Chico war veteran says trauma takes enormous toll
CHICO, Calif. — As families of victims in the Connecticut school shooting will come to realize, healing from psychological trauma and overwhelming loss can be a long, uncertain process.Their humanity and sense of justice have been assaulted by an insufferable act, and will be tested again as they seek closure and understanding.The brand of violent terrorism visited upon Sandy Hook Elementary, and the challenges faced by survivors, is familiar to veterans of modern warfare, particularly those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two of those veterans, each being followed in American Homecomings profiles, have had their share of difficulties in overcoming the trauma of war and adjusting to civilian life.
Tim Kenney, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and now runs a fishing guide business near Montrose, Colo., recently took several steps backward on a path that seemed for months to be steering him away from alcoholism and the worst symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The latest installment in his story said he is drinking again after 18 years of sobriety, using psychotropic medications, and may be admitted for in-patient care at a veterans hospital. He recently shocked his wife and children by admitting, “My life pretty much sucks right now.”
Nick Wright, a former Marine from Chico, served three tours of duty in Iraq. Although it’s been seven years since he was wounded, and more than five since being diagnosed with PTSD, Wright can still relate to how Kenney, several years fresher from the battlefield, became derailed.
“Of course Kenney would suffer a setback returning to civilian life,” Wright said. “You were expected to act and behave a certain way while serving, and when you get back you expect people (civilians) to act the same way. It feels like you’ve been thrown into a crowd of rude, ungrateful people.”
Wright dealt with his disappointment by reminding himself that he went to war to help guarantee the freedom of Americans who may disagree with his beliefs.
Wright said he witnessed civilian deaths in Iraq, including a crash that killed the occupants of a vehicle that had been playing “chicken” with his convoy.
“As much as we don’t want innocent civilians to get involved and die, you have to keep in mind that it is war, and it is going to happen,” Wright said.
Wright also witnessed the death of several U.S. troops when a powerful car bomb exploded as a convoy passed. Wright was among a squad of Marines providing security for the convoy, and has only recently forgiven himself for not stopping the terrorist driving the car.
Kenney hasn’t been able to reconcile the deaths he believes was responsible for in Afghanistan, and one in particular haunts him. “I think I killed a little baby,” he told a Denver Post reporter.
While traveling in an armored convoy, Kenney tossed a canteen of water to a beggar woman sitting in the road with her child — an act of kindness, and not his first in Afghanistan, Kenney recalled. He is fairly certain the full canteen hit and killed the infant. That memory, and the recent suicide of a close former comrade, pushed Kenney to a breakdown.
“I just went berserk. I snapped,” he said.
Wright said Kenney’s mental anguish is understandable, but knows war can be confusing.
“It helps not to think of the worst result in every possible situation,” Wright said.
Ask what advice he would share with Kenney, Wright said he would advise Kenney to continue counseling sessions and talk with other veterans.
“What helped me most was talking with my family, but with certain memories, talking with other veterans who have gone through war helped a lot,” Wright said.
During a nearly six-year transition to civilian life, Wright said he learned a lot about the importance of his primary support system — his wife and five children.
“When he (Kenney) gets angry, he can’t lash out at his family. The best thing to do is just walk away and be given some space to calm down. It took me awhile; I know it’s easier said than done,” Wright admits.
Wright, 29, is having more good days now than bad, and has landed a job with a medical supply company he believes will lead to a career. Through his lowest points, Wright said he was buoyed by the fact that his grandfathers went through world wars and still made it happily through life with the help of their families. “I can do the same,” he said.
“If there is any further advice I can give Kenney, it would be to keep his head high and know his family loves him,” Wright said. “He needs to focus on what’s going on now with his family and be there for them, instead of letting what ‘could have’ happened get the best of him.”