Battle cry

Jan 31, 2007 at 12:00 am

Chris Killion sits at his computer, staring at phantoms.

The 27-year-old Iraqi war vet from Dearborn Heights has just endured another bad night, catching only about 45 minutes of sleep. After more than two years, tossing and turning in a fruitless search for some position that eases the searing pain has become routine.

His body is peppered with shrapnel from a grenade tossed over a wall by an enemy he never saw while on patrol in Baghdad.

Those wounds earned him a third Purple Heart. The other two medals were also the result of exploded grenades. In all, he's carrying around more than 80 pieces of shrapnel, much of it embedded so deep into his muscle — from his shoulders down to his feet — it will be with him forever.

"My buddies used to joke that I had a magnet in my ass," says Killion, cracking what passes for a smile.

It was that last injury, sustained the day after Christmas in 2004, which sent him home for good after serving in Iraq for nearly a year.

But not all the wounds he suffered left scars that can be seen. Which is why, even when he takes enough medication to ease the agony and he finds a way to lie in bed that lets him finally doze off, there is still no respite. Because when he closes his eyes he encounters a night filled with apparitions — the ghosts of friends who came home in body bags, the ghosts of enemies gunned down in battle, the ghosts of luckless civilians caught in the crossfire of war.

"It's like the people I've seen die over there are haunting me," he says. "Whether they were good guys or bad guys, they don't want to leave me alone."

These images aren't just in his head, though. They're also stored on that computer, digital photos of smiling pals in camouflage. Men Killion lived with and fought alongside. Men he came to think of as his brothers. Men who did not survive the snipers and improvised explosive devices and tossed grenades and mortar attacks that are a daily occurrence for the infantrymen assigned to patrol the strife-torn streets of Iraq's ancient capital.

Along with the photos of his fellow soldiers are bloody pictures of insurgents Killion slew, pictures taken in the aftermath of combat showing the losers of brutal firefights where the stakes cannot be any higher, where it's either kill or be killed. One of the photos shows an Iraqi with half his head blown away; another depicts a splayed corpse surrounded by a pool of dark red. They are grisly reminders of a past the infantry sergeant can't leave behind.

And then there are the hapless innocents who never lifted a rifle or planted a bomb. Among the pictures stored on his computer is one taken not long after he arrived in Baghdad. It shows a car engulfed in flames after being hit by a roadside bomb.

"You could hear the people inside screaming for help," recalls Killion. "I saw them burning alive. We tried to get to them, but couldn't. There was nothing we could do to save them."

He takes his eyes from the computer screen and shifts them to the window of the small bedroom in his parents' home. He stares out into the gray bleakness of a cold winter day, looking at nothing, really, as tormented thoughts drag him to some private hell, tears rolling down a face that remains eerily impassive.

And Killion, even when pressed to search deep into his scarred psyche for some sort of answer, can't explain why he keeps revisiting images that most would think should be stored away forever. Maybe it's because it doesn't matter all that much — the same pictures and more run through his mind anyhow, so what difference does it make if they're on his computer too?

"My counselors worry about me doing this," he says. "But it's what I went through. It's a part of me."

This much is certain, he says: There is no satisfaction derived from looking at the bodies of the men he killed.

"I know it was either me or them," says Killion. "But I also can't help feeling sorry for them. Even though any priest would tell me I did the right thing, I'm not exactly sure if I did."

Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, Killion is a bundle of contradictions.

He says he swells with pride at the handshakes and thank-yous and appreciative back slaps that come when folks back here at home learn that he served in Iraq. He says, too, that he would go back in a heartbeat if he could.

At the same time, he harbors a deep sympathy for those he killed. Those enemy fighters, he says, could easily be teens raised in a sort of poverty more desperate than anything known in this country. "Poor, ignorant bastards," is the way Killion describes them in his hard-bitten way.

And even though he feels a profound connection to a line he also keeps on his computer — "For those who fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know" — Killion at the same time readily admits his belief that this conflict in Iraq is one we were lied into. "Everyone will tell you that the war is bullshit, and that we went chasing after the wrong thing," is the way he puts it, then adding, "but you can't really want to let yourself think about that."

It's not hard to imagine that, when he sits in this room alone, surrounded by posters of bikini-clad girls and artwork that depicts soldiers both heroic and in mourning, Killion is at war with himself.

A psychiatrist interviewed by Metro Times, while making clear that his observations are not intended to be a diagnosis specific to Killion, says that while it may be unusual for a traumatized veteran to spend time revisiting images of combat, it's not inexplicable.

Internal conflicts like those expressed by Killion are as old as war itself, says Dr. Frank Ochberg, a Lansing-area psychiatrist who's a nationally recognized expert on PTSD. Look as far back as the Iliad, and you'll see the mythic Greek hero Achilles personifying the same sort of psychic turmoil.

Ochberg, formerly the director of what used to be known as Michigan's Department of Mental Health, says that looking at pictures like that could be interpreted as self-punishment. It might also be part of some attempt at coming to terms with the past, and putting it in its proper place. One of the effects of PTSD can be a kind of emotional numbing, so looking at those photos could be a way to feel at least some kind of emotion, which, although intensely painful, is better than feeling nothing at all.

You'd have a hard time convincing Killion of that, though. Sometimes, he says, he'll hit the American Legion for a few shots of whiskey just to make himself numb. He knows it's a Band-Aid, but if it helps him make it through another night, then he'll apply it.

Asked which is worse, the pain that wracks his body or the suffering produced by his mind, Killion replies, "Sometimes it's the physical. Sometimes it's the mental. And sometimes it's both. On those days I'm just a wreck."

In one sense, though, he is fortunate, because he's not alone.

Along with the support of family and friends, and the doctors and counselors supplied by the Department of Veterans Affairs, he has the help of other vets, soldiers who've marched through the same dangerous psychic territory and made it to the other side. And now that they have, they are doing what they can to help a new generation of soldiers. Just as in battle, when they felt duty-bound to cover the backs of those they fought alongside, these vets feel that same obligation here on the home front.

"That whole watching your back thing is definitely still there," says Killion. "And it means a lot."

He's found that spirit in a lot of veterans organizations. One of them is called the Veteran's Haven in the town of Wayne.

Relearning again

"I should say it's very interesting how war-related stress is discovered and forgotten with every major battle," Dr. Charles Marmar, chief of mental health service at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, told a congressional panel looking into the issue of PTSD earlier this month. "There were very good descriptions after World War I, very good descriptions after World War II. The first peer-reviewed publication describing this medical condition was in the British journal Lancet in 1841. So this is a disorder that has suffered a kind of awakening and forgetting over and over again."

The terms have changed over time. During the Civil War it was called "soldier's heart," and in the last century it was known as "shell shock" and then "battle fatigue," but whatever it was called, the condition itself, testified Marmar, has been "fundamentally the same from the time of the Trojan wars until now."

It was not until 1980, however, that PTSD was officially recognized by the medical community as a distinct psychiatric condition. It's an affliction that can strike anyone, not just soldiers. Recurrent nightmares, intense flashbacks where events that caused the initial trauma seem to be recurring, anger, panic attacks, emotional numbing, feelings of detachment, withdrawal, difficulty concentrating, sleeplessness and "survivor guilt" can all be symptoms.

Unfortunately for Vietnam vets like Vince Berna, 57, the periodic reawakening Marmar referred to was a long time coming.

Berna, who founded the nonprofit Veteran's Haven in 1994, is a no-nonsense kind of guy, though he'd probably use the term "hard-ass." Brooklyn-born, Michigan-raised, and given to a liberal use of profanity, he was drafted into the Army in 1968 at the age of 18. He served a year in Vietnam, out in the "boonies," as a weapons support specialist supplying troops out in the field. Sniper fire, mines, rockets and mortars were a daily part of life.

For him, that lasted a year. The day before he was scheduled to ship he caught a piece of shrapnel in the face. But he didn't want anything to delay his return home, so he pulled the chip of metal out himself and didn't say anything to anyone about it.

After enduring the stress of attacks day in and day out for a year, "a year in a real shit hole" is the way he puts it, fitting back into the civilian world wasn't exactly easy, but he wanted to put the war behind him and get on with life. He found a well-paying job as a millwright, got married, had a son.

As far as the war, he just didn't want to talk about it with anybody.

Then, he says, about eight years after his return home, "the PTSD" started to hit. It was a stressful time. His family was in the process of moving to a new home, and things weren't going smoothly. And his son had to undergo surgery. His dump truck was stolen. He found himself growing depressed, angry, isolated from his family.

By 1979, Berna says, he'd landed in the "looney-toon bin." But he didn't stay long in the psychiatric hospital. In retrospect he realizes now that he was misdiagnosed. They were treating him for anxiety and depression without dealing with the underlying issue of PTSD. He didn't like the drugs they were giving him, drugs that only made him feel numb and sedated, and he liked even less the fact that the doctors there didn't have any good answers when he asked what was wrong with him. After a couple weeks, he told them to "stick it in your ass" and checked himself out.

Once out, his symptoms persisted. Things like the smell of diesel fumes or fireworks would set him off, with images of Vietnam flashing through his mind, adrenaline coursing through him just like it would back in the war zone when his base came under attack.

He remembers once grabbing his brother and forcing him to run down the block, yelling, "incoming, incoming."

"It was very tough dealing with it on my own," he says. "But as long as there wasn't any heavy outside stress, I could suck it up and take care of my family."

It wasn't until 1994 that he was finally diagnosed with PTSD and began receiving treatment, getting the proper medication and, more importantly, counseling from people who understood the nature of his problems.

"Finally I didn't feel like the Lone Ranger anymore," he recalls.

By then he'd had to give up his job as a millwright because of injuries sustained in a serious car accident. He'd found work delivering groceries for Kroger to make ends meet, but things were tough.

But taking bags of food to homes around the west side of Detroit, he saw lots of people who had things even tougher. And as he'd talk to them, he began finding out that many of them were vets.

That and previous experiences he'd had trying to deal with the VA's red tape inspired him to pay $460 to have Veteran's Haven registered with the federal government as a nonprofit agency. He and his wife started working out of the bedroom of their apartment. For the first three or four years, he says, most of the money it took to run the place came out of his pocket. Then word started to get out about the work they were doing, and outside funding started to come in. By the fall of '99, a government grant enabled them to buy their own place in Wayne.

In 2005, according to IRS filings, the nonprofit took in more than $237,000. With a combination of government grants and private donations, Veteran's Haven operates a house in Wayne where homeless vets — up to 10 at any one time — can stay free of charge for up to two years. They have to undergo drug and alcohol testing, keep up appearances, and participate in a job-training program. As part of that two-year plan, there's a four-plex, with private apartments that those who earn the right can move into.

"We're not going to coddle your ass," says Berna. "But if you've go the balls and the smarts, we'll help you make it. We'll give you all the tools you need. But if you're looking for a nipple to suck on, hey, I didn't adopt ya."

For all the hard-ass bravado, Berna is a guy who still hurts. And coming to this Haven he created helps him cope.

"It's a way of taking a negative and turning it into a positive," he says. "Doing this has literally saved my life."

Berna is on the mark when he talks about the therapeutic value of what he does. Psychiatrist Ochberg says that sort of giving back to others can represent the final stage overcoming PTSD.

Other vets helping out at the nonprofit echo the sentiment that their work there continues to help them cope. For those seeking assistance, the place simply helps them survive.

In addition to the housing, Veteran's Heaven has a list of about 500 men and women who receive food monthly. There's a storeroom with clothing and necessities like toiletries for folks who walk in off the street. All they need is proof that they're an honorably discharged vet. There's also a car donation program.

Vets from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are already starting to show up at their door. Right now in the house there are two guys from this new generation who would have been homeless were it not for the housing provided by Veteran's Haven.

But there's more than just the housing and the food and the clothes.

"We can save these kids a lot of heartache, and help them get immediate help without adding more stress to a stressful situation," Berna explains. "We've made a lot of contacts in the VA, and can help these kids overcome the obstacles."

Looking back, Berna says he has contradictory feelings about Vietnam. He's still proud to have fought there instead of taking off for Canada, which he never considered to be an option. But it's still damn hard to accept that "60,000 guys lost their lives for nothing," and all that "horseshit" that came out afterward, the duplicity of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, "that scrambled the brains of a lot of guys," he says.

Now he sees a lot of the younger guys trying to deal with the lies they were told. And though he'll remind you that jihadists haven't flown any more jetliners into American skyscrapers since we took this fight to the Middle East, he'll also point to one of the posters he has tacked up on the wall. It shows an American soldier in silhouette, rifle in hand, head thrown back and arms outstretched. Above this figure, in large block letters, is a one-word question: "WHY?"

"It's a question that gets a lot more personal if it's your son or daughter, and that's a pain that never goes away."

Which is why, he says, "it's time to get our ass out of there. We've set the Iraqis up. Let them take care of it now so not one more of our kids comes home in a body bag."

And for those who come home damaged, the Veteran's Haven will be a place they can continue to turn to for help.

"The thing is, we can relate to what they're going through, because we've been there," he says. "Most people don't really give a fuck. Unless it affects them directly, they'll just sit on the couch, watch the Pistons and drink their beer."

When guys like him came home from Vietnam, they say they were often treated like pariahs by a generation of young people that had turned against the war.

Now, everyone — even those vehemently opposed to this war — says they support the troops. But until very recently, for most people the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has been like background noise.

And working-class guys like Berna — well, they were expendable then, and they're expendable now — at least in the eyes of those at the top who are making the decisions. Guys who talk tough but never had to duck a bullet or pull a hunk of shrapnel out of their face or watch the life ooze from the body of a buddy who just took a round to the head.

Besides, he says, you think about this shit too much and you just drive yourself crazy. So, instead of worrying about things you can't control, you do what you did back in the days you toted a gun. You look out for the people who wore the uniform and fought for this country. You cover their backs, and do all you can to make sure they survive.

Which is why, when Vince Berna heard Chris Killion had to have a knee operation that might help take away some of his pain, and the VA was giving him the runaround, Berna and others threw the kid a fund-raiser and got him the money he needed to have that operation. About $18,000 was raised.

The thing is, there are going to be a lot more Chris Killions in our future, soldiers with wounded bodies and battle-stressed minds coming home in need of help. Way more than everyone who's been watching ball games and drinking beer and not paying attention to the background noise of war knows.

Tripping on trillions

So far, more than 1.4 million soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have been dispatched to fight in the Global War on Terror, the Pentagon's name for operations in and around Iraq and Afghanistan. Of that number, about 420,000 have been deployed more than once.

More than 3,000 of those men and women have been killed. In addition, as of Sept. 30, 2006, about 50,500 of these troops have suffered non-mortal wounds.

In a paper presented earlier this year by Linda Bilmes, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, this represents a ratio of 16 wounded servicemen for every fatality — by far the largest ratio of wounded to killed in U.S. history.

"While it is welcome, new and a credit to military medicine that more soldiers are surviving grievous wounds," Bilmes reported, "the existence of so many veterans, with such high levels of injuries, is yet another aspect of this war for which the Pentagon and the Administration failed to plan, prepare and budget."

As Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) recently pointed out, the VA last year "planned to see 110,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. It ended up seeing more than 185,000." For this year, the VA projects to see only 109,000 veterans. "Given what we know about our continued involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Murray "that simply defies logic."

Bilmes predicts the long-term costs of providing disability benefits to Iraq and Afghan war veterans will be between $67 billion and $126 billion.

And then there's the problem of red tape that inspired Berna to create Veteran's Haven.

"The issue is not simply the cost but the efficiency in providing veterans with their benefits," Bilmes reported.

"To date," she noted, "the backlog of pending claims from these recent war veterans is 34,000, but the vast majority of servicemen from this conflict have not yet filed their claims. Even without the projected wave of claims, the VA has an overall backlog of 400,000, including thousands of Vietnam-era claims. Including all pending claims and other paperwork, the VA's backlog has increased from 465,623 in 2004 to ... 604,380 in 2006."

In addition to all this, Bilmes also reported, "the war in Iraq has been noteworthy for the types of injuries sustained by soldiers. Some 20 percent have suffered brain trauma, spinal injuries or amputations; another 20 percent have suffered other major injuries such as ... blindness, partial blindness or deafness and serious burns.

"However, the largest unmet need is in the area of mental health. The strain of extended deployments, the stop-loss policy, stressful ground warfare and uncertainty regarding discharge and leave has taken an especially high toll on soldiers. Thirty-six percent of veterans treated so far — an unprecedented number — have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. These include PTSD, acute depression, substance abuse and other conditions."

Col. Charles Engel, a clinician at the Walter Reed Medical Center, has estimated that between 15 percent and 30 percent of the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from PTSD. According to published reports, as of August 2006, "63,767 discharged soldiers had already been diagnosed by the VA with a mental disorder and 34,380 with PTSD."

It remains to be seen how many of these former soldiers will be showing up at places like Veteran's Haven seeking shelter, but the number is certain to be substantial.

The VA estimates that "nearly 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night" and that "nearly 400,000 experience homelessness over the course of a year."

About 45 percent of these homeless vets suffer from mental illness, and half have substance abuse problems.

By some estimates, there are already 1,000 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan living on the streets.

Vince Berna has been seeing people like them for more than a decade. Having suffered the trauma of war, and then turned to alcohol and drugs to numb themselves, they lose their jobs, abuse and lose their families, and end up with nowhere else to turn.

Before invading Iraq, the Pentagon estimated the war would cost $50 billion to $60 billion. Based on congressional appropriations so far, the official cost of the war in Iraq has already exceeded $362 billion. But even that number is misleading.

Last year, Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Bilmes co-authored a study that projected the total cost of the Iraq war for the United States could exceed $2 trillion. To reach that figure, the two included a wide variety of factors, including long-term healthcare for wounded veterans.

As The Boston Globe reported, the analysis also took into account "the war's impact on the ballooning federal deficit, its ripple effects on overall economic growth and investment, and losses in productivity." The increased price of oil due to instability in the Middle East was also included in the calculation.

When you add up all the numbers, Stiglitz told the paper, "I think $2 trillion is conservative."

No matter what the cost, though, and no matter how much future budgets are strained by national debt and the cost of rebuilding what has been described as a broken military, this country will have an unbreakable moral obligation to those we sent off to fight, whether the cause was legitimate or not.

Watching their backs

The Chris Killions of this war are only going to increase in number. And that's why he agreed to talk for this article, and to expose the raw pain he endures, even though he fears it may mean someone will show up at his front door looking to wrap him in a straitjacket and lock him away.

"I don't want to end up in the loony bin," says Killion.

But even stronger than that fear is the obligation he feels to those who will surely be coming after him. Killion says he's always had a strong patriotic streak, which is what led him to enlist in the first place, just before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Now, his sense of duty is stronger than ever, which is why he's doing what he can to help others, even as he continues the daily struggle to save himself.

It's not easy, says Killion. None of it.

He tries to keep the number of pills he takes to a minimum. The anti-depressants he's been prescribed don't seem to work much anyway. And the anti-anxiety medication makes him feel as if he's in a fog, and so he tries to stay off that as well.

As for the pain pills, he tries to stay off them as much as possible. "I don't want to get hooked," he says. "And I don't want to be all doped up all the time." But still, a lot of the time the agony is too much to bear without the meds.

Along with all his other medical problems, he began suffering epileptic-like seizures last year. So now he's on medication to keep those from recurring.

And then there's the grief over comrades he's lost — "I feel like I let them down," he says — and guilt that he's back home while others he served with are still over there fighting, never knowing if the next breath they take will be their last.

It's a feeling he's lived with for more than two years. And it can come back to him in an instant.

"Almost anything can make me feel like I'm back there," he says. "Just hearing someone hitting a nail with a hammer can do it."

Still he pushes on, going to school at Henry Ford Community College, hoping to find a career doing something involved with homeland security. But school is tough. Because of concentration and memory problems, there's lots of times he'll get to the end of a chapter and have to start again because he's forgotten what he read at the beginning. And in between classes, he visits the counselors and psychologists and psychiatrists — five of them in all.

That, too, is hard.

But it's also getting easier, if only just a little.

"When I first got back, I was in denial about this," he says. "I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn't want to admit it."

And even when he started talking to the counselors, he wouldn't tell them what was really going on.

"At first I wasn't being honest with them," he says. "I didn't want to feel like some weirdo. But I'm learning that honesty is the key."

What helps as much as anything, though, is talking to the guys who've already been where he is now. He'll go to the American Legion hall or the VFW.

"Anybody who hasn't been there, they really can't understand," he says. "But talking to people who've been through what I've been through, that really helps."

"The World War II guys are like my grandfathers," he explains. "And the Vietnam guys I think of as being my fathers. And what they say to me is they don't ever want to see anyone else go through the kind of stuff they went through when they came home."

Then there are those still fighting, and those who have yet to see the things Killion has, the images there on his computer, and the images that haunt his dreams — the things, he says, that no one should ever have to see.

He's staring out the window again, looking off into some unfathomable distance.

"Who knows how long this war's going to go on," he says. "Who knows how many more are going to come back messed up."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]