During the time he was in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jeremy Profitt was locked in combat mode, his senses constantly alert for the slightest sound, movement or even smell that might signal the presence of danger and even death.
And then there was the unspeakable horror of things he saw.
When he finally returned home to Vallejo, the once easygoing 19-year-old kid was gone. In his place was an anxious veteran, edgy and short-tempered, who barked at his wife for being late and found it impossible to relax.
"I came home from Iraq in March 2004," he wrote in an essay at a writing workshop for veterans last year, "yet I'm still fighting a war at home. ... A war of anger and anxiety, fought within the recesses of my mind."
Profitt's personal narrative, "Fighting the War at Home," along with stories by other Northern California veterans, can be found on Another Source, a new online journal dedicated to giving a voice to those affected by violent conflict. The stories, which were part of a project sponsored by New America Media, offer rare, first-person accounts of combat, trauma, grief, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual assault and unemployment.
"A lot of these guys go out on a limb with these stories, even those who write anonymously," says Scott Mattoon, a former Chronicle editor and founder of Another Source. "It's soul-baring."
"I don't have an agenda," he says, "but if we're going to commit American lives and money, we need to put aside all the politics and understand the true costs of war."
Numbers tell part of the story - nearly 6,000 U.S. servicemen and women killed, 33,000 wounded and more than $1 trillion spent. The part frequently forgotten is the ordeal many go through transitioning to civilian life.
Too many suicides
Too many don't make it. A CBS News study revealed that in 2005, 120 veterans a week were committing suicide. A 2007 study by researchers at UCSF and the San Francisco VA Medical Center found that one-third of the 103,788 Iraq and Afghanistan vets who sought treatment at the VA from 2001 to 2005 had mental health issues. The most common diagnosis was PTSD. But other studies have shown that only 40 percent of vets with mental health issues seek help, largely because of the stigma associated with PTSD.
"It's something people don't want to hear about," says Dr. Chad Peterson, the former director of the PTSD team at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. "It seems like civilians - through arrogance or ignorance - expect them to instantly become civilians again."
"What keeps you alive in battle kills your relationships at home," says Mary Ellen Salzano, founder of the California Statewide Collaborative for Our Military and Families. Salzano, whose son served in Iraq, says combat vets must sometimes violate deeply held spiritual beliefs, including the belief that killing another human is a sin, to survive on the battlefield.
"When you do that," she says, "your relationship with yourself gets broken. When you come home, you can't relate to family and friends."
Involving the family in recovery, says Salzano, is crucial.
"I have had vets tell me they felt like murderers," says Peterson. "They didn't know who they were anymore because of these deep conflicts."
Following a roadside explosion in "Nightmare at a Bend in the Road," recon Marine Chris Clark, who completed two tours of duty in Iraq in 2007, exits his humvee and sees that "Gunny," his platoon sergeant, "lies in a crater the size of a Volkswagen, his legs blown apart."
Gunny pleads with the corpsman to kill him.
"No mind should take in such horror," writes Clark, now studying political science at Stanford University. "But in war, cruelty is commonplace."
In "Torment of a Distant War," Mike Ambra, a Navy corpsman in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, describes the carnage he witnessed on the battlefield, where "to function at all, you had to bury grief and deny emotion."
He recalls the terror of attending to the wounded in the open - where many of his fellow corpsmen were killed.
"Only now do I realize the toll it's taken on my mind," writes Ambra, a retired gardener in Concord. "There is healing now. But there is no cure when you're changed forever."
In "Haunted by 40 Months in Iraq," a soldier writes anonymously about returning home after four consecutive tours, saddled with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury he suffered from a roadside bomb. His memory is poor. He goes days without sleep. Sometimes he wishes he had died in Iraq.
"I have had family members tell me that I should just relax and get myself under control," he writes. "They think it is just a matter of self-control and that it should be easy to fix. It isn't."
'More serious now'
Clark emerged from the war changed, but in a different way.
"I'm much more serious now," he said in a recent telephone interview. "I'm more focused. I have a greater sense of purpose, a different lens through which I now view the world."
Peterson, who now works with veterans in private practice, says that, fortunately, not every combat vet comes home with PTSD. But for those who need help, the good news is that therapy works, and there are more resources available: VA hospitals, Vet Centers, which are staffed by combat vets, the Pathway Home, Coming Home Project and others. Therapy, says Peterson, can lead to post-traumatic growth - a transformative period from which veterans emerge strengthened by their experiences.
Profitt sought help at a Vet Center after the sight of an injured motorcyclist on Interstate 880 unleashed a wave of pent-up grief. It felt good to cry. Now he commutes to his job as a security specialist at the VA Hospital in Palo Alto and pursues a degree at Cal State East Bay that will enable him to counsel other veterans.
"I want to give back," he says. "I want to help others."