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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..."