February 22, 2009 – Jay White spent his first day in Baghdad in 2003 camping beside a dead U.S. Army soldier in a body bag.
In a very real sense, this would determine his career, an increasingly important one as the United States sends more troops to Afghanistan.
Trained as a mental health specialist at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, White has experienced the horrors of war during two tours in Iraq. This has prepared him to counsel soldiers who can’t forget, or cope with, their own horrific experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.
White, 37, of Cromwell, is an outreach counselor at the Hartford Vet Center in Rocky Hill. He is a member of a new breed of counselors hired by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in an attempt to avoid the Vietnam-era mistake of ignoring post-traumatic stress disorder and other readjustment problems experienced by soldiers returning from war zones. He was hired in 2004, one of about 50 counselors recruited because they had served in Iraq.
In addition to counseling sessions, White has inspired the formation of a unique group of veterans. These men tour the state addressing police departments, college administrators and social service agencies on the hazards of post-traumatic stress disorder, and what can happen when society fails to recognize the symptoms of soldiers returning from combat with hair-trigger emotions and an inability to cope with the everyday challenges of civilian life.
But even as he maintained a busy schedule of counseling veterans in one-on-one sessions in his office, White became aware that many soldiers were falling through the cracks, reluctant, for various reasons, to seek traditional counseling.
So he developed a less traditional course of treatment.
“We recognized that these guys were returning from Iraq and drinking heavily together because they wanted to talk about their experiences over there,” White said. “But all of this was happening in bars in downtown Hartford. So, if they felt comfortable together, and this was where the group was already happening, why not replicate that in an environment where they were sober?”
White began scheduling group outings with veterans that included trips to baseball games, kayaking weekends and rounds of golf, encouraging veterans to bring their friends and break down the barriers to counseling.
That was one of the things that impressed U.S. Army Sgt. Patrick Montes in 2007, when he met White.
White was working with a number of soldiers that Montes had served with during an earlier assignment to Iraq, most of whom he assumed had no symptoms of PTSD. That made it acceptable for Montes to seek help himself, and he began enjoying the group trips to baseball games and kayak streams.
“Jay knows that there is tremendous value in just being together again,” said Montes, who is from Newington. “When you are helping rescue someone who just flipped their kayak up in Massachusetts, you’re also remembering what you did together in Iraq.”
Still Fighting A War
Montes had been a team leader and convoy commander in Afghanistan, in the remote mountains along the Pakistan border. He was awarded the Bronze Star and several other medals for valor and leadership.
Three years earlier, Montes had served in Iraq with the Army’s 39th Cavalry Brigade, just as the Sunni insurgency was increasing its violent attacks against U.S forces. Within three days of arriving in Iraq, his company suffered six casualties — four badly wounded and two killed. At some point during that period, Montes said, he crossed a mental threshold and no longer feared death because he realized it was something he couldn’t control.
“That’s a defining moment for any soldier, but once you cross that point and stop fearing death, how do you change back to a normal person?” he asked.
“Once you get home, you don’t want to give up that courage about death. Well, that attitude toward death and how to react to situations is not productive in a civilian culture. You’re back, and you’re still fighting a war.”
White said he immediately welcomed Montes into his group trips and sessions because he could see his potential to help the group.
“Pat Montes is a perfect example of a squared-away person who, at the same time, knows all of his faults and weaknesses,” White said.
“You need that example for the group because many of these guys are afraid to be open at first. But if Pat goes off on a two-hour tangent on the anger issues he’s been having, it liberates the rest of the group to be candid about their own problems.”
And Montes has been frank in group sessions, telling the other veterans that he experienced all of the typical symptoms of PTSD when he returned from Iraq in the spring of 2005.
“I was drinking, playing a lot of video games and achieving new targets with escape from tarkov hacks, suffering from road rage,” Montes said. “In Iraq, every bag on the road could be an IED, so I would swerve around those on Route 2 and then yell at the cars that honked at me.
“Just watching the news made me furious,” he said. “The simplicity of life back here was maddening.”
Everyday Personal Problems
And White got that. During his two tours in Iraq, he had to try to overcome the challenges of helping soldiers through terrible experiences.
“What do I tell right guys whose buddy lost his head and collapsed into the tank from the top hatch?” White wrote in an e-mail sent from Iraq to his family and friends. “Those guys had to push his body under one of the side benches and get him a replacement up top.”
On his second tour in Iraq in 2005, White endured another common problem among veterans — worrying about the wives, children and girlfriends they have left behind. He married just two weeks before he was deployed.
“One of the big things I learned on that tour is that it’s not just important what happens to soldiers while they are over there,” he said. “A lot of these guys had huge issues dealing with their families back home.
“All of the personal issues a soldier has in life — self-esteem problems, money issues, marital problems — are exacerbated by deployment. So you are really spending as much time counseling someone about the person they already were before they got to Iraq.”
In addition, he said, many National Guardsmen and reservists are too young to have formed careers, and a one-year deployment disrupts what little semblance of order their lives had. A lot of soldiers are given important war theater jobs, such as convoy commander or rescue coordinator, only to return to dead-end civilian jobs that suddenly deflate their importance. This may be especially true in the current tough economy.
Between Anger And Tears
When one of Montes’ close friends from Glastonbury High School, Mike Hawley, returned from Iraq in the fall of 2007, Montes picked him up at Bradley International Airport and drove him straight to a veterans forum before an audience in Middletown.
Hawley had experienced a particularly rough tour in Iraq, seeing friends shot and his platoon sergeant blown out of his armored vehicle. And he was involved in an infamous incident in August 2006, when his armored unit, three days after returning from Iraq, was immediately redeployed to Iraq. The soldiers exploded with rage at a bar near their base in Anchorage, Alaska, picking a fight with the locals. Six members of Hawley’s Army unit were injured, and Hawley was knocked out with a lead pipe.
“I date the anger issues I’ve had back to that incident,” Hawley said. “I felt betrayed and went back to Iraq tense, and with an attitude. After I finally got back, I’d alternate most of the time between anger and wanting to cry all the time.”
But after lots of coaching from Montes and White, Hawley was able to settle down with a substitute teaching job and has founded a group called the Veterans Art Foundation, which helps returning soldiers ease back into society with art and writing projects. On their group trips, Hawley often sits up front in the van with White, chattering away about everything from the Red Sox to his dreams for his new foundation.
“Mike’s big issue is anger management, and what I have to do is channel all that raw energy,” White said.
“And that’s where the group comes in. By meeting new people and sharing their issues, Mike learns that he can relate to people without being angry.
“We don’t look at what’s really happening to these returning soldiers, and this is important because Connecticut, with the 102nd Infantry Battalion in New Haven, is a big infantry state,” White said.
“Some of these deployments have sent 500 young men over to Iraq or Afghanistan at once, and when they return after difficult tours they are pissed off, still experiencing the adrenaline rush of war, drinking a lot and facing divorces or breakups from their girlfriends.
“It’s a big social issue,” White said, “and with the Obama administration’s plans to send more troops to Afghanistan, it doesn’t go away.”
News information specialist Tina Bachetti contributed to this article.