No peace for Army town where Iraq War rages on

Updated
Credit: Erin Trieb
Credit: Erin Trieb

After her 18-month deployment in Iraq ended in 2008, Melissa Amos came home.

“I’m not the person I was,” Amos said. “I came back broken.”

She doesn’t sleep through the night. Public places make her anxious: she eyes exits and entrances with nagging suspicion. She’s sometimes irritable, reclusive, and has made a habit of ducking out of family gatherings abruptly and unannounced.

She rarely opens up to civilians about her experiences of the war. The memories of bloodied soldiers, many with their limbs blown off. Or the sexual assault she said she suffered at the hands of fellow soldiers in her unit. In all, her deployment left her with “invisible wounds”–harder to deal with in some ways, she says, than a physical injury or deformity.

Roughly 2 million veterans like her have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan to towns across the country. In some places, vets are scattered and scarce. But Amos made her way back to Watertown, New York, a rural, weather-beaten town of about 27,000 along the Black River, and the communal hub of nearby Ft. Drum, where she’d once been stationed with the 10th Mountain Division–the military’s most-deployed division to the decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It isn’t only individual soldiers who suffer, trying to reclaim family roles or find security after fear and upheaval. The communities to which they return struggle as well. Is there such a thing as a town with PTSD? If so, Watertown is a good candidate for the designation. A whole town scarred by wounds, invisible or all too visible.

A large percentage of the town’s population is made up of active duty troops, veterans and their families. More than 19,000 active duty soldiers are stationed at Ft. Drum, including 9,313 military families, 61% of which live off post, according to Army reports.

The military base is simultaneously the economic lifeblood of the community and the source of resentment and friction. In the last decade, as so many young men and women from Ft. Drum cycled in and out of combat, Watertown has suffered: 21% of the population is under the poverty line, compared to 14% for New York State. Social services are stretched. Unemployment is above 12%, and locals complain that businesses give hiring preference to veterans and their families.

The massive First Baptist Church with its stone steeple looms above Watertown’s once-bustling downtown public square, where vacant storefronts that used to house music shops, clothing stores and other family-owned businesses sit dark and ominous. As Ft. Drum expanded, downtown has shrunk, replaced by a sort of suburban sprawl miles away with big chain restaurants and new housing units. Rental costs have been artificially inflated by military housing allowances; locals were priced out of the market and speculators rushed in. But as deployments of troops became more frequent, many speculators became absentee owners, which destabilized neighborhoods. “Overnight, I have to say, it created a real hardship,“ said Gary Beasley, the executive director of Neighbors of Watertown.

POVERTY, UNEMPLOYMENT MARK VET TOWN

And every few months there seems to be another high-profile crime committed by a soldier or recent veteran.

In truth, overall crime in Watertown is about the same as it was, per capita, a decade ago. But that’s not how it feels to people who live here. “Watertown used to be better than this,” said lifelong resident Chris Wadsworth on a cold, March afternoon at Mo’s Place, a small diner popular with locals. “Seems like there’s a war going on here at home.” Years ago, Wadsworth said, “you could leave your door unlocked at night, but now you have to lock it down like Ft. Drum.”

After a rash of arrests of soldiers who’d allegedly been involved in shootings, break-ins, robberies and murder last year, Maj. Gen. James L. Terry of the 10th Mountain Division told a local newspaper that it’s “a far stretch to try to connect all those right now and say you have a trend of soldiers becoming more violent.”

“With an increase in population, you have more crimes,” Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns chimed in at the time. “I don’t think it’s because of the soldiers.”

But a fast-growing base like Ft. Drum changes not just a town’s population level but also its profile–in ways that can be troublesome. A vast percentage of active duty soldiers are between the ages of 18 and 25: a high-risk demographic in any social context, let alone one that’s operating under the stresses of military life and combat fatigue.

Detective Sgt. Joseph Donoghue Sr. of the Watertown Police Department said that most of the crime in town consists of drug offenses, DWI’s, underage drinking and bar fights, committed mostly by older teenagers and young adults in their 20s–the same age as the local soldiers. “It’s not necessarily because they wear a uniform,” Donoghue said of the law-breakers. “It’s the age.”

But Donoghue rattled off a list of violent crimes that included the killing of a 4-month-old by a soldier who’d been in the process of adopting him. Several robberies and burglaries. The butcher-knife killing of a soldier’s boyfriend and a drive-by shooting in which a soldier rode his motorcycle up to a couple and opened fire, striking one of them in the leg before he lost control of the motorcycle and crashed.

Donoghue surmised that post-traumatic stress disorder might have played a role in many of these crimes. War-related PTSD has been suspected as the root of veteran struggles including alcohol and drug dependency, crime, violence and in many cases, suicide. The symptoms can include reliving disturbing events, nightmares, emotional avoidance, and agitation.

“I don’t see how these people can be sent overseas so many times,“ he said. “We’re starting to see some of those who have these problems getting in trouble, and there are others who aren’t. Sometimes things don’t come to a head until they’re in a really stressful situation.” Ft. Drum officials did not respond to msnbc’s requests for comment on the issue.

Mike Sportello, an Iraq War veteran who was stationed at Ft. Drum in the mid-2000s after spending two years in Iraq, said many soldiers come home to places like Watertown where there’s little opportunity, or sometimes, little compassion.

“It’s not a real vet-friendly town,” Sportello said. “You’ve got a post that was up until about eight or nine years ago, about 6,000-soldiers strong. Now there’s close to 25,000 there. You’re talking about a lot of testosterone. They’re fighters.”

Many of the returning veterans will drop off the grid, he said. “They’re broken inside and they really don’t feel wanted or needed. They start getting in trouble, with alcohol and drugs,” he said. “And it doesn’t help that the local guys think they’re taking all their girls.”

The problem of returning servicemen struck Chris Wadsworth’s family in a particularly tragic way. In 2005, Edundabira Ojo, an Iraq War veteran who’d been home just two months, murdered two of Wadsworth step-daughters. Ojo was an ex-boyfriend to one of the girls, Kelly M. Exford, 22, and one night, he tracked her to a friend’s house where she’d been babysitting and stabbed her to death. Then he killed her sister, Shannon M. St. Croix, 24, who’d walked in during the killing. Ojo was convicted of both murders and sentenced to life in prison.

“I do feel bad for the guys with the PTSD,” Wadsworth said. “And it’s hard to balance. They have fought for our freedoms and we’re proud of that. But they’ve also caused a lot of problems for us.”

FINDING SOLACE AMONG PEERS 

Melissa Amos, at least, has found solace.

She retired from the military in 2010. In Watertown, where she and her husband live and where she served during a stint as an active duty soldier, she found a community of men and women who could understand the experiences that she herself can hardly make sense of. Like that field of sunflowers about a mile and a half outside of camp Anaconda in Iraq, which used to remind Amos, then a reservist with the National Guard, of her grandmother’s garden back home in Pennsylvania. There was something comforting about the way the flowers broke into waves of green, and the way they exploded from their stalks like starbursts against the monochrome of the Iraqi desert.

“It was my 10 seconds of peacefulness,” Amos said, describing the sight of the field each day as she drove in and out of the sprawling military base in Balad.

Before long, though, her sunflower daydreams became soaked in blood. Insurgents used the field to hide mortar launching tubes to attack American troops. Each day she saw fellow soldiers rushed into the hospital where she volunteered. Some were already dead. Others were badly wounded with missing limbs or shrapnel plunged deep into their bodies.

“The insurgents were in the medical bays right next to the soldier they just tried to blow up,” Amos said. “That was really hard. We would lose some of our guys and have to save the guys who just injured themselves trying to kill us.”

One insurgent looked her in the eye, she said, thanked her, and then warned, “If I see you outside, I’m going to kill you.”

Now Amos works as a military, veterans and family advocate for VETS, a peer-to-peer support center which opened in December in a former flooring and design store in downtown Watertown. Amos and a small team of advocates and volunteers connect veterans to mental health services and other supports. But mostly they serve as a shoulder and sounding board for folks who, like them, have traveled the long road back from war. Many have battled not only their own nightmares but the feeling that outsiders have written them off as damaged or dangerous, as bad seeds.

“We explain to them that they’re not alone,” said Steven Waldner, a veteran and coordinator at VETS who has served six combat tours overseas, including one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. “We’ve been at sustained combat for 10 years,” he said. “Some of these soldiers are on their second and third deployments in four years. What will they be like twenty years from now?”

Very few civilians–even trained therapists–can relate to what soldiers have gone through. In Watertown, there’s no shortage of willing listeners familiar with the challenges of being in combat–and of coming home. Amos, too, knows what it’s like to live in two worlds. “I feel like sometimes I have one combat boot on and one high heel,” she said.

“There’s a way to come out of this stronger,” Amos added. “I’m not whole anymore. I’m tattered and there are holes in me. But we have to find out who we are now and make the rest of our lives as meaningful as they’d been.”

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No peace for Army town where Iraq War rages on

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