Vets Bring Home More Than Medals

Artvoice | December 27, 2004
The sun beats down on cracked, brown soil. The only sound is the wind blowing. Rugged mountains tower on the near horizon. The landscape has an austere, lonely beauty, accented by a lack of trees, warping your sense of space and distance.

Suddenly, a low whistling breaks the silence and someone yells, “Incoming!” A rocket lands a couple hundred yards away, booming loudly and raising a great dust cloud. I’m watching a video filmed during the war in western Afghanistan.

“That whistling noise from incoming rockets... I’ll never forget it,” says Steve Bishop of Attica, NY, a recently discharged Army sergeant. He has heard that sound hundreds of times before. At 22, Bishop has already served two tours in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom), where he was involved in ambushes and firefights nearly every day. One of the hardest parts, he said, was identifying the enemy. “There was no way of telling until they shot at you.”

Bishop was in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. His mission was humanitarian—making sure people had clean drinking water, repairing war-damaged buildings—but it was almost impossible to do that, he says, without being ambushed. In early May, Bishop completed his second tour, was sent home, and was granted an early discharge from the Army.

As with many soldiers, though, Bishop’s war didn’t end when he came back home. In some respects, that’s when it began. “I’m still fightin’ it, man, it’s hard. I have flashbacks, I wake up sweating, my heart’s pounding, adrenaline’s going crazy.” Bishop has the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition common to combat veterans that is caused by highly stressful, often life-threatening events, and is often linked to other disorders, such as depression, substance abuse and problems of memory and cognition.

Buffalo has been hard-hit by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are hundreds of Western New Yorkers who’ve fought since 9/11. (Sixteen from the area have died in Iraq, alone.) These men and women are all around us— our fathers, sisters, sons and neighbors— and we have no idea what they’ve been through. The news gives only vague sound bites about WMDs, proper armament and hunting down the enemy. Rarely do we have to look into the eyes of a 22-year-old and listen to him talk about the first time he had to kill someone.

Bishop remembers it well. His unit was visiting a small town to deliver generators and dig wells for drinking water. As they pulled out of town, their convoy was ambushed. “He was only ten feet away from me, shooting at my buddies from a tree,” said Bishop. “I unloaded an entire magazine into him, didn’t stop shooting until he fell out of the tree.” While talking on the phone with his family that night, Bishop, who’d been hiding the truth about the danger of his missions, broke down.

Looking at his war pictures, you can’t help but notice that in many ways, physical and mental, he is still a kid. He was promoted to sergeant at the age of 20, a rank that carries the responsibility of leading men into combat. He is rail-thin, has an easy smile and could easily be the young man next door who shovels your walk. Mentally, however, Bishop has surpassed many older than him. He has already dealt with a lifetime’s worth of stress and has had more responsibility than adults twice his age.

According to Katherine Smythe, director of the Behavioral Health Program at Buffalo’s VA hospital, despite the fact that most soldiers aren’t diagnosed with PTSD, almost all have to go through a period of readjustment. “They’re trying to understand what just happened. Let’s face it, when you step off the airplane in a foreign country and see your first body bag, you’re not the same person you were.”

Master Sergeant Bill Jackson of Tonawanda agrees. Last year, he had accepted his own death while serving in Iraq. “That’s the only way I could function over there, but life’s a lot more complicated than that when you get home,” he says. As an NCO in the 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion, Jackson’s mission was to revitalize schools, police departments and fire departments. In mid-December, however, he was faced with his own death when his Humvee—the third in a convoy—hit a roadside bomb. Jackson was thrown 30 feet from the vehicle. When his men found him, he was hemorrhaging blood and clutching his rifle, which had been bent in half. He suffered a broken rib, a punctured lung, nine breaks in the jaw, lost seven teeth and had to have his spleen removed. His machine gunner, Spc. Charles E. Bush of Buffalo, was not so lucky. He was thrown sixty feet and died on a helicopter flight to the nearby Camp Anaconda.

“I’ve got that guilt on my hands because Bush is dead,” Jackson says. Despite that, Jackson says he hasn’t experienced the symptoms of PTSD like Bishop has. This could be for a number of reasons. For instance, Jackson was in a less hostile environment than Bishop, and only came under attack five times. He spent less time under the pressures and stresses of war, and at a higher rank, he had more control over his missions and was always able to hand pick his men. He never had to kill anybody, and only one of his men was killed. He has, however, been trying to readjust to life at home, and has received weekly counseling to help him.

“Before I was wounded, I had just gotten married. I really had to back off that ‘just screw everything’ mentality, because it isn’t beneficial to a brand new family,” says Jackson. He recommends that all veterans seek some form of counseling, despite stigmas that say counseling is for the weak. “Those guys who really took it on the chin during the war, are the same guys who won’t go to the dentist if a tooth falls out of their head.”

The Department of Veteran's Affair’s WNY Healthcare System, which includes the main VA hospital and several outpatient clinics in Niagara Falls, Lackawanna, Olean and Jamestown, has been consistently rated one of the best VA Healthcare Systems in the country. Nationwide, however, there have been many cuts to the VA’s budget, causing many to speculate as to whether or not the VA will be prepared to handle the burgeoning number of incoming soldiers with psychological problems. Smythe assured me that Buffalo’s system was ready for them. “It’s a typical government budget,” she said. “No services have been eliminated.” If she had it her way, though, she would have more staff. “It’s an easy equation. If I had more staff, ideally we could offer more services... more groups, more community-based clinics.” Currently, the WNY Healthcare System has more than 150 veterans enrolled in its counseling and mental health clinics.

Another resource available to local veterans is the Buffalo Vet Center, one of over 200 VA-sponsored clinics in the country originally created to respond to the flood of PTSD cases after Vietnam. The Vet Center offers free readjustment counseling to combat veterans. Veteran’s social worker Houston Crum stressed the importance of getting soldiers to use the resources to readjust to life outside the combat zone. “Everyone tries to cope with readjustment challenges in their own way and with their own resources,” he says. The problem, however, comes when stigma causes soldiers to forego counseling.

For Steve Bishop, returning home to WNY has been his biggest battle. “Readapting to civilization is probably the hardest thing to do.” His first step to readjustment was getting used to green grass. “I tried to prep myself by putting on a pair of blue jeans once a week, but to see all that green and everything when I got home was too crazy.” Bishop became an alcoholic and eventually was suicidal, when some worried friends took him to get counseling at the VA Hospital in Batavia. Now things are getting better, Bishop says. The dreams and flashbacks are coming less often, but he’s still torn. He says that it doesn’t feel right being home while his friends are still fighting overseas. Two of Bishop’s best friends have been re-deployed, one to Iraq and one to Africa. “If my name gets called in the next four years [for combat service], I’ll gladly go,” he says. Bishop’s war continues, inside his heart and his mind. His is a battle between two realities: one that used to be his home and one that became his home.

Peter Koch is a staff writer at Artvoice.


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