June 25, 2008 – On the eve of last month’s Senate vote on Sen. Jim Webb’s GI Bill, Patrick Campbell clicked “send” on one last lobbying e-mail to staffers. Then he broke down and cried.
Campbell, the legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, had started his message by laying out all of the latest developments on Webb’s bill.
In the final paragraphs, the Iraq war veteran shared the news that was foremost in his mind, news that he hadn’t shared with anyone outside his unit.
“Yesterday,” he wrote, “one of my buddies from Iraq committed suicide.”
It should have been a heady week for Campbell, a week in which the former staffer for Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and other Democrats shared a rally stage with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), saw the Senate vote overwhelmingly in favor of Webb’s bill and graduated from law school at Catholic University.
But Campbell and the other soldiers in his unit had recently received notice that they’d be headed back to Iraq early next year. And then, in the midst of all that was happening in Washington, Campbell got word about his friend, a sergeant who had taken him under his wing during his tour of duty in Iraq.
Saturday afternoon, Campbell walked off the stage at the Catholic University graduation, handed his diploma to his parents and headed straight to the airport to fly to the sergeant’s funeral.
In 2007, at least 115 active-duty soldiers and National Guard and Reserve troops committed suicide, the highest rate since the Army began keeping records in 1980. IAVA estimates that between 30 percent and 40 percent of returning war veterans will face “serious mental health injury” — especially post-traumatic stress disorder — and that those numbers are exacerbated by long tours and frequent redeployments.
Campbell says the memory of his friend motivates him to fight for better care.
A former student body president at the University of California at Berkeley, Campbell was on the Capitol Hill fast track by the time he hit his mid-20s. But sitting with co-workers at a Capitol Hill apartment on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Campbell had a feeling of helplessness that he couldn’t shake.
So he walked to the still-smoldering Pentagon and asked if he could help search for bodies. He was turned away, and in that moment, he vowed that he’d become a medic himself. After a few twists and turns on and off Capitol Hill, Campbell joined the National Guard in 2003, squeezing basic training into his first year of law school.
He spent almost a year patrolling the streets of Baghdad with his unit, dodging the constant dangers that accompanied every neighborhood patrol. Although he admits that his unit was “very lucky” and he did not have to treat any major traumatic injuries, Campbell treated many Iraqi civilians.
It wasn’t always easy being a former congressional aide from California assigned to a tight-knit unit from the Louisiana bayou, but Campbell said “the sergeant” — that’s what he calls his late friend, out of respect for the privacy of the man’s family — was the one person who would always include him.
“When we would raid a house, we would have to split up into teams,” Campbell remembered. “I could tell a lot of the younger guys weren’t too excited about kicking in the door with a medic by their side. But he would always take me. … I trusted him, and he trusted me.”
After their tour of duty ended in October 2005, Campbell and the sergeant went their separate ways. Campbell returned to Washington, where he eventually signed on with IAVA. The sergeant went back home to Louisiana, where Campbell said the transition to civilian life took its toll.
“When these guys go [into battle], they learn to shut down their emotions,” said Campbell. “What helps you in Iraq is now hurting you at home.”
During a particularly rough patch earlier this year, Campbell said, the sergeant received a letter notifying him that his unit would be going back to Iraq.
“It was just too much,” said Campbell. “[The sergeant] sent a text message to someone at the armory, and they sent the police to go find him. They found him in a boat a couple days later. He had shot himself.”
Campbell said the funeral was “wonderful and horrible” all at once. It was the first time the unit had been back together since leaving Iraq. But only the sergeant’s body was there, laid out in an open casket, despite a gunshot wound to the face.
Campbell said that the transition from military to civilian life often hits Guard and Reserve troops particularly hard. He experienced it firsthand. After returning from Iraq, he said, it took a full year of his own reckless behavior and an ultimatum from his best friend before he admitted that he needed counseling for combat stress.
Even then, Campbell said he didn’t fully break down until days later, when a preview for an Iraq war film sent him over the edge. He said he spent hours in the theater, crying.
At IAVA, Campbell is helping to push for legislation that would provide returning soldiers with mandatory one-on-one screenings with mental health professionals within six months of returning from combat. He is also working toward increased access to mental health services in rural areas, a particular problem for some of the soldiers in his unit from remote parts of Louisiana.
Campbell wants Congress to lead the charge for a holistic approach to veterans’ mental health, including help for family members and targeted advertising campaigns to reduce the stigma that soldiers attach to counseling. He has also fought hard for the passage of the educational benefits in Webb’s GI Bill, which is expected to win Senate approval this week. He says the benefits would give returning soldiers a sense of purpose and “a reason to get up in the morning.”
Campbell said he’s “still on the hook” for another tour of duty in Iraq, although he does have the option of deferring it. If he does have to go back, he said he wants to go back with his old unit, even if it is a man down.
Until then, Campbell said, he thinks of the sergeant every day as he prepares for work.
At the funeral in Louisiana, Campbell promised his fallen friend that every lawmaker on Capitol Hill would someday know his story. “The last thing I said to him as I stood over his casket was, ‘I am never going to let them forget you.’”