The Unseen Enemy
Executive editor Skip Hollandsworth talks about Master Sergeant James Coons and the soldier’s battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
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texasmonthly.com: How and when did you first learn about Master Sergeant James Coons?
Skip Hollandsworth: I came across the name James Coons when I read a very short story in the Houston Chronicle about his young widow, Robin, petitioning the Pentagon to have his cause of death changed from a suicide to “casualty of war.” The story only mentioned that Master Sergeant Coons had been found hanging at Walter Reed hospital. I was intrigued by what made Robin take such unusual action.
texasmonthly.com: Obviously, post-traumatic stress disorder and its effects can be disastrous and very personal. How did you get Coons’s family to open up and talk to you?
SH: It took a year for James’s parents and Robin to agree to talk at length about what had happened to James. They had spoken briefly to the Chronicle and to the Washington Post. But they weren’t sure they trusted the press, and they weren’t sure what kind of article I wanted to write. They were especially worried, of course, that I would try to sensationalize James’s life and death. Robin, in fact, wanted to know if there was any way I could write the story without mentioning the details of how James died. I said I had to deal with that moment, but I promised her I wouldn’t mention his death until way down in the body of the story, at the appropriate place in the narrative. I also said that we would not mention any specific details about his death in the headline of the story. There had been a reference to it in one newspaper headline, which had devastated Robin. She said she didn’t want her children ever to see such a blaring headline. I told her that the story I wanted to write was a story that would help her children someday understand the heroic nature of their father’s life as well as the tragic, heartbreaking circumstances of his death.
texasmonthly.com: As you mention in your feature story, post-traumatic stress disorder has been around for a long time. Is this a topic that had interested you prior to working on this story? How much research did you have to do to get to the point where you felt comfortable writing about it?
SH: I knew nothing about post-traumatic stress disorder. I knew nothing about what the effect of war can have psychologically on soldiers. I mean, I had seen movies about men “cracking up” during the stress of battle. And I had read stories about the thousands of Vietnam veterans who had come home and not really been able to get their lives together. But I never understood what exactly had happened to them. Nor did I understand that PTSD is not limited just to those right on the front lines of combat. That, obviously, is what makes Master Sergeant Coons’ story so stunning.
texasmonthly.com: You wrote a piece about a man no longer living. How do you craft a story without being able to talk to the subject?
SH: I could not have been able to do this story without James’s parents and Robin taking hours with me to recreate his life. They had kept his e-mails. They had written notes about their last conversations with him. And they also had filed Freedom of Information Act requests more than a year earlier to get copies of the written reports that had been done by Army investigators looking into his death. The day I was at his parents’ home, they showed me these reports—stacks and stacks of pages that included transcripts of interviews with his friends, his fellow soldiers, the doctors who saw him at the various hospitals, his commanding officers, and the employees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I would never have been able to get those people to talk to me. Most likely, they would not have been allowed to talk to me. The Army does not cooperate in these kinds of stories. But here was the entire Army’s file, sitting with the Coons. I took a breath and asked them if I could borrow the file, drive down to Office Depot a half mile from their home, and make a copy. They said yes. And because of that, a reader is now able to see just how the Army failed James Coons.
texasmonthly.com: Do you feel that this same story is happening to other soldiers and the public just isn’t hearing that much about them? What is the U.S. government doing to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder?
SH: There are already reports that the military is overwhelmed by the number of soldiers returning to the U.S. who are suffering from psychological or mental afflictions. And the bigger concern is that sometimes the most devastating mental problems won’t show up until months or years after they are home. That’s the baffling nature of PTSD. Why does it insidiously work its way into the lives of some soldiers, and why does it not affect others? Congress has appropriated more money for more treatment of psychologically wounded soldiers, but veteran’s groups are saying that money is hardly enough.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story? Why?
SH: It was very difficult for me to write the scenes depicting James’s last days. The notion of that brave man—a man who gave his entire adult life to the U.S. Army—sitting alone in that room in Washington, D.C., ignored and basically forgotten, filled me with fury. It was such an injustice that no one—not once—came by to check on him. But I needed to let those scenes play out for themselves without any side commentary from me. I needed to let the reader feel, as best as I could reconstruct, what James was going through. We’ll never know what exactly he was thinking, and I didn’t want to engage in that kind of journalistic writing that just goes ahead and presumes what James had to be enduring. So what I did was present a couple of possibilities about the thoughts circulating in James’s head during those last hours. And then, I quickly ended the scene to let the reader’s imagination take over from there.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
SH: I still think that those of us who only see glimpses of the war on television, those of us who have not met the veterans and the survivors of casualties, are missing much of the war’s real terror. We see lots of videos of Humvees blowing up and of soldiers firing weapons. We see photos of the wounded. But we don’t perceive the invisible wounds that this war is leaving on so many young men and women. I hope that when we come across these soldiers who have returned home, and we notice in them a distance, a hesitation, perhaps even an anger or unexplainable fear, we will be patient and understanding, and in some way, we will do our best to reach out to them.