penny cole: one soldier's tale of how war drove him crazy

This "as told to" was written by Penny Cole, whose husband, a Vietnam War veteran, committed suicide after he returned home. She is the author of Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War.
When it got really bad, I dumped 5 tons of sand into my basement to remind me of Afghanistan," Jim told me. "I would just spend the entire day down there in my sandbox, smoking marijuana and working on peace of mind. It made me realize that you can close as many doors as you want, but ghosts walk through walls."

Jim speaks with apparent ease about his war experiences and what they cost him. His stories are punctuated with vivid detail and bemused laughter, mostly at his own expense: How could he have been so naïve ... how could he have failed to see what was going on around him?

He rubs his hands up and down his thighs frequently. It's a kind of nervous gesture that he explains is a result of a spinal injury he sustained in an IED explosion -- his legs still go numb from time to time. "But they don't get numb to the point where I fall down anymore, so I won't complain about progress," he said.

That stoicism is an apt metaphor for the rest of his life, for the experience he shares with so many servicemen and women returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. ...

On Sept. 11, 2001, when he was just a senior in high school, he watched the Twin Towers fall on TV, skipped classes for the rest of the day, and enlisted in the Army. By the summer of 2003, he was in Kandahar, with "hate, anger and vengeance" in his heart. ...


"When I was getting ready to deploy, they were telling us that the Taliban all wore black turbans. But it turned out there wasn't some big gang sign, like the Bloods and the Crips. Other people were wearing black turbans, too. It was messed up. We were supposed to be fighting the Taliban, but we were obliterating Afghanistan."


Instead of things getting better when he got home, they got worse.

"I already knew that I didn't know how to act anymore," he said. "I didn't know what I was going to do, and I didn't know how people were going to expect me to be."

He was having flashbacks, moments "where I just wasn't even here, you know? I was back there." He drank Wild Turkey all day, only sleeping when he passed out, until one night he didn't recognize his wife. He believes that he could have killed her that night.

The next day, he stopped drinking, and since then has used marijuana to self-medicate, but being stoned didn't make keeping a job any easier. He lost six in quick succession because he couldn't take orders from people who hadn't been where he had been.

That's when he "gave up on society," built his sandbox, and decided he was just going "be this crazy dude and stay in the house for the rest of my life." But being in the house didn't really solve the problem.

"I needed to get to the point where I wasn't afraid of my own thoughts," he told me.

Jim saw six or seven VA doctors after the incident with his wife. They all agreed that he had PTSD and a probable traumatic brain injury. On the basis of those diagnoses, he now gets a disability check from Social Security (but even after three years, the VA has yet to come through with benefits), but otherwise, none of them were much help.

Read it here.

Like Jim, war resister James Burmeister also had traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder when he refused to re-deploy to Iraq. He lived in Ottawa for almost a year, then - sick, homesick, his mother ill - he turned himself in. The US military sentenced him to nine months incarceration and a bad conduct discharge.

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