For American Military Veterans, Transition Has Been Hell
Illustration: Mina Price | Design: Dustin Ames
Andy Greene was in Mammoth when the phone rang. It was 1:30 in the morning on Saturday, Jan. 18, and the Long Beach resident was sleeping, so the call went to voice mail. After the sun rose, Greene checked his phone. The message was from Chris Atencio.
Greene met Atencio more than a decade earlier when they were sales clerks at the North Face in Costa Mesa. In 2002, Atencio joined the U.S. Army, but the two had remained in contact. When the Army discharged Atencio in July 2013, he moved back to Orange County. Atencio and Greene had seen each other a few times since then and had traded emails just 10 days earlier.
"Andy? This is Chris Atencio," the voice mail began. "I'm happy as fuck that you got married, but I'm bummed as fuck that you've called me one and a half times since I've been home in six months. Ummm, I'm struggling, so if I die in the next God knows what, then we've got an issue up in heaven. I'll talk to you soon."
The message disturbed Greene immediately. Atencio had often drunk-dialed Greene, but this was different. Greene played the message for Vu Pham, a friend staying with him who'd also worked with Atencio at North Face.
"Whoa," Pham told Greene. "That's not good."
"What should I do?" Greene asked.
"Call him," Pham said. "Tell him you love him, you're there for him."
Greene made the call. Atencio didn't pick up, but Greene left a long message, saying all the things Pham suggested. Greene didn't hear back from Atencio that day. On Sunday night, Atencio's mother, Jane, called Greene; he wasn't able to pick up. It wasn't until Monday afternoon that Greene talked to her and learned that Atencio killed himself Saturday afternoon—just a few hours after Greene called him back.
"She was obviously in shock," Greene recalled. He told Jane that Atencio phoned him just a few hours before he died.
"I'm so sorry," she told Greene. "He did that with a number of his friends."
Chris Atencio was a good friend of mine. He and I met about 14 years ago, not long after he moved next door to me. We were living in tiny, drafty studio apartments built on the Balboa Peninsula in the 1920s, but they were also just a few yards from the beach. We ate pizza while watching surf videos, flirted with girls and traded books. When he got his private pilot's license, we rented a Cessna and flew to Catalina and back.
Right from the beginning, Atencio seemed different from your typical Newport Beach resident. He was part of the Wedge Crew of surfers who found a home in those nasty waves at the end of the Balboa Peninsula, but he was more than that. He was a world traveler, endlessly curious about how people everywhere lived. He and I talked for hours about all manner of subjects. I often asked him about his experiences overseas, and he in turn asked me questions about writing.
He'd traveled to and lived in dozens of countries, including South Africa, Israel, the Dominican Republic, Australia, Mauritius, Germany, Japan and Russia. He spoke Japanese, French, German, Spanish and even American Sign Language. A year or two ago, when he was applying for a security clearance, an investigator with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management dropped by my office in Maui, Hawaii, and asked me, among other questions, how many people Atencio knew overseas. I could only shrug my shoulders. "Who knows?" I told him. "Dozens? Hundreds?"
"He had a key to my apartment, and I had a key to his condo," said Craig Plitt, a Newport Beach boat captain who knew Atencio for more than 20 years. "He was a great, true friend. He had honesty, reliability, sincerity."
Atencio was also deeply troubled, though I knew nothing of it until Greene called me shortly after he got off the phone with Atencio's mother. I knew nothing of the medications he was taking for depression, or that he was suffering from crippling nightmares. I didn't know he had spent months at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical clinics talking with doctors, nurses and specialists. I had no idea that just a few days before he died, he had started the process of getting the VA to acknowledge he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Doing so could have resulted in the government paying for his medical care for the rest of his life, but the process required filling out lengthy forms, describing in detail all the "stressful incidents" that plagued him during his time in the service.
Two days after he finished filling out those forms—finished reliving all the pain and frustration he'd dealt with—Atencio hanged himself in his garage. It was his mother's birthday.
"I don't know," Jane Atencio said when I asked why her son would kill himself on that day. It was an impossible question, but I had to ask it. "He was very good with my birthday. He knows I can't remember dates. I actually chuckle every time I have to give the day he died. This way, I have to remember."
* * *
Atencio's desire to put on the uniform began, as with so many, on Sept. 11, 2001. In fact, he woke me up that morning to tell me the news of the attacks.
"Dude, airplanes just hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," he had said. His mom had called him, but he didn't have a TV set to see for himself. So we sat in silence on the floor of my apartment as the second World Trade Center tower collapsed.
Christopher Andrew Atencio was born in Oregon on Nov. 7, 1971, but he grew up in Newport Beach. He went to Corona del Mar High School, then graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1995. Although he had a degree in linguistics, he was doing odd jobs when I met him: selling action-sports gear and clothing at North Face, checking IDs at Cal Beach Sushi in Newport, tending bar at the restaurant in the Balboa Pavilion.
Not long after 9/11, Atencio decided he wanted to be an intelligence officer. First, it was the Marines, but he was too old (31) and couldn't get an age waiver. Then he moved on to the Army, which accepted him.
I didn't like the idea. If he really wanted to travel the world on the government's dime, then the U.S. State Department seemed far more suited to his interests and skills. But even that was a stretch. While Atencio at first glance seemed to be a lighthearted, easygoing OC surfer—a friend once compared him to Crush, the green sea turtle in Finding Nemo—inside, he was high-strung and completely intolerant of bullshit in all its forms.
Rather than confront Atencio head-on with my concerns, which I figured he'd reject out of hand, I tried something more indirect. That's how my story "My Friend Chris," which ran in the Weekly's Sept. 12, 2002, issue came about. It's a brief story of a local guy who had a whole world of options to choose from, but decided at 31 to join the Army. I packed the story with quotes from vets, including my father, who all (as I had hoped) offered the same advice: "Just keep your mouth shut."
But what I didn't realize at the time was that Atencio wanted the structure and bureaucracy of the Army, even if he couldn't really articulate it. He thought he could deal with all the tiny empires that sprout in the service. He wanted the order that came from the Army's rules, but he didn't understand that each rule might also have a waiver.
"Chris was a people person," said Katie Marsh, Atencio's girlfriend for much of the latter half of 2013. "He had a temper, didn't really like taking orders, couldn't keep his mouth shut and had a high idea of how people should act. He bounced around the world. But [in 2000], he felt his life was going nowhere. After 9/11, he found direction. He didn't have to identify the direction because someone else would."
* * *
Although getting into combat is the ultimate goal of pretty much everyone who volunteers for military service, it wasn't easy for Atencio. After basic training—where, after being told to name his rifle, he chose Amelie—and officer-candidate school, the Army assigned him to artillery school. He spent years serving in Oklahoma, Korea and Germany before he was able to transfer to intelligence.
Going to "spy school" at Fort Huachuca in Arizona was Atencio's dream. But it was only after he committed suicide that I learned how traumatic his time there had been.
"At Fort Huachuca, they accused him of taking notes out of the building," his mother said. "It scared him shitless. He called me in tears, saying the MPs were coming to get him. He didn't do it, but they could have sent him to Leavenworth."
Atencio never told me about his near-arrest at Huachuca—his honorable discharge and active security clearance indicate it didn't hurt his career—but he made pointed references to it on forms he was filling out for VA mental-health benefits that friends found after his death.
By 2008, he was part of an American unit advising an Iraqi brigade. He was based at Combat Outpost (COP) Shocker, located near the Iraq-Iran border. Though such an assignment had been his goal since he first took the oath back in 2002, he told me—in emails, personal chats and old-fashioned letters—that his experiences there were often as frustrating as the war itself.
"Army stuff amazes me here," he emailed me on Nov. 19, 2008, not long after arriving in Iraq. "We are deployed, but we put on the best dog-and-pony show for a deployed team/task force I have ever heard of, much less been in. . . . Times like this make me want to jump ship ASAP. Still holding out for some programs and real training where I can get a job and apply it. I never thought the army would be that hard when it comes to that. Otherwise it's MSU (Make shit up) and OJT (on the Job Training), for fuck's sake.
"We were just left a veritable shit storm of crap [because] the guys we replaced did a half-ass job," he continued. "Typical. I am completely disillusioned [with] how many people in the army actually know their shit. Not very many, based on dudes having to create a PowerPoint presentation to translate all the maintenance reports so it looks pretty for 'higher' to read. It goes downhill from there."
PowerPoints. The Army lives and dies by those things. Years later, when Atencio spent time with me in Maui, he showed me a PowerPoint he'd created in Iraq. It was Arab History 101 stuff, but he had to do it because though the U.S. Army had been fighting in Iraq for the previous five years, none of the other officers in his unit had what he thought was passable knowledge of even rudimentary Middle East history.
That was such an Atencio move—attempting to teach others, including his superiors, what he thought they should know. Sure, he was right, but it was no way to make friends. That's why I wasn't surprised to hear, a few weeks after his November email, that he'd gotten into trouble again.
On Dec. 19, 2008, Atencio emailed me, saying that his boss, a colonel, had forbidden him from checking out locals who were living just 200 meters from the base's gate. "We have no idea who is around us, and thus [they] could send shit into the COP at their luxury like our neighbor FOB [Forward Operating Base] has had to the south," Atencio wrote. The colonel's reason, Atencio said, for preventing him from talking with the locals? "He's good at forming relationships, and we don't want to do that." In other words, it wasn't in their mission to find out who those people were, and Atencio needed to stick to the mission.
This was tough for Atencio. He personally craved talking to people. It was what he was best at.
"People are cool, and it doesn't take much to show if you are a decent person or not," he emailed me on Dec. 17, 2008. "One judged overseas is judged by how he treats himself and others. Write that down [because] I wrote that."
Atencio didn't talk about the reprimand from his commanding officer in Iraq much in his letters and emails home, but I later learned it had killed his career. His commanding officer gave him a bad Officer Evaluation Report (OER). Given the Army's zero tolerance for just about anything deemed bad by the top brass, a single negative OER could doom an officer. From late 2008 onward, Atencio would never rise above captain. After his year in Iraq, his superiors sent him to Japan, considered a backwater post by soldiers. He never again held a command and ended up marking time until the Army decided it was through with him.
* * *
I last saw Atencio toward the end of June 2013, right around the time of his discharge, and he seemed fine. Well, mostly fine. He was getting out of the Army when he emailed me, saying he wanted to stop on Maui and say hi and asked if he could crash on my couch. Since I hadn't seen him in at least eight years (he'd spent some leave while in active duty to visit Hawaii), that wouldn't be a problem.
In typical Atencio fashion, I found him in Kahului Airport's baggage claim, trying to help fellow passengers find their luggage. I wasn't surprised to see a skateboard strapped to his bag.
At home, he showed me and my girlfriend slides of some of his travels. One night when we were out for sushi, he demonstrated his special technique for mixing wasabi into soy sauce. Later, he gave us special chopsticks he'd bought in Japan. While I was away at work, he rode his skateboard down to the beach and snorkeled with green turtles. On his last day, I took him to the Maui Time Weekly office, and he talked easily with my colleagues—even flirted with our summer intern.
He also showed me his DD-214 (his military discharge/separation document), which served as a kind of résumé of all his duty stations and assignments. Atencio's discharge from the service was honorable, and his security clearance was still good. He could write his own ticket for a solid civilian job.
But there were darker moments during his visit. He was quieter, less effusive than I recalled. At the time, I attributed it to his long flight over from Japan, as well as a general fatigue that comes from making big life transitions. But he also admitted something odd just a couple of hours after arriving.
"I've gotten so racist," he said. "Especially toward Filipinos."
It was a shocking admission, made almost matter-of-factly. Here was a guy who spent his entire adult life traveling the world, and now he was telling me he couldn't rise above racism. Something was wrong, but I did nothing.
Not sure what to say, I just frowned and shook my head. Soon we were talking about other things, but I didn't forget his comment. Though I never saw him say or act in a racist manner, the admission gnawed at me for the rest of his visit. It still does.
* * *
When Atencio arrived in Orange County last July, he immediately reconnected with his old Wedge Crew pals. They surfed, went dirt-bike riding and even took up skydiving. Though Atencio had earned his jump wings in the Army, Plitt said he loved jumping "just for fun." He had time to relax and have fun, it seemed, and no one complained.
"When he moved back, he seemed like Chris," Plitt said. "The first day I saw him was the Fourth of July. We hopped on bikes and cruised the boardwalk, going from bar to house party to bar to house party. Pretty much every day after that, the three of us were hanging out—jumping out of planes, body surfing, eating sushi, drinking beers."
But deep down, Atencio wasn't well. He had money and a secure place to live (the condo in which he lived belonged to his mother), but he didn't have a job and didn't seem to know what he wanted to do.
The Army calls what Atencio went through "transition"—the time when a soldier finally trades in his or her uniform for civilian clothes. Regardless of promises of future health benefits, job counseling and paid college tuition, it's a rough time. In 2012, the Army even mandated that all personnel leaving active duty participate in "transition services" that included job counseling and other practical assistance. But as far as transitioning a soldier's mind to civilian life, the former grunt is pretty much alone.
"The system is full of bureaucracy," said John Parent, interim service officer for the Orange County Veterans Service Office (VSO) in Santa Ana. Since 1929, it has helped vets such as Atencio navigate the complex, maddening world that is the VA. About 6,500 veterans visit the office every year, and it ends up helping about 4,500 of them. "In a year, we may see a veteran three times," he said. "Last December, we helped a client who first came here in 1946.
"It can be overwhelming and confusing to a lot of people," Parent added. "If you say a certain thing to the VA, that will generate a certain response. A lot of times, the veteran gets so frustrated, but by law, the VA has certain due processes that they have to do. The VA is trying to be veteran-friendly, and they've implemented some policies that allow you to apply online, but if you read the fine print, it says to seek help from a veteran services organization."
Parent said that his office assists veterans in a variety of ways, including talking to them about their claims and filling out the forms for them. "The VA can be generous, if you provide them with a well-grounded claim," he said. "Getting the word out to veterans is not easy, but it's gotten better. A lot of people [leaving the service] may get a general briefing on their benefits, but that's about it."
* * *
On Feb. 1, 2013, the VA released a study showing that veterans are killing themselves at the rate of about 22 per day—that's more than 8,000 vets per year. "The report indicates that the percentage of veterans who die by suicide has decreased slightly since 1999, while the estimated total number of veterans who have died by suicide has increased," the VA announced when the report came out.
A VA spokesperson told the Weekly the department does its best to get care to the vets who seek help, and the toll-free Veterans Crisis Line is posted throughout its facilities. "If any veteran comes into any medical center and claims he's a danger, he can get medical care," said VA public-affairs officer Ndidi Mojay. "If you go to a VA medical center, they should be able to point you in the right direction."
Should. Critics of the VA say that's fine, but sometimes people get lost in the bureaucracy.
"There's also a lot of variation between the various VA facilities," said Dr. Tom Berger, the executive director of the Veterans Health Council of the organization Vietnam Veterans of America. "As the saying goes, if you've seen one VA, you've seen one VA."
The VA's data shows a number of trends, some good, others not so much. In January 2014, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) noted that vets in the system—such as Atencio—killed themselves at a rate of not quite 30 per 100,000 in 2010, while those outside the system took their lives at a rate of nearly 45 per 100,000.
But Berger noted something else in the data. "The VA report shows that 70 percent of suicides are veterans [older than] 50 years old," he said. "It's significant—Vietnam vets and older veterans are killing themselves at a higher and faster rate than younger people."
Another telling stat comes from the Veterans Crisis Line. Created in 2007 as the National Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline (officials changed the name in 2011 as a way of telling friends and family members they could call, too), the service has so far taken 1.1 million calls. Of those, the organization says it has made "more than 35,000 life-saving rescues."
In early 2013, the VA announced it had "increased the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line by 50 percent," also noting that the department was "currently engaged in an aggressive hiring campaign" to deal with the rise in suicides. At the same time, 98 members of Congress secured an additional $40 million appropriated specifically for suicide prevention and outreach.
On paper, those new staffing figures and dollar amounts seem like a lot. But when you think of the facts this nation has approximately 22 million veterans and that the VA's budget is nearly $100 billion per year, they suddenly seem woefully inadequate.
"It is a tragedy that our country loses more veterans and service members to suicide than to hostile fire or enemy action," Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who is a captain in the Hawaii National Guard and an Iraq War veteran, told the Weekly through her spokesperson. "They represent less than 1 percent of Americans who have carried the burden of the battles fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and [they] are paying the physical and psychological price. We owe them our gratitude and so much more."
Vets such as Chris.
* * *
In mid-September, Atencio started going to the VA for help.
"We don't know what Chris told the VA," Jane said. "But I have his VA medical records. And I know for a fact that he wasn't taking his meds regularly because he told me. He was also drinking, which you're not supposed to do when taking the meds."
In late October, Jane said she and her son had a blowup. She was moving to Las Vegas, and it was a stressful time for both. After that, she said, Jane asked some of her son's friends to keep an eye on him. Plitt and others began periodically checking in on Atencio.
"I always found him to be fine, and we'd have a good time," Plitt said.
Atencio went to the VA a lot, Marsh said. Often, he would vent to her about his frustrations. Sometimes, he went multiple times per week. VA doctors prescribed him the antidepressants Citalopram and Trazodone. In late December, an acupuncturist told him he had fibromyalgia, brought on by PTSD. By January, he was also undergoing sleep tests to deal with constant nightmares.
"He wasn't really sleeping," Plitt said. "You sleep, but you don't get rest. You don't get your batteries recharged."
On Jan. 6, Greene—who met up with Atencio a couple of times since his return—heard part of an NPR story titled "Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders." It was a well-researched, 13-minute report on how the Army was looking into whether inept commanding officers may "have contributed to soldiers' mental-health problems."
Recalling his own talks with Atencio about some of the commanding officers who'd given him grief, Greene found the story online when he got home and emailed it to Atencio. Jane heard the story, too, and she also sent it to her son.
"Colonels and generals adored Chris," said Jane, who counted numerous senior officers as family friends who followed her son's military career closely. "It was majors who didn't really like him."
In any case, Atencio thanked Greene for the story three days later.
"You know how to hit the nail on the head, my friend," Atencio said in an email. "I'm right there and had two amazingly fucked-up, toxic people in key leadership positions."
Then Atencio shared some of his current frustrations with both the VA and his mother.
"Hoping we can hang out sometime," he wrote. "I'm at the VA next Tues[day] and Wed[nesday]. Home has sucked. Transition has been hell."
Around that time, Atencio decided to file a disability claim with the VA for PTSD. If the VA accepted the claim, it would pay for his medical care for the rest of his life. But making the claim required him to complete VA Form 21-0781 (Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for PTSD) and VA Form 21-4138 (Statement in Support of Claim). Both are monuments to the massive bureaucratic forces that treat soldiers like machines and so frustrated Atencio.
The forms required him to describe in detail each "stressful incident" that happened to him in the service. They included spaces to list the names of service members involved in the stressful incidents and helpful checkoff boxes to mark in case those service members were "killed in action" or merely "wounded in action." They even included time elements, specifically saying how much time it should take the depressed soldier to complete the form.
"That was the worst thing ever," Jane said. "He had to enumerate everything he felt was contributing to his PTSD. They sent him home with these forms, and he had to fill them out by hand. It came to nine pages. Most of it I knew, but it was horrifying for him to relive it. He filled out the forms but didn't send them in.
"He filled out forms on PTSD on the Thursday before he died," she added. "There's no doubt in my mind that that's what pushed him over the edge."
Jane said she last talked with her son a couple of days before his suicide. They talked about her upcoming birthday and planned a visit for early February. When Atencio didn't call her on her birthday—something she said he was very good about doing every year—she became concerned.
Plitt went by the condo to check on his friend, as he'd done in the past. "When I found him, he was clean-shaven, well-dressed," Plitt said. "He had the appearance of being ready to go out. He looked like he was ready to go out and have fun."
Chris Atencio was 42 years old.
* * *
Nearly 300 people showed up at the Balboa Pavilion on Feb. 1, 2014, for Atencio's celebration of life. It was a good venue choice—back in 2001 or so, I'd spent many weekend afternoons in the Pavilion's restaurant, sitting with locals, fishermen and the odd tourist at the bar while Atencio mixed drinks for us all.
Jane said friends of her son came from the West Coast, the East Coast, Alaska, Canada and Japan. Another 86 people went to the Wedge for a paddle out. Friends in Japan held a separate paddle out for him.
I wasn't able to make it. The last time I saw him was when I dropped him off at Kahului Airport. He was headed to Oahu for a couple of days to see a few friends there before returning to OC. On the drive over, we talked about his future, mostly—the possibility of him getting a job as a contractor, starting his own business or even going back to school. I told him he had tons of options, that I had no fear that he'd do all right for himself.
We traded a couple of brief emails after, but that day back in June 2013 was pretty much the last time we really talked. It was pleasant but entirely unmemorable, which I guess makes me fortunate. Others, such as Andy Greene, have very different final memories of our friend.
"I still have the voice mail message," Greene said recently. "I don't know why. Maybe because it's his voice. My wife wants me to delete it. I'll let go of it at some point—it's a tough one to swallow. But I'll be honest with you: I feel a little bit better that I wasn't the only one who got one."
At the celebration, Jane placed hundreds of photos of her son from throughout his life on tables and told everyone gathered to take home what they thought important and special. Knowing I couldn't be there, Greene sifted through them until he found a few with me; he mailed them a few days later. One image, taken at a 2003 going-away party before I moved to Maui, showed the three of us. Atencio, his head freshly shaven—he was on leave after finishing basic training, I believe—had his arm around us and some shiny fake lei around his neck.
Years ago, I had mailed the photo to Atencio, and he'd filed it away, with practically everything else he ever owned. On the back, for reasons I've long forgotten, I had scribbled the following quotation from Emerson, which I'd found in the novel From Here to Eternity:
"The Sphinx must solve her own riddle. If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience."
Anthony Pignataro is the editor of Maui Time Weekly. He was a staff writer for OC Weekly from 1996 to 2003.
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