Retired Marine Lt. Col. Dave Glassman brought two men to the offices of the Independent News. One, Elliot, was an Iraq War veteran who was missing his right leg. The other was his friend and mentor, Joe. Both agreed to talk with the paper under the condition of anonymity.
They came to talk about the high rate of suicide among veterans, particularly troops that have returned home from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We have 18 veterans a day killing themselves — 6,500 since the beginning of the year,” Glassman said when he set up the interviews. “We’ve lost more by suicide than combat over the last two years. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions.”
Joe made it very clear from the beginning that he wasn’t there to be interviewed, but to offer moral support to Elliot. “No one gives a shit about how much I know,” he said about his work with Elliot and his fellow veterans, “until they know how much I care.”
He wanted the focus to be on his 29-year-old friend, a corporal who was honorably discharged from the Army National Guard and nearly became an addition to Glassman’s statistics.
“Elliott is a real hero, but he’s going to tell you that he’s not a real hero because he came back alive,” said Joe. “He’s a real hero because he survived and for those guys who died he has taken on the responsibility of making his life worthwhile because they died and he didn’t. And that’s a heavy burden.”
Elliot sat, quietly looking down. He wore a gray t-shirt and shorts. He sat there handsome, athletic. Where his right leg once was there was a silver rod leading to a metal foot in a running shoe. On the inside of his left forearm was a tattoo. It was Arabic script. He said it read, “Death is only the beginning.”
TO LEARN TO BE A MAN
He began to tell his story. His voice was flat, but there were emotions bubbling underneath the narrative. He occasionally looked up, but most of the time Elliott looked to the side, remembering and seeing things from his past.
The southern Mississippi native joined the Army Reserve in 2004 to better himself. He thought the military would teach him how to be a man. “I had no idea what responsibility was at the time. The military taught me that. It taught me how to be strong, gave me self-esteem, gave me self-respect, gave me respect among my peers and my family. I started to gain this identity that I never had and that I was actually out to gain.”
After Basic and Advanced Individual training, Elliott came home in October 2004 to his unit in the 155th Armored Brigade of the Mississippi National Guard at Camp Shelby, south of Hattiesburg, Miss. “They said don’t even unpack your bags, because by December you’ll be in Iraq.”
Elliott stopped, gathered his thoughts. “There was a lot of stress in Iraq. “
That was an understatement. The week before Elliott was deployed USA Today published an article (“Rate of Guard Deaths Higher,” Dec. 13, 2004) that reported Pentagon statistics showed that part-time soldiers in the Army National Guard were about one-third more likely to be killed in Iraq than full-time, active-duty soldiers serving there. Yes, there was stress in Iraq.
“I was a SAW gunner escorting convoys from Najaf in southern Iraq to Fallujah and back,” he said. “When I wasn’t doing that, I was manning security checkpoints and gates for the bases–checking personnel and vehicles for weapons and bombs.”
He said, “You couldn’t come off your guard. As soon as you came off your guard, you heard so-and-so let their guard down and got evaporated by an IED (improvised explosive device).”
Elliott was talking about Sgt. First Class Sean Cooley of Ocean Springs, Miss. Cooley, also assigned to the 155th, was killed Feb. 3, 2005 when his vehicle struck an IED in the northern Babil province.
“I remember being afraid because it was just two miles up the road from the checkpoint I was on,” he said. “Fear crept in … just couldn’t relax, you didn’t want to relax.”
Elliott was doing his job at the best of his ability, but the impact of seeing his buddies in the unit die took its toll. “The more I saw the less attachment I put on life, because, you know, the more your feel that life is important, the more you hurt when somebody’s dead.”
Death could come any second. “That’s one thing that stuck out in my mind. Every time the odometer clicked a tenth of a mile, I thought that’s another tenth of a mile that I’m still alive.”
Elliott didn’t talk much about the injury to his foot, other than it happened on the battlefield when a tank ran over him and that it was “really horrific.” It’s the MEDVAC (medical evacuation) and the hospitalization that burned in his memories nearly as much.
“You’re there with guys you fought and bled with, became brothers with…falling apart, bleeding out, dying around you, the smell of infection, sound of moaning and groaning…”
At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Elliott’s leg was amputated. He was in the hospital with two soldiers from his unit.
“One lost both his legs, the other was blown out of his gun turret and his back was broken. The whole ward was covered with guys missing body parts, chunks of their flesh missing, stomachs wired with mesh…These sights happened over and over with different injuries, different disfigurements. I started believing that this wasn’t really going to be an open arms welcome home.”
Elliott got no counseling for what was clearly the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What he did get were prescriptions anytime he asked for them. “The painkillers told me that I didn’t have to deal with my emotions. I didn’t have to feel.”
PTSD: REAL OR JUST A ‘MENTAL THING’?
PTSD — post traumatic stress disorder — is an anxiety disorder that can occur after a person has been through a traumatic event. Often they feel their life or others’ lives are in danger. They may feel afraid or feel that you have no control over what is happening. According to the National Center for PTSD, many people who develop PTSD get better at some time. But about one out of three people with PTSD may continue to have some symptoms.
The symptoms of PTSD usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not happen until months or years later. There are four types of PTSD symptoms:
*Reliving the event: The sufferer may have nightmares or bad memories that are triggered by sound or sight. He may feel the same fear and horror he did when the event took place.
*Avoiding situations that remind you of the event: The person tries to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. He even avoids talking or thinking about the event.
*Feeling numb: The person has difficulty expressing feeling and loses interested in activities he once enjoyed.
*Feeling keyed up (hyperarousal). The sufferer can become suddenly angry, jittery or be always alert and on the lookout for danger. He has trouble sleeping or concentrating.
“In this country we’re still wrapped up in whether PTSD is real or ‘is-that-a-mental-thing?’” said Glassman, who retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in February 2010. He was the Executive Officer for the Marine Aviation Training Support Group (MATSG-21) at NAS Pensacola.
Since retirement, he has spent his energy with the Center for Strategic Military Excellence developing programming to benefit veterans located in the Gulf Coast region. He has helped with mental health issues stemming from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and substance abuse.
“No, it’s a ‘mental thing’ that’s caused by real damage to the human body,” said Glassman. “You don’t have to take a round to the head to suffer from PTSD. You can suffer from PTSD by experiencing long durations of fear.”
INVISIBLE WOUNDS OF WAR
More than five million American men and women have served in the U.S. military since 2001. Of those, approximately 1.6 million U.S. troops have been deployed for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq.
President Barack Obama calls them the “9/11 Generation” veterans.
Around 6,200 troops have died in combat over the past 10 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is significantly less than the Vietnam War (58,209) and the Korean War (53,686). However, the troops have been exposed to roadside bombs and other IEDs that injured over 41,000 soldiers.
For every U.S. soldier killed in World War I and II, about 1.7 soldiers were wounded. In Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, seven soldiers are wounded for every one who dies in combat. More wounded soldiers and fewer deaths may partially explain the rise in PSTD and suicides, since more veterans are returning home.
A study by the Rand Corporation found evidence that suggested the psychological toll of the 9/11 Generation soldiers, many of which have had prolonged exposure to combat-related stress over multiple rotations, may be even greater than the physical wounds. The researchers found that one in every five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans has symptoms of PTSD.
Over the last two years, more U.S. troops died from suicide than were killed by the enemy. Suicide rates across all branches rose over the same period by 35 percent. According to Veterans for Common Sense, the increased risk for suicide has been fueled by the deployment and re-deployment to war, improper denials for care, lengthy delays to see doctors, and discrimination against those seeking mental healthcare.
Lt. General Thomas Bostick, U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff, told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel at a recent hearing on suicides and suicide prevention, “We have been at war for nearly 10 years. That has undeniably put a strain on the men and women serving in the Army today.”
Bostick spoke about the significant number of physical injuries suffered, but also talked about the depression, anxiety and PTSD, which he called the “invisible wounds of war.” He said that for every suicide that was committed in over the past two years there were nearly seven known attempted suicides.
IMPACT OF SHOCK ON THE BRAIN
Research has shown that traumatic events and long durations of fear may impact the hippocampus and the amygdala of the brain. The hippocampus is responsible for the ability to store and retrieve memories and plays a role in a person’s ability to overcome fear. The amygdala regulates the processing of emotions such as fear, anger and pleasure.
“The physiological aspect of this is that in the 18 to 24-year-olds the male brain is not fully developed,” said Glassman. “The traumatic incidents these soldiers face, when they see and feel the shock, have a way of interfering with the developmental process of the hippocampus and the amygdala.”
Glassman talked about the expectations for our soldiers. “Every one of these United States warriors is told to deal with what they are seeing, what they are experiencing, and wake up and do the mission the next day. That’s relatively easy to do because you have your unit and you have your mission to do. So they suppress it all while they are active duty.”
According to Glassman, the soldiers don’t get counseling because of a stigma attached to it when they are active duty. “If they do, they are no longer effective, rendered impudent. They are taken out of the unit, because they’ve said, ‘I can’t deal with what I saw, I can’t cope anymore.’”
The fear and emotions are suppressed and never reported.
“When they come back after spending months, if not years, without facing what they saw and experienced,” said Glassman, “it starts to come out and they are acting out. They go to jail, they hit the wife, they become unemployed, they become addicted to alcohol or drugs.”
Glassman believes the veterans want to handle their PTSD–“Suck it up, marine. You have a job to do.” But they don’t have the support structure and don’t’ seek the help that they need.
“They don’t know how to deal with it. They can’t face their wives. They can’t face their families. There’s nobody on the professional side to go to because they’re either unemployed or their bosses at their civilian job don’t care or they don’t understand.
“They’re not getting help and it ends up with them pulling the trigger on the business end of a 45.”
Up until two years ago suicide was very much on Elliott’s mind.
HOW TO BE A CIVILIAN
“I came home into real society, where I maybe was the only Iraq War veteran for 20 miles,” said Elliott. “The identity I had when I left was as a soldier–honorable and strong. Now I was sitting at home, missing a leg.”
He couldn’t talk about what he had experienced or how he felt. “Everybody else wanted to hear about Lindsey Lohan going to jail, while the things that mattered most to me were having air conditioning, running water and grocery store on the corner.”
Elliott felt disconnected from the civilian world. He had forgotten how to be a civilian. “The identity I had was gone. I couldn’t connect with anybody else.”
Death became a viable alternative. “I told myself that I was going to die any way. I pretty much assigned myself to die while I was over there. Now everything seemed to be this big cluster-fuck and I’ll never get past it. Why not just get over it?”
Elliott stopped, looked up and said, “Eventually there is nothing else to do but turn it on yourself. That’s kind of where my head was when I was contemplating suicide.”
For the next four years, Elliott battled PTSD. “I went through a lot from 2005 to 2009, running into brick walls, going to jail, getting into car accidents, getting into fights…just being self-destructive. I really had given up.”
In 2009, life changed for Elliott. He went through a PTSD therapy program at Twelve Oaks Treatment Center in Navarre that was combined with substance abuse treatment for the painkillers to which he had become addicted.
“A doctor helped me expose myself. All the things I was afraid to tell people, I had to write down and face,” he said. “It was very difficult, very hard to feel. After about a month, I learned I could go through these emotions, feel these things and face them.”
That was when he met Robert, who Elliott said made him feel less alone and who coached him back into life. “He taught me to volunteer. When I started to volunteer with children and others, I learned how people react to one another again,” said Elliott. “One of the biggest keys for reconnecting to society was the volunteering–just witnessing how society reacts to each other.”
He said that that it had been a little over two years since he last contemplated suicide. He no longer drank or used drugs and had been clean for 18 months.
“Today’s a 180. I can’t believe I was that person now, but I’m glad I was that person because now I have an opportunity to help someone else.”
WE CAN DO BETTER
On Sept. 10, Glassman and his former commander at MATSG-21, retired Col. Christopher Holzworth IV, were the featured speakers at the 8th Annual Capitol Hill Event and Global Night for Hope, an event to shed light on the tragedy of active duty military and veterans suicide that was held at the Taft Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Holzworth and Glassman worked together for eight years and trained over 15,000 men and women at the MATSG-21. In 2007, Holzworth relinquished his command and deployed to Iraq to be the operations officer for the Second Marine Air Wing Forward where he commanded many of the Marines that he trained.
Holzworth firmly believes that every generation who serves and defends freedom is our “Greatest Generation.” He was never known in Pensacola for being politically correct. He didn’t pull any punches at the rally.
“After 10 years of desert conflict, our ‘Greatest Generation’ witnesses, experiences and lives through things that are unimaginable and can not be articulated or comprehended by anyone who has not been there,” Holzworth told the crowd. “War is the death of innocence and no one is immune to the change.”
He told the story of Lance Cpl. Travis Nelson, 19, who was killed in action last month in Afghanistan. The Pace, Fla. native watched the Marine Corp drill teams when he was 15 and sought out Holzworth to tell the colonel that he was going to be a Marine.
“He graduates from Pace High School in May 2010. After 14 months of Boot Camp and School of Infantry he joins his battalion and is off to Afghanistan, Helmand Province, for combat operations.
“Five weeks ago on a dismounted patrol, Lance Cpl. Nelson is shot and wounded in the hip. The bullet nicks the artery and Travis Nelson bleeds out on the battlefield in six minutes. And no one in his patrol is the same.”
The war has changed that patrol and this entire generation of soldiers. He said that what gets them through the “imaginable effects of war” are the connection with the buddy next to them, the support of the nation that equipped and trained them and a grateful society for these soldiers putting their lives and relationships on hold to defend the nation.
Holzworth continued, “How are we doing America as a society in embracing these American heroes and warriors who sacrificed for this country for our freedom?”
He said the indicators aren’t good:
12 percent unemployment among veterans,
Over 100,000 veterans homeless,
Overwhelming lack of response and action by the federal government to PTSD and TBI,
And lastly, 18 suicides per day among veterans of the desert wars.
“How are we doing? The answer is we can do better,” said Holzworth. “In showing with actions the love and support of a grateful nation, we can do better. Resources, capability and organizations are not the problem. It’s pure and simple leadership.”
He closed, “We can do better. God Bless you, Semper Fi!”