The VAF’s second Podcast

Listen to our second podcast as I interview Matt Mack, a combat veteran from the early days of Iraq.  He was blown up by a suicide bomber in a car and lived to tell the tale.  Hear what it’s like to survive and recover from a bombing.

My squadmate passed on this essay about PTSD and Gun Control

This essay’s 7 pages long, but reads quickly.  The author, interviewee and I served together in Alaska and Iraq.  We’ve all been hurt in different ways from our time overseas.  Please read the essay and comment.  It’s about the sadness and stigma of PTSD.

Will Sandberg

Veterans Without Arms

Immediately upon opening the door I could smell the gun oil. Directly in front of me was a wall-mounted display case housing various jet black rifle scopes ranging in price and quality. Around that was an early Civil War era photograph of a Union Officer that “Grampa’s Gun Shop” had been named after. Further decorating the walls were an assortment of shooting accessories that were all interesting to look at. There hung old leather western style pistol belts right next to a modern paramilitary assault vest used for stashing ammo magazines and first-aid kits. Blowguns, crossbows, and African hunting knives stood in their place to be ogled by my interested eyes and countless bondoliers, cases, and slings peeked out of the walls and shelves of the tiny Willy Street business. Pretty neat, but of course I haven’t even mentioned the plethora of firearms glinting light about the room with their shiny blued and chromed barrels. This place had it all, or at least a really diverse selection of weapons. Hanging on the open door of owner, Larry’s, wooden display cabinet was a Ruger Mini-14 with a scope being sold for a mere five-hundred dollars. If you had found that rifle at any mainstream gun dealer or sporting goods store they would have jacked the price up at least another two-hundred dollars. As I continued scanning from one gun to another, pistol then shotgun, rifle then carbine, I realized they were all priced incredibly fair and I decided right there that the owner of this place was here because he loved firearms way more than making money off of them and wanted to give others the affordable opportunity to share in his interest.

My mouth watered as I scanned his inventory for a third time and my focus fell back on the Mini-14. “That’s a sweet deal,” I said aloud. “Maybe next time.”  Next time because today I was here to get two .25 auto pistols for my wife and I. The weather had just begun to warm up and I decided this was the year that I would get my wife a gun of her own. In years past she has proven to be a great shot with my rifles, but she never really got overly interested. When we first got married I was home on leave from Afghanistan and wanted to get her a Walther P99, the James Bond gun from “Casino Royale” for a wedding present, but decided to save our money as we would be going to Italy to live on a meager military salary where the Euro was putting the Dollar to shame. It turned out to be a great idea to save the money because we ended up needing it, and as I began to know my wife a little better I concluded that she, and probably most women, wouldn’t appreciate the awesomeness of the P99. So now, years later, I had it all planned out. I would by two little, dirt-cheap automatic pistols of the same caliber, one  for her and one for myself, in order to blast away as a couple and hopefully get her to fall in love with the sport and eventually trade the pistols back in for the expensive, but oh-so-amazing Walther.

Once again I was amazed at how little they cost. “You think they work?” I asked Larry, probing for some reaffirmation that it would be a good purchase.

“They’re guaranteed,” he said in a raspy, older than time voice, putting my mind to rest. “You’ll just need to fill out these forms, and there’s a forty-eight hour waiting period and your background check will take a little while to process, so just call back tomorrow.” The forms were quite simple to fill out. The first answer is ‘yes” and the rest are all “no.” It asks you things like: are you a convicted felon? and: have you ever renounced your citizenship or been involved in a plot to overthrow the US government? “Jeez,” I thought. “There are some real scumbags out there.”

I left feeling pretty pumped. It was going to be a rough couple of days trying not to spill the beans to my wife, but I knew she would be excited when she held the tiny yet hefty chrome automatic in her hands.

The next day in the early afternoon the handguns were in the forefront of my thoughts. I wondered if I should go buy a little case or two in preparation for transporting my new shooters home, but I remembered the last time I bought a gun at Grampa’s, Larry had vacuum sealed my single shot 16 gauge up in plastic and made it into a legal case. I decided to call him and inquire and I might as well check in on the status of my background check. At any rate, just talking to Larry is always rewarding. He’s one of those neat old guys, you know?

“Hey Larry, just calling to see if you think I should bring in a case or two for those pistols tomorrow and wondering if you have ammunition for them.”

“Your background check was denied.”

“Wait, what?” I must not have heard correctly. There’s no way me of all people would be denied a gun. Yet, when he responded he made sure he was very clear.

“Your background check was denied. I don’t know why, but it was. Come in and get your refund during regular business hours.” Then he hung up.

While still in denial, thoughts and explanations began to whirl through my head. Someone must have stolen my identity. Maybe I filled out the form incorrectly. Is it possible that I am a victim of mistaken identity? At any rate this was terribly embarrassing.

I got my daughter dressed and waited a few hours for the gun shop to open so I could go get my money back, but what I wanted was the guns I picked out. As I entered I put my kid on my shoulders to  keep her inquiring hands off the forbidden fruits. Larry looked rather uneasy as he read the receipt and started counting money back to me.

“This is crazy!” I said, “I’m a veteran. You really don’t know why I got denied?” Larry looked at me like he had never met me before, and I could see fear in his eyes like I was raising my voice or posing a threat to his safety.

“I don’t know anything about it.” He said nervously, avoiding my eyes. “This pamphlet contains guidelines for appealing the denial and here is your denial number and here is your money.” He crammed it into my hands and looked at the door. It was my time to leave.

In a second I went from embarrassed to degraded. This cool old guy that I’ve done business with and had the pleasure of sharing in conversation with that bridged a couple of generations’ gap with our common interest has now shunned me as unworthy of even the slightest inter-personal acknowledgement. In fact, he looked so on edge and worried that I felt if I hadn’t left the store right then, he would have triggered the alarm or called the police.

With my daughter still planted on my shoulders I left the shop and browsed through the pamphlet. Among the information provided to explain the appeals process there was also a section listing various disqualifiers that may explain why the denial was given.  Among them were:

-illegal or unlawful aliens

-convicted of a felony

-domestic abuse/violence

-drug use/convictions

-fugitive from justice

-involuntarily committed for treatment of mental illness

“Wow,” I thought. In the not even two years since I’ve been medically retired from the Army the only trouble I have gotten into was a single speeding ticket which I promptly paid.

When I got home I put my little girl down for her nap. I decided I would call the number on the pamphlet labeled “Handgun Hotline” and hopefully I could get some answers before having to go through what appeared to be an exhaustive appeals process to even figure out why I was denied in the first place. I took a few breaths to settle myself after remembering the look in the shop owner’s eyes when I got even the littlest bit worked up about not being able to purchase the guns. “This is a sensitive situation,” I thought to myself.

“Wisconsin Department of Justice Handgun Hotline,” the pleasant woman’s voice said over the phone.

I gave her my name and social-security number and crossed my fingers hoping that she would say something about it being a mistake or at the very least tell me what infractions I have committed to get on the Federal Gun Ban List.

“I’m sorry sir even if I knew off-hand I wouldn’t be able to give you that information over the phone.” She then went on to explain, chronologically the repeal steps that I had in writing right in front of my face. “Do you have any other questions?”

“Yes,” I said, taking a relaxation breath to bring me down a notch before I went on my tangent. “I just got honorably discharged from the Army. I was in for over seven years and I have a Purple Heart. There’s just no way I should be barred from purchasing a firearm.” Boom! What a bullet-proof argument, right? Is there anyone more American than myself, an Infantryman that was wounded in battle fighting for our free nation?

The response was unexpected to say the least. “Well you may have just answered your question right there.”

“What do you mean?”

“You said you were wounded, right? How so?”

“Well ma’am I took the brunt of an RPG blast, got some shrapnel in my legs, and a mild traumatic brain injury.”

“TBI, huh?  Were you treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

“Of course,” I responded, “I already said I was in the Infantry. It pretty much comes with the job.”

“Well,” she wrapped up, “I suggest you take the appropriate steps written in the instructions for the appeal, and in the meantime look up the Veterans’ Disarmament Act. Thank you and have a nice day.” The call ended.

Veteran’s Disarmament Act? The title sounded absolutely ridiculous to me. Out of desperation I dialed my estranged father in Texas who happens to be a licensed antique firearms dealer. His love of firearms was passed down to him from his father who hand-made black powder rifles. It’s pretty easy to see what an impact the tradition of guns has had on our family.

“I told you like two years ago that they were passing that bill.” He mumbled. I wasn’t surprised that he had told me and I didn’t compute the information. Most of what he says, to me, is just right wing  nonsense that I try to block out. “I’ll do some checking for you through the NRA and give you a call back.”

I would do some checking myself and what I found overwhelmed me.  I read the bill in its entirety. I also read forum after forum and many analysis of the act. As it turns out the bill known as HR 2640 requires states to handover medical records to the Attorney General or face punishments such as loss of federal funding. Yes, that’s correct, disclosure of medical records. Can that be legal? It has to be if the Attorney General said it. The numbers were staggering. Over 140,000 veterans’ medical records have been compromised and their names have now been added to a federal gun ban list.

According to an unnamed source in the World Net Daily, “The plan allows names to be entered into the NICS system based solely on a physician’s diagnosis or prescription of a medication: adults who have taken Ritalin and soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would be classified as mentally ill and given the same opportunity to own firearms as convicted felons: None.”

“I’m mentally ill now? I will admit that I took a serious knock, and life has been more difficult in sleeping and maintaining meaningfull, personal relationships, but I got messed up fighting this government’s war and it has ruined my life. Now they want to punish me for my selfless acts by categorizing me with felons and the criminally insane? This is a severe injustice.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It can occur after you’ve seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death. PTSD has been around much longer than the diagnosis. In World War I it was called “shell shock,” in World War II it became “battle fatigue,” and in the Vietnam War the term was Vietnam syndrome. It’s not hard to imagine the stereotypical “crazy ‘nam-vet” that cannot function in everyday life. However, that is where the misunderstanding lies. Many PTSD cases are so minor and or temporary, that an onlooker would never know by looking at the sufferer. This is because there is a broad spectrum of symptoms felt by those with the condition. Symptoms could be as insignificant as loss of appetite. Also, in most cases the disorder disappears after three months. However, the diagnosis and medications prescribed live on through controversially disclosed medical records and the paper trail of drugs prescribed to fight the disorder.

Unfortunately for us Veteran’s, the bill states that “any danger” not just a “substantial” or “imminent” danger is enough to make you a “prohibited person.”  That means the brave people that were even braver to seek help for their often stigmatized disorder are the ones effected, and the ones who chose to keep the self-destructive condition bottled up inside are unopposed in their pursuit of firearms.

This controversial bill was passed on December 19th when most Congressmen had left DC for the holidays. The party leadership had told them that all the major votes were over and that the only  legislative business left related to non-controversial issues, such as when Congress would return from holiday break, but it was then that the House and Senate passed the Veterans Disarmament Act without a recorded vote.

Of course, fears of battle stressed soldiers are not wholly unwarranted. The news publication ran an in depth feature look into PTSD and Iraq veteran Brock Savelkoul’s near fatal, armed confrontation with police in North Dakota. However, the story also mentions several of Brock’s squadmates that went through the same ordeal and are also suffering from PTSD, but are now living productive, although I’m sure challenging lives.  I can support the assumption that many vets come home in need of help, but punishment and alienation can only result in more negative impacts. Furthermore, if someone had wanted to go on a heinous shooting rampage, the legality of obtaining a firearm wouldn’t be of great concern when they could just steal one or purchase one off of the street from people like those who physically bound and robbed Larry of Grampa’s Gunshop in March of last year.

I again look at the pamphlet of doom. The second step of appeals is to go to the local police station and get a fingerprint card taken, but have it first filled out that it is in regards to being denied eligibility to own a handgun. So now the police see me as a liability in their peaceful community. More humiliation for fighting for my country. I decide to call my buddy Mark, a Milwaukee native I served with in the Alaskan Stryker Brigade. While we were serving in Iraq, Mark was shot by a sniper through the chest and almost died. He might as well have not been wearing body armor. I won’t be forgetting that day anytime soon. I remember Mark as the super muscular jock he was in the Army and although we were friends we were also competitors because we were the Wisconsin boys. When I see him now I feel a sadness that I try to not let him see. He is a rough shell of the man he once was. He’s down to 130 pounds, lives in his mother’s basement, has a crooked back, and now has an absolute bitter personality. Mark and I are fisherman and bow hunting fanatics. We also gun hunt. During the fall and winter months we try our best to overcome our regrets of war and his physical limitations in search of giant whitetail deer. We do it not only because we enjoyed it since we were children, but because when were out there sitting in trees awaiting our quarry, the weight of the world that has left us in its dust, is lifted from our shoulders. We are at peace and it is an understanding we have never had to verbalize to one another.

“Mark it’s Will, guess what…..”

“You know, man,” He said, “I am not surprised.” He then goes off on a ten minute rant about the “guaranteed” federal home loan he has been working on for five years. I too have tried my hand at the V.A. loan with no success and gave up when it was clear that it is just another broken promise by the government. “If I was fucking the country up as bad as they are now, I wouldn’t want those who were willing to fight for what they believe in to have guns either.”

Screenplay: SATIN FIST

I’m attempting to attach a downloadable PDF file of a screenplay.  It’s based on PTSD, DADT (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell), and revenge.

It’s called Satin Fist, which is a play on the old Iron Fist type films.  Please feel free to download it and feedback’s welcome.  We hope someday to produce it locally or in Hollywood.  It’s a second draft, so it’s a bit rough around the edges.martial art movie

The stigma needs to be removed…

Veterans, Cops, and other people in stressful jobs find it hard to admit they’re having problems.  The main reason is dealing with the Stigma that comes with admitting mental illness.

I was an infantryman for 4 years with the Stryker Brigade in Alaska.  Infantry is full of alpha males and people who want to be perceived as mentally and physically tough.  I was guilty of heaping some scorn on a fellow soldier for coming to terms with his issues.  I thought I was tougher and less likely to suffer PTSD or other mental health issues.

It wasn’t because I was tougher, I’d say.  I was just calmer and rational about violence and stress.  That was just in the moment, however.  I tended to become emotional and angry after.  I’ve been in fistfights, bar fights, and altercations since Iraq.  I’ve also been recalled in the military after being out for 2 years.

What changed my life for the better was realizing the problems I was having and becoming proactive.  I’d accidentally fell into the vet center through a friend.  It took years of work and medication to calm me down and put me on the right path.  The Vet Center helped me form this nonprofit and set goals.  The VAF’s where I want to work and create for the rest of my life.

There are a number of resources for veterans.  I’ll highlight the Vet Center today and more later.   Active duty military have a hard time finding them or getting involved.  I was lucky, but the word needs to be spread.  Here’s a video and a link to the Vet Center homepage.  They’re confidential.  While under the VA, they’re not required to share information.

Putting Together a Writer and A Hero: Not that easy

I am working on putting together a writer (a veteran himself) and Benny Alicea (retired, Silver Star awardee).  All this time, I figured it would be easy once I found a writer.  I’m a bit naive and admit that.  Everyone, besides myself has quite a bit on their plate.

I do hope this come to fruition and we can create a worthy book about this veteran’s wartime (Fallujah and Najaf) experiences, and readjustment issues when he came home to a different world.

Here’s a link to Sgt. Alicea’s story.  He’s a close personal friend of the foundation and a poet.

Waterbury Police Department Training

Training police about veterans’ issues can be a tricky endeavor.  Police on the whole are a tough group to break through when face to face during instructions.  One has to reach out to them on a level playing field.  Cops are reserved as a group and individually.  A great deal of veterans are officers of the law and that may help.

Veterans are slowly but surely causing issues within the criminal justice system.  Domestic violence, dui’s, alcohol, and drug abuse are becoming prevalent in our generation.  No one’s immune, in our cohort.  Whether you suffer or cause suffering isn’t always the issue.  Others around you will, and ignoring it will cause it to escalate to an epidemic.

Facing a group of police is nerve wracking when leading a discussion panel and questions and answers.  In order to reach them, you must make them understand   Cops usually respond to gallows humor, but today, mine fell short.  They listened carefully, sans one aloof officer, who didn’t keep his smirks to himself.  (I may have misinterpreted his ticks though).

Chris and I taught police signs of PTSD, depression, identifying and coping mechanisms for veterans.  We also share how to deescalate potentially violent situations through empathy.  In the end, some police officers approached us with questions and complements.  One of the greatest things we’ve heard has been “this has been the greatest training I’ve ever had in X years.”  It’s flattering and means we have reached at least some level of understanding within the law enforcement community.

Death of Dreams

I grew up, hoping to be one of two things.  A cop or an Archeologist (thanks, Indiana Jones!), and these at first seemed attainable.  Arguably the archeologist one still is.  I even graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in Criminal Justice.  After failing to drift right into a police job, I joined the military.

Spending four years in the army was no cake-walk.  It also wasn’t too bad at times.  The 16 months of combat took its toll on my mental stability and anger management.  I went for disability and ended up walking away with 60%.  The choice I made of admitting my problems and seeking disability has rendered my dreams of ever becoming a cop virtually nonexistent.

I started the art foundation in response.  I’m no painter, but I love writing and film and appreciate all aspects of art.  I’ve written films, screenplays, and even shopped around a screenplay (failing, I might add) since being home.  This is my plan for the future.  (may do one of those Archeology vacations and hopefully fight off Nazis)

The problem with disability (mentally and/or physically) and admitting you have them, resounds throughout your life.  As a 60% vet, I cannot apply for police departments.  The state has the highest, at 50 percent acceptance.  Even then, I don’t think they’d allow me, with my depression and anxiety in.  These issues will affect large numbers of veterans with problems.  They have to balance their issues with job opportunities.

A large portion of combat vets seek jobs in law enforcement or the likes. Those jobs suite their needs and personality.  If they admit their issues, then they’re basically out of luck.  Finding other meaningful work, will be tough.  That’s why I hope to at least help  alleviate some stress with this foundation.  There will be thousands of disenfranchised veterans with little motivation when dreams disappear before their very eyes.  Something needs to change, whether it be laws or employment standards.  To deny veterans jobs, is a crime.

Vets Killing Themselves

I’m not going to go over the stats, the news stories, the army’s stance, etc.   Those are already covered enough in the media and blogging world.  My best friend who survived Fallujah, Najaf, and other major campaigns, a silver star recipient, has known three people who’ve committed the act.  By way of gun and car crash.  As of this post, no one I know has killed themselves, unfortunately I don’t think that will hold.

I personally suffer from major depression, permanently brought on by wartime experience.  (50% disability for that alone)  I’ve struggled with it since I was 18, (which I found amazing the VA awarded me the disability, I was honest with them) caused by repeated blows to my head during a terrible fist fight.  I haven’t been the same.  Suicide’s always a way out I guess, but it’s the end all.  Final.  I’m fairly certain that it won’t ever be a serious thought in my head.

This ‘epidemic’ has just begun.  As the war(s) close down and soldiers filter back into the U.S. and society in general, there will be more self bloodshed.  56,000 vets died in Vietnam, during the conflict.  I’ve heard more than double that killed themselves in the ensuing years.  Those statistics will probably carry over into our conflict.

The VA, Army, and other groups have programs in place, but there’s more to be done.  Our foundation will help to alleviate some of the issues, including mine.  The most important roadblock is the stigma attached to admitting you’ve got a problem.  This is so strong it will prevent even the most self sufficient vet into backpedaling away from help.  I was basically told I was “weak” by a close army friend the other weekend, because I had issues, or at least admitted them.  It stung, but it wasn’t enough.  It’s too late, I’m seeking help.  Somehow that issue needs to be overcome and rectified, once that happens, healing can begin.