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.
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.