Ramadi Madness

When every member of Florida's 124th Infantry returned from Iraq alive, it seemed too good to be true. It was.

Cabadiana was living at Fort Stewart when Hubert Aris arrived in April 2004 for treatment on his knee, back, and shoulder. The two roomed together in a trailer. Only six months earlier, the base had been the center of a national scandal when United Press International published a story detailing squalid conditions, an overwhelmed staff, and a 600-name waiting list for treatment at Fort Stewart. Those soldiers, like Aris, were there on "medical hold," the terms of their service extended indefinitely until the army evaluated, treated, and discharged them. Six months after that revelation, little had changed; Aris spent nearly a year waiting to be treated.

He didn't mind as much as he might have; the truth was that he had mixed feelings about going home, he says. Shortly after he arrived for treatment, he started arguing with his wife. He began making excuses not to go home, to stay at Fort Stewart, which — in all its squalor and bureaucratic indifference — felt more like home to him now.

When Aris met him, Cabadiana was also undergoing a change. He had found God in Ramadi. The incomprehensible survival of his company despite their many injuries had convinced him an angel was watching over them. In his sudden zeal, he had gone so far as to organize a mass baptism in the Euphrates river. Now he believed God had given him a new purpose: to help soldiers cope. Cabadiana says he has been "like a stepfather" to Aris, whose father died in Jamaica when he was a child. It was Cabadiana who ultimately persuaded Aris to get treated for PTSD.

PTSD has increasingly become the focal point of veteran mental health services. The term began appearing as a diagnosis only since the Eighties, but the symptoms are as old as war itself. "Soldiers' heart," "shell shock," "battle fatigue" — all have described the same phenomenon. According to its most recent numbers, the VA estimates that somewhere between 12 and 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq suffer from PTSD, depending on length of stay and, of course, what the soldier saw and did. Killing ranks high as a risk factor. Of veterans who have received treatment at the VA, 25 percent have received mental health diagnoses, and the vast majority of these are for PTSD. As the war in Iraq slogs on, the VA and other health organizations are sounding alarms about an impending mental health crisis.

Cabadiana has his own name for the problem. "It's the ghost," he says. "We call it the ghost, the ghost that never leaves you alone. When you sleep, you have nightmares. When you're alone in the car, it's talking to you. It's a ghost, always behind you." 

The inpatient program into which Cabadiana committed himself, in which Aris is currently enrolled, is one of 30 programs around the country, although Miami's requires one of the longest stays — 14 weeks. Patients are required to remain at the VA for the duration, two to a room, going home only on weekends and with occasional night passes. The program accommodates 16 patients at a time; the waiting list stretches well into September.

The program, Cabadiana says, helped. "I'm talking to you, aren't I?" he points out. "Now I tell everybody to go. I help them that way. I see a lot of soldiers lately, a lot of friends suffering. I go back to my old unit, I talk to them, help them see that it's a reality."

Aris has been living on the fifth floor of the VA hospital for four weeks. It's a strange sight — the ex-machine-gunner's new life looks a lot like that of a college freshman (actually, says Dr. Daniela David, who runs the program, the ward is supposed to feel like a barracks). His room, which he shares with another vet, consists of two small beds, a mostly empty dresser, and a bulletin board onto which is tacked a schedule of his classes and an American flag. He spends his days attending group meetings and programs like "music therapy" and "relaxation class." On a recent evening, he constructed a wind chime. It helped him calm down, he says.

He's angry about a lot of things. The surgery he received in Fort Stewart left Aris with no feeling in his knee; he has had two corrective surgeries at the VA hospital, and still has only some feeling and partial mobility. Six months after his trip to Fort Stewart, he began to get headaches as well, and doctors discovered that — somehow — he had contracted a brain infection, for which his skull had to be cut open for surgery. The operation rendered him unable to speak for weeks — his words still come out slightly slurred — and every now and then, he fumbles for a word he used just seconds beforehand. But his biggest complaint these days is work: "They say, 'When you come back, you guys will have a job. You will have a job,' they say. Everybody, when you're getting released, they tell you that. 'There are programs just for veterans,' they say. 'All you have to do is apply.' I've filled out 50 or more job applications — nothing."

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