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From PIE & CHAI April 2023

My Literary Confessions

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A Witness: “To Forget the Dead Would Be Akin To Killing Them a Second Time.”

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My Latest from PIE & CHAI Magazine

How to 1971-72 Underground High School Newspaper

You Say You Want a Revolution

By Steve Watkins

Call it THE FREE PRESS, all caps. And just in case anybody might not get the message, write out the First Amendment underneath the header in giant letters with nothing else on the front page. Inside, though, there will be plenty: 

An article you lift from The Great Speckled Bird, an alternative newspaper out of Atlanta–a gonzo piece about them naming a high school after Walt Whitman, not knowing they’re celebrating the most famous gay person in American history and how cool is that? Not that you know anybody in New Bern who is gay. At least you don’t think you do…. READ MORE:

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from Scholastic

On May 10, 1940, the Nazis begin their march across Europe, and within weeks, France has fallen. At first, Nicolette’s world seems more or less the same despite the occupation. She and her best friend, Jules, still spend their days after school racing around Paris on their bikes and their evenings rushing through homework when they’d rather be riding. But as the months pass, the Third Reich tightens its hold on France, and it becomes clear just what is at stake. Nicolette and Jules are drawn into a growing resistance movement, determined to do their part to fight back. It’s a deadly secret they’ll have to keep from everyone, including their families. Nicolette’s own father works for local law enforcement, which is now under Nazi control, and who knows what might happen if anyone found out she joined the Resistance. But as Hitler’s empire grows, no one can escape the horrors of war. Including Nicolette. One night, she vanishes without a trace, taken from the street by Nazi soldiers and declared an enemy of the state. Soon, Nicolette finds herself confronting the very heart of Hitler’s plans, bearing witness not just to the atrocities, but also to the courage, bravery, and hope that can emerge in even the darkest times. And it is in these small but powerful moments that Nicolette realizes her greatest weapon against the Nazis: to live, so she can tell the world the truth of what happened. But can one girl survive what was designed to destroy so many?

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50th Anniversary of the Tet Offensive

ON BLOOD ROAD from 2019 is set in 1968 during the Tet Offensive during the War in Vietnam when a teenager, on a reluctant visit to see his “diplomat” father in Saigon, is kidnapped and force-marched by a cadre of North Vietnamese soldiers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail out of Vietnam and through Laos and Cambodia en route to communist controlled North Vietnam and the notorious Hanoi Hilton prison.

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SINK OR SWIM out Fall 2017


The experiences of a 12-year-old in the Battle of the Atlantic are chronicled in this engrossing historical novel.

When a surfacing U-boat destroys their fishing boat and severely injures his older brother, Danny, off the North Carolina coast, Colton assumes his older brother’s identity and enlists in the U.S. Navy. After surviving the brutal trials of boot camp, Colton is assigned to a patrol craft, designed primarily for anti-submarine warfare. Colton’s ship first patrols American coastal waters looking for U-boats preying on merchant vessels, then is assigned to escort convoys traversing the North Atlantic. Operating in intensely adverse weather conditions, Colton’s ship battles “wolf packs” of several U-boats attacking convoys. In one action, the patrol craft is rammed and sunk by a U-boat. Colton’s closest shipmate is killed, and the surviving crew remain at sea in a lifeboat until rescued. A leg wound lands Colton in a hospital stateside and gains him an ensuing discharge from the Navy. The narrative is full of action but short on character development. If the idea of a 12-year-old enlisting in the Navy seems blatantly implausible, there is historical precedent. In an afterword, Watkins explains that his inspiration for the novel is the real-life experience of 12-year-old Calvin Graham, who enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific theater.

A briskly paced, action-packed, surprisingly realistic war story.

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Two brothers try to flee their demons on a canoe trip. Seventeen-year-old, 6-foot, 210-pound linebacker Shane Dupree is a high school football star waiting for a sports scholarship. His older brother, Jeremy, was just as celebrated: he had ace football skills, was the valedictorian of his class, and is beloved by everyone in their community. Jeremy has other accolades too, including a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, and after three deployments in Iraq, he’s back home with his family. Jeremy came home with more than medals, however. He carries and cleans his 9mm wherever he goes. He sleeps in the basement of his parents’ house, away from his wife and daughters. He is clearly suffering, and things take a turn for the worse when he enlists a concussed Shane for a frightening camping excursion with a canoe, a deadly assault rifle, and plenty of beer and whiskey. Watkins’ latest rings with the truth of the plight of veterans who’ve struggled to return to their daily lives after having witnessed what no doubt is sheer horror. Shane’s present-tense narration is fast-paced, full of blunt, uncompromising, sometimes-shocking cruelty. Readers can’t help noticing how Watkins plays Shane’s football prowess against Jeremy’s war stories. Both are battered warriors making sense of what they’ve been taught to do. A gripping, moving, disturbing tale of homecoming. (Fiction. 14-18)


The true cost of war comes back to haunt a family as a teenage football star faces his veteran brother’s slow self-destruction. Shane Dupree used to idolize his older brother, Jeremy, but Jeremy has become a paranoid, alcoholic mess ever since he returned from his deployment, suffering from PTSD, nightmares, and more. When Jeremy asks Shane to join him on a trip to the family’s hunting cabin, it seems like a chance to bond and talk sense into his older brother. Instead, they embark on an impromptu canoe trip down the Shenandoah River, with Jeremy getting progressively more reckless as the full scope of his trauma is gradually revealed. Watkins (Juvie) delivers a powerful, emotionally raw tale, heartbreaking in its portrayal of damaged veterans, the price some pay to serve, and the toll it takes on their friends and family. It’s also a raw coming-of-age journey for Shane as he struggles with his own feelings, especially toward “the Colonel,” the brothers’ emotionally abusive, micromanaging, ex-military stepfather. Ages 14–up. Agent: Kelly Sonnack, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Apr.)


Shane’s brother, Jeremy, is a Marine just back from three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Jeremy saved himself and a private from grueling gunfire when they were separated from their unit. When Jeremy returns, his behavior is erratic, though his family makes the excuse of an adjustment period. Instead of living with his wife and two daughters, Jeremy lives in the basement of his childhood home. Some things about Jeremy are certain: he’s constantly on edge, is always drinking or drunk, and is usually cleaning his 9mm or M16. When Shane suffers a likely concussion on the football field and scores for the other team, he takes Jeremy up on an offer to get away, resulting in a brief stay at their stepfather’s cabin, where Jeremy is gored by a wild pig. What follows is a canoe trip up the Shenandoah River to Harper’s Ferry that ends tragically at Great Falls. Jeremy’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is apparent and manifests through his short fuse, nightmares, jittery anxiety, trouble sleeping, and fits of violence. Jeremy doesn’t know how to ask for help, and his family isn’t equipped to look for the signs. This stirring untold story sheds light on issues that those in the military face. The gritty language underlies the young men’s continuous struggles. VERDICT Watkins portrays family life with a returning veteran with PTSD in a way that will appeal to reluctant readers, especially those who like war or adventure stories.–Adrienne L. Strock, Nashville Public Library


Shane’s older brother, Jeremy, is never still. After tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he suffers from PTSD and is always vigilant, looking for enemies that aren’t there, while compulsively cleaning his M16 rifle. Following a misadventure at a football game (long story), the two brothers—at Jeremy’s direction—find themselves in a canoe on the north fork of the Shenandoah River, with Shane missing school, and Jeremy confronting an unauthorized absence from a military training mission. Shane knows they are in big trouble, but he has always obeyed his older brother, and now is no different. Then Jeremy makes several irredeemable mistakes, and suddenly all bets are off and the Great Falls are looming. Watkins’ treatment of the troubled Jeremy is unsparingly honest yet deeply compassionate, and his fast-paced, suspenseful story is a searing indictment of war and its impact on those who are trying to do a job in the face of unforgiving tragedy. In the end, Jeremy’s quoting from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness sums it up well: “The horror. The horror.” — Michael Cart

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Two news Ghosts of War books from Scholastic–AWOL in North Africa and Fallen in Fredericksburg–and a new YA novel from Candlewick, Great Falls. Here are the covers and publishers’ blurbs.









One brother home from war. The other desperate to save him. A gripping journey together to the river’s end.

Shane has always worshiped his big brother, Jeremy. But three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll, and the easy-go-lucky brother Shane knew has been replaced by a surly drunk who carries his loaded 9mm with him everywhere and lives in the basement because he can’t face life with his wife and two small children. When Jeremy shows up after Shane’s football game and offers to take him to the family cabin overnight, Shane goes along — both to get away from a humiliation on the field and to keep an eye on Jeremy, who’s AWOL from his job at Quantico and seems to have a shorter fuse than ever. But as the camping trip turns into a days-long canoe trip down the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Shane realizes he’s in way over his head — and has no idea how to persuade Jeremy to return home and get the help he needs before it’s too late. In a novel at once gripping and heartbreaking, Steve Watkins offers a stark exploration of the unseen injuries left by war.

And check this out: Early review (Great Falls won’t be out until April 2016) and advance recommendation as Best Boy Book of the Month.


Anderson and his friends Greg and Julie have been doing everything they can to avoid the battered trunk full of old military things in his family’s junk shop basement. Only, staying away seems impossible, and this time Anderson discovers a dusty World War II medic’s bag inside the trunk. But who does it belong to? Because if the friends have learned anything, it’s that they are about to be face-to-face with a ghost.

When an army medic ghost appears, Anderson’s not sure how to help him. Or if he should help him. The ghost claims he was stationed in North Africa during World War II. But as far as Anderson knows, World War II was fought in Europe. So what’s the real story behind this ghost?

Can Anderson, Greg, and Julie solve the mystery, or have they become part of a dangerous haunting?


After three ghosts, it looks like things might be going back to normal for Anderson and his friends Greg and Julie. It’s been a while since any ghosts have shown up, and the most annoying things lately are the loud barking dogs at the Dogs and Suds pet-grooming shop next door to the Kitchen Sink. They’ve been barking nonstop for days, and it’s making band practice impossible. But maybe the dogs know something the friends don’t . . .

Because suddenly a ghost does appear! From what Anderson can tell, it looks like the ghost is a teenage Union soldier from the Civil War, and he looks terrifying. But this ghost is different from the others: He’s demanding to know what happened to his brother, who was also enlisted in the Union army. It’s a mystery that’s over a hundred and fifty years old, and there are very few clues. What will happen to Anderson, Greg, and Julie if they can’t solve this one in time?

Continue reading

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They’re here! The first two Ghosts of War books.

Buy them at your Scholastic school book fair or order them from (or wherever cool books are sold).

The Secret of Midway

Lost at Khe Sanh

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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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.


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“Just because you’re not guilty doesn’t mean you’re innocent”

JUVIE [STARRED REVIEW!] Author: Steve Watkins
Review Issue Date: August 15, 2013 Online Publish Date: August 3, 2013 Publisher: Candlewick Pages: 320 Price ( Hardcover ): $17.99 Publication Date: October 8, 2013 ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-7636-5509-9 Category: Fiction

Once you’re in juvie, it doesn’t matter if you’re a good girl.

Sadie’s the good sister: taking care of her mentally ill, shut-in father; raising her party-girl sister Carla’s 3-year-old daughter, Lulu; making good grades; and playing basketball in hopes of a scholarship that will get her out of her crummy Virginia town. One night, while Sadie tries to keep Carla out of trouble, the two of them are caught in a sting. Carla’s on probation for shoplifting and possession, so Sadie agrees to take the fall, thinking she’ll get off with some community-service hours. But she’s caught before a hanging judge in the mood to make an example of drug-dealing minors, and the next thing she knows, she’s spending six months in juvie. Neither the guards nor the inmates in juvenile detention are interested in rehabilitation. Demeaned and degraded, her schooling reduced to pointless GED-prep workbooks from apathetic teachers, barred from the simple comfort of human contact, Sadie doesn’t see how she can return to her outward-bound trajectory when her six months are over. She wants to make friends, to avoid trouble and to protect those weaker than her, but none of that is as simple as it seems. In the midst of the terrible reality, realistically tiny glimmers of hope shine like candles fighting the darkness.

A bleakly optimistic reminder to hold on to what is good. (Fiction. 13-17)

From the Candlewick Press Fall/Winter 2013 Catalog:

JUVIE tells the story of two sisters grappling with accountability, sacrifice — and who will be there to help you after you take the fall.

Sadie Windas has always been the responsible one — she’s the star player on her AAU basketball team, she gets good grades, she dates a cute soccer player, and she tries to help out at home. Not like her older sister, Carla, who leaves her three-year-old daughter, Lulu, with Aunt Sadie while she parties and gets high. But when both sisters are caught up in a drug deal — wrong place, wrong time — it falls to Sadie to confess to a crime she didn’t commit to keep Carla out of jail and Lulu out of foster care. Sadie is supposed to get off with a slap on the wrist, but somehow, impossibly, gets sentenced to six months in juvie. As life as Sadie knew it disappears beyond the stark bars of her cell, her anger — at her ex-boyfriend, at Carla, and at herself — fills the empty space left behind. Can Sadie forgive Carla for getting her mixed up in this mess? Can Carla straighten herself out to make a better life for Lulu, and for all of them? Can Sadie survive her time in juvie with her spirit intact?

Release date: October 8, 2013.

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Angie 2, Cancer 0

February 3rd, 2013, 11:20 am

Local woman fights cancer one workout at a time



Five days before Christmas, Angie McCormick’s phone rang. It was 8 a.m. and she was home making cookies for an office party, while her kids slept in. It was her oncologist’s office calling—to tell her to go to the ER immediately.

The doctor’s office had just gotten the results back from a blood draw the day before. McCormick’s white blood cell count was 176,000; normal is at most 11,000.

McCormick had been tired lately, and bruising easily, but otherwise feeling great. After a bout with thyroid cancer in 2009, she’d committed to an intense routine of exercise and vegan eating. She was in the best shape of her life.

But a few hours after the doctor’s office called, a second blood draw at the ER confirmed the dangerously elevated white blood cell count, which can be a sign of cancer.

McCormick’s oncologist, Dr. Charles Maurer, came in almost immediately to do a bone marrow biopsy, an extremely painful procedure made worse due to the density of McCormick’s bones from months of weight-lifting and running.

Maurer had the results within hours: chronic myeloid leukemia. Phase 2: Accelerated. That explained the easy bruising and fatigue McCormick had recently been experiencing.

The good news: The leukemia was not yet in the advanced blast phase, which would make it tough to treat. The bad news: Aggressive treatment would be required to try to get it into Phase 1 remission and keep it there.

McCormick was stunned. The 34-year-old Fredericksburg woman had already beaten cancer once, almost three years before. She had taken control of her life since then, swearing off junk food and binge eating and shifting herself and her family over to a strict vegan diet. And not just any vegan diet, either, but one rich with foods proven to fight and ward off cancers.

“It’s a cliché, but when I got cancer the first time it was a wake-up call,” said McCormick, a call center manager for a national polling firm. “I ate all the wrong foods, and for the wrong reasons. I was a compulsive overeater. I’d given the cancer everything it needed to succeed.”

After changing her diet, McCormick liked how she felt—not only physically, but emotionally. But just changing her diet, she decided, wasn’t enough. Though a lifelong hater of exercise, she took up distance running at the urging of a co-worker.

“At first I just didn’t want to be fat anymore,” she said. “But once I got started, I wanted to keep going.”

After a year of mostly just running, she started taking exercise classes and lifting weights. Last summer she began working with Chris Innocenti, a personal trainer at the Massad Branch of the YMCA. She also joined his Boot Camp and was soon devoting at least nine hours a week to exercise.

In two years’ time McCormick lost 103 lbs., dropping from 249 to a strong, fit 146. She was healthy and happy and thinking about her next big challenge. Maybe graduate school. Maybe a marathon.

Instead, just a few days before Christmas, she found herself lying in the hospital, her body swelling from edema, a side effect of Gleevec, the first drug therapy she was put on for leukemia.


Gleevec and other drug therapies, developed in recent years, are designed to combat the bone marrow’s excessive production of unformed cells called blasts, or leukemia cells. These cells grow quickly and crowd out normal red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets the body needs.

Leukemia can be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including certain viruses; exposure to Benzene or petrochemicals; or even some chemotherapy agents used to treat previous cancers.

Whatever the reason for her leukemia, McCormick knew she had not come so far for everything to go back to the way it was before.

“I can’t describe what a huge thing that was for me to lose a hundred pounds and beat thyroid cancer,” she said. “It was about overcoming an entire lifetime of being disappointed in myself. Never feeling good about myself. Never liking how I looked. Never feeling happy or successful.”

McCormick got out of the hospital on Saturday, Dec. 23. And at 9 a.m. the next morning, she showed up at the Y parking lot with the other hardcore Boot Campers, ready to lift a few tractor tires.

“I did a whole lot of not much,” she recalled.

“Not much” included an intense series of squats, extended wall sits and a forward sled drag, among other challenges. Not bad for someone who couldn’t even sit down because of the biopsy, and who still wore her hospital bracelet, just in case.

McCormick hasn’t let up much since.

“I’m not about to stop working out,” she said. “It’s another weapon in the arsenal. It’s literally helping me fight the cancer. Research has clearly shown that it boosts your immune system. And it’s another opportunity for me to prove to myself that I can do things I didn’t think I could do.”


Two weeks after she got out of the hospital, McCormick was doing just about everything she’d been doing before: pushups, kettle-bell swings, sled pulls, sledge-hammering and working with her fellow Boot Campers to flip a 666-pound tractor tire they call “Buttercup.”

By Jan. 9, McCormick, who had gained 22 lbs. the first week after starting her treatment, was back to her pre-diagnosis weight.

Dr. Maurer, her oncologist, was happy she was keeping her weight down—something he told her he wished more of his patients could do, since it made the drug therapy much easier to manage.

“Because [McCormick] is so well-conditioned, there is a much higher likelihood of responding well to treatment, and a much lower risk of complications from the drug therapy,” he said.

McCormick hasn’t had to have any blood transfusions. Her white blood cell count has stayed down. There’s no talk about a bone marrow transplant.

And, in what a surprised Maurer told her was “remarkably fast progress,” McCormick said her leukemia has already gone into first-level remission.

The goal, with drug therapies, is to achieve that level in three months. McCormick did it in three weeks. The goal now is to continue progressing into deeper remission—chronic, but asymptomatic and no longer spreading.

“She’ll be on a regimented drug program for the rest of her life, which can induce a complete, sustained remission,” Maurer said. “The challenge now is what we call ‘Survivorship Care.’ Once you’ve finished treatment, there is more and more data showing the importance of staying fit, exactly as she has done, which will help in preventing a recurrence.”

McCormick celebrated her first-level remission by buying a new pink and blue T–shirt with the words “Suck it up, Buttercup” emblazoned on the front.

She wore it the next day to Boot Camp.


Angie McCormick’s workouts are holistic, focusing on strength, stamina and diet. Her sessions with personal trainer Chris Innocenti emphasize functional fitness exercises with such exotic names as the Bulgarian Split Squat, Sumo Dead Lift and Blast Strap Row.

She has recently added yoga once or twice a week to her workout schedule. She also has begun run-ning again, taking spinning classes and lifting weights.

She continues to follow a mostly vegan diet, with a few modifications to increase her protein level and combat the anemia that comes with her leukemia. McCormick remains a steadfast believer in the importance of exercise and diet to combat illnesses—especially cancer.

There’s reason for her to believe.

“Only 5 to 10 percent of all cancer cases can be attributed to genetic defects, whereas the remaining 90 to 95 percent have their roots in the environment and lifestyle,” a team of researchers wrote in a recent article published by the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Biochemical Information.

“The evidence indicates that of all cancer-related deaths, almost 25 to 30 percent are due to tobacco, as many as 30 to 35 percent are linked to diet, about 15 to 20 percent are due to infections, and the remaining percentage are due to other factors like radiation, stress, physical activity, environmental pollutants, etc.”

McCormick said much the same thing in a Facebook message for her friends last spring about her thyroid cancer, adding her own call to action:

“Three years ago at this time, they were telling me there was an excellent 5-year survival rate, and I thought, ‘In 5 years, [my son] Liam will be 7 and [my daughter] Lara will be 13. That’s not enough time.’ I resolved to do anything I could to help fight it, and I did. So here is my annual soapbox statement:

“You are not ‘too young’ to get cancer, or heart disease, or Type 2 diabetes. … So wake up and stop making excuses. … Stop eating crap. Get some exercise.  … Cancer is preventable, up to 95 percent of the time. Wrap your head around that, and then get moving.”


Chronic myeloid leukemia, the kind that Fredericksburg resident Angie McCormick has, is “a type of cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. It then moves into the blood and can spread to other parts of the body,” the American Cancer Society says.

The leukemia cells tend to build up over time in CML patients, but CML can “change into a fast-growing, acute leukemia that invades almost any organ in the body,” the society says.

CML is one of four main types of leukemia. Learn more at

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Dead All Over?

The Haunting of 307 William Street

Steve Watkins

Fredericksburg Free-Lance-Star, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2012

The noises at Read All Over Books in downtown Fredericksburg started a year ago. Two employees heard the same thing, though at different times and on different days.

Chloe Lafollette and Austin Echelberger both turned off the lights upstairs at the end of their shifts. They both returned downstairs at 307 William St. to continue switching off lights and shutting down the store.

And they both heard footsteps walking from the front left corner of the store–above their heads on the second floor—over to the top of the stairs. The footsteps were so distinct that Echelberger hurried back upstairs, assuming that he’d turned the lights off on a customer. But the room was empty.

Both shrugged it off at first. Maybe they’d imagined it. Maybe it was just the creaking, settling sounds of an old pre-Civil War-era building

But it happened again. And again.

Echelberger, who has since left Read All Over and moved to Charlottesville, finally told bookstore owner Paul Cymrot. Echelberger said he felt that he was being watched from the top of the stairs, and it became such a regular thing that he would simply say hello to whomever it was and go on with his business.

Lafollette got so freaked out that any time she had to close the store she would run upstairs, hit the light switches, then run back down.

She, too, finally told Cymrot.

“The odd thing was that neither of them had corroborated their stories first with one another,” Cymrot said. “They’d never discussed what they’d heard at all. Yet what they reported to me was almost exactly the same.”

Built in 1830, near the intersection of William and Princess Anne streets, 307 William St. has been a grocery, a tin shop, a high-end knick-knack emporium, a day spa, and now a used bookstore, among its many incarnations.

There have been so many unusual occurrences there since the noises began—and questions from patrons—that Cymrot finally hung up a sign which said, “KEEP CALM. THIS BOOKSTORE IS PROBABLY NOT HAUNTED.”

A first-time customer recently came into the store, and after walking around for awhile stopped in front of the sign. Lafollette was working at the time. “He said, ‘I guess that explains why I just saw a book flying off one of your shelves,’” she recalled.

The Ghost Upstairs

Skeptical at first, Cymrot eventually had to concede that there was something strange going on at Read All Over.

“We’re operating with the hypothesis that this is the ghost of a teenage boy,” he said, “We have no idea what era it might be from, but Chloe [Lafollette] did say that the day of the anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the store was especially active. We also had a customer one day who told us, without any excitement or surprise, that there was a ghost upstairs which he thought belonged to a teenage boy.”

Lafollette, who attends Germanna Community College and has worked at Read All Over since September, confirmed Cymrot’s account. “About four in the afternoon, on December 11—I didn’t know until later that it was the date the Battle of Fredericksburg started—I just had this weird feeling that the store was mad,” she said. “There was a weird noise in the back room, like when wind is whipping through somewhere but it sounds like howling. But there was no wind.”

Anna Lincoln, who started working at Read All Over in March, said she’s never seen or heard the ghost, but she’s pretty sure he’s there nonetheless. “I always feel like I’m being watched, especially in the back room and upstairs,” she said. “Upstairs there’s just this weird energy, and it feels creepy. Whenever I have to close by myself I run upstairs and run back down, the same as Chloe.”

Most disconcerting to Lincoln have been the flying books. She described one incident when a book fell or leapt off a shelf next to the cash register and landed ten feet away. “It’s happened several times,” she said. “Customers will say, ‘Did you see that?’ and we just laugh and tell them it’s the ghost, having some fun.”

A mother and daughter who came in the store not long ago got into an argument over the phenomenon—the daughter insisting she’d seen a book fly off a shelf, the mother equally insistent that it hadn’t happened.

Lafollette has seen flying books as well. She said she’s also found books in odd arrangements on the floor when she opened the store, mostly upstairs and mostly kids’ books, as if someone had been sitting on the floor reading them. Once she found a pile of 20 novels stacked in the middle of a rug on the second floor. The books hadn’t been there when she closed up the night before–they were on first-floor shelves–and no one had been in the store.

Malevolent or Just Bored?

Despite all that and more—Lafollete and her mother are certain the ghost followed her home on at least one occasion; she had to ask it to stop revving her car engine—she and Lincoln say they don’t believe the ghost means any harm. Lincoln said she thinks he’s just bored at times, and perhaps looking for some excitement.

“There’s kind of a bad energy when there are more formal things going on in the store,” she said. “But the ghost seems to especially like children, and there’s a really positive vibe or energy or whatever when we have things like the FAA [Fredericksburg All Ages] concerts.”

Cymrot agreed. “It doesn’t scare people or drag chains or smoke cigars,” he said. “But it gets bored and antsy. It’s happier when there’s some entertainment for it.”

Still, not everyone is comfortable with the ghost.

“We did have one customer,” Cymrot said, “a woman with Down’s Syndrome or perhaps another developmental abnormality, who despite having been all over the store on several previous occasions wouldn’t enter the back room under any circumstances. She was visibly distressed and said ‘It’s in there! It’s in there!’ before leaving the store.

“She has not been back.”

Cymrot, who also owns Riverby Books on Caroline Street, said he had a premonition that there might be something odd about 307 William St. when he first opened the store in 2010. As he built shelves and painted walls, especially on the second floor in the front corner, things kept happening: Materials fell. Drinks spilled. And he found himself getting easily exhausted and annoyed.

In the first year of operation he renovated the upstairs three times, but it still never “felt right.” Light bulbs burned out quickly, especially on the second floor. And the wireless speakers—the same ones that had worked fine for years at Riverby–developed static and quit working after a short time.

And there was the strange effect the building seems to have on some of his employees.

“Somehow the space just eats them up,” he said. “They get lethargic; they stop taking out the trash or counting the change.”

Erin Comerford, a rising sophomore at the University of Virginia who has worked at both Riverby and Read All Over, called it a “general energy suck.”

“When I’m over at Riverby I’m motivated, I get things done, I’m in a good mood afterwards,” she said. “But at Read All Over people try to get work done and it never seems to go anywhere.”

Cymrot said he’s had to let half a dozen employees go at 307 William, a marked contrast to Riverby where virtually all his employees have stayed on happily for years.

“With most of them [at Read All Over], they just gradually did less and less work until I had to call them on it,” he said.

Smudge Pots and D&D

Since the ghost first made its presence known to bookstore employees, Cymrot has learned other stories about previous tenants in 307 William St. who were convinced the building was haunted, and who tried various means of driving out the unwanted guest.

The owner of Echelon Day Spa, who rented the building from Cymrot’s family before Read All Over moved in, once went through the store with burning sage in a smudge pot, a supposedly effective means of sending away uninvited spirits. Massage therapist Pam Gallant, who worked at Echelon, confirmed that story.

Gallant also said the owners of Gold Star Emporium, who set up shop at 307 William back in the 1990s, brought in a paranormal adviser to coach them on the best way to handle the troublesome ghost. The Gold Star owners have both since died.

Cymrot has taken a different approach, hanging bright posters and pictures throughout the store, and scheduling as much lively entertainment as he can for customers–and for the ghost: Fredericksburg All-Ages concerts, poetry readings, story-telling events, film screenings, live acoustic music.

And he’s recently added another activity—though this one is down in the basement, a particularly claustrophobic part of the store with its low ceilings, deep shadows, natural outcroppings of rock, and posts made out of original cedar tree trunks. The old coal chutes down there have been cemented up. A brick arch which once led into the basement of Bistro Bethem has been cinder-blocked over, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” A “creepy crawl space” that Cymrot has yet to explore juts out through a broken brick back wall.

Undaunted by the forbidding ambience—or perhaps partly inspired by it–Cymrot and several friends have been meeting once a month there for late-night sessions of the old fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons, which all played years ago in high school and college, and which they’ve now resurrected locally.

Cymrot says participants haven’t noticed anyone extra showing up. No phantom footsteps or howling winds or flying books.

So far.


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My Friend Alice

(A longer draft of an article I wrote for the newspaper when Alice died earlier this week.)

Alice Rabson could barely see out of her rear view mirror because of all the bumper stickers on the back of her purple Volkswagen Beetle, bold testament to her adamant support for a host of progressive causes. I used to see that car all over town, and it always made me happy to know Rabson was nearby, ready to fight the good fight and bring the rest of us along with her.

Though the bumper stickers were a good start at announcing what she stood for, what they couldn’t tell you was that Rabson had been an advocate for those causes—civil liberties, a woman’s right to choose, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, human rights, anti-war —her entire life, long before they were embraced by anything like a majority of her fellow Americans.

Rabson had to give up that VW several years ago as her health began to fail, but until this week she never stopped advocating for her causes. She died quietly Monday morning while sitting at breakfast at the Hughes Home in Fredericksburg.

She was 92.

Wherever she went, whatever she did, Alice Rabson lived what she believed, and she never shied away from expressing herself–fighting on the front lines of progressive issues as a lifelong member of the ACLU (her father was one of the founders), as one of the first members of the local National Organization for Women, as co-founder of and longtime counselor for the Rappahannock Council on Domestic Violence, and so much more.

“I remember NOW working out of Alice’s home for several months in the 1970s, lobbying for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment,” said her long-time friend Becky Reed, a former Stafford County Supervisor and attorney with Rappahannock Legal Services. “Alice had a number of causes that she believed in. But she didn’t just believe in them—she got out and worked for them.”

Fredericksburg’s Gaye Adegbalola, a renowned blues singer, remembers another moment from Rabson’s early years in town—one that changed Adegbalola’s life.

“I was down from New York visiting my family,” she recalled recently. “My father and I were driving on Princess Anne Street by the Selective Service Board which was in the old Post Office—what’s now City Hall. And there, standing all alone in the pouring rain, holding a sign protesting the war in Vietnam, was Alice.”

Adegbalola told that story recently at a Democratic Party fundraiser where she was performing, exhorting the crowd to show that same “passion and fire to stand up for what we believe.”

“Any time I have lacked courage to stand up for a cause,” Adegbalola said, “the role model who comes to mind is always Alice Rabson.”

My own introduction to Rabson happened 22 years ago, also standing on the steps of City Hall where we were holding signs opposing the first Gulf War. Alice believed that diplomacy, sanctions, a willingness to try anything and everything should precede any decision to go to war. It was a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam—in all previous wars–but that, as Rabson saw it, we clearly and tragically hadn’t.

I had just moved to Fredericksburg to teach at what was then Mary Washington College. It was 1990. Rabson, retired from MWC for five years by then as a professor of psychology, had been organizing and participating in progressive political actions in town for decades. Her friend Jane Ellen Teller remembers seeing a photo from the 1960s that ran in the newspaper of her standing outside the old Woolworth’s holding a sign demanding the segregated store open its doors to African-Americans.

Though Rabson was never afraid to stand alone, she was also a firm believer in including her children in political activities, in one case bringing young Steve and Ann Rabson along with her to picket a barbershop in Ohio, where they were living at the time, because of the barbershop’s refusal to cut black children’s hair.

“We were always a very politically active family, and Alice was a great role model for a lot of people, including us,” said Ann Rabson, who continued the family tradition by bringing her own daughter Liz to anti-war rallies. “I was so proud of her. And my daughter was proud of her, and my daughter’s daughter was proud of her. She was adventurous, and not afraid of anything.”

Not that Rabson didn’t have her detractors. Her strong opinions, expressed over the years in letters to the editor, invariably prompted vitriolic responses. People threw things at her while she stood on protest lines. And, because she was not afraid of shaking things up where she worked, she was criticized by some of her colleagues for being “too outspoken.”

Some in the Old Boys Faculty Network at MWC called Rabson “Crazy Alice” behind her back, even after she left the school. I’d heard those whispers before meeting Rabson that day at City Hall. The Old Boys thought she was trouble, and boy was she ever—though the best kind of trouble: the kind who gets things done.

They were wise to keep their whispers to themselves.

Rabson, who might have been five feet on her tallest day, didn’t just take on the larger inequities in society; she was committed to progressive change right at home, starting with the psych department’s antiquated offerings in developmental psychology—her specialty–and continuing through the fight to force MWC and the University of Virginia to go co-ed and end UVa’s discrimination against women that had endured into the 1970s.

When she retired from the school, in 1985, Rabson didn’t sit still for long. Actually she didn’t sit still at all. She joined the Peace Corps and spent the next two and half years serving as a health counselor in the Marshall Islands. She was 65 at the time.

Throughout her life, Rabson’s greatest sources of pride were her children: Ann, an internationally-acclaimed blues pianist, and Steve, who taught Japanese literature as a member of the Asian Studies faculty at Brown University until his retirement in 2006. Steve Rabson moved to Fredericksburg to help care for his mother last year.

In every conversation we ever had, Rabson talked about her children’s lives and their accomplishments—Ann’s latest record or CD, Steve’s most recent translation.

Rabson lived with Ann and her husband George Newman the last three years of her life. But for most of the 90 years prior to that, she was fiercely independent. She was well into her 80s before she stopped driving and moved for a time into an assisted living facility.

As recently as three weeks ago Rabson was still having her son Steve drive her to the Unitarian Universalist Church for her beloved Sunday Discussion Group, a regular gathering whose members, fellow secular humanists, all looked forward to debating the tough issues of the day—with warmth, intellect, humor, passion, and the occasional raised voice.

“She led a full, productive life,” said Steve Rabson yesterday. “She helped so many people personally and professionally. That’s the most significant thing I learned from her—that one of the greatest pleasures in my life is to be able to help other people.”

A few years ago, at a memorial service for our friend Bill Lakeman, another long-time Unitarian Universalist, Rabson, who had trouble walking, nonetheless stepped forward to speak. The minister, Jeff Jones, tried to lead her to one side of the pulpit where he thought it would be easier to step up on the dais. But Rabson insisted on going to the other side.

Jones tried again to lead her to his side, but Rabson still insisted on going the route she had chosen.

Finally, someone in the congregation spoke out: “Alice will do it her way!”

The current UU minister, Walter Braman, who was in attendance at that service, reminded me of that story yesterday.

“Six short words,” he said, “that truly underscore her life and her person.”

There will be a memorial gathering at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Saturday, Nov. 3, at 3 p.m. to celebrate Alice Rabson’s life. All are invited.

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