Statistics are one way to tell the story of the approximately 1.4 million servicemen and women who’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2004, 86 percent of soldiers in Iraq reported knowing someone who was seriously injured or killed there. Some 77 percent reported shooting at the enemy; 75 percent reported seeing women or children in imminent peril and being unable to help. Fifty-one percent reported handling or uncovering human remains; 28 percent were responsible for the death of a noncombatant. One in five Iraq veterans returns home seriously impaired by post-traumatic stress disorder.
Words are another way. Below are the stories of three veterans of this war, told in their voices, edited for flow and efficiency but otherwise unchanged. They bear out the statistics and suggest that even those who are not diagnosably impaired return burdened by experiences they can neither forget nor integrate into their postwar lives. They speak of the inadequacy of what the military calls reintegration counseling, of the immediacy of their worst memories, of their helplessness in battle, of the struggle to rejoin a society that seems unwilling or unable to comprehend the price of their service. Strangers to one another and to me, they nevertheless tried, sometimes through tears, to communicate what the intensity of an ambiguous war has done to them. One veteran, Sue Randolph, put it this way: “People walk up to me and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ And I know they mean well, but I want to ask, ‘Do you know what you’re thanking me for?'” She, Rocky, and Michael Goss offer their stories here in the hope that citizens will begin to know.
Michael Goss, 29, served two tours in Iraq. He grew up in Corpus Christi and returned there after his other-than-honorable discharge. He lives with his brother. He is divorced and sees his children every other weekend while working the graveyard shift as a bail bondsman. He is quietly intelligent, thoughtful, and attentive, always saying ma’am and holding the door. He struggles with severe PTSD and is obsessed with learning about the insurgency by studying reports and videos online. He is awaiting treatment from the Veterans Administration. He has been waiting for over a year.
I gave the Army seven years. It was supposed to be my career. I did two tours in Iraq, in 2003 and 2005. But during the last one, I started to get depressed. I lost faith in my chain of command. I became known as a rogue NCO. That’s how I got my other-than-honorable discharge.
One night they said to me, “Sgt. Goss, gather your best guys.” I say, “Where we going?” They say, “Don’t worry about it, just come on.” So we get in the car and go. We drive three blocks away, and there’s six dead soldiers on the ground. They say, “You’re casualty collecting tonight.” I’m not prepared for that. I wasn’t taught how to do that. But you’re there. So you pick them up, and you put them in a body bag, pieces by pieces, and you go back to your unit, and you stand inside your room. And they’re like, “You’re going on a patrol, come on.” You’re like, “Hang on a minute. Let me think about what I just did here.” I just put six American guys in damn body bags. Nobody’s prepared for that. Nobody’s prepared for that thing to blow up on the side of the road. You’re talking, and you’re driving, and then something blows up, and the next thing you know, two of your guys are missing their faces. They just want you to get up the next day and go, go, let’s do it again, you’re a soldier. Yeah, I got the soldier part, OK?
It gets to the point where they numb you. They numb you to death. They numb you to anything. You come back, and it starts coming back to you slowly. Now you gotta figure out a way to deal with it. In Iraq you had a way to deal with it because they kept pushing you back out there. Keep pushing you back out into the streets. Go go go. Hey, I just shot four people today. Yeah, and in about four hours you’re going to go back out, and you’ll probably shoot six more. So let’s go. Just deal with it. We’ll fix it when we get back. That’s basically what they’re telling you. We’ll fix it all when we get back. We’ll get your head right and everything when we get back to the States. I’m sorry, it’s not like that. It’s not supposed to be like that. All the soldiers have post-traumatic stress disorder, and they’re like, “Hey, you’re good. You went to counseling four times, you can go back to Iraq. It’s OK.” No. It doesn’t work that way.
I have PTSD. I know when I got it-the night I killed an 8-year-old girl. Her family was trying to cross a checkpoint. We’d just shot three guys who’d tried to run a checkpoint. And during that mess, they were just trying to get through to get away from it all. And we ended up shooting all them, too. It was a family of six. The only one that survived was a 13-month-old and her mother. And the worst part about it all was that where I shot my bullets, when I went to see what I’d shot at, there was an 8-year-old girl there. I tried my best to bring her back to life, but there was no use. But that’s what triggered my depression.
When I got out of the Army, I had 10 days to get off base. There was no reintegration counseling. As soon as I got back, nobody gave a fuck about anything except that piece of paper that said I got everything out of my room. I got out of the Army, and everything went to shit from there.
My wife ended up finding another guy. I’m getting divorced, and I’m fighting for custody. She wants child support, the house, the car, the boys.
I get three nights off a week. And I drink and take pills to help me sleep at night. I do what I can to help myself. I talk to friends. Soldiers who were there. Once in a while one of my old soldiers will call me, drunk off his ass, crying about the stuff he saw in Iraq. And all I can do is tell him, “You and me both are going to have to find a way to work this out.” That’s the only thing I can tell him.
I do martial arts, that’s what I do. I go in a cage and I fight. It helps take my mind off of things. I get hurt, but I can’t feel it. I don’t feel it until after it’s all over with.
So let’s put this in perspective now. I got two Iraq tours, multiple kills, I picked up plenty of dead bodies, American bodies, enemy bodies. I killed an 8-year-old girl, which still haunts me to this day. I come back home. My wife finds somebody else. I’m sleeping on my brother’s couch while she has the apartment, the kids, the car, everything that we worked on together. I work as a bail bondsman making $432 a week, which all goes to my brother. I have to fight just to see my boys because she’s at the point where she thinks I don’t deserve to see my kids because I haven’t had help for my PTSD. She’s scared I might do something stupid. And the VA won’t help me out because of my other-than-honorable discharge. What else do you want to know?
Every month the VA sends me a letter saying I’m still under review. I’m like, I couldn’t care less about the money. I don’t care about disability percentage. I want you to tell me to go to this fucking doctor here and go get help. That’s what I want them to tell me. If they think I don’t deserve money because I got kicked out with other-than-honorable discharge, fine. But don’t tell me I’m cured all of a sudden, because I’m not. I still have my nightmares, anxiety attacks, panic attacks, I still see the glitter from the IED blowing up when I’m going down the street. I still see the barrette in her hair when I carried her out of the car to the ambulance when she was bleeding all over me. I still see all that. And there’s nothing that I can do about that now.
Rocky, 26, prefers to remain anonymous. He joined the Army shortly before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and went to Iraq in 2004 for one year and a day. A Houston native, he lives alone now in a Dallas apartment, goes to community college, and works construction. He’s funny, playful, and handsome, and carries a pool cue in his trunk to be ready for a game at any time. He doesn’t tell people he’s a veteran. He doesn’t like to talk about it. This story is an exception.
I was one of those kids that could have been handed anything on a silver platter. But I really worked hard for everything anyway, because I wanted to prove myself. And my parents, who would have given me anything, ruled with an iron fist. And I was patriotic. So it seemed like everything in my life pointed to the Army as the way to go.
I was 20. I’m sure I was different then. I don’t know how. I know how I am now. I assume that the character traits that I show now are the core set of values that I left with. My sense of pride, hard work. Everything I have, I made out of nothing.
You get to see what people are made of over there. You get to see how shallow people are, how weak they are. How strong they can be in horrible moments. And then how the people you should be looking up to are hiding, and you have to look out for them. You get to really see what a person is made of.
And over there, I learned to read people. I know what they’re going to do before they do it. After seeing the same movements before you get shot at or bombed, the same symptoms of the city and the people around you-it’s a fluid movement. Doors close, people disappear, and all of a sudden you’re like, OK guys, hunker down, it’s about to hit us. And all of a sudden you’re under fire.
People would pop shots at us and pop back. They’d have a setup where they have a bomb in the road, and everybody sits by the windows when they set off an IED. When we’re looking at what’s going on, everybody’s laughing and pointing and smiling after your buddy’s sitting there bleeding. So I held them all responsible. Everybody that was in the guilty range.
If there was gunfire coming from a window, I shot into that window and made sure nothing was coming back out at me. One time, there was an RPG shooter shooting at me. He hit a Bradley in front of us, and we were in a Humvee. He hit the Bradley in front of us, and the round didn’t go off. It got stuck in the mud. So the Bradley rolled back, and we rolled back. And I had to shoot the position-caller before I could shoot the actual shooter. He didn’t have a gun, but I knew what he was doing. He was the one calling out what’s going on. He was on the phone. So I sent a shot up 20 feet above him and below him and to the side of him. And he just stood there. On his phone, talking the whole time. Innocent people run. The bad guys stay and fight. If they’re not running, they’re going to be calling. That’s the way I see it. So I shot him. If you freaked out and stood still, I’m sorry. I cannot take this chance again. You have to start making these moral decisions. Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six. You’re caught in the fucking middle of it.
After that, now I think, well, now I’m damned. Now I’ve done the worst thing. There’s not much more worse you can do than shoot an unarmed person. It’s not just, man, now I got to fucking deal with this. It’s like, man, I hope nobody saw that because I’ll go to jail, too. You feel so horrible. You kind of die inside. There’s really nothing beneath me now. I’m at the bottom of the barrel. You’re worried about salvation and people finding out these dirty little secrets. It’s not something that you wanted to do. It might be something that you had to do, that you accidentally did. Things happen. And then there’s the whole fear of going to jail for trying to do what’s right for your country-it’s bad. Sometimes you think people are shooting at you, and you’d rather just chance it because you’re hoping they don’t have an armor-piercing round.
But I’m not going to bow down. I know what I’m made of-do you? Most people have no idea what matters. When I’m standing at the gates and I see St. Peter, I’ll say, lemme in. I try to do right now. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I go to school, maybe I’ll earn a midlevel job. Just fly under the radar. I don’t want any attention. I just want to be away from people. Not many people call me still. I keep it real dim in my apartment. I like it calm and quiet. This is what life’s made of. Being able to relax and be safe. Watch a movie, play some video games. Just to sit back and have fun with your friends. That’s beautiful.
Sue Randolph, 39, grew up in Saudi Arabia and earned her master’s degree in Arabic at the University of Michigan. After her service in 2003, she moved to Houston with her husband, a geologist. She now works in satellite communications and raises her 3-year-old daughter, a self-identified “princess,” and a 2-month-old kitten named Sparkles. Randolph’s family goes kayaking and hiking on weekends. She is clever, quick-witted, passionate, and kind. She still struggles with anxiety while driving and when she’s near crowds. She finds news about the war upsetting and frustratingly inaccurate.
I joined the Army because I had $65,000 in student loans and didn’t know how I was going to make payments. Since I had a master’s in political science-Middle East studies and Arabic-I ended up doing translation as part of the search for weapons of mass destruction. For a year, my team drove around behind the 3rd Infantry getting shot at, getting mortared, looking at warehouses of documents, chemicals, and parts of things that could be WMDs. I mean, you name it, we did it. We talked to people. We went into people’s houses.
The technological level of the things I saw wasn’t anywhere near anything [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell talked about. The buildings we went into, wiring was on the outside of the walls. I didn’t see anything like the equipment you’d see in a fifth-grade science lab. The most technically advanced thing we saw was a 12-volt car battery hooked up to bedsprings for torture. But not anything on the chemical or biological level.
Iraq looks like it’s straight out of the Bible. It’s mud brick, it’s falling down.It’s kids with sticks herding goats. There’s like three high-rises in all of Baghdad, and those are the only ones you’ll ever see on any newscast. The rest of it is mud brick, falling down.
At the time, I would see little girls on the side of the road, and I felt like I was part of a big machine that was going to help them have a better life. At the time. Now, looking at all of the lack of evidence for us being there except GW throwing a temper tantrum, frankly I feel-not used, because I signed up for it-but I feel like we were there for no good reason. Eventually Saddam would have been overthrown, either by his own people or through Iran or someone else, and change would have come. It wouldn’t have been on our timetable, but it would have happened. I don’t think it was worthwhile at all.
When I went back to my base in Germany, it was like a bad dream. It was like nothing happened. Then I got out of the Army and came back to the States. Once you leave the Army, there’s no reintegration help of any kind. Unless you went looking for it, there was nothing. And even if you went looking for it, you had to dig.
The military says that they’re giving exit counseling and reintegration. What they’re calling re-entry counseling, in my experience, was, “Don’t drink and drive. Pay your bills on time. Don’t beat your spouse. Don’t kick your dog.” All of these things that once you’ve reached a certain age, you’re supposed to know. None of it is, “If you have discomfort with dealing with crowds, if you don’t feel comfortable with your spouse, if you can’t sleep in a bed, if you don’t want to drive down the road because you think everything is a bomb, here’s what to do.” No psychological or de-stress counseling is
involved in this reintegration to garrison. And that’s j
st if you’re staying in the Army. If you’re leaving the Army, you get, “Here’s how to write a resume.”
They don’t prepare you to leave. Hell, they didn’t prepare me to be there. I was going into people’s houses trying to tell the wife and kids as we’re segregating them out from the men that we’re the good guys. But they’re crying because one of their kids got killed because he was up there sleeping on the roof when we decided to bust into their house. I mean that’s crazy. But we’re the good guys. Now I have to deal with that for the next 20 or 30 years. I have a 3-year-old. I deal with that every day.
I think we are going to end up like after Vietnam if we’re not careful. The Vietnam guys were treated really horribly, and whether they came back and quietly went back to their lives or not, they were all stereotyped in a criminal negative. And I’m afraid if we as a society don’t learn what we didn’t do for those guys, we’re going to have that in spades. We don’t have low-end kind of industry jobs for them like working in the auto plant, so they’re not going to be supporting their families. And they’re going to be angry. They’re going to feel like they’re owed. Do we get everybody counseling as soon as they get out, mandatory 90-day counseling? I don’t know how. But there isn’t enough money in this country right now to make some of these guys feel like what they went through was worthwhile.
We have no comprehension of the psychological cost of this war. I know kids in Iraq who killed themselves. I know kids that got killed. OK, that’s apparently the price of doing business. But multiply me by 2 million. If I’m fairly high-functioning, what about the ones that aren’t? They’re going back to small-town America, and their families aren’t going to know what to do with them. It’s like, what do we do with Johnny now?
Emily DePrang is a writer from Pearland.