July 30, 2008 – It was a lost high-school class ring that eventually put me in touch with Mark Sewell, a 1980 graduate of Union High School in Tulsa, Okla.
The ring had been stolen in a burglary more than 12 years ago when Sewell lived in Wylie near Dallas, and it was found on the streets of Fort Worth about three years ago.
With the help of readers, we finally found the right Mark Sewell in Fredonia, Kan., and during our initial conversation it was clear that the Persian Gulf War veteran was still suffering from his experience in the U.S. Army.
I tried several times to get him to discuss his injuries, but he refused.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he told me more than once.
I issued a final plea last week when I told him that I was planning a follow-up column about him getting the ring back.
Last Tuesday, in an e-mail message sent at 12:47 a.m. with “Insomnia as usual” as its subject, Sewell opened up, perhaps more than he has in years.
Here is that message in its entirety, which Sewell said he wrote to help other men and women returning from war.
“One time Bob and this is it.
“On a normal day under normal circumstances I would not answer any of your questions nor would I tell you anything about myself. My DD214 (separation from service document) is public record but my life is not. I’ve read some of your columns and you seem OK. I say that tentatively, you understand? Linda, my wife, says to talk about my war so that you will write about it and the young men coming home from the current war may be helped.
“I won’t go into details because there are too many. My unit, which I will not identify, was a divisional reconnaissance unit (LRSD) (Long Range Surveillance Detachment). We saw some combat and it sucked. I got a Bronze Star and a couple of other medals. Medals are good merit awards in the Army for both staying alive and/or killing somebody. I killed a few people that I won’t go into details over that I probably shouldn’t have. People told me that I did the right thing but I don’t think so. Guilt and sadness are my best friends and they are still with me today.
“What is it like to come home to family, friends and Wal-Mart after combat? I couldn’t tell you because I don’t believe that I ever did. I drank a lot, kept to myself and sweated in the dark a lot. None of that is very glamorous. After about 10 years I was diagnosed with combat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) at 70 percent. The VA throws in the extra 30 percent for unemployability. I guess I am no longer a productive member of society. I want to be but it is hard. I was diagnosed with agoraphobia because I would not leave the safety of my own home. I’ve also been diagnosed as being depressed and angry. Hey, I’m not mad at anyone although I used to be mad at everyone. War is terrible. The experience of hunting and killing someone while they hunt and hope to kill you is surreal. It tends to stick with you.
“A long time ago they called PTSD a ‘soldier’s heart.’ That sadness that washes over you while standing in line at the grocery store. You look around at all the people and think to yourself that none of them knows what it is like, war … none of them knows. You feel protective of them and proud that you have spared them from ever knowing it.
“My current wife saved my life. I mean that in a most literal way. She is understanding and so very patient. She is also practical and steadfast. The best combat lifesaver that I have ever met.
“Today I hear the government is denying cases of PTSD. Calling them instead traumatic brain injury, or TBI. Those assholes. … Which is worse? The injury to the person inside the brain or the brain itself? They are also saying that a lot of the problems were pre-existing. When I was in the Army they would eject you if you were a bed-wetter. If you had a real mental condition there is no way that they would have accepted you in the first place. It always surprised my parents and my wife that even though I’d been seeing VA doctors since the day I got out of the Army, it took me so long to get my rating of PTSD.
“That’s it, Bob. Probably more than you wanted but the dam spilled over. Write about TBI, pre-existing conditions and the high rate of suicides among combat veterans. Write about the homeless rate among soldiers who have just returned ‘Home.’ Don’t stop writing and I won’t stop reading.
“Feel free to use anything that I’ve told you.
My thanks to you, Mark, for sharing this much of your ordeal.