James Petersen is a Marine veteran from Collinsville, Illinois. He enlisted in 1999 and served several years stateside before deploying to Fallujah, Iraq.
And then he became part of a Marine infantry unit that was sent to oversee Abu Ghraib prison after the media exposed the mistreatment of prisoners there.
Up to that point, the Marine infantryman said that his service — even deployment to Fallujah — had been relatively pleasant:
“At the time, most of the people were happy we were there. We handed out school supplies and candy, and helped build a school.”
“Still, it was an incredibly dangerous place. Whenever you would leave the base, there were IEDs (improvised explosive devices) waiting for you.”
Petersen described his first day at the infamous prison to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“We took over 40 mortars that day. Most of the prisoners were outside in tents. Twenty-two prisoners died. Body parts were everywhere.”
As time went on, the reality of Abu Ghraib began to sink in. Before American soldiers were ever accused of mistreating Iraqi prisoners, Saddam Hussein tortured and killed thousands of his own citizens within its walls:
“The wild dogs would dig up bones from the mass graves and bring them to you. The place was just steeped in evil. And it was attacked every single day — car bombs, rockets, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades.
The whole site was about the size of [a small college] campus, so when it got attacked, you felt it.”
And American soldiers were always targets:
“You were like a dog in a cage getting poked at with a stick. When you get back home, you still feel that way.”
Petersen came home in 2007, but even though he couldn’t give it a name, he knew something was not right:
“I was surprised by how hard it was to be home. I missed the sense of community. I missed having a very clear purpose. Life seemed so much easier in Iraq; either you lived or you died.
I was angry all of the time and I didn’t know why. I got in stupid fights with my parents.
I hated the fireworks at Fair St. Louis.
The worst was trash day. There was this dumpster outside my window and whenever the trash truck put it down, it sounded like a 120-millimeter enemy mortar.”
After returning to Iraq temporarily as a contractor, Petersen still felt a disconnect when he returned home again. The nightmares didn’t go away. And finally, at his wife’s request, he sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
And slowly but surely…
“I was taught to reframe what I was thinking and how I was feeling. I remember thinking, ‘Yes I’m at Costco on Saturday, and yes, it is crowded, but no one here is wearing a suicide vest.’ I was very surprised how well it worked.”
Now, Petersen is studying to earn his Master of Social Work through the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. His goal: to help other veterans the way that he was helped.
Petersen spoke to Independent Journal Review about the things he wishes that more Americans understood about veterans returning from service overseas:
“I wish that more Americans understood that it’s a natural reaction to miss serving overseas. It’s the clear sense of purpose that we miss, as well as the strong sense of community over there.
The loss of those two things is one of the reasons that Post-911 veterans struggle to adjust when they return home. Yes, life over there is hard and you see horrific things. But the sense of community over there reaches a tribal level, and you long for that after getting back home.”
He also noted that many Americans don’t really understand that PTSD doesn’t affect all veterans in the same way:
“I wish there was less of a stigma associated with PTSD. Some of this stigma is caused by a certain cohort of veterans who seem to pride themselves in being a ‘disgruntled veteran’.
A lot of the PTSD symptoms are just avoidance. Avoiding things that remind you of something traumatic you witnessed.
Not all veterans dealing with PTSD are locking themselves in their basement with their cache of guns and Confederate flags, posting online rants on the ‘nastiness’ of civilians.”
For those who have friends and family members who may be returning from service, Petersen said there are things that are helpful:
“The most helpful things people can do for loved ones is to be patient and to encourage them to seek help for PTSD if they need it. Most veterans with PTSD don’t seek help of their own free will; they’re usually prompted by their families.
So, be patient and understand that their veteran will have a long period of adjustment. Encourage them to seek help, and be prepared for a long road. But it’s worth it.”
And things that are not helpful:
“It’s not helpful to expect things to go back to the way they were before the war.”
But the most important thing to remember is that it isn’t just the veteran who is different after experiencing war: “Things probably won’t ever be exactly the same. Both of you have changed.”