Outside the red brick home of Jason Gunn, a suburban winter day begins quietly. It's nearly Christmas in this sleepy neighborhood near Philadelphia, and Gunn has been home from the military for five months. But inside his parents' house the 26-year-old sits wrapped in a blanket, eyes fixed on the ceiling, his mind still lingering on hot desert air.
"We were crossing over this bridge in Baghdad we'd crossed hundreds of times," he says flatly, his hands clasped behind his stubbly head. "They set off an improvised explosive device just as the front of the truck had nosed across. The guy behind me took the majority of the blast, like point blank. Everything that didn't hit him, hit me."
Gunn's lanky body is covered with ink. His right arm bears a green, graffiti-like tattoo that reads "Misled Youth," the name of a favorite band but also a hint at one source of Gunn's burgeoning anger. His left arm and torso are dimpled with scars.
"I can turn one way and it looks normal. I turn the other way and I'm full of holes," he says, tracing his left side from ankle to chin, and pointing out the places where shrapnel, glass and gravel are embedded in his skin. Considering the unarmored Humvee Gunn was driving had no doors, he's lucky to have survived at all.
"I was conscious for the whole thing," he says of the blast that obliterated his close friend and left him barely able to walk. "I got a whole bunch of tattoos to try to cover up the scars."
For Gunn and a growing number of Iraq veterans, the scars they bring home are less easily masked. Thanks largely to advanced technology, more soldiers are surviving with injuries that would've killed them in previous wars.
Helicopter evacuations allow injured soldiers to receive prompt surgical attention, often within an hour of being wounded. Casualties are transported to nearby medical staging areas and then to hospitals in Germany, frequently returning to the United States after only a few days.
While the increased survival rates are welcome news, the result is a huge pool of returning veterans with serious needs. According to U.S. Senate research, the amputation rate for injured soldiers has risen to 6 percent, nearly double the rate reported in previous wars. The Department of Veterans Affairs spends $1 billion annually on prosthetic services for vets, a 30 percent increase since 2000.
On top of the growing number of injured veterans, the VA saw a tenfold increase in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder last year. An Army study has found that one in six of the more than half-million veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom now report symptoms of PTSD. Because of the stigma surrounding mental health care in the military, many experts believe the actual number is considerably higher.
PTSD a disorder that produces symptoms ranging from nightmares to flashbacks to hallucinations, often triggered by reminders of a particularly traumatic or horrific event didn't become an accepted medical diagnosis until 1980, long after Vietnam. The myriad symptoms include irritability, difficulty sleeping, detachment, hypervigilance, depression and intense anxiety or panic. The disorder is exacerbated by the unpredictability of the warfare that characterizes combat in Iraq.
In October the VA reported that more than 101,000 of the 430,000 U.S. soldiers who'd been discharged from the military after service in Iraq and Afghanistan have sought treatment through the VA. After coming up $1 billion short in 2005, the VA has predicted a $2.6 billion budget shortfall for 2006.
Add to these numbers the psychological ramifications of fighting what 52 percent of Americans now believe is an unjustified war, and the result is a huge percentage of Iraq war veterans who are coming home only to find themselves facing a whole new nightmare.
"I believed that if I did get out, every door, every opportunity was mine," says Gunn. "I just had to want it and take it. But when I got back nothing was falling into place. I got into this big funk about how my life was turning out."
Gunn has stopped taking the PTSD medication he was prescribed while recuperating in Heidelberg Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. "That's some horrible stuff. It turns you into a zombie," he says. "You basically have no emotions whatsoever."
Gunn was in Germany for two and a half weeks and home for 45 days before the Army sent him back to base camp and then to Iraq, with the rationale that facing his fears would help him work through whatever was bothering him. "The doctors said I shouldn't go back because I had to go through a whole bunch of treatment. I couldn't carry any weight. I was still using a cane to get around. I was still wrapping my own bandages and stuff like that."
Despite his doctors' objections, Gunn redeployed in February 2004. He says he signed the deployment form "to stop all the bullshit."
"Once they got me over there, it was such a big fiasco. I was like, 'I don't care where you put me, where you send me. Just get me there and stop making me tap-dance for you.'" At that point Gunn had already given up most of his hope of making it home for good. He said goodbye to his family and friends for what he told them would be the last time.
But Gunn did make it home. And since then he's become something of a media spokesperson for the anti-war movement, a poster child for the tragedies of war. Gunn has been quoted in numerous publications and TV programs, and was featured in Maxim magazine last November. He also appeared in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Despite the media interest, Gunn has been unable to hold a job for more than a few weeks since he returned from Iraq. He quit his last job driving a delivery truck when his boss blamed him for missed deliveries he says weren't his fault.
"It all goes back to Iraq," he says. "The insecurity, not knowing if you're going to see tomorrow. So any chance you get to get into a safe zone, to get the hell out of a place you feel is going to be bad, you just bounce. I find myself doing a lot of running."
Gunn refuses to name his current job which pays poorly and has him working graveyard shifts because he finds it too embarrassing. "It's something to do until I get myself back into school," he says.
The difficulties Gunn describes aren't uncommon among young veterans. Last May U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson put the unemployment rate for male veterans between ages 20 and 24 at 20.4 percent, nearly twice the rate of their civilian peers.
Most of Gunn's high school friends are employed, having long since finished college and moved on with their lives. He says joining the Army wasn't a popular choice when he graduated from high school in 1997. But Gunn is one of a set of triplets in a military family, and money for school was tight. Which is why in 1996, at 17, all three brothers enlisted.
He'd hoped to go to school on the GI bill, but the Army isn't making it easy for him. "They aren't paying for anything," he says. "They sent something back saying they had no record of me ever processing out of the service. So now I got to go through all these other channels to figure out what the hell is going on. It's just another obstacle in the way of what I want to do."
What Gunn wants to do is study medical science and become a paramedic. He was inspired by the medics he observed in combat in Iraq, like those who airlifted him from the smoky remains of his Humvee on that bridge in Baghdad. But even with a specific goal in mind and the money he deserves for community college, Gunn remains ambivalent about his future: "The military prepares you for only one thing; to fight. That's it. There are days when I think the only thing I can really do well is be a soldier."
'IT'LL GO AWAY'
Patrick Resta, a 27-year-old New Jersey native who served in Iraq with the North Carolina National Guard, now lives with his wife in a small South Philadelphia apartment.
Resta, who served eight and a half months as a medic 75 miles northeast of Baghdad, has been waiting 14 weeks for an MRI of his right knee, which has bothered him since his return home in late 2004. Resta's back also causes him serious pain, but for that he's on a different waiting list to see a specialist.
"You have to go through the VA for everything," he explains. "That's the mess I'm in now."
Resta says the military's health care problems surface even before vets start the waiting game with the underfinanced VA. The first concern, he says, is the army's post-deployment health assessment survey, which is the primary way the mental and physical health of soldiers is evaluated before they return home.
"It's this medical checklist, and you basically fill in ovals that say yes, no, maybe for questions like: 'While you were over there, did you ever have diarrhea? Did you ever vomit? Did you ever cough?' And then farther down the list, something like, 'Do you now or have you ever thought of harming yourself, your family members or people in your community?'" he explains. "And you're told before you fill this thing out, if you answer this the wrong way you're going to be stuck here while they sort it out. I don't know anyone that would put, 'Yes, I'm thinking about killing myself' unless you're totally whacked out. Especially after being told you're going to be there for months."
During out-processing in 2004, which Resta calls "really disorganized," he told the Army doctor about the pain in his back and his knee: "The doctor told me, 'Oh, just give that a month and it'll go away.' I looked at him and said, 'Excuse me?'"
Resta says the doctor then took a look at his chart. "'It looks like you've been away from home about a year now,' he said. 'Well, you've got a choice here. You can either go home and try to fight it out with the Veterans Administration, or you can sit here for six months waiting to see an orthopedist. What do you want to do?'"
"That's not a choice. I grabbed my stuff and walked out of there," says Resta, who is now a nursing/premed major at a community college. "The goal is to get you off the payroll as soon as they can. That's what they're trying to do."
DEMONS IN CHECK
"I was like, 'Oh my God, what the hell was this? What did I just do?'" says Dave Adams, 25, remembering the time when he almost smashed his mother's car window and nearly threw a punch at his dad. It was the incident that sent him to the Chicago VA hospital and back home with a diagnosis of PTSD.
"I was put on some medication, but I didn't like it. It didn't seem to help. And that's when I became involved with IVAW and discovered there were other veterans having the same issues I was having," he says.
Adams tells his story surrounded by several other Iraq vets, all of whom are in Philadelphia for an Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) training weekend.
"That's been much more therapeutic for me than taking any kind of medication."
Adams says he asked about group therapy options when he visited the VA in his Chicago hometown. "The doctor I had didn't really make it seem like that was an option," he says.
Adams served in Iraq for five months, between February and July 2003. When he returned home on the Fourth of July, he bought $700 worth of fireworks and pretended the loud cracks and flashes of light in the sky didn't make his heart pound and his body tense. He began drinking about a case of beer a day. Just before starting school at Southern Illinois University, Adams was drinking a couple of bottles of Southern Comfort a week.
The drinking took its toll on his relationship with his fiancee, the woman he'd been dating since before he was deployed. "I told her I needed some time to decompress," he says. "To me, that just kind of meant drinking my ass off every day. She wanted me to go get help, and I thought I was under control with drinking. She broke off the engagement."
Before starting school, Adams took a job at Abercrombie & Fitch.
"You know, with everything that a lot of us have been through, you'd think a job like that would be as easy as it could be," he says. "But I'd get panic attacks there. It happened probably at least once a day if I wasn't in 100 percent control of what was happening. My heart would start pounding, and I would start sweating profusely. I haven't been working since."
Adams is now getting a bachelor's degree in administrative justice with money he received from the GI bill. He's squeaking by, but says he knows he'd be getting better grades if he could keep his demons in check.
"If I see something on the news, it makes me think about my friends, and I make a trip to the bar I probably shouldn't make. And I have a few drinks, and a few more I probably shouldn't be having," he says. "So it kind of prohibits me from going to class the next day."
Abbie Pickett celebrated her 21st birthday in Kuwait, chasing a convoy that would take her to Iraq the following year (2003). A bubbly blond from a tiny town in rural Wisconsin, Pickett joined the National Guard at 17 because she thought it seemed like a good way to give back to her community. About 20 percent of her graduating class did the same thing.
At 19, while working on a humanitarian mission in Nicaragua, Pickett was sexually assaulted by a U.S. military officer. She never reported the incident, and later switched to a new unit one that was deployed to Iraq in May 2004.
At 21, Pickett narrowly survived a mortar attack on an Army recreation site in Baqubah, Iraq. She spent the following few hours drenched in dying soldiers' blood.
"When I got home I knew I was screwed up," Pickett says, somehow still sounding like an average, if not particularly gregarious, 23-year-old. "Already the nightmares had started." Her roommate at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisc., soon began leaving booklets about PTSD on her bed.
Consumed by nightmares and often startled by even the slamming of a door, Pickett went to the VA for help, but received little. "They gave me a bottle of sleeping pills and an antidepressant and sent me on my way," she says. "They gave me an 800 number to call, but when I called it I got two disconnected numbers in Wisconsin.
"When you actively try to get help and it's not there … I was like suicidal," she says. "They kept on giving me those same numbers, and they don't work."
Since March 2003, 40 U.S. soldiers and nine Marines have committed suicide in Iraq, according to the National Veterans Foundation. A documented 20 soldiers and 23 Marines have killed themselves since returning home.
Pickett eventually got involved with a group called Vets for Vets, which provides services to and facilitates communication between veterans in need. "Transitional services are better for someone coming out of prison than they are for someone coming out of the military," Pickett says, which is why she now works to spread the word about the independent nonprofit organizations available to vets.
"I don't need the yellow ribbon on the back of your car. I need money for VA funding," she explains. "We need money for those kids that are coming home and have to revamp their whole house because they've had limbs blown off, or aren't going to be able to do the occupation they once were able to.
"So instead of putting a ribbon on your car, do the next step. Talk to somebody who just came back to your community and they're struggling and they need somebody to reach out to them. Help somebody whose husband or wife is deployed and they need help taking their kids to school or whatever it may be. It's a great sentiment, but it means nothing unless you're doing something behind it."
Pickett is particularly interested in helping female veterans with everything from sexual harassment (which she calls "rampant" in the military) to health concerns. "Our bodies aren't built like a male's, and we react differently, and that really hasn't been in the newspapers," she says. "No one's really dealt with how the female body is going to react to depleted uranium or a lot of things that are going on with the male soldiers in a high number. So that's where I've taken a stance and have found some feeling of finding a place."
Though she's found solace in her interactions with other vets, Pickett is still engaged in a constant fight for normality. "I want to relate to everyone else my own age. I want to have the life I had before I left, because it was really great," she says. "I liked drinking and going out, having a fun time, and now I'm that girl who starts drinking and cries for several hours. I tell my friends, and they don't know how to react."
For Pickett, dating has also been tough. A three-month relationship was ended by night spasms and tears. "He wasn't a vet. He had no idea what I was going through," she remembers. "But how do you explain something that has so much hatred behind it, the worst part of humanity, when you want somebody to love you?"
Pickett is majoring in political science and psychology, but knows that because of the trauma she witnessed, she could no longer be a physician's assistant as she'd planned. "It's hard to readjust my dreams, my aspirations. When I started back at school I went from being on honor roll to, in fall of last year, dropping down to four credit hours. I dropped everything."
Almost a year after receiving medication from the VA, Pickett discovered she'd been given an incorrect prescription that had actually been making her symptoms worse. She's improved slightly since changing meds and joining Vets for Vets, but she knows she'll never be that carefree college kid again.
"Since I've been home, I don't have any long-term goals anymore. It's just day-by-day, get through this week. I don't know what I'm going to do with my life, but I know I want to help vets."
NEVER GOING TO END
Still slumped on the couch but now exuding anger, Jason Gunn is counting the friends he's lost in Iraq. "I lost a friend named Spanky he was shot by a sniper. Another one was killed by an IED," he says.
"He died the worst. It hit him so bad that it blew him in the back of the Humvee, and the Humvee caught fire. They couldn't get his body out of the truck, so he just burned. Another guy was killed from an RPG `rocket-propelled grenade` attack on top of a tank. It took four guys getting killed like that to learn you should shut the hatches."
This is what lives inside Jason Gunn's head. Dead friends, frustration with the military, hatred for his government and a war "that's never going to end."
"I've been through so much, and I deserve so much better. I can do so much better than this, but for some reason I don't get myself out of this funk," he says. "I have no idea why I don't do it."
But there is one thing Gunn does know: Iraq veterans already need more help. "War is going to happen regardless, so why not deal with something that's within our grasp? Helping the soldiers that are returning," he says. "They've dedicated the majority of their lives to the service, and now they're getting out with nothing."
It's nearing lunchtime, and outside the window a bitter wind jostles spindly trees wrapped in strings of lights.
For Jason Gunn, it's time to head off to bed. He was up all night working, and needs rest for his next shift, or perhaps a night of drinking with his brothers at the bars.
"I don't know anything around here. All my friends are gone," Gunn says glumly. "When I get feeling like that, I think about going back in. I'd get my rank right back, go back to hanging out with my friends again. Yeah, I probably would end up going back to Iraq, because they're back there now, but at least I'd end up doing something I know and can really do well. It's the only thing that ever made any real sense to me."
(A version of this story appeared originally in Philadelphia Weekly.)
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