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For Some Veterans, the Battle Continues Against PTSD

November 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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After returning home from Iraq, Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Workman struggled with the memories of war. As Betty Ann Bowser reports, soldiers like Workman are finding that often time, returning home can mean a new battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, on this Veterans Day, we have two takes on the mental stresses of war and how military men and women are dealing with them.

First, Betty Ann Bowser reports on one Marine’s struggles. The report is for our Health Unit, a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s a beautiful, crisp fall day in Northern Virginia, as Staff Sargent Jeremiah Workman, his wife, Jessica, and their 2.5-year-old son, Devon, play outdoors, a tranquil family scene, but one that masks the war this decorated Marine has fought, first in the streets of Iraq, and later back home, with post-traumatic stress disorder.

It all started in the city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, in November of 2004. For weeks, Marines pounded the city in one of the most violent encounters with insurgents in the war. U.S. troops eventually regained control of the city. Then, two days before Christmas, a day Workman will never forget.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN, U.S. Marine Corps: Yes, it was December 23, 2004. That was the day we opened Fallujah back up to the civilians to come back to their homes.

And my platoon, we were tasked with going door to door and getting weapons and ammo that were left behind during the battle. We got to the third house. And I was up in the upstairs clearing it, and then I heard gunfire open up across the street. And I kind of — I just froze for — I felt like I was stuck there for 10 minutes, but I knew that they were being ambushed.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The house was full of insurgents, who had a group of Marines pinned down by gunfire. A fierce battle ensued.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN: The only thing I remember seeing was they were being shot at, and all the bullets were bouncing between their heads on the wall. And it was just chewing the wall up.

We didn’t know how many insurgents we were looking at, but there was quite a bit of firepower coming from up there. And I went running up the stairs. I kind of had my rifle over my head, just spraying and praying. I was scared.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When it was over, insurgents had killed three of Workman’s buddies, Corporal Raleigh Smith, Lance Corporal Eric Hillenburg, and Lance Corporal James Phillips.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN: I can’t describe the feeling. I mean, it was just like somebody flipped a switch. And I just wanted to kill these — you know, the bad guys, the guys that had done this to our Marines.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So, he and others went back into the house to kill as many insurgents as possible. And he did, perhaps as many as 24, according to the Pentagon.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN: My third time in the house, a third grenade came out. And it exploded this time. And I thought that was it for me. I thought, that’s your war. You know, you’re dying.

So, I sat against the wall. And it was like I was looking through a straw. And it just got smaller and smaller. And it just went black. And I thought that was it. I thought I had died.

'It was just killing me inside'

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But he lived, and returned home to become a decorated combat veteran, awarded the Navy's highest award for valor, the Navy Cross.

But the honor did little to quiet the battle that was going on inside his head.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN: Why did I live? Why did they die?

I had one nightmare constantly. I was on a staircase. It was like a never-ending staircase. And I was running up it, and there were insurgents chasing me, and they're yelling at me in Arabic. And they're throwing grenades at me. And this just replayed in my mind every night. And, so, I started drinking, not just a little bit. I mean, I would drink a lot, to the point where I would pass out at night.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Eventually, Workman was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In his new book, "Shadow of the Sword," Workman chronicles that traumatic day in Fallujah and his five-year struggle with PTSD. After returning from Iraq, Workman was sent to Parris Island to be trained as a drill instructor, a much-respected job in the Marine Corps, but he found it made his PTSD worse.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN: It was pretty bad. I mean, mentally, it was just killing me inside.

My first day as a drill instructor, I had a kid trying to kill himself in the rest room. And I just had a hard time with it. I remember one day, driving to work, there's a causeway that goes out to the island, and I just remember thinking to myself, I could drive my truck off this. I could just end it now.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: At one point, the Marines sent Workman home to his wife and family in Ohio to rest.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN: Probably two weeks after being home, I was laying in bed with my wife, and I woke up, walked to the garage, and grabbed a gun, and put it in my mouth. Well, before I did that, I swallowed a whole bottle of pills and went into the garage and was putting a gun in my mouth, when her dad came in and stopped me.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That and other episodes ended his quest to become a drill instructor. Workman was eventually declared medically unfit for military duty, and expects to be honorably discharged from the Marines soon.

And although he's come a long way from that day he tried to take his life, Workman still struggles with PTSD.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN: For me, it's like somebody's controlling you. And you never know when it's going to hit you. I mean, with PTSD, it could be sights, sounds, smells. Anything can trigger it. And it's just -- it's like somebody's got a hold of you, and it won't let go.

New purpose

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Workman says he turned the corner two-and-a-half years ago, when his son came along.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN: Devon was born. And I realized that I have a purpose now. You know, I can't be selfish. It's not just me and my wife anymore. I have got a little one to take care of. And I want him to be taught how to be a man, an honorable man. And he needs me. And that's kind of when I started -- when I came over the hill, so to speak.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But, Jessica Workman, his wife of six years, says things are still rocky, because he occasionally stops taking his medication.

JESSICA WORKMAN: It feels like this never-ending cycle. It's -- you know, once he's on his meds, it takes the edge off, things go well for awhile. And then -- I don't know -- eight, nine, 10 months, and then I guess he feels he can do it by himself. And then we go through several months of, you know, mood swings, anger.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you think you guys are going to make it?

JESSICA WORKMAN: Well, obviously, I hope we do, but I don't want him to take his medicine because I want him to, or because he wants to be a better person for his son. I want him to take it so he will feel better, and so, you know, he can look in the mirror every day and realize, you know: "I have got it good. I'm lucky to be here."

Mental health treatment for vets

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As many as 37 percent of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan now suffer from a mental health problem, mostly PTSD and/or depression, according to a recent study by researchers at the San Francisco Department of Veterans Affairs.

Defense Department officials also acknowledge, the suicide rate among returning troops is skyrocketing.

WOMAN: Who's coming home? Daddy, ain't it?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Efforts are under way in all branches of the military to provide better mental health treatment for combat veterans.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN: I really noticed that I was being taken over by this depression.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Workman is doing his part, by telling his story in Marine Corps suicide prevention videos.

He says, PTSD is nothing to be ashamed of.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN: Nobody wants to raise their hand. Nobody -- there's such a stigma out there involving PTSD, that nobody wants to be associated with it, when, in fact, you know, if you break your leg, you go to the hospital, they put a cast on it, and, six weeks later, you're fine.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Workman says, he went back on his medication the day we did this interview. And he left with son Devon for a 10-day visit with the boy's grandparents in Ohio.

Once he's discharged, he plans to continue working as a civilian in a Corps program designed to help fellow combat veterans deal with PTSD.

SGT. JEREMIAH WORKMAN: I live day to day. I think you have to with PTSD. I can't say where I will be next week. I just got to focus on today. Then, after today is over, I will start over tomorrow. And that's how you have got to live.

JIM LEHRER: We have extended excerpts of Betty Ann's interview with Sergeant Workman on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org.