Documentary airing on CNN looks at the fate of returning Iraq/Afghanistan veterans
Soledad O'Brien: Too many bring the war home in the form of post-traumatic stress
The documentary follows the lives of two veterans, who cope with return from war
O'Brien: The two entered a program that used meditation, equine therapy, counseling
Editor’s Note: Soledad O’Brien hosts “The War Comes Home” on CNN Tuesday at 9 p.m. The former CNN anchor is CEO of Starfish Media Group and reports stories for HBO Real Sports and other media organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @soledadobrien Cameron O’Brien contributed to this article. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.
Delon Beckett is losing it. He’s drunk, stumbling around his living room wrestling with his 3-year-old daughter, Jayla. She kicks him in the groin, and he mumbles “stop.”
He can barely stand up and walk but he drags himself to the stairs, pushing her away and faltering. His wife, Emme, is not far behind, putting herself between Delon and two kids, picking up the things he knocks over. Her husband survived the war in Iraq. Now, at home, he wants very much to die.
This fly-on-the-wall scene of Delon opens my documentary “The War Comes Home,” the first long-form project from my new company, Starfish Media Group, for air on CNN. The documentary follows the journey of two men crippled by the traumatic stress of returning from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Delon Beckett and Garrett Combs were among the 2.5 million warriors we sent to fight our most recent wars not knowing what we would get back.
The painful scenes reflect the bravery of these men in opening their private pain. It’s hard for toughened warriors to acknowledge their suicidal tendencies even to friends, family and therapists. To reveal them to the public takes a special brand of guts.
My aim in displaying their raw moments was to give a human face to the disturbing fact that nearly 8,000 veterans of all wars buckle from the stress and kill themselves each year. So far in the Iraq and Afghanistan fighting, there have been 6,802 veterans killed in action or in accidents, according to Costs of War, a Brown University project tracking those wars. Just do that math.
Beckett drinks and drives, drinks and plays with his children, drinks alone or around his wife, who lives with the fear that he may unravel entirely and leave her alone to raise their children. He falls to her lap completely wasted at one point, mumbling that he has given up. That he can’t outrun the dark thoughts racing through his head. “The outer shell of him came back,” Emme Beckett said, “But everything on the inside was dead. It’s like he just died in Iraq.”
Yet he is among the living, including another daughter, Lorraina, 9, and he is terrified of what he’ll do next. His wife woke him up abruptly once and it was all he could do to not punch her in the face. He sometimes just sits swigging from a bottle of alcohol, lost in the fake world of video games.
“I was having a lot of suicidal ideations. I was having a lot of homicidal ideation, too. And it was getting really scary. Kids just sitting there, they’re not doing anything, you know, they’re not bothering you,” he said.
“You see an object and you start, you know – for instance I used to see, you know, a hammer and then all of the sudden I would just think about picking up that hammer and just smashing their brains in. And I’m just like sitting there like this, this is like getting, this is getting ridiculous. I was afraid of what I was going to do.”
What he did was take on a 5½ day journey with the Save A Warrior program in Malibu, California, run by veteran Jake Clark. The program seeks to jump-start the lives of veterans on the edge by using transcendental meditation, equine therapy, counseling and group exercises with other vets to reel the warriors back from the edge. They also learn about the effects traumatic stress has on the brain.
Like many groups, they have begun calling the soldiers’ struggle post-traumatic stress, not post-traumatic stress disorder, because the word disorder encourages stigmatizing. Clark believes 80% to 90% of the 100 active-duty and returning veterans who have come through the program were suicidal. So far they are all alive.
The program offers no secret sauce. It is one of many struggling to find an antidote to the horrid thoughts that seem lodged inside the heads of some veterans traumatized by their experiences at war. According to the National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, it is estimated that post-traumatic stress occurs in 11-20% of the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 10% of veterans of the Gulf War, and 30% of Vietnam veterans.
Post-traumatic stress has proven to be a significant predictor of suicide, according to the National Institutes of Health. That makes it a probable driver of some of the 22 veteran suicides that happen every day.
I would be remiss to not mention the physical impact of war for veterans. According to the Wounded Warrior Project, in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, for every U.S. soldier killed, seven are injured. If you do the math, that means possibly 47,614 veterans sitting in wheelchairs, missing limbs or suffering from diminished physical capacity – a post-traumatic stress that is unending.
Beckett didn’t suffer any physical injuries, but the damage to his psyche can be overwhelming. “It’s like being trapped in a burning building and you have the flames in the window and your only way to save yourself is to jump out the window,” Beckett told me during a recent screening of the documentary. “You don’t want to die but you don’t want to burn.”
Clark said many of the men and women in his program have tried to commit suicide and had frightening near misses. Attempted suicide by cop, attempted hangings, car crashes, some even tried to kill themselves at home in the company of family or friends. Clark was there himself, no job and struggling in recovery. His experience and those of his friends are what prompted him to scrape up the money to try developing a program.
“The meditation keeps me sober,” Beckett said of the central technique in the program. “It was only 5½ days but I learned things for my whole life.” One of the things he learned was that there is power in sharing your problem with other warriors.
Combs, who is also featured in our documentary, was only able to admit in Malibu that he has suicidal thoughts that embarrass him because he feels so lucky to have returned to his fiancée and new baby alive and well. The trigger for his admission was his inability to move a horse during equine therapy, his frustration with the lack of control.
In the documentary, Combs acknowledges joining the infantry in a flash of patriotism after 9/11: “I felt like the situation called every guy my age to go and enlist in the service. I walked into the recruiter’s office wanting to be a combat photographer and they showed me some cool Ranger videos and they showed me some cool infantry videos and they were like, ‘Hey, man you can leave in two weeks or however long it was, a month, if you sign, if you enlist in the infantry.” And then I was like, ‘All right cool sign me up. That looks fun.’”
“Tragedy plus time equals comedy,” Clark said of why people join the infantry, like him at 17, without opening their eyes to what that means.
Today, Garrett Combs cannot get through a story of one of his buddies dying in front of him without losing his composure. The feeling of still being at war, this time with warring emotions “starts to really hurt and then it turns into this noise and it starts building and it builds and builds and builds until you have like a meltdown,” he said at one of our screenings, where hardened veterans actually walked out to pull themselves together.
Paul Rieckhoff is chief executive officer of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which hosted our first screening along with Defense One, an online publication that covers the military.
My brother-in-law, Jacob Simmons, came to watch the screening and was overcome by emotion. He is on the board of the online college Grantham University, which educates 14,000 veterans, so he has seen upfront how vets are affected in the aftermath of war.
He is a retired Army colonel of 29 years, who worked for the White House on defense issues, and theorized that “because we have a volunteer Army, not all Americans are in tune to the sacrifices that military members and their families make.”
What Americans are missing is the crisis of confidence and the vulnerability vets like Beckett and Combs experience when they return. Respondents to an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association survey cite employment and jobs among the top three issues veterans face. The survey revealed that 77% of respondents have experienced a period of unemployment since returning to civilian life, 27% for more than a year.
The national unemployment rate in July was 6.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This in a group where 53% suffered a mental health injury, a rate almost three times that in the general population recorded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Economic and mental stresses heap atop the post-traumatic stress.
“I’m at the end of the rope anyways. You know?” Beckett said of why he opened up his private life in this documentary, followed day after day by our associates, the photographers of Media Storm Productions.
“Nobody really asks because, you know, you put up that wall, you have on that mask.. They were really nice people and we related really well, so it was just kind of the natural thing.”
Beckett, like most vets, did reach out for help at one point. Most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who use the services of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs say they were satisfied with the mental health care they received, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association survey.
Overall, however, only a third of veterans thought the VA and the Department of Defense were doing a good job addressing veterans’ needs. The majority of veterans felt that both the VA and the DoD only played a reactive, not a proactive role, when addressing suicide – something that almost a third of women and men returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have considered. Other concerns were the departments’ effectiveness in reaching out to troops regarding mental health issues, and decreasing the occurrence of military sexual assault.
As an alternative to governmental organizations, veterans have begun to turn to smaller nongovernmental organization’s for assistance. Among them: Veteran Crisis line, where volunteers connect suffering vets with assistance from volunteers, and the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps soldiers get help from each other and their families, and also enlists the public’s aid and fosters awareness.
Others include About Face, which raises attention to the issues among those with post-traumatic stress and the public. Give an Hour’s mission is to develop national networks of volunteers capable of responding to both acute and chronic conditions.
But our aim was to connect the public to the private pain of veterans, not to endorse Save a Warrior or any of the other innovative programs as a solution, not even to show what the U.S. Department of Veterans has done.
Combs and Beckett chose Save a Warrior because they felt on the brink of suicide or violence and wanted something that pulled them back. Beckett hoped it would help him get sober, which so far it has.
Combs now volunteers with Save a Warrior and feels he has regained his compassion and curiosity for the world. These men got some help, but like many veterans they continue to search for more help. These organizations are fishing for troubled veterans. They are searching for ways to help. We should be, too.