I arrived an absolute mess; most of us did. Bloated cheeks, sunken eyes, wearing my PTSD and depression on every inch of my face. I can’t say I really wanted to be there, even if I had volunteered. Ironic, wasn’t it?
This, a civilian treatment facility in nowhere, Arizona, was to be my last official duty as an officer in the U.S. Army—an ignominious end to a once-bright career. Still, the truth is I needed it: After several years of treatment for post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety, I wasn’t getting any better. The Army saw it and decided to retire me a few years early. Over the last year, my life ran off the rails—self medicating, spiraling, the standard drill for a broken vet.
Only those closest to me saw it; however, these were the very ones I’d hurt, who couldn’t take it anymore—with the fallout of bridges burned and relationships sabotaged. Nonetheless, most of us remain publicly functional long after these afflictions have taken the wheel. The frightening paradox of it all was that while my writing only improved, my emotional health deteriorated. That said, kudos to the Army, I suppose, for footing the bill and offering the opportunity for inpatient treatment on my way out the proverbial door. That’s how they do it: Ask the impossible, shatter a life, send for help when you’re too far gone to be of much use any longer—the assembly line of endless wars and the unfortunates who fight them.
It was a strange place, this facility on the outskirts of Phoenix. And expensive! Some 60 percent of the “clients” (as the staff unnervingly referred to patients) were wealthy professionals, well-off white folks with afflictions ranging from depression to suicidal ideation to personality disorders to heroin addiction. Some had Cadillac health insurance plans; a surprising number paid cash, a cool 60 grand.
The rest, well, they were veterans, active or retired, from every branch of the service. Tricare, our (ironically) socialistic government insurer, footed the bill. These men and women, my peers, looked and spoke differently from the civilian “clients” at the center. A microcosm of the select class of volunteers that fight America’s hopeless wars, they were generally enlisted, younger, browner, poorer, less educated and more rural than their civilian counterparts. God, you could just feel the distance that separates military from civilian society in the 21st-century United States—the chasm between polite society and an increasingly unrepresentative military caste.
Perhaps you’re wondering just who these kids—actually, they ranged from 20 to 50 years old—were, what they “were in for,” what they were like. While omitting their names, as is customary when reporting about mental-health matters, let me provide a snapshot, a representation of a generation of damaged warriors the U.S. government has lately produced.
Every morning the lot of us would circle up and publicly announce our name, claim and affirmation. The name was just a given one with a one-letter last initial—anonymity was a way of life in recovery. The affirmation was a positive statement about ourselves meant to rewire the brain to think happy thoughts. Most interesting was the claim, the list of problems that each vet suffered from. Among the civilians, the claims were fairly diverse, but among my fellow veterans, almost everyone claimed what I took to calling the “Military Big Four”: depression, anxiety, PTSD and alcohol abuse.
See, the formula is as simple as it is dreadful: The military takes these kids, trains ‘em for a few months, then sends them off to some unwinnable war (Iraq and Afghanistan are the current go-to spots). There, they’re sometimes killed or mutilated, but more often than not they suffer PTSD and moral injury from what they’ve seen and done. Then they go home, released into the wild of some shitty garrison town. At that point, the trauma begins to manifest as major depression and crippling anxiety. Finally, just to function, or in order to fit into society, the vet begins self-medicating; alcohol is most common, but opiates, and eventually even heroin, are also prevalent. If they spiral too low or consider/attempt suicide, well, then, they end up along with yours truly in an inpatient facility.
Some, and I met more than two dozen like this, are there by mandate, as part of an impending punishment for some “alcohol-related” incident like a fight, hospitalization, arrest or DUI. Make no mistake, our punitive military is still grappling with the correct balance between discipline and treatment. Punishment they know, it’s comfortable; actual treatment, that’s another story.
It’s ironic, though, this obsession with stamping out alcohol-induced “incidents.” After all, the military in which I served supported a culture of alcohol abuse, of binge drinking at every major unit affair—and we had lots of them. Then, back in their modest homes, it was no big secret that troopers from the ranks of private to major general regularly abused substances to numb combat trauma. Just about every vet down in Arizona fit this disturbing profile.
There were other unsettling trends. Perhaps 25 percent had attempted or seriously considered suicide just prior to intake. That shouldn’tbe surprising—after all, military suicide is a veritable epidemic, with an average of 22 successful veteran attempts on the daily—but I bet it still is for many uninformed civilians.
Then there were the female vets. I hadn’t served with many of these during my time in pre-integrated combat units, so even I was a bit shocked by what I found. No less than half the military women in the facility were victims of sexual assault while in the service. And, though the active military touts its recent successes on this front, the disreputable patterns persist. Statistics indicate that one in four female veterans report at least one sexual assault during their term of service. Despicable.
Meeting these women in person, I couldn’t help but wonder if Democratic presidential hopeful and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is right: The military might not be capable of processing and prosecuting these cases fairly, and it’s time for civilian arbiters to take over. This, of course, rates as blasphemy among my fellow officers, who guard their authorities with special care, but my time in Arizona indicated the status quo is irreparably broken.
Consider a few final vignettes about my peers in the facility, many of whom are representative of thousands more similar cases. There was my Air Force buddy from whom I’d become inseparable and who’d served a tour in mortuary affairs cleaning and processing the bodies of young American troopers. His dreams haunted by that experience for years, he turned inward, to the bottle, and, eventually attempted suicide. The poor guy just wanted out of his contract, but the Air Force wouldn’t let him go.
Then there was the former army infantryman, wounded in a bomb attack, crippled by chronic pain after retiring. He turned to opiates for relief, then to cheaper heroin, and finally, to more powerful synthetic fentanyl. He overdosed, found himself in the emergency room a time or two, and awoke in Arizona.
I remain haunted, too, by the ever-so-young serviceman who checked in for alcohol abuse and depression but was actually suffering as a closeted homosexual. Despite the Obama-era repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” restrictions on gays in the military, neither the kid’s family nor his still-patriarchal and homophobic military peers were accepting. He came out before our eyes in a highly emotional way. I’ll never forget it.
You see, it was the very youth of so many of these men and women at the time of their trauma that was striking. Here we all were, at the funny farm, but I started to realize that so many of these oh-so-publicly adulated veterans arrived “crazy by design.” After all, the military grabs kids, purposefully, before their brains have fully developed, when they’re physically and emotionally pliant. Many, I’d guess a disproportionate number, enter service with a history of childhood trauma and hail from families positioned on the bottom half of the economic scale. Our government then uses and abuses them, ships them off to wars that can’t be won (and that Congress never even authorized) and implants emotional grenades in their psyches. That’s the last the American people usually hear of them—but I spent a month with those for whom the grenade has finally exploded.
Such is the tragic reality: The military breaks us and then kindly allots 30-45 days to “get right.” The outcomes, I fear, will be less than hopeful.
I’ve left now, with Arizona in my rear view, never, I hope, to return. Nevertheless, part of me stayed there, just as pieces of my soul still roam Baghdad and Kandahar. Something about the latest experience sticks with me; I can’t shake the thoughts—perhaps some inherent meaning that’s all in the mind. Anyway, heck, I’m a writer. May as well write about it.
Here it is: I’m left with the profound, if hopeless, wish that every American voter and aspirant adolescent soldier would spend a moment with the veterans in rehab across this country tonight. To know what I know, to see what we—all of us—have allowed to happen in our names. There’s romance, and naivety, in that wish, I know, but I wish it just the same.
But oh, the satire of it all: I hadn’t wanted to go to that “loony bin” in Arizona in the first place, but there I eventually stood, crying in the airport on my discharge date. I fell in something approaching love, literally and figuratively, with some of my peers, friends I hope, in the program. In treatment I was safe, and healthy, and authentic—the so-called crazy clients, especially the band of broken vets, really got me. The outside was terrifying; maybe it should be.
Then it hit me. This transition, out of the madhouse and into the world, was bigger than my own manageable diagnoses. It was the typical discomfiting journey of the professional soldier back into a society that is no more ready for us than we are for it. Think on that for a moment.
No amount of yellow ribbons or thank-you-for-your-service salutes can alter an unmistakable reality. Our country—your country—has waged perpetual war, across the globe, against an ill-defined enemy and with scant hope for “victory,” for nearly two decades. It’s cost some 6 trillion tax dollars, sacrificed 7,000 soldiers and contributed to the killing of perhaps 500,000 foreigners, including 240,000 civilians. It has done so with a professional, volunteer military, one that’s disjointed from the populace and largely operates in the shadows. Through it all, you’re no safer now—maybe less so—than on 9/11, when many of the damaged vets I met were just children. America, your government owns the fractious world it helped create, and—like it or not—owns the hundreds of thousands of PTSD-afflicted vets living within its borders.
Even if the wars ended tomorrow (they won’t, by the way), American society has another half-century ahead of it, laden with the burden of these unnecessary disabled veterans. It’s inescapable. Would that we’d learn from the tragedy of the forever war as it’s been waged, but chances are our leaders, current and future, will be far too obtuse for all that.
So on the war machine rolls, flattening all before it. Still, the invisible wounds are suffered at home, by my friends—the men and women I slept, ate, laughed and cried with in nowhere, Arizona. I’m tempted to (fruitlessly) plea with the American people: Watch how you vote! Skip the next war! Support your vets by creating fewer of them!
After all, they’re the heart and soul, the best I’ve ever seen. Some will recover and lead happy, meaningful lives. Most won’t, statistically speaking. Alas, they matter.
I wish only this: that you’ll see them, as they saw me—and, perhaps, spare them a sincere thought now and again.
Major Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor, is a retired U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “.” He lives in Lawrence, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter at and check out his podcast o-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen