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The Colonel, the Veteran and the Caregiver | The Nation

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The Colonel, the Veteran and the Caregiver

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Soldier

A soldier ascends the steps of the cargo plane that will carry him home (Credit: Ann Jones)

Later, the colonel sits in an armchair opposite a trim blond woman in the comfortable living room of her ranch-style home on the fringe of a sizable city. The storm has passed, and bright afternoon sunlight streams in from windows overlooking a field of glittering snow. The colonel is calling on Sherry Cooper because her son Charlie is a distressed veteran of the Iraq War, and Sherry, his caregiver for six years, has sent a proposal to the colonel’s office at the Pentagon, asking for funds to support a local center to offer practical and psychological counseling to returning soldiers. Sherry is a psychologist and was a full-time counselor for at-risk youth at an inner-city high school.

The colonel has come here to discuss Sherry’s modest, sensible proposal, but that’s not what happens. Sherry first wants to introduce her son. She tells the colonel about how Charlie came home from Iraq in 2004 and seemed just fine. 

He got a good job in state government, and with what he had saved from his military salary, he bought a house and a car. He seemed to be on his way until a few months later, when Sherry got a call from Charlie’s boss, who said he was not coming to work. He had plunged into a paralyzing depression that finally sent him home to his mother’s house. He lay for three years in his childhood bedroom, rising only for appointments with doctors who seemed unable to help him. Officers in Charlie’s unit told Sherry to get him to a VA hospital, but they didn’t seem to know whom she should talk to when she got there or even whom to call. The VA website didn’t work. The phones were busy all the time—until an operator finally answered and said, not unkindly, “I have fourteen calls waiting. I can’t help you.”

Over the next several months, Sherry managed to make a series of appointments for Charlie, but he was unable to keep them. At last his sergeant major took him to the VA. An evaluator diagnosed PTSD and asked if Charlie had any “suicidal thoughts.” Charlie said no. How about homicidal thoughts? No. Well, then he couldn’t be admitted to the VA hospital. Instead, he was offered a support group of newly returned soldiers, one of whom exploded in such a terrifying rage at the first meeting that Charlie seemed traumatized all over again and went back to bed. His body grew bloated yet remained on constant alert, so that even after three years of bed rest his muscles were tense and hard as rock. The doctors could not explain why his body was becoming so acidic that it began to destroy itself. They removed his gall bladder. Then his teeth crumbled, dissolved in acid. The dental bill was $30,000. He was always exhausted and unaware of passing time. His mother says, “He lived in a kind of twilight.”

She helped Charlie apply for a medical discharge, and he was summoned to a military hospital on a base in a distant city for evaluation. The Pentagon, strapped for soldiers, wanted to know if he was fit for service, and wouldn’t accept the VA’s diagnosis of PTSD. She took him there and heard the grilling he got from the military psychiatrist, who asked him to describe all his disturbing memories. Charlie told him about something he couldn’t get out of his head, something that happened during the invasion of Iraq. He was seated in the back of a vehicle, rolling along a highway, and a little Iraqi boy ran up beside him waving an American flag. Charlie was smiling at him when an onrushing truck crushed the child under its wheels. He could still see the blood and hear the screams of the boy’s mother. That unfortunate accident, the psychiatrist said, didn’t “qualify” as a “traumatic event.” Nor did any of the other memories Charlie dredged up with increasing distress.

Unqualified for a diagnosis of PTSD, Charlie was diagnosed instead with MDD: major depressive disorder. So Charlie went home to bed again with a second diagnosis but no treatment, and Sherry turned for help to private doctors and private counselors, paying them herself. Now, in her calm, kindly way, she says to the colonel, “I have three graduate degrees, a fully equipped home office and a very smart, supportive husband, and I could not find a way into the systems of care. How do you think it is for families without my advantages?” 

As Sherry told the story, Charlie sat in silence, sheltered in a big wing chair with his back to the sunlit windows. He seemed exceptionally large, not fat but swollen as if he had been artificially inflated, like the Michelin Man. His head was a mass of thick black hair, his face hidden by a dark beard. He wore a shapeless gray sweat suit that amplified the expanse of his body. Now Sherry was apologizing for consuming the colonel’s precious time and holding out to him a prospectus for the small veterans’ center she proposed for her city. He passed it abruptly to his assistant, who stuffed it into her briefcase without a glance as the colonel launched into his usual talk.

It took close to ten minutes. At the end, he turned slightly in his chair and seemed for the first time to look at the great globular mass of Charlie. The colonel stared and drew in his breath. Then, as in the case of the missing button, he visibly took command of himself and the momentary crisis. “Charlie,” he said, “I came here to tell you that none of this has any impact on your capacity for greatness.” He paused with that pronouncement hanging in the air, and then continued crisply. “You may not fit in here. We all have trust issues with civilians. They can’t understand. We know that.”

I looked over at Sherry, to whom the military had delivered a semi-comatose child and now sent a deeply damaged emissary to blame “civilians” for the fact that even after six years of intensive family and professional care he didn’t seem to “fit in.” Sherry was gazing at her son, as if to gauge his response, and smiling with gratitude that the eminent colonel had come all this way to address a personal message to the big boy in the big chair who was nothing at all like the boy she had raised. “Never forget,” the colonel said, riveting Charlie with a manic stare, “never forget that you still have the capacity for greatness.” Then he was on his feet and very quickly out the door, while his assistant curtly handled the civilian ceremonies of goodbye. The colonel raced through the snow toward the vehicle, anxious now to get back in the driver’s seat. “Jesus,” he said. “Jee-zuz!”

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