One wounded Afghanistan veteran's quest for recognition

You’re angry. They get scared of you when you tell them what you’ve been through. You’re not a jerk. It’s just, you signed over your body to the government, spent a year getting shot at in Afghanistan, 7,000 miles away. It’s not you, but what the war did to you: The post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the traumatic brain injury (TBI) that went undiagnosed for two years while you suffered mild seizures and couldn’t sleep. Still, you’re always scanning the room, always at the ready for the enemy to enter. 

This month marks 10 years since the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Veterans of that war are in a tougher place than virtually any other veterans in American history. They return to an America that they swore to protect, only to find that more than half—a full 58 percent—of the American public doesn’t support their war. Casualties of the operation are far less likely to die than ever before, which means that many veterans have survived things they never would have survived in Vietnam.

There’s the stigma. And everybody seems to know all the statistics: That veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are 75 percent more likely to die in car crashes than civilians. That they are twice as likely to commit suicide as their civilian counterparts, and that an average of 18 American veterans commit suicide daily. That the unemployment rate for young male veterans who served over the last decade is 27 percent, three times that of the civilian population.

I was looking for a veteran willing to tell a story about the one that begins when you return to a place like Charlottesville. First stop was the Albemarle County Veterans Service office, out Hydraulic Road in a nondescript brick building past the new Whole Foods. I asked a Veteran Services Coordinator for Albemarle County, Pedro Ortiz, a slight Vietnam veteran in a polo shirt with a relaxed demeanor, if he knew of anyone with a story to tell. He smiled slightly and said he’d send an e-mail around to see if anyone would be interested in talking.

I left Ortiz my e-mail address, and by the time I got back to my desk there was already an e-mail in my inbox. The name read S. Vaughan Wilson. “Pedro Ortiz forwarded me your info for an article you are writing on Afghanistan,” it said, nothing more, followed by his phone number.


A legacy of warriors

When I called Wilson on a Friday afternoon soon after, he didn’t immediately recall having sent the e-mail, or having heard anything about any article. After I explained who I was again, he apologized, saying that his memory wasn’t the same since he’d suffered a head injury. I explained who I was again, by this point imagining someone visibly disabled. Then Wilson remembered the e-mail, and we made plans to meet on Monday, at a park near the airport. I would look for the car with the Purple Heart license plate. He said that he had a story.

I first went to the wrong parking lot, where a man was sitting alone by the public bathroom. He said he didn’t know a Vaughan, so I spun around to the next parking lot, where I found him sitting at a picnic bench. I contemplated the wisdom of meeting a man I didn’t know in a secluded park. I was relieved to see his young daughter hopping around the playground, invoking the ire of her cautious father every time she slipped out of view. (“That kid is so headstrong, I swear to God,” he repeatedly said, somewhat tensely, somewhat tenderly.) His newborn son was strapped happily into a carrier on the bench beside him.

Wilson is a big, sturdy guy; about 6′ tall, 250 pounds. At age 40, his red hair is beginning to fade to a strawberry-blonde with streaks of grey. Taken alone, you might describe his light blue eyes as sweet. He speaks in a clipped delivery that would, if he weren’t so open about what he’d been through in the last decade, suggest that he’s tired of talking about it. He has a firm handshake, and no visible scars. Of his brain injury—a reticular shear in his brain stem, a result of as many as three TBIs—he said, “It’s an invisible wound. I have scars on my face and my shoulder. I have a fragment in my leg.”

Wilson comes from a distinguished line of fighters. Members of his family have missed only two wars in American history, the Mexican-American, and the first World War. “I’m the 23rd descendent of the Earl of Atholl, who was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513,” he told me. “That’s how distinguished the genealogy is in my family. Either you’re a fighter or an educator in my family.”

Wilson said he was carrying a casualty when he took this picture in July 2005, of his regiment approaching a Chinook helicopter.

His grandfather, Samuel Vaughan Wilson, was both. First one of Merrill’s Marauders in World War II, fighting in Burma, he went on to become a three-star general, and then to serve as the president of Hampden-Sydney College, where he became a beloved figure. Wilson’s father, (Ret.) Army Lt. Col. Samuel Vaughan Wilson Jr., was an infantry soldier in Vietnam who became a teacher. 

Wilson told me that he grew up a military brat, moving from Fort Bragg to bases in Alaska and down the West Coast. He didn’t like it at all. “You become very adept at making friends very quickly, and then bringing to an end those relationships very quickly,” he said. “There was no lingering attachment.” But fighting was in his blood; he was a sheepdog. He first joined the army at age 20. The military drawdown under President Clinton meant there was little opportunity for promotion for a young soldier like Wilson. “I was trying to get a piece of the Gulf War,” he laughed. “It ended too fast.” When he came home he realized that there is a line drawn between veterans who have served in a war, and those who haven’t. He worked odd jobs, later as an EMT, and used his G.I. bill and took out student loans to go to Hampden-Sydney for two years, going to paramedic school when he could afford it.

Before 9/11 would immerse the country in a decade of war, Wilson had signed a contract to work as a paramedic in Richmond. He said he was good at it, and decided to see that commitment through before enlisting, assuming—correctly, as it turned out—that the war in Afghanistan would still be going on when he got to it. “It wasn’t 9/11 per se” that made him want to go to war, he told me. “It was that the country had gone to war, even though it wasn’t technically a war,” he said. Whatever it was officially called, Wilson wanted in.

Having decided that he didn’t want to go through what his father and grandfather had as officers—Wilson seems to cringe at the thought of politics—he decided to just enlist, completing basic training and a health care specialist course, and earning his parachutist badge. At age 32, he was a good half-decade older than most of the other recruits. He said a good majority of those who enlisted were highly educated, had completed at least a couple years of college, and had set aside their lives to fight. Wilson himself had the equivalent of an I.B., and a couple more years of college. Through delayed enlistment Wilson finally made it to Afghanistan in 2005 as part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. (His specific regiment would later be followed by journalists Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington for the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo.)

During his time there Wilson deployed for 21-day stints, returning to the base for seven days of preparations for another three-week go. “To give you some context, it was like chasing the Apaches,” he said. “We would go out and basically go out and become this little bubble, a representation of the Afghan-NATO alliance in a very hostile area,” he said. It was basic counter-insurgency strategy: Try to improve quality of life for locals, and in doing so, enhance the standing of the NATO and Afghan forces.

Wilson said that many civilians have the mistaken notion that combat medics like him are unarmed. They are not. Far from standing on the sidelines, during his tour Wilson survived at least four run-ins with IEDs, plenty of heavy fire, and a total of three events, looking back, that may have caused head injuries. In battle, Wilson was decorated. His long list of honors includes an Army Commendation Medal with Valor Device. He showed me the documentation from his commanding officers that tells a story of Wilson administering care to eight casualties under “the most extreme circumstances in a combat environment.”

But everything changed for Wilson on October 13, 2005. Traveling through the Shawali Kot district, north of Kandahar, in the town of Zamto Kalay, an IED explosion obliterated the eerie calm. “We were laying down suppressive fire to the right. Literally, there were mountains, and there was the road. We were firing uphill,” coating the hills with fire to root out the enemy. It was an ambush. Another explosion. “I was blown completely across the side of the road,” he told me. “My platoon sergeant found me in a heap, and was shaking me trying to find out if I was dead or alive. I had blood coming out of my nose and my ears.”


Signature wound

That was one of the many moments at war that changed who Wilson is. At that moment he became one of the many soldiers with a TBI. Because of a variety of factors, soldiers are more likely than ever before to survive blast-related trauma, which has earned TBIs recognition as the “signature wound” of the two current wars. Body armor does little to prevent TBIs, caused by rapid changes in pressure around the brain, killing as many as 25 percent of those who sustain them, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Doctors and those who suffer from TBIs are only beginning to understand what it means to have one. Officially, military figures say 115,000 troops suffered mild brain injury since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. Salon reported that number at 202,000 soldiers “who suffered a combat injury that has lead to a diagnosis” of TBI. T. Christian Miller of the public interest reporting group ProPublica said in an e-mail, “There are no firm numbers, only estimates,” of how many veterans suffer from TBIs. “One is that as many as 40 percent are missed at post combat screening. But that study is now several years old.”

Those, like Wilson, who survive suffer from a range of symptoms, including headaches, irritability, sleep disorders, memory problems and depression. A decade since the war began, the military is only beginning to acknowledge how TBIs affect veterans suffering from them—and what those veterans are owed as a result. At the Veterans Affairs office earlier, Ortiz had given me a primer on how the government distributes veterans’ benefits. Injured soldiers are assigned a percentage that basically correlates with how difficult their injuries will make it for them to find meaningful work; totally disabled veterans get a 100 percent rating and a maximum level of care and compensation (about $2,673 monthly in Virginia, with additional allowances for dependents). The lower your rating goes, the less you get for your injury. 

When Wilson returned to Fort Bragg, he entered the ranks of thousands of other veterans whose TBIs go undiagnosed. Years of service in a seemingly predestined career as a soldier came to a swift end in September 2006. A VA doctor found nothing wrong, and Wilson received a discharge, not for a brain injury, which would have entitled him to benefits, but under a “personality disorder” clause. “They thought I was crazy. They thought I was completely crazy, with my PTSD and my TBI,” he said. “I was tossed out.” Wilson said that they didn’t consider his many awards that would have testified that he was not crazy, and in fact, was a decorated soldier. He was rated at 60 percent disabled.

Resources for veterans

Wilson said that two local organizations were instrumental in his long battle to be recognized as 100 percent disabled. The Virginia Wounded Warrior Program provides peer support and other timely, local resources for area veterans. Call the program at 972-1800, or visit www.nwva for more information. Additionally, the local Veterans Affairs office helps veterans process claims and access a range of veteran benefits. The Charlottesville Field Office for the Department of Veterans Services is located at 2211 Hydraulic Rd., or can be reached by phone at 295-2782.

The personality disorder clause is controversial for a simple reason: Soldiers are screened for personality disorders before entering the Army; so if you have one when you leave, then maybe you sustained it at war. Under the clause a veteran’s benefits are slashed. “Thousands of injured vets learn they actually owe the Army several thousand dollars” if they received a signing bonus, a reporter at The Nation, Joshua Kors, writes. “Since 2001, the military has pressed 22,600 soldiers into signing these personality disorder documents, at a savings to the military of over $12.5 billion in disability and medical benefits.”

“Member is entitled to half involuntary separation pay,” Wilson’s discharge document read, which amounted to $10,610.55, half what he said he would have received with a medical discharge. He would receive no health insurance for his family, and would have to re-enter the workforce, with an unfinished college degree and about $50,000 in student loans.

Soon after he returned to Fort Bragg, Wilson’s father drove down late one evening from Farmville to pick him up, a different son than the one he’d sent to war. When Wilson got across state lines, he said he literally got out of the car and kissed the ground. He took the long first step toward recovery while staying with his father in Farmville. With his father’s help Wilson was able to avoid some of the pitfalls that attract many veterans upon their return to civilian life: the drinking to numb the pain, the spending the money you saved, the destruction of relationships. “I tackled it head on,” Wilson said.

The next month he was back to work as a paramedic in Farmville. After working as a paratrooper, rural EMS made him feel like he was a “racehorse pulling a milk cart.” He returned to Richmond for more familiar work, but where he faced a pay cut. On paper, things started to look up. He met a woman, fell in love, and they got married. She lived in Northern Virginia, and he commuted to Richmond for 12-hour shifts. Even as he lost his ability to sleep through the night and think straight, Wilson’s TBI remained undiagnosed; he is lucky that the bleeding stopped at all. “I didn’t know I had a head bleed, and I am a national registered paramedic,” he said. Running himself into the ground with a two-hour commute, he found a job in the emergency room of a Northern Virginia hospital.

“My symptoms were really beginning to affect me, especially in that very tightly compacted space,” he said. Patients speaking Arabic and Pashto would come into the ER, triggering memories. The sounds. The bells ringing in his head. The smells: “Blood has a very coppery smell if you smell it.” The flashbacks began, and the nightmares, already constant, got worse. Headaches, insomnia—he couldn’t remember the right dosages. Medicine was changing fast and, with his own medical issues, Wilson couldn’t keep up.

That’s when he met a reporter with the American Conservative named Kelley Vlahos who was writing an article about the invisible wounds suffered by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. “She was the first person who ever said, ‘Have you ever thought you might have TBI?‘ Two weeks later I go back to the VA and say, ‘What’s this TBI thing?’” said Wilson. The doctor “ran down the criteria, and popped on five of the questions: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” It had been about two years since his biggest injury.

At the park, Wilson pushed a binder across the table with a picture of a younger, thinner version of him. In the photo he looks proud, in fatigues with a rifle across his chest. The binder is known as an I Love Me book. In it, combat veterans collect their primary source documentation. It is particularly useful when you believe that there have been flaws in your discharge, as Wilson claims there were with his. In the ongoing war that his life has become since returning from Afghanistan, the I Love Me book is his primary weapon.

With the flashbacks, his sometimes-slow recall and the seizures that arrest the left half of his body, he started arguing for classification of “Permanent and Total,” based on his TBIs. The classification entitles veterans to full benefits, which, for Wilson includes health care for his wife and two young children.

Wilson showed me a series of primary source documents in the binder, including an expert second opinion on his condition. He had sought it out after being discharged from the VA Hospital. “‘In my opinion the prior psychological evaluations have flaws,” said the letter from a local brain trauma specialist, of the initial diagnosis from the VA. “‘One instance is apparently prejudicial. This decorated combat veteran should have state-of-the-art medical diagnostics in order to determine the status of his organic brain function. At this juncture this procedure can only assure a more accurate understanding of the consequences of his service.’”

“The expert opinion basically threw out” the notion that he had any pre-existing condition, said Wilson. In so many words, he described it: “There is no history of [a personality disorder], especially when his commanding officers and all his background history say he’s squared away.”

With more veterans surviving injuries similar to Wilson’s than ever before, the tide is starting to turn as the Army tackles the question of what, exactly, veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI should be entitled to. A coalition of veterans suffering from PTSD won a class-action lawsuit against the Army in August, alleging that they were denied the appropriate benefits upon being discharged after service. (“They were being lowballed” by the Army, Wilson said.) In addition, TBIs can be difficult to detect, and symptoms may overlap with those of PTSD. “We can tell you that client after client with PTSD and traumatic brain injury and inappropriate [personality disorder] discharges come to us feeling that they have been branded as damaged goods,” a representative for a veterans advocacy group testified before Congress last year, “their combat service has been invalidated, and their identity and self worth as once proud warriors destroyed.”

“That’s why I carry this around,” Wilson said of his I Love Me book. “You constantly have to debunk stuff.”

Samuel Vaughan Wilson, Vaughn’s grandfather, fought in Burma as one of Merrill’s Marauders in World War II. He went on to become a three-star general, and then to serve as the president of Hampden-Sydney College, where he became a beloved figure. photo courtesy of Hampden-Sydney College.

In April, Wilson had a breakthrough when the Army announced that soldiers suffering from TBIs sustained after September 2001 would be eligible for the Purple Heart, the award established by General George Washington that was historically given to soldiers who bled in battle. Six years after he was wounded, Wilson traveled to Fredericksburg this July to receive the honor. “This is a major milestone, a catalyst,” Wilson told the Freelance-Star that day.

Insofar as a story like Wilson’s can have a happy ending, his does. Earning the Purple Heart for his TBI meant that there was an undeniable inconsistency in his record. His discharge said that he hadn’t suffered an injury; it was his personality that was the problem. When the Purple Heart came, it was official: His record stated that he wasn’t crazy, or a bad soldier. He had been injured.

At the beginning of the month Wilson finally received a letter acknowledging that he was permanently and totally disabled —100 percent. The injury that his Purple Heart acknowledges is now also confirmed by the benefits he will receive. His student loans were relieved and his wife and two children will receive health insurance. The next step is having the rating backdated to the time of his discharge, now almost six years ago.


The war at home

As a veteran, Wilson has to balance his memory of war, and his battle for full benefits, with the daily struggle to fit back into a society that stigmatizes veterans. What does it mean on a daily basis? “I don’t socialize,” Wilson told me. “It’s the first thing you’ll notice. ‘Doesn’t go out of his way to be social.’”

Before meeting with Wilson, I spoke with Ben Shaw over a cup of coffee. (Wilson calls Shaw a friend.) A Veteran Peer Specialist with the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program, Shaw is dashing, square-jawed and also quite open about his experience at war—after two tours in Iraq he returned to Afghanistan as a journalist for the Fluvanna Review. He always knew he wanted to be a soldier. Today his job is to travel across the region making sure that the area’s veterans have what they need, counseling veterans through crises, connecting them with resources, even hanging out at a weekly pizza night with a group of locals.

Shaw recommended an essay that he told me might help explain what it’s like to return from war: “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs,” from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book On Killing. “We may well be in the most violent times in history,” writes Grossman. “But violence is still remarkably rare. This is because most citizens are kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other, except by accident or under extreme provocation. They are sheep.” Grossman goes on to say that there’s another personality type, the wolves, an “aggressive sociopath,” someone without the “capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens.”

“But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens?” Grossman asks. “What do you have then? A sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.”

That mindset seemed to ring true with Wilson, who policed the park even as he enjoyed it with his kids. Before we started our interview Wilson told me two things: He had a tape recorder running in his backpack, and he called the cops on a man in a white car who he knows cruises around the park looking for tail. “Help me keep an eye on her,” he said of his daughter on the playground, “because there are people around here who will do the wrong thing.”

It was after a run-in with the police in Northern Virginia, Wilson said, that Charlottesville became an attractive option. “My wife made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. His wife has an M.B.A., and worked for the State Department in Northern Virginia. “Down here I’m not running into a lot of people speaking Pashto or Arabic, which automatically—suddenly I go back into the old behavior pattern. You watch them, the hyper-vigilance, the paranoia. You don’t need that.” (Wilson also said that he has made a lot of Muslim friends in the area.)

From having spent time in Central Virginia in his 20s, he thought he might like living here. It has its advantages. He said that UVA’s JAG school was instrumental in providing legal aid in his battle to get recognized as permanently disabled. There’s the beauty, the space, the University.

But life in Charlottesville hasn’t turned out the way Wilson expected it. People aren’t that open-minded. He remembers one day he was driving up 29N, and pulled to a stop at a red light. Wilson’s bumper stickers and Purple Heart license plate make it clear that he is both a veteran and a supporter of recent wars. “I had a guy spit at my face at the corner of 29N and Hydraulic,” Wilson said. “He literally spit in my face.”

“And he’s lucky, because all I could think of was, ‘If I get out of this car I can kiss my wife and my child goodbye because I will never see them again. I will tear this guy apart.’”

He sacrificed his health, and his happiness. He brought the war home. And for who? “We wrote a blank check to the government, basically saying, ‘I’ve given you my body,’” said Wilson. “‘I’ve given you this part of my life to be sure that these idiots can enjoy the narcissistic bliss that they enjoy.’”

Did he fight to protect that guy who spit in his face? The guy in the coffeeshop, arguing over the milk in his latté? For a man so proud of his lineage, who, exactly, is the enemy? “I have my haplo-halio group,” the traits that make him look the way he does, Wilson told me. It’s the European that makes his skin light, his hair red, his eyes blue. It’s who he is. “Ten percent of the people have that in Afghanistan. These people are literally my genetic cousins,” he said.

“There is a disconnect,” he told me. “It’s based on the tactile sensory experience that you go through, you know. My father fought in Vietnam, my grandfather fought in Burma and Vietnam. They’re very quiet. And now I kind of know why.”

There’s no way to understand it unless you’ve been there. “The reason is, the civilian population can’t wrap their mind around what war is. War is something that you can open up in a book, you see two-dimensional pictures, you read somebody’s words, you go see ‘Band of Brothers,’ you get a compressed sensory experience, you feel certain emotions. But it doesn’t have the long-term continuous behavioral modification, as well as the way that your mind—in some ways they say that you become narrow-minded, you telescope. But no, a lot of soldiers begin to read The Economist to understand how politics, religion and economics influence these fracture points, where these conflicts occur. You begin to educate yourself.”


Back to the earth

With a brain injury and anger issues that will last a lifetime, Wilson does have one idea for what the future may hold: Veterans are starting to go back to the earth. The physical labor provides a healthy outlet for anger. In that life you spend a lot of time and energy outside. You eat the good food you grow.

“The hard work helps relieve the stress, the anger,” he said. “It gives you something to do, which is the hardest thing for someone like me. At the micro level, it’s a one- or two-person operation that doesn’t mean you have to have a lot of social interaction.”

“Unfortunately,” he said of Charlottesville, “the taxes are too high for any veteran to buy land here.” In the short-term, Wilson said his wife is applying for work out of state. He’s thinking somewhere up north where they can see the stars. “It would be like heaven for me.”—With additional reporting by Anna Caritj and Sarah Matalone

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