Wednesday, July 1, 2009


*Retold with permission

I’ve never been able to figure out the VA. Ever. Sometimes I get the impression that they’re more concerned with saving money than anything else, but then I talk to a few more of their people and I conclude they genuinely don’t care about anybody at all. I guess it depends on who you ask. I know a few people have had good experiences with the VA, but I’m not one of them. They’ve done little more than multiply my stress.

When I was medically discharged for my gunshot and shrapnel wounds, I spent the bulk of my time just rehabilitating. I could hardly move my arm at first, but with a lot of rehab, just as many painkillers, and a refusal to be totally dependent on others, I can use it a little here and there. Between those injuries, the PTSD, and the panic attacks, I had my hands full. But in time, I moved forward. I was doing much better, my medications were just about perfect, and I was looking forward to going back to finish college. All I had to do was fill out all the VA education paperwork and I’d be sitting in classes again. It would be a new chapter for me, no doubt hard work, but I was ready. Everything was under wraps.

There’s always a “but,” though. In this case, I had to sit down with a VA case manager and tell him precisely my intentions, why I felt I was ready, and what I intended to study. All this just to get cleared for GI Bill benefits. I’ve never heard of anybody having this much trouble with it before. During that meeting, the VA guy asks, “it says here on your record that you went to the doctor two weeks ago. What was her name?”

How the heck was I suppose to know that? I’ve seen doctors for PTSD, for evaluations, for gunshot wounds, rehabilitation, follow-ups, you name it. I remembered that particular doctor’s face and I could tell you exactly what she looked like, but her name? No way. Sorry, I told him. I can’t remember.

“Well, if you can’t even remember your doctor’s name from an appointment two weeks ago, I don’t think you’re recovered sufficiently to be in school. You’re not ready yet.”

Most frustrating, however, was this: the man wasn’t a medical professional, and nor was he acting on the recommendation of some doctor. No, he was just making his own evaluation, and determining that I was unfit to study anything.

I wrote my congressman about it, and he actually sent a letter to the VA, but the VA responded simply by saying that their mental health professionals had deemed me psychologically unsound for college. I contacted several other veteran service organizations, but of all of them, only one followed through, and that was the VFW. I’ve met with their representative and given him all the information about my situation, but he hasn’t done anything about it. And that was all last year. Nobody really seems to care. Never mind that I went through a multi-week recruiting school last year and graduated at the top of my class. They weren’t impressed with the certificate. This, more than anything, has arrested my recovery. Going to school has been what I’ve wanted to do. This is the very thing that’s helping me improve – moving forward with my life and putting the past behind me. Yet, it’s the very thing they’re forbidding me to do.

But there’s more to the story, actually. Much more. Between the frustration of being denied my own GI Bill benefits on account being psychologically “unsound,” being laid off from my job, and more recently wading through mountains of VA paperwork to continue the appeal process, my stress has gone back up. In fact, in May it began to worsen such that my anti-anxiety medication wasn’t working anymore. I was starting to get panic attacks again, so I called the VA one evening to see if they could offer some advice on how to adjust my dosage or prescription.

It was after hours when I called, so they suggested that I go to the local civilian emergency room, tell them my situation, and they’d give me a provisional prescription until the VA was able to schedule an appointment to see me. It sounded fairly simple, so my wife and I drove down to the local ER and waited to be seen.

As usual, they wanted to know my case history, so I went through all the questions about my symptoms, the anxiety, and so on. Then they wanted to know the source of it, which I guess is reasonable. So, I told them. I was a veteran, I was severely wounded in Iraq, stabilized, and returned to the states for medical discharge. I’ve had PTSD and anxiety from my whole experience. I told them the truth.

Next thing you know, they switch gears and give me the whole PTSD questionnaire. Do you have a desire hurt yourself? Do you want to hurt others? The answers to both those was no. Then they asked me the same questions in the past tense: have I, at some point in the past, wanted to hurt others. Well, yes. I was an infantryman. It was my job to kill. I did it in Iraq because I had to, and I never want to do it again. It’s a dark chamber of my heart I have no desire to revisit. That answer freaked them out, though, and they announced they needed to keep me there for further evaluation. It only worsened my anxiety. They were basically holding me captive.

I explained that I was due to take my pain medication and they gave me something, but all it did was severely impair my mental processes. It didn’t really help anything. I was still trapped, so I called the cops and explained my situation. I was being held against my will. I had to go to work the next morning. If I didn’t, I could very well lose my job.

To their credit, the police dispatched two officers who attempted to reason with the hospital staff and get them to reconsider my responses to their questionnaire, but they wouldn’t budge. Their decision was final, so the officers left, leaving just me and my wife in the observation room. My anxiety, coupled with the sensation that I was now totally out of control of my situation, brought on a full panic attack. I was never violent or aggressive. I was direct and assertive, but I was also polite. It didn’t matter. They rushed in some orderlies and injected me with a sedative. After that, my memory is fuzzy. I was too doped to remember anything clearly besides an ambulance to a mental institution.

I remember signing some paperwork and being checked in. I remember hiding my cell phone. I remember them taking my belt, my shoe laces, and any article of clothing with an elastic waistband. I remember being put in a common area full of people who looked like they really NEEDED to be there. At some point, I vaguely remember considering taking out a staffer and trying to escape. Then I dismissed the idea because I’d be labeled a criminal, and that’s one thing I wasn’t. Instead, I just tried the doors.

The staff viewed this as a threat, so they shot me with another sedative and that was the last thing I remember. I woke up about eight hours later in confinement. I was also covered in bruises. Later, they told me I’d acted threatening, whatever that means. I don’t know how I’d get bruises from acting threatening.

I asked them for my pain medication, since it was the only thing keeping my nerve pain in check, but somehow they viewed that as another “threatening gesture” and shot me with sedatives. Again, hours later I awoke in solitary. I also had more bruises. Eventually they found my cell phone and took it from me.

In total, I spent three days locked in that place. I never was allowed to shave, or even take a shower. I was sedated so often that I only ate two meals. When I weighed myself later, I’d lost between five and ten pounds. When I was finally permitted to check out, they told me, “sir, that’ll be a $20 co-pay for your stay.” Unbelievable. They were going to charge me for my own incarceration. The total bill was actually about $1,900. You know who ate that one? The taxpayers. It was a total waste.

I remember when we were guarding some insurgents in Iraq one time. Some of them were injured because they attacked the base and were shot and captured. They’d be in their cells, and they’d ask for something, like Jell-o. We’d go and get it for them. They’d ask for pain medication, so we’d go get that, too. They never heard no. We fed them, protected them, and more or less attended to their every want and desire. When I think about it, they received better care than I did in the states, and those terrorists were the very people I’d taken an oath to fight.

I come from a long line of infantrymen. My great grandfather served in World War I, and my grandfather was in World War II. I had great uncles in Korea, and then my dad was too young to serve in Vietnam. I’ve grown up respecting these men, and I’ve always been impressed with how everybody else respected them, too. They laid aside their lives and fought for us; for this country. Never in a million years did I expect to be treated as I was. I was on the road to recovery once, but that’s since been derailed. I feel like I’m starting over again, right at the beginning. And this time, with the skepticism of the civilian medical community, the apathy of the VA medical staff, and misunderstanding from the public as a whole.

Whenever I go to a civilian doctor now and they see the scars on my arms and shoulder, I tell them it was from a horrible car accident. I don’t even tell them about Iraq, or the infantry, or even that I’m a veteran. If they hear the word “veteran” and “PTSD” come out of my mouth, they’ll panic, and I might be confined again. I’ll sooner die before I go back to that place. If I have a heart attack, I’ll just collapse. I’m not calling 911. I can’t go through that again.

I’ve been shot straight through my body, blown up, hit with shrapnel, and nearly died from injuries. But none of those wounds hurt as much as being treated like I have been here in the US. None of them. So now, I just don’t talk about it with anybody. They’ll just presume I’m a criminal and a killer. When I look at a veteran, I see somebody who takes an oath to his nation and does great things. When people here see a veteran, they either don’t care, or they’re overcome with fear. If I’d know I’d be treated like this, I’m not sure I would have ever joined. It hurts too much.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Coming Wednesday...

1. Confinement
2. And We're Off

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nameless Towers

I went to Catholic school when I was a kid, and I remember sitting in convocation one morning and listening to the priest tell us a Bible story about some long-forgotten city in the Old Testament. I can’t even remember the details of the story, but it was pretty interesting, and the ancient city sounded pretty neat. It still seemed almost make-believe, though. History books “weather” events. What in our generation may receive lengthy attention, our kids will learn only little about in a few short paragraphs. Details get lost along the way, which is sad. This old city seemed about as real as a fairy tale.

Ten years later, though, I was sitting in that same ancient city in Iraq, and all I could think about was that sermon I’d heard. It all came back to me; the people, the streets, the open markets, and everything that happened in the story. It wasn’t just a tale anymore, but real. I could run my fingers along the same stone walls and walk along the same cobbled roads as the ancients had thousands of years earlier. It came alive to me. The whole country was like that.

People have the impression that Iraq is just some miserable, dust-filled wasteland, that there is nothing more than miles of sand, the occasional mud hut, and a profusion of people trying to kill us. They forget it was the cradle of civilization. Time itself, or at least the self awareness of its passage, began there. It’s not ugly; it’s beautiful. You feel like you’ve stepped into history itself. Not a history book, but history itself.

Almost every small town is a “tell.” Some places look like they’re built on hills, but those are actually the ruins of countless civilizations that settled there, built their legacy, and slowly died off to be replaced by another. You could consider the whole country an archeological dig. This is a land full of cities that Heroditus wrote about. We like to talk about our great grandfathers and how they rode horses when they were kids, but here – some people still do. It’s another world; an exotic one.

When we moved north of Baghdad, we ended up crossing the Tigris river and getting assigned to an old Iraqi Army ammo depot in the middle of nowhere. The place was truly vast. Our job was to guard it and catalogue all the munitions, which was going to take forever. We ended up building a base from scraps and other stuff we scrounged up. It wasn’t big at all, but only large enough to hold our company. I remember making a sign for the front gate with nothing more than markers and a piece of plywood. I think I did okay, considering I didn’t have anything else to work with. We named it Camp Tinderbox for some reason.

Now and then, we’d run missions another base, and people would ask us where we were from. We’d tell them Camp Tinderbox, and they’d look at us like we were stupid. It was like a joke for us. We’d been banished to the obscurest depths of Iraq. But you know, I liked that little base. It was small, mostly quiet, and everybody left us alone usually. When we left a few months later, I never heard anything about it again. I don’t even know if it still exists.

I remember once that some pontoon bridge broke free and washed down the Tigris, so they sent us out to look for the missing pieces downriver. We drove for hours not seeing anything, and eventually we stopped at a cluster of about five houses along the water’s edge. There really wasn’t much else. Somehow the command knew that this was where we’d find the pieces of the bridge, so we waited for a little bit, but didn’t see anything.

After we waited for awhile, we pushed north into the desert to set up a secure perimeter and continue standing by. I figured we’d just park in a wadi, but as we’re driving away from the river, we suddenly saw an enormous structure like a fortress.

Huge stone columns formed a row of arches that surrounded an area ten times larger than a football field, and in the middle of the field was a tower. It looked exactly like all those Biblical paintings of the Tower of Babel – a gigantic round building with an external ramp spiraling all the way to the top. It was at least six stories tall, and at the top was a little covered balcony or something. I wondered how many westerners have ever seen it.

It was completely silent at that place. There were no nearby houses, no water sources, nothing. Just this huge tower sitting in a middle of a field, and surrounded by the pallisade of arches. It was absolutely beautiful. I took a few pictures of it, and before long, we left.

I’m going to go back there someday. It’s not a matter of if, but when. It may be ten years from now when it’s quieter and safer, but I need to go back. I fell in love with that place, and other places, too. Monolithic ruins randomly scattered throughout a country steeped in history.

For millennia, men have assembled on those hills and charged against the conscripts of other nearby city-states. They’ve struggled to bring life from the dirt and create lush, irrigated floodplains. They built cities on their predecessors’ ruins. And some parts survived all the changes – stark reminders to a time in history when monuments were built with the enslaved masses of those defeated in war. It’s mesmerizing.

It’s hard to explain, but I feel like history came alive for me over there. I still get goose bumps whenever I think about it. My biggest regret is not paying closer attention to the names of the places we went, and also not learning more about the history before we deployed. I was busy with other things, I guess, but I still wish I’d paid closer attention. I was always asking where we were, but nobody ever really knew. I want to see those places and those rivers again. I like to think of it as a strange marriage between us, the present, and distant, ancient history. It’s part of me now, and I have to see it again. I want my children to see it, too, and their children. I don’t really want to live there, but I want to go back. I need to know the name of that tower, and I need to know why it’s there. I want my children to remember.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 29, 2009

What Nobody Sees

Something happened this past Friday that this country needs to hear. While it may appear inconsequential to most, it represents a side of Iraqi-American relations and relationships that few are so fortunate to observe. Had you suggested five years ago that I would see this, I would have laughed. On Friday, however, I rejoiced. I attended my friend Waad’s wedding in North Carolina

When I served in Habbaniyah, Iraq in 2007, I had the pleasure of working with and living alongside a small crowd of native Iraqi interpreters as we partnered in weapons and marksmanship instruction to the Iraqi Army and Police. Few of us knew any Arabic, so whatever we taught, these men would translate to our Iraqi Police and Army students. In truth, these interpreters had translated the classes so long and so often that we weren’t particularly needed. Our “terps” knew the subject material as well, if not better than us. In fact, we’d occasionally make an error or misspeak ourselves, and they’d automatically correct it in the translation. Without them, we would have been adrift.

More than assistants or partners, however, they were friends. Many were brothers, earning and receiving the same trust and confidence as our fellow Marines. They were universally liked, to say the least. Waad, along with his brother Steve, were among our best.

After five years working with components of the US Air Force, Army and Marines (us), he parted company in mid-2007 with legitimate concern for his safety. It was a well-known fact that he was a marked target in the insurgent networks. After assisting in the training of over 10,000 Iraqis countrywide, he was quickly recognized – and labeled an enemy to the insurgency.

In 2008, a retired senior Marine warrant officer who had worked closely with Waad in Habbaniyah volunteered to sponsor him in the United States, and not long after he immigrated. Because another Iraqi interpreter and mutual friend resided there, he selected Columbus, Ohio as his home and found work at a local gas station.

While in Iraq, Waad had earned a four-year degree, taught himself English, and collaborated for years with the US military on sensitive and classified missions. Still, the welcome he received in the US was embarrassing. People saw an Iraqi, not a close friend and brother to hundreds of Marines and soldiers. He often fielded questions from customers asking why “his people were killing ours,” which he always answered respectfully and patiently. There was a clear distinction between “insurgent” and “Iraqi,” he explained, and he was one of the good guys. The customers remained dubious. I remember him telling me it was hurtful, but he didn’t blame them. They simply didn’t know, and nobody was telling them, either.

Through a friend, Waad met Laura, an American woman, and their relationship soon developed into romance. He had found the woman of his dreams, and she had found a man who truly loved her. On Friday, they were married. While this is certainly a heartwarming story, it’s neither particularly uncommon or terribly interesting to the random stranger. There are other facts, however, that make it supremely so.

First, Laura is Jewish. Second, Waad is of Muslim, and Christian descent. Third, nearly every man in attendance at this wedding reception on Friday is a current, former, or retired Marine who has served with Waad at one time or another, and didn’t simply forget him when the deployment ended and everybody went home. Fourth, Waad’s best man is my former commanding officer, another senior retired Marine. And this, I believe, is what people need to see.

None among us thinks “immigrant” or “Iraqi” when we consider Waad. We see brother, companion, and a man we gladly welcome to this country. We see a friend, and this is why servicemembers all across the country are often the ones doing everything in their power to bring these men and woman to the United States. We love them, and they love this country.

Marines representing nearly every major command of the Marine Corps witnessed this wedding on Friday, and raised our champagne glasses as one in celebratory toast. We are honored to have been invited.

As his best man (the retired Marine) led him through the reception area, he stopped once and wrapped his arm around Waad’s shoulder. “This is my son,” he gushed, with a huge grin. Those aren’t empty accolades, but the heartfelt sentiment of a man who deployed to an Iraqi combat zone and walked away with a friend. We all feel this way.

We loved and served our country, and Waad, in turn, loved and served his. His passion for Iraq and America both make him a priceless addition to this country. In two months time, he returns again to Iraq, where he hopes his countrymen can soon live in peace, free from fear, and liberated to pursue self-governance. If I am lucky, I will see him over there.

There is perhaps a misconception in America that troops deploy to Iraq to “kill some ragheads” and come back home as heroes, and that they despise the place and never wish to return. Half the men in Waad’s wedding reception will return to Iraq within a years’ time. All of them have volunteered. Consider how difficult it is to commit to a mission in which one doesn’t believe. I would submit it is impossible.

Laura, Waad’s new (and beautiful) wife, described the whole affair perfectly: “My mother is Jewish and my father a Christian, and Waad’s mother is a Muslim and his father Chaldean. WE get along. Why can’t everybody else? There should be peace.” And she’s right.

They have beheld one another and rather than seeing different faiths or radically different cultural upbringings, they see something greater. They see a desirable heart – and one worth loving. They have chosen to pursue commonalities while millions of others are content to remain mired in hatred and misunderstanding. They both have clearer vision than many of us, and we all stand to learn a lesson from it. They see hope, and they celebrate, and we celebrate with them. America needs to see this.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Coming Monday...

What Nobody Sees