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Iraq veterans take their message to the streets
During Sunday afternoon’s steady rain, three men in vivid orange shirts and bearing United States flags hiked up the long hill from the north end ferry, a striking contrast to the gray clouds hanging low in the sky above them. Below the American flags, they carried smaller flags commemorating those wounded or killed in action. A few Islanders — children and adults — fell in step with the men and joined them for their wet walk into town.
These men — all veterans of the Iraq war — served together and spent Veterans Day weekend on a nearly 60-mile trek from Naval Base Kitsap near Bremerton to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, via Vashon Island. Their mission: to raise awareness about the challenges service men and women face when they return from war. At the top of that list, the men said, are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
“This is something I have wanted to do for veterans,” said Chess Johnson, one of the vets walking and a primary force behind the journey. “I have been dreaming about it for some time.”
The men are part of a group Johnson and Andy Britt — the other force behind the walk — created recently and call Team Hostile. Both men were retired from the military because of PTSD and TBI, have faced considerable challenges and have seen many of their military brothers face daunting obstacles. Britt and Johnson say they decided it was time to get hostile — the most peaceful way they know how — and bring some issues more into the light. This walk is the group’s first event, they said, but they plan more for the future, including a cross-country walk in 2013.
As Team Hostile, they also hope to help military service members with whatever problems they might have when they return from war, whether it be contending with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA)— a system they say has let them down along with many others they served with, finding healthy outlets for a dose of adrenaline or simply listening and sharing their own experiences.
Will Carroll, an active duty soldier still serving with their former unit, Fort Lewis’s Third Brigade, 2-3 Infantry Division, accompanied them on their walk for a simple reason: “Because they asked, and they are like another family,” he said, adding with a laugh, "I wish they would have told me how far it was before I said yes."
On Vashon, stopping for lunch with roughly 18 miles behind them, the men gave good marks to their journey so far: People greeted them, stopped and talked; a former Marine bought them all coffee, and a tearful woman whose husband died in Afghanistan stopped and took their picture.
Islander Chris Gaynor, a Vietnam veteran known to many for his exhibit at the Heritage Museum, “Home of Record: Vashon and the Vietnam War,” joined the men that day and served as an Island host — a role he clearly relished.
“I am passionate to do what I can in my small way that will be helpful to military service men and women today,” he said. “It’s my duty as a veteran.”
Gaynor also arranged for the three men to receive quilts from American Hero Quilts, which Islander Sue Nebeker has run since 2004, delivering more than 12,000 quilts in that time. The purpose of the quilts is to honor wounded warriors, Nebeker said, so it was important to her that these men receive quilts to honor their service and sacrifice.
The men ended their evening at the Vashon Eagles’ annual Veterans Day dinner, where they talked with guests and Johnson spoke about their purpose. Afterward, they stayed at the home of Dave and Helen Andrews, who, the next morning, spoke glowingly about them.
“We gained more from this than these fine young men did,” Dave said. Helen agreed, “It was truly fabulous,” she said, adding that she had tears in her eyes when she watched them leave, flags waving above them. The men stepped off near dawn, planning to end their day at the memorial of their unit with friends and family at Fort Lewis.
Britt, 29, and Johnson, 31, have traveled a long road since enlisting in the Army fresh from high school, intent on serving their country. Last week Britt, Johnson and Johnson’s wife Krianne shared some of their experiences in a conversation at a coffee shop in Port Orchard, where the Johnsons live.
The two men met in 2003 and served in the Army’s infantry, a branch of the military whose members — all men — are trained to fight on foot and face-to-face. Johnson said he believes there is more sense of brotherhood in the infantry than in any other part of the Army.
“There is a special bond you have to make,” he said.
Britt agreed. “We all love each other,” he said.
All three men served two tours in Iraq together, and Johnson planned for a 30-year military career. Those plans changed on Dec. 3, 2006, when, in the worst ambush U.S. soldiers had faced since 2003, he was shot in the head, lost an eye and nearly died. After the shooting, Britt, who had been nearby, cleaned out Johnson’s helmet.
At Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., a doctor told his family members that he would never walk or communicate intelligently again. Now Johnson, who still has the bullet lodged in his skull and diminished vision in his remaining eye, works out daily, competes in military athletic events and hopes to participate in the Paralympic games.
Walking 60 miles in Northwest fall weather may not rate as extreme for men trained for combat, but both men say — as people with brain injuries — planning and preparation had its challenges. Still, they said they were undaunted and prepared for even the worst weather.
“The more difficult the mission, the more we want to do it,” Britt said.
Johnson and Britt speak passionately about a list of issues they would like to see addressed: the high rates of suicide, incarceration, alcohol and drug addiction among veterans, improvements made to the VA system, more employment options for vets and, of course, more research devoted to PTSD and TBI and greater awareness about it.
Both men acknowledge the issues they are raising are complex.
“We’re not trying to solve them,” Britt said. “We’re just trying to get people to recognize they exist.”
In fact, the main issues inspiring this walk, PTSD and TBI, exist for thousands of military men and women. Between 13 and 30 percent of deployed combat vets develop PTSD, according to Laura Merritt, a mental health therapist at the PTSD clinic at the VA’s Puget Sound Health Care System, Seattle Division. Symptoms can range from flashbacks to irritability to withdrawing from others. In Washington state alone, 33,000 soldiers have PTSD, according to Johnson.
Help is available through the VA, Merritt said, and she encourages any vet struggling to seek assistance.
Traumatic brain injury, considered the hallmark injury of the Iraq and Afghan wars, also has had devastating effects. Its symptoms overlap with those of PTSD, Merritt said, including emotional and cognitive problems, such as memory and concentration issues, irritability and agitation. In the Army alone, roughly 20,000 traumatic brain injuries have occurred every year from 2006 to 2011, according to the Department of Defense. Symptoms may last for years, and, unfortunately, such injuries increase the odds of developing PTSD and depression.
For both men, these statistics hit close to home. Explosions from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were a part of everyday life, they said.
“I don’t know a single man in my brigade that wasn’t blown up at least 50 times,” Johnson said.
Repeated blast exposures caused Britt’s brain injury. His military file, he said, includes nearly 40 documented blast exposures, and he believes 30 to 40 percent of those situations resulted in a concussion.
Both Britt and Johnson have been through difficult times after leaving the military. Some of the challenges Johnson has faced appear in the documentary “Exit Wound,” directed and produced by former Islander Hunter Holcombe. Part of the film, which will be shown at the Vashon Eagles next week, shows him struggling to feel safe in a restaurant, people talking and laughing around him, while he checks and re-checks windows, and ultimately decides he cannot stay at the gathering.
Britt says he too struggles with being out in public, especially when he is alone. A trip to the store, routine for most people, is difficult for him, he said, and he experiences such severe anxiety that sometimes he cannot stay to buy what he needs. Going in the middle of the night makes it easier, he said, and he suits up for the trip, with headphones on and a hood pulled up. Britt is a single father of two young children, and he said this piece is especially hard for him when he wants to take them on a simple trip to the mall.
The men also hope some of the stigma of being a vet with PTSD will fade both inside and outside of the military — and say, too, that the public has little understanding of the good they did in Iraq, including building schools and setting up and securing the country’s first elections.
“We did not go there wanting to kill,” Britt said. “We went there wanting to restore peace and health. And our mission is the same in America.”
Fulfilling that mission is why they spent Veterans Day weekend walking.
“This band of brothers I was told about from day one … that would never let me down,” Johnson said, “I am fulfilling my part of that.”
Slideshow photos courtesy of Chris Gaynor and Paul Chen.