Soldier Finds Comfort at Dark Journey's End

By Dana Priest and Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 17, 2007

Everything in Ward 3D East is locked, even the windows. Located inside the District of Columbia VA Medical Center, only three miles from the Veterans Affairs headquarters where national health policies are made, the psychiatric ward is a refuge for mentally ill homeless veterans and those plagued by drug and alcohol addictions. This is where Lt. Sylvia Blackwood drove herself before the sun came up one April morning and stayed for seven grim days.

Blackwood, a reservist with the 356th Broadcast Operations Detachment, survived two tours in Iraq, first as a military journalist, then as a State Department spokeswoman. "The possibility of death was so ever-present and terrifying that you just couldn't think about it. Everyone was dying. It was a constant barrage," she said.

She saw a severed arm and a stabbing victim. She survived an attack from a makeshift bomb and a bombing near her quarters. But Blackwood is not a typical example of a soldier who flips out after witnessing one gruesome event.

"I don't have the gore," she said. "I don't have one event. I have a gazillion events. I have Iraqis pleading with me to get them out of the country. I have friends who turned up dead."

She made it out of Iraq unharmed physically, but as a psychological casualty who would not acknowledge it to herself. Even as she slipped deeper into paranoia, panic and mental paralysis, she tried to keep up her exuberant bearing. Her plan was to heal herself. She feared that any sign of weakness would harm her career.

"If I'm a second lieutenant and I admit I have a problem, maybe they'll take that away," Blackwood said she thought. "I'd say, 'No, I'm okay, I'm fine.' Meanwhile I'm circling the drain and getting worse and worse."

At the start of this year, Blackwood, 41, took on a new job as the chief of media relations for the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, based in Crystal City. No one knew that loud noises would trigger a panic attack for her, that she was barely sleeping or eating, or that she was clawing her forearms so fiercely the blood sometimes soaked through her sleeves.

One day in April, she got lost on the Metro after work. She panicked and decided not to go to her job ever again. Her mind raced: "I'll be fired," she thought. "I won't be able to work again. I won't be able to support my son. Then I'll start screaming because I've let him down. I won't be able to stop. Maybe they will send me back to Iraq! How can I make this stop?"

When she finally got home, Blackwood went to her bedroom and took out her Leatherman knife. With almost clinical detachment, she debated how to slash her wrists. "If I cut this way, I'll survive and be embarrassed," she remembers thinking. "If I cut that way, there'll be a lot of blood. If I do it in the back yard, they might not find me for a couple of days. It will be icky. Maybe I'll have a blanket to cover up my body."

At 4 in the morning she was sitting on the floor with the knife, a piece of cardboard and a blanket. But an image suddenly stopped her. "I saw my son's face, and I couldn't leave him," she recalled. She rushed out of the house and walked around until dawn. By 7 a.m. she was walking into the VA Medical Center on Irving Street NW, crying so hard that her shoulders shook and mumbling to the guard about killing herself.

He pointed. "You go that way," he said.

The mental-health unit didn't open for an hour. In her suicidal state, Blackwood was told to wait.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company