Journalist follows troops home, finds trauma never leaves
By Maureen Callahan, NY Post
September 14, 2013 | 7:25pm
Of all the soldiers in battalion 2-16, Staff Sgt. Adam Schumann was the one everyone wanted to be like.
He was a hard and strong 26-year- old from Kansas, now on his third tour in Iraq, stationed at a forward operating base near Sadr City, the locus of the counter-insurgency.
On May 7, 2007, after Sgt. Michael Emory took a bullet to the back of his head, it was Schumann who carried Emory, nothing but dead weight now, off a rooftop and down a flight of stairs, telling him he’d be all right.
“I remember the blood was coming off his head and coming into my mouth,” Schumann said later. “I couldn’t get the taste out. The iron taste. I couldn’t drink enough Kool-Aid that day.”
He’d felt so differently on his first deployment, in the earliest days of the war, calling it “a front-row seat to the greatest movie I’ve ever seen in my life.”
His second tour was even better: “I loved it. Anytime I get shot at in a firefight, it’s the sexiest feeling there is.”
He was no longer feeling that way, and he was not alone. Most of the men in his battalion were over this war, knew it was unwinnable, felt that each day was nothing more than piling into Humvees to leave the FOB and go back to the FOB and hope not to get shot at or blown up in between.
“Sometimes I wonder what type of world the chain of command is living in,” said one soldier. “To think we’re winning?”
Another platoon had a nickname for Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division: The Lost Kauz.
His optimism about their progress, in the micro and the macro, bordered on delusional.
These men were surrounded by raw sewage, IEDs and EFPs and had seen their fellow soldiers die in ways they hadn’t known existed. The only thing more horrific was the extent to which the brutally maimed could be kept alive.
“You guys are living the dream right now,” Kauzlarich said. “You truly are living the dream.”
On Sept. 29, 2007, Sgt. First Class James Doster, fresh of desk duty and in awe of Schumann, offered to take his place on that day’s mission so Schumann could stay behind and video chat with his wife, Saskia.
It had been one week since the battalion lost specialist Joshua Reeves, 26, in a roadside explosion that took out his Humvee.
On this afternoon Doster, 37, sitting in the right front seat, just as Reeves had, was also blown to bits in his Humvee, an improvised bomb destroying his groin and taking off his whole left leg and nearly all of his right, leaving him alive long enough for him to suffer through an airlift to the hospital, where he finally died.
Schumann felt personally responsible. Everyone in the battalion, himself included, knew that he spotted explosives better and faster than anyone.
If he’d just gone when he was supposed to, Doster, a husband and father to two little girls, would still be alive. Another solider had said as much, right to his face: “None of this would have happened if you were there.”
He meant it as praise, but Schumann took it as blame.
Three months later, on Dec. 11, Schumann did something that the toughest soldiers almost never do: He asked for help. He never forgot what a medic told him: “With your stature, maybe you’ve opened the door for a lot of guys to come in.”
Schumann was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and was going to be sent home for good. The physician’s assistant on site said there was no debate.
“He is a true casualty of battle. There’s not a physical scar, but look at the man’s heart, and head, and there are scars galore.”
‘I FEEL COMPLETELY BROKEN’
In 2007, journalist David Finkel embedded with the men of the 2-16 and wrote about their war in his extraordinary book, “The Good Soldiers.” His follow-up, “Thank You For Your Service” (Sarah Crichton Books), out Oct. 1, checks in on Schumann and some of the others to see how they’re now faring at home.
In short, not well.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, 6,668 service members have been killed.
As of May 2013, more than 50,000 have been wounded. In 2012, there were 350 suicides among active-duty service members — nearly one for each day of the year, and that number may be low given the military’s classifications of suicide.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 22 veterans kill themselves each day and has diagnosed more than 200,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with PTSD, though Finkel says that number is closer to 500,000.
Complicating matters: the military currently reports that 273,000 service members have TBI (traumatic brain injury) — but those numbers, too, may be higher, and even mild TBI increases the likelihood of PTSD.
Over the past 12 years, there have been 2,700 active-duty military suicides.
Yet this past August, the military released an in-house study claiming that the sharp spike in cases of PTSD and suicide has nothing to do with experiences in combat.
Those rates, they said, correlate with substance abuse and mental illness, just as in the civilian population.
“The findings from this study are not consistent with the assumption that specific deployment-related characteristics, such as length of deployment, number of deployments or combat experiences are directly associated with suicide risk,” the study reads.
Adam Schumann first tried to kill himself two years after he was sent home from Iraq, after he’d gained back the 25 pounds he’d lost, after he and Saskia had another baby — the baby he was holding in bed one night as Saskia got some sleep, and then he nodded off too and dropped the baby.
He was so horrified that he ran outside to his pickup, and while his shaken wife cuddled their infant son — he was fine, not a mark — Schumann sat in the truck with a gun to his face and debated pulling the trigger.
That night, he did not, even though, as he told Finkel, “I feel completely broken.”
He was chain-smoking and swallowing a battery of pills prescribed for his depression, PTSD and other minor head injuries, but most alarming were the unremitting thoughts of killing himself.
‘A DAM IN MY MIND’
Schumann was at the VA’s mental-health ward as often as possible, and that’s where he ran into Tausolo Aieti, who also served in the 2-16.
Aieti was 26 years old, still enlisted and, like Schumann, had been deployed three times.
Aieti had survived a 2007 explosion that had killed Pfc. James Harrelson; they were headed back to their FOB when their 12,000-pound Humvee rolled right over three bombs and shot at least 10 feet in the air. Aieti somehow got himself out of the flaming vehicle, even with a broken leg, and then still went back to drag out two other soldiers. Another soldier in the Humvee saw Harrelson, his body “engulfed in flames. I just remember seeing the outline of the Kevlar and his face on fire.”
Aieti suffered from TBI (traumatic brain injury) and PTSD, was self-medicating with pills and massive quantities of vodka and was contemplating suicide.
So, too, was Nic DeNinno, who also served in the 2-16. DeNinno spent much of his time in Iraq as a lookout for bombs, and now that he was back in Kansas, with a new wife and a baby on the way, bombs were still all he could see. He was on more than 40 pills a day, for physical and psychological agony and felt like killing himself was the only way of protecting those around him.
War, he feared, revealed his bottomless capacity for brutality, and what if that defined him now? What if that was really who he was?
“I am trying to let this anger out bit by bit but it’s like holding up a dam with my mind . . . Have I gone past that point where there is a safe way to get all this out without losing control?” he wrote. “What the f- – is going on in my mind.”
Adam Schumann tried to kill himself for the second time after a fight with his wife over PTSD treatment.
After running into Aieti at the VA, Schumann thought he’d like to enroll too, but his wife was worried about him taking seven weeks’ unpaid leave from work, and it exploded into a huge fight with her telling him to get out and Schumann in the basement, next to his little girl’s bed, a gun under his chin. He was crying uncontrollably, soaking the gun with his tears and telling his wife that he was “a disgrace.”
Saskia begged him not to do it, and it was the sound of their infant son upstairs, crying, that froze Schumann long enough for his wife to grab the gun.
There was clearly no choice: They would figure out a way to get him help.
‘YOU’RE NEVER CURED’
Where these especially tormented veterans find treatment is often left to chance.
For those in need of critical care — the Schumanns and Aietis and DeNinnos — private facilities are better equipped, but some are covered by the VA and some are not, and some will be full and some won’t, so DeNinno wound up at a four-week program in a private psychiatric hospital in Pueblo, Colo., while Aieti wound up in a seven-week VA-sponsored facility in Topeka, Kan. And then, months later, he was back at the VA.
Schumann caught a break with the help of Patti Walker, a soldier advocate whose husband, Kevin, lost parts of his face and a chunk of his brain in Iraq.
Walker got Schumann into a new, privately funded facility in California called Pathway House. Founded by Fred Gusman, a decades-long pioneer in PTSD research and treatment, the program had a four-month minimum stay and a more dimensional approach to therapies.
It was Schumann’s best hope.
The truth is that for all the VA can do, there remains a stigma in the military about depression, anxiety and PTSD.
There was a day at the VA when Aieti was waiting for an appointment, and his eyes alighted on a form tacked to the wall.
It was called the “Hurt Feelings Report” and went on to list reasons for submission:
“I am a wimp.”
“I am a crybaby.”
“I want my mommy.”
“I was told that I am not a hero.”
There Aieti sat, waiting for yet another signature on another form that would get him, hopefully, one step closer to some new attempt to tame his demons, and he was a subject of mockery.
Months before he went to Pathway, Schumann heard from Michael Emory, the soldier he’d carried off a roof on his back, Emory’s blood pouring into his mouth.
His survival was miraculous, and here he was, two years later, divorced and relieved that his little girl was no longer exposed to him.
The left side of his body is limp and without sensation. He has a pump on his back that doses him with a stream of medication to ease his shakes. Clumps of hair will never grow back, the result of surgeries. His brain trauma means he has a hard time controlling his emotions.
He’s tried to kill himself three times, once rolling himself off his wheelchair in the hopes he’d hit his head hard enough.
Emory came to see Schumann because he felt so guilty about that day, about Schumann having to carry him and swallow his blood. His shrink encouraged him to make the trip; he thought it could be healing for both men, who carried so much anguish — not just about their own suffering, but about what happened to each other that day.
Schumann is shocked: He’d heard about Emory’s suicide attempts, and the last one especially — Emory tried to slice his wrist with his teeth — devastated him.
“It made me sick,” Schumann said. “It made me sick. I feel like I’m responsible for that.”
“But you’re not,” Emory said.
And so each absolved the other.
Schumann’s time and treatment at Pathway proved the most effective, and it’s evident in the speech he gave upon graduating, his marriage frayed but intact, his future just a little more hopeful.
“A few months ago, someone asked me, What does it mean to graduate from here?” Schumann said. “Is it proof that you’re cured? I’m not cured. I don’t think any of us are or ever will be.”
But Schumann knows he’ll need help in the future, and for now, that’s enough.
Samaritan's Purse offers a good program, Operation Heal Our Patriots
, to help returning soldiers and their spouses.