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.
On September 4, 2005, Weston's Humvee was hit by an IED, or improvised explosive device. The bomb broke his back and caused a traumatic brain injury. He was evacuated to Germany. According to Weston's file with the Department of the Army Public Affairs, he received a number of medals for his service. But Weston prefers not to discuss them in detail. "Because in the infantry," he says, "it's not about the medals. It's about the guy next to you."
Two of the guys who once served next to him, Sgt. Monta Ruth and Spc. Dennis Ferderer, are memorialized by a tattoo on Weston's right arm. In 2005, days before Weston himself was hit, Ruth was killed by a roadside bomb; Ferderer by a hand grenade two months later. Next to their names on his arm are the words:
Weston's considerable physical wounds paled in comparison to his mental ones, though he was slow to recognize them.
In October 2005, while recovering at Fort Benning in Georgia, Weston asked his girlfriend, 18 at the time, to live with him. He bought her a bus ticket from Missoula, and on Nov. 1, after a long night of drinking, she and Weston went to the courthouse to get married. As Weston tells it, "I was drunk, my best friend farted, and she cried." Two months later she became pregnant. Five months later they decided to divorce.
Weston, without pause, explains why.
"I put her up against the wall, grabbed her by the throat and told her if she ever fucking touches me again I'll kill her," he says, explaining the incident occurred during sex.
Weston then pulls out his BlackBerry and reads the opening paragraph of a paper his ex-wife, now 22, wrote for a class at the University of Montana.
"His eyes are filled with rage. As he comes toward me, he picks up his pace," she wrote. "With his fist tightening he starts to scare me. His grip tightens around my arms as he slams me up against the front door..."
Weston's candor shocks, but only at first, because his stories make clear that it wasn't really him—the pre-deployment version of him, the high school football player, the kid his family now has to remind him of—who committed such despicable acts. It was another version, a version still in a canvas-top Humvee, his machine gun raised, sand in his mouth, numbed by a blast that nearly kills the men in the truck in front of him.
"Did I [threaten my wife] because I'm a violent person? Hell no," he says. "I was raised in a cattle-ranching family, where you're taught not to lay a hand on a woman, and by God if you do, you start digging your own grave...But when that switch is flipped, you ain't you."
Even beyond the flashbacks, Weston wasn't himself. When he returned to Missoula he says he developed a dependence on alcohol, cocaine and prescription drugs. "I went from a soldier to a pill head, like that," he says with a snap. "Because I could not process what the fuck just happened to me."
He couldn't control his temper. He behaved erratically. Increasingly depressed and anxiety ridden, Weston isolated himself.
"I was living in a fucking pig sty," he says. "Living in beer cans, stale cigarette smoke and dog hair, because I didn't give a shit. I didn't. And that's the monster of PTSD."
Did he ever consider suicide?
"I've tried to kill myself four times," he says. "So am I suicidal is the question, not if I've been. I'm always, 24-hours-a-day, suicidal and homicidal. It's just how I manage myself and whether or not I act on it. I think that's pretty universal [for PTSD sufferers]."
In fact, according to renowned PTSD psychotherapist Edward Tick, "every vital human characteristic that we attribute to the soul may be fundamentally reshaped" in PTSD victims.
Weston's switch flipped again and again during those three years after returning home from Iraq, but one flashback in particular sent him down the road to recovery. He was home, he recalls, holed up in his bedroom, when his mother unexpectedly knocked on the door. She opened it to find Weston pointing a rifle at her head. He was soon in the car headed to Fort Harrison, telling his mother on the way to Helena "to watch for IEDs, to stay in the center of the road, to keep five meter spacing," he says. "I was in Iraq."
In Helena, doctors declared Weston a "5150," a term used to describe an involuntary psychiatric admission. He was sent to a psych unit in Sheridan, Wyo. Over the next year he'd complete three more inpatient treatment programs, where he learned, among other things, how to break his illness "down to the nuts and bolts." Which is why he's sitting in a friend's backyard, with a binder full of papers, describing what his hippocampus has been up to.
Weston wants to explain why he's still alive. He says he agreed to seek treatment largely because of the support he received from a small group of Missoula veterans also suffering from PTSD. He's especially thankful for one compassionate Vietnam vet, the only person who was able to persuade Weston, on the verge of self-destruction, to simply talk about it.
Back to being tight
Chris Poloynis sits in a circle of otherwise empty chairs in a room inside the Missoula Veterans Affairs Clinic. He's been here at 2 p.m. just about every Monday for almost four years to facilitate vet-to-vet group therapy meetings, and he says at least a couple vets always show up. He checks his watch and leans back.
Poloynis, 60, is a calm-eyed, inquisitive and contemplative Vietnam veteran with long white hair whose medical file is surely thicker than this newspaper. He's endured 17 surgeries in the last nine years, 10 on his back alone. He had two chest surgeries to remove tumors around his heart, growths he believes were caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Three years ago he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis—also, he suspects, the result of the toxic herbicide—and was given two years to live. Despite it all, he still exudes the pluck of a soldier, and the selflessness of one, too.
While waiting, Poloynis explains that after some 15 years of working on his own PTSD, he and other veterans who worked with a psychiatrist in Helena branched out and started groups of their own. He named his group Spartans Honour after his proud Greek heritage, and registered as a nonprofit. He estimates he's helped about a hundred local veterans, young and old, manage their PTSD symptoms.
"First of all, most people don't trust," he says when asked about the nature of the meetings. "You have to develop a trust. How do you develop a trust? By caring. Most people are just so self-absorbed that they won't go out of their way to call or to come and help somebody else out. And so that's what you have to do, penetrate them to know that you care."
Poloynis tells of the time about a year ago, for example, when he slept at his friend Chase Weston's house because he feared Weston would commit suicide if left alone.
"We do that because we've seen too many of our friends die after war," Poloynis says.
According to data from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services' Office of Vital Statistics, 332 Montana veterans have committed suicide since 2003. Fifty killed themselves last year.
"I guess we do it because we're still alive," Poloynis continues. "We know that all of the work that's been put into us has helped us to live and find rewards. Families are starting to talk to us again..."
He's interrupted by the opening door, and in walk two men who sit down in the circle. "You better turn that thing off," Poloynis says, pointing to an audio recorder. And in walk a couple more.
When the meeting starts, a Vietnam vet wonders aloud about his ongoing efforts to control his temper and identify what triggers it. An Iraq vet, a medic, says a get-together for veterans at a local church he and others in the group attended two days before was exactly the kind of small, informal gathering that sets off his social anxiety, enough for him to spend the next day in bed anesthetized by muscle-relaxers and anti-anxiety medication. A Vietnam vet laughs about how a blotch on his cheek from a recent procedure won't grow hair. Poloynis, a VA-trained facilitator, steers the discussion, affirming to these men that none are alone in coping with their problems.
The conversation begins to focus on a young and brash Iraq vet, who moments after walking into the room declares to the group he's through with sex. He can't figure out if it's the new medication his doctor put him on that's taken the pleasure out of it, or if he truly doesn't have feelings for the girl he's sleeping with. He says his climaxes are void of emotion. There's no connection. Most in the group offer an understanding nod.
The young man reveals that he recently felt an urge to hit his girlfriend. Stupid things, like her freezing cold hands on his back, provoke him. He knows it's wrong, but that's what he feels. The group nods again.
If you give in to that urge just one time, Poloynis tells him, you'll end up in Deer Lodge. He reminds him that if he's convicted of a felony he'll lose VA benefits. The whole group talks about it, helping the young man figure out whether he should break off the relationship. If you can't reciprocate the love she has for you, they suggest, then maybe it's time to end it. If your medication isn't dialed in, maybe you should end it. It's easier to do it now than later.
The young man gets up, says the relationship's over, and walks out to attend a doctor's appointment.
The veterans don't hold anything back. They can speak freely, Poloynis says, because some note-scribbling counselor, who's not a veteran, who can't understand, isn't here evaluating them. And that's the point.
Montana, which per capita has the second-most veterans in the country—more than 100,000—is among the few states that support vet-to-vet group therapy meetings like Spartans Honour. There are at least nine such groups around the state, some associated with the VA and some not, and most initiated by Vietnam veterans like Poloynis who, through years of treatment, have gotten a handle on their PTSD. Together they created the first network of vet-to-vet support groups in the country.
Tom Huddleston was among the first to start the weekly meetings. Huddleston, 65, says he was once a bully and a drunk who after seven careers, three wives and countless debilitating flashbacks over 40 years finally decided to confront his mental illness. Now, he's focused on helping veterans in Helena. In 2006, Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed him to the Montana Board of Veterans' Affairs.
"Vet-to-vet's ultimate goal, I think, is just getting us back to being tight," says Huddleston over the phone from Helena. "Every generation and every conflict, the one thing we all have in common is that feeling of being tight with your unit, when the rest of the world did not exist. Your mission was to just take care of each other. And that's what vet-to-vet is.
"The terrible irony of being in combat," he continues, "is that for a male brought up in the American culture, it's probably the first time that we ever experienced unconditional love, and it's in an environment of killing, of dirt, of waste, of pain. But we know agape. We understand unconditional love because we will go down with each other, and we will give it up for each other. And what vet-to-vet does is it reminds us of that fact. The irony is that in a world of steaks and honey, of everything nice and all the wealth, we hate. We find parts of our neighbors to despise. But in war we learn to love. In vet-to-vet, it reminds us of that honor of unconditional sacrifice."
The talking circle
Roger Shourds founded and facilitates one of the newer vet-to-vet groups in the state, the PTSD Talking Circle on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Shourds is thick, but his imposing nature belies his big smile and soft, almost nervous tone. He says he served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968 in Chu Lai. He didn't know he had PTSD until almost 20 years after returning home, when he went through a bad divorce and ended up in a psych ward.
"I didn't recognize what was wrong with me," he says.
The concept of vet-to-vet meetings—of honoring sacrifice, of purification, of sitting in a circle and revealing one's self—is rooted in American Indian culture. It's appropriate considering that, per capita, more American Indians go to war than any other race.
"The Native Americans—almost all of the Western tribes—have a very similar tradition," Huddleston explains, "that when warriors returned from battle, the first thing that happened was that they were called to sit before the elders, and the elders did a number of very strange but loving things. First of all they apologized to the warriors for having to do the things they had to do and see the things they saw. And then they gave them honor for putting the needs of the tribe above their own survival. And then they told them how happy they were that they returned safely. And then all the warriors would all get up and go in the sweat lodge for a purification sweat."
During purification sweats participants sit in a circle around baked stones and one-by-one speak to what troubles them, cleansing themselves of evil thoughts and spirits.
"In vet-to-vet," Huddleston says, "one of the reasons for doing rounds is what happens in a sweat lodge."
Moreover, American Indians traditionally gave warriors too old to go to battle a new command, and that was to bring peace to younger warriors. When he first learned that, Huddleston says, it brought "a magic" to what facilitators like he and Poloynis are doing with their groups.
On a recent Tuesday evening, Shourds and Poloynis gather with veterans and non-veterans, American Indians and non-Indians, at Ronan's Pache Homesite Community Center, a doublewide trailer shadowed by the Mission Mountains on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The group circles a table on which an eagle feather sits and a candle flickers. The talking stick is passed around. During the first round participants introduce themselves. During the second they discuss what's on their minds. During the third they offer feedback or insight or validation. The stick will go around all night if it needs to, Shourds reminds. No one should leave if they're not feeling all right.
The stick makes it to a middle-aged veteran who just two weeks before tried to kill himself by downing a bottle of pills. He says he chose pills over the loaded gun that hangs in the corner of his bedroom, where he's spent days at a time lying in bed. When paramedics arrived, he says, they flew him in a helicopter to Missoula, where his stomach was pumped.
He's doing okay now, though, he says. He's going to "drive on," he repeats again and again, resting his hopes on a recently submitted job application to be a custodian. He thinks he's got a good chance. Still, despite his openness, he tells the group he won't likely be coming back next Tuesday, which prompts Poloynis, when the talking stick reaches him, to urge the man to please come back. To not, he says, would not only spurn the group's commitment to supporting him, but his commitment to supporting the group. The man says he'll try to make it.
Then a woman painstakingly says that her son, who served in the Marine Corps, recently informed her that he's going to again attempt suicide. And the talking stick goes around.
Suicide is an acute problem on American Indian reservations, and for veterans especially.
"Reservations haven't always been a really healthy place for them to come back to," explains Roxana Colman-Herak, the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes' Suicide Prevention Program coordinator. She points to the reservation's lack of services and jobs, as well as the rampancy of drugs and alcohol abuse.
The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes elected not to release suicide statistics to the Independent, but those who work with veterans believe the numbers are rising.
Ralph Foster, owner of Foster Funeral Home & Crematory in St. Ignatius, one of three funeral homes on the reservation, says of the roughly 100 bodies he receives each year, about 15 are veterans, and probably one or two of them committed suicide.
"But if we're considering what I would call a 'slow suicide'—those getting out of the military and whose primary purpose is to drink and do drugs and have that sort of lifestyle—I would say that almost half of the veterans that we serve fit in that category," Foster says.
Shourds, a tribal elder, says he attends every tribal funeral, reciting prayers in the tribe's native language. He says he spoke at 81 funerals last year alone. Without being specific, he says too many of the funerals were for veterans too young to die.
The tribe has roughly 7,400 enrolled members, of which about two-thirds live on or near the reservation. There are 524 veterans, 216 of whom live on the reservation, according to tribal administrator Ruth Swaney.
"The talking circle," says Colman-Herak, "is really important because it helps people to unload some of that baggage that they've been carrying around, for a lot of people, for the majority of their lives, before war and after."
At the end of the three-and-a-half-hour meeting the talking stick returns to Shrouds, who speaks of the journey he and two other tribal members will take to Vietnam in November. He'll return, he says, in hopes that the very battlefields that scarred him 40 years ago will help to heal him.
A national model
The Montana National Guard takes pride in the fact that its Yellow Ribbon Program does more than any other state to screen for and treat PTSD. In fact, federal legislation modeled after the program, pushed by Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehberg, is likely to reach President Obama's desk this month. Combined with the boots-on-the-ground work being done around Montana in vet-to-vet groups, the state leads the country in the fight against PTSD.
But Montana's success began with tragedy. On March 4, 2007, Chris Dana of Helena, two years after returning home from Iraq, shot himself in the head with a .22-caliber rifle. He was 23. As Dana's father collected his son's belongings, he reportedly found a letter from the National Guard indicating that Dana was being discharged under less-than-honorable conditions. He had skipped drills, a result of feeling isolated since returning from Iraq. The letter was in the trash, along with a Wal-Mart receipt for .22-caliber rifle shells.
"Before Chris' death the military didn't know how to effectively handle [PTSD]," explains Matt Kuntz, Chris' step-brother, who has since become a national advocate for advancing the treatment of PTSD and other mental illnesses with the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "I think a big part of it was they were trying to deal with it in an entirely voluntary manner. But the problem, when it comes to receiving health treatment in the military, is that nothing else is really voluntary, even something as simple as blisters. When you've completed a major road march...they require that everyone take off their boots and have a medic look at their blisters, then you're required to get them treated. And the reason they do that is because they think people will be too proud or won't recognize how bad it is until it's potentially disabling. Why can't we treat PTSD with the same level of care? I think that's where we're moving, and my focus has really been on trying to get help to the active duty personnel, because if we wait until they get out of the service the illness can compound, and it's also a lot harder to treat them, especially if they're in rural Montana or on the reservations."
The Montana National Guard says Dana's death brought about a reevaluation of how it reintegrates its service members into civilian life.
"When he took his life, and that was associated with PTSD, it really caused our state to step back and say, 'What are we doing, what should we be doing that we aren't doing, and how can we make the process better?'" says Col. Jeff Ireland, director of manpower and personnel for the Montana National Guard. "Because, obviously, we never want to have something like that happen again if we can help to avoid it."
The Yellow Ribbon Program requires soldiers to undergo counseling with behavioral health specialists and participate in workshops with each other and their families every 30, 60 and 90 days after returning home. The sessions are aimed at identifying mental health problems like anger management, stress management, substance abuse and depression. Thereafter, the Montana National Guard conducts medical assessments every six months out to the two-year mark. No other state requires such extensive monitoring.
"We're trying to help you understand," Ireland says, "that if you have problems sleeping, if you have problems with your temper, you're driving too fast, it isn't just you. It's those things that are normal things. So, when they happen, here are the things you can do and here are the resources that are available."
Between June and December 2008, according to data provided by Ireland, 40 percent of the 539 Montana National Guard service members who were evaluated by behavioral health providers were referred to a specialist. Of those, 49 percent reported anxiety, 46 percent reported problems with their marriage and family, and 40 percent displayed PTSD symptoms. Ireland believes many of them would have fallen through the cracks if not for the Yellow Ribbon Program.
Nationally, a recent study by researchers at the San Francisco Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco, found that 37 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who enrolled in the veterans health system after 2001 received a diagnosis of a mental health problem, most often PTSD or depression. The study also revealed that the number of veterans found to have mental health problems rose steadily the longer they were out of the service.
Which is why Kuntz has worked so hard since his step-brother's death two years ago to ensure that as many soldiers as possible receive face-to-face counseling long after they return home. He appealed to then-Sen. Barack Obama, who later invited him on his post-inauguration train ride, which Kuntz says helped bring the issue national attention. Kuntz also worked with Baucus to draft the new legislation, and Sen. Jon Tester asked him to testify before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
"It's been a pretty amazing process, to be honest, to go from just one angry and sad family to hopefully really making a difference in a lot of lives on the national level," Kuntz says.
Just last Wednesday, Baucus and Rehberg's measure was included in the final version of the Department of Defense authorization bill. It passed the House on Friday on Oct. 9 and it's expected to pass the Senate any day now.
But more screening and counseling can only go so far in preventing soldiers from sinking into mental illness. Just look to Spokane, Wash., where it was revealed two months ago that, between July 2007 and July 2008, at least 22 veterans in the Spokane Veterans Affairs' service area killed themselves. Fifteen of them were being treated or had been treated at the city's VA medical center.
Never the same again
Chris Poloynis sits in his small and dark living room in downtown Missoula when Chase Weston walks in. He's returning from facilitating the Spartans Honour vet-to-vet meeting for the first time.
"It was good. I was ready for it," Weston says.
"No you weren't," Poloynis interrupts, laughing, telling how Weston called earlier in the day trying to get out of it.
But Poloynis says Weston will eventually be ready.
"He came to vet-to-vet before all of this treatment and I couldn't hardly keep him in a meeting. But somehow him and I have connected like brothers, and just followed each other," says Poloynis. "We probably saw the same stuff. Different time, same intensity. Same wounds.
"The happiest day of my life the last few years," he continues, "was when he knocked on my door a few nights ago and said, 'I'm home, and I'm well.' That blew me fucking away. It put tears in my eyes."
Poloynis hopes Weston will continue to heal, and maybe even develop a sense of ownership over Spartans Honour and eventually become the primary facilitator. Today's the first step in that process. Weston, despite a long road to recovery still ahead, returned home dedicated to helping heal PTSD sufferers like himself. It's his new mission, but a familiar one, to make sure his fellow soldiers make it out alive.
"The honor is in living your values after you get out," Weston says. "So it took me some time to find my values, but sure as hell I'm making that time up right now. I'm taking every penny I own and every minute I have and giving it away to other veterans who want to get better."
But he and Poloynis both strongly believe that vet-to-vet groups and the state's once-every-six-month psychiatric screenings for National Guard service members, however innovative, aren't nearly enough. Combat veterans with PTSD need inpatient therapy, they say, like the therapy Weston received over the past year. The problem is that there are far too few resources for the countless soldiers in need.
"The program [in California] I just left had 30 beds," Weston explains. "It was for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans only. When I got in I was on the waiting list with 10 people. When I left, the waiting list was over 200...You have how many thousands of troops? Hundreds of thousands of troops are about to get out, are about to start to deal with PTSD, and unless you want to see crime rates go up, and jail rates go up, domestic violence go up..."
And no matter the level of therapy combat veterans receive, Poloynis and Weston say soldiers like them—trained to kill and dehumanized for combat—can never return to their pre-war lives. They can never fully reintegrate into a society that doesn't understand, and often doesn't appreciate, their sacrifice.
"It does not work. It will not work. It cannot work. And I know that sounds so negative, but it won't. It just cannot work," says Weston, stopping to bite his quivering lip. "Because there's no way that I'm going to be able to drive down the road and not see a trash bag and not think IED. Not see a dead squirrel or a dead fucking dog and think IED. Not watch everybody's fucking hands to make sure they're not in their pockets...I'm 26, and I'm fucked for the rest of my life."
"This is the cost of our freedom and liberties," Poloynis says, motioning to Weston and back to himself. "So the question is, 'Is it worth it?' For us to be able to have all these rights and to be able to live in a capitalist society and a democracy, so to speak, it takes this."
Are they bitter?
"My spirituality is helping others," Poloynis says. "And when I help Chase and scores of others, I sleep better. It's what I'm supposed to do. I could be bitter. I could be angry. But I chose this route. And that's why I try to tell these guys, you got to give of yourself. You have to give. Give, give, give. And that's how you get better."
"I'm more bitter about one thing than anything else," Weston says, "and it has nothing to do with the service. I'm so bitter at watching my mom weep all the time. Because she sees me walk up and down the stairs and have a hard time. She watches me have a seizure. She sees me frustrated, in tears, having a hard time, choked up like I am right now. And she just weeps."
Weston mentions Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," a fictional dialogue between Plato's teacher Socrates and Plato's brother Glaucon. Plato writes of a scenario in which people are chained in a cave all of their lives facing a blank wall, interpreting reality only from the shadows formed on the wall by the fire behind them. If a man is able to look at the fire, Socrates says, "wouldn't he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real?"
"In war you're bound by chains," Weston says. "You see the fucking light, and you're fucking blinded by it. And all you want to do is be back in the fucking cave. That's where I want to be. Give me five rounds, drop me in Iraq, and let somebody fucking kill me. It's so much easier than dealing with this shit. But I'm left to deal with it, and I know that now."