DEER LAKE, Wash. – As a Marine combat engineer, Jesse Bruce helped destroy the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s rule and restore infrastructure to war-torn Iraq.
But after an enemy mortar shell exploded in his Humvee, he came home to a civilian life for which he and his nation were unprepared.
“We were told that the country is grateful for what we did and the community will reach out to help us,” Bruce said. “The stark reality is that’s not true.”
Like many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Bruce has had problems reintegrating into society. His marriage ended in divorce. He cannot hold a job. Nightmares keep him awake at night, and he has had trouble finding the help he needs to overcome his isolation.
Last week, Bruce joined a group of 20 combat veterans with similar adjustment issues at a four-day retreat at Deer Lake.
The Spokane Veterans Outreach Center, the Spokane Valley Fire Department and Spokane County Fire District 8 firefighters organized the event, called Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, in an effort to pull the veterans out of isolation resulting from combat-related psychological problems.
“When they hear their peers say, ‘You know, I experienced that too, and this is what worked for me,’ amazing things begin to happen for them,” said David Michael Baird, a clinical social worker specializing in post-traumatic stress and readjustment disorders.
Firefighters lend a hand
The gathering at Pinelow Park Retreat Center was patterned after the Wounded Warrior Project’s outdoor rehabilitative effort, known as Project Odyssey, which combines physical challenges with peer support.
But unlike Project Odyssey, which gathers wounded veterans from across the nation, the Deer Lake retreat brought together local veterans who will be able to maintain supportive relationships for years to come, said Mike Ogle, a readjustment counseling technician for the Vet Center.
Ogle said the veterans were selected because of either their isolation or their capacity to help others. Vet Center counselors supervised the events, but the firefighters made it happen.
Valley firefighter Darrin Coldiron said the idea for a retreat emerged nearly three months ago when he brought a donation from the Spokane Valley Firefighters Benevolent Association to Ogle at the Vet Center.
“If I could get a group from Spokane Valley to do something, what would you want us to do?” Coldiron asked Ogle.
Since then, Coldiron said, the firefighters have raised more than $4,000 from the association and local businesses. The firefighters donated and prepared the meals and assisted in activities such as kayaking, horseback riding and trapshooting.
“So many people would like to do something, but they don’t know how,” Coldiron said.
Beyond the headlines
Many of the veterans at the retreat survived because of the extraordinary efforts of medical personnel at the U.S. Military Hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Their stories provide greater insight into events that once made headlines around the world.
Shawn Graves, 33, a Stryker Brigade infantryman, served in Iraq from October 2004 until Dec. 21, 2004, when a suicide bomber attacked the dining hall at Forward Operating Base Marez, killing 22 people and injuring nearly 80 others.
The explosion left Graves in a coma for three weeks and cost him 7 feet of intestine, a collapsed lung and a ruptured esophagus. When he recovered physically, he said, it took him two years to “figure things out,” a common adjustment period for injured combat veterans.
Now he works as an advocate for the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program, helping other veterans reintegrate into society.
Jonathan Sultan, 21, of Hayden, enlisted in the Army in Woodinville, Wash., in 2006 and served with the 173rd Airborne, attached to the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, in Afghanistan.
Shrapnel from the rocket-propelled grenade that killed his commanding officer at Saret Koleh on July 27, 2007, also blew a hole in Sultan’s shoulder, lacerated his face and tore out an eye. He still bears shrapnel in the lining of his brain. His ear had to be sewn back on, and his shoulder acromion – the part of the scapula that forms the top of the shoulder – was rebuilt from a piece of his collarbone.
When a Veterans Affairs physician or social worker says that traumatic brain injury is the signature wound of the Iraq war, they are talking about veterans such as Chris Carver, 25, a 25th Infantry scout who couldn’t wait to turn 18 before enlisting.
“I was so impatient when I was younger,” Carver said. “I told my dad there’s no way anyone would be stupid enough to go to war with us.”
He signed up at the Spokane Army recruitment office on Sept. 11, 2001.
Carver served in Afghanistan in 2004 and in Iraq until 2006, when a buried bomb blew his Humvee 25 feet into the air near Tal-Afar, leaving him in a coma for nearly three months.
Carver said the doctors at Landstuhl gave him 24 hours to live, but at his father’s insistence they kept him alive with an artificial lung called a Novalung, not yet approved for use in the U.S.
“If I were in the U.S., I’d be dead,” Carver said.
Carver’s road to recovery has been long, but six months of therapy at the Palo Alto Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center and the support of a loving family have resulted in remarkable gains, particularly with his balance.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” Carver said of his family. He is married to his childhood sweetheart, with a 2-year-old daughter and another child on the way.
The sight of Carver navigating a 40-foot-high rope obstacle course at the Pinelow retreat had a profound effect on his fellow veterans, who gazed up at him from the ground.
The rope course is designed to build teamwork and instill confidence in participants, said Ian Anderson, whose career in the Marines ended after he was shot five times in a firefight during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The battle for emotional health continued long after Anderson recovered from his wounds. Six years later, he believes he will make it.
“Some of these people haven’t left their house in a year,” he said of his peers at the retreat. “This is a chance for them to obtain some sort of reason in their lives.”
‘Adapt and overcome’
Jesse Bruce still has a long road ahead of him.
On his second tour in Iraq, Bruce was firing a machine gun mounted on a Humvee during a firefight on June 24, 2004, when a mortar shell exploded inside the vehicle. Much of the blast was deflected by a diesel fuel can, but a piece of shrapnel tore through his thigh.
Although he continued to serve, the wound later became infected and he nearly lost his leg. Since returning to Spokane, Bruce, 27, has been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury as a result of several concussions he received in Iraq.
Complicating his reintegration are post-traumatic stress and related behavioral health issues that he says have cost him his marriage, left him homeless for a time and resulted in him losing seven jobs in 3 1/2 years.
Bruce said he was at the brink of suicide when a Spokane Veteran Affairs Medical Center employee put him in contact with Ogle at the Vet Center.
“I was done when Mike found me,” Bruce said. “When he picked me up, I hardly knew who I was.”
Ogle convinced Bruce that he had to survive for his daughter at a time when he had come to believe she would be better off without him.
“You’re a Marine,” Ogle told him. “Adapt and overcome.”
Many of the veterans who gathered at Deer Lake last week have responded favorably to counseling they receive at the Vet Center, which is staffed by veterans. The retreat among their peers was another step on the path to recovery, they said. It has helped them realize that the fear and despondence they feel is a normal response to horrific events they could not control, and other combat veterans feel it, too.
“There’s not one person here that’s going to judge you,” Bruce said. “They get it, and it makes it a lot easier.”