Home has its own trauma for Iraq vets

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series that was published in March 2008.

Inside the MRI scanner, Sgt. Jerry Young began to panic.

He suddenly felt as if he was trapped again in his armored escort vehicle after an explosion on a road in Iraq.

“I started to feel like I was on fire. I could feel flesh burning,” he says.

But he wasn’t in Iraq. He was in the VA hospital in Wichita.

After multiple concussions from roadside bomb explosions during four years in Iraq, Young returned to Kansas last fall suffering from traumatic brain injuries, nightmares, panic attacks and thoughts of suicide.

So did his friend, Spc. Pat Featherby.

The two childhood buddies had reunited in the Kansas Army National Guard’s 714th Security Force. They earned Purple Hearts and other medals for valor while escorting convoys from Camp Diamondback in Mosul, about 225 miles north of Baghdad. They roomed with each other and kept each other going.

But their war experiences, injuries and severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder have put a strain on their families and left Young battling the Army for pay and medical benefits.

Even though they are home, Young and Featherby still must rely on each other to stay alive.

Featherby understands the sensations Young felt in the MRI scanner.

On a recent trip out of town, Featherby, who suffered two concussions and back injuries from roadside bomb explosions, drove over a dead deer about 4 a.m. He didn’t see it until he was on top of it. He panicked.

“The scariest experience you’ve had in your life, multiply that by about 1,000,” Featherby says. “Five seconds, you can’t breathe. You can’t see anything but right in front of you. It’s a pretty paralyzing feeling.”

Most nights, the two men talk on the telephone about such incidents and other problems they had that day.

In some ways it was easier to cope in Iraq, they say.

“You know you’re making a difference,” Featherby says. “You find two IEDs (improvised explosive devices), maybe you just saved two lives. You get a sniper that’s shooting at you and take him out, maybe you just saved the 10 guys behind you.”

Difficult adjustment

The adjustment to home life has been most difficult for Young.

When he and Featherby returned from Iraq, they were ordered to sign a release form at Camp Shelby, Miss., that removed them from active duty with the Army, Featherby says.

It made them ineligible for the Army’s medical retention program. The program would have provided them with medical benefits and active-duty pay.

Featherby appealed and was restored to active duty.

Young’s appeal was denied.

“Once I was released, things started falling apart,” he says.

Young lives with his wife, Richelle, and their daughter on incapacitation pay of $1,380 a month from the Army. Their 13-acre property near Peck has a $1,200 monthly mortgage. They bought it just before his first tour in Iraq, when his financial future seemed secure.

After he lost his active-duty pay, they almost lost their home. Richelle can’t work because of constant pain from fibromyalgia. She also has to take care of her husband. When they are apart, he phones her when he panics, which can happen many times a day.

Young feels embarrassed that he can no longer provide adequately for his family.

His incapacitation pay is due to expire at the end of this month, but the Kansas National Guard is working to get it extended for another six months, says Sharon Watson, Guard spokeswoman.

Other veterans have come to the family’s aid. American Legion Post 136 in Mulvane has raised more than $10,000 to help save Young’s house and catch up the mortgage payments through September, says Rick Babinger, post commander.

Another $1,700 sits in a fund established for Young at the Mulvane State Bank, Babinger says.

Last week, the post obtained Social Security benefits for Young.

“It’s time to take care of him, not the other way around,” Babinger says.

Daily battles

Young learned two weeks ago through his Guard unit in Topeka that his request to get back on active duty was denied.

Essentially, the Army found him unfit for duty.

“It was a shock to me, a shock to my commander, a shock to my wife,” he says.

Last week, he appealed again for reinstatement, and Watson says the Guard is working on his behalf.

Due to his brain injuries, she says, “We believe he was not in the best position to make that decision and sign that form at that time.”

The problem is common, she says, and the Guard is taking steps to ensure its soldiers know exactly what they’re signing at demobilization sites.

Meanwhile, just getting through a day remains a battle for Young. He has lost his appetite and dropped from 190 to 170 pounds. He panics at sudden loud noises.

He can’t be in large groups of people. Panic attacks in big stores force him back to his pickup to regain his composure.

Richelle says the husband who left for war was focused, sharp, a leader. Now he is depressed and anxious. He rarely leaves the property except for trips to the VA hospital in Wichita for therapy for his brain injuries, his mental health and his speech.

‘Everything scares me’

Featherby, who lives in east Wichita with his wife, Tanner, and their three children, says he has become extremely confrontational. A month ago, while he was waiting at a drugstore to pick up a prescription for his son, a guy walked up beside them and slammed a bag of groceries on the counter. Featherby lost it.

“I’m cussing this guy out and I’m begging this guy to come outside,” he says.

His counselor told him he had been overprotective of his son. That’s why the noise had scared him.

“Everything scares me now,” Featherby says. “Everything.”

It’s so stupid, getting angry with people, he says. “The part of you that’s civilized and calm, it’s just people being people,” he says. “But the side of you that’s just back from Iraq, it’s like you want to kick some teeth in.”

Featherby got a job as a corrections officer at the El Dorado Correctional Facility in November. He’d trained six weeks for it.

But he quit after four shifts. It wasn’t the job, or the inmates, he says. He panicked on the drive to El Dorado.

“It just got to the point where I couldn’t get in the car,” he says.

Today, he spends 90 percent of his time at home, when he’s not seeing doctors.

His condition has stressed their marriage. He and Tanner are seeking counseling.

Tanner says he doesn’t talk to her about the war or his feelings. She learns more about him when she overhears his conversations with Young.

“I think he thinks I don’t understand, or I can only understand so much,” Tanner says. “But as his wife I’d like to know how he’s feeling. It would make our lives so much better.”

Featherby says he tried once. He told her about seeing an Iraqi child burned “to a puddle” in the street one day.

If you want to know what Iraq was like, that’s it, he told her. Then he felt guilty for telling her.

When she sees him tense up at noise from the children, she tries not to confront him, she says, but sometimes she has to.

“I just don’t want our kids to see him that way,” she says. “It’s not their dad, basically.”

Proud but guilt-ridden

Featherby says he gave his Purple Heart to his platoon sergeant, but he keeps the certificate it came with, as well as other awards, packed away in a closet for his kids.

“I’m proud. Very proud. Your accomplishments live forever,” Featherby says. “But there’s still a lot of guilt involved. Guys die and you feel like it’s your fault. It’s nothing rational.”

Young says he used to look in a mirror with pride if he was wearing his uniform.

Now, he is afraid even to put on his uniform.

“It’s not that I don’t want to be a soldier. I love being a soldier,” Young says. “But with everything that’s happened, I start panicking.”

His original goal was to serve three years in Iraq and three years in Afghanistan.

He never made it to Afghanistan.

“If I could,” Young says, “I would.”

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.