Within his first two weeks in Kuwait, his unit suffered the first fragging incident of the war, in which Hasan Karim Akbar tossed four grenades into three tents at the camp, killing an Army captain and injuring 15 other soldiers. That same night, Mays says, a British plane was shot down near their camp and a female soldier went AWOL in front of everyone. “She just walked away and she didn’t come back,” he says. “That made me realize how stressful this is for people. Because you just saw right there, someone who couldn’t handle what was going on around them. I don’t know what happened to her.”
Iraq was no different. Assigned to Mosul, the third largest city in Iraq and, as fate would have it, Philadelphia’s sister city, Mays worked as part of a maintenance company, and later as a prison guard. “Have you ever seen one of those post-apocalyptic movies where it’s five years later and everything’s gone horribly wrong?” he asks. “I always said [Mosul] was like that. Like Philly, if Philadelphia ever lost cable television and lost all power.” From there, he says, the entire tour was about survival.
Mays says that as soon as American troops seized control, Mosul turned into a wasteland. The police had been disbanded. The traffic lights didn’t work. Families retreated to their homes. “That’s what sucked about the no police thing and no traffic laws,” he says. “You’re bumper-to-bumper and you’re told to look everywhere for someone that can get you. I drove a lot in the beginning. It was always nerve-wracking to look around and know you can’t cover every spot. Just like you can’t drive through Center City [Philadelphia] and look at every side, 360 degrees, where people could attack you from.”
During an on-base training mission months later, in which he simulated guarding an Iraqi national, Mays had a flashback which almost ended in violence. “It was literally putting me back in that situation,” he says. “It was a matter of knowing the difference between training and real life … Legitimately, I knew I wasn’t in Iraq, but I didn’t understand why I was doing the mission where I was.” When he came to, he was being restrained by fellow soldiers. He didn’t immediately seek treatment, though, he just thought things were a bit off.
“At first, they thought the only people who got PTSD were rape victims,” Mays says, referring to the several decades it took the military, government and mental-health professionals to come to grips with the legitimacy of the disorder. “Then it was rape victims and Vietnam vets. But that was it. Then, they only saw PTSD as coming from a really bad situation, like [Iraqi city and spot of intense battle] Fallujah or something.” It was, therefore, tough to prove you had PTSD until an inevitable flashback or violent outbreak occurred.
He was scheduled to go back to Iraq in 2006, but was medically retired before it could happen. Shortly after he returned home in 2004, he attended a two-day seminar to prepare for re-entry into society—but that was the extent of the military’s assistance. After that, he was on his own. “The army teaches you to repress sickness of any kind,” Mays says. “Especially mental stuff.” So when he got back to Philadelphia, he remained suspicious of everyone around him, always ready for an attack. “I feel like I should be doing things like I did them over there [in Iraq],” he says. “But I’m not over there. I’m over here. Things should technically be different, but they’re not.”
Herrera’s story differs from Mays’ in that she was never sent overseas by the military. She instead worked as a weather observer from Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, communicating with pilots overseas, often to locate correct bombing sites. And even though she never pulled a trigger, today she feels just as guilty for her actions as if she had. “It was just work. Just another day at the office,” Herrera says. “You’re brainwashed to think about what you have to do to get your piece done, and you’re not thinking about all the collateral damage or actually thinking about what you’re doing … Like [the video game] Call of Duty, they’re just pushing buttons on a remote, right? Well, that’s what I was doing: Looking at satellites, telling people where to drop their bomb. There’s a team that drops a bomb. It’s not just one person.”
After leaving the Air Force, Herrera got a job lobbying for Boeing. That’s when the PTSD really began kicking in. “It was like the rage wants to come out of you. I’d be sitting in meetings and I wanted to punch people in the face. I wanted to jump outside of myself. I wanted to scream at people,” she says. “I used to literally go into [an empty] office, which was right next door to mine, close the door and scream for 15 minutes. That was probably the first realization that I had a serious problem and I needed to solve it.”
Now, she says, she plans to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Delaware that will cater to veterans suffering from PTSD. In addition to a medical treatment facility, she says, she’s looking to create a space for veterans to live communally, and hopes to offer yoga and potlucks.
Miller, the advocate for New Jersey For Medical Marijuana, says medical marijuana may not save every returning veteran suffering from PTSD—it probably won’t save most of them. But the least the country should do is allow testing to see if it can have a positive reaction to the condition.
The VA has gotten more funding for PTSD treatments, and has been increasing its public awareness of the disorder. Even President Obama has put a focus on the issue.
While recognition and treatment of PTSD is still relatively new to the American military and populace, research shows the disorder is responsible for an attempted suicide by a veteran once every 80 minutes. On a recent Saturday night inside the Moonstone Arts Center in the Gayborhood, hordes of military fatigue jackets are draped across the backs of creaky steel chairs. It’s the launch of Warrior Writers’ third book of art and writing, created exclusively by war veterans. Based out of Philadelphia, this project-turned-organization, provides an art, writing and social sanctuary for returning veterans. And most of the vets in attendance are here to read a contribution to the collection. One writer, Michael Day, reveals to the audience that he’d been garnering the courage to commit suicide off his balcony one night when Lovella Calica, the founder of Warrior Writers, texted him, asked him to contribute to the collection, and unknowingly changed his mind about jumping. “I am afraid I am going to die alone, who is going to want to be with me inside my messed up head,” he reads, “and dealing with the horrible things I think about myself.”
Mays is in the audience. “That was a lot to take in,” he says, adding that he just tries to take it as it comes. “I try to be realistic about the situation. It’s very hard to retrain your brain after it’s been put in its own way … The person I grew up to be in the Army was very good for that situation. But I’m out of the Army and not all of that is acceptable.”
In the meantime, he’s keeping busy, working with Warrior Writers and the Mural Arts Program on a veterans mural that will go up in West Philadelphia. He’s also attending the Community College of Philadelphia, where he’s studying for a career as an engineer. To him, it’s a career that makes sense PTSD-wise. “It’s a job that doesn’t involve people,” he says. “And a lot of the people who are in it are, oddly enough, very anti-social.”
PW's Summer Guide 2015