By Casey McCarthy
When Jeff Reece first came home to Metcalfe County, Kentucky, after 11 months in Iraq, he thought everything would be the same.
A year after returning, Reece fell asleep holding his son, Chase, an infant at the time, only to awake to find he had punched holes all around his son. Luckily, Reece said, his son was still asleep in his arms, but the incident scared him badly enough that he knew he wasn’t all right.
Reece, 45, said the first few years after coming home were the toughest on him in regards to nightmares and flashbacks. He recounted almost shooting a stranger who walked up to his house one day. Yet, Reece said he kept telling himself and his wife at the time, Danielle, that he could beat this. Things only got worse.
“The harder I worked to do things right, things just kept getting worse, over time,” Reece said. “It was so gradual, though, that I didn’t see how bad I was getting, but everyone else did.”
Reece, a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps, was hit by two improvised explosive devices (IED) while serving in Iraq in 2006, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Reece said he was aware of statistics for soldiers in Iraq, and knew being blown up twice in his first two months didn’t aid his chances of coming home.
“I kind of made peace with dying,” Reece said. “I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a part of me that didn’t plan on coming home.”
Approximately one in five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from some form of PTSD and/or depression linked to combat, according to research done by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit. The study showed that most counselors interviewed, in their opinion, felt these numbers were actually higher, especially when considered alongside those affected by a traumatic brain injury (TBI). According to research from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 22 percent of all Afghanistan and Iraq war combat wounds were brain injuries, compared to just 12 percent in Vietnam,
though researchers believe these figures are inaccurate. The increase in traumatic brain injuries stemmed primarily from bomb blasts, motor vehicle accidents, and gunshot wounds.
Of those veterans returning with PTSD, only about half sought out help for their condition; out of those that do get help, only approximately 50 percent received “minimally adequate” help, according to research from the RAND corporation. Approximately seven percent of those dealing with PTSD suffer from a traumatic brain injury as well, such as Reece.
The RAND study, and other comparable research studies from the Congressional Research Service and the Veterans Administration, show rates of PTSD are much greater than previous conflicts. In addition, a study from the VA in 2012 showed suicide rates in veterans were higher than previously thought. An article in the New York Times, from June 2012, showed suicides accounted for more deaths among active-duty military personnel than actual combat.
Gina Jackson, from the Office of Public Affairs for the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, provided links to information on the VA’s website concerning PTSD and tools provided for veterans dealing with PTSD. Jackson did not respond to questions concerning how treatment has progressed or how they specifically help veterans combat symptoms and struggles.
Reece visits this VA in Nashville for treatment most weeks, but works primarily with a VA Clinic in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
The VA has been working to make traumatic brain injury (TBI) treatment easier to access for veterans, establishing the Polytrauma System of Care, treating veterans with TBI and other injuries. Patients can also receive help at any local VA Medical Center. The National Center for PTSD says that no matter where veterans receive help from, there isn’t a “wrong door” for receiving help.
On May 1, 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced a new partnership with the VA to advance health and data analysis on a large scale to improve health care for Veterans, according to a press release from the Department of Veteran Affairs, VA Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin said the VA-DOE partnership will give access to large amounts of data to researchers at high computable abilities in a secure environment.
“The transformative science that will be developed through this partnership will improve health care for Veterans and all Americans,” Shulkin said in a press release from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
On May 3, the VA promoted, in partnership with Mental Health Awareness Month in May, a new awareness campaign aimed at encouraging veterans to seek help if needed. “Use Your Voice” aims to help not only veterans, but all Americans, seek help for mental health issues just as they would for other health concerns such as diet or blood pressure. Dr. Poonam Alaigh, acting VA under secretary for Health, said he believes it’s time to break down the stigmas and barriers regarding mental illness.
“We want Veterans to know there are effective options available right now and reaching out for help is a sign of strength, resilience and courage,” Alaigh said in a press release from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Conor Beck, a 25-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran, received the Purple Heart for his service in Afghanistan from January to early August in 2011. Beck was with the Combat Logistics Battalion A, and ran primarily security and supply missions. Beck was hit by two IEDs while serving overseas. The primary blast, occurring in the Sangin Valley in Afghanistan during a vehicle recovery for the Georgian Army, knocked him against his gun turret, leaving him unconscious for a few minutes.
Beck said he knew he wasn’t all right upon returning home, but didn’t look to seek help until he saw how it affected his friends coming back with him.
“I had a couple of buddies that committed suicide upon coming back,” Beck said. “I had been trying to keep it to myself, but I just realized I’d be more weak to not get help, to just give up and stick a [gun] barrel in my mouth.”
Beck said he didn’t think the ‘macho’ mantra of the military was keeping veterans from receiving help coming home; rather he said that he felt it was matter of going through the process that halted most from getting help.
“No one wants to put up with the battle to get help that everyone needs,” Beck said.
Military members face numerous stigmas that keep them from choosing to seek help for their PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD. Veterans often feel seeking help may affect their career in the military. They may also be hesitant to discuss struggles with their peers as it may lead to them being seen as weak, or incompetent. Often, veterans don’t receive help soon enough, according to the National Center for PTSD.
Reece left for Iraq in January 2006 with 1st Battalion 623rd Alpha Company, before being assigned to Task Force 134 after only a few days in Iraq. His primary objective became escorting and protecting Major General William H. Brandenburg, deputy commanding general of detainee operations. The majority of his assignments dealt with making supply runs on Main Supply Route (MSR) Sword, escorting high-priority targets to and from Abu Ghraib prison, located approximately 20 miles west of Baghdad, where Reece was stationed for the majority of his service time.
Both IEDs that hit Reece did so within months of his arrival in Iraq. The first was buried in the median of the highway along the MSR Sword going into Baghdad. Reece said, at first, he didn’t believe it had affected him that much, before waking up with chest pains a few nights later. Upon visiting the medical tent, fluid was found in his lungs, attributed to his body ‘eating’ the remnants of the blast wave.
The second blast occurred about five miles outside of Abu Ghraib prison. While stationed on the 50-caliber turret on his truck, the blast blew his name tag off his uniform, tossing him against his turret.
“I didn’t realize how much it hurt me, “ Reece said. “One second, you’re going, then it goes black, then you start reacting.”
Reece returned home on Christmas Day 2006. Upon returning, Reece said he couldn’t figure out how to
turn his switch back on. In Iraq, his way of coping with what was happening around him was to just try and shut himself down.
“Losing friends all the time, you didn’t have time to grieve,” Reece said. “You didn’t have time to cry.”
“I couldn’t feel anymore,” Reece said.
Reece’s struggles continued to build and worsen as he tried to cope with symptoms and fight to recover on his own. The struggles of everyday living became so tough for Reece that he said he felt he couldn’t handle it anymore.
The turning point in his recovery came in 2014, when Reece found himself in the Lincoln Trail Behavioral Health System military ward after attempting suicide. Doctors and counselors at the facility helped explain to Reece the struggles he was facing mentally and helped him understand that he couldn’t overcome them on his own.
“I was blaming myself, and I didn’t know what I was fighting,” Reece said. “They explained how dangerous of a situation I was in.”
Both Reece and Beck said they lost friends they served with overseas to suicide upon returning home. A 2015 study led by Dr. Julie Cerel looked at the effects of suicide exposure in veterans across Kentucky. Not only did almost half of the veterans that took part in the study report suicide exposure in their lifetime, those who did were almost twice as likely to suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety. In addition, the risk of suicide in these cases almost quadrupled.
Reece and his wife, Danielle, divorced in 2015. Though Reece explained that they still maintain a good
relationship as friends, the struggles he faced had become too much for her to deal with in the marriage. Reece has four children: Zachery, 19, Tiffany, 17, Skye, 16, and his youngest son, Chase, 14. His two sons, Zachery and Chase both stay with him in Metcalfe, Kentucky, while his two daughters live with their mother in Tennessee.
“The cold reality set in, that I’d allowed this s*** to destroy my marriage, my family, and I couldn’t beat it,” Reece said. “At that point, I’d done everything I knew to do, and it still wasn’t enough.”
Today, Reece visits the VA Clinic in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, almost every other week, as well as working with the facility in Nashville. Counseling and getting the proper medication for his severe PTSD and TBI have had a large impact on Reece’s recovery, and said both helped answer questions for him.
Reece said there are moments of clarity, where it seems all the switches in his brain turn back on, and everything he’s lost comes flooding back. At first, Reece said he hated when this happened because it made him see just how much he’d lost and how hard it had became.
“Now, I’m grateful,” Reece said. “It’s not often, but it’s like God showing me a glimpse of what my goal is.”
“I miss that quality of life.”
Reece said he doesn’t regret his decision to enlist, or fight overseas, one bit, and that it is more than just a love for his country.
“Over there, I saw what real tyranny is,” Reece said. “I’d see shit that would make you wake up screaming. Here we’ve got freedom, and if it hadn’t been me in that gun truck, it’d have been some other kid.”
Zachery, Jeff’s oldest son, is currently enlisted in the Air National Guard. Zachery said his father was a massive influence on his decision to join the military. Zachery said his father did sway him from enlisting in Marine Infantry, like he had done, yet he said his father’s struggles haven’t made him hesitant to serve in combat.
“If I go overseas and something happens, then it happens,” Zachary said. “Now, if people around me notice I am acting different, then I would go get help, like my dad did.”
Reece said if the military called him tomorrow to come back and fight, even if he probably wouldn’t return, he’d leave at a moment’s notice.
“I’d kiss my family goodbye and I’d pack my stuff and I’d go,” Reece said. “After all these years in the military, that’s just how we are. My dad always said, if you ever have to fight for something, it’ll mean more to ya.”