Home but Still Haunted

Trinette Johnson
Trinette Johnson of Clinton, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, served in Iraq with the D.C. National Guard: "It's almost like I'm there but I'm not there sometimes." (Andrea Bruce - The Washington Post)
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2006

There are times when Trinette Johnson's life seems to stall, when she finds herself staring at the ceiling fan in her bedroom, watching the blades spin, her mind hung on nothing -- not her receptionist job, not her fiance, not her ailing father or her four children.

Not even the war.

The war, of course, is always there somewhere, she said, an unseen force in her life, sometimes producing moments of blank detachment, sometimes stirring up anger like nothing she has ever known.

More than two years after returning from duty in Iraq, she has found herself yelling and cursing at other drivers on the road. Panicked in crowds. Seized with fear at the sight of highway overpasses and tunnels that might suddenly explode.

Doctors gave the 32-year-old Johnson, who served in the D.C. National Guard, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, which has plagued thousands of U.S. troops after combat in Iraq -- bringing on flashbacks, numbness, rage and anxiety and leaving many at odds with their old lives, families and jobs.

How women are affected after combat is only starting to be probed. This is the first war in which so many women have been so exposed to hostile fire, working a wider-than-ever array of jobs, for long deployments.

"This is a really unique experience, and we just don't know," said Ronald C. Kessler, a Harvard University professor and author of a landmark study of post-traumatic stress disorder.

For women who are mothers, combat-related PTSD may have added significance. Often, after war, "it's not the same mommy who left," said Yale University associate professor Laurie Harkness, who runs a Veterans Affairs mental health clinic in Connecticut. Although the same can be said for fathers, she said, "mothers in general are the emotional hub of a family."

For Johnson, it was a doctor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who first uttered the letters P-T-S-D, a defining moment that came after she spent nine months working the bomb-blasted roads near Baghdad. Her job with the 547th Transportation Company was hauling -- troops, supplies, equipment -- and security. At one point, she helped transport dead Iraqis to their wailing relatives.

In one particularly bad period, a roadside bomb claimed the life of a 21-year-old soldier in her unit, Spec. Darryl T. Dent. Later, another bomb severely wounded Johnson's best friend, Spec. Antoinette Scott, a mother of four.

That fall in 2003, Johnson was riding in a truck with her M-16 rifle pointed out the passenger-side window. Out of nowhere came a deafening blast. Her five-ton vehicle swerved and nearly flipped. There was fire. White smoke. Flying debris. A bomb, hidden along a guardrail, had detonated.

Johnson received a Purple Heart for hearing loss in her left ear but stayed in Iraq for several more months, working the same roads. "It seemed like once every other or three days somebody was getting hit," she recalled recently.


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