By Priscilla Yuki Wi
KALW Radio San Francisco
Next month is the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and of the war in Afghanistan that followed. About 5,200 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan in the initial months following the September 11 attacks; another 67,000 went to Iraq less than two years later. Over the years those troop levels have increased, and so has the number of soldiers who return home bearing the scars of those wars.
Iraqi-American Yara Badday remembers what it was like when she visited her parents’ country during the war, and met the American soldiers fighting there.
YARA BADDAY: I will say that it seemed that a lot of the military that I encountered were suffering just as much as everyone else there … People were saying that priests were flying in in airplanes, aircrafts full of priests were coming in just to speak with suicidal soldiers. American soldiers. That’s how desperate the situation was. I saw, I saw grown men cry.
For some soldiers, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, really is a four-letter word. A PTSD diagnosis means you may need treatment for the rest of your life. It can deeply affect personal and professional relationships, and it often comes with a social stigma.
JEREMY PROFITT: “You’re weak, you can’t think that way, oh there’s something wrong with you. You know, you’re just trying to get out of the military, blah, blah, blah” – it’s totally unacceptable to say that you have, that you have, mental problems. I won’t even say “problems” – you’re just having a hard time dealing with stuff.
Jeremy Profitt served in the army in both Afghanistan and Iraq and came back with PTSD. Now that’s he’s out, he has a new mission: to clear up misconceptions about the illness. Priscilla Yuki Wilson has his story.
* * *
PRISCILLA YUKI WILSON: Jeremy Profitt lives with his family in an East Bay suburb about 45 minutes outside of Oakland. He’s in his weekend uniform when he greets me at his door: white t-shirt, jean shorts, flip-flops.
They’ve just moved in, and his wife is unpacking the kitchen as Profitt picks up his baby daughter, Reiland. He gently cradles her in his lap as he starts to tell me his story.
JEREMY PROFITT: It felt gratifying. I felt I was able to do my part.
Profitt joined the Army because he wanted to go into law enforcement. He signed up in July 2001, and he was still in basic training when 9/11 hit.
PROFITT: We had a TV on. We had a break at the end of the evening. We were all getting ready to crash for the night.
VOICE: “Oh my god, it collapsed.”
PROFITT: That was a huge impact to not only the world, and everybody, but people that joined up. Okay. Reality is we’re probably going to go to war now.
Profitt describes the energy at the base where he was stationed as “insane.”
PROFITT: I’d say the mindset was we’re not going to let this go by. You know these people were unjustly killed – and any – there was no reason for it.
It didn’t take long for all that pent-up energy to find an outlet. Profitt’s unit was among the first to go to the Middle East. But when he landed in Afghanistan he says things were still fairly calm.
PROFITT: Afghanistan was like a peace, to me, a peace-keeping mission. We were there early on so there wasn’t a lot of issues unfortunately that were going on today.
Profitt served in Afghanistan for eight months and left in September 2002, unharmed. He says that first deployment felt right, felt justified. But then he was deployed again – to Iraq.
PROFITT: I just had a really bad feeling going into this one. I was like, I remember telling my parents, I said, “I just don’t feel comfortable with this deployment.” Again, it’s something I signed up to do; I’m going to go do it. It’s my job. Again, it was just a bad vibe, plus we’re like, “We just got back. We’re going again?” Three months, that’s all we had off, that’s it. Just three months.
The trek to Iraq began in Kuwait. Profitt’s unit was headed to the northern area of Mosul where they would provide security for supply routes. Profitt says everyone was on edge.
PROFITT: Every time at night time, these alarms would go off and we would have to put all this gear on, and we’d have to try to relax and go under our – we’d run out of our bunkers and hide. After a while it takes a mental toll that you’re like, are we going to make it out of Kuwait? So that was surreal.
He says that a lot of what he saw in Kuwait was like a Hollywood movie. The destruction and chaos he was used to seeing on film was now all around him. It didn’t take long for him to become numb to it all.
PROFITT: I didn’t really have any emotions, and that’s the whole problem is that through this whole thing, I didn’t. There was no sad. There was no happy. There was … it was just, the best way I can describe it is just you’re a robot.
On January 25, 2004, Profitt was violently jolted out of his numbness. He’d been in Iraq almost a year.
PROFITT: We were getting ready to turn right onto a bridge and two IEDs go off and it, it hits our truck…
IED stands for Improvised explosive device – otherwise known as a roadside bomb.
PROFITT: I was the supervisor. My gunner was hit in the face with the explosion so, and the truck behind us, the gunner, she was hit in the neck. I think quarter of an inch from her main nerve, artery, so she was bleeding like crazy…
And so the first thing I say is, “Everyone alright?”
And my driver says he’s alright but I looked up to my gunner. I said, “You’re alright?”
He doesn’t say nothing. I say, “Are you alright,” again.
And then I hear him choking and coughing, and I look up and there’s just blood everywhere, and all you see is just half his face is there’s a hole in it. There’s a hole in the side of his face. His helmet is gone. We all wear helmets when we’re out there. It got knocked off of him from the explosion.
Profitt stayed with his gunner while the rest of the team hurried to get help.
PROFITT: He is so much in shock, he thinks he’s at a club. He’s like, “Man, I’m drunk I need to go use the bathroom. Can you pull over man?” He kept mumbling like he was at the club. He thought he was at a bar. He was so much in shock, he didn’t know where he was.
Profitt and the other soldiers got the gunner to the base hospital in time to stabilize him. He was sent to Germany for further care and survived. But Profitt says after that day, he felt a horrible rage. It was the first time he was able to feel any emotional response. He had watched his colleague’s face be blown off, and he had to go back to work the next day.
Profitt was honorably discharged in March 2004. But he says his experiences in combat followed him. He calls it the “War at Home,” and his family and friends fight it with him – including his wife, Lindsey.
LINDSEY PROFITT: His mom started noticing changes too. She started saying stuff to him and his stepdad and his sister. Finally after a while, you know what? They’re all saying it, something’s gotta be different.
JEREMY PROFITT: You know I always joke with them. Maybe you need to go get help for PTSD because it’s – and I hate even using it – it’s like a horrible word. But again, it drives me nuts when they associate PTSD with veterans as negative, but anyone can suffer from PTSD.
Profitt was diagnosed with PTSD a year after his return home.
PROFITT: So that was a huge problem. You don’t have any feelings because you’re trying to survive. You don’t know what emotion is. You don’t want to get happy because you are used to being in a weird mindset for a while. You know, I could not sit still. I couldn’t watch a movie. I was really uneasy and jumpy. I always had things in my hands to take my mind off of stuff. I [was] just going 100 mile an hour. I couldn’t hold a conversation.
He says it took a year for him to finally reach out for help because…
PROFITT: We’re not trained to ask for help.
Profitt says everyone handles PTSD differently, but everyone who’s been in combat deals with it.
PROFITT: I think that anybody that deploys, whether you fired your weapon or have done anything, it will alter your life because of the stuff you see. If you come back from a deployment and don’t feel differently, and you think everything is the same, you’re wrong.
Profitt’s had a lot support from his family – something he says not all veterans have. He says things are getting better, even though he can’t shake the stigma that comes along with his diagnosis.
PROFITT: I thought I would never get a job. That’s why I never really talked about it. And finally, I was like, “I accept it. It’s a fact of life. It’s not going to control my life.” If you’re not going to hire me because of, I served my country, and I have some stuff that I have to take care of, that’s their loss and not mine.
If he could, Profitt would change one thing about the military: how it takes care of its soldiers when they come home.
PROFITT: We need to be proactive and not reactive. It’s great. We have tons of funding, tons of services, but a veteran is not going to walk through the doors and say, “I need help.” It's not reality. I didn’t walk in and say, “I need help.” It took me a year to figure out that well, there’s something different.
Today, Profitt is studying sociology at Cal State East Bay and works at the VA in Palo Alto. He finds writing and talking to be therapeutic, and he hopes one day to run for political office. He’s seen his symptoms gradually improve, but there’s one thing he still struggles with daily.
LINDSEY PROFITT: Driving. If he’s in car he has to drive, he can’t handle being a passenger.
JEREMY PROFITT: Oh yes, I can’t be the passenger. The reason being is when we were hit by the IED, I wasn’t the driver. I cannot have someone drive me anywhere. It’s horrible, horrible, even now. I go nuts when people are driving me. I feel like I'm going to die. That’s exactly what goes through my mind, “I’m going to die.”
The difference now, he says, is that he knows he can get past those feelings. And he wants other veterans to know they can get past them too.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Priscilla Yuki Wilson.
Priscilla Yuki Wilson is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland. Also thanks to anothersource.org for their work with veterans like Jeremy Profitt.