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Editor’s Note: Stinchcomb is hosting Café San Diego today and will be talking about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other issues he says will affect San Diego as a community. Check there throughout the day.

Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2006 | This story isn’t about any one person — it’s about thousands of Americans who went off on a mission and have yet to really come home. You might see them on the street or in a coffee shop without ever noticing them. But they’re there, veterans carrying heavy rucksacks — more weight than you would ever know, until you tried carrying one yourself.

I began carrying mine at Ft. Bragg, in those first few nights of sleeplessness that I attributed to jetlag following the long flight from Baghdad.

What else could it be?

The work was so hard overseas sleeping got to be a science. You could hear a mortar round impact in the distance, raise your head to tally the threat and then doze back off in an instant.

Try going for three days without sleep sometime. You’ll realize that sleep is life — like air is life and water is life. You can’t fathom the idea that somewhere in the world there are people called insomniacs.

What an idea.

This isn’t to say you slept well. Once, I was shaken awake by the blast of an RPG — which is better than the opposite I suppose. This was around April 2, 2003 in a town called As Samawa. Some Fedayeen had crept up on the far side of the Euphrates River and opened up with five RPGs fired at various positions, including ours.

I mention this for one reason: My body, as well as my mind, was recording that moment for all time. In recording it — and pumping out staggering amounts of adrenaline and other hormones — it was altering its own chemistry, perhaps irreversibly.

In Iraq, this is the least of your worries. In fact, a quiet part of you thinks this new physiology can mean the difference between life and death. So like a shadow, adrenaline is always on your heels.

Today, it’s not odd to find my living room lights on at 2 or 3 a.m. My mind simply refuses to shut down.

That shadow, it seems, has followed me home.

Ramping Up

According to the VA, 120,000 vets have sought health care following deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and that a third of those were for mental health disorders — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder chief among them. They figure that at least 13 percent of military PTSD patients are women.

While we take time to honor all veterans and welcome our newest ones, we would be well served to also take time to ask: How far are we prepared to go to help and support these men and women?

Perhaps the best thing anyone can do is to just put their boots on for a moment and try to understand what all this is like.

Experts say there are a variety of triggers for combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It can be single event — a firefight, an ambush, indirect fire such as mortars or IEDs. It can also be accumulative, the result of daily patrols in places where the enemy is masked among the populace.

Looking back, I think my case is a bit of both.

At first, the line between civilian and enemy was barely visible. There was lots of moving to contact, fire incoming but, if your luck holds, more of it outgoing. I was lucky to be with a solid unit — the 82nd Airborne. Sometimes we had the luxury of close-air support — choppers and even the odd jet raining ordinance on the Fedayeen.

Later, there was no line at all. You drive down narrow streets. Fetid sewage canals frame lovely kill zones. Every alley has dozens of windows staring you down — an unsettling thought given that nearly every home has at least one AK-47 residing there. One moment you can be patrolling in some neighborhood, the next an RPG explodes and a half dozen guys open up with small arms.

You learn to watch peoples’ hands and you never stay too long in one neighborhood. Personal space is nonexistent in Iraqi culture, so if you stop to talk with someone, expect him to stand on your toes. Expect five to 10 of his neighbors to do the same. (Have a fantastic near-security guy, like I did, or else plan to call in sick that day.)

The gunfire you hear on patrol is sometimes a wedding or funeral ceremony, but on those occasions when it isn’t, have your head screwed on tight or the next celebratory gunfire you hear may be in your honor.

Every trash pile is a potential IED.

These are the things you think about on patrol in Iraq. I never figured on thinking about them so much here at home.

I was wrong.

Less Than Heaven

For a deployed soldier, thinking of home is like thinking of paradise: Love and safety, good food and cold beer, holding your child, kissing your wife. Unfortunately, many soldiers are finding that coming home is something less than heaven.

To my surprise, it was that way for me.

At family functions, I felt, detached, isolated — as if a glass wall separated me from my loved ones. I hid it pretty well, but I was having a hard time following conversations and staying in the moment mentally. I didn’t know what to do about it. So instead I took breaks, making excuses to go outside, like a smoker in need of a cigarette.

I came home with a temper. In my first month home, I found myself screaming — absolutely screaming — at my daughter one morning. The day had started badly. She was throwing a fit and had unfastened her car seat during our drive to daycare. The whole thing — the freeway traffic, the yelling, the seat belt — it set me off.

Months later, she would ask: “daddy, remember when you yelled at me? Why did you yell like that?” Like a splinter, that memory works itself to the surface every now and again.

I don’t know why I screamed. I only know that I’ve seen exactly one too many kids killed in my life — and that fearing for her safety is practically unbearable for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard noises at night and cleared my yard or my house room by room. Afterward, I’ll end up in her bedroom just to lay my hand on her — just to feel her chest rise and fall.

She’s OK, I think. I can rest.

But often I can’t.

Training and experience has taught me to expect the worst. In places like Fallujah and Baghdad, this is appropriate.

In San Diego it’s just absurd.

This absurdity came into focus one night, when I went to dinner with my wife. I parked next to a tall apartment building and then, without thinking, jumped out and began checking all the windows and nearby corners. I was looking for enemies who were halfway around the world. Truth be told, the real enemy was under my skin. I’d given my body a year in combat and in response it was giving me a war of its own.

Today, thousands of veterans who had similar — and to be honest, often worse — experiences than I had are coming home from war. They left as healthy men and women but many are returning injured in ways they can’t even see — in ways they can’t even imagine.

A 2004 report from the New England Journal of Medicine, says one in six Iraq war veterans are struggling with problems like mine.

I bet these numbers are all low. Solders pride themselves on their ability to “suck it up and drive on.” But in doing so, many are refusing to admit there’s a problem. Others feel guilty about it. Such a little thing, compared to being wounded, we tell ourselves. I should be able to handle it.

Of those studied by the Journal of Medicine, only about 19 percent of soldiers with psychiatric disorders are seeking help. And worse, those with the most severe symptoms often avoid treatment due to the stigma attached to such problems.

This is a mistake — one that a lot of older veterans are urging us not to make.

At the first group meeting I ever attended at the Vet Center, the Vietnam vets embraced us like younger brothers. “You’re doing the right thing,” one veteran told me. “I waited 20 years and went through two marriages before I got help.”

Vietnam vets like that are ahead of the curve. After nearly 40 years, many others are still trudging through the jungles, trying to find their way home.

For this reason more than any other, I’m asking all my fellow veterans to reach out now and get the help they need. Don’t put it off, and don’t try to go it alone. If you are struggling, you can find friends and find support through the VA and a variety of other organizations.

It won’t be easy. Today I take prescription medication when I need sleep. I attend two meetings a week — an individual counseling session and a group session. Every day I use breathing exercises to control stress and my temper. I still clear the house on occasion, but I’m working hard to relax, to stop looking for potential threats. I exercise and exercise and exercise. (My daughter’s hamster and I share this late-night habit.)

I’m doing these things because I want my old self back. He was a bit naïve, but I liked that guy. I refuse to leave him in Iraq.

There are good days and bad days. But I am working hard to get better and to enjoy the present. I want to be a good husband and father. I want to feel intimacy and friendship. I want to come home.

I am. That’s my mission now.

Jeff Stinchcomb is a San Diego writer and a former staff sergeant with the U.S. Army’s 301st Psychological Operations Co. (Airborne), which deployed troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003. Stinchcomb is hosting Café San Diego Jan. 9.

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