In The Shadow Of Iraq: A Veteran’s Battle With PTSD

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Reposted with special permissions from Etc. Magazine, photos courtesy of Jacob Davis

by Jacob Davis

On March 19th, the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq–I woke up late again with a soggy T-shirt, courtesy of the racing thoughts and bad dreams which always prevent me from getting much rest.

There never is any rest for the weary.

The ball of dread in the pit of my stomach is exactly where it was in the twilight hours before I fell asleep. This dread–the weight of regret and loss and life–is something I carry on my own, but I’m not the only one bearing the burden.

Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq since the invasion.

Three hundred and forty-nine active duty personnel committed suicide last year. Today, there are more suicides among active duty soldiers than combat deaths. For the veterans who have returned home, the suicide rate hovers around 22 per day.

For them, the war is over.

But for the 30 percent of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan diagnosed with PTSD, the war never ends. For their families, it’s just beginning.

I was freshman in Lompoc, CA when I saw the twin towers fall. I was just finishing my morning bowl of Kix when I saw the footage on my family’s old wood- paneled Magnavox. I remember thinking: Was the pilot drunk? Did he have a heart attack?

At school, the walls of my first period biology class echoed with paranoia and concern. Was this an attack? Since we lived in the shadow of Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Minuteman missile and aerospace projects, we wondered if we would be next.

The news stations became 24/7 beacons of fear and facts and faces. America’s reaction was mixed between anger, grief and fear. Our reaction was swift. A month later we were in Afghanistan.

By March 19, 2003, our war effort transformed into a crusade. The next chapter in the global war on terror was about to begin.

A month before my 16th birthday, I saw news coverage of the “shock and awe” campaign. As we bombed Iraq in preparation for the invasion, I watched Baghdad burn through the green glow of night vision.

In 2005, shortly after graduating from high school, I joined the Army. I had no direction and few options in life. I was in love and wanted to get married. I wanted to do my part for my country. I wanted to know what was real in the news and in life.

Me, on the right, in Iraq at 19-years-old.

Me, on the right, in Iraq at 19-years-old.

I joined the infantry, a boys club fueled by testosterone, legend and grabassery. I drank the Kool-Aid. I was going to be a steadfast killer for God and country. I was going to win the war.

At the age of 19, I had been married a year when I received orders to deploy to east Baghdad. I arrived at FOB Rustamiyah in February 2007 in a Chinook helicopter.  The surge had just begun.

The following year was lost somewhere in the dust and muck of Al-Jadida and Fedhailia districts of Baghdad.

I had no idea what I was getting into. The Iraq I encountered was hot, tense and dangerous. We played a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game with Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), the Shiite militia that controlled Baghdad. We would go out on missions at night, attempting to kill or capture high-value targets (HVT), but it was anyone’s guess who would be getting got.

We were hunting men in their natural habitat. We had training, gear and a grassroots intelligence system. They had support from the community, unconventional tactics and the power of their beliefs. We killed or captured many more than we lost. A lot of civilians were caught in the middle: arrested, killed, their homes and lives invaded and destroyed.

In April, my platoon was called to support a special forces unit that was on an HVT mission. Bearded men with high-speed gear, they didn’t wear nametape or identifying patches, but some wore batting gloves and boots that had to have been designed for war on Mars. They were heavy-hitters.

Somehow, during the events of the evening and early morning, a member of the unit shot a kid in the chest. Dragged into the courtyard, he left a pool of blood that I would slip on hours later. I remember his grieving family carrying his lifeless body on a rug around the front yard.

I accompanied my platoon leader as he tried to sort the whole mess out. We learned the unit was in the wrong house. They killed the kid and left. We had to do damage control… treat the family as if nothing happened… take pictures of the scene… take pictures of the kid.

As we left the courtyard, I looked to my right and saw two columns of elite soldiers hauling ass toward us. I watched as they set up a hasty cordon around the house to my right. One team breached the gate and climbed ladders to the roof. They proceeded to clear the building from the top down, and after a series of loud bangs and a couple of booms, three detainees were brought outside and slammed into a wall. This was the right house.

Several tricked-out Stryker vehicles moved in. An interpreter, dressed in an Army combat uniform and carrying an unconventional Makarov pistol, dismounted and sauntered toward the detainees. He put a hand on the shoulder of the man to the far left and whispered something in his ear. He let the words settle for a few moments before slapping him around and screaming at him in Arabic.

While this was going on, one of the bearded soldiers popped into my platoon sergeant’s Humvee. He took out a big plastic bag and started fingering through a wad of hundred-dollar bills while looking at the gunner.

“Five thousand is enough for a dead kid, right?”

Business as usual. Pay off the family, mount up and call it good. Another Baghdad morning. Another day, another dollar.

Fast forward 11 months. After three men in my platoon were killed. After another died in the burn ward of an Army hospital. After the “Lord of the Flies”-style transformation of my company.

Driving in a tanker through the streets of Baghdad.

Driving in a tanker through the streets of Baghdad.

After six months of relative peace from Muqtada al-Sadr’s cease fire, incidents like these pile up until one finally breaks the camel’s back.

Having witnessed extreme poverty and human suffering, largely due to our presence, I can’t say that I was surprised when JAM came at us with everything they had.

We took contact everywhere we went.  Supplies couldn’t get through due to the ungodly number of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) that were armed and ready to take life and limb.

We ran out of food at our combat outpost. We were almost out of water. We were still going out on missions without a log-pack, running on fumes and the few remaining Otis Spunkmeyer muffins that we had stashed away. The other companies in my battalion were worse off.

On March 30th, 2008, hours before the sun rose, we were ordered to extract a nearby platoon under siege. During the long troop movement and ensuing firefight, we killed dozens of Mahdi militia. One guy in our unit later received an award for valor. The platoon that was under siege returned with two of their comrades in body bags.

As we returned to the base, we passed the charred remains of the new market on Route Florida, which once symbolized our progress in rebuilding this section of Baghdad. A tracer had hit a generator while a gunner was engaging the enemy hiding behind concrete barriers – barriers we had placed months earlier to keep the population safe from suicide bombings.

I thought back to the images of “shock and awe” as I scanned rooftops through the dim glow of my night vision on that cool spring morning. Years later I would find out that we were in the middle of the last major battle of the war. How poetic.

It’s been five years since that mission. I still remember the hazy sunrise before the chaos of our return to base. The soft pink light and the empty streets. The rocket propelled grenade and Russian machine gun attack at dawn. My butthole making a diamond when the turret on my mine-resistant ambush-proof vehicle broke.

And the other missions that I can’t keep from replaying in my head.

Scenes like these have colored my world since returning home five years ago. I left a teenager and came back a shadow of myself.

“Scenes like these have colored my world since returning home five years ago. I left a teenager and came back a shadow of myself.”

I went through a divorce. I was involuntarily hospitalized and have gone through the VA gauntlet of PTSD treatment. War changed me. I wrote this piece to describe my war experiences and how they have shaped me.

But what about the dead kid’s family?  What about the families of the nearly 180,000 Iraqis who have been killed?

When will we hear from the families forced from their homes by death squads or from the people living in houses made out of industrial size plastic bags, their homes destroyed by American bombs?

When I look back on the last 10 years of this war, I remember the military screw-ups and cover-ups.  The whole war was a screw-up.

When I came home in 2008, I hid. Everyone and their mother wanted to express their opinion about the war and I kept my mouth shut. Now, I feel like nobody wants to talk about it.

Soldiers and the people of Iraq paid the price while most Americans seem content to cast a blind eye on a war that was recently declared over. It makes it easier to enjoy Starbucks, reality TV and the latest Apple products. All of which was made possible by the military industrial complex. And oil. And a lot of sacrifice on the part of a few.

You’re welcome.

Don’t thank me.