Banding together to fight — and to heal
By MARTIN KUZ | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 13, 2013
BAGRAM, Afghanistan — The 15 soldiers sat in a circle that formed the edge of a void visible only to them.
Two days earlier, a mortar attack on Bagram Air Field had killed Sgt. Justin Johnson, the most popular member of their squad. His absence deprived the unit of its charismatic center, a surrogate big brother lauded as “a guy who made being here suck less,” perhaps the highest praise among troops in a combat zone.
The men huddled in a canvas tent near the site where, on June 18, shrapnel tore open Johnson, 25, of Hobe Sound, Fla. Joining them to discuss their reactions to his death were two behavioral health specialists unfamiliar to the group.
Maj. Dewayne Bramlett and Sgt. Eliezer Pagan arranged the gathering through the commander of the 359th Inland Cargo Transfer Company, 10th Transportation Battalion. The pair sought to give each soldier a chance to mourn in a setting that might nurture collective healing.
“You hope that, by seeing what others are going through, all of them will realize that what they’re feeling is normal,” said Bramlett, 40, of Ringgold, Ga. “You want them to see that they’re not alone.”
The squad’s initial wariness gave way to a purging. For 90 minutes, through tears and laughter, the men recalled the sergeant known as JJ. Their outpouring broke the unwritten military rule against showing emotional pain that, if less rigid than even a decade ago, remains part of the mythical warrior code.
“I didn’t want to cry and have my guys see me in that vulnerable moment,” said Sgt. Kenneth Glenn, 25, of Radcliff, Ky. The truck commander, on his second tour in Afghanistan after an earlier deployment to Iraq, was Johnson’s closest friend in the platoon. “But it just felt better to let out what I’d been feeling. I am human.”
In Army jargon, Bramlett and Pagan held a traumatic event management debriefing. Such meetings are more simply described as group therapy.
Across the country, behavioral health specialists attempt to bring together a squad or platoon within 72 hours after the unit experiences a calamity: a soldier’s death or serious injury, a mission that yields civilian casualties. The sessions represent part of the military’s wider effort to alleviate the mental burden of troops at war and, in turn, to preempt the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder and similar long-term conditions.
“You want them to talk about the impact of a traumatic event instead of letting things sort of build up,” said Pagan, 27, of Yauco, Puerto Rico. He and Bramlett belong to the combat and operational stress control unit of the 85th Medical Detachment, 1st Medical Brigade.
“Not everyone is going to talk; you get that hesitation sometimes,” Pagan said. “But one of the big lessons we’ve learned from this war and the Iraq war is we need to try to work with soldiers before they get home.”
‘All ready, man!’
The 359th provided security for U.S. and Afghan truck convoys moving between Bagram and smaller bases in eastern Afghanistan during a nine-month deployment that recently ended. Most missions began after dusk, inspiring Johnson’s squad to dub itself the Night Riders. His good humor brightened a job that required equal vigilance against fatigue and roadside bombs.
“He was our light in the dark,” said Spc. Steven Vasko, 33, of Ravenna, Ohio. “He was one of those larger-than-life guys. His happiness was infectious.”
Johnson joked of opening a barbershop back home that offered only one kind of cut, “JJ style,” so that every customer would walk out bald like the owner. He picked up the nickname “the Afghan whisperer” for his unlikely rapport with local villagers, bridging the language gap with his glow-stick smile and impromptu dance moves. Weeks into its tour, the squad adopted the personal motto he shouted before every mission — “All ready, man!” — as its unofficial slogan.
Subtle gestures revealed his empathy. Vasko was demoted from sergeant to specialist earlier this year; Johnson continued to refer to him by his former rank. When Sgt. Joshua Carter, the squad’s convoy commander, joined the unit not long before the deployment, Johnson took time to introduce him to the other soldiers. The show of support fortified Carter’s credibility.
“A lot of people didn’t know me, and he could have kept his distance since he was the guy everyone looked up to,” said Carter, 30, of Montvale, Va. “But he welcomed me from the first day, and that really had an effect as far as gaining the trust of everybody else.”
To the Night Riders, the circumstances of Johnson’s death felt like a cruel rebuke of his goodwill. He had left his barracks in the late afternoon and walked to a nearby bus stop to catch a ride to another part of the massive base in Bagram, about 40 miles north of the capital of Kabul. He planned to meet a group of lower-ranking troops to tutor them for their promotional board exams.
Johnson was standing beside a small wooden shack with three soldiers from a different unit when the base’s mortar siren blared. Moments later, before they could run to a bunker, two rockets exploded less than 15 feet away. All four were killed.
Johnson had survived two tours and countless missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, only to die in the mundane act of waiting for a bus on his way to help others. The blast shattered a body possessed of a linebacker’s strength, blew out a spirit of unreserved kindness. He had held his 3-year-old son for the last time.
The news soon reached Capt. Neil Stevenson, commander of the 359th. He ordered the company to assemble in a motor pool shed. The soldiers, unaware of why he summoned them, stood in silence.
Carter and the rest of the Night Riders noticed one man missing. They had heard the siren. The commander spoke.
“Everyone around me — faces on the floor,” said Carter, eyes reddening as he recounted the scene. He visited each squad member that night. Words eluded him. “What do you say? There’s nothing.”
Providing a release
Two days after Johnson’s death, one day after his memorial service, Bramlett and Pagan drove across the base to the company’s compound to listen to the Night Riders. The idea of opening up to outsiders — and behavioral health specialists in particular — aroused doubts within the squad.
“I was thinking, ‘You don’t know Sgt. Johnson. Why are you coming here?’” said Spc. Michael Marti Caballero, 27, of Orlando, Fla. Before the unit’s tour, the Army sought to send his wife to South Korea; the couple preferred to deploy together to Afghanistan. Johnson lobbied on their behalf with battalion leaders, who reconsidered and granted the request.
“He was there for every one of us in one way or another,” Marti Caballero said, “and right after he died, I don’t think any of us felt like talking to a couple strangers. We were angry and frustrated about what happened to him.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs reported last year that almost 30 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans treated at its hospitals and clinics have been diagnosed with PTSD. Stevenson believed a group session with Bramlett and Pagan would provide a release for the squad that could reduce the potential for lasting mental distress.
“It felt like an opportunity for them to explore the healing process,” said Stevenson, 34, of Jacksonville, Fla.
“When you have people with pent-up or repressed feelings, it can hurt their performance in theater. But the bigger issues come after they’re home. Those memories they’ve been able to keep down because of the tempo during deployment start coming up to the surface, and that’s when you see things like PTSD develop.”
The treatment of psychological wounds in the war zone has evolved since Stevenson entered the Army in 2006. Seven years ago, with the military’s strategy of deploying so-called combat stress teams in its early stages, behavioral health providers were scarce in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Their presence has since spread across this country as the Army seeks to prevent the mental strain on troops from morphing into chronic disorders. Dozens of providers, including psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, run combat stress clinics on a handful of large bases and visit troops at smaller outposts.
The growth of counseling services has coincided with a push by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler and other senior officials to recast a military ethos that compels soldiers to bury their grief.
“There was much more of a stigma just a few years ago — guys were afraid to talk,” Stevenson said. “They’d blow off the combat stress people because they didn’t want to be seen as weak. But now that you have more providers and clinics, and you have more top leaders who are saying it’s a sign of strength to get help, you’re seeing a change in attitude.”
Even so, as Bramlett and Pagan have observed, soldiers can turn reticent in a group meeting, leery of appearing less than invincible among their own.
The duo suspected that the Night Riders would feel more at ease with Pagan, a fellow enlisted officer, leading the discussion. They gathered with the squad in a tent a few hundred yards from the bus stop where the mortar rounds struck.
Pagan asked the men to share their thoughts on Johnson and how his death affected them. The first three soldiers offered little, their manner stoic. Glenn spoke next. He laid bare his grief and his remorse.
Solace and strength
Johnson had dropped by Glenn’s barracks before heading to the bus stop. The two sergeants spoke of nothing urgent; maybe they would connect for dinner in the evening. Johnson left, and within five minutes, the mortar siren boomed across the base. Glenn dialed his friend’s cell phone again and again. Each unanswered call cinched his chest.
The squad stayed quiet as he told the story. His face shone with tears. “I should have been with him,” Glenn said, his voice low. “If I had gone with him, maybe he’s still alive.”
The Night Riders responded with tribal compassion. They told him that he was not to blame, he could not have saved Johnson, he would not see his young son grow up if he were dead. Slowly, as their sympathy enfolded him, he began to absolve himself.
“I had a lot of weight on my shoulders and my heart, and I didn’t know how to tell anyone,” Glenn said. “It takes great courage to express those kinds of feelings. Being able to say what was on my mind and seeing how everyone supported me, that gave me a lot of peace.”
As he found solace in their reaction, they drew strength from his candor. Their reserve dissolved as soldier after soldier remembered Johnson in moments reflective and antic.
Typical of the varied anecdotes were those related by Marti Caballero, who had approached the meeting skeptical of its purpose. He recalled debating religion with Johnson as they killed time in their truck during missions. When Marti Caballero, an agnostic, questioned how his Christian friend could believe in God’s existence amid war, Johnson calmly quoted scripture from memory.
This was the same sergeant who, after a trip to the bathroom, sometimes mimicked his toddler son by saying, “I just made a stink-stink!”
Bramlett and Pagan spoke only as necessary, guiding the men toward memories of Johnson’s life and away from details of his death. In that way, the conversation reinforced his influence rather than his absence.
“You’re trying to promote post-traumatic growth and not cause secondhand trauma,” Pagan said. “So you don’t talk about how someone was killed — you don’t want to trigger bad memories or create bad thoughts. You know that person can’t be replaced, but you’re hoping you can bring the unit closer together.”
Carter, the convoy commander, had worried that the squad would struggle without its emotional core. The gathering assuaged his anxiety. The Night Riders commiserated as a group instead of each man suffering in isolation.
“I went in thinking, ‘How do I make up for this horrible loss?’” Carter said. “All of us knew it was impossible to replace Justin. But we also knew we had to keep doing our mission, and the more we talked about him, the more it seemed like we bonded as a family.”
For his soldiers, the session curbed their suspicion of behavioral health counseling while reassuring them that, as the military confronts the effects of mental trauma among its troops and veterans, there is no shame in grieving out loud.
“If you need to go talk to one of the combat stress people, they’ll do everything in their power to help you,” Vasko said. “But I think the bigger thing we learned is we have one another. We realized, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one that’s pained by this, and I can talk to guys about what I’m feeling.’”
Bramlett and Pagan wound down the discussion by thanking the squad and leaving the tent. In their meetings with other units, soldiers always departed with them. The Night Riders stayed behind for 15 minutes. Standing outside, the two providers heard none of their voices until, in unison, the squad started chanting, “All ready, man!”
After a time, the din subsided. Then the Night Riders walked out into the daylight.
Editor's Note: This series examines the mental health of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and how they cope with war’s internal burden while deployed. Stories explore the work of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and chaplains to reduce the combat-related stress of troops; the efforts of senior officers to balance the needs of soldiers with the demands of the U.S. mission; and the fear of asking for help that still exists within the Army. This series is produced with the support of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.
Spc. Steven Vasko, left, and Spc. Michael Marti Caballero stand before a "fallen heroes" memorial at Bagram Air Field. Pictured between them (with white background) is Sgt. Justin Johnson, a member of their platoon, who was killed in a mortar attack on the base this summer.
Martin Kuz/Special to Stars and Stripes