November 10, 2007 – Daniel Bozorgnia was honorably discharged from the Army in 2006 after his convoy blew up in Iraq. The blast slammed him to the ground, but adrenaline kept him going until days later, when the back pain became unbearable. Though offered a desk job, he wanted out if he couldn’t be on the front lines.
A flag signed by soldiers who served in Iraq with Daniel Bozorgnia hangs in Mr. Bozorgnia’s Grand Prairie home. He was happy to be home in Grand Prairie with his wife and two daughters, but that’s when the nightmares began. The former squad leader would fall asleep and find himself back in Iraq – wounded, stranded and dying.
The tension spilled into his daytime routine. “When you go into crowded areas, people come up to you. You push ’em back,” he said. “People back here don’t respect your bubble. You can hear them breathing.”
With his frustration boiling into rage and his marriage at risk, he went to the Dallas Veterans Affairs hospital and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now he’s getting help.
Mr. Bozorgnia, 29, blends into North Texas suburbia on one level: He’s a family man you might see at the grocery store or run into at a school event. He’s also part of a growing population of war veterans who have returned to find that adjusting to civilian life is a battle in itself.
It’s not just about recovering from their injuries, but adjusting to regular life after the stress of war. They struggle to keep their families together, find work, pay mortgages, secure disability pay, recover from war wounds and relieve post-combat stress. Yet services for them are largely uncoordinated, sluggish and confusing. And many are in poor shape to slog through the system.
“You see us and we’re not full people when we come back,” said Orlando Castaneda, an Army combat veteran from Arlington. “When we come back, we are fragments of human beings, mentally and physically. We’ve been in the thick of it.”
The Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs have acknowledged their failure to prepare for the large number of casualties that came with the prolonged insurgency after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
Now, after a string of damning reports and stinging congressional hearings, there is a rush to help these wounded warriors. A massive mobilization across the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments – with crucial assistance from veteran advocacy groups and nonprofit organization – is under way to help veterans transition from combat to civilian life.
The result is a cornucopia of services that remains extraordinarily difficult to navigate, even with perseverance and the help of others who know how to work the system.
There’s a hesitancy to talk about these personal struggles, especially among former war fighters trained to guard emotions. But those interviewed said they want outsiders to understand the frustrating complexity of returning to civilian life and to encourage fellow veterans to keep pushing.
“A lot of guys, for whatever reason, are just not connected,” said Robert Lee Aiken III, a Marine veteran and Purple Heart winner who has worked his way through the system. “They don’t know. They’re not willing. They’re not able. They don’t have support.”
‘Every case is different’
Tamara Uhrich is a caseworker for the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program. Most of the clients who come into her Dallas office are men younger than 30 without a lot of education and no easily transferable skills. They enlisted for education and other opportunities, some hoping to make the Army a career. They typically were deployed two or three times before getting wounded.
“Every case is different,” she said. “I have yet to meet anyone with the same circumstances.”
An office wall map displays a thumb tack in each place she has a client. In a cabinet, she has color-coded files for each one. The green folders mean traumatic brain injury. The reds are for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The blue means an amputee. The manila files indicate disfigurements.
Better medical technology, improved treatment techniques and beefed-up armament means soldiers survive wounds that would have killed them in past wars. Using a narrow definition, the Defense Department reports that more than 28,000 troops have been wounded in Iraq, while just over 3,100 died from combat wounds.
Those numbers mean the wounded-to-killed ratio is around 9 to 1. As a point of comparison, 3.2 service members were wounded for every fatality in Vietnam; 2.3 were wounded for every one killed in World War II, according to a VA figures.
Caring for the nation’s wounded warriors will have a lasting effect on the economy, both in direct outlays for disability entitlements and in lost productivity from disabled young people.
Harvard researcher Linda Bilmes estimated in a January report that disability compensation benefits and medical care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will probably cost the federal government $350 billion to $700 billion over the next 40 years.
Yet many Americans feel somewhat removed from the war.
“The war is so separated from everybody,” said Mrs. Uhrich, herself an Army veteran. “Unless you know somebody in the war or work for a veteran agency, you’re so detached. You don’t really experience it.”
Others can’t turn off the experience. Among her client, the red files – for those with PTSD – are the most challenging cases to manage.
Deeply rooted survival instincts kick in when fighters enter a combat zone. But it’s not so easy to turn off that hyper-vigilance. After a while, the euphoria of coming back can give way to depression and feelings of inadequacy.
The most common ailments afflicting returning service members are brain-related – either physical damage (traumatic brain injury) or lingering mental trauma (post-traumatic stress disorder).
“Being over there, I got this heightened sense of security,” Mr. Bozorgnia said. “I had a couple really close calls, but I didn’t realize how close they were until I got back because the adrenaline is running.”
Memories of dying friends torment him. He’s haunted by an 8-year-old boy who threw a grenade at his convoy. Almost anything can trigger flashbacks, he said, from honking horns on the road to crowds in the bookstore.
“I feel like I didn’t give the ultimate sacrifice, and that bothers me,” he said. “It just really eats at you. I try not to think of that stuff. I try to think of the good times, but it’s hard.”
More than 48,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD, according to a Veterans Affairs spokeswoman. VA psychologist Patricia Jackley said her Dallas-based unit has enrolled more than 300 patients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“War affects people. It [the problem] may not present in the first month. It may be a year or five years down the road,” Dr. Jackley said. “We like to say we’re the Motel 6 of mental health. We’ll leave the light on for them.”
The Army has started post-deployment check-ins to try to reduce the stigma of asking for help for mental problems. As of October, every soldier in the Army should have received some training about identifying and treating PTSD, said Lt. Gen. James Campbell, who pushed the effort at the Pentagon as director of staff for the Army.
“In conflicts past, we’ve given less attention to the wounds that are not so visible,” Gen. Campbell said.
He warned that the emphasis will result in higher numbers of veterans diagnosed for mental problems. “The normal response would be that’s bad news because the numbers are going up,” he said. “But it means now we can address it.”
Mr. Bozorgnia said his weekly VA sessions are invaluable. Doctors increased his PTSD meds, which gave him the stability needed to start classes at Tarrant County College. But complications from back surgery in October forced him to drop out for this semester. His goal is to get a degree in business and architecture and start his own business.
He has an American flag on the wall in his living room with the names of men he served with. He wears a silver bracelet with the names of three fallen friends. A tattoo on his left arm says “Psalm 91:11-13,” the soldier’s prayer: For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways …
Employment is another huge challenge for this new crop of war veterans. Many return home to face what should be their most productive work years, yet some lack the skills or stability to move into new lines of work.
A helpless feeling
Yolanda Jones, a supply sergeant who was stationed in Iraq, has had trouble holding a job since returning to Texas in March 2005. She came back with hand, hip and ankle injuries and with a broken spirit. “Every person has a breaking point,” she said, “and I never knew mine until I got there.”
On her first Thanksgiving back, still waiting for disability benefits and feeling hopeless, she tried to kill herself by swallowing a half-dozen sleeping pills. It didn’t work, but it helped her realize that life was worth living.
Still, she struggles daily to deal with her PTSD.
A former paraprofessional who worked in a clinic before she was deployed after 11 years in the Army Reserves, she hopes to become a mental health counselor specializing in treating combat veterans.
She completed nine credit hours at Dallas Baptist University but decided the school wasn’t right for her and dropped out. After stints in a probation department, at a women’s shelter and at an answering service, she enrolled at Texas Woman’s University. She singles out four professors for being helpful and flexible about her VA appointments – keeping her on track to graduate next December.
“I’m staying above water,” she said. “All this is temporary. I have good days and bad days. I take it one day at a time.”
She lives in Grand Prairie with her 18-year-old daughter, Synthia, a college student. She also has a son in college.
Money is tight, she said, and there have been a few times she couldn’t pay all her bills. Faced with losing her car, she got help from the Veterans of Foreign Wars military assistance program.
The Texas VFW’s assistance program provides one-time financial help in emergency situations to buy groceries, pay utility bills, pay the rent or otherwise help make ends meet. In the last three months, it helped 127 families statewide; it receives about 10 applications a day.
“Who better to take care of the war vets today than the war vets from yesterday,” said Dan West, who directs the Texas program.
A grueling ordeal
Mr. Castaneda, the Arlington veteran, earned $7.50 an hour working 11- and 12-hour days at the State Fair of Texas. On weekends, he works at the Traders Village flea market in Grand Prairie. He can’t drive because of his medication, so his wife, Annette, takes him to work and VA appointments.
A corporal in the Army, he came back from Iraq to face the same financial, physical and emotional stresses that many returning warriors confront – and then, a month after leaving the Army in August 2006, he received a deportation notice.
He said his father brought him to South Texas from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, when he was 3. As a child, he played with GI Joes and dreamed of enlisting.
He said his work permit lapsed when he was in Iraq and he didn’t apply for citizenship until after he was discharged.
With three kids and a wife, the 26-year-old lived for almost a year under the specter of moving to a country where he knows no one. “My hands were tied with a piece of paper,” he said.
He tried to work directly with immigration officials and sought help from the Army, but he said he was told he should have dealt with it before he got out. In August, after someone alerted the Spanish-language media, immigration officials issued a work permit. He’s trying to become a U.S. citizen.
The ordeal left a bitter taste in his mouth, especially because he fought for his adopted country. “I was so close to giving up,” he said.
Mr. Castaneda’s situation stabilized some when Ricky Cadenhead, a patient advocate at the VA hospital, took on his case. He helped Mr. Castaneda find the right doctors, made sure the family had food when money was tight and worked through contacts to keep the family’s water and electricity from being turned off. Another VA caseworker helped arrange for the job at Fair Park.
“This is a team effort, and there’s no way to win without the team,” said Mr. Cadenhead, himself a veteran.
Mr. Castaneda said he wants to enroll at the Dallas Art Institute or open his own studio someday. But he is generally discouraged.
“There are so few people who really do care,” he said. “The little bit of people who show real concern is really what makes it work.”
PROVIDING LOCAL ASSISTANCE
While the federal government has mobilized to fix myriad problems with veterans services, nonprofit and volunteer groups in North Texas are working to fill in the gaps. Among those efforts:
Veteran advocates: Groups like AMVETS, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have advocates who help veterans navigate bureaucracy. “The VA is like going into a huge city without a road map,” said Joe Chenelly of AMVETS. “We are the road map for them.”
Support grants: The Dallas Foundation has awarded $1.6 million in grants so far this year to 11 programs that serve veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The aim is to help provide services such as mental health care, child care and emergency assistance. To see what the money is supporting, go to triadfund.org and click on the map.
Transportation: The Metroplex Military Charitable Trust used grant money to buy three vans so volunteers can take injured veterans to appointments at the Dallas VA’s poly-trauma unit. The volunteers, a group of Marines who served in Vietnam, trained with VA doctors and learned to use global positioning devices and Blackberries to pick up patients who use wheelchairs.
Mental health: Mental Health America and the Dallas chapter of the American Red Cross are using grant money to offer free mental health care to at least 700 veterans and their families in a 12-county area over the next two years.
Family support: United We Serve, based in Plano, is hosting retreats for military families who need encouragement during and after deployments.