June 3, 2007 – Fallen comrades visit him in dreams. Some were close friends. Some, he barely knew. Some are whole again. Some, he cannot bear to see.
He bolts awake in the night, then roams the house, checking locks on doors and windows. He doesn’t get back to sleep. He just paces.
“They say it will be over, but sometimes, I just can’t see it,” said Tom Gibson, 29, of Bridgeport, who has a wife, a 2-year-old daughter and an unwanted carryover from his time in Afghanistan. It’s called post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the U.S. Army labors strains under the pressure of two wars, the toll on its warriors is visible. Lost limbs and wheelchairs make unforgettable images, but for many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, some of the most troubling scars lie hidden.
At the top of the list is PTSD, a mix of anxiety, guilt and depression that gained public awareness during the Vietnam War. Since 2002, nearly 40,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD symptoms, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Though misunderstood, PTSD is treatable, as long as the person seeks help. For many ex-soldiers, that’s not so easy.
“It’s the stigma of a warrior having to admit that something in his or her life is out of control,” said Larry Lantinga, a psychologist and co-manager of behavioral health at the Syracuse VA Medical Center. “At post-deployment or discharge, often they will deny everything and say, ‘I just want to go home.’ By the time we see them, something in their lives is not right.”
That’s how it went for Gibson. After returning in 2004 from nine months in Afghanistan, he downplayed his problems to counselors at Fort Drum, the Army’s post near Watertown. But after he received an honorable discharge in 2005, Gibson couldn’t put get his life back on course.
In January 2006, he sought counseling at the Syracuse VA Center. He couldn’t sleep at night. He couldn’t relax. Weary and frustrated, he couldn’t keep a job. For 11 months, he received medication and counseling, trying to rise from his doldrums.
On Dec. 6, a letter arrived from the U.S. Army.
“You are relieved from your present reserve component status and are ordered to report for a period of active duty,” it said.
He was ordered to re-enter the Army for up to 18 months and work anywhere from Arizona to Baghdad.
The country was calling Gibson back, and he was falling apart.
‘Panicked and scared’
Upon enlistment, every U.S. soldier commits to eight years of military service, regardless of how long he or she spends on active duty. After being discharged, veterans are placed on the Army’s Individual Ready Reserve list, a pool that numbers 78,000.
“Back in the ’80s, nobody thought about the IRR,” said Fred Bush, the Syracuse VA’s coordinator of Returning Veterans Education Outreach. “It’d be, ‘Hell, they’re not going to call me back.’ Well, that’s a real concern now.”
Since 2001, the Army has recalled 10,128 veterans from the IRR list. To keep boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has also extended combat deployments from 12 to 15 months, required soldiers to serve extra tours through the “stop-loss” program and called up large numbers of National Guard troops.
The recall letter hit Gibson hard.
“He reported being very panicked and scared, and did not know what to do,” psychologist Louise Weller wrote Dec. 7, in an evaluation for the Syracuse VA. Based on Gibson’s phone call, Weller described him as “highly anxious and distressed.”
After talks with his counselors, Gibson requested an exemption to his call-up, based on health concerns. The Army pushed back his reporting date by a month, to Feb. 22.
The Army grants about half the requests for IRR exemptions, according to the Pentagon. The most common reasons: health concerns of soldiers or hardship for their immediate families.
“Exemptions are approved when their return to active duty would create an undue hardship or that their physical or mental readiness has changed to the point they are no longer capable of performing their duty,” the Army said in an e-mail.
As the wars grind on, concerns are growing about what the Army traditionally has called “combat stress.”
A 2007 Pentagon study reports that 17 percent of the soldiers in Iraq show PTSD symptoms. The frequency rises among soldiers who serve multiple and longer deployments.
PTSD has been around for as long as war. In earlier times, people called it “shell shock” or “war neurosis.” In 1980, after exhaustive study of Vietnam veterans, the American Psychiatric Association gave it a name.
In 1988, a study estimated that 13 percent of Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSD. The war in Vietnam took place in jungle villages. Iraq is being waged in desert cities. But in both, U.S. troops could not outwardly tell the difference between friend and enemy. And buried explosives brought about a constant threat of instant death.
In mid-December, after receiving his call-up orders, Gibson quit his job as a telemarketer. He gathered VA records for his arthritic knees and flat feet, and sent his psychiatric assessments to the Army.
On March 9, the answer arrived.
“Your request for an exemption is disapproved,” it said.
He was ordered to report to Fort Benning, Ga., on April 22.
Thomas G. Gibson grew up in the Sullivan County community of Livingston Manor, and graduated from the State University of New York College at Oneonta in 2000 with a degree in math and physics. He wanted to be a teacher.
To pay college loans, Gibson enlisted for a four-year hitch in the Army on Aug. 29, 2001. Two weeks later, the World Trade Center fell.
In August 2003, as a specialist in the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade, Gibson deployed to Afghanistan for six months, a tour that was later extended to nine.
His job: driving Humvees around the city of Ghazni.
In 2003, the Army was still adjusting to the threat of IEDs — improvised explosive devices — buried along roads. This was the era of “soft-skinned” Humvees, without the reinforced armor of today’s vehicles. As the death toll rose, soldiers began filling Humvees with sandbags. But when a soft-skin triggered a roadside bomb head-on, somebody likely died.
Gibson lost several friends to IEDs. But his own convoys were hit only once, without casualties. He never saw a firefight. But he lost a friend in a helicopter crash, a flight he at one point was scheduled to make.
But Gibson said he does not believe he experienced the kinds of atrocities that justify a soldier having PTSD.
“It’s never seemed right that I could be messed up,” he said. “It’s like I have no right to be complaining, no right to be experiencing this.”
In May 2004, his brigade returned to Fort Drum. Gibson saw a counselor about his anger and sleepless nights. Upon his 2005 discharge, he thought his nightmares would vanish.
“It was the anticipation of getting out of the uniform,” he said. “I was going to move on and start the next part of my life.”
With his wife, Joann, and a baby daughter, Gibson bought a home in Bridgeport, near Oneida Lake. He planned to go back to school and get his teaching degree. But something wasn’t right.
“There was just no joy in things. I stayed in the house. I didn’t get out. I didn’t like driving. Everything just kind of hit me,” he said.
In November 2005, the Albany VA Medical Center diagnosed Gibson’s PTSD symptoms, though an examiner there wrote that Gibson was downplaying his problems to avoid being “labeled.”
Two months later, Gibson sought help at the Syracuse VA.
“He has recurring intrusive thoughts, memories, images and recollections of his time in Afghanistan,” his VA evaluator would write later. “He cannot relax. He has trouble feeling safe for any sustained period of time.”
Gibson went through ups and downs. But as the wars continued, and the news reports kept coming, he couldn’t climb out of the hole.
“I’d think, ‘I’m here, with all these opportunities. I can go out and enjoy my day. And those guys over there, they can’t.’
And then in December, the Army called him back.
In February, Gibson appealed the Army’s rejection of his exemption request. The Army pushed his date-to-report back to June.
Over the next month, Gibson put his life on hold, unsure of what to do. If he reported, he feared being unable to do his job, and maybe costing someone his or her life. If he didn’t report, he’d lose his honorable discharge and veteran status. He grew more angry, more frustrated, more numb.
“He continues to procrastinate and then belittle himself for that,” Weller, the psychologist, wrote in April.
When Army caseworkers called his home, Gibson was too distraught to take the phone. He asked Bush, his VA counselor, to call back and help him. He sent a bundle of VA medical records to the Army, then waited.
“His insight and judgment are good,” wrote VA examining provider Michael Thompson, on April 12. “He is in appropriate treatment for his needs.”
Thompson said Gibson showed a “full-range” of PTSD symptoms.
“Prominent psychic numbing is noted. In my opinion, at the present time, this veteran would not be capable of maintaining himself in a reliable and stable manner.”
Thompson suggested Gibson spend time at the VA’s residential PTSD program in Batavia.
On April 18, a letter arrived from the U.S.Army Human Resources Command in St. Louis.
“Your orders for mobilization have been revoked,” it said. “Because further medical review is required on your care, you will be placed in the Standby Reserve. If you are found to be fit for duty in the future, you may be mobilized at that time.”
The decision brought feelings of relief and guilt. Gibson could not celebrate.
“I feel that I’m letting the guys down,” he said.
“Good days are when I appreciate so much,” he said recently. “That I own my home, that I have a beautiful little girl. On good days, I get something done. Even if it’s just playing around with her, it’s a feeling of accomplishment.
“Bad days are when I have to put myself in a room, because I can’t even deal with my little girl. I hurt too much to even play horse with her. I get hung up on the news, and it just makes me want to cry, thinking about what the troops are going through. You’re sitting there knowing that someone’s over there, maybe dying that very minute, and that’s all you think about. You’re tired by 5 o’clock at night, but you don’t sleep until 1 in the morning.”
Gibson said he hopes to get his life back on course. But the anxieties will not end as long as the wars continue.
“What it comes down to is, I’m back here now,” he said, “but there are guys over there still. It’s not over.”
He will remain on the IRR Individual Ready Reserve list until August 2009.
Hart Seely can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 470-2247.