Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is diagnosed in veterans, victims of terrorist attacks, rape, kidnapping, torture, abuse, plane crashes and violent assault. The symptoms and side effects of PTSD include among other things, flashbacks, loss of interest in life, emotional detachment, outbursts of anger, intense distress and at times, suicide. Clint Van Winkle author of Soft Spots: A Marine’s Memoir of Combat and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder believes all veterans of all wars return home with this illness. It is only the severity of the disease and the willingness to accept the diagnosis that varies from veteran to veteran.
Van Winkle went to Iraq from February until “Mission Accomplished” in June of 2003. In those five months he does not believe he fought for Iraqi freedom or liberation but solely for his life and the lives of his friends. In the 150 or so days he was in the Middle East, what he did, experienced and witnessed would leave him with a mental illness that he and his family are forced to cope with for the remainder of his life.
Here is a bit of his story.
Why did you join the Marines?
I was in college and I was not doing that great. It seemed like there was more to do and I wanted to challenge myself.
Did you imagine that you would go to combat when you signed up for the Marines?
I hoped at some point that I would get to go to war. I remember watching the Gulf War on television and it seemed exciting.
What seemed exciting about war?
Combat in general seemed exciting. It seemed like something rough men go and do. Going off and fighting and coming back home has a romantic feel to it.
It is interesting to say that combat has a romance to it. Do you think you had a clear understanding of what combat truly meant prior to signing up for the Marines?
I watched a lot of war movies when I was younger. That is where I got all of my information.
Looking back what event or events do you think caused PTSD?
There are certain events that stick with me more than others but I think it was the entire experience.
How would you describe your symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
It is different for everyone. I am always thinking about Iraq. No matter what I am doing. It controls my thoughts. It has given me a one track mind. It is all I can think about. I was much angrier than I have ever been in my life when I came home. Iraq consumed me.
According to various medical sources the symptoms of PTSD are 1) re-experiencing of the trauma 2) avoidance to the point of phobia of things that remind you of your experience 3) anger, inability to sleep, poor concentration, hypervigilance to threat, difficulty remembering things, etc. Would you agree with this?
I’ve experienced all of these symptoms and they still surface from time to time. However, the EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing] sessions helped me move forward. While I don’t think PTSD can be “cured,” those suffering can do things to make their life more bearable. I tried to educate myself about PTSD, look at it from a different perspective, and made an effort to try to improve my situation. Of course, it’s easier said than done. It takes a lot of effort to get better and it is frustrating, especially when you have to deal with the VA. Also, I came to a point where I stopped being ashamed of having PTSD. I have it, for whatever reason, and realized that pretending I’m okay wasn’t going to help move my life forward.
Have your symptoms changed over the last six years?
I think I have better control over them now. I am able to deal with them much better. In writing this book I was able to clear out part of my head.
In Soft Spots, you talk quite a bit about the anger that you now feel. What about your experience in Iraq are you most angry about?
The anger doesn’t stem from a single event. It’s not that simple, at least not for me. There wasn’t a day I didn’t see a dead body or have somebody try to kill me. I killed people. People tried to kill my friends.
In reading Soft Spots, I couldn’t conceive how it would be possible for anyone to go over to Iraq and come home without some form of PTSD.
I agree. I don’t think you can come back without it. A lot of people come home and cover it up. If you look at the Vietnam Veterans or the World War II veterans you do not hear a lot about PTSD because they came home and did not talk about. I do not know anyone that has been in combat that does not come home with PTSD at some level.
Do you feel you were properly educated about PTSD prior to going to Iraq?
No. We did not talk about it.
If I were to ask your wife Sara how PTSD has affected her, what do you think she would say?
It definitely changed her life. It was a rough 5 or 6 years. Over the last few years it has gotten better. There are still moments where I am a complete asshole but I try to rein that in or go off by myself. It was hard for her to read my book because it brought back such bad memories.
In the moments where you are an asshole, are you not aware of it? Can’t control it? Or do you just don’t care?
A lot of times I just don’t care or I can’t control it. I am usually pretty aware of it especially when I am around my wife because she has no problem telling me. PTSD has elements of depression in it. I wouldn’t say I am hopeless but a lot of people with PTSD are hopeless. Sometimes they switch back to warrior mode where they are just able to yell at someone to get things accomplished. It is not like we as Marines are the easiest people to get along with to begin with and PTSD just adds to it.
There are reports about veterans coming home from combat and killing their wives or children. Were you ever afraid you would do that?
No, I was not worried I would kill a family member. Maybe a civilian. I was not homicidal. I was afraid of what would happen if I did get to that point. I did not know how far PTSD would take me. I did not know how bad it would get. It scares me that PTSD leads people down that road.
In Soft Spots you talk about your compulsion to commit seemingly random violence on others once you returned home. What do you think was your primary motivation in that? Was there a release in that?
It was because I was so angry. It was not a release because it does not feel good to be that angry. To be on the verge of losing control is a horrible feeling.
In Soft Spots, some of the things you write about are pretty shocking — a dog being intentionally shot, you killing a young Iraqi girl, a Marine’s body being left behind — is it possible if there was more control over those events your PTSD would not be as severe as it is?
No, I do not think those things have any bearing on it. Most of those things as out of control as they sound were pretty controlled. We were always within our rules of engagement. I always shot at what I thought was a target. I shot the little girl when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Those things happened randomly. Shooting a dog was out of control, but that was done by a guy in the Navy.
In Soft Spots you ask yourself, “What kind of person would shoot a little girl?” Now that you have had sometime to think about it, do you have an answer to that question?
That was an accident. The thought of it really bothered me. We were not trained to do that. We were trained to help people. Whether or not the war in Iraq is right or wrong we should have been over there helping, not killing civilians.
That is the reality of the war in Iraq. Civilians are being killed, whether it is intentionally or unintentionally.
I do not know about too many cases where people were killed intentionally. I know there have been cases brought up and I know people were cleared of those charges. With the unintentional killings, you have so much adrenaline and things are happening so fast you have a matter of seconds to decide whether to shoot or not shoot. Sometimes you are wrong. I do not know anybody that hated the Iraqi people. We were over there trying to do our best and get home alive. Sometimes civilians got killed because things were crazy.
In Soft Spots, you said, “In some messed up way being home produced withdrawals symptoms. I’d experience some of the most exciting events of my life. Nothing compared to the feelings that war induced.” It is hard to read that and not think this had become some sort of game or high to you. Is there any truth to that?
It is definitely a high. You are hunting for people. You have to have that adrenaline going. It is like going into a game almost except if you lose you are dead or your friends are dead. I do not think civilians understand that very much. It is something I did not understand until I went there. I thought I knew a lot about war but I realized I did not know anything until I experienced combat.
In Soft Spots you said when you first landed in the U.S. the thought going through your head was, “Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.” Why was that?
What was I supposed to say to my wife? I was killing [people] everyday. I didn’t have anything to say to her or anybody. When I was over there, we all understood each other perfectly. When I got off the plane we were all going our separate ways.
I have interviewed a guy that was a sniper in the Vietnam War and he said he was afraid no one would understand what he did, what he experienced. Do you think this is why you wanted to “turn back”?
That is exactly what it is. I relate to combat veterans really well. You do not have to say certain things to them. You do not have to worry about what they are going to think of you. They know when you go into combat shit happens. Maybe you killed a little girl but they understand I did not do it on purpose. But if you try to explain that to a civilian they think you are an asshole. I am not an asshole. It is just something that happened and combat vets understand that.
In your book you said, “I didn’t give a shit about Saddam Hussein or terrorism or Al Qaeda. I didn’t care about anyone’s freedom or liberty. I never heard any of that mentioned. I really never heard anyone say we have to fight these guys so we do not have to fight them at home. I could’ve cared less about that.” So, what did you care about when you were over there?
I cared about getting my guys home alive. I wanted to complete my mission and get my guys home alive. I didn’t hear much about the reason we were going. I don’t think a lot of people really know why we were there.
If you were fighting for each others lives who was fighting for Iraqi freedom and liberation?
I do not consider myself a liberator. I do not know if they [Iraqis] wanted to be liberated. I do not know if we made things better or worse. Some people seemed really happy when we were there. It is hard to figure out. Iraq is really confusing to me. I am not trying to talk circles around the question. I just haven’t been able to figure it out. I do not know who was fighting for liberation. Nobody in my platoon was. Ideology was the last thing we were concerned with. We were concerned with whether our weapons were going to work and what the hell we were getting ourselves into.
If someone came to you and asked why the U.S. government sent you there what would you say?
I do not have an answer to that question. I know why they said they sent us over there — to find WMDs or to overthrow Saddam Hussein but what is the real story? I really do not know.
That is terrifying on all levels. If you did not know what you were trying to accomplish how was it suppose to be accomplished?
I do not know the answers to these questions. These are the things I wished I knew.
One question someone asked me to ask you, I hesitated to ask you but I think it reflects a lot about the American psyche and a lot about the disconnect between civilians, the military, politicians and the media. His question was, “Why the fuck did he go to war over oil?”
We don’t pick where we fight. That is a question he would have to ask his local Congressman or Senator. We go where we told. We are not foreign policy experts. That sounds like a pretty big anti-war question but we really need a military.
Have you experienced any aggression as a result of being over there?
Not at all. Not many people judge me. I think people knew that I did not have a choice. I could go to war or I could desert and deserting was not an option. They were not paying me to figure out the problems. They were paying me to do what I was told and that is what I did.
In your book you refer quite a bit to the “Support the Troops” stickers. I couldn’t help but sense there was some sort of sarcasm in that. What do those mean to you?
Yes, there was sarcasm there. They call the Korean War the forgotten war but I think this war is along the same lines. People really do not care. They cared the first six months, but when Anna Nicole Smith or Paris Hilton came along in the news the war became unimportant. People are not putting anything into this war. If we win or lose how does that affect their life? They put these Support Our Troops stickers on their car but what have they done to support the troops? The sticker isn’t doing us any good.
How would you say your trust in the U.S. government has changed?
I do not have a lot of trust in the government. I do not trust any politicians. I went to war as a Republican. I came home and tried to be a Democrat and then I realized that both sides lie to you. I am over politics.
Who did you vote for in the 2000 and 2004 election?
In 2000 I voted for Bush and in 2004 I think I voted for a Libertarian. It was a protest vote.
You spoke extensively about the poor treatment you received from the Veterans Hospitals. What do Americans need to know about the healthcare we provide to our veterans?
Americans need to know that this [the VA Hospitals] is not working for veterans. There were recent reports where three veterans were infected with HIV from the VA because the colonoscopy equipment was not sanitized correctly. I do not know if this happens at other hospitals but the VA is really fucking things up. They have a captive audience. People who go to the VA do not have much money for insurance. I think Americans need to step it up for us and demand better treatment.
In your book, one of your friends with you in Iraq predicted the war would change you. How did you initially expect the war to change you and how does that differ from the reality of the situation?
I was really focused on going over there and fighting. When he said we would not be the same I really did not believe him. We thought fighting would be cool and we would come back as combat veterans with war stories. It was like we were becoming members of a club that not many people would be in and we thought that was pretty cool.
The Marines do a good job romanticizing combat in their marketing and advertising but I have yet to see a commercial that talks about PTSD.
Yeah, they are not putting that out there too much. They would not sell a lot of tickets. You watch the Marine’s commercials and there is a guy fighting a dragon. Apparently, there are a lot of people out there that want to fight dragons. But at the same token it is a great adventure. What is a greater adventure than going the military and having a weapon and going places?
Were you surprised that you got along with the Iraqi people?
I was not sure how they were going to react. I did not know what to expect. I did not know anything about their country or Islam. We were not up to speed on cultural or religious differences.
You were not educated on cultural differences before you went over there?
Oh no. I think they taught us how to say two words in Arabic – “Get back.”
What would you say is the biggest misconception about the war in Iraq?
I think some people think we were there for a specific mission but we were just fighting because we were there to fight.
Do you think there is a general misconception about the people that did or are currently fighting over there?
I don’t think people think enough about it to have any misconceptions. People do not really care. They do not care if veterans are getting HIV because of the VA or that the Army suicide rate is the highest ever. You do not see any outreach about that. People just want us to suck it up and go about our business.
What is your biggest regret about your experience in Iraq?
I don’t know. We came back with everybody so I am just thankful we did that.
Is there something you were particularly proud of?
I was proud to be a Marine. I was proud of the people I was with. Everybody tried to do the right thing. I do not think anybody was ever going over there to kill people. There were people that said that they did not want to kill people, but they went over there and did their job. They tried to follow the rules of engagement to the best possible. I do not think anyone is proud of anyone they killed. I am proud of the way the Marines acted. Nobody went crazy.
Was there anything good you were able to accomplish while you were over there?
I do not know you would have to go back to “What were we there for?” We tried to give them food and water. We took supplies to hospitals. We tried to listen to the civilians and to understand what they needed.
What would you say to someone that was considering joining the Marines today?
I just went through this with my little brother. He went off to Army boot camp two weeks ago. I told him that being killed and coming back with PTSD is a possibility. People need to see the big picture. They need to ask if it was worth it. In hindsight if I had to do it all again, I would do but I have friends that would not because they came back and their lives are messed up.
Do you feel support from your family and friends?
I feel both alone and supported, but I want to be alone. You could ask me any question you wanted and I would answer it but I do not want to talk to my wife and family about it. I know my family is there to support me if I ever wanted it.
In your book you said, “It really wasn’t my fault. I knew that.” Whose fault do you think it was?
It wasn’t mine. There is enough blame to go around. I tried to stay out of politics in my book because I do not have the answer. The politicians pushed us into this. In America, it is the citizens that have to stand up and say yes or no. We all bought into it.
Do you think you wrote this book more to tell your story or to try to explain this to yourself?
At first I did not plan on writing a book. I just sat down and started writing. Writing is a lonely activity so it kind of fit in well with me wanting to be alone. I had all of these thoughts in my head and I was trying to make some sense of it all. This is a really confusing disorder because your whole life revolves around one time in your life. I was really trying to decide if I was for or against the war. I was trying to find some peace somewhere. I was trying to figure out if it was worth it, why were we there, would I do anything differently? These are all questions I would really like to answer for you, but I really don’t know.
Do you think it is partially the media and society that are making you ask these questions or do you think you would be asking these questions regardless?
I would ask myself these questions with or without the media. If you go to war and you realize it was all bullshit then it means it was a waste of time and a waste of lives. If you can figure out a reason it was worth it at least you say made a difference in the world, your sacrifice was for a good cause. Not being able to say that, which I think is what a lot of the Vietnam Veterans go through, makes it suck. You don’t want to be used.
Learn more about Clint Van Winkle’s Soft Spots: A Marine’s Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder