Scars in the right places

We choose to serve. And when we choose to serve, sometimes chance chooses us. Every deployed service member leaves behind someone who cares, someone who, when giving one last hug before their warrior ships out, feels their pride clash with the fear that this last hug might be the last hug. After that, every call from an unknown number, every unexpected knock on the door, reignites the constant worry in the daily lives of those on the home front, making them shudder at the prospect of what might be.” – Gus Biggio served as a Marine in Afghanistan in 2009, quoted by the Washington Post

Santa Isabel (renamed Malabo), Equatorial Guinea, 1970


More than a dozen months ago I wrote to an Army general that the life I’ve known since first being introduced to the ill-mannered end of a bayonet in Africa at age 5 has prepared me better than most civilians to write about what our wounded warriors and their families have to go through all the time. I asked him – as I ask all who’ve done military service – to support this published researcher and my effort to get off the ground and make thrive a modest open-source “think tank” committed to producing high-quality research products that are grounded in the way life is for our past and present military personnel and their families. Not grounded in the way that I and others who’ve never served might want or assume your lives to be. Research products that ask and seek to answer this question: What will those whose policy choices affect past and present military personnel and their families, need to know if they’re to fix this problem or that one?

I can’t and won’t try to argue with those who say that because I’ve never served in the military I “don’t know what it’s like.” They’ right. I don’t know what it’s like.



I wrote an essay some time back about the men from the U.S. Army’s 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division who were owned by Uncle Sam lock, stock, and barrel when, in late 1950, they were ordered into a Communist Chinese hornets’ nest they had heard didn’t exist. But I didn’t know – I couldn’t know – how even one soldier felt when he learned that what he’d been told about being home by Thanksgiving wasn’t true. I don’t have a single reference point to help me understand how grandad felt as his soul bled out on the battlefields at Unsan, DPRK.

As much as this writer agrees that he should feel what those warriors felt and know intimately what too many still experience, I don’t have a way to make that happen.

But I want to propose something. And I hope that y’all will agree.

It’s this: the thing about meeting the unfriendly end of a bayonet when you’re a five-year-old kid living below the Sahara is that early on you get to see things different from most folks back home. It’s even better if – like I was – you’re a kid living in a place where the bodies of family members who vanish are sometimes returned in horrible shape but with a certificate of natural death. But as a lot of veterans’ kids know far better than I, it sucks when each moment is drenched in fear that those who love you and protect you will end up dead, leaving you to ask, “what’s gonna happen to me?”

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I learned early on that my country and those tasked to do its work operate under threat 24/7. The only question about my duty to God and country has always been nothing more than how I would carry it out. And even though it didn’t work out for me to serve in my nation’s armed forces, as an attorney I still have a sworn duty as to the United States Constitution.
One thing about being a lawyer who works to send people to prison and then a lawyer who works hard to keep your clients out of prison is that you ask a lot of questions and you listen carefully to what people say and to what they don’t say. There’s not a critical fact that a prosecutor presents that doesn’t have to be proved or “stipulated to” by a criminal defendant. There’s not a consequential fact alleged against a defense attorney’s client that shouldn’t be met with “prove it.”

Fortunately for the men and women I’ve defended over the years, a lot of those questions and answers came during my first “lawyer job” after completing law school, passing the Bar exam, and working 20 counties for the 1996 re-election campaign of U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe. They’re lessons that I picked up during my service as an assistant D.A. in a rural judicial district in Oklahoma. I learned a lot of those lessons on the job. But I learned others after my experiences as a prosecutor had time to ferment.

Let’s begin with death duty. Lawyers on the D.A.’s team took one-week turns being available to law enforcement any time of day or night that they thought it best that a lawyer come see a dead person who’d been found. My experience was that the ME often arrived just minutes before I did.Oklahoma state seal 175 x 176

I’m pretty sure that we all saw some pretty nasty stuff during our weeks on death duty. I can’t, and don’t think that I should, forget one bright afternoon not far from the Kansas line. I had been called to a forlorn house two blocks from the D.A.’s office. Marty got there about the same time that I did, and we followed a sheriff’s deputy down a short hall to a room that had been spray-painted in blood earlier in the day. Marty had this ritual he had to go through before I asked any questions. So, the ME lit his cigar, pulled on his rubber gloves, and donned a hazmat suit stitched from gallows humor.

I had a hard time figuring out what exactly I was looking at in the place where a mother’s head should have been. Deputies told us that the woman’s son had been to visit her a few hours before she stripped naked and fired a shotgun into her mouth.

What I experienced in that room sticks with me and is probably why it was important to me years later that if, as I had planned, I fired a round into my skull with the revolver I was clutching in my hand, it was only right that I leave as small a mess as possible for those who cared about me to clean up.

My particular mix of work at the D.A.’s office meant that more often than not, I was the lawyer who represented the State in mental health commitment proceedings. These might happen in a courtroom with the judge robed and managing the hearing from the bench. That’s the way it was the day that an obviously brilliant, articulate gentleman eloquently explained that he was Jesus Christ and that he had some killin’ to do.

But the courtroom wasn’t the only place these emergency proceedings were held. Frequently the commitment hearing met legal standards but was a rather ugly, duct-taped proceeding held in the middle of the night in the local ER. Or, as happened one day, the judge presided over a woman’s commitment hearing at the jailhouse. We were in a bare holding cell or locker room. I forget which.

Those of us who had roles in that hearing happened to be men. So, we averted our eyes and hurried through the hoops that the law required us to pass through; the person whose life was in our hands was a young woman in a nearly catatonic state. She sat buck naked in front of us, a deputy explained, because she had been so persistent in trying to kill herself that jail staff decided the only way to keep her from getting it done was to take away any clothing item she might weaponize.

There seemed to be rhythm to the series of commitment hearings held each month. But God help the families, first responders, and my secretary each time the full moon paid a visit.

Years ago, a psychiatrist I called to the stand told jurors that some of the smartest, most creative, and most accomplished members of society have, in my words, fought the devil to stay alive. The people he listed had household names.

The questions that I asked gave the doctor a chance to testify about a few things the jurors might not have heard of in our “if it bleeds it leads” news culture. Jurors found his testimony helpful, and the trial ended the way that I thought it should.

I accepted everything that expert witness had said with professional detachment. As with most witnesses, I doubt that I felt an emotional response to anything the doctor had told jurors. But I knew this was good stuff to keep at the ready.

A few years after that trial, a lot more of what the psychiatrist told jurors became personal for me. And I was forced to learn at least a few intimate truths about the wicked high wire that life demands so many of our veterans walk.

I’ve never been quite able to figure out why that happened. But at the time I was trench deep in reviewing seemingly never-ending evidence that federal prosecutors had turned over in a multi-state child-sex-trafficking case. I was having a hard time shaking an image my mind had created while reading through FBI FD-302s and other investigation documents: a ten-year-old girl who’d been kidnapped and taken from her home state so that she could be sold out for sex. What was left of the child’s broken body had been found in a dumpster behind a grocery store. The poor kid had refused a bottom bitch’s order to let an over-the-road trucker rape her.

My little girl had been that age not too many years earlier.

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Bridge on the Devils Backbone aka Natchez Trace. Williamson County TN USA. Image attribution Galen 911. accessed 12 June 2018

As far as I know, I was never involuntarily committed for treatment. And only once was an ambulance sent to collect me. It seems that once I finally decided to call the number on the “please don’t jump” sign in front of my jeep, I spent too long discussing the merits of crashing onto State Route 96 from a popular diving bridge in Williamson County, Tennessee. Number 7 on Forbes 2017 list of 10 wealthiest counties in the United States.

One Size Fits All

Recently departed British historian Ben Shephard reports unsettling truths about how we now decide who suffers from shell shock aka combat trauma aka post-traumatic stress. He writes:

“The rapid growth of ‘traumatology’ within medicine was helped by the authority which Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder quickly acquired by being included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III) in 1980. Not only was there now a ‘Chinese menu’ of its symptoms, easy for both doctor and patient to read, there were also standardised packages of diagnostic questionnaires and psychometric devices. No longer need the doctor struggle to understand his patient’s life history and personality, assess his ability to cope, make a ‘subjective’ judgement on his state. Now, the checklist of symptoms told him at a glance whether the patient’s condition was PTSD or not; it was all ‘objective’, taken out of the clinician’s hands.”[v]

I don’t claim to have PTS(D). And the experts I met with back then seemed to split on that question.

In fact, I’ve had a pretty trauma-free life. At least when compared to those we send into combat and their spouses and children who may never get back the same person who left. So, I don’t even want to go down that road.

But Mr. Shephard’s point that we’ve objectified away even the process by which a clinician asks the right questions, listens deliberately, and tailor-makes a treatment plan helps explain, at least to me, one of the reasons that veterans who suffer from PTS(D) don’t get the help they need.

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U.S. Navy SEAL Ryan Francis Larkin, fallen 23 April 2017. image courtesy

People who should know better can be quick to attach labels that lack nuance. And knowing that we do it to our vets makes it easier for me to divine the frustration flowing through the words of a former Navy SEAL who broke silence in order to let others in the NSW community know about new evidence from post-mortem studies of explosive-blast traumatic brain injury.

If I read the 40th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate correctly, evidence of blast-wave damage to the brain structure confirmed his concern that those who treated his son for PTS-related symptoms took the easy way out when it came to diagnosing and treating U.S. Navy SEAL Ryan Francis Larkin.

“Throughout Ryan’s painful journey, the ‘system’ defaulted toward treating him as a behavioral problem or a mental health patient. The ‘system’ hung all types of labels on him to justify their assessments and actions.”[vi]

As his father put it, “[o]ne Sunday morning this past [April 23, 2017], Ryan ended his pain, but ours only continued.”
“Time for Group!”

There are a few things only experienced by those of us lucky enough to have spent a few days, a few weeks, months, or maybe longer in a hospital with doors that lock you in, staff who immediately take your phone and shoelaces, mandatory queue for meds and meals, and maybe an hour or two during the week when the people who love you come by, avert their own eyes, and fumble for something to say.

One of those things you learn quick is that even if, as I did back then, one goes voluntarily into one of these places, once the doors lock behind you, you can’t just walk out of the place at will. I was there because I knew that I needed the help of professionals who know a lot more about the brain and mind than I did. But I also wanted to get the hell out as soon as I could. So, I learned quickly how many “group” therapy sessions I could miss and how much I had to participate in those groups if I wanted to be reported in staff notes as being committed to my “recovery.” The more committed you are, the earlier they let you out. At least that was my experience.

I learned how much I had to comply with staff directives. And I kept my mouth shut around the staff person we all called “Nurse Ratched.” This approach worked well, and I never had to stay in one of those places very long.

Speaking just for me, though, two facts of life about those facilities and the reasons that they exist have a way of beating up on you years after I needed that kind of specialized care. One is that while on the way there, it’s damned easy to burn just enough bridges that no matter how good you are at what you do you find yourself without enough work references to complete the job application on the back side of a McDonald’s tray liner.

The other thing is that even though they tell you not to, you come to care a lot about those who intimately understand what you’ve been through – about those who “get it” – and you stay in touch after y’all leave the place.

But too many times, these people – whom you’re sure will make it – don’t. And our hearts get rubbed raw, as mine did one year ago today while reading a Facebook post from not long before thar, written by the only son of someone I shared a lot of meals and down-time with at one of those places.

Both his mom and I were in love with Tennessee but we also had strong ties to Arizona. That son’s mom made you think. Made you feel. She was someone I never spent time with on the outside. But i’d come to care a lot about her anyway. She lost her fight with her demons a few years ago.

Her son, a child she always talked about and who’s now older, had written a note to his mom in cyberspace to tell her how much he loves her and how much his life hurts without her and how much he just wants to give up so that he can be with her.

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United States Marine Deana Martorella Orellana, USMC, RIP. image courtesy NPR/WUNC

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My message for those I ask to support this research initiative is NOT “I almost put a bullet through my skull, so I must know how those guys feel.” It’s also not “I was scared dad would get killed so I know the anxiety that soldier felt when the best fighter in the squad was killed, leaving him to ask “what’s going to happen to me?”

My message for you is neither of those things. And it’s not a hundred other bogus equivalencies that someone who’s never served might make. I’m still a civilian who’s never done military service and whose life has spared me the ugly stuff y’all experience.

I still don’t get it. I can’t get 150 x 200

One big reason that this duct-taped, Bondo-filled life gives me a better shot than most civilians at doing this kind of work is that I’ve become very good at sorting out what questions need to be asked and figuring out where – and who – I need to go to for the answers, if there are any.

Countless hours with witnesses inside and outside criminal court proceedings has taught me to listen deliberately to the words that someone speaks but also to the words they don’t say. Or can’t say.

Another thing is that during my four years with a Tucson area non-profit that still does a lot right by a lot of people – veterans included – I got better at looking forward and observing how one domino in someone’s life falls onto another. And that one falls onto the next one. And so on. How an action now – whether intended or not – can have consequences for family members who won’t be born for another 20 years.

That’s a lesson many who’ve served in the military and their families have learned the hard way. Not just once. But again and again. That’s just one reason that the 93% of us who’ve never served need to start listening to the seven percent who have.

The best way that I can thank you for your service is to do what I can to make those of us who’ve never served start listening to you.

You can help me do that.