Chase Weston, a veteran of the Iraq War, sits forward in a white plastic lawn chair. With a diagram of a human brain on a piece of paper, he explains, with necessary detachment, what the hell's been going on in his head.
"The feeling of helplessness comes here," he says, pointing to the hippocampus, the brain's center of emotion and memory. "There's something triggered in the hippocampus, which says, 'Okay, I remember this situation. In this situation I did this. But where's my weapon?'...That's why you're finding veterans with guns within arm's reach. You have veterans who are displaying unsafe behavior. Those unsafe behaviors—having a gun, a stick, a rock, a knife in their back pocket, throwing stars on their belt—are because they're trying to fill the void of that weapon."
Weston, chain-smoking Marlboros in a friend's backyard in Missoula, goes on, describing in more detail how his brain's amygdala, prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and hypothalamus all conspire to inflict him with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, an anxiety disorder sparked by experiencing or witnessing an event that causes intense fear, helplessness or horror.
"That's how I understand it works," he says, "and that for me is what has literally solved my problem." He catches himself. "I can't speak in the past tense."
Weston, 26, comes across as forthright, polite and articulate, with piercing blue eyes that convey what he's seen as much as his words do. He was born and raised in Missoula, graduating from Loyola Sacred Heart High School in 2002. He spent eight months in 2005 fighting in Iraq. He was a gunner on a Humvee with the third infantry division, shooting, he says, hundreds of rounds a day with his M-249 machine gun. He tells of transporting detainees, interrogating them, and participating in search and seizure operations. He says he killed people, including a young Iraqi girl held by an armed insurgent. The memory of it, he says, makes it difficult for him to be around his 3-year-old daughter.