Editor’s note: The veteran featured this week wished to remain anonymous due to the nature of his work. We will refer to him as Joe for this feature. Part 2 will appear in next week’s edition.
Post-traumatic stress (PTSD) manifests itself in many ways, and it affects not only veterans. It’s not a mental illness. Needless to say, stigmas that come with PTSD are wide-ranging and rather commonplace.
Joe has dealt with PTSD for some 15 years, ever since he returned from Iraq as a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom.
He joined the Army Reserves at age 17, while still a student at Milton Area High School. Following the completion of basic training and AIT at Fort Leonardwood, Mo., he went to college, something he planned to do with help the Army promised when he enlisted.
“I joined during peacetime,” he remembered. “The reserves... one weekend a month and two weeks a year. Sounds great.”
Joe immediately liked the Reserves and thought early on about a career in the military. Then, things changed. By January 2003, his unit was ordered to report. Within days, they were stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., for training.
On weekend leave, Joe married his wife on Feb. 14, 2003, then found himself returning to Fort Dix for a plane ride to Kuwait. He landed in Kuwait in March 2003.
Soon thereafter President George Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq.
Joe and his fellow reservists were told they’d be entering Iraq 10 days after ground troops, and that they’d be manning a prison camp, or a detainee camp.
On March 20, the unit was told it was heading north into Iraq.
“I was a little scared,” admitted Joe. “I didn’t know what to expect. We were in soft-top Humvees going through Iraq.”
At one point, he glanced over and saw a 1st Infantry Division tank. He immediately thought they had gone too far.
“That meant there was nobody in front of us,” he said. “We were in front of the initial charge.”
While there, troops were told that if they exited a vehicle to walk on tire tracks, not the open sand. Minefields were everywhere. Troop carriers were not armored at the time and the threat kept troops on edge.
On the first night, he awakened to bullets screaming through his tent.
“I started panicking, then I took my position along a sand berm,” he said. “It was Iraqis driving by with a machine gun mounted to a pickup truck.”
Soon his unit packed up and fell back. The area was too hot, too active at the time.
“We loaded in the back of dump trucks and went to Umm Qasr, a port city,” he said.
There, troops manned Camp Bucca, one of several detention facilities operated by the US Military. Bucca had been operated by the British prior to the Americans arriving, Joe noted. It was not well fortified, and relied on little more than concertina wire to house detainees.
“The first night there, three Iraqis escaped,” said Joe. “We chased them down.”
Troops then spent the next days and week fortifying the facility, all while the number of detainees continued to swell. Soon it was 500 detainees to every two American troops.
Among the detainees were kids, ages 12 to 18, all of whom had been trained as suicide bombers, Joe said.
From Camp Bucca, Joe was transferred to Abu Ghraib.
“When we pulled in, it was basically plundered (from the war),” said Joe.
Hussein had used Abu Ghraib as a torture facility, as well as a prison. Joe remembered seeing the torture chambers, some of which were used as sleeping quarters while the prison was being rehabbed for American use. It was haunting, unnerving, he said, to think about what happened there.
Troops spent two weeks cleaning the facility and preparing it for detainees. The first wave came in and detainees outnumbered troops 500 to two.
“The inmates had cots and we slept on sand,” said Joe. “They had warm meals, catered in, and we ate MREs.”
Soon the detainee numbers swelled to 700. Troops worked 12-hour shifts. Joe worked 4 a.m. to noon each day. He quickly learned the different sects of detainees.
Next week: Mortar rounds continue, the effects of PTSD, and coming home.