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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Update: PTSD and the 'The Marlboro Man'

Snapped by embedded Los Angeles Times photographer Luis Sinco, tagging along with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines in Fallujah on November 9, 2004, this photo would run in 100 newspapers worldwide. The Times gives us an update on how the iconic Marine is doing. Through both a new article, and a photo gallery, you'll peer into Lance Corporal James 'Blake' Miller's life as he fights his latest battle -- with PTSD. All my best to him.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

From the LA Times:

He survived a harrowing all-night firefight in November 2004, pinned down on a rooftop by insurgents firing from a nearby house. Filthy and exhausted, he had just lighted a Marlboro at dawn when an embedded photographer captured an image that transformed Blake into an icon of the Iraq war.

His detached expression in the photo seemed to signify different things to different people — valor, despair, hope, futility, fear, courage, disillusionment. For Blake, the photograph represents a pivotal moment in his life: an instant when he feared he would never see another sunrise, and when his psychological foundation began to fracture.

A year after the photo spread like wildfire around the world, Miller would receive an early but honorable discharge from the military due to his PTSD.
He feels adrift and tormented, dependent on his new bride, his family and his military psychiatrist to help him make sense of all that has befallen him. He barely sleeps. On most mornings, Blake says, he has no good reason to get out of bed. Often, his stomach is so upset that he can't eat. He has nightmares and flashbacks. He admits that he's often grouchy and temperamental. He knows he drinks and smokes too much. "He's not the same as before," said Blake's wife, Jessica, who has known him since grade school. "I'd never seen the anger, the irritability, the anxiety."

Blake says he feels guilty about taking money — $2,528 in monthly military disability checks — for doing nothing. Yet he's also frustrated that two careers made possible by his military training, police officer or U.S. marshal, are out of reach because law enforcement is reluctant to hire candidates with PTSD.

So he broods, feeling restless and out of options: "I'm only 21. I'm able-bodied as hell, yet I'm considered a liability. It's like I had all these doorways open to me, and suddenly they all closed on me. It's like my life is over."

The article goes on the document a recent trip to a restaurant with this wife; although he was able to control it, Miller admits he became enraged when he believed a man was was looking at his wife Jessica's bottom.
Jessica, who graduates this spring from Pikeville College with a psychology degree, has persuaded her husband to undergo visualization techniques in which she helps him confront his demons.

"It's understandable that Blake has PTSD, after all he's been through," she said. "Ordinary people can't comprehend what it's like to be constantly shot at and have to kill other human beings. They need to know what it means to send people like Blake out to fight wars. You're going to have a lot of people breaking."

Five other members of his platoon of about three dozen have been diagnosed with PTSD, Blake said. A dozen men from his unit were killed in action. A Journal of the American Medical Assn. study published in March found that more than a third of troops who served in Iraq sought help for mental health problems within a year of returning home.

After offering more details on how the photo itself was snapped and made its way into the history books, the piece then moves on to reveal how Miller's PTSD made itself known in the days following his return home.

In early January 2005, as Blake's unit prepared to leave Iraq, what Marines call a "wizard" — a psychiatrist — gave a required "warrior transitioning" talk about PTSD and adjusting to home life. Blake didn't think much about it until he returned to Jonancy in late January and his nightmares began.

He dreamed about the 40 enemy corpses that he counted after the tank demolished the house, he said, and that he had been shot. "He'd jump out of bed and fall to the floor," Jessica said. "I'd have to hold him to get him to wake up, and then he'd hug me for the longest time."

Sometimes, Blake mutters Arabic phrases he learned in Iraq or grimaces in his sleep, and Jessica will keep whispering his name until he wakes up. Some nights, he doesn't sleep at all. "I tend to drink a lot just to be able to sleep," Blake said. "Nothing else puts me to sleep."

He decided last summer to see a military psychiatrist at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he was based. In August, he was diagnosed with PTSD. But before he could be put on "non-deployable status," his unit was sent to New Orleans to assist with Hurricane Katrina recovery.

While aboard a ship off the Louisiana coast, Blake was taking a cigarette break when a petty officer made a whistling sound like an incoming rocket-propelled grenade. Blake says he remembers nothing about the incident, but was later told that he slammed the officer against a bulkhead and attacked him.

By November, Blake was forced to take a medical disability discharge. "They said they couldn't take the risk of me being a danger to myself and others," he said. He fears that he may have another blackout. "It's terrifying that at any moment I could lose control and not know what I'm doing," he said. "What if next time it's Jessica?"

He suffers from flashbacks along with his nightmares (flashbacks are images that appear 'real' in the person's mind while awake).

This February, while smoking a cigarette and staring out Jessica's dorm room window, Blake said, he thought he saw a dead Iraqi man on the grass. Later, he had visions of an Iraqi father and son fishing — a scene he'd witnessed in Iraq just before a grenade exploded nearby. "I can't tell anymore what really happened and what I dreamed," he said. "Sometimes I feel like I'm dying."

Blake visits a Veterans Administration psychiatrist in nearby West Virginia and speaks with him by phone several times a week. He said his psychiatrist told him that his PTSD has to be managed; his disability will be reevaluated in March 2007.

Meanwhile, he has slowly turned against the war. "We've done some humanitarian aid," Blake said, "but what good have we actually done, and what has America gained except a lot of deaths? It burns me up." Jessica, who sports an "I Love My Marine" sticker on her car, says she and Blake are behind the troops though they no longer support the war.

The piece moves on to describing the Kentucky community in which Miller grew up, then closes with Miller reflecting on things.

For Hillbilly Days, an annual street festival late last month in Pikeville (pop. 6,304), Blake shaved his scruffy beard and got a military "high and tight" haircut. He agreed to help at a Marine Corps recruiting booth at the festival. Just putting on his Marine fatigue pants and boots for the first time since his discharge brought back more memories, and he tried to tamp them down.

He was so worried that the Marlboro Man photo would dominate the recruiting booth that he begged the recruiters not to display it. He also persuaded them to remove a large version of the photo that had hung in the recruiting station in downtown Pikeville. "I can't stand to look at it anymore," he said. Even so, he says the photo has provided him a platform to try to educate others about PTSD.

At the festival, Blake's mood brightened as he chatted with the recruiters. Wearing a Marine T-shirt with the message "Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body," he was cheerful and animated. He playfully harangued young men, challenging them to a pull-up contest.

Though he has turned against the war, he said, he often wishes that he was back in the Corps and with his buddies. He still recommends the Corps to potential recruits, but advises them that it's a job, not a way of life. He recommends noncombat positions. "In order to do your job in combat, you have to lock up your emotions," he said. "Basically, you're turning people into killers."

Please consider thanking the Los Angeles Times for their coverage of this important issue. We need more of this kind of reporting to get more engaged and ready to advocate for our returning troops.


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