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Connecticut veteran with PTSD finds purpose in helping fellow vets

By EVAN LIPS | New Haven Register, Conn. (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 24, 2015

CHESHIRE (Tribune News Service) — The light fades from his eyes not when he talks about his time in Afghanistan, but when he talks about coming home.

During the mid-2000s, former U.S. Army Capt. Justin Nash led infantry battalions in one of the most remote regions of the war-torn nation. There was purpose, he says, in what he did there.

Nash, who graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2001, was a leader of men.

Yet, for him, the fight at home was worse than the one abroad. His brother, Corey Nash, says Justin was a different person when he returned home in.

He had been stripped of purpose. The bright light that once fueled his ambition went dark.

Today, the light is back. Justin Nash launched ‘Till Duty is Done (TDID) almost exactly a year ago.

“The day we incorporated changed my life,” he said.

He and his brother are now committed to running the venture, which seeks to help returning veterans by providing them a slice of the rigid armed forces lifestyle that had vanished so suddenly upon their discharge. Justin Nash said he’s working on finding an apartment site in Connecticut where vets can live on their own but also adhere to a structured lifestyle.

“We bridge the gap,” he said. “You’re going to have a checklist of duties. We’re going to do inspections.”

Nash said he envisions big things for TDID.

“I see it as a way to shift the whole mindset of our country to go back to the days of FDR, when he had the Civilian Conservation Corps, to give men and women meaningful duties and responsibilities,” he said, referencing the Depression-era public work relief program.

But first Nash had to shift his own mindset. In Afghanistan, the threat was real, tangible.

The battle that raged inside his head once he returned, however, was not.

Corey Nash remembers the time his brother came home following his first tour, which coincided with his July 2004 wedding.

“All I wanted was to see my brother,” he said. “I went up to spend a week with him at Fort Drum (Watertown, New York) the week he got home. I knew nothing about the military or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I treated Justin like he had never left.”

But Justin Nash was different now, as he freely acknowledges.

“His patience was zero,” Corey Nash said about his brother. “The smallest things would set him off.”

Justin Nash described himself before going to war as a calm, collected person. The man who Corey Nash visited in the summer of 2004 was not. Corey described a flat tire incident that occurred after he bought a used Ford Bronco during his visit to Fort Drum. He said his brother followed him home from the auto dealer. When Justin Nash discovered his brother did not have a tire iron to change the wheel, he said he “lost it.”

“I basically left him in a Wal-Mart parking lot,” he said.

Corey called his dad, the one person both brothers turn to first when there’s a problem.

“He grew up in the Vietnam era but his draft number got called right as the war ended,” Corey Nash said about their father. “I called him and told him I didn’t know where my brother went. I told him I thought something was wrong with Justin and I couldn’t figure out what it was.”

Weeks later, Justin Nash would recoil at the sound of Fourth of July fireworks. He recalled how on the night before his July 3 wedding at West Point, he sat around in a circle outside the hotel with family members and men from his wedding party who he had served with in Afghanistan.

“We were talking war stories,” he said. “Then it dawned on me that my family and friends who hadn’t fought couldn’t believe the stories we were telling. We had only been home for a few weeks.”

Justin Nash said two men he served with drove all the way from Boise, Idaho, to attend his wedding.

“That’s the bond,” he said.

The bond helped inspire the brothers’ cousin James Onofrio to enlist.

“Growing up, he was our best friend,” Justin said. “He told me he wanted to do something with his life. He wanted that sense of purpose.”

Justin Nash would lose that purpose, and would also nearly lose his mind.

He had led battalions through one of the most dangerous corners of the world. Nangalam, Afghanistan, sits about 20 miles from the Pakistan border. Nash described the outpost he was assigned to as an area surrounded on all sides by mountains. He recalled a helicopter crash that killed nine soldiers, countless encounters with improvised explosives, and a devastating cache explosion that killed many more.

“I saw awful things,” he said. “But I was also a leader of men.”

Nash pointed out that he did not enlist following the September 11 World Trade Center terrorist attack. He was accepted into West Point following a stint at a boarding school. Nash recalled the drive he felt. At his 2001 graduation, Paul Wolfowitz delivered the commencement address. Nash remembered how Wolfowitz talked about surprises. He said the speech was eerie in how it “pretty much” predicted the terrorist attack that was still months away.

Nash also recalled the motto for the Class of 2001: “‘Till duty is done.”

He was training in Georgia when the towers fell. Nash recalled that his camp had zero access to the outside world. He found out about the attacks when a superior officer asked all troops with family members living in lower Manhattan to return to base.

Then came orders to ship off to Afghanistan. Nash said he was assigned to search for “high or medium-value targets.”

“We built an army of 300 indigenous men,” he recalled. “To say nerves were high at that time is an understatement.”

But all that sense of purpose and leadership was instantly stripped away when he returned home. Nash said the practice for soldiers returning home involves filling out a “dumb” government-issued checklist used to determine whether he or she should see a chaplain or a mental health counselor.

“You literally complete your list, meet your family, check in your weapons and you’re gone,” Nash said.

His breaking point did not happen immediately.

Corey Nash said it was in 2010 when he could sense his brother’s life was spiraling out of control.

“The seed that was planted in Afghanistan broke through the ground,” he said.

Justin Nash called it a mental breakdown.

“I had been through a divorce and the biggest thing eating at me during that time period was the loss of a sense of purpose,” he said. “I wound up in the Veterans Affairs psych ward and totally broke from my family.”

But there was more.

“You’re skipping over the time you tried to do yourself in,” Corey said. “You need to make that clear.”

Justin called his suicide attempt an “attention-seeking” moment.

“I had been at the top,” he said. “I had been a leader of men and it had all been stripped away from me.”

There was a moment when after weeks and weeks of sleepless nights, despite Ambien (sleep medication) prescriptions, that Justin attacked his dad.

“I was hallucinating,” he recalled. “I thought my dad was a Taliban member.”

Justin Nash fought through the dark period, however. Upon his discharge he immediately traveled to Boise to make a surprise visit to the men he served with, the men who drove thousands of miles to attend his wedding.

He had not, however, spoken to Corey.

“I did not talk to Justin for almost two years after it all went down,” Corey said. “He and I had a pretty nasty falling out.”

Yet, Corey recalled how he spent that time reading as much about PTSD as he possible. He wanted to understand. He also became a volunteer firefighter to see if he could find the type of brotherhood and camaraderie Justin always talked about.

There was a balmy March night when Corey was dispatched to a fatal car accident. The driver in the car, he later discovered, was a high school friend. He said it was at that moment when he began to develop a shred of understanding for what his brother went through.

“I thought to myself, ‘Justin deals with this on a far greater scale every single day,’” Corey said.

But the differences between the brothers extends a lot further. Corey has always been the goofball, the one interested in music, the brother who was more of a free spirit. Justin described himself as more rigid.

“I’ve always been the showman in the family but I’m comfortable sitting in the background,” Corey said, referring to his role with ‘Till Duty is Done. “I don’t need to be on the board of directors.”

With Memorial Day coming up, the brothers are already focusing on November and Veterans Day. Justin has already reached out to Mohegan Sun about organizing a day dedicated to veterans.

“We’re calling it Vets Rock,” he said about the event. “It’s going to be our way of making a difference on Veterans Day.”

The day will involve a free resume preparation clinic for veterans. There will be a conference hall packed full of various organizations dedicated to helping veterans connect with various services.

“We’ve already had 31 sign up this week for booths,” Corey said. “The vets will be able to walk up and down the aisle and see all the associations at once.”

There will also be health and wellness offerings, everything from guitar clinics and yoga classes to sleep therapy.

There will even be a tailor on site who will help veterans dress to impress, with suits and dresses free of charge.

The nighttime event, however, will be a concert. Trace Adkins and members of the Dropkick Murphys will perform, in addition to Madison Rising, which bills itself as America’s most patriotic rock band.

“It’s all about trying to make a difference,” Justin said.

And trying to find purpose. Justin has found it, his brother said.

The goal is to help other vets to find theirs.

“We owe it to them,” Justin said. “We will never desert them.”

‘Til Duty is Done is always looking for volunteers to help with various events. To help, visit www.tdid.org. Tickets for the Nov. 11 event at Mohegan Sun can be purchased either via the www.tdid.org website or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

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©2015 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

Visit the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.) at www.nhregister.com

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