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Home but Still Haunted
Johnson understands the danger of alcohol partly from her fiance, Mark Branch, who was her battle buddy in Iraq. He was driving the five-ton truck the day the bomb went off along the guardrail.
After Iraq, he drank so much Rémy Martin cognac that she lined up all of his empty liquor-bottle boxes along the top of their kitchen cabinets.
"How many fifths did I go through?" he asked her one day as they thought back.
He checked into a treatment program at Walter Reed, too.
The way Branch sees it, "a lot of us, we come back, and we have to go back to work because we have families, we have jobs, we have houses." Finding time to pursue counseling seemed impossible.
"You're never going to be healed from it," he said. "They just teach you how to live with it."
In her own life, Johnson finds herself off balance in ways that have surprised her.
One day she banged up her car but could not recall how. She heard the smack, yes. But how did she get up on the curb? Did she swipe a fire hydrant? "It's almost like I'm there but I'm not there sometimes," she said.
Another day, she recalled, it was the usual Washington traffic as she drove her Chrysler Concorde with the Purple Heart license plates. Along a snarled street, a bus driver blared his horn at her.
She yelled, cursed, then hurled an empty Coke cup at the bus before she even knew what she was doing. "You don't realize what you're doing until after, or sometimes a lot after," she said, later reflecting: "My temper is on a whole other level."
Then there was the time she got stuck in traffic near a highway overpass in Prince George's County. In Iraq, overpasses could conceal bombs. She felt a crushing sense of danger -- and traffic was at a dead stop.
"I was just losing it," she recalled.
In hysterics, Johnson phoned her fiance, who told her: Put the car in park and walk away until you settle down. When the traffic starts to move, climb back in your car.
More than 2 1/2 years after her return from war, her sense of safety has not returned. She worries as never before about terrorist attacks and suicide bombers.
"I always make sure I'm armed, regardless," she said, mentioning a knife she keeps around. "I always make sure I have something to defend myself."
She has had a hard time with the VA.
She applied for disability compensation, but it took 14 months, and there are still problems. She started mental health sessions but wound up disappointed. She said the VA canceled her appointment in October. In November. In December. Each time, there was a different reason, she said. Her therapist was sick. Her name was not on the schedule. All of that, she said, has added to her stress.
"I haven't been there in four months, and they haven't even noticed," Johnson said early this year. VA officials declined to discuss her case but said that, overall, veterans get the PTSD care they need.
In February, Johnson said, her social worker made some calls and got her a 30-minute session March 8. But problems at work so consumed her that she could not remember what to tell the doctor. Usually, she makes a list of things to bring up.
Once, she asked: How long am I going to be like this?
"It could stop today, or it could go on for years," she said she was told, which brings her to this: "That's what scares me. I just get scared that I'll be one of those homeless people that you see holding the signs because I've lost my mind."
For now, her fate is nothing like that. She and her fiance bought a house this year, a brick rancher with a big back yard in Clinton. Her children seem happier, planted. Her eldest daughter is 14, an honor student and soccer-team captain.
Her youngest, now 5, is still focused on Mommy, and Johnson is glad -- though sometimes she still finds herself overwhelmed. On weekends, she and her fiance often have six or more children around, hers and his and often a niece or nephew.
After Iraq, she rarely goes out anymore -- not to clubs, not to movies. She passed up a chance to apply for a higher-paying job in her office because she felt she could not manage additional pressure.
Some days, she feels perilously close to the edge.
If she is home, she may retreat to her bedroom. There, she can collect herself. Or she may, for a moment, lose her connection to everything, as the ceiling fan turns, as her mind goes blank.