Hero to Zero in 12 Months Flat

Flag of the United States Army

Two of the values of this banner are respect and selfless service, and that means helping those who need it most. Image via Wikipedia

Deployments are the norm in today’s military. Depending on your specialty, location, and rank, you may find yourself in the Middle East every other year. At this same time, you may find that you never leave the continental United States. A massive bureaucracy, the military looks at its needs first. Compassion finishes a distant second.

Some folks weather the deployment storm with no problems. They compartmentalize the experience(s) and arrive back to their families with no mental issues, infirmities, or ailments. Aside from adjusting for climate and a renewed daily routine, they are substantially the same guy or gal. Others are not so lucky. Some lack the ability to compartmentalize. Others simply possess fragile mental abilities compared to others. Yet others entered the service with suppressed emotional or mental problems–just waiting for the wrong stimulus to trigger a psychological hailstorm.

When it comes to mental toughness and hardiness, service members are like the proverbial box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get until something happens to show you what you got.

Congratulations to the ones capable of weathering the stress, change, and awareness necessary in a combat zone. They push through, continue to thrive, and excel in their chosen field. They are rewarded with promotions, commendations, and privileges.

The opposite falls upon those unable to cope. More often than not, their newly discovered mental cracks are met with harshness from their leaders. When they should be met with compassion and a desire to understand and provide treatment, they are bombarded with insults, mockery, and assorted sundry punishments.

One such individual excelled for more than two years as a combat engineer. He quickly found himself promoted from Private (pay grade E-1) until he achieved the milestone of Specialist (E-4). Prior to deployment to Iraq in late 2008, he impressed enough leaders to be recommended for eventual promotion to Sergeant. Life was good.

However, deployment strained the young man repeatedly and systematically. He faced patrol after patrol, constantly in fear for his life and the lives of his buddies. He never knew what mortal dangers awaited beyond the next corner or within roadside trashcans. Like a car on a prolonged redline, he overheated and locked-up.

Upon returning, he struggled to hold himself together. Part of his body wanted to remain in the heightened state of awareness, but the other wanted to relax and enjoy the renewed freedom. Once a bubbly, wide-eyed teenager, his eyes now lacked focus, and a constant glaze covered them. What were once routine pleasantries like shopping and clubbing with his friends became unbearable tasks to be avoided at all costs. Mostly, he sat alone watching television. Alcohol became a necessary and faithful friend. Attempts to seek mental health help did little more than prove to him that he was just another number. He waited hours for a 10 minute talk with a disinterested psychologist or nurse. Eventually, he stopped going. His alcohol treatment was no better. They made it clear from the beginning, you’re allowed one strike. After that, he was on his own.

He realized his standing.

Just another piece of livestock.

Eventually, the alcohol tightened its grip. Expanding from its usual presence at nights and on the weekends, it soaked into his duty days. Drunk on duty. Drinking and driving. The smell of alcohol oozed constantly from his pores.

Quicker than he earned them, he watched his ranks slip away through punishment after punishment until he was again called “Private.” Once characterized as a squared-away future leader with unlimited potential, he now only heard the word “dirtbag” directed at his performance.  Finally, the Army told him that he was no longer wanted, and that his unceremonious exit would be characterized as “General, Under Honorable Conditions” rather than the “Honorable” he always assumed he would receive.

GI Bill? Gone. Veterans Benefits? Substantially eroded. The career he once loved? Evaporated in just a few months.

Where would he go? I never learned the answer. I hope he is doing well. Realistically, I doubt it. Panhandling will likely become a prolonged career.

He is one of many. They leave for basic training with the goodwill and blessing of their hometowns, only to return with their heads down, ashamed. Men and women, broken by the same government they swore to support and defend. Veterans, fellow citizens, young lives–kicked to the curb.