Robert Littlepage still thinks about it.
At times, he thinks about nothing else.
“It’s not like people think it is. It’s not like sand and in the Sahara,” he said as he sat crouched at a table, his forearms resting on his legs, one leg moving up and down. “It’s like cracked mud, like you are down in the Delta, in Clarksdale or something.”
Two years back from Iraq, the Mississippi National Guard master gunner is able to talk about the war there and what he saw with a clarity and detachment that eludes other veterans of the war that ended with the last American troops leaving just before last Christmas.
It’s when he talks about his return to a home that was no longer home that the words come harder for Littlepage, who describes himself as a “country boy” in his 20s. His wife and child were the first to see the difference emerge when returning home from something as simple as going to the supermarket.
Iraq war veteran Robert Littlepage, third from right, takes a group class on 12-step recovery at the Memphis VA Hospital. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
“I wouldn’t let them come in the house. I’d take my pistol and go inside and make sure nobody was in my house,” he said. “There should have been no reason for that to be.”
And at first, it wasn’t a big deal.
“I guess she took it lightly because she thought I was being protective. We didn’t live in a bad neighborhood,” Littlepage added before talking about the deeper feelings that would prompt her to leave with their child and him to come to Memphis. “If I was to go outside among a lot of people, I would feel like somebody is watching me or I’ll be harmed. It’s like that all the time.”
“The VA is going to be my cure,” Littlepage said. He is one of many recent U.S. veterans receiving services at the hospital, which is undergoing an expansion and working to address vets’ unique needs. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
Littlepage had a torn ACL and had knee surgery that left him on painkillers that he became addicted to. When his doctor took him off the painkillers, Littlepage got them and other drugs off the street illegally and a life already unraveling began to come apart faster. He was sleeping in his truck by the time he decided to seek help at the Memphis Veterans Administration Hospital. He talked with The Memphis News during his second day in treatment at the VA and still not getting the drugs he wants.
“I’m still hurting, but I’m in a program now that I can’t do none of that stuff,” he said. “I’m not real happy with it right now because I don’t feel like they are listening to what I’m saying.”
The VA Memphis facility opens a new annex in May that is specifically for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While more soldiers are expected with the war’s end in Iraq, doctors and counselors at the center have been seeing and helping veterans of both wars for several years.
The wars make the veterans different than older veterans in some ways. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have usually been deployed more times in these times of the volunteer army compared to those who served in Vietnam and prior wars when there was a draft.
Patrick Crowder was a U.S. Army combat medic who was in the first Persian Gulf War and served through 2005. His last assignment wasn’t overseas. It was in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina where the exposure to mass death and destruction like what he saw in the Middle East compounded problems he was already having.
He shot himself in the head in 2006 and survived the suicide attempt.
Since then, Crowder has added up the places he went during his time as a medic. It comes to 11 countries in 14 years.
“It might have been 30 days or 45 days or six months and longer,” he said. “It went all the way back to Desert Storm and along the way things I had encountered that stayed with me. I didn’t realize.”
His first stop after his physical recovery from the gunshot wound was a 45-day inpatient post-traumatic stress disorder group. Crowder was the youngest person in the group. He found the veterans of America’s last conflict that involved a draft had a lot in common with veterans of the volunteer armed services, if not as many deployments.
“It was veterans just like me who had similar issues. They went all the way back to the Vietnam era,” Crowder said. “Any soldier who has been anywhere has been through the same situation, just in a different time frame. It’s all the same. We all see the same things and do the same things – it’s just in different times.”
Iraq vet Tephanie Jones transports patient Thomas Flowers, a WWII veteran, through the VA Hospital. Jones, who now works as an escort in the VA, is an Army National Guard truck driver stationed in Kuwait from 2009 to 2010. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
The first person Crowder talked with at the VA about his problems was Dr. John Whirley, a clinical psychologist and Vietnam veteran who has worked with the broad spectrum of veterans.
The medical care and other counseling have come a long way from a system Whirley said was unprepared to meet the needs of those returning from Vietnam in the 1970s. He said PTSD’s link to actual changes in the brain are now documented and the disorder doesn’t have to be the “life sentence” it once was.
“I had a vet observe to me very recently that two or three veterans can be in the same truck at the same time and get hit by the same IED and have fairly different responses to the experience,” Whirley said. “Trying to generalize … is certainly difficult.”
Whirley has seen some common experiences across generations of veterans and also some significant differences that make the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans unique.
“The threat and the action has been extraordinarily constant,” he said. “Almost the entire deployment for many of them has been spent in regular contact where their lives are threatened in one fashion or another – even if they were on base all the time.”
Advances like the ability to Skype from the front lines instead of writing letters home can also have an effect because the more rapid communication is, the less of a filter there is and the less separation from home-front tensions.
Tephanie Rainey just started working at the VA. For now she helps get patients in wheelchairs where they need to go in the sprawling center that serves veterans from the three-state Mid-South area. She is an Army National Guard sergeant who drove trucks in convoys in Kuwait starting in 2009. And she is aware that the guard designation comes with some misunderstanding about the exposure those in the guard have to combat conditions.
Patrick Crowder, right, a former Army medic who served for 14 years, studies the culinary arts with instructor John Ferraro at L’Ecole Culinaire. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
“We’re considered part-time or weekend soldiers,” she said. “To me being overseas with a variety of full-time (soldiers), we work just as hard. Our heart is in it just as much as them. I feel like the national guard and reserve work just as much or more than a full-time military soldier.”
Rainey, who has been in the guard for six years, is to be deployed again in May. And the continued deployments have unsettled her life internally and externally. It’s harder to find a job when she tells an employer she’s leaving again in May. But she’s been back since late 2010.
“They keep throwing deployments in. So it’s hard to set a civilian standard,” she said.
“You can’t sleep on it. The thoughts in my mind are always going. It’s been a struggle because I feel like I’m a year behind on finances, missing out on family issues. Just finding a civilian job has been a struggle.”
Unlike Littlepage, Rainey didn’t see death. But the possibility of it has raised some of the same core issues that Littlepage coped with in different ways and is working through in different ways.
“It was fear of the unknown. You want to come home with your life,” she said. “You want everybody to come home alive. That’s what’s on your mind the whole time. You’re on alert status. You can’t trust the people that are over there.”
Littlepage acknowledges the significant role that anxiety caused even when nothing happened. It began at a predawn briefing as he and others donned their “full battle rattle” and he strapped himself in behind a mounted .50-caliber gun along with a shotgun and M-2 rifle he also carried. Littlepage said he usually brought Gatorade and food for children who would come to the pumping station from a village two miles away. And they sometimes gave him information about IEDs – improvised explosive devices – on the road the convoys traveled.
There were other dangers. He developed the knee problems from lifting the heavy .50-caliber gun on and off its mount and he had head injuries from when the military vehicle he rode in would drive into dried up creek beds that are a regular feature of Iraq’s terrain.
While in the hospital for both, his mother died and he complains that he didn’t get the support he expected from those in his unit. Crowder said it probably wasn’t intentional. And Rainey said women veterans seem to have an easier time talking about their feelings.
“My biggest thing was being able to open up and speak to someone,” Crowder said. “I felt like I was a man – I shouldn’t be telling my troubles to anyone else. That was one of my biggest things – talking to somebody. I learned I needed to talk to somebody.”
For now, Littlepage’s goal is to talk or just be around his 2-year-old son.
“I want to be normal for him and take him places in public, socially. Right now I can’t even take myself socially around big crowds,” he said. “Somebody looks at me wrong and I think they’re up to something. They’ve got something up their sleeve. I’m just paranoid all the time.”
Littlepage and Rainey said they are encouraged by those they encounter in the hallways of the hospital who ask how they are and seem to mean it.
Rainey adds it is a place where the precise military jargon that seems to baffle those who haven’t been in the military is understood.
“It’s helping a whole lot because I’m around people who are like me,” she said “Their stories are a little different. But I feel like it’s helping me.”