Editor’s Note: In marking the fifth year of the US occupation of Iraq, Truthout will be profiling veterans who have served in Iraq, have returned to the US and who are now trying to adjust to life at home. View ongoing coverage of their stories in our special section, “Life After Iraq.” - sg/TO
Joe Wheeler, an Iraq vet who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, says it’s criminal to call war a “learning experience.”
When Joe Wheeler enlisted in the military in 2000, he was thinking about student loans a whole lot more than about terrorism. He came from a poor family with six siblings and worked his way through college, graduating with about $50,000 unpaid. Two years out of college, he was drowning in expenses. In the pre-9/11 era, at the tail end of ten years of relative peace, Wheeler figured that joining the Army would be a quick route to debt relief and graduate education.
“I was in a pretty dire situation, and I felt like it called for serious action on my part,” Wheeler told me in an interview. “I didn’t join expecting to go to war.”
The plan was to spend a year or two on base and then get on with his life. But just months after he entered basic training, the twin towers fell, and there was no way out for Wheeler. He waited for a year and a half as the fighting intensified and the anxiety built among soldiers on the home front. In that time, Wheeler got over a major case of squeamishness - “I hated the sight of blood,” he says - and trained as a medic. He began working his way toward an MBA in business administration, hoping to earn a middle management position at a local company and raise a family. His wife became pregnant. But all the while, the prospect of war sat like a lump at the back of his throat.
Those months may have sown the seeds for the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he developed after Iraq, Wheeler says. The constant anxiety of anticipation and the mandates of military life ruled his mind - and his schedule.
“I could get a call in the middle of the night and have to be on base in ten minutes,” he told me. “Otherwise I could lose a month’s pay, or worse. I had insomnia the whole time I was in the Army.”
In October 2002, a few months away from both the completion of his master’s degree and the birth of his daughter, Wheeler’s notice came: he was to be ready within 24 hours to deploy to Iraq, once the invasion began. His superiors told him to sit tight while they worked out a strategy for entry. Should the Army invade through Kuwait or Turkey? At what rate should ground troops be deployed? For five months, Wheeler waited for the inevitable. He wrestled with the idea of escaping to Canada or Mexico, but ultimately decided the risks involved would be too tough on his family.
“Of course,” he says, “it would’ve been harder on my family if I had been killed.”
A couple of guys on Wheeler’s base - single men with fewer obligations and more mobility than he - volunteered to go Iraq in his place, but he refused that prospect, too, unable to let someone else risk death for him.
In March 2003 when the invasion was launched, Wheeler was called up. His wife a new mother, his daughter two months old, he boarded a plane for Kuwait.
When Bloodshed Is “Normal”
“I don’t keep in touch with the friends I had in Iraq,” Wheeler says. “I don’t want anything to do with them. I don’t want to reminisce. I don’t watch the news, don’t go on the internet, don’t talk about Iraq unless I think it’s helping other people, and even then it’s really hard for me to talk about it.”
As a medic, Wheeler dealt with every injury - and every death - up close, performing emergency surgery at a second’s notice. As a human being, he dealt with the fact that some of those casualties and the grief they caused could have been avoided.
In Tikrit, a city in the far north near where Saddam Hussein was captured, Wheeler’s base was full of cooks, computer techs and medics, but extremely short on combat troops. His unit lived in fear that, should someone fall asleep on guard duty, or should a convoy be attacked, their defenselessness would mean unavoidable death.
In Baqubah, near Baghdad, soldiers in Wheeler’s unit felt the impact of the capital city’s bloodshed. Troops were attacked just outside their camp’s gates. Mortar rounds were fired into camp “21 out of 30 nights,” and militants aimed attacks at the chow hall, killing or maiming soldiers as they ate.
“Every time you went to the chow hall, you didn’t know if you’d be hit by a mortar round or not,” Wheeler remembers. “It doesn’t really help digestion.”
Nowadays, when he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, the horrors of the chow hall are still very much alive in Wheeler’s mind.
War stories tend to highlight the heroic sacrifices soldiers make for each other on the field of battle. Those tales are true, says Wheeler.
“There were two motivations for us to fight while we were in Iraq,” he says. “One was not to die. The other was to save the guy next to you.”
But there are other tales. There are the soldiers who, caught in a world where watching others die has become “normal,” kill for no reason at all. (“If you shoot someone, no one asks, ‘Well, did he shoot at you first?’“ Wheeler says.) There are the commanders who, corrupted by power and, perhaps, a sense of helplessness, order their men to kill others on petty grounds.
Wheeler tells of a day he traveled on a convoy with a lieutenant who became annoyed at the tailgating Iraqi driver behind them. The lieutenant handed Wheeler a 9-mm pistol and ordered him to shoot the man. Wheeler refused - a risky move. “I could have gotten in a lot of trouble,” he says. “I just couldn’t bring myself to shoot someone for tailgating.”
Sometimes, in the face of horrific circumstances, even a soldier’s ingrained sense of responsibility for the lives of fellow troops can break down when a power trip kicks in, Wheeler says. He describes a sergeant major who ordered him, along with thirty other soldiers, to go on a dangerous convoy to another base, putting all of them at serious risk of attack. The mission? The officer wanted a beer.
And even worse: “It was nonalcoholic beer,” Wheeler sighs. “It’s amazing how absolute power can affect people.”
Beyond the sheer physical brutalities of war, Joe Wheeler emphasized the horror of the psychological transformations taking place in the people around him - and in himself. Wheeler says it’s inaccurate to describe post-traumatic stress disorder as hitting suddenly after a terrifying experience. For him, it was a continuation of the changes that took place inside him throughout the war; the atrocities he had to “get used to.”
At Camp Iron Horse near the Iran border, Wheeler got to know some Iraqi civilians. Locals were paid $5 a week to work in the kitchen and drive dump trucks to build roads. He remembers a few funny moments - the culture clash was fodder for some awkward interactions. An Iraqi man who’d become friends with some of the soldiers reached out to hold one of their hands; a typical gesture of affection between men in Iraq. The soldier “flipped out at him,” Wheeler says, laughing.
Wheeler found that he and an Iraqi man who worked in the kitchen both spoke Spanish, and they chatted on a regular basis.
However, some of these intercultural exchanges ended abruptly. For awhile, Wheeler was assigned to ride in the dump trucks with Iraqis working on the roads, to keep an eye on them. One man repeatedly mentioned his support of Saddam Hussein, and carried a picture of him in his pocket. Wheeler took him aside and tried to convince him to stop being so vocal in his views. But eventually word got back to Wheeler’s commander, who told the contractor supervising the road work that he wanted the Iraqi man off the base. The contractor took care of that. He killed the man.
Meanwhile, Wheeler’s strongest human connections, with his family, seemed to be slipping away. A call home meant two hours of standing in line to use a satellite phone for a few minutes. And while Wheeler wrestled with the changes taking place inside him, his wife was changing in other ways. She was learning to be - for all intents and purposes - a single mother.
When Joe Wheeler came home from Iraq in early 2004, he did not return to the life he’d left a year ago. His daughter was a year old. She didn’t know who he was. The week he got back, she walked for the first time. He had never seen her crawl.
His wife, now used to living alone, was startled at the changes in Wheeler’s personality. He was irritable, paranoid and easily angered. He jumped at loud noises. He woke up from raging nightmares, shouting and hallucinating.
“When your life is in constant danger, like, ‘you may or may not get killed today,’ for several months at a time, your body goes into fight or flight mode and stays that way all the time,” Wheeler says. “Then you come back, and you can’t flip that switch off.”
Today, Wheeler is in the midst of a divorce. He estimates that “90 percent” of the problems between him and his wife are due to his PTSD. He has also stopped speaking to one of his brothers. At times, he says, his life is ruled by a need to “interact with as few people as possible.”
Wheeler’s career climb, one of his motivations for entering the military in the first place, is currently on hold. After leaving Iraq, it took him about three months to find a job. Since then, he has drifted, working as a health club manager, a real estate salesman and now as a limo driver. The simple movements of daily life - not to mention the constant human dealings necessary for a career in business - are still very tough.
“Most limo drivers don’t have MBAs,” Wheeler says. “Let’s just put it that way.”
Once Wheeler realized the impact of his PTSD, he sought treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and hit roadblocks. It took him two years to obtain a “disability” designation, which means the cost of his therapy is covered by the VA.
VA therapists rotate in and out every three or four months and, says Wheeler, he’s not sure how much the treatment helps him; it’s hard to make progress in such short-term spurts. However, the psychotropic drugs he takes in conjunction with therapy do help him function, so he continues to return for treatment.
“At least now the VA acknowledges that Iraq messed me up,” he says.
Wheeler would like to think of himself as an optimistic person. All his life, he has worked hard to rise above his circumstances, and he deeply respects those who overcome obstacles and struggle for what they believe in. He committed his heart, his body and a year away from his newborn child to fulfill his lifesaving duties as a medic. “I was a good soldier,” he says. Yet he can’t bear the mantra, “Support the troops.”
“I love the philosophy that the experiences you go through in life help shape who you are, and negative experiences help make you tougher,” Wheeler says. “But with Iraq I really don’t feel that way. It’s time that I’ll never get back. It’s one of the few decisions I’ve made that I really regret.”
1. PTSD claims from veterans have risen tenfold since the beginning of the Iraq War. (The VA)
2. Between 1995 and 2007, almost 2,200 active-duty soldiers committed suicide; 188 of them last year. (CBS news report)
3. More than 6,256 veterans committed suicide in 2005 alone. That’s more than twice the suicide rate of non-vets. (CBS news report)
4. Between 1997 and 2004, funding for VA mental health services decreased by 25 percent. (The VA)