The Scars You Can't See
New cases of PTSD are flooding the VA system. Local veterans of earlier wars know what those Iraq and Afghanistan vets are in for
The Persian Gulf War only lasted a few weeks in winter 1991, but for Tom Fortney, it didn’t end until Feb. 22, 2001, when he checked himself into the Long Beach Veterans Affairs Hospital’s psychiatric-evaluation-and-treatment center. A few days earlier, Fortney, a forward observer with the U.S. Marine Corps who saw combat during Operation Desert Storm, was parking his car at work when another driver looked at him the wrong way.
“You got a problem, buddy?” the man then asked.
It was raining hard outside; Fortney had to wind down the window and lower the volume of the war ballad blasting from the car stereo to make himself heard.
“Yeah,” he responded. “I do have a problem. But it is in my head and has nothing to do with you.”
He parked and sat quietly, while the man exited his car and pounded on Fortney’s window. He calmly opened the door and informed the man that if he left quickly, Fortney wouldn’t kill him. “I was going to reach for his left eye with my right hand and pull out his eye, push my thumb into his socket and pull him to the ground, and he would have been dead,” he recalls. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Just as Fortney’s thumb and forefinger brushed the man’s eyelashes, he spotted a co-worker walking toward them. He also noticed that the rain that moments earlier had been pouring down had suddenly stopped, and there was no wind. “I put my finger in his chest and said I’d give him until the count of three to get out of there,” he says. “I literally saw him shrink, and his eyes watered up. He said, ‘I can see you got some issues or something,’ and he put his hands up and started walking away.”
Fortney remembers screaming a basic-training battle cry for “a good minute” before jumping in his car. The rain had started up again. He went home and opened a bottle of whiskey. Then he started running around his neighborhood in the rain. His wife found him and convinced him to come back inside. He called a few friends from the Orange County Veterans Center; they came to his house and sat down with him.
“My body shut down, and I started bawling,” Fortney remembers. “I didn’t want to be a killer, but I had never left the battlefield; there was no deprogramming. I was clearly off the deep end. If I wasn’t married, I would have been the psycho vet out in the forest.”
* * *
After years of psychiatric counseling and group therapy, Fortney, now 40, has come to terms with a condition he expects will never go away: posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is just one of thousands of veterans in Southern California who have been diagnosed with the disorder. Known as “trench fatigue” in World War I, “shell shock” in World War II and later as “Vietnam syndrome,” PTSD mostly afflicts combat veterans, but it has also been diagnosed in victims of violent crime, rape, accidents, even natural disasters. Symptoms include sleeplessness, nightmares, hypervigilance, depression and rage.
With the United States currently at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD is on the rise. According to a 2005 Veterans Affairs (VA) study, 20 percent of recent combat troops suffer from severe depression and PTSD. Some veterans, like Fortney, are able to keep their symptoms under control. Others aren’t so lucky: As of March 2008, 145 Iraq war veterans had committed suicide.
And then there’s the case of John Wylie Needham.
Before he went to Iraq, Needham was described by family members and friends as a laid-back surfer. But when he came home last year after being wounded by shrapnel during combat and receiving a Purple Heart, he seemed severely depressed. He wouldn’t talk about the war, but often woke up screaming from nightmares. “I’m falling apart by the seams,” he wrote on his MySpace page. “These walls are caving in; my despair wraps me in its web.”
On Sept. 1, Orange County sheriff’s deputies received a domestic-disturbance call for the veteran’s San Clemente condominium. When they knocked on his front door late that night, Needham answered the door stark naked. When he scuffled with the deputies, they subdued him with a Taser. Inside, they found Jacwelyn Villagomez, Needham’s 19-year-old girlfriend, severely beaten and unconscious. Needham, who had been drinking heavily, could provide no explanation for what he’d done. When doctors pronounced Villagomez dead the next morning, prosecutors charged him with murder; his case is scheduled to go to trial early next year. “I know he went through a lot in Iraq,” Needham’s brother Mike told the Los Angeles Times. “You can’t believe how happy he was until he came back from Iraq.”
Official policy prevents VA officials from speaking about individual cases, but officials do acknowledge that PTSD was a likely factor in Needham’s allegedly alcohol-fueled crime. “After World War II, the veterans came home, and everybody slapped them on the back and gave them a drink,” says Guy Lamunyon, who oversees the mental-health-outreach unit at the Long Beach VA Hospital. “Many of them became alcoholics and died. The same thing happened after Vietnam. We call it self-medication. The body is built to deal with a certain amount of stress, but not on a daily basis.”
After a prolonged exposure to combat, Lamunyon says, some veterans simply run out of the ability to deal with stress. “Some of the severe cases from the Vietnam War stay in a darkened room, watching TV, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer,” he says. “Every time they go out, they argue with somebody because they have such poor stress tolerance. At least two of my patients would yell at cars driving by.”
A reserve officer with the California National Guard, Lamunyon is also a Vietnam veteran who served as a medic with the 101st Airborne Division. He now runs a support group for other medics at the VA hospital and does outreach work with homeless veterans, who make up a quarter of the nation’s entire homeless population. He also screens returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and estimates that 13 percent to 20 percent of recent veterans are being treated for PTSD
“Some veterans quickly readjust to society while others are diagnosed as so severely disabled that they will never work again,” Lamunyon says.
Three years ago, the Pentagon ordered the VA to re-examine PTSD claims by older veterans. But the volume of new cases has overwhelmed the system. “They’re so backlogged with the new guys they don’t have time to go after the old guys,” Lamunyon says. “They will never get around to it, to tell you the truth.”
Because of the high number of soldiers wounded in Iraq by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the VA also screens all returning soldiers for post-concussive syndrome. Although many soldiers are happy to comply with the tests, some veterans don’t want to jeopardize their job prospects with a brain-injury diagnosis, says Dr. Patricia Nance, a physician at the Long Beach VA Hospital.
“We call and call and call and make an appointment, and they don’t show up,” Nance said. “The diagnosis here is based on how a person reports they are feeling, so all they have to do is minimize their symptoms. They don’t want that documented because they have their hearts set on a career in law enforcement. Police don’t want people being armed if they are irritable or have anger issues.”
Jose Barahona is an outreach worker at the Orange County Veterans Center in Garden Grove; he also suffers from PTSD. In Iraq, Barahona was a tank gunner in the First Armored Division. After rotating home four years ago, he tried to avoid the VA system. “Unfortunately, it was the wrong attitude,” he says. He was plagued with combat-related nightmares, sleeplessness and an inability to concentrate at work. “It still affects me every day,” he says.
Barahona estimates that 30 to 40 veterans come to the center for individual counseling each week, with an equal number of group-therapy sessions also taking place. Several years ago, when the center was located in Anaheim, one of its PTSD groups grew so large that members had to relocate to the Garden Grove Elks Lodge. The Weekly received permission to attend several meetings last year in return for promising not to write about anything the veterans discussed. A sign hanging on the wall dictated the policy: “What is spoken inside these walls stays inside these walls.”
Nevertheless, three members of the group—a Persian Gulf War Veteran and two Vietnam veterans—shared their stories in a series of interviews, speaking to a reporter for the first time about the worst experiences of their lives. They did so because they hope to encourage younger veterans, especially men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, to seek treatment far earlier than they did. They feel the VA system is reluctant to let them interact with Iraq war veterans. “There are no Iraq vets in any of the groups I go to at the hospital,” one of the veterans explained. “They are keeping them separate. Contamination—that’s the word. We want to help them but they are just not in any of our groups. It’s just too weird. It doesn’t make any sense.”
* * *
Fortney remembers little more than drinking heavily, fighting and “horsing around” during the summer of 1986, the year he graduated from high school in Buena Park. He enlisted in the Marine Corps out of boredom and a vague sense that he was going nowhere and needed discipline. As an athlete who excelled in track and cross-country running, Fortney says he thrived on the physical training he received in boot camp.
“I loved it,” Fortney says. “I went in because I had a feeling I was going to end up in jail, dead or a derelict. I fell in love with the structure, the forced discipline.”
After boot camp, Fortney received airborne training in Fort Benning, Georgia, before returning to California and training as a forward observer with the elite Third Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company in Long Beach.
Four years later, his unit was shipped to Kuwait in preparation for Operation Desert Storm. “Most guys crapped their pants and tried to get out of it,” Fortney says. “But they didn’t. I was hoping to get what I was craving. I was ready.”
During the brief, intense few weeks of actual combat, Fortney went behind enemy lines and called in aerial bombardments on Iraqi positions, watching through a high-powered scope as flames devoured enemy tank positions and human bodies flailed in pieces through the air. Afterward, he’d walk out and inspect the damage.
“By the time the war actually started, the enemy was so scattered and tattered that they quit,” he recalls. “I was foaming at the mouth. I can’t explain the feeling I felt other than complete rage that they were calling us back. I had a lot of rage.”
In April 1991, Fortney came home, but he says his mind never left the battlefield, even after he married five years later. “I didn’t want to be here,” he says. “I spent the rest of the 1990s drinking in bars, fighting with my friends and kicking their asses. I was fortunate enough to never kill anybody, but I hurt a lot of people and stopped myself when I reached out to kill someone.”
Since coming to grips with his PTSD after almost pulling a man’s eyeball out of his head during the parking-lot incident, Fortney has been working on a book tentatively titled Alphabet Man, a reference to all the various diagnoses he’s received: PTSD, ADD (attention deficit disorder) and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). With encouragement from his fellow veterans, Fortney began attending group sessions at the Veterans Center several years ago and, more recently, at the Garden Grove Elks Lodge. “It’s been good for me,” Fortney says. “These guys accepted me.”
* * *
Drafted into the U.S. Army at the height of the Vietnam War, Les Hudelson arrived in Asia in December 1968. His first assignment: guard duty for a group of Army engineers building a road along the Vietnamese coast. “The first day out, we got ambushed,” he recalls. Hudelson led a group of children who had gathered nearby to beg for money into a nearby cave and waited while a jet dropped bombs on the hillside above. The entire cave shook with the force of the explosions.
Although nobody was killed or injured that day, the screams of the terrified children would haunt Hudelson decades later. Guard duty didn’t last long, and in the spring of 1969, Hudelson volunteered to join the 25th Division, which was busy fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in the jungles near Cu Chi, headquarters of the Viet Cong’s infamous underground-tunnel complex. Weeks earlier, a platoon of American soldiers had been wiped out in a Viet Cong ambush.
A few weeks after arriving in Cu Chi, Hudelson got to know a grizzled black soldier who had played professional basketball before the war. They chatted during a 15-minute water break while on patrol. As the platoon resumed marching, the soldier stepped on a small, explosive booby trap that blew off part of his foot.
“He was sitting there, laughing, saying, ‘Now, I get to go home,’” Hudelson recalls. “He knew he was never going to play basketball again, but he didn’t give a shit. He was happy to be going.”
Not all land mines were so merciful, however, especially when they belonged to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which had begun moving into the area by that summer. Hudelson’s new battalion commander wanted to engage the NVA with high-profile attacks. He ordered his men to land in a wide-open, almost-desert-like field while Cobra helicopters fired rockets into the surrounding jungle. As the choppers flew off, Hudelson could hear his captain arguing on a field phone. Then his squad leader informed the men they had orders to march in a “V” formation.
“The first thing you learn in basic training is to walk in a file,” Hudelson says. “That way, if you step on a booby trap, only one or two guys get hit. In a ‘V’ formation, everybody gets hit.” Sure enough, just a few seconds later, the man at the head of the formation tripped off two buried artillery shells that blew him and several other soldiers apart. “The explosion just flash-burned him,” Hudelson says. “He was crispy black, like a burned hot dog. He died just like that. I saw everybody in front of me get hit, each guy.”
One of those solders was Hudelson’s best friend in the platoon, a fatalistic soldier who had been reading the Bible that morning. “A big piece [of metal] sliced his head off like it was a boomerang and threw his brain into me,” Hudelson recalls. “A couple of other guys were wounded but able to walk. Four guys died, and 12 guys got injured. I came out without a physical scratch, but this has really fucked over my brain.”
Hudelson flew back to his base and was standing near the helicopter pad when the colonel who had given the orders arrived and began berating the captain who had opposed marching in a “V”-formation. “Whatever he said put me in this rage, and I took out my M-16 and pointed it at the colonel,” Hudelson says. “The guy I had been talking with saw what was going on, pulled the M-16 down and wouldn’t let me shoot him. And my anger, the rage, just built from there.”
The following morning, Hudelson wandered over to the base’s radio tent, where officers were monitoring an ambush that had been sent out the night before.
“This colonel had walked them into another ambush, and they were getting slaughtered,” he recalls. “They called in four dead. And I was pissed because I hadn’t killed the colonel.” That day, Hudelson’s captain broke down and was removed from the line of duty.
Hudelson survived several other ambushes and eventually the war itself physically unscathed. But he says the psychological baggage he carried home has ruined his life.
He is still filled with remorse for not murdering the officer whose bad orders caused so many of his friends to die. “I was against the war in the first place,” he says. “If there is a God, why would he take this pronounced anti-war guy and put him in Vietnam? I had no control over the situation. I tried to kill a colonel, and because I didn’t do it, four more guys got killed that would be walking this earth right now. That’s where my craziness comes from. Years later, I’d be sitting there, and it’d suddenly pop out: ‘I’ll kill him next time.’”
After successfully resisting the urge to attack a police officer who pulled him over for speeding, Hudelson, now 60, checked himself in for PTSD counseling at the Long Beach VA Hospital and started attending group therapy at the Veterans Center. He recently stopped going to the meetings at the Garden Grove Elks Lodge, citing personality conflicts with its members, but he continues to visit the VA Hospital almost every day. He’s behind on his mortgage and worries that the bank may foreclose on his home.
“My life is a mess right now,” he says. “A couple of weeks ago, a guy came into our group who had attempted suicide, and it hit me real hard. I had been contemplating suicide that week myself.”
* * *
Walter Lee Treadwell killed his first Viet Cong sapper about a month after he arrived in Vietnam. He was watching the barbed wire from a forward observation post one night when he saw movement. “We had rocks and cans strung to the wire so that when it moved, you could hear it,” he says. “But this guy was so good, I heard no noise. I just saw the wire moving. It glinted.” Treadwell grabbed a pistol and crawled out to the wire until he could see the sapper, who was naked except for a loincloth, his entire body camouflaged with shoe polish. He carried a wire-cutting tool and had an explosive charge strapped to his waist.
“I capped him from about 10 feet away,” Treadwell says. Because his lieutenant wanted to interrogate the Viet Cong, he busted Treadwell down a rank and restricted him to the airstrip for a month. Treadwell didn’t mind. “I was proud because I had a kill,” he recalls. “I wanted blood at that point.”
A military brat who grew up all over the country thanks to his father’s “pencil-pushing” job in the Air Force, Treadwell dropped out of high school in late 1969 to enlist in the Marine Corps. “Part of why I enlisted in the Marines was so I could beat that son of a bitch up,” he says. “He was a mean drunk who used to beat up on my mom.”
Treadwell’s stint at the airstrip lasted roughly half his tour. He also worked guard duty for “hearts and minds” operations, like one involving a Navy corpsman distributing medicine to local villagers. As Hudelson watched for suspicious movements in the crowd, he saw someone running a zigzag pattern. He reacted the way he says he was trained to do and neutralized the perceived threat. “I shot a 13-year-old kid. An innocent kid,” he says. “He was running because he was excited.”
On another occasion, Treadwell says he executed a villager he believed was a Viet Cong responsible for setting booby traps. “I thought he was VC,” he says. “I made that judgment. We’ll never know. I terminated his life. I don’t know if I was more pissed off at his attitude, but I labeled him a VC and fucking popped him.”
He’s still tormented by the incident. “I saw myself as crossing the line. That’s what haunts me. My government is telling me to help stop the spread of communism, and here I am committing a frigging murder. I went out and hunted this guy down. There’s no getting rid of it, and I don’t deserve to get it off my conscience.”
Six days after returning home, Treadwell spent the evening drinking a six-pack of beer in the driveway of his parents’ house in Whittier. A neighbor who didn’t recognize him called the police; a plainclothes burglary detective took the call. Treadwell remembers only that someone stepped out of the bushes on the side of the yard and startled him, so he backed away to the house.
As Treadwell opened the door, the officer shot him through the shoulder. Oblivious to the pain, he calmly walked inside, retrieved a shotgun and .45-caliber pistol from his dad’s bedroom, and began firing out the front door. Fortunately, he didn’t hit anybody, and a judge sentenced Treadwell, then 20 years old, to three and a half years in a youth-authority prison. He received an undesirable discharge from the Marines.
After getting out of prison, Treadwell worked construction jobs, and then built a career restoring and renovating restaurants. He married and had kids, but his wife left him in 1995 when he tried to talk to her about the war. “I was having nightmares and trying to tell her about them, and she just said, ‘Deal with it,’” he says. “She left me a few weeks before the rent was due, and I’ve been homeless ever since.”
He has bounced in and out of shelters but says he spends most of his nights on the streets, staying at one of about 20 locations he’s found where he can sleep in quiet. He doesn’t drink or use drugs and has only been to jail once (for fighting with a drunken homeless person who insisted on pressing charges). Occasionally, he has a confrontation with a cop, and he’s learned to recognize his propensity to react angrily when confronted by someone in uniform.
“One of my triggers is cops, obviously,” he says. “I have tested probably two dozen cops over the years who had their guns out. ‘Put it right here, motherfucker! Look in my eyes: Do I look intimidated?’”
Treadwell, now 58, hasn’t been to a VA hospital since January 2007, when he learned that his benefits were being taken away because of his less-than-honorable discharge. “They must have figured out I’d react adversely because I turned around, and there were two federal cops standing by. They said I was no longer eligible, and I was in there that day to see my frigging psychologist. They are just getting overwhelmed with new guys.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Although he no longer visits the VA hospital for treatment, Treadwell visits the OC Veterans Center nearly every day, sometimes to participate in group therapy, but more often just to use the Internet or check e-mail.
“It’s helped me to be able to talk to other people and listen to other people and get some feedback on how I see things,” he says. “The other day in my group, somebody said, ‘We’d really like to see things get better for you.’ I told him that I’m doing nothing but preparing to die. I’m not suicidal. I’ve just lost hope.”