Couples look for ways to heal relationships, psychological wounds of war at Virginia retreat

Social worker Victoria Bruner interacts with mentoring couple Adrian and Diana Veseth-Nelson during a Bridging the Gap retreat in Middleburg, Virginia on Dec. 10, 2015. Bruner created the retreat model to help not only veterans suffering from war trauma or injury, but also their spouses.


By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 17, 2016

“When a man seats before his eyes the bronze face of his helmet and steps off from the line of departure, he divides himself, as he divides his ticket in two parts. … He banishes from his heart all feeling of tenderness and mercy, all compassion and kindness, all thought or concept of the enemy as a man, a human being like himself. ... He could not fight at all if he did not do this.”

— Steven Pressfield, “Gates of Fire,” read during the Bridging the Gap retreat

MIDDLEBURG, Va. — They drove or flew here. Some fought along the way, as they do.

Then, the awkward first meeting. Smiles, shifting uncomfortably.

Six couples if you include Adrian and Diana Veseth-Nelson, mentors here to show the others that there is hope. Lucas Lewis is busy, brusque. David Inglish is chatty, finding smoking buddies on the stoop. The two men know each other — and Adrian — intimately. They were at war together.

The rest are mostly strangers. The women attempt to hide their nervousness and keep their secrets — we sleep in separate bedrooms; he no longer lives at home. They wonder whether anyone else is waiting for their partner’s mercury to rise.

They are all here, at this Virginia retreat, to heal. Or to try. Or to do something. Because anything is better than what they have now — one partner traumatized by war, the other overwhelmed by how much falls on them and how little they understand.

“It’s your experience here, nobody else’s,” social worker David Shoots tells the couples in the first session. “The only thing I ask from you: If you are not yet on the road, get on it now. The road is called recovery.”

The past

“The past is alive,” social worker Victoria Bruner tells the group. “For those who experienced war, it’s still alive.”

Vic is standing at the front of a large, light-filled room in the big retreat house — encircled by the six couples and 10 professionals she has assembled at this four-day gathering she has put together with Adrian and Diana’s nonprofit Invisible Wound. Vic created Bridging the Gap retreats after working with wounded warriors at the Defense Department’s Deployment Health Clinical Center for several years and realizing that the path to healing is not for warriors to traverse alone. Their loved ones, especially their immediate family, suffer along with them.

Returning warriors get caught in the triangle between the residue of war, chronic pain and sleep problems, she tells the group.

Heads nod.

“You were the tip of the spear for all of us,” she said. “You absorbed the greatest impact. You are the ones that intimately carry it forward — for the rest of your lives.”

You also carry the hypervigilance from the battlefield, the hair-trigger responses, she said. It goes like this: Adrenalin soars. The nervous system gets set on fight-or-flight and after a while, the body is bathed in cortisol, a key adrenal hormone.

All that stays with you when you come home, she says.

Spouses are nodding.

The mission

David carried home plenty of pieces of war: seeing a man evaporate into pink powder from a direct grenade explosion, for one. That was on his first deployment.

On his second deployment, when David joined the 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division and served with Adrian and Lucas, seeing dead children on the road left an awful, indelible mark.

But the day they all three remember — the one they call Crash Day with a capital C — is the one they send messages to each other about on Facebook. It’s the one that creeps up on them each year, as Jan. 26 rolls around, and without realizing the date, they each crawl into a dark hole.

The unit was stood up less than a year before shipping out to Baghdad in September 2005.

Adrian was platoon leader, a first lieutenant in charge of 18 men who patrolled their gangland sector of Baghdad with four Humvees. They chased a phantom enemy who buried explosive devices along the road but rarely engaged in direct combat. And when they did, it was never close enough to see their faces.

The mission became a violent cat-and-mouse game — with frustration building week by week as Adrian’s trucks limped back to base after being hit by bombs, his men suffering a stream of concussions.

Lucas, then a specialist, was Adrian’s regular driver. David, a private first class, was usually a driver too, and was the replacement gunner on Adrian’s truck when needed.

David had developed such an acuity — or maybe it was an obsession — with spotting possible IEDs that he earned an Army achievement medal. He also developed a keen sense of paranoia, thinking every shiny object on the road was a killing device.

The chase

On Jan. 26, 2006, the platoon set up a checkpoint to catch a particularly irritating gang of insurgents menacing the neighborhood in a dark Nissan Maxima.

Sure enough, the Maxima showed up and opened fire, shooting one of Adrian’s soldiers. Two Humvees gave chase, but the car made a quick turn and lost one of the Humvees. The other — carrying Adrian, Lucas and David — kept on them.

They pulled around the corner and spotted the car, which had stopped near a schoolyard, when the insurgents thought they’d lost their tail. As they neared, the insurgents rolled down their windows and opened fire on the schoolyard. Then they sped off.

Whether there were any children in the yard and whether any of them were shot is something the Americans will never know.

The Iraqis were trying to divert their attention, Adrian thought, but he was having none of it.

He told Lucas to step on it. The men in the Maxima opened fire out of their rear window at the Humvee. In the turret, David returned fire from his .50-caliber machine gun.

But as they zigzagged through the neighborhood in a hail of bullets, David’s turret unlocked and he could not stabilize the direction of his shooting. Before he could pull his hand from the trigger, a round ripped into a minivan, leaving David to wonder if he hit or killed civilians.

But there was no time to stop. The car pulled up to traffic waiting to turn onto a busy highway and Adrian seized the opening

“Ram them,” he shouted. Lucas floored the Humvee, pushing the Maxima and two cars in front of it through two lanes of perpendicular traffic, not stopping until they hit the median in a pile-up that left Adrian staring through the windshield into the eyes of the enemy.

Adrian rolled down his window, pointed his gun across his body and shot the driver through the glass.

Another soldier ran to the front of the car and shot the passenger in the face in an explosion of blood and tissue.

Other Humvees arrived. A soldier opened the back passenger door and a badly wounded Iraqi rolled forward, pressed a grenade against the chest of the American, then slumped back into the car.

They all dove for cover but the grenade was a dud. Lucas shot the man three times and killed him.

The final man in the car was in bad shape. He’d been shot by multiple weapons, including David’s .50-caliber. The bullet had entered his back and exited through his pelvis. Ripped apart, he was screaming in agony and gasping until he finally died, David recalled. “I didn’t care. I was still amped. I was just screaming cuss words and throwing an ammo can at the car.”

What he felt, he said, was hate.

As they bagged the bodies and soldiers began emptying the car — grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, assault rifles, a machine gun and armor piercing rounds — Adrian’s crew began to take stock.

They were covered in blood and sweat, exhausted, exhilarated, horrified and relieved. They knew they had killed a group of guys who had killed and injured military personnel.

For each of the men, that day marked their first direct kill. They didn’t know it then, but those images would be theirs to keep.

Carrying it with you

When they returned to base, Adrian called his friend Diana. He still “smelled of gunpowder and death,” he said.

He needed to sort things out. He’d taken lives before, but not like this.

“There’s a difference between shooting a silhouette from 200 yards and seeing it not come up, and shooting a person at 3 feet,” Adrian said. “It transcends violence. It’s a very intimate thing. You are looking at this person, looking them in the eye and pulling the trigger and you are watching the lights go out.”

He felt good that he had gotten the bad guys. And bad that he enjoyed killing someone. All that pent-up frustration and powerlessness was having its day. But it was confounding and left him with emotions that were foreign and powerful — not something he was ready to share with his parents.

Lucas and Adrian earned Bronze Stars with “V” device for valor. David was put in for one, but the command turned it down. It wasn’t supposed to matter that he’d been flagged for being overweight, but Adrian said he was told that was the reason. They all found it upsetting.

The deployment continued — firefights, a close call with a rocket-propelled grenade that knocked David’s Kevlar helmet down over his eyes. It gave him such a fright that he went through the rest of the deployment — and another one after that — struggling with chest-crushing panic attacks that left him gasping for air. Still, he continued to do his job.

Contributing to his problems was David’s wife, whom he said had cheated, taken their money and left. He was in such a state that in Iraq, one of his superiors sent him to Camp Liberty for psychological evaluation. He got a baggie full of Zoloft and little instruction, and he said he stopped taking the medication after a week.

Lucas rolled in a vehicle shortly after Crash Day, breaking his wrist. He was recuperating when his replacement got shot in the knee on a dismounted patrol — Adrian’s second soldier to take a bullet there. To this day, Lucas believes that bullet was really his.

In June, the men shipped home. They were moved to different units but remained together for a time at Fort Drum. All three drank heavily, spending their days at work and their nights at the bar.

Adrian continued to struggle with who that person was — covered in blood, thrilled at the kill. “You can’t undo the fact that you have taken lives,” he said. “It’s something that weighs on the soul.”

The struggle

Alcohol in the office. Bar brawls and heavy metal concerts. Adrian didn’t care if he put people in the hospital. He didn’t care if he ended up dead.

At work, their buddy Jesse Ainsworth told “Your mama” jokes, had an engaging disregard for authority and made everyone laugh. He worked in Adrian’s office at C Company for a while, and then with Lucas who had moved to Headquarters. But he was one of David’s best friends.

They plodded on. David with his panic attacks. Adrian and Lucas drinking too much or punching too much, until they each deployed again.

Adrian quit drinking after his next deployment and married Diana in 2009. But he struggled with anger, sleeplessness and anxiety. They all did.

By the time Ainsworth was killed by an explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010, the men had lost touch, connecting occasionally on Facebook to wish each other Happy Crash Day. They briefly reconnected, drank to Jesse and went back to their own struggles.

Adrian got out in 2011, after a psychologist saw his symptoms for what they were and sent him to Walter Reed. There he met Vic Bruner, whose program treating post-traumatic stress disorder was getting good results. Adrian went through different therapies, found ways to heal and, with Diana’s help, started to build a new life.

When a car struck his pickup so hard in 2012 that it knocked off a wheel, Adrian said he was sure that al-Qaida had come for him. “Why on earth would anyone hit me at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning? I was convinced that they found me and that car had targeted me,” he said.

It made his PTSD worse, drawing a connection between the dangers over there and what was supposed to be the safety of home. He was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress — the kind of trauma found in abused children and prisoners of war.

His men were not faring much better.

David and Lucas struggled to stay on an even keel, resigned to physical pain and mental anguish. During the day, David suffered panic attacks. At night, he relived violence, often punching in his sleep, or waking up after nightmares of bloody children’s body parts and sometimes, a man in a traditional flowing white tunic standing over him.

Lucas lived in pain, with deep dark mood swings and little sleep, still seeing the face of the man he killed up close.

They were spiraling with little hope that their lives would ever stabilize.

For more information about Bridging the Gap retreats, contact Invisible Wound:
Website: www.invisiblewound.org
Email: retreats@invisiblewound.org

Twitter: @diannacahn


Iraq war veteran Lucas Lewis and his wife Christine take part in a connecting exercise at the Loudoun Therapeutic Riding center in Leesburg Virginia on Dec. 10, 2015. The couple was participating in a four-day couples retreat for veterans traumatized by war or injury.

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