“There wasn’t a day that went by that I did not fire my weapon in combat,” he said.
Between his last two deployments, he was hospitalized in Germany for post-traumatic stress. He pondered suicide at least once back in Brooklyn. “When I got out of the service is when everything hit me,” he said.
“It’s not natural for a human being to take a life from another human being. It’s not natural to see children not as children but as a target,” said Mr. James, who is now a policy adviser for the Black Veterans Project. “I used to sleep with a gun under my pillow. For the first two years of marriage, I didn’t sleep in the bed; I slept on the couch to guard the door. I still carry those things with me. I was 90 percent disabled at 26 years old. People don’t understand how much fighting I have seen.”
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Geoffrey Easterling was an officer in the 3rd Cavalry Division in Afghanistan. He said he loved his time in the military, but service members needed better basic mental health preparation.
“Right before we were deployed, I went to a service and the chaplain told us, ‘You’re going to go home and either want everyone to touch you and hug you, or everyone to leave you alone,’” he said. “That should be told to every soldier, to make sure those things are clear.”
Some veterans feel disconnected from community and lack a sense of purpose when they return home.
“When you tell a progressive you served in a war, they look at you as if you were a gang member, and they look for an explanation as to why you joined,” said Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute and a Marine veteran. “Conservatives will often shower praise on you and put you on a bizarre pedestal. Neither of those interactions feels particularly authentic.”
In military families, scholars find what they call secondary traumatic distress, symptoms of anxiety stemming from a service member’s combat-related trauma and complicated feelings about family traditions that compelled many to serve.
June Heston’s husband, Mike Heston, died in 2018 of cancer that doctors said was related to exposure to toxins during his deployment with the National Guard. “He was the soldier and if asked to go again would have,” she said. “It was hard for him, a man who loved his country and our military, to tell our son, ‘Do not join.’”