A soldier’s struggle: Iraq veteran now battles PTSD | TheUnion.com

A soldier’s struggle: Iraq veteran now battles PTSD

Matthew Renda
Staff Writer

Sitting at the traffic signal, far from the terrifyingly violent battlefields of war, Justin Weathers surveys the scene from behind the steering wheel.

The 33-year-old Army veteran is seven years and thousands of miles removed from the blazing gunfire and random roadside explosions of Iraq.

But far too often, he’s still there.

Back on the idyllic streets of Grass Valley, Weathers instinctively scans his immediate field of vision, searching out enemies poised to end his life.

Since his return stateside in 2004, Weathers often is unable to shake habits of vigilance he cultivated to stay alive while fighting in the town of Ramadi, often reported as the site of some of the Iraq war’s most fierce fighting.

“If you stopped at a stoplight in Iraq, you were going to get shot at,” said Weathers. “There was a lot of chaos; it was just … it was just hectic.”

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Weathers is currently in therapy in an attempt to manage the nightmarish memories and persistent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that have continued since he first received his honorable discharge from the armed services.

While he is steadily making progress in his struggle, the journey to get to this point in his life, has been long, arduous and nearly deadly. Weathers said he was provided with no advice about how to grapple with the demons that would surface as he attempted to integrate back into society.

“I received no debriefing, no counseling, it was like ‘Thank you for your service, Justin Weathers. Good luck and have a nice day,'” he said.

Looking back, Weather says he’s frustrated with the absence of support he received in May of 2004, but is satisfied to see military policy changes in recent years that mean war veterans returning from the combat zones smattered throughout Iraq and Afghanistan have access to more support services.

“Things have changed and it’s good to see,” he said.

Weathers, whose father is an Air Force veteran, said he wanted to enlist in some branch of the armed services for as long as he could remember. In 1997, he achieved that dream, enlisting in the army and being dispatched to basic training in Fort Benning, Ga.

After participating in various domestic service programs, such as recruiting high school students back in his hometown of Grass Valley, Weathers left for Bosnia in 1999 to participate as a peacekeeper in Kosovo, an Eastern European conflict.

But keeping the peace also brought his first brush with the realities of war.

“It was a peacekeeping mission, but they still took potshots at us,” he said. “It wasn’t every day, but we got shot at.”

Weathers’ combat experience altered his path through the army. When the Sept. 11 attacks shook the nation, and the decision to invade Afghanistan was finalized, the U.S. Army needed soldiers who had combat zone experience. Thus, Weathers’ orders were switched over to an anti-tank platoon, which was tasked with securing the Bagram Air Base in the eastern part of the country.

Weathers participated in Operation Anaconda in March of 2002, helping to secure the Shahi-Kot Valley, while taking perilous and difficult routes through the surrounding Arma Mountains in eastern Afghanistan. While he was in the thick of violent combat, he was unaware of its dramatic and lasting effect on his personality and outlook on life.

“At that point and time, it didn’t really register,” Weathers said. “It was just a job and I concentrated on it.”

During downtime, Weathers began to feel disconnected from his family and friends back home.

“I was not in full contact with my family, because it wasn’t mission essential,” he said. “You don’t need problems from home weighing on your mind. I was focused on the task at hand.”

As trying and stressful as his combat experiences in Afghanistan were – he returned in April of 2002 – Weathers’ third and final deployment, this time to Iraq (from April 2003 – May 2004) made his previous service seem like a walk in the park.

In Iraq, Weathers was a non-commissioned officer, having earned his sergeant stripes.

“I had eight guys underneath me,” he said. “So it wasn’t just me that I was worried about, but all of the men. I became even more anti-social with family back home. I had to concentrate on my responsibilities – I had to make sure to remain focused.”

Weathers was 25 years old at the time, serving as part of a secret unit attached to Special Forces in the central Iraq town of Ramadi. He and his men were involved in several deadly altercations throughout the year-long deployment.

“We took a lot of rounds,” Weathers said. “We got involved in more than one firefight.”

Weathers said the gun battles were not the worst part; rather the simple act of driving from one army post to another was enormously unsettling, to the point where he is still, seven years later, is uncomfortable stopping at traffic signals and continually scans the roadways for signs of an improvised explosive device.

During his deployment, he said he was able to push fear of death to the back of his mind. But as soon as he came home, problems began to emerge.

His parents, he said, noticed a tremendous transformation.

“I used to be the life of the party,” he said. “I would go around and make sure everyone was having fun.”

Not so upon his return. Weathers was having nightmares and found himself unduly irritated, generally angry and unable to control his temper. Even when he took up coaching a youth football team with his father, some of the children dubbed him “Coach Hitler,” because he often grew so frustrated, he said.

Weathers started drinking.

“I was up to two cases of beer per day,” he said.

Some nights, he would head out to local bars, and when people who had not personally experienced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to voice opinions on the conflicts, Weathers grew violently angry. He felt they had no right to such opinions and physical altercations inevitably ensued.

All this came to a head in 2009.

“I felt like I had no reason to be here,” he said. “I just didn’t want to breathe anymore and I thought I would just go to sleep.”

Weathers said he took a full bottle of aspirin, along with copious amounts of alcohol, and settled in and waited for oblivion. A Placer County Sheriff’s Officer, however, was dispatched to Weathers’ on suspicion of a domestic dispute. Weathers said he was initially uncooperative due to being accused of harming a female and a stand-off ensued, until he was finally apprehended and charged with resisting arrest.

While in jail, Weathers received a psychiatric evaluation, and was diagnosed for the first time with post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression with suicidal tendencies.

The diagnosis, coming five years after his return from Iraq, has proven critical to Weathers mounting a comeback. Through the help of medication, and understanding of his behavior by family and friends, he’s getting his life in order.

“I don’t have suicidal tendencies anymore,” he said. “I’m on several medications, but I am no longer on a rollercoaster.”

Weathers said he has stopped drinking and credits his fiancee, Jessica Broyles, with whom he has been in a relationship for seven years, for providing the support to overcome his difficulties in processing the combat experience. He also credits extensive therapy sessions with Page Brown, a psychologist who works with the local Welcome Home Vets nonprofit, and group therapy sessions with other veterans suffering similar effects

He is the proud father of a 6-year-old son, Donovan, and a 4-year-old daughter, Corrine, and wants to be a positive role model for them.

“I don’t want my kids to grow up in fear of their dad,” he said. “I don’t want them to see me lose my temper.”

Weathers has been unemployed for nearly two years and said it is difficult to overcome the stigma often attached to former soldiers who suffer from PTSD. He is enrolled full-time at the University of Phoenix, where he hopes to obtain a Bachelor of Science in human services. He wants to counsel veterans struggling with PTSD and reintegration back into society.

“Whenever new guys enter the group therapy sessions, I can help them because I’ve been through what they have been through,” he said.

With the support of his fiancee, parents and friends, and bolstered by the love of his children, Weathers said he has found purpose in life and a way forward.

“I still have hope,” he said. “I’m not a glass is half-full type of guy and I never have been. I have to be realistic about my situation. PTSD is never going to go away, but it can be managed. I just have to find a way to continue living as best as I can.”

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, e-mail mrenda@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4239.

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