April 20, 2008 – Eric Hall would often pinch his lapel to his lips and whisper, as if a microphone was transmitting the cryptic message.
No one knew what to make of the gesture.
A friend would ask the baby-faced Marine whether he needed anything. Hall would release his shirt and smile, downplaying the episode. Nothing more was said.
There were other warning signs.
Hall liked to stare out the window and casually explain how he could secure the building across the street and then disappear.
At first, doctors diagnosed him with a personality disorder. Becky Hall knew it was worse.
Hall returned from Iraq in 2005 a stranger. He would not talk much about the incident that killed his best friend and left him maimed. His behavior had become erratic. He could not remember the past.
Doctors prescribed anti-depressants to ease Hall’s symptoms. But the flashbacks would not stop.
The 24-year-old Indiana native was found dead, inside a drainage pipe, March 9, more than a month after he was reported missing from his aunt’s Harbour Heights home.
Becky Hall believes the mental torture her son endured destroyed him years before the filthy pipe could.
“My son died a long time ago,” she said. “He wasn’t the same when he came back.”
Hall suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that affects thousands of military veterans — past and present.
The illness has been reported in 60,000 of the 800,000 returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Twenty percent of that force have received preliminary diagnosis of a mental health condition.
“It’s not unexpected,” said Dr. Ira Katz, the VA’s deputy chief patient care services officer for mental health. “Any number is high, but we expect we can manage it with the funding available.”
Call of duty
Hall joined the Marine Corps in 2002, following high school graduation.
College never interested the teen from Jeffersonville, Ind., a quaint town near the Kentucky border.
By March 2004, Hall was in Afghanistan hunting al-Qaida and Taliban forces. The constant state of alertness began to wear on the young Marine.
Becky Hall noticed small differences when he returned in September.
Eric would sleep every time he sat more than 15 minutes. It was probably just fatigue, she thought.
Hall was deployed to Iraq the following March.
Family members would hear from him every other week, depending on his missions. The conversations remained optimistic. Hall would tell his father, Kevin, what he wanted to do when he returned home, and asked mom about his finances.
Everything changed June 14, 2005.
Hall was on foot patrol in Fallujah when an improvised explosive device detonated.
The explosion sent a shockwave of shrapnel through Hall’s upper left leg, disintegrating bone and muscle. His best friend, Josh, died instantly.
Hall spent the initial weeks in and out of operating rooms and consciousness.
Doctors inserted a rod in his leg to keep the remaining bones together, and transferred muscle and skin to close the hole.
The wounded Marine became more disconnected with each passing day, annoyed by what he perceived as the military’s incompetence.
They wanted to use an airplane or a train to transport him to Indiana. Hall could not sit up straight because of his injury. He lingered in the hospital bed while the military debated travel arrangements.
In March 2006, doctors diagnosed Hall with a personality disorder. The evaluation made no mention of post-traumatic stress.
“He did not have a personality disorder when he joined the Marines,” Becky Hall said. “They would have thrown him out.”
Only later, after Hall had a confrontation with an officer, would doctors change his diagnosis to PTSD.
By May, he just wanted to go home.
But Hall still had to undergo a two-week decompression program designed to help combat veterans readjust to society. It included another mental health screening to determine if further help was necessary.
Hall told family that he was willing to tell the doctors anything so he could leave.
A Marine is taught to hide his pain.
From day one, the concept is shouted into his head, until it rings. The military will weed out weak links to create this elite fighting force. And when things get tough, the Marine will not abandon his unit for personal gain.
The military does not want robots. At the same time, it will not take individuals.
This macho mentality makes it difficult to identify mental problems, since most Marines would rather repress the problem than appear fragile in the eyes of their comrades. And it might look bad on a job application.
“To be honest, it can take many months for these symptoms to appear, or for the person to trust us,” Dr. Katz said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs screens thousands of returning vets each month for signs of mental stress.
Katz said the symptoms of PTSD vary, but usually include recurring visions of the traumatic event, numbness and being startled by every day occurrences, such as a car exhaust pipe backfiring.
Veterans who receive a preliminary diagnosis of PTSD are usually prescribed anti-depressant medication and/or subjected to regular psychotherapy. Hall was given Xanax to control his flashbacks.
For some, the memories are too much.
Vietnam veteran Charlie Shaughnessy did not trust anyone after he was discharged in 1970. His attitude had become callous. He could not keep a job.
Shaughnessy, used to live in a remote wooded area of New York but now resides in Gulf Cove, tried to come to terms with himself and others.
“I went through a stage where I wanted to commit suicide,” he said.
It took years of soul-searching before Shaughnessy could return to society. But others never readjust to normal lives.
The VA tracks suicide rates among veterans of past and present wars. There have been 144 reported suicides of returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, from 2002-05. The agency is completing a study on data since 2005.
“There is no clear trend,” Katz said, indicating the rate did not differ from the regular population statistics.
U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney was shocked by the poor treatment veterans had been receiving at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
The story made national headlines, and the backlash forced corrections.
Mahoney, D-Florida, believes the problem still exists.
“During the last seven years, this administration has nickled and dimed our vets,” he said. “It seems to me if we are going to continue to call on people to serve, we need to treat them like gold.”
But the issues are not new.
Shaughnessy was denied five times by the VA before the agency processed his compensation claim in 2000 — 30 years after his military service ended. He said the agency still is backlogged with Vietnam-related cases.
Becky Hall, who is in the medical profession, took Eric to a private physician because she felt he was being treated like a number.
“They want the Band-aid fix, instead of addressing the root of the problem,” she said.
Dr. Katz said the VA recently added staff to address mental health issues. In addition, they extended the enrollment period to five years for returning veterans to be eligible for health benefits.
Mahoney said the additional personnel will not matter if the administration continues to subject soldiers to multiple tours.
Since the Iraq War started in 2002, Marine, Army and National Guard troops have faced extended deployments, with little rest in-between. Mahoney believes the additional tours increase the risk of soldiers developing mental stress later.
“We have put a burden on them that we have never asked soldiers to do before, and we are seeing the repercussions of it,” he said.
Becky Hall thought she understood PTSD.
She worried about Eric, but the ghost of her son now sat in the living room, staring vacantly outside. The real Eric died in Iraq.
Becky Hall does not want to see the same thing happen to other young men.
The Halls are in the process of establishing the Eric Hall Memorial Fund to help veterans and their families.
Although tentative, the fund would provide money for returning soldiers to assist with their transition home. It would push for tougher legislation to increase the decompression phase to a minimum of 60 days, and allow family members to be present so they can better understand issues their son/daughter is experiencing.
Hall also wants to enact legislation so every soldier is registered with the VA for any present or future combat-related illness.
The initiative is already receiving national support. Locally, two major fund-raising events are scheduled for the summer and fall respectively.
Becky Hall returned to Harbour Heights this week to get the rest of Eric’s things. A picture of her son still hangs above the television as a reminder of her mission.
“I told myself I could do one of two things: I could wallow in my sorrow, or make a difference for others,” she said. “My son did not die for nothing.”