We were not even 2 miles from base. The platoon and I were doing a regular foot patrol of the area. It was something we’ve probably done a dozen times… just a simple search of the area. I was walking around and all of a sudden, this terrible smell fills my nostrils. It smelled more rotten than anything I can remember. I looked around and I start to make out these shapes. I looked closely and I realized they were bodies. I scanned the whole area. There were probably 50 to 54 bodies surrounding me. Men. Women. Children. They were civilians. Families.
I just kept thinking, ‘How the hell am I ever going to forget this smell?’
Three days before coming home from Iraq, Specialist Joshua Cook and his platoon stumbled upon a mass grave of Iraqi civilians. They stumbled upon the victims of local insurgents, punished for their support of American troops.
I’m just another human being. I’ll never get it out of my head. Every time I see road kill, get into large crowds, that smell comes back. I can smell it.
Specialist Cook spent 3 years in Iraq as an infantry gunner. He operated heavy machinery and carried out missions in Humvee brigades. According to him, life in Iraq was one giant routine.
We’d go on a mission daily or every couple days. We’d get an order, get briefed, load-up the gear, and then head out. Sometimes you’d get hit, sometimes you didn’t. You come back and then you sleep. Every day there are mortar attacks. Every night sirens go-off. Bombs explode. Let me tell you, it doesn’t matter how much bullet-proof glass there is. If you’re getting shot at, you’re getting shot at. Doesn’t matter what is between you.
According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, between 11% and 20% of soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nearly 400,000 cases of them go untreated and undiagnosed.
For Specialist Cook, there are just certain things that reveal his inner demons.
When I first came back, I had difficulties in restaurants. I needed a corner table or else I couldn’t eat. I needed to see everyone, what they were holding. If someone slammed the door, my instincts and alertness would immediately kick-in. I was at a party once and my sister accidentally threw a fire cracker in front of me. I was immediately transported to the desert with EIDs. I jumped into the crowd in a fetal position. I couldn’t talk to anyone. It’s hard to explain what happens in my mind.
According to psychologist Terry Stout, an expert in grief recovery, our current system of assisting those with PTSD, especially soldiers, is flawed:
“Our healthcare system, justice system… they all assume medications and time solve everything. It’s what you do with time that counts. Even at work, you’re allowed to grieve only for a death in the immediate family, and then maybe only for a week. Trauma can come from anything though. PTSD can exist on many different levels, in your subconscious or in your cells. In my therapy, I encourage everyone to share their stories. Only then can they recognize their trauma, hold it in their hands, and define their relationship with it. This is not an easy process and may take a long time.
One of the main reasons veterans coming back from war do not seek help is because of the stigma and misconceptions. You can be high-functioning and still have PTSD. But no one is going to admit it on a VA questionnaire that they’re having these thoughts because they just want to go home.”
The military has come a long way since 10 years ago. They try to keep these cases in-house, but in my opinion, there can never be enough help for a soldier with PTSD. The more the merrier. I know guys from my platoon, they come back and just rack up DUIs. There’s even a guy who committed suicide. He was admitted into a mental hospital and then cleared. I don’t know why, but a week later, he’s dead.
This Memorial Day, we want to honor our veterans and #EndTheStigma. There is no reason 18.3% of suicides in this country should be soldiers when there is support out there. We encourage veterans, whether diagnosed with PTSD or not, to share their stories and help others understand. We encourage families and friends to listen and give the love they are capable of, because…
I got lucky because I have support. I have friends and family who understand and support me 100% every day. I’m thankful every day for the people around me.
You just might save a life.
We thank Specialist Joshua Cook for his story and pictures, psychologist Terry Stout for his expertise.