THE LINE of DEPARTURE
This is a series of articles I recently wrote, published in the Fredericksburg, VA Free Lance-Star, about a local Marine family and their struggles with multiple deployments. PTSD, and Traumatic Brain Injury. The photograph above, by FLS photographer Dave Ellis, is Marine Capt. Jason Haag. A photo essay by Dave accompanies the three-part series, which you can link to below.
Part I When War Ends, Wounds Remain
Part II: Am I Some Kind of Monster?
Part III: Healing is Elusive for Combat Vet
Or you can read the series here in its entirety:
When war ends, wounds remain: PTSD haunts Fredericksburg Marine, his family
BY STEVE WATKINS / FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR | Posted: Saturday, July 20, 2013 6:00 pm
On March 20, 2003, when U.S. combat troops were ordered over the Line of Departure from the desert of Kuwait into heavily defended southern Iraq, Jason Haag was in the second vehicle across.
The Virginia native, who now lives in the Fredericksburg area, was 21 years old, a Marine sergeant assigned to 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marines, Echo Company, in Regimental Combat Team 5. He was also the father of a 6-month-old son.
His wife, Elizabeth, was in California, living off-base near Camp Pendleton, anxiously watching CNN.
It would be eight months before she heard from her husband, who she’d known since middle school. There would be no phone call, no email, no letter, no Skype, nothing. The only way she would know that Haag was alive was by the fact that no Marine officers showed up at her house to tell her any different. Elizabeth also had no way of knowing that the young husband who did finally return would be markedly changed from the lively, gregarious man she had married—sullen and withdrawn, sleeping with a loaded gun, drinking a 12-pack to get to sleep, haunted by nightmares of the war.
The Line of Departure for the Americans into Iraq was also the Line of Departure for Jason and Elizabeth Haag—and hundreds of thousands of other U.S. service men and women and their families
Over the next 10 years, these families would struggle with the enormous difficulties of multiple combat deployments, and the even greater challenges of life back home.
The Two-Five was the most highly decorated Marine unit in the history of the Corps. Their motto is “Retreat? Hell!”—an abbreviated version of what was purportedly said in the First World War, when they arrived to support British and French troops and were told that they had to immediately turn around and go back the way they came.
“Retreat? Hell, we just got here!”
Regimental Combat Team 5’s mission was to secure Iraqi oil fields before they could be destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. After that, their orders were to move on to Baghdad.
They met resistance almost immediately.
Haag remembers seeing a muzzle flash from an Iraqi tank on a hill 600 meters away, followed by an explosion on one of the Marine tanks, the M1A1 Abrams. Over his radio he heard a tank officer yell, “We’re hit.”
Everything stopped for a second. Then he heard laughter.
The Iraqi shell hadn’t done any damage to the heavily armored tank, which was already maneuvering into position to return fire.
The antiquated Iraqi tanks, meanwhile, which had to come to a full halt before firing, were now vulnerable.
The M1A1s unleashed a devastating barrage of armor-piercing rounds—shells containing depleted uranium rods that easily penetrated the Iraqi tanks’ weaker armor.
“They told us the kinetic force of the shells sucked out everything as they exited,” Haag said, “including the bad guys that were inside.”
The Marines’ advance continued in the days that followed as the Two-Five fought their way across the desert and through villages and towns along the way. They soon took control of the oil fields, chasing off, killing or capturing remnants of the enemy forces. Many of the soldiers in Iraq’s Republican Army charged with defending the southern border discarded their uniforms and tried to blend in with the local populations. It was often difficult to know who was the enemy.
‘I DID NOT HESITATE’
The first man Haag killed was in a small Iraqi town the Marines were ordered to clear out during their advance. It was during a brief firefight. The man was one of the insurgents attacking Haag’s unit.
Haag described the man in a blog he started last year, “USMCrazy,” in which he writes occasionally about his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He said he’ll always remember the man’s face, “the eye color, the scar just above the eyebrow, the dust covered black hair.”
Most disturbing, Haag said, was how easy it was to kill.
“I did not hesitate, not for a second, never blinked, didn’t think twice about doing my job,” Haag wrote on his blog. “I pulled the trigger as easily as you click your mouse button or get a glass of water.”
Today, Haag wonders whether he’s “some kind of monster, devoid of any emotion,” because he killed so easily.
But then, there was no time to think about what any of it meant. In Iraq in 2003, Haag’s life revolved around sniper attacks, sporadic firefights, IEDs, blistering heat and sleeping on the hard desert ground.
He said he stayed in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and exhaustion.
Back home, that intense hyper-vigilance would continue. In Iraq it helped keep him alive. Back in the States it proved crippling.
It would have him swerving across two lanes of busy traffic on Interstate 95 to avoid a plastic bag that blew onto the highway—a possible IED in Haag’s mind.
It would have him avoiding crowds, unable to eat out with his wife and often unable to attend his three children’s sports events, school plays and dance recitals.
It would have him pulling a gun twice—once to threaten someone who’d smashed a bottle on his truck outside a bar, once to flash at an angry driver.
And it would have his wife eventually threatening to leave him if he didn’t get help.
‘I WENT DOWN’
Haag can talk about many things involving the wars he fought in—tactical operations, weapons, weather conditions.
But he won’t talk about the Marines in his unit who were killed, and whose initials he later had tattooed on his arm. Haag, who had been given a battlefield promotion to squad leader, said he feels personally responsible for those deaths and crippling guilt over the fact that he wasn’t able to bring all his Marines—“my Marines” —home safe.
Haag also has difficulty talking about being wounded himself. He wouldn’t let his wife attend his Purple Heart ceremony when he received the medal.
He said he didn’t want her to hear the citation, which would be read aloud, and which recounted the events of the day he was shot and thought he was going to die.
That day, April 9, 2003, came three weeks into the invasion in Iraq.
Haag said his unit had received orders to secure a bridge over the Diyala River to prepare for the invasion of Hussein’s capital.
The Marines encountered resistance as soon as they approached the dusty town separating them from the bridge, Haag said. First they faced heavy machine-gun fire from a nearby building.
Then, before they could determine the location of the machine gun nest, they came under fire from another direction—mortar rounds launched from a hidden location.
Haag said he ordered his squad to move out of range, but the mortar shells kept finding them. And then Haag noticed an Iraqi woman, perhaps a hundred meters away, watching them every time they moved their position.
The woman would talk briefly on a cellphone, and then disappear inside a mud-brick house, he said. Shortly after, the mortar fire would find Haag’s squad yet again.
The mortar shells and machine-gun fire kept coming, so Haag said he had his men “snatch” the woman for interrogation. But they got nothing from her and so had to let her go. When they did, she returned to the same nearby house, stepping outside once again to observe the Marines’ new positions and to resume her cellphone conversations.
Finally, frustrated at being pinned down and concerned about the growing number of his men who were being wounded, Haag said he sprinted across an open area in the direction of the machine gun nest.
A shooter got to him first.
“He stitched my legs as I was running, and I went down near another wall,” Haag recalled.
He lay in the street for what felt like a long time but likely was only minutes—helpless, certain he would be shot again and that he would die.
Then an RPG—a rocket-propelled grenade—exploded into the wall near his head, the first of several explosions that would leave him with a traumatic brain injury: loss of hearing in one ear, chronic migraines, short-term memory loss.
Other Marines dragged him back to a triage unit where Lance Cpl. Gregory Howman—who was later killed in the war—applied antibiotic cream and bandaged Haag’s legs to control the bleeding.
A surgeon was supposed to remove the shrapnel later, but Haag didn’t wait for surgery. He said as soon as he could walk on his numb legs, just a few hours later, he rejoined his unit. The shrapnel stayed in and would be there for several years until his legs gave out.
“I felt like an ass-clown,” he said, explaining why he returned without waiting for proper treatment for his wounds. “I was embarrassed because I hadn’t made it all the way across and I wasn’t able to help out my squad. It’s crazy what that environment will do to you in terms of the bond you develop, and that responsibility you feel for your guys.”
When he got back to his unit, Haag saw the Iraqi woman still standing in front of her house, still talking on her cellphone, and, he was certain, still giving away their position.
He said he took aim down the iron site of his rifle, at her forehead, and killed her.
In the months and then years after his return from that first deployment, Haag would see the Iraqi woman again and again in a recurring nightmare.
In the dream, which Haag still has, sometimes nightly, he describes the woman as having “a blank stare on her face,” looking at the troops but not at him, a detail that seems important, though he doesn’t know why.
He squeezes the trigger on his weapon in the dream just as he did in battle, and she drops the phone. Her mouth falls open. There’s no flesh on the bottom of her face—just her skeleton. And that’s where he wakes up, panicked and sweating, his heart racing.
The mortar assault ended with the death of the Iraqi woman, but they were still under machine gun fire. Not wanting to risk crossing the open field and road again, and not wanting to send any of his men into harm’s way, Haag called for tank support.
They didn’t wait to pinpoint an exact location for the machine gun nest—on a roof or in an upper-floor window. Instead Haag radioed in the coordinates and the tank pounded away at the building until it was demolished.
After that, the Marines were able to continue their advance, securing the bridge over the Diyala for the march into Baghdad.
Days after the fight involving the Iraqi woman, Haag’s squad encountered a group of insurgents near Baghdad University.
“One of the clowns took a little girl and used her as a shield,” Haag said. “He shot one of our guys.”
The Marines chased the insurgent into a building. The man was behind a door but kept “poking his head out and shooting,” Haag said.
“We couldn’t see the girl behind the door. So finally, I had our saw gunner take him out,” Haag said. “But it turned out he shot the girl, too.”
The girl’s parents, who lived nearby, came running out. They were hysterical.
For the past 10 years, Haag has had a recurring nightmare about what happened.
“In the dream, I walk around the door and see her,” he said. “I see the bullet holes and the blood on the door, and then I see her form lying there. For a long time I had that one once or twice a week, more around the anniversary. Then I’d have it every night.”
Haag said in his dream the girl always looks like his wife, Elizabeth.
The horrors of war, he said, never stopped. He was “blown up” again when an Iraqi insurgent rolled a grenade under a door into a house Haag was searching.
Not long after the death of the Iraqi girl, the Two-Five was sent to aid in the search for POWs who had been captured by Iraqi forces.
During the search, in a city north of Baghdad, Haag’s unit discovered a torture chamber in the basement of a 15-story office building.
“Somebody was obviously held there,” he recalled in a recent blog post. “Not sure if it was the POW’s or not, but somebody was tortured beyond anything I could ever dream of. There were cells about five feet tall and only about two feet wide, not tall enough for an average adult to stand up all the way, so basically you were in a hunched position and your knees banged up against the cell.
There were some chains on the wall where people were obviously shackled and it was dark. The worst part of it all was the smell, unbelievably overpowering. Dried, hot blood, that horrible coppery, infection smell, burnt flesh combined with an old sewer is the only way to come close to that smell.”
“That was a bad day,” Haag says. “Like a horror movie.”
It got even worse when they received word that Haag’s friend and mentor, Gunnery Sgt. Jeffrey Bohr, the man who had trained him for combat and who had pinned on Haag’s sergeant chevrons, had been killed days earlier during a seven-hour firefight in Baghdad.
The Two-Five continued fighting for several more months before Haag was called back to the U.S. for officer training. Three years later, promoted to lieutenant with a college degree and logistics training, he went back to war a second time, again to Iraq, this time leading more than a hundred supply convoys into battle areas—and losing more men, often to IEDs which seemed to litter the roadsides.
Coming home kept getting harder—tough after the first deployment, harder after the second, and worse after his third and final tour, in Afghanistan.
There, Haag was assigned to a Command and Control Center, monitoring firefights and investigating the battlefield deaths of fellow Marines.
Because of the helplessness he felt—unable to help out in the field, but still responsible for much of what happened there—he describes that deployment as the worst of the three.
The man she married, Elizabeth Haag says, “doesn’t exist anymore.”
From the outside the Haags look like the perfect family: lovely, intelligent wife, handsome, athletic husband, three beautiful children, lovely home.
At first glance, Haag’s German shepherd, Axel, looks like the devoted family dog wearing a vest. In actuality, he’s a service dog, the companion who makes it possible for Haag to venture out of his home.
The dog, provided by K9s for Warriors, has also brought a measure of peace into the home, which has been plagued by Haag’s drinking, painkiller use, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, depression and frightening rages, during which he would tell his wife that he wanted her and their children out of his life. That he wished she was dead.
Elizabeth Haag’s mother, Peg Bradshaw, who has been deeply involved in the family’s struggles, says that for years she worried every morning if she didn’t get a phone call or text from her daughter when Jason was home.
“There are just these triggers Jason has that we don’t know about,” she said. “I worry all the time about Elizabeth’s safety—and about Jason’s, too. He can be the meanest son of a bitch you’ve ever heard—pardon my language—but mean, hurtful. Then it passes. Like a weather front. And then he’s back to being a wonderful, caring, do-anything-for-you person.”
For as long as she could, Elizabeth Haag chalked up her husband’s violent and self-destructive behavior to “periods of adjustment” after his deployments.
But when he came back from the last one, in October 2010, there could be no pretending, she said.
Something was broken inside Jason Haag. Deeply, terribly broken.
They needed help.
‘Am I some kind of monster?’
BY STEVE WATKINS / FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR | Posted: Saturday, July 27, 2013 6:00 pm
On a cold night in February of last year, Fredericksburg resident Elizabeth Haag decided it was time for her family to stop hiding.
In a blog she titled “Chaos and Clarity,” she wrote that her husband, Marine Capt. Jason Haag, who had fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was one of the estimated one in three veterans in the United States suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Elizabeth Haag said her previously outgoing husband rarely left the basement of their Fredericksburg home, and that he went into uncontrollable rages, screamed at her, yelled at their three young children and drank heavily.
“He had changed so much,” she wrote. “He was anxious, he was mean.”
In the basement, Jason Haag would play video games or just sit. He wouldn’t come upstairs, but instead would text his wife from the basement if he needed something. He covered up the basement window.
If the couple’s kids ventured down, Elizabeth said recently, he would send them away.
“If they were noisy or fighting, he would scream at them and they would run,” she said.
Her husband hadn’t always been that way, she wrote on her blog.
“If you knew him before, you, too, would have asked what the hell happened? He was the life of the party, he was everyone’s best friend. And then, he wasn’t.”
By the time she wrote in her blog, the couple had stopped socializing with just about everyone, she said. She had deliberately lost contact with other military spouses she’d once been close to while their husbands were deployed. She didn’t want people asking her what was wrong.
And she didn’t want to hear from old friends who knew Jason had been abusive to her, and who kept insisting to Elizabeth that she should leave.
Elizabeth, too, was struggling—with what military families had begun calling secondary PTSD. She worried all the time about his reactions to things—noise, the kids’ squabbles, everything.
“His anxiety became mine,” she said.
From the outside, the family’s suffering wasn’t evident. People in the neighborhood knew Elizabeth as the nice, young mother of three, always friendly at the bus stop with her preschool daughter, who she called Little P, waiting for her two boys to come home from school.
The boys rode their bicycles around the neighborhood and played basketball and football with neighborhood kids, and in local sports leagues.
But the Haags mostly kept to themselves. They didn’t know, for most of their first year in Fredericksburg, that their own next-door neighbor had severe PTSD, with a full medical discharge from the Marines.
They rarely saw their neighbor, who spent nearly all his time in a windowless woodworking shop he’d set up in his garage.
‘I COULDN’T LEAVE HIM’
Jason Haag was a dark, reclusive figure who, like his neighbor, rarely left the house, except to drive up to Quantico, where he’d been assigned to teach field maneuvers to junior officers at The Basic School.
A gifted four-sport athlete in high school, he’d had scholarship opportunities to play football in college, and a contract offer to play minor league baseball. He joined the Marines instead and was on the front lines in the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago.
He was shot in the legs during a firefight in the middle of a dusty street in a village near Baghdad, but refused treatment. Several years later, when his legs gave out and surgeons had to remove the shrapnel that was causing nerve damage, he was awarded the Purple Heart.
Jason and Elizabeth had grown up together in Williamsburg, and had been best friends through middle school and high school. They’d gotten married shortly after he joined the Marine Corps in 1999.
In her blog, Elizabeth wrote about how proud she had been of her husband, and how much she’d missed him during his deployments.
But there were other things she was reluctant to write about.
The Haags recently decided to disclose details about their lives to let others know about the effects of PTSD on veterans and their families. For them, the harsh reality of life with PTSD has included:
Physical violence on several occasions when Jason shoved Elizabeth while in one of his rages. The telephones he smashed. The walls he punched. The things he threw. The threats he made.
The time, not long after his first deployment, when Elizabeth tried to wake him after he’d blacked out from drinking and an incoherent Jason grabbed her by the throat until friends were able to pull him away.
The ways the children—ages 11, 8 and 5—had begun acting out, at times imitating their father’s rages in interactions with one another.
How Jason would “go dark” every year on the anniversary of the day he was shot.
The therapist who, like many of Elizabeth’s old friends, urged her to leave the marriage before Jason could do any more damage to her and their children.
“I told her I couldn’t leave him,” Elizabeth recalled recently. “I was certain that if I left, he would be dead. I had a friend whose husband ‘accidentally’ died from an overdose of alcohol and pills. Jason was taking a lot of Vicodin and Percocet then. And he was drinking, a lot. But if he had cancer and was acting out, nobody would be telling me I should leave him. So I wasn’t going to leave him now.”
But as the months of isolation and abuse dragged on, Elizabeth was finally forced in October 2011 to give Jason an ultimatum: Get help or she would have to take the kids and go.
And if she left with the children, she told him, she would make sure, for their safety, that he was never alone with them again.
Jason Haag had spent 13 years in the Marines with three combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had been promoted to squad leader on the battlefield at 21.
He had been wounded and seen several of his men killed in battle. He had killed people, including some he feared had been noncombatants. He had been “blown up,” in his words, on at least three occasions—losing his hearing in one ear and suffering short-term memory loss so bad he sometimes forgot where he was, or where he was supposed to be going.
After each deployment, it got harder and harder for him to adjust to life back home. He thought he’d done a good job of hiding his symptoms, at least to those outside his home.
But now, with the threat of losing his marriage and his children, he went to his commanding officer at Quantico?and said something was broken inside that he couldn’t fix on his own. He needed help.
It would mean the end of his military career, but Jason and Elizabeth both knew that it was either give up the Marine Corps or lose everything.
Not long after Elizabeth broke the ice last year, Jason decided to start a blog as well.
He had begun treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury—mostly drug therapies that didn’t seem to be working, and that were just the first in a series of imperfect treatments for a condition with no cure.
His early posts were raw, filled with spelling and grammatical errors, harsh and painful.
“It’s midnight and I’m wide awake,” he wrote late one night. “Just thinking about stuff has got me wired. That’s what has happened to me and im sure thousands of other vets suffering from PTSD. We are stuck on full throttle, constantly hypervigalent, assessing every threat we think could possibly be there.
“The smallest things set you off in a rage,” he continued. “It’s horrible, especially when you do it to the ones you love the most. Like your wife and kids. It’s So painful to know that your kids are afraid of you. ”
Haag had some good days as the couple began to openly discuss the impact of PTSD on their lives—and began to seek help and a medical discharge from the Marine Corps. He found occasional respite on a handful of snowboarding trips through a special program for veterans who had been awarded the Purple Heart.
But even then, if Elizabeth needed him to pick up the boys from the bus stop, Jason stood by himself half a block away from the other parents, his face mostly hidden under a knit cap and hoodie.
Nightmares and insomnia continued to plague him most nights.
“I can’t even begin to count how many times I have woken up drenched in a cold sweat, or woken up screaming,” he wrote in his blog. “On numerous occasions I have had to go sleep in another room so I didn’t wake the whole house up or hurt someone. Every time I have come back from a combat tour [the nightmares] have gotten worse, they last longer and get more vivid. Each time I have to sleep with a gun longer.”
Jason called his blog “USMCrazy” and in it he talked about the difficulties of regulating the medications he’d been prescribed. He also wrote about the guilt he felt for being back in the U.S. when Marines he’d served with were still deployed, and dying.
The post that got the most hits was one he wrote about the first man he killed—and how easy it was to pull the trigger. Jason was 21.
“And maybe that’s what I struggle with, the fact that it was so incredibly easy. That i didn’t hesitate, that I didn’t think twice. Am I some kind of monster, devoid of any real emotion? Am I a psycho with a gun who just got lucky and got to kill someone legally because I was at war?”
He said he couldn’t get the image of the man he killed out of his head, and that maybe it wasn’t right to try.
“Its what reminds me of the existence of what I am,” he wrote. “Of being here and living every day. I know that it can end in a fraction of a second. But then you ask why do you shut yourself off, why lock yourself away for days at a time. I think maybe it has to do with reflection or possibly punishment. That I think I don’t deserve to be happy or that I need to be isolated and away from everything like the people I killed are.”
TELLING HIS STORY
Though Haag was reluctant to leave his house, he clearly had a strong need to open up about what had happened to him—in hopes that it might help other Marines who were struggling after their deployments.
Because of that, in late March 2012, I asked Elizabeth if she thought Jason might want to speak to a class I taught at the University of Mary Washington—Literature of the Vietnam War—about his experiences with PTSD.
I hoped he could put a human face on a subject that showed up over and over in the novels and memoirs my students had been reading.
It took him a while to get back to me—Jason later blogged that he hoped I would forget about it. But on a Thursday morning in late March of last year, he showed up at a college classroom to answer questions from 50 students, few of whom had any direct connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike in past wars, only a small percentage of Americans serve or are related to someone serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Jason told them nearly everything.
He talked about a woman he had killed in Iraq who might have been deliberately giving away his unit’s position to insurgents, or might have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He described conducting a search through one of Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers in Baghdad.
He told the students about his fellow Marines, men under his command, who had been killed in battle, and how he couldn’t forgive himself for not bringing them all back home alive.
He said he had military friends who also suffered PTSD—some of whom had committed suicide. He said he had thought about suicide himself.
He talked about what war had done to him. And about what he’d done to his wife—about choking her, terrorizing his children. About how he would redeploy if it meant keeping one fewer service member from having to go to war.
For most of the class, an hour and 15 minutes, the students sat dead silent. There was a long pause when Jason finally stopped, as if they needed the time to make sense of everything they’d just heard. And then they applauded for a long time.
No one seemed to be in a hurry to get to their next class. Instead they formed a line to shake his hand and thank him. One, whose military boyfriend had recently returned from Iraq—and had been emotionally distant since his return—asked Jason what she should do.
Jason, stoic and blunt during his talk, was overwhelmed afterward. He had hoped that speaking openly about his experiences in war would help him come to grips with his PTSD, and it did. Some.
But the anxiety hit him hard later in the day, and he ended up that night in the hospital.
Now that he’d begun to open up about his problems, he faced months of therapy, medication struggles and attempts to find meaning in what he had been through.
And with nothing really working to ease his PTSD, he also faced a month-long commitment to an intensive in-patient treatment facility for veterans like him.
Healing is elusive for combat vet
BY STEVE WATKINS/FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR | Posted: Saturday, August 3, 2013 5:30 pm
Elizabeth Haag will never forget the day her husband, Marine Capt. Jason Haag, returned from his third combat deployment. It was Oct. 4, 2010, her birthday. Jason had been in Afghanistan for eight long months.
For years, through his previous deployments — and his increasingly dysfunctional returns — she had managed to convince herself that there was nothing wrong, despite Jason’s heavy drinking, his hyper-vigilance, his periodic rages at her and their three young children and his recurring nightmares. They were just “periods of adjustment,” she told herself and others.
“We waited for what seemed like an eternity,” she wrote in a blog post about that October day. “The kids were jumping up and down, going bonkers. They were so excited. Then I saw [Jason] step off the bus, and I saw the look in his eyes. And I knew. He left in March as one person, and came home in October a totally different person.
“Something inside of me broke in that instant. I struggled to hold back tears as I watched him try to connect with the kids, each one so eager for his attention. He looked like he was in pain . . . . It was like he didn’t even know them.”
Then it was Elizabeth’s turn. She threw her arms around her husband, but he barely responded.
“It was like he couldn’t let go of me fast enough,” she wrote. “He barely spoke to me the rest of the night.”
Pictures of Jason taken that day tell part of the story: a gaunt figure in camouflage fatigues, the strain of deployment evident on his face, a vein standing out in his temple, no trace of a smile as he is surrounded by family waving “Welcome Home” signs.
Jason managed to hold it together until they made their way home to Camp Pendleton, where family and friends were gathered to celebrate Elizabeth’s birthday and Jason’s return. He ended up staying in the bedroom for most of the evening, refusing to come out.
Afterward, he grew increasingly agitated when their youngest, who was then 1½, wouldn’t stop crying. He threw something against a wall. He yelled at Elizabeth. The noise, the demands of the children, the enclosed space—they were all too much. Finally Jason stormed off.
Elizabeth didn’t see him again for several days.
“What was I doing?” he asked recently, shaking his head at the memory of that dark time. “Drinking. A lot. Sleeping on friends’ couches. Sleeping at an office on base. I just couldn’t be around them. I don’t know what I was thinking exactly. I just couldn’t be there. Maybe I thought if I could get away from [Elizabeth and the kids], I could get away from everything else that had happened, too.”
INSIDE THE WIRE
That third deployment, he said, was the worst of the three he had served—though he had killed people, lost Marines under his command and been wounded himself in the original invasion of Iraq. He had spent most of his time in Afghanistan “inside the wire” as a watch officer in a Command and Control Center monitoring the activity of units out in the field. He was also charged with investigating the deaths of Marines and civilians in combat.
He felt frustrated and helpless—and angry at superior officers giving him orders to radio out to Marine units in battle, even though many of the officers had never been in combat themselves. On several occasions he was reprimanded for insubordination.
The psychological and emotional toil never let up. Jason found the body of a fellow Marine who had committed suicide. He regularly took Vicodin and Percocet, prescribed for leg pain from his earlier wounds. He felt guilty for not being out on patrols himself where he might be able to use his combat experience to help bring more Marines back home alive.
After those two weeks back in the States hiding from his family in October 2010—and engaging in increasingly risky behaviors, such as driving his motorcycle 120 mph across an open stretch of highway at Camp Pendleton—Jason had to return home. Elizabeth texted that she needed him to take care of their three children while she went into the hospital for surgery on her leg.
That was just the beginning of 2½ years of intense struggle for the Haag family—much of it chronicled in the first two articles in this series—that led to Jason’s full medical discharge from the Marine Corps at the end of February 2013.
Though he had suffered numerous symptoms of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder beginning with his first deployment, Jason had never been diagnosed—never even been seriously questioned about whether he had any symptoms of TBI or PTSD—until he went to his superior officer at Quantico a year after his return from Afghanistan and said he needed help.
Like a high percentage of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, he didn’t want to risk his career by acknowledging the severity of his problems—or by admitting that he had problems at all.
A recent study by the Center for a New American Security found that men and women in active-duty military were two to four times more interested in receiving mental health treatment than those who actually requested help. They reported being afraid of repercussions from their superiors.
After his third deployment, though, Jason Haag no longer had a choice.
A June 2012 psychiatrist’s evaluation—conducted to determine whether Jason should be given a medical discharge from the Corps—included a bullet list of 49 “Problems: Chronic,” ranging from “multifocal abdominal pain” to “history of traumatic brain injury.”
“Patient endorses symptoms of depression,” the psychiatrist wrote, “feeling hopeless/worthless, feelings of guilt with the deaths he was involved with during his first deployment in Iraq and with his mood changes towards his family.”
The report said Jason hadn’t slept in the three days prior to the examination, and that he typically slept only two hours a night. The report said that when he was ordered to a behavioral health facility for testing, in October 2011, he had to stop his truck three times on the way there because he broke down crying.
“Patient states he has palpitations, sweating, nausea . . .and a month ago had nausea/vomiting, palpitations, and sweating while driving with no precipitant,” the report continued. “He endorses symptoms of PTSD with nightmares, hyperstartle, hypervigilant, avoid crowds, detached from family members, irritable, avoid thoughts/discussions of deployment, restricted range of affect, and isolative.”
Jason, who had received both the Purple Heart and Medal of Valor for actions as an infantryman and squad leader during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, was prescribed 19 different medications in a year and a half.
At various times, he took drugs for pain, for anxiety, for panic attacks, for chronic migraines, for depression, for mood stabilization, for insomnia, for nightmares, for side effects of other drugs. At one point, he was on a dozen different medications at the same time.
“Until they can get it right, you’re drugged out of your mind,” he said recently. “You could knock out an elephant with the [drugs] they were giving me, trying to dope me up to keep me calm.”
Few of the medications, or subsequent therapies, were effective. An allergic reaction to one drug sent Jason to the hospital with lockjaw and a severely swollen face.
He discontinued another drug, prescribed for insomnia, because when he took it he wasn’t able to wake up and so was trapped inside his recurring nightmares.
“They stuck pins in my ears and that helped for a while,” he recalled. “But then they did it one time and I had a migraine and it made the migraine about 10 times worse. So I never did that again.”
Jason tried a number of other therapies as he traveled back and forth between the Behavior Health Clinic in Quantico, the TBI Clinic at Fort Belvoir and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda in the months after his diagnoses in October 2011.
At the TBI Clinic, they identified hearing loss, memory loss and diminished cognitive functioning—and recommended he make lists to help him remember things. At the Behavior Health Clinic, he met with a therapist every other week for several months of “exposure therapy,” and hated every minute of it.
Group therapy was the worst of all, in part because he had increasing difficulty even being around other veterans. He was assigned to a desk job at The Basic School, but would go to great lengths to avoid having to be in the vicinity of other uniformed Marines.
“I just couldn’t be around them,” he said. “If they were standing outside the entrance, I would wait in the parking lot until they went in the building. Or I would find another entrance. And then I would basically just hide.”
He said he was anxious that those Marines might be deployed, and that he wouldn’t be there to help keep them alive.
Jason says he had thoughts about taking his own life. Five of his friends, fellow Marines, have committed suicide since the start of the war in Iraq.
“I didn’t think I had the wherewithal to do it,” he quickly added.
Jason slowly emerged from his basement cave and worked hard to rejoin his family. He took advantage of vacation and retreat opportunities provided by other nonprofits for Purple Heart recipients and their families—and through those discovered snowboarding, one of the few activities that gave him any pleasure and a sense of relief from constant anxiety.
At Elizabeth’s insistence, he agreed to give up his guns.
A home health nurse provided by the Navy/Marine Corps Relief Society helped Jason keep track of his meds and navigate the complex treatment system.
He tried coaching his oldest son’s football team, but had difficulty feeling trapped at times when he had to go to the Fredericksburg Field House for practices and games. He began helping his younger son with homework, trying to find ways to connect.
He began his blog, USMCrazy, opening up online about his PTSD and TBI, in hopes that his experience might help others. He spoke to a Vietnam War literature class at the University of Mary Washington, and did a TV interview with WAVY–TV in Norfolk about his struggles with PTSD.
He organized an online raffle that raised several thousand dollars for the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit that helps injured and disabled Marines.
Nothing worked for very long, however.
“Once the raffle was over I went into a tailspin,” he said. That was several months into his treatment. He had long since stopped going to Quantico for work.
Though Jason’s condition had improved some since starting treatment, every hopeful step forward seemed to have been followed by an equally discouraging step back into the darkness of Jason’s severe mood swings, his drinking, his isolation and his rages.
Elizabeth made him swear he wouldn’t scream at her anymore in front of the children. It was a promise he tried to keep, but couldn’t.
Other frustrations mounted, not only from the PTSD, but from Jason’s traumatic brain injury. On several occasions when he was out running errands, he forgot where he was supposed to be going, and was unable to recognize where he was. He had to call Elizabeth to tell him how to get back home.
Finally, in June 2012, again at Elizabeth’s insistence—and under orders from his superior officer—Jason entered Holliswood, an in-patient treatment facility in Queens, N.Y. Jason’s neighbor, a fellow disabled Marine veteran, had been a patient at Holliswood three times for his PTSD and he’d told the Haags about it.
Elizabeth wrote in her blog how fearful she was when Jason entered the New York facility for a month.
“I’m sure he’s sitting there cursing me and wishing he never went there,” she wrote. “One of my greatest fears is finally losing Jason, completely. We’ve been on that brink so many times, we’ve come so close to him shutting me out permanently. Jason lashes out at me emotionally when he’s in a situation that upsets him or stresses him out. So, I’m fully expecting the backlash.”
At first Jason did lash out, as Elizabeth predicted. At Holliswood, he was required to give up alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, all electronic devices, and the freedom to come and go as he pleased.
“It sucked,” he said. “I hated it. But I had to stay because I was basically under orders to.”
Jason’s 30 days at Holliswood seemed to be transformative, however—with detoxification, and an exhausting schedule of daily group therapy, immersion therapy, art therapy, more acupuncture and even equine therapy.
Most beneficial of all, he said, were daily sessions with a yoga therapist, Denise Caputo–Olsen, who helped him and the other veterans in the program let go of their hyper-vigilance, at least for a while, through yoga asanas, breath work and relaxation techniques. Caputo–Olsen, whose firefighter husband had been killed at the World Trade Centers on 9/11, was all-too-familiar with the traumas that the veterans had suffered—and the crippling effects of their post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jason’s struggles, she said, though overwhelming to him and his family, were “typical.”
WAR AND PEACE
Jason continued practicing yoga for a few weeks after his stay in Holliswood. But, like all the therapies before, that too fell by the wayside. And not long after he was released, Jason returned to the darkness and isolation of the Haags’ basement.
Elizabeth didn’t know what to do next, or how much longer they would be able to hold on.
“I was tired of cleaning up all the messes, tired of the drama,” she said, recalling her frustration—and exhaustion. “I wanted a husband, not a patient.”
And then, in August 2012, Jason was invited by an organization called K9s for Warriors to go to Jacksonville, Fla., for a month-long training program with a service dog, a 2-year-old German shepherd named Axel.
Almost overnight, with Axel at his side, Jason was able to relax, and let go of some of the crippling anxiety and hyper-vigilance that had plagued him since his first deployment.
“Absolutely, hands down, without a doubt, Axel changed everything,” Jason said.
Elizabeth saw it, too.
“Once Jason got Axel, he changed a lot,” she said. “He could go to the store, go to the kids’ ball games. He didn’t have his nightmares. He’d done acupuncture, meds, retreats, cognitive therapy, separations, but nothing worked. Axel just seemed to be the missing piece. He’s like Jason’s battle buddy. He watches Jason’s back.”
A year after Axel came into Jason’s life, and into the Haags’, the only medication Jason is on is an anti-seizure drug to help stabilize his mood swings. He still suffers from memory and hearing loss.
He still has migraines, and struggles with impulse control, insomnia and those rages that seem to come from out of nowhere, frightening Elizabeth and the children and leaving Jason guilt-ridden and repentant.
Elizabeth prays for consistency. Things are better, she says—worlds removed from the dark days when Jason first came back from Afghanistan.
But she knows the war changed her husband—changed all of them—forever.
In February, Jason received full medical discharge from the Marine Corps. He has been trying for months to find a job to supplement the significant drop in income for his family. The amount of money he receives in disability payments is about half of his salary as an active-duty captain in the Marines.
He once again tried coaching his sons’ sports teams during the winter. It went a lot better this time, though the first thing he does when he enters any building or gymnasium—the first thing he will always do—is determine the threat level, and make note of all entrances and exits.
With support from organizations such as the Semper Fi Fund, Jason explored the possibility of a career as a professional snowboarder, competing against others who are disabled. He was invited to train and try out for two weeks earlier this year before potential sponsors in Vermont and Colorado.
He came away with some free snowboarding gear, but little else besides a broken coccyx suffered on his last run on a mountain in Vail, Colo.
Now, back in Virginia, Jason is still looking for work, and doing whatever he can to help raise funds for K9s for Warriors. He hopes something turns up.
The Haags recently bought a house in Spotsylvania County, but money remains tight—a common problem among veterans, whose post-service unemployment rate is much higher than the national average.
All the Haag children will change schools this year, but Jason and Elizabeth hope that buying the new house, and their commitment to stay in the area, will mean no further disruption in their children’s lives.
They’ve been through so much already. After so many years at war, it would be good to have some peace.