Kevin opens his apartment door and invites us inside. The last time we were here, we played a board game- “Betrayal at House on the Hill.” Tonight, my boyfriend Nate, Kevin, and myself have gathered for a different reason. Earlier this week, there was a second massacre at Fort Hood, recharging the media for another round of political warfare. The boys are unsettled, and I begin to write.
“Jesus…” Kevin says, his voice trailing off into silence as he absorbs the events of the week.
Then he talks.
All he ever wanted to be was a soldier.
The first time I met Kevin, we were not much more than children. The three of us had just finished high school. He was a friend of Nate’s and Nate had taken me to his house to watch anime, a thinly-veiled opportunity for Nate and I to sit next to each other and hold hands, both of us being too shy at the time to do anything more than that. It had taken months of knowing each other for Nate to work up the nerve to grab my hand. It would take more than a decade and a lot of in-between-heartache for him to work up the nerve to ask me out on a date.
As we watched the movie, though, Kevin paid no mind to the hand holding or the nerves or even the movie, itself. He was excited about other things. He talked a hundred miles an hour about the future that lay ahead of him. He’d enlisted in the army a year prior, just before September 11th, on a delayed entry program. Now, with high school graduation behind him, he could move forward in the process.
I would lose track of him after this day. Like losing a half-read book on a bus stop bench, Kevin’s story stopped abruptly in my life the day he left and anime Saturday stopped being a thing. I would wonder, from time to time, how the story evolved.
The three of us scattered- Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Korea, Iraq.. Then, eventually, we all wound up home in South Dakota again.
And it was then, as a man, that Kevin gathered his composure at his kitchen table and narrated the missing chapters.
Even before he left, everyone knew that Kevin has always been smart. His IQ registers in the upper 180s. He scored 100% on his ASVAB. He finished the entire SAT test in the time allowed for the first section. The day he took the test, he reached the end of the section, saw the word “STOP” and looked around. Nobody else was stopping, so he kept going, too. When they called time over, he stood up and turned the entire test in completed.
He did well on it, too.
He has a dominant personality type. He’s a born-leader.
Because of his intelligence, he was placed as a 98 Charlie- Signals Intelligence Analyst. In short, his job was to keep a close eye on outside forces and determine their next move. As part of his MOS, he was assigned to learn Persian Farsi and was given Iranian dedication. Despite meeting this requirement, the Army decided they had other needs for him and sent him to South Korea- to a troubled platoon- and assigned him senior officer duties at a Secure Compartmentalized Information Facility (SCIF). He was only a Private First Class at the time and was doing the work of a higher rank for nearly minimal pay.
“I was under-qualified, underpaid, and overwhelmed,” he explained, “but every commanding officer I talked to said the same thing- Don’t look up, look down.”
The solution to problems within a platoon, he says, is often to place blame on anyone and everyone you can below your rank. When he told his officers that he was ill-equipped to handle the job that he was assigned, they made promises they would send him to training. However, they also told him to place as much blame away from himself as he could in the meantime.
The training did come, but without a promotion in rank. To get away from the the overwhelming task at hand, he applied for Special Forces training and was accepted. He completed his first round of Special Forces training, was upped in rank to Specialist, and deployed to Iraq as a signals analyst.
After his deployment, he was turned over, yet again, to a different unit than the one he had grown accustomed to and again his rank was increased. This time, he joined his unit as a Sergeant.
Immediately, he recognized a poor chain of command within the unit. Commanding officers were not following military protocol, were making frequent mistakes, and were railroading lower-ranked individuals rather than accepting responsibility for their own actions. Kevin knew from his experience in South Korea how it felt to be overwhelmed and under-trained. As a commanding officer of his unit, he went against the grain of his comrades and made himself approachable, meeting the demands of his soldiers with fairness and respect.
He was adored by those looking up the ladder, but had presented himself as a threat to those looking down it.
He was anxious to leave this post for something new, so he was excited to learn that he had been accepted into his second round of Special Forces training. As he waited, though, he continued to try to protect his soldiers from his peers.
Because of these actions, he received seven or eight unjust nonjudicial punishments, otherwise known as Article 15s. Upon issuance of his last, he told the issuing party that he would not sign for it and would take the Court-Martial, instead.
He gathered enough evidence to represent himself and prove that UCMJ (Universal Code of Military Justice) was not being followed. Several of his commanding officers were de-commissioned, though others were left untouched. Without their signatures on the falsified documents, there was no way to prove their involvement.
Despite having proven himself in front of the Court-Martial, Kevin recognized that tensions within the group continued to grow. He was relieved to hear that new orders had arrived for him. His second round of Special Forces training had finally been scheduled, he thought.
And he was right- but it wouldn’t be soon. He’d been deployed to Iraq a second time.
“You don’t have to control people if you can control information,” Kevin explains.
At this point, we are more than an hour into our conversation and though I don’t know how his story winds up, the air in Kevin’s one-bedroom efficiency has grown thick with dread. Across from me, Nate is fidgeting in his chair. He already knows what Kevin is about to tell me and I can tell he is unsettled.
“There was enough time between the second and third deployments to finish my Special Forces training,” Kevin explains. He calls his third deployment his easiest.
“I basically, at that time, knew the job backwards and forwards enough. I just did some monkeying on the computer and got it to do most of my work for me. It was an uneventful stay. I kept an eye on the reports and played a lot of Mafia Wars. Facebook was a big part of my life that year,” he half-jokes and I laugh. Across from me, the usually jovial Nate manages to crack a smile. My stomach sinks again.
Whatever happens next is bad.
Kevin’s voice cracks as he begins to talk about it.
After his third deployment, he was flagged into a special forces unit. Of the unit, he says, he is one of only two survivors.
“I’ve been hailed by bullets more than once,” he tells me, “They explain to you the difference in the noise. Bullets sound different when they’re being shot at you than if they’re being shot around you. If its a whizzing sound, they’re meant to pass you by. The ones coming right at you whirrel. When you hear all that, you just get busy and you don’t stop for anything until the sound stops. When everything’s quiet, that’s when you check yourself and each other for holes. Your brain shuts down all your responders in favor of sight and sound until then.”
He found himself traumatized by the things he experienced in his new job. He found himself sickened by certain procedures that his Special Forces unit was following and he found himself feeling guilty.
A new Captain arrived- one that was familiar with Kevin’s history in front of the Court-Martial- and, when Kevin questioned the integrity of some of the unit’s behavior, the Captain felt threatened.
“Once you sign, they own you,” Kevin says, “They can say anything they want and do anything they want to get their way.”
The Captain declared Kevin emotionally unstable. He said Kevin was unraveling under the pressure of his job and needed some psychological evaluation. They carried him to a military psych unit under the pretense that he would be placed there for three days.
Upon his arrival, before anyone had even spoken with him, he was told it would likely be a month.
He knew his time in the service- life as he had planned it and lived it- had just ended.
He was a boy looking for direction.
The military was never Nate’s first choice. When I met him, he was eighteen and really didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He was a quiet kid who did not make easy friends. Many of the friends that he did make sought only to take advantage of his giving nature.
He completed his carpentry certification in Box Elder, South Dakota. During the certification process, he traveled with a group of his peers to east Texas to work in the ground search for debris from the fallen space shuttle Columbia. While there, he met and became acquainted with several military personnel and his interest in the military lifestyle piqued.
He had come from a military family. He, himself, was named after a distant maternal grandparent, Nathaniel Ferris, a Civil War veteran. Nate’s parents had met during their time in the air force.
Soon, he found himself in Fort Sill. He married and became a father and worked hard. Through a combination of hard work and luck, his rank advanced quickly to Private First Class and he, too, was deployed to Iraq. His MORS had been graphing heavy artillery fire direction. Once overseas, it was explained to him that military vehicles are built to fit the average American and, at a mid-sized 5’10, he was of ideal strength and size to operate them. His job shifted from graphing fire direction to transporting trucks and tanks. His rank was again increased to Specialist.
He says now that he survived his deployment, mainly, on blind luck. It was a rare occurrence that he could not transport a vehicle, though all of the few vehicles he did fail to retrieve were taken under fire during transport from other soldiers. Many times, in convoys, he would witness the vehicle ahead or the vehicle behind him blown apart by IEDs.
On once instance, he was driving at night across a stretch of dirt when he spotted an anti-tank mine in the road ahead of him, but knew he could not stop. Rather than try to swerve around it, he held his breath as it passed beneath him, between his tires. It was nearly as wide as his wheel base. He barely cleared it.
Sadly, his luck eventually ran out.
A series of plagues befell the advantageous golden boy.
He suffered traumatic brain injury from an IED explosion in Iraq, leaving his eyes sensitive to light and his mind easily confused. Upon his return, he was ranked up to Sergeant, only to later be stepped on by a horse. Then he injured his hip during a PT drill.
His injuries left him with lifelong consequences: Near-constant migraine headaches, PTSD, and a limp to name only a few. Living with constant physical pain gave way to another. He was prescribed numerous medications to help him withstand his tribulations. “It created a sort of chemical lobotomy,” he explained, “All my emotion just shut off.”
After the assaults on his body came other heartache.
His marriage fell apart.
He was seven and a half years into his enlistment when he and his commanding officers decided that he had served his country well. He was tired and worn out and needed to be relieved. He was discharged honorably and returned home to South Dakota.
Even this came with surprises. Having been technically declared a disabled veteran worked against him in his search for employment. Despite high honors and excellent recommendation from all of his commanding officers, he was overlooked for positions. He feels many disregarded him as an applicant because, as a disabled veteran, he’d be difficult to fire.
Many told him he shouldn’t look for employment at all. That, instead, he should simply accept his pension checks and leave the job opportunities available for those that are more able-bodied to work them.
“I’m not satisfied with anything unless I feel like I’ve earned it,” he said, “I’m too young to just give up. I want a career. I want to work. I want to show my kids how to work.”
Because of his persistence, he did eventually find employment and then enrolled back in school to pursue electrical engineering.
The new dream is to serve his country through Federal employment.
Specialist Ivan Lopez
The media reports that the most recent Fort Hood shooter suffered from Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD, and Depression. Upon hearing this, Nate lets out a disgusted sigh.
“My first day in the psych unit, they gave me a letter that basically said that it didn’t matter how long they kept me, they had already decided that there would not be enough time to fix me. They kept me until the paperwork could be done to dismiss me from service and then I came home and found out that the same military doctors that said they didn’t have time to treat me had DIAGNOSED me with Social Anxiety, PTSD, Mental Dyslexia, Sociopathic Tendencies, Societal Disassociation, and- my favorite- homicidal tendencies. They trained a kid how to kill people and then sent him home because he knew how to kill people. And then, not only that, they labeled me with all of those things and then released me out into civilian life. They basically said, ‘Here. You have questioned our authority and now we don’t want to deal with you. We’re just going to say you’re so crazy you can’t function as a human being and then we’re going to release you out into the general public and let you be their problem.'”
“Everything’s sensationalism,” Nate interjects, “All personal problems of military personnel are viewed as potential shooting sprees. They can’t recognize real threats because they’re too busy chasing false ones and covering themselves and then, when something like this happens, they just look for something to blame- a person or a disorder or something that they can say was outside of their realm of control because then it doesn’t have to be their fault.”
Kevin continues. “PTSD is not new. It’s a new name attached to something that has existed since time began. They’ve called it Soldier’s Heart and Shell-shocked and God knows what else, but it’s all the same thing and soldiers aren’t the only ones that get it. PTSD happens when you emotionally experience something that rattles you so deep into your core that your body responds to those triggers from now on and it never goes away. You can learn to control it, but you can’t cure PTSD. So it’s not just soldiers that have it. You can say this guy came home from his time in Iraq with PTSD and all these years later shoots up his friends because he has PTSD, but that doesn’t explain everyone else. When’s the last time a battered woman gunned down a bunch of her peers? It doesn’t happen, but if it’s PTSD that causes this, then it absolutely should.”
So what, then, is the issue, I ask.
Kevin shakes his head and sighs, “The United States Military has cascaded itself into a mess.”
“There used to be a time when commanding officers looked out for their men first and then themselves. Anymore, it’s the other way around. Everyone looks out for themselves and when they meet a problem, they push it onto the next person or they hide it. Imagine (Lopez) is a firecracker. His commanding officers are hanging onto him, they’ve got him in the palm of their hand and then one day he says he needs help or he says he doesn’t feel good about his service or he questions a procedure that doesn’t sit well with him. He begins to lose his sanity. They hear the firecracker start to hiss and they’re left with one of two choices. They get rid of the problem. They throw it out and let it explode in someone else’s face or they hide it. They close their fingers around it and hope it doesn’t blow. They hide a lot of firecrackers. Most go out quietly. People go AWOL or crash a car drunk or commit suicide. The firecrackers work themselves out of being their commanding officer’s problem, eventually, most of the time and nobody notices because the size of the explosion determines the attention it gets. Sometimes, though, these firecrackers give off big, fiery explosions and we wind up back at the drawing board. We’re back to looking for someone else to blame.”
“The problem now is it’s got everyone in it,” Nate adds, “And the general public is easy to fool. PTSD during and in the few years after war time is always a big topic and people are misinformed about it. It’s viewed with almost the same hysteria that HIV was viewed with in the 80s. Everyone has a pretty good idea of what it is, but everyone tiptoes. Nobody’s sure how to coexist with those that have it. There’s just this gripping fear.”
Since Nate’s return from Iraq, he has suffered with PTSD. It was his string of good luck that has left him shaken. He recounts the way snow blowing against the side of the car in front of him or a tumbleweed crossing his path on the interstate tenses his body and his mind, causes him to hold his breath, and fear the explosions he grew accustomed to seeing.
“I’ve dealt with it because I’ve been away from it now and I’ve surrounded myself with people that understand it. There’s reassurance everywhere I look that I’m safe now. The explosions aren’t going to happen anymore. I’ve learned that the can be controlled.”
The outside response to his PTSD has varied. Some avoid him entirely. Others are more upfront with their concerns.
He’s been asked before if ever thinks about shooting sprees. As offensive as the question is, however, he and Kevin understand the fear behind it.
“The geek can’t cope on the football field,” Kevin explains,
You take a scrawny little nerd out of the computer lab, suit him up and throw him out on the line of scrimmage. You blow the whistle and he’s scared. He’s never played football. This isn’t what he does, so he can’t cope and because he can’t cope, the football team sees him as worthless.”
In the military, he says, soldiers are trained to devalue themselves and that plays into the over-medication of veterans like Nate.
“‘Here, take a pill so we don’t have to talk to you’,” Kevin mocks, “That’s basically what they say to these guys. They diagnose someone like me with numerous personality disorders and prescribe me nothing because the diagnosis, itself, is their way to control me. If I get out of line, they can say ‘Hey, we called it. He’s crazy.’ If someone like Nate gets out of line, they need to be able to say they did all they could for him. Keeping them medicated keeps them numb and keeping them numb keeps them quiet.”
Nate no longer takes all of the medication he was prescribed. He continues to take a muscle relaxer to ease his physical pain so that he can sleep at night. His mood stabilizers, anti depressants, and anti anxiety medications are no longer part of his routine.
“I feel better without them,” he smiles, “I feel like me.”
“Do you think Ivan Lopez was over-medicated?” I ask.
“I don’t know the guy,” Kevin shrugs, “I just know it happens and that by allowing it to happen, the military creates their own scapegoat. Notice the first release they give every time something like this happens is that the shooter had been through deployment. The shooter had PTSD. The shooter was being treated for a mental health disorder. It makes us all look crazy. It creates this cycle of fear and the media eats it up.”
“It begins with an event,” Nate says, “The event transpires and then the public hears about the event via selective media. The selective media knows their target audience and they look for a way to use this event to increase viewership.”
Kevin interrupts, “People love to see bad things happen to other people, particularly bad things that do not affect them, personally. They also like to hear similar opinions. Mass shootings are the perfect media storm no matter what network you’re watching because they can be spun around to fit any target audience. You want to make it a gun control issue? It’s a gun control issue. You want to make it a mental health issue? It’s a mental health issue. You want an anti-war issue? Let’s go anti-war. Video games? Violent movies? Throw in whatever you have and a mass shooting story works in your favor. You control your population by controlling the information that is given to them and when that information is scary, they listen all the more intently and they don’t look away.”
This kind of spun media comes at the expense of those that have already given up too much of themselves.
On April 2 nd , Spec. Ivan Lopez opened fire at Fort Hood. On April 4 th , the sweet, quiet boy that could never manage to do much more than hold this girl’s hand during an anime movie received a phone call from his V.A. Counselor. “How are you doing?” she asked him.
“I’m good,” he responded.
“Are you sure?” she asked again.
“Yea. I have a headache,” he said.
“Okay. Sorry to hear that. Talk to you later, then. Good bye,” and she hung up.
The conversation was over. A rare but not unheard of communication in the wake of a national tragedy.
A generalization made by an organization that should know better.
Later on, the quiet veteran would remember the incident, turn to the woman he finally grew brave enough to take out on a date, and they’d be tickled by it.
No words said.
They didn’t have to be.
Sometimes, the only thing you can do for a broken heart is laugh at it.