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I was 18 when President Carter rattled America’s saber. The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan, and Carter wanted to show the Russians that we weren’t kidding around so he re-instituted registration for the draft. (He didn’t re-institute the draft, just registration for the draft.) I’d just finished my freshman year at Syracuse University and had a summer job in Boston when my 18th birthday came up. My parents insisted that I register at a Boston post office, using my Scarsdale, New York, home address and my Syracuse, New York, dormitory phone number in the hopes that it would somehow slow the draft board down should things escalate beyond boycotting the Olympics. I’m not my father, who served and fought in World War II, and I’m not my sister Debbie, who after graduating from law school signed up with the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps. I’m not my brother Noah, who after graduating from law school took a job with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office — rising through the ranks to the Organized Crime Division. (Much to our mother’s unhappiness, Noah would often be one of the very few people who knew where key prosecution witnesses were being hidden — making his throat a prime target for Luca Brasi.) And I’m not my mother, who taught public school in New York City her whole adult life in spite of having an education and a resume that would have allowed her to get paid a lot more for a lot less. To be clear, the most dangerous thing I do is get reviewed by the New York Times. When I sacrifice it’s by writing a check.
Not so for U.S. Army Sgt. Mike Pereira. Sgt. Pereira (who I’ll call Mike for the rest of this brief column because that’s what he prefers) enlisted when he was 18 years old. In 2005 and 2006 he was serving at the Bagram Internment Facility in Afghanistan where he analyzed who we’d just captured and why. His MOS (Military Operational Specialty) was 96 Bravo. “Nobody cared what my name was,” he says. “Nobody cared what my skin color was or if I believed in God. 96 Bravo was my contribution to the fight.”
Mike’s quick to tell you that he wasn’t ever shot at. “I mean we took mortars and rockets,” he says, his voice implying but nothing more serious than that. Okay, so except for the mortars and the rockets, Mike wasn’t fired at while he was in Afghanistan. He was honorably discharged, then hired by a civilian contractor working out of Fort Bragg. This time Mike went to Iraq, and he’d like me to not reveal any more information than this: It was once again his job to analyze prisoners. His interrogations took place in the ICU of the base hospital where he’d question prisoners who needed medical treatment. Once he saw an infant with no skin on his face.
Intelligence gathered from his interrogations would become operational the same night. That’s why he was riding in a CH-77 helicopter back to his base. “I wouldn’t worry unless any of them were worried.” The “them” he’s talking about were the Navy SEALs he was riding with. But suddenly the SEALs were worried. The large metallic box filled with supplies and attached to the bottom of the CH-77 was making the bird swivel like a pendulum. Outside his window, Mike saw a fire. “There are always fires in Iraq,” he says. “I don’t know why.” But this fire kept going past his window and past his window and past his window. The helicopter was spinning out of control. The SEALs were shouting.
“This is it,” he thought. “Right now.” And Mike blacked out.
He doesn’t remember how the helicopter got on the ground — just that he sat there under the stars breathing for hours. And that it took it him some time to understand that he wasn’t dead. Mike quit his job and came home to Bellingham, Washington. He and his girlfriend had saved enough money to go to school.
The first 30 days were fine. It was the 31st day that would get him. He took his girlfriend to a local movie theater to see Transformers. In the middle of the movie he experienced a dizziness that was completely foreign to him. He was anxious — “like when you’re thinking, ‘Did I leave the coffee pot on? Something’s wrong. Someone’s in danger.'” His heart started racing and he couldn’t breathe. He excused himself, went to the men’s room and splashed water on his face. His girlfriend took him home.
He went back to see Transformers again, having missed most of a movie he wanted to see. It happened all over again and, incredibly, right at the same moment in the movie, except this time Mike understood why.
Michael Bay had staged a helicopter crash.
Every day after that got worse. He told his father, “I feel like I’m dying.” He went to a doctor who gave him a Xanax and told him he should really see a doctor.
And it just kept on coming. He couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t socialize with his friends and “listen to them talk about cars and style. I wanted to tell them, ‘I died.'” His family, “bless their hearts,” told him to give it up to God. His girlfriend “took a pretty hard hit from me” — something he won’t be able to get back. Mike told his girlfriend she had to leave — that he’s now a danger and is no longer in control of himself, and here comes some heroics from the girlfriend. She doesn’t go anywhere.
She tells everyone she can find that “there’s something wrong with my boyfriend. This isn’t him. There’s something going on.” And she takes Mike to a psychiatrist where he’s diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. Mike foots the medical bill.
He was introduced to Tim Nelson, a former marine who was good with returning vets with PTSD. The two would sit on a park bench for hours telling stories. He really felt like Tim Nelson was exactly who he needed to talk to and that Tim was helping.
Mike helped clean up the blood when Tim Nelson committed suicide by shooting himself in the face.
Mike was now certain he was going to suffer the same fate. He decided he needed to serve. He had to. That’s what he was trained for, and that’s where he was comfortable. He went to Big Brothers/Big Sisters to sign up. They loved him. A returning vet who didn’t drink or smoke. The 22-year-old kid behind the desk said:
“Listen, we just need to ask you three questions:
1. Have you ever killed anyone? No.
2. Have you ever been shot at? No, not really.
3. What’s PTSD?”
Mike was denied. He had letters of recommendation from his doctors but he didn’t get the gig. Mike was dead, and nobody would believe him.
Least of all Eric Greitens. Greitens, a former SEAL, founded The Mission Continues, and somehow Mike found Eric Greitens. “You don’t need an MOS to serve,” Eric told him. “You’re going to be a leader. I promise you. In civilian life you’re going to be a leader. But first do what I tell you to do.” Okay. “There’s a 90-year-old woman who can’t stand up by herself. She lives in a hole. Go fix up the outside of her house.” Mike did as he was told, and soon he was joined by five other vets and five became thirty and one house became fifteen and fifteen houses became five blocks and weeds were pulled and fences painted and garages cleared out. Now Mike had a fellowship with the Mission — a monthly stipend so that he could go to school while he served, and at school he started to soar.
His girlfriend is now his wife and Mike is now the Director of the Fellowships Program at The Mission Continues. He still has hard days, but Mike knows he’s alive.
There have been more than Mike and Mike’s girlfriend, Tim Nelson and Eric Greitens. Mike’s serious injuries should have been diagnosed and treated way before he went to the movies.
I don’t have room here to talk about the tens of thousands of other Mikes. I don’t have room to fully talk about Specialist Jennifer Crane, who needed a permission slip from her parents when she enlisted because she was 17 and a half — who finished Basic Training on Sept. 11, 2001, and was deployed to Afghanistan less than two years later — who took mortar fire from the Taliban and who, after returning home with undiagnosed PTSD, slept in her car, turned to coke and paid for it first with her savings, then by sleeping with her dealer and then by sleeping with whoever her dealer told her to sleep with. Jennifer has five years clean now, is married with a two-year-old daughter and is the head of Give an Hour. She travels the country speaking to Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans with PTSD and addiction.
At Give an Hour and The Mission Continues they know what hardly any of us know — that 15 percent of American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are suicides.
During Veterans Week you’re going to hear people — particularly those for whom Veterans Week merely means we’re one week closer to the Iowa Caucuses — tell us to “Support Our Troops.” And when they do I’d like us to politely ask them to put their pom poms down for a moment. I’d like us to tell them that if you really want to honor our troops you won’t use them for an easy applause line, that you won’t use them to get votes, or, most insulting to them of all, to divide us into real Americans and fake Americans. I’d like us to ask them what, other than saying it, are they actually doing to support our troops? I’d like to ask the people who say government’s bad what they think of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. When we’re fighting two wars, should they get more money or less? And where is that money going to come from — magic or taxes? Mostly I’d like to ask them three questions, but out of respect for President Bring it On, who couldn’t get it together to protect Florida from Alabama, I’ll skip the first two and just ask the bumper-sticker patriots Question #3: What’s PTSD?
If you have to turn to an aide for an answer to that, please get off the stage. There are real leaders like Mike and Jennifer we’d like to listen to. And that’s how you can support our troops.