YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — On a recent cloudy Tuesday at noon, six veterans sat around a metal table and shared a few pizzas.

Two of them wore chaplain’s crosses, but that wasn’t too important.

The only meaningful marking on their uniforms was one they all shared — a combat patch.

A military training exercise meant relatively low numbers at that week’s OIF/OEF Soldiers in Arms Support Group, but the participation was no less spirited than if a battalion showed up.

They accept anyone who wants to talk about a deployment, whether they have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or just have a need to share memories with people who “get it.”

Sometimes during group meetings they vent like a city steam grate in December, but they acknowledge it’s healthier than trying to cope like others they know.

One sergeant talked about a two-tour combat medic he found in a barracks room during the past weekend. The medic was on the floor with a fifth of tequila, an emptied bottle of painkillers and his medical kit lying against his body.

“Nobody stepped in to help him,” the sergeant said. “Now he can’t be a medic anymore because of an attempted suicide.”

The sergeant took prescribed medication and underwent counseling to deal with his own combat stress and subsequent divorce. He said he’s better now but had his share of crises along the way when he felt no one was listening.

At times, he called Camp Humphreys’ base services for help and got answering machines. He’d develop a relationship with a counselor, only to have that person leave for another post.

Others had similar difficulties finding an outlet for their feelings. A warrant officer said he couldn’t talk to a civilian who hadn’t shared his experiences.

Another said he couldn’t stand being screened by a junior enlisted soldier without a combat patch.

“The system is really overwhelmed,” he said. “Because it’s overwhelmed, they apply group solutions to what really needs individual attention.”

The conversation then turned to the “short fuse” many feel they have after coming back from a deployment and dealing with issues that pale in comparison to life and death decisions.

“For me, the anger is actually getting worse,” one officer said.

The support of his family has kept him going — something he realizes that many who divorced after deployment or couldn’t bring their families to noncommand-sponsored billets in South Korea don’t receive.

He talked about his family’s sacrifice, then shifted to others who use family as an excuse to avoid deployment.

“You know what you’ve been through and you know what you’ve lost,” he said. “Then you see someone who’s been in Yongsan for five years — that’s not today’s Army.”

Soldiers can elect to stay in South Korea for up to five years — a sore spot for all at the table.

“Why is it that only the people who have been downrange feel guilty about not being there now?” one asked.

Those feelings led the sergeant to try to block a soldier’s duty station change to Camp Zama.

“Japan should be a reward,” he said.

“It pisses me off that guy is going to Japan and he’s never been downrange. And other soldiers who have combat patches are going to (Fort) Bragg, and they’ll deploy.”

It’s as if there are two parallel armies in some soldiers’ minds. The sergeant’s job is to prepare his people for the worst, even if they don’t realize it.

“I walk the fine line of not looking like a maniac,” the sergeant said. “We’re the ones who bug out on the soldiers when they don’t want to run. And they think we’re joking.”

But the veterans in the group back him up, he says.

“Do it because it could save your life, that’s why, we say.”

There probably is plenty more to say, but not enough time to say it on a duty day.

The day’s honest dialogue was another step toward putting the harshness of combat tours into a broader, manageable context, said group facilitator Capt. Glenn Palmer, a chaplain.

“Open dialogue tends to desensitize the intensity of the events,” Palmer said. “We take off our rank. We don’t pull that. We’re brothers.”

Some self-medicate with pills. Some look for solace in the bottle. Others make suicide attempts. Many seek help. Many others do not. For soldiers suffering from PTSD, life after Iraq can be an endless nightmare of bad dreams, cries for help and fear of stigma.

But there is hope.

The full PTSD series:

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