Staff sergeant Christopher Schwope was a good guy with a tough job when I met him in late 2005. Back then he was a young Army recruiter working the North Side of San Antonio, and I was writing a story about the Army’s growing enlistment crisis. The war in Iraq was dragging on, and recruiting numbers had dropped to their lowest levels since the post-Vietnam years. The Army had responded by offering cash bonuses to new enlistees and soldiers who re-upped, as well as signing recruits who had the kinds of criminal records and aptitude test scores that would have precluded their consideration in earlier eras. But its best hope was recruiters like Schwope. Fresh-faced and charismatic, with bright blue eyes and a highly dexterous way with the word “dude,” he told the kids run-and-gun war stories from his deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq and bragged on a brand-new pickup truck that he’d bought with his combat pay. For more-practically-minded candidates, he described the free Lasik surgery he’d received after basic training. He was earnest and energetic, and when he talked about owing his life to the Army, you believed him.
But there was also this: One afternoon, as we drove between high school campuses, he talked about his time in Iraq. He’d been a team leader with the 4th Infantry Division, and his unit had been part of the force that found Saddam’s famous spider hole, in December 2003. He’d kicked in doors, dodged RPGs, and blasted his way through firefights, and luckily he hadn’t lost any of his buddies. But he’d also wrenched his knee while chasing an IED triggerman in Tikrit, and when that injury grew into a blown ACL, he was reclassified out of his infantry job. And then, as he moved on to the subject of his present desk duty, his tone changed. He pulled off the road and stopped my tape recorder.
He said he wanted to go back in a way I wouldn’t understand and that he had feelings even he didn’t understand. Something inside him was different. Now that he was home—he’d grown up in nearby Boerne—he was drinking too much and getting in bar fights and flying off the handle at his wife. He burst into tears anytime he saw a flag on TV. He felt that life was happening outside his control, that his marriage was collapsing, and that if he didn’t make his numbers at the recruiting station, his job would too. But worst of all, he worried that if he talked to an Army counselor about any of it, he’d be labeled a PTSD case and his career really would be over. Then, remembering we had to meet the principal at Samuel Clemens High School, he slid back into the role of enthused recruiter and got on the road.
That was more than seven years ago, when Operation Iraqi Freedom was nearing the three-year mark and the war in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, had already lasted more than four. As time would reveal, neither was close to ending, and the cost to Texas—which has more active-duty military than any other state—would be high. Since the beginning of those conflicts, 593 Texans have been killed and 3,601 have been wounded. Now, finally, the end appears to be in sight. The last troops left Iraq in December 2011, combat forces should be home from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and President Barack Obama has announced his intention to pivot off the perpetual wartime footing of the Global War on Terror. Bases around Texas that have spent more than a decade sending troops off to fight are gearing up for the last homecomings.
But as the conversation with Schwope made clear, there’s something inadequate about the way the civilian world uses the term “homecoming.” Or at least incomplete. We picture tearful reunions on tarmacs, soldiers who drop duffel bags to throw their arms around spouses, parents, kids—the sort of scene captured in the photo essay by Joe Pugliese. But there’s another side to the equation, one we are lucky to know nothing about: the returning warriors are trying to leave someplace too.
That part is never easy. The worst cases can’t stop reliving unthinkable events they witnessed or endured. The unique horror of Iraq and Afghanistan comes from the enemy’s new preferred weapons, IEDs and suicide bombers, which have produced a heart-wrenching number of amputees and burn victims. The hidden wounds of traumatic brain injuries have proved just as severe, leading to memory loss, slowed thinking, and a debilitating depression that can’t be treated by counseling alone. Yet even the troops fortunate enough to have avoided those harrowing attacks face a massive transition when they get back. They’ve just spent long months in a nonstop state of alert. Forget all the nerve-racking patrols and night raids they went on; if they were at a combat outpost, merely walking to an outdoor latrine was an invitation to get picked off by a sniper. Amplifying all that is the unprecedented number of repeat deployments. Of the nearly 2.5 million troops who served, more than a third deployed more than once, and some 400,000 went over at least three times. Each trip back multiplied the exposure to IEDs, the time spent on edge, and the wear and tear on their psyches.
Psychologist Sharon Wills leads a PTSD clinical team at the Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in Austin, the largest such clinic in the VA system. “They’ve come home, but they’re still on hyperarousal,” she said of returning soldiers. “They don’t look at the world the way they did before. They’ve been in situations where bad people weren’t punished, where despicable things were done to children. Their trust in human nature has been severely compromised, and so has their ability to feel safe.”
Wills and her staff see dozens of former combatants every day who are having trouble finding their way into a peacetime mind-set, and those numbers are set to grow. If the national average holds, roughly 20 percent of the service members returning to Texas will suffer depression or PTSD. Yet after twelve years of treating veterans, Wills focuses on an even bigger picture, no longer using the term PTSD. “Troops coming back don’t want to be branded as crazy,” she said. “They feel different enough already. So we refer to ‘combat stress reaction.’ It’s the normal response to things like sleep deprivation and extreme stress. It shuts down that part of your brain that says, ‘You’re not in danger anymore.’ That’s just how people react, and it doesn’t always rise to the level of a formal disorder. Everybody gets something.”
If the stress gets so severe that a veteran needs help, counselors like Wills are ready. Despite the VA’s apparent inability to address the backlog of disability claims, the agency has taken meaningful steps in treating PTSD. Prodded by advocacy groups, the VA has upped its mental health budget to $6 billion, a 39 percent increase since 2009. The staff of 4 that Wills joined in 2001 has grown to 37 today. “If you walk into our clinic, somebody will see you,” she said. “It may be two or three weeks before you get seen regularly, but somebody will talk to you.”
However, simply being a veteran presents another set of jarring issues. A soldier has a well-defined job to do, a mission, and a group of brothers and sisters he knows will help him get it done. In the life-or-death reality of combat, that mission is akin to a purpose in life. Once the uniform comes off, the mission is gone, and there’s a hole in its place. And if the economy is in the tank, the vet has trouble finding a job. He’s no longer surrounded by people who understand what he’s been through or even speak his language. To drift into feelings of isolation is almost a given.
Of the 4,700 organizations that serve Texas veterans, the best are the ones that take that missing purpose into account. One national nonprofit, perfectly named the Mission Continues, places vets with service-oriented organizations and pays them a stipend to complete a six-month fellowship with groups like Habitat for Humanity. Of the 690 vets who’ve gone through the program, nearly 80 have been in Texas, and most have gone on to create their own organizations. One of the fellows, Brian Wilson, a former Army medic in Houston who paired up with the Lone Star Veterans Association, formed an emergency-response team composed of vets to assist in natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and last year’s tornadoes in Dallas; another, former Navy pilot Jeffrey Hensley, created an equine therapy program for vets in Wylie. Less high-profile but wider-reaching, the Round Rock–based organization TexVet has worked with more than thirty of the state’s community mental health clinics to create a network of veterans who volunteer to help other vets find psychiatric care, legal representation, and constituent services from their congressmen—that is, help them navigate the VA morass. In five years 600 volunteers have been trained, and last year alone they assisted 38,000 Texas vets. Both those numbers should go up: this past session, the Legislature increased its annual allocation for veterans’ mental health from $3 million to $5 million.
Those programs work to the benefit of not only the vets who need help but also the vets who deliver it. They restore that sense of mission. “One reason vets want to go back into combat is that that was a time when they did everything right,” says Wills. “They were important. They meant something. Life meant something. Anything that makes them feel that again is fantastic.”
Last month I got back in touch with Schwope. He’s still in the Army, but now he works in an air defense unit in Kaiserslautern, Germany, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their two boys. He remembered our conversation in the car clearly. “That was a real dark, low point for me,” he said. “There were a couple of times when I didn’t think I was going to make it.” Now he can laugh when he talks about Jennifer coming home and finding him on the couch weeping at St. Jude’s commercials.
Still, many of those memories are hard for him to summon, and for details he turned the phone over to Jennifer. “It started at the welcome-home party at Fort Hood,” she said. “The Fourth Infantry Division put on this huge ordeal, with bands and beer tents. Entire families came to welcome home the soldiers. But when we were ready to go, Chris wouldn’t leave. He was more comfortable with those guys than us, because we had no idea what they’d just been through. His mom was there, his stepdad, all of us. But those guys were his family now, and he wanted to stay at the party.” It got worse with the move to San Antonio. “He was away from everybody he’d gone to Iraq with,” she said. “He’d say, ‘I’m not even a soldier now. I’m a loser. I’m just sitting in front of a desk.’ ”
Eventually he started seeing a civilian therapist, making payments out of pocket—no easy thing on an Army salary. Over the next four years, during stints at Fort Bliss and Fort Riley, Kansas, he started putting space between the angry, drunken episodes. But he didn’t really get better until he went back to Iraq in 2010 and worked air defense at Camp Liberty, in Baghdad. “I was an REMF,” he explains. “A rear-echelon motherfucker. But I was contributing to the fight again. By no means was I anywhere near the tip of the spear, but I was doing what I could. I had goals. And that carried over from deployment after I got home.”
And now he’s in Germany, where he deals with stress by picking a guitar. “I play easy country songs,” he said, laughing again. “Hard songs stress me out.” He’s got a different view of PTSD. “I never had night terrors or problems reliving a specific event,” he said. “It was just being on edge the whole time, not knowing if you’re going to wake up, live or die. There’s no switch to turn that off.” Today he understands that that’s part of going to war. “We get the Armed Forces Network TV over here, and I can’t turn it on without seeing a commercial saying it’s okay to ask for help. If it gets bad for me again, I’d have no problem seeing someone in the military.”
He’s slated to return from Germany in May 2015. This time, hopefully, he’ll make it all the way home.