I forgot how very beautiful the beaches are. And for whatever reason, they are completely empty of people and development.  This absence intrigued me; what was I expecting? Wanting? Looking for, exactly? Life going on, perhaps?

We are on a mission of sorts. I had brought with me a snapshot of myself standing on a particular beach in a very striking cove-like area where I and another soldier saved a drunken infantry guy from drowning. In so doing, we all almost drowned. Very scary. I never imagined one of my near-death experiences during the Vietnam War would involve drinking and the ocean.

 

Having found the cove, my companions give me some time near to reflect and pray for all those who did not survive — and now, to my own surprise, I include the former enemy, the Vietnamese, their families, and their communities.

Believe me when I say how totally unthinkable this sentiment was at one time; I am surprised at my own compassion and ability to forgive.

At the end of this particular day in 2013, I stayed at a beautiful old Inn near Chu Lai for the night where I met an older, very fragile and very friendly Vietnamese man, who was one of the few Vietnamese I have met who admitted to fighting the communists. He expressed in very broken English the horrible aftermath for him and his family.  We connected emotionally, and at one point, he held my hand firmly, wept a little and thanked me for visiting. He then sent “good wishes” to the Americans.  This was just one “memorial moment” I experienced on my MEMORIAL DAY trip.

Days later, I complete two performances of my show with a singular astonishing result.  Once was at the University of Hanoi — college kids are college kids — meaning that they really do not care about the war. As they say repeatedly, “We’re tired of hearing about that war.”

In the other instance, we visited the Veterans Association of Vietnam (VAV) which is a high-level government agency with a new leader who can veto my performance in a second. In short, the stakes were high for me to knock their socks off.  The head of this agency was a Lt General (one of their war heroes) and he had three other senior officials with him along with our central government ‘minders’ and a couple of important representatives from the USA/Vietnam Society.

I got to do about 12 minutes of MEMORIAL DAY and it landed pretty powerfully on these men and women — they really got it. When I first met the General, we shook hands politely and we nodded. After I finished the piece, he immediately stood up, came over to me and, with great vigor, shook my hand hard. He then looked me in the eye and kept touching first his heart and then my heart with his fist, saying, through the translators, ‘We identify with the humanity.’

This surprised everybody. The other officials followed suit and the formalities disappeared and a load of personal sincerity and even some humor dropped into the room. My new friend on this trip, Pete, a former infantry captain, gave me a single line review — ‘You’ve got balls, man.’

A day or two later, we are at the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, where we would interact with a combination of their psychologists, veterans and students. Initially, there was the time-consuming formality of introductions and translations back and forth. Then Dr. Edward Tick (our leader and author of War and the Soul) gave a smart and informed speech, addressing what is known and has been gathered from both sides, with regard to the aftermath of the Vietnam War that took place here so long ago.

I sat next to one of their psychologists, also a Combat Veteran from circa 1970. He made very clear that everybody in his world (family, friends, immediate community, et al.) was involved with the fight against America. What really got my attention was how they dealt with returning soldiers. The family and the community shared the burden even more than the government.

There was an instance during the talk where one of the students questioned Dr. Tick’s assertion of the value of bringing American Veterans back to Vietnam — returning them to the scene of their trauma.

Dr. Tick has had tremendous success with helping hundreds of Veterans trust the healing benefits of one’s community and spirituality along with these kinds of “going back” visits.

I spoke up at this point because I was here last year in 2012, and at that time, instead of feeling some immediate kind of transformation, relief or release, I fell back into re-living many of the fears I had had during the war. I ended up re-experiencing some of the trauma versus working through it or purging it.

Let me explain.

While I was in the city of Hoi An in 2012, I was sitting in a very beautiful dining room at a very elegant hotel with my wife Karen.  We were having breakfast and a young waiter walked by.  He and I made eye contact. Immediately, an emotional tumor (as I have come to call them) erupted and I couldn’t stop it wailing. I had to get outside of the hotel in order to regroup.

Quick back story: As a young sergeant in 1969, after coming off of a rough night with my squad and not having slept for some time, I got into it with a young Vietnamese man.  We called them Cowboys. They were really just thugs — he spit in my direction and I went into a berserk rage and proceeded to beat him, almost to death. At one point, I left my body and felt like I was watching somebody else commit this violence. Finally, I could not pick up my arms to punch anymore, but this Cowboy kept trying to spit in my direction, even with one eye unattached and literally coming out of his head. After my maniacal behavior, I experienced another layer of deep self-loathing.

Anyway, back to 2012 and the hotel in Hoi An: After I was able to regroup, I went back into the dining room, sat back down with Karen and spoke about what had happened. As we continued to sit there, the same young waiter came by, smiled and asked me if I wanted more tea. This time nothing happened — we made eye contact once again, but in this instance a guilt-ridden memory was rapidly evaporating. It was like that scene in the film The Mission, where the DeNiro character endlessly drags his armor around as a form of punishment or penance, for having killed his brother. A native cuts the rope connecting him to the armor and he is free.

In that moment, after being triggered, re-living my trauma and then returning to breakfast, I experienced a significant purging that, in my opinion, would not or could not have taken place had I not been actively seeking more Meaning and Truth or Seeking what was Missing. I was replacing an old memory with a new memory, an important component to Healing.

In one of my last days in Vietnam 2013, I get to present a sample of my play at a Writer’s Conference with over a hundred Vietnamese writers and veterans in attendance. Some of what I present in the play does not need translation — it is a combination of specific movement with music that shapes a narrative of what it is like to prepare for combat, engage in that combat situation and then recover from combat. I use the overture from Tannhauser by Wagner, the music representing the sacred and the profane aspects of what Combat Warriors endure.

I want to mention that PTSD is a collective wound and a soldier/Veteran cannot carry that wound alone. If they try to, they will either collapse or the damage to the individual will never be healed and the casualties and hurt will continue to accumulate, affecting their family, friends, colleagues and community.

And lastly, the Greeks had this interesting insight on the — ‘Definition of Happiness – which is making full use of your powers along the lines of excellence.’ That does not mean living in any kind of perfection, but it is about living and living fully. That is what I am doing now and I am here to help my fellow Combat Veterans do the same thing.

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Leaving No Warriors Behind

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We’ve got great news!

We recently kicked off TREATMENT OF TEN, a very important fundraising campaign hosted by YouCaring, which helps treat Combat War Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I know that my late husband David “Hack” Hackworth would be very proud of our collective good work to “leave no man behind,” as he used to say.

Why TREATMENT OF TEN?

 Because our goal is help 10 Combat War Veterans regain the will to live. Invisibly wounded warriors such as those suffering from TBI and/or PTSD are 25 times more likely to commit suicide than their Veteran peers. So far, the VA and DOD have provided few effective treatment options at the national level for the majority of those afflicted with the physically and emotionally crippling side-effects of either brain trauma or PTSD.

With each $15,000 we raise, we can send ONE soldier to a residential facility in Idaho where each sufferer of TBI and/or PTSD will receive an innovative multi-modality TBI and PTSD treatment program that’s already restored our Director of Veteran Affairs, MAJ Ben Richards to “active duty” as a husband, father, PhD student and community member.

Together, we can send 10 Vets by May 4, 2018, the 13th anniversary of Hack’s death and the 20th anniversary of his legacy foundation, Stand for the Troops (SFTT).

That’s why we’re asking you to take a “stand for the 10 Broncos” who served in Troop 1-14 CAV during combat operations in Iraq under Ben and sustained brain injuries after hitting IEDs (improvised explosive device) or being attacked by IED-laden vehicles.

TREATMENT OF TEN combines most of the medical and alternative therapy protocols that SFTT has vetted and been supporting for years – from hyperbaric (HBOT) to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (iTMS) to equine therapy to Low-Level Light therapy (LLLT). But we hadn’t developed a way to facilitate the treatment plan in one location.

Until now.

Click here for more information on our TREATMENT OF TEN initiative and how you can help us help those who served.

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Thank you Rachel Maddow

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I would like to thank Rachel Maddow not only for honoring my late husband Colonel David Hackworth, on October 17, but also for honoring all fallen soldiers past and present as well as their families.

As I watched the opening segment of Tuesday’s The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, I was so deeply touched I had chills, then tears in my eyes. I didn’t know that Hack would be featured and I wasn’t prepared for Rachel’s heartfelt recounting of my beloved husband’s years of service to our country and his troops. He served in more wars than anyone his age should have and he did so brilliantly and proudly. And when he left the military, he never really left. His network of everyone from military brass to grunts was extensive, with new “recruits” calling him almost daily to find out how they could help him “stand for the truth” while supporting the troops – with more than lip service.

This number of veterans whose lives Hack touched still astounds me. At Stand for the Troops the foundation Hack and I founded, we receive emails, tweets, Facebook posts and letters from servicemen and women worldwide who remember Hack’s legacy of getting to the truth behind the “story,” whatever that narrative was and how that it was spun. From Rumsfeld to better armor for desert combatants, David made sure the media “got it right.”

While listening to Rachel, I was hearing a journalist with similar integrity and determination. A reporter who night after night, just as Hack did on Larry King post 9/11, has the same commitment to viewers: to ask difficult questions and demand answers. So it was last week when Rachel spoke about how we honor those who volunteer to die, sustain injuries or endure a lifetime of invisible battle wounds for all of us.

Every day at SFTT, we continue Hack’s desire to help living veterans suffering quietly from Traumatic Brain Injury, (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) find help. We’ve partnered with various treatment providers to deliver therapies that veterans say work far better with less side effects than those offered by the VA.

If you’d like to honor Hack’s legacy of fearlessly ferreting out the truth and helping veterans improve their quality of life, please contact us.

And thank you, Rachel, for remembering my husband’s heroism with such accuracy, tenderness and respect.

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Major Ben Richard’s at Bacon Brothers Concert

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Dear Friends,

Major Ben Richards New York Times

This is to reintroduce the amazing Major Ben Richards, a true hero for our time and an amazing American.  He led his men bravely and nobly in Iraq, then returned home only to have to continue fighting for his mental, physical and emotional health.  Which leads to my painful confession:  I read the NY Times – and first encountered Ben in a powerful op-ed piece by Nick Kristoff that spoke to the terrible truth:  22 Vets commit suicide every day.  I beg you to stop and think about it.  We are talking over 7300 American heroes a year killing themselves as a direct result of their service to our country.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I read about Ben Richards; I quickly reached out to Ben as soon as HBOT (hyperbaric oxygen) expert Dr Paul Harch agreed to pro bono treatment for Ben; based upon the miracles I’d read that Dr Harch achieved in his self-financed clinical trials treating Vets, I had a very strong feeling he could and would help.

Ben wisely went off to New Orleans for immediate treatment – thanks here to both Dr Paul Harch and his wife Juliette Licarini as well as a group of New Orleans area West Pointers who answered our SFTT President General John Batiste’s plea for housing and ancillary support donations.

After two sets of 40 HBOT dives (plus about 8 more on an as need basis), Ben, as a result,  has begun to reclaim his function and his life to the point he can write about it below.

And in fact, he is joining John and me in Washington, DC on stage at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium next Saturday, March 22, at 7pm where General Pete Chiarelli, former Army Vice Chief of Staff, will present him with the Purple Heart for his invisible TBI wound at the beginning of an incredible show headlined by  the wonderful bluesy rock of The Bacon Brothers (Kevin and Michael Bacon) Band, super comic Jim Breuer’s zany lovable humor, and the talented gifts of Buskin (my adopted bro and show-runner) & Batteau, Bucky Pizzarelli & Ed Laub and Tom Prasada-Rao.

All volunteering to benefit SFTT’s lifesaving work!

Tickets are purposefully very reasonable – we want all our present and future friends and supporters and those who might need our help to join us.  And if price is an issue, please do get in touch with Maura at sftt.org and we’ll try to help.

Over,

Warrior’s Widow

An Update from Major Ben Richards

It is dark outside now. Farrah and I have completed another evening’s bedtime ritual of teeth brushing and story reading. Our four children are finally all in bed. I am in the room in our home appropriately labelled as a den. It is dark in here, too. The lights in the room are off. My computer screen is dimmed so that I can just make out the words as I type them. There is a lamp, but I only turn it on when necessary and then only as long as needed.

The most proximate reason this self-imposed blackout is necessary is the three windows on one wall of the room. In daytime these windows offer a therapeutic vista of the trees and flowering bushes that accessorize the front lawn, the fluttering American flag that garrisons a post over-watching the driveway and farther on the ubiquitous Iowan cornfields and the few houses and outbuildings on our semi-rural lane– a location where we selected to live because of its paucity of windows compared to a typical neighborhood. As daylight retreats, each evening the windows abandon their therapeutic role to assume a more pernicious part, picking at the lock to a disordered part of my mind where my demons lurk. The doctors call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTS). I call it Fear.

The problem is that at night I cannot see out of the windows but “they” can see in. “They” are sighting in for a headshot that will snuff out my life so quickly that I may never realize that I am dead. “They,” of course, do not exist. At least not today.  Not here.  The ordered part of my mind knows that, but there is a disordered part of my mind that I cannot convince. I have spent years working with professional assistance to persuade it, but that disordered part of me is still afraid.  Really afraid. A few times I have forced myself to stand in front of the window at night with the lights on in the room, silhouetted in the light for anyone to see, in a kind of self-imposed experimental exposure therapy. Like a game of chicken against myself. I always lose.  The sweat bears testimony.

They may not be here now, but I can assure you that years ago in a different place, they definitely were there.  It was a place where firefights were part of the daily commute, where there were more IEDs than STOP signs, more suicide bombers than taxi cabs, and wanna-be snipers pursued you with the persistence of a hunter stalking a prize buck.

I am not a particularly tough or brave person. A few years ago, I might have gone to great lengths to convince you otherwise, but I have had the privilege of knowing too many tough and brave men and women to now claim otherwise. One was my neighbor Vinny. A great man with a Puerto Rican heritage and a New York name, Vinny had served as a Force Recon Marine in Vietnam. Our adjacent homes backed into a few acres of woods. The occasional rain storm over the woods loosed the disordered, dark places in Vinny’s mind– unhealed by the decades– where the memories of mortal danger and survivor’s guilt mingled with images of monsoon-soaked woodlands.

Unlike Vinny, most of my traumatic experiences were set in the large cities of Baghdad and Baqubah. Woods and rain have no effect on me, but I struggle with windows. Every day for months I was surrounded by hundreds of windows, each a possible firing position for an al Qaeda or Jaysh al Mahdi terrorist. Almost every day we engaged in firefights with the often unseen insurgents behind those windows. So at night, safe in my own home, I still feel compelled to slink around the windows, often standing aside while closing a blind or curtain before moving across a room.

I admit to having been afraid before. There have been times when the my higher brain functions have been laid under siege by the nearby buzz of an angry swarm of AK near misses intermixed with the drumming staccato of machine gun fire against my Stryker’s armor and punctuated by the occasional sharp cracks of the high velocity bullets from Russian-made sniper rifles. Fear would begin to immobilize my limbs and freeze my ability to think.  For weeks after a suicide bomber exploded a sedan filled with explosives against my Stryker armored vehicle, I felt my knees weaken to the point of failure every time we drove past the site where the attack took place. Too many times I watched one of my troopers consumed within an explosive mushrooming pillar of burning black smoke and flame and been seized by the nauseating dread transmitted by the silence on the radio as I prayed for just one more miracle.

I was surprised to discover shortly after returning from Iraq that fear had found a way to follow me home. Fear had visited so often in Iraq that it had secured a foothold in my mind by disordering a part of my brain. The disordered parts of my brain still wanted me to be afraid of things– like windows– that the more ordered parts of my brain knew were no longer a threat. It didn’t help that a suicide bomber followed by another IED hit a few weeks later and had blown holes in my brain, severed neural pathways and substantially degraded my brain’s ability to deescalate the continuous onslaught of phantom threats.  A damaged brain left my mind unable to processes and evaluate the myriad of people and activities of daily life going on around me that the disordered part of my brain insisted were still threats.

Worse than the fear that accompanied personal danger was the terror I felt every time I heard the explosions of IEDs or rocket-propelled grenades followed by a rapid crescendo of small arms and machine gun fire indicating one of my platoons was in yet another firefight. I stare at the radio dreading a radio call reporting another one of my soldiers killed or wounded. The memories keep me awake late into the night when my non-visual senses come alert to intercept and evaluate every noise on guard against a threat lurking in the dark or the distant sound of battle.

My Troop occupied a small combat outpost. The concrete protective walls were not tall enough to block direct fire from every angle. The door of our home-made, plywood outhouse had several bullet holes in it. Mortar rounds occasionally landed inside the compound (fortunately the post was so small, most of them missed). At times we fought the enemy from our own walls.  We slept with weapons loaded and by our sides.

When fleeting sleep finally releases my mind from the battles of the past, the disordered parts of my mind create new ones to fight in my dreams. The scenery is pixelated by gruesome images I mentally recorded in Iraq. I have seen too many grotesque corpses.

There were the decomposing, decapitated victims of al Qaeda beheadings in Anbar. In Dora, there were the bloated bodies dumped in piles on the roadside and reeking in the summer heat. They were always discolored at the knuckles, knees and joints where the local Shiite militia/terrorists had used power drills to torture their victims in the basements of the neighborhood’s mosques before finally applying the drill to victims’ temples for the life-ending cut. In the upscale Baghdad neighborhood of  Adhamiya, there was a young man on the street in Baghdad with three bullets in his head, delivered only moments before by a US-provided 9mm pistol in the hands of Iraqi Army-uniformed Shia militiamen who controlled many of the Iraqi army and police units with the sanction and protection of Shiite political leaders. The “death breath” — actually the final exhalation as the cessation of life causes the lungs to collapse– makes a distinct sound that I can still hear years later.

In Diyala there was a block of body parts– the human detritus of an air strike I had ordered. Scattered among the homes and school yard were enough unique parts for at least seven people including a pale, lifeless face staring into the air attached to a dismembered torso with one arm and entrails oozing out from  where the hips would have been like a broken jar of grey fruit preserves. A street away I found a lone survivor lying on a floor carpeted with glass shards from the shattered windows  in the front room of an abandoned house. He was shaking and unintelligible from pain.  He was naked. His clothing had burned away revealing the third-degree burns across most of his body. His skin resembled a marshmallow that had caught on fire but then been quickly extinguished before being entirely blackened. I still think that the right thing to do would have been to shoot him in the head to bring a merciful end to his agony, but the law of war required me to subject him to further torture with no prospect of survival under the unskilled and callous hands of the Iraqi army medical evacuation and treatment system (and I am using the word “system” quite liberally here).

And then there were the bodies of our Fallen Heroes. They are sacred edifices in the ordered part of my mind. They haunt the other part.

Although the setting and imagery of the dreams changes, the theme is always the same- Fear. I am terrified by the dreams. The dream Fear is worse than the real fear. In Iraq I could control my Fear. In my dreams I cannot. I am not a warrior. I am coward. And I am afraid.

As I said, I am neither especially brave nor especially tough, but I was generally surrounded by men who were, so I often found it necessary to fake those virtues myself. My main ally in this deception, and probably the preserver of my life of on more than one occasion, was Anger. In the chemical pecking order of my mind’s chemistry,  Anger trumps Fear. I didn’t really recognize it at the time, but Anger put me back in charge. It enabled me to move my limbs, stand firm against fear and return fire.

I suppose Anger deserves my gratitude and appreciation, but it has become an unwelcome companion that I cannot persuade to leave.

Years later brain imaging revealed that the part of my brain that regulated emotion had also been physically damaged by the blasts I had survived in Iraq. The damage gave Fear more freedom in my mind at home than it had had in the combat zone. My friend and partner Anger was also on the loose, still ready to faithfully come to my aid whenever I felt I was losing control. The combination of a mind besieged by Post-Traumatic Stress and a brain substantially degraded by the damage from multiple “mild” traumatic brain injuries ensures those times are frequent and humiliating. The physical damage to my brain makes my mind resistant to, perhaps even impervious to, the contemporary “treat the symptoms” medical treatment protocols used by the DOD and VA.

The journey home  is taking much longer for me, and other veterans like me, than the day-long plane ride  that I thought would mark my transition from warrior back to husband and father. Unexpectedly, I have found the journey often feels too much like our combat patrols. I often feel  like I am under persistent and insidious attack by a domestic terror organization supported by our own government.  Like the terrorist I have battled before, the attacks have left a part of my mind disordered and ruled by Anxiety, which as far as I can tell feels awfully lot like Fear. This insurgent force calls itself the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Their personnel champion a perverted ideology best described as bureau-fascism– a belief system focused on preserving the prerogatives and privileges of the bureaucrat to the exclusion of personal and organizational accountability, public service, and competing  values to those of our American society such as the respect and gratitude the rest of our Nation shows to those who have served in uniform. Although mostly a medical organization, members are unbound by values or standards like the Hippocratic Oath– at least not when bureaucratic privilege is on the line.  “Delay, Deny and Hope they Die” are the tenants of their faith– Google it.

They use terror tactics including threats, intimidation and bullying. They operate in semi-autonomous cells that do not share information. They plan and conduct operations without regard to other cells while strenuously working to not give up any information or benefits to veterans without a protracted battle of attrition. They use this structure to ensure that the organization can never be compromised by attempts to make it accountable.  Like the shadowy insurgencies I fought in Iraq, there is no center of accountability where tormentors can be decisively engaged and brought to justice.

Is comparing the VA to terror groups like AQ fair? Perhaps there is an element of hyperbole, but one fairly made in the interest of truth and one which in no way understates the scale or depth of the problem.

I have never been as treated as poorly as I have by the VA. The problem extends beyond that frustrating maze of bureaucracy and paperwork. I left my first benefits appointment literally shaking with rage at how hostile and adversarial the doctor had been towards me. I have been bullied, threatened to have my benefits claims cancelled, denied needed care for wounds received in combat, accused of fabricating combat-related injuries that had been diagnosed by specialists and documented for years (note: the VA does not enter your military medical records into their record system nor does it provide them to your doctors and other health care providers, which in effect is the same as throwing them away). The way I have been repeatedly treated by the VA  has been  such a damaging experience that I can say without the slightest hyperbole that the Anxiety and Fear from contact with the VA is now worse than the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that has ravaged my life. Contact unleashes a chemical barrage that destroys the fragile armistice I have worked weeks using every tool and device six years of therapy, counseling and treatment have provided to attain .  Anxiety, Fear and Anger are unleashed again to stalk each other through the no-man’s land of my mind.

The VA is an organization where “Thank you for your service” is a taunt, not an expression of gratitude. As far as I can tell, no one is responsible for helping you. Chains of responsibility form an impossible-to-unravel Gordian Knot that protects employees not only from any obligation to help but also from any accountability for negligence, misconduct  or unacceptable behavior. Those employees that may be willing are not empowered to help you. One VA-employed “patient advocate” told me the only thing she could do for me was give the address and phone number of my congressperson. The VA works in secret and denies patients any access to the people making decisions about their disabilities and benefits. I feel like the VA is as much my ally as the Iraqi police unit my unit was “partnered” with in Baghdad that regularly ambushed our patrols with IEDs they emplaced next to their checkpoints, or the Iraqi Army unit I shared a Combat Outpost with that was controlled by the Shiite insurgent group Jaysh al Mahdi. I had to emplace a machine gun position directed within our combat outpost  just to protect my soldiers from our “friends.”

According to my wife:  “When Ben has contact with the VA, I notice immediate and continued emotional and behavioral effects.  He becomes noticeably agitated and emotionally distressed in the days leading up to appointments at the VA.  After appointments he is physically and emotionally drained as well as having heightened PTSD symptoms.  When representatives from the VA contact him for any reason including scheduling appointments, discussing treatment or to discuss/determine benefits, he also becomes emotionally distressed.  After contact with the VA, it often takes days, sometimes weeks for these symptoms to decrease.  As his spouse, it is very discouraging and frustrating to recognize that an agency that claims to help veterans is actually causing emotional distress and acerbating Ben’s PTSD symptoms.   It makes the process of getting benefits tiresome, frustrating and hopeless.  After witnessing Ben’s reactions to the VA and our struggle to get his deserved benefits, I clearly understand how so many veterans end up living on the streets or committing suicide.  The system brings on feelings of frustration and despair.”

Are there any good people at the VA dedicated to helping veterans? Yes. I know a few. I suspect there are many more of them, but I have seen no evidence that any of them can do anything about the sick organizational culture that rules the VA.

The battle to keep the disordered part of my mind in check has been a costly campaign, costly not only to me but also to the non-combatants that are closest and most important to me – my wife and family.  With PTSD there is still an ordered part of my mind that knows the moment of danger has passed. That part of my mind gives me hope. I can make myself stand in front of a window at night – at least for a little while – because that part of my mind knows that no one is out there sighting in on my head. I can wake up from a nightmare and ground myself to the present reality of my wife sleeping peacefully beside me. There is no grounding technique for the VA, however. The nightmare is the reality.

I have already had to fight al Qaeda. In some ways, I am still replucating fighting that battle – and my family and I take a little more damage each and every day that I do.

I do not understand why I have to fight the VA as well.

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