COMBAT GENERATION: BLOODLESS TRAUMA

Military reckons with the mental wounds of war

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Staff Sgt. Curtis Long, who was driving the truck, came home from Iraq angry and emotionally distant. "He told me that he had to force himself to feel something for me and our kids," said Virginia Long, his wife. "He just feels numb." She urged to him get treatment for PTSD, but he stopped after five sessions.

[Photo]
Staff Sgt. Curtis Long, shown in August 2007 in Anbar Province, Iraq, was driving the MRAP that Ownbey and the rest of his group were in when the IED exploded. After returning home, Long's wife urged him to seek treatment for PTSD, which he quit after five sessions. He has since been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. (Photo courtesy the United States Marine Corps.)
[Photo]
Maj. Jeff Hackett, right, re-enlists Staff Sgt. James Ownbey for another four years in the Marine Corps in Anbar Province, Iraq, in August 2007. The ceremony took place a few weeks before the blast that changed Ownbey's life. (Photo courtesy Staff Sgt. James Ownbey)

Last summer Long began to suffer migraines, hand tremors and a nervous eye twitch. Long's platoon sergeant pressed him to seek help from a neurologist, who said his symptoms were caused by stress. Months passed before the doctor was able to squeeze him in for a second exam.

The 25-year-old Marine sat for 45 minutes in the waiting room, then screamed at the receptionist and stormed out of the office. "I just went off on her," Long said. His wife begged him to return, but he refused.

In February Ownbey recommended his former neurologist at Camp Lejeune. More than two years after the blast, the doctor diagnosed traumatic brain injury and put Long on a weekly regimen of four therapy sessions to help him compensate for memory and balance problems.

A Navy medic who was a part of Ownbey's crew said he has suffered no long-term effects from the explosion.

Ownbey's health - though still fragile - has slowly improved. In 2009 the general had ordered Ownbey to stay in the service so that Navy doctors could figure out what was wrong with him. He recently asked Amos for permission to leave the Marine Corps later this summer.

"I can't get to a point where I can go back to combat," Ownbey said. "But I can apply myself to my family. I can get to a better way of living."

'I deserve Hell'

Ownbey's good friend and company commander, Jeff Hackett, retired as a major from the Marine Corps after 26 years of service.

"He looked like he was really going to miss it ," Ownbey recalled. Ownbey hugged him, and for the first time in their three years together called him "Jeff" instead of "sir."

Hackett and his wife bought a house and 40 acres of land about an hour outside of Cheyenne, Wyo. His family said he often seemed distant.

When Ownbey had reenlisted in August 2007, he suggested that Hackett don his blast-resistant suit for the ceremony, which took place outside in 120-degree heat. Hackett did it.

[Photo]
Maj. Jeff Hackett suffered from migraines and often slept only a few hours a night after retiring from the Marines in 2008. He lost his job in October and couldn’t find new work. (Photo courtesy Danelle Hackett)

By 2010 Hackett's goofy sense of humor was gone. He could not stop blaming himself for the deaths of the Marines his company lost in Iraq. "I killed eight of my men," he told his sister.

On June 5, Hackett called his wife, Danelle, from the parking lot of American Legion Hall in Cheyenne. "I just want to let you know how sorry I am and that I love you," he said. He called his sister to thank her for her love and support. Then he turned off his phone.

Hackett's sister raced to his house, picked up Danelle and began searching for Hackett.

The retired Marine returned to the American Legion Hall and continued to drink. After about an hour, he pulled out a gun and shot himself.

In the front seat of his Chrysler truck, his wife and sister found an envelope on which he had scribbled "I deserve Hell."

In an interview, Danelle said she was angry at the Marine Corps for doing too little to educate her about PTSD. "The Marines want to brush all of this under the carpet," she said.

Amos called to offer his condolences on July 4. She told him about her 18-year-old son, who is headed to boot camp later this year. "He has his dad's integrity," she said. "He's going to make a hell of a Marine."

Danelle was two months behind on her house and car payments. Because her husband had killed himself, their mortgage insurance did not apply. Amos alerted a Marine Corps charity, which sent a check to help her get through the summer.

"I don't want others to suffer what my sons and I have gone through," Danelle told the general. "I want to be an advocate."

Amos promised her he would stay in touch.

jaffeg@washpost.com

-- Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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