At home, but not at peace: A soldier's struggle with PTSD
Spc. Brandon Garrison volunteered to deploy and loved putting on his uniform each day. But after watching a mortar attack claim one of his friends in Afghanistan, he joined the thousands of servicemembers battling PTSD.
By TRACY BURTON | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 30, 2008
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story contains a false account of Sgt. Christopher Wilson’s death that is detailed in subsequent coverage here.
Army Spc. Brandon Garrison looks fine. He pulls his wife, Lily, close. He gives her a quick kiss on the cheek and wraps his hand over her stomach, carrying their first child.
Inside, Garrison fights a rage that consumes most of his days since returning from 17 months of combat in Afghanistan. It’s a demon that shows no mercy and interrupts even simple routines like eating and sleeping. At any moment, halfway through a football game or in the middle of the night, he can lose himself to this evil.
This is his war now. A war that started on a battlefield a half a world away and has now embedded itself in his mind. Through nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and fear, he battles this beast each day.
Garrison is among thousands of troops experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as they return from Afghanistan or Iraq. The 21-year-old from northeastern Kansas is also part of a growing number of servicemembers whose well-being has been compromised in a system that’s supposed to take care of them.
The most troubling challenges facing these troops include:
¶ Psychological trauma and mental health care not always receiving the same priority as physical injuries.
¶ Army claims of pre-existing personality disorders, which in many cases slash disability benefits and long-term mental health care for otherwise eligible combat veterans.
The enemy Garrison encountered daily in combat still haunts him. He sees the faces of his fallen brothers. He smells the dirty air, amid the blood. Screams of panic broken with hums of moaning pain lingers and the dust ensues yet another storm inside him.
That is until he finds his way back to Lily, and back to the life he knew before war.
“Without her, I seriously wouldn’t be alive right now,” Garrison said.
Garrison’s platoon from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division based in Fort Drum, N.Y., specializes in fighting in harsh conditions. In northeast Afghanistan they were stationed in Pech Valley Korengal Outpost, one the country’s deadliest valleys.
Now that Garrison is home, he belongs to one of the Army’s Warrior Transition Units, which provides command and control, primary care and case management for servicemembers receiving treatment for wounds suffered while fighting in the war on terror. The unit works to “promote their timely return to the force or transition to civilian life.”
Here is his story.
Shortly after Garrison returned from Afghanistan last June, he headed home on a 30-day leave to Leavenworth, Kansas.
“That’s when my nightmares began,” he said. “I remember waking up in the middle of the night. I’d sit straight up in bed and it was just hard to breathe and I was panicking and I remember my wife Lily asking me if I was OK and I remember crying in her arms several times because of horrific visions that I had, and the memories and the mass casualties that we suffered.”
Nothing in particular triggered the attacks. He would hear a song or a report about the war and before he knew it, he was reliving it.
Garrison started drinking almost daily. It was the only way he knew to escape.
In August, he left to regroup with his unit in Fort Drum. Lily stayed with his folks because Garrison was going to be reassigned to a new base, so it didn’t make sense for her to go right then.
Garrison was OK when he was working. But the second he was alone, the flashbacks returned. It was terrifying and always zoomed back to one event. On this day in Afghanistan, Garrison was watching soldiers patrol a valley below him. It was almost time for them to return when the enemy launched rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire into their path.
Garrison and other soldiers helped the injured until medics arrived.
Blood was everywhere.
Garrison went to his friend, 24-year-old Spc. Christopher Wilson, and held a pressure dressing tightly against his stomach, but his young life was slipping away.
Wilson, whose greatest fear in this war was not coming home to his little girl, died a short while later.
“He was a very good soldier … a good friend,” Garrison said. “He was very brave through it all.”
Garrison needed help. He and Lily fought to where they didn’t know how much their marriage could take.
He was never much of a drinker before war. Lily wanted to understand, but she couldn’t.
“To know I had pushed a woman so close to me that far away just because of the trauma I was experiencing … that really just made it worse,” Garrison explained.
He started to hate himself.
“At the time I had been denying God and spirituality was always a big part of my life and I was actually cursing God himself and that’s when I knew that my life was taking a big downfall,” he said.
In September, Garrison went to the behavioral health clinic on base and met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He agreed to meet with Garrison every week or two and prescribed Trazodone and Ambien to help him sleep.
“I was calling out for help … but I was afraid to say ‘suicide,’” Garrison recalled. “I was afraid to tell them what I was truly feeling because that puts a label on you and they patronize you.”
He kept it far from his command.
But by mid-September, Garrison couldn’t take it. He returned to doctors on base and told them he was feeling suicidal. They told him he had to see a regular doctor because they were booked.
The next day he found a doctor off base who prescribed Valium, which helped desensitize his reality. He heard a couple guys who committed suicide from their unit overdosed on Valium.
He was afraid to take it, but he was desperate.
It was football season. Garrison thought it would be good to get out, so he started going to the local bar to watch the games.
For weeks he did this. He was now mixing prescription drugs and alcohol. It seemed to help.
But on September 29 it all caught up.
That morning, he woke with the horrors of Afghanistan. He swallowed four Valium.
Later on he went to the bar. He took two more Valium and started drinking beer.
As he watched the game, he started getting excited. His adrenaline was pumping. Then he saw blood. Dirty air seeped in his senses and screams of horror quickly replaced the cheers.
It felt like iron weight settled in his chest. It was hard to breathe. His hands and feet throbbed. His heart was beating faster and faster and faster, like a hamster spinning a wheel.
Garrison rushed outside to his truck and blasted the air conditioning.
He could barely hold his cell phone as he struggled to dial 911. He blanked out off and on as the operator on the other end told him to keep breathing.
Within minutes ambulances and military police arrived. Paramedics strapped a plastic oxygen mask over his face and rushed him to the closest hospital in Watertown, N.Y.
He woke up several hours later with a man from the hospital’s intensive mental health unit next to him. He asked Garrison if he was suicidal.
“I broke down and cried right there,” Garrison said. “I told him I didn’t want to live anymore.”
The man said he served in Vietnam, and there was no shame in crying.
“I have a wife and a child on the way,” Garrison said through sobs. “I love them very much. I don’t want to be like this anymore, but I don’t want to live when I have these attacks, when I blank out, when I have these flashbacks.”
“I’m trying to be a good soldier. Please don’t tell my chain of command,” he pleaded.
Garrison was admitted into the psychiatric ward.
“That was the most traumatic part, but at the same time it was a relief because here I was in a place now where it was nothing but civilians,” Garrison explained. “I was away from the uniforms.”
After intense medical evaluations, Garrison was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression, according to his medical records.
For about a month, he attended group therapy and met with doctors daily.
These doctors were different. They didn’t judge him, or compare their story to his. No one said, “Suck it up, soldier.”
They listened to his every word. They sympathized with him.
He let everything out.
In late October, the military transferred Garrison to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. There he was spun through another cycle of psychiatric tests. Military doctors at Walter Reed diagnosed Garrison with PTSD and a borderline personality disorder.
Over the last six years, Defense Department records show that more than 22,500 personality disorder discharges have been processed.
A number of reports from servicemembers, veterans’ service organizations, and the media claiming ‘personality disorder’ discharges have been implemented inappropriately has spurred mental health professionals and political leaders into action.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif. “If they have a personality disorder, why didn’t the military know about it before? Why did the soldier get into the service to begin with?”
Filner, who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee and has met with soldiers overseas, said he’s talked with military doctors who told him that they were directed to misdiagnose.
“I think it’s a purposeful diagnosis to save money,” he said.
An amendment in the FY 2008 National Defense Authorization Act limits the Pentagon’s use of personality disorders. The act, signed into law Jan. 28, also calls for a full accounting by April 1 for the thousands of servicemembers discharged on the basis of personality disorder.
Dr. Charles Goodstein, a psychiatrist at the New York University Medical Center and former military psychiatrist, said that in the Vietnam era, “personality disorder” diagnoses were the rationale for separation from the service.
He explained that an individual’s underlying personality disorder could have easily eluded detection at the time of entry into the military, but in time would become very evident and therefore incompatible with further service. Goodstein, who has been in the mental health field for 44 years, also volunteers his time counseling troops.
“Psychological services have taken a back seat to the more obvious medical services for these men and women coming home from war,” he said. “It’s amazing that anyone could return without experiencing, to some degree the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
At Walter Reed, Garrison feels like he’s not entitled to be an injured soldier.
“Once you get down here and you get around the uniforms again is when the stress starts again … like a slap in the face — wake up, you’re still in the Army,” he said. “You’re treated like a soldier here and you have the expectations of a soldier and the stress of a soldier.”
And you must act like a soldier.
“I’ve had my commander and my first sergeant here look me in the face and tell me ‘You look fine to me,’” Garrison said. “They told me: You look like a squared-away soldier. You don’t look like there’s anything wrong.”
For three weeks at $71 a night, Garrison and Lily stayed at the Mologne House, a 280-room hotel located on Walter Reed’s campus. If Garrison were alone, he would’ve stayed in an old dorm-style building with other troops with mental or psychiatric trauma.
These troops must pay out of their own pocket if they want family members by their side while they recover at facilities such as Walter Reed.
Servicemembers with physical injuries are more likely to receive “Invitation Traveling Orders,” which provides family members rooms at the Mologne House. Or if the hotel is full, which it typically is, they can stay at area hotels including the Marriott or the Hilton, which cost a paying guest $119 to $289 a night.
The Army also pays an average of $64 a day for food and travel.
Garrison was told Lily could stay under an “ITO.”
“Then they told me no because I’m not handicapped and that it’s only psychiatric and that I don’t need somebody there,” Garrison said. “But any psychiatrist will argue that someone whose going through this treatment and working through the medications and the stress … they will tell you we do need someone there.”
The night before Thanksgiving, Lily found Garrison in the bathroom.
“He was banging his head on the wall … over and over,” she said through tears. “I can’t leave him like this.”
The horror held on for several more minutes until Garrison came to with Lily at his side.
Lily is his saving grace.
“This is what connects someone back into life,” said Dr. Judith Broder, founder of The Soldiers Project, a nonprofit organization (www.thesoldiersproject.org) that offers free mental health counseling to veterans and their families.
“There is hope for these men and women,” Broder said. “The human being has a lot of resiliency, but it’s very important to be connected with family … girlfriends, wives, parents, grandparents, anybody close to that soldier can be a bridge that gradually brings them back to themselves.”
In late November, Garrison planned to start an intense therapy program at Walter Reed, but the day it was supposed to begin his command gave him new orders: He was to return to Fort Drum later that week to prepare for medical discharge.
“I’m scared as hell to go back there,” Garrison said before he left Walter Reed in early December. “I feel like I’ve been pushed aside … like I’m on my own to get better.”
Garrison was told he would return to Walter Reed sometime in February to continue treatment.
It never happened.
Garrison worries about his future. He’s accepted that he can’t be a soldier in war ever again.
“That terrifies me and it hurts me at the same time because here I was a soldier that volunteered for deployment,” he said. “I loved putting that uniform on every day and now when I put it on all I feel is the ulcerations in my stomach and the sickness and the anxiety and the worries, because it’s constant memories of what happened and what I’ve been through after wearing it.”
For now, his cell phone ring tone plays “Home” by Daughtry:
“Oh, well I’m going home,
Back to the place where I belong,
And where your love has always been enough for me.
I’m not running from.
No, I think you got me all wrong.
I don’t regret this life I chose for me.
But these places and these faces are getting old.
I said these places and these faces are getting old.
So I’m going home.
I’m going home.”
To Garrison, the lyrics could be summarized in one word.
Today, she remains at his side, now joined by their new son, named in honor of a warrior who has gone home.
Garrison and Lily currently live in an apartment in Watertown, N.Y. Garrison is waiting to present his case before the Army’s medical review board. Lily gave birth to the couple’s first child Wednesday.
E-mail Tracy Burton at: firstname.lastname@example.org