'I'd do it all again if I had the chance'
Ten years after Zachariah Chitwood pledged to join the Army and avenge America, he insists he has no regrets.
That’s in spite of a roadside bomb in 2005 that compressed discs in his spine and threw his hip joints out of place. After countless electroshock muscle treatments that only blunt his constant pain. After a six-year struggle with mild traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder cost him a marriage and nearly cost him custody of his son.
Still, he insists, “I’d do it all again if I had the chance.”
No regrets, but there is guilt for the 27-year-old National Guardsman. He believes he should have been serving alongside two friends killed in Iraq in 2007, even though his injuries wouldn’t allow it.
He worries about two of his brothers in Afghanistan, both of whom joined the Guard to “keep me safe,” but in the end deployed without him.
“If it wasn’t for me, my brothers wouldn’t be over there right now,” he said. “It’s not so much that I want to be overseas, but I have [battlefield] knowledge that they don’t. You don’t leave a man behind.
“But right now, I’m not in the right state of mind.”
Chitwood is one of more than 45,000 U.S. servicemembers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, many within just a few years of leaving high school. An Oregon native who was a junior in high school on Sept. 11, 2001, he admits that he barely thought about getting injured when he enlisted.
“I told [my mother], ‘This is our Pearl Harbor. This is the worst attack of our generation. And somebody has to step up and do something,’ ” he said.
Within 18 months after joining the Army, Chitwood was in Iraq. A few months later, during a routine patrol, the Humvee in front of his was destroyed by a roadside bomb. Everyone survived, but the blast wave injured troops several vehicles away.
“I told them my back hurt, I couldn’t hear anything out of my left ear. But I said I was good, I wanted to go back out [on the next mission],” he said. “When I came home a few months later, I was still having severe back pain and still having problems with my hearing.”
For years after returning home in 2006, Chitwood ignored his physical and mental pain, writing it off as wear and tear from time spent overseas.
Friends and family saw a difference in him. His speech and thought were slowed. He complained about frequent nightmares.
He tried and failed at college five times. He got married and divorced within a few years. Chitwood said the relationship ended in part because of his anger and impatience.
He was living for months on his older brother’s couch before his family pushed him into treatment. Only then was he formally diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
“You feel selfish even claiming that title of ‘disabled veteran’ because there are so many guys out there much worse off than I am,” he said. “But some scars are physical, some are mental.
“Nobody ever wants to say, ‘Yeah, I have PTSD.’ It was a taboo, almost. If you talked about it, you were going to get it. It took a lot for me to realize I just wasn’t right.”
Chitwood recently finished a two-week inpatient treatment program for his PTSD and is on a long list of medications for his back pain. But he said he’s grateful for where he is today, because without any treatment his condition would have only worsened.
“You may never be the same person you were, but you can make progress toward that,” he said.
Chitwood also believes that his therapy was crucial in gaining joint custody of his son, Caden. The 3-year-old plays with his father’s uniform top and asks if Dad is an “Army man.”
Chitwood knows one day he’ll have to explain much more about his service and injuries.
“The biggest thing I want him to know is that [service] is something you can be proud of, no matter what anyone tells you, no matter what happens,” he said.
“But as far as my experiences? It scares me to death to think about sitting down and talking to him. I don’t like to talk to people about it. If people knew what I did, they’d look differently at me.”
Today, Chitwood lives with his girlfriend, a fellow Iraq War veteran, near his hometown in Oregon. He said he sees his family frequently, and is helping to watch over four nieces and nephews while his brothers are deployed.
Progress with his treatment is slow, but he feels more hopeful than he has in almost a decade. He’s going to try college again this fall, at least on a part-time basis.
And he plans on staying in the Guard, with the hope that someday he can return to his full responsibilities there.
“I don’t regret anything,” he said. “If I had to go back [to war] again, I would. Most people grow up in a safe environment. I grew up in the Middle East, in a combat zone. That taught me about what I can overcome in life, a different kind of strength, a different kind of maturity.”