Scars unseen - Recovering vets coping with more than bullets and shrapnel wound
By Cpl. Jess Levens
| | February 04, 2005
MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT SAN DIEGO, Calif. --
Twenty-eight year old Cpl. Bradley A. Collier described death: "I closed my eyes and all the noises faded away, and all the pain stopped. "It was bright. I didn't see angels, but I saw the light. It wasn't bright like the desert sun. It was more like moonlight beaming down on me. My platoon sergeant's screams sounded like they were miles away, but when he slapped me, I opened my eyes and all the pain came back." Collier touched death four times Aug. 13, 2004 after taking a sniper's bullet and rocket-propelled grenade shrapnel in Iraq. Four times his heart stopped beating; his vital signs stopped registering. The Company F, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines infantryman was carried off the battlefield after a four-and-a-half-hour firefight. Now, halfway around the globe, plagued with multiple injuries and diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Collier's new unit is Medical Holding Platoon at Naval Medical Center San Diego, commonly known as Balboa. GOING DOWNRecalling his last moments in combat, Collier said a radio was strapped to his back as he took a knee in a seemingly safe place. He was passing word to another platoon when an AK-47 round entered the back of his left shoulder and mushroomed into his lung, leaving him paralyzed in a faced-up fetal position - hearing and seeing, but frozen and not breathing. "Ugh, that 'pop!'" Collier recalled. "I remember laying on my back just looking up in the worst pain ever. Imagine taking a sledgehammer to the back of your shoulder and driving railroad ties in your spine."Navy corpsmen rushed in, dodging bullets to tend to the fallen one. As a platoon mate dragged Collier to safety, the docs rushed to cut away his blood-soaked gear."RPGs were going off all around," said Collier. "By the time they got me to the Humvee I was pretty much in my boots and boxers. I could hear rounds hitting the side of the truck while they worked on me. Tink-tink-tink-tink! Staff Sgt. (Oscar) Castillo slung his rifle over his back and shielded my body."Collier faded in and out on the truck while the docs tried to stop his bleeding and keep him breathing."Breathing got harder and harder," said Collier. "Every time I closed my eyes I saw that light. It was so easy to just give up and let go, but every time I faded, someone slapped me and woke me up."While a doc examined the bullet wound, Collier heard someone yell, "Oh no!" - never a good thing to hear in a condition like Collier's. The corpsman discovered another wound on the other side of Collier's back.Collier said he was lucky to feel the pain: "It hurt like hell, but at least I could feel it. I knew if I couldn't feel the pain, I was about to die. I lost a lot of good friends in that desert. (Lance Cpl.) John Collins - he was my best, best friend ... He didn't even have a chance to feel the pain." The docs patched him up and the Humvee sped away. After a chest tube and having half of his lung removed, Collier found himself at Balboa - his twelfth hospital since he went down.THE MINI-MARRIOT"This place is nice compared to the others," said Collier with his thin physique sprawled out on a thick, American flag comforter. "I call it the mini-Marriot."Collier pressed the pause button on his wireless PlayStation controller to give the grand tour: a walk-in closet, a TV with a VCR and DVD player, a full bathroom and a kitchen area.At the medical center, Collier undergoes acupuncture, physical therapy, water therapy and psychological therapy. He can't quite stand up straight, and he walks with a slight limp, but he said it's a big improvement."The first time I put my feet on the ground was at the hospital in Germany," said Collier, who lost more than 25 pounds of muscle weight. "I was hunched over like an old man. They wanted me to use a wheelchair, but I refused."His father, Rex Collier, added, "We saw Bradley at Thanksgiving, and it was pretty tough. No father likes to see his son hurt. As a concerned parent, I had been dreading this all along, and when it happened, it came as a shock. After all the different hospitals, it sounds like they are taking good care of him at Balboa."THE DISORDERApart from Collier's physical ailments, he said the most frustrating problem has been the hidden scars: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, "PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, ritual) and violent personal assaults like rape. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life.""What really kills me is that I used to be so locked on and strong," said Collier. "Now even loud noises freak me out. If the toilet seat drops or my doorbell rings, my heart jumps. I constantly look behind me and sit with my back to a wall."He gingerly stood and walked to his window. He wore a white T-shirt and sweats because his doctors feel that military uniforms may further spark stress episodes. "See those Navy League towers outside?" he asked as he peered through the blinds. "I constantly look out there, and I picture snipers in those towers, or I see Marines storming the rooftops. The doctors say my mind is still in a heightened state of alert." Marine Corps leaders are aware of this disorder, and they want all Marines to understand it as veterans of foreign wars return from combat. "PTSD is one of the biggest concerns we have in the Corps," said Col. Ana R. Smythe, Headquarters and Service Battalion' commanding officer. Collier and other war-wounded Marines are administratively attached to H&S Bn., though they reside at Balboa. "It's one area that we aren't very familiar with. We do a hell of a job repairing physical wounds, but these mental wounds are completely different."Smythe said some of PTSD's problems exist through the "hardcore" mindframe: "We can handle it. It's part of our ethos to just deal with problems, so Marines don't like to tell people they have PTSD." She said symptoms aren't instantly apparent and there is usually a three- to four-month meltdown period. "Some people's personalities change. They can become violent or aggressive, and some just suffer from depression. It's different with each person," said Smythe. "Right now the Marine Corps is coming up with a training program to help Marines understand PTSD, and (the program) will give advice on how to help Marines who are in garrison after suffering combat stress. "I lived during the Vietnam War. Then, nobody knew about PTSD and these mentally damaged vets were just released into the world. So many of these homeless people on the streets are Vietnam vets suffering from PTSD."Said Collier: "I've talked to retired vets who have PTSD and one told me he still finds himself low-crawling down his hallway some nights. It's really a big problem. A lot of times Marines who have PTSD are afraid to tell anyone because they think it can affect their records or promotions. But there is nothing wrong with telling someone. The first step to beating PTSD is to understand it."MOVING ONCollier recently left the hospital to go to Aspen, Colo., with Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Anderson, another wounded Marine who suffers from PTSD. The all-expenses paid trip comes courtesy of a charity group called Challenge Aspen, which gives mile-high ski trips to wounded vets. After more than 180 patrols in Iraq and multiple firefights, Collier's leaders promoted him to corporal, combat meritoriously. His exploits also warranted a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with the combat-distinguishing device, and he received the Purple Heart Medal after his wounds. But Collier said the promotion to corporal is the most meaningful, and being a noncommissioned officer holds a special meaning to him."For me, the NCO blood stripe means a lot," said Collier. "It was given to NCOs for their bloodshed and sacrifice. I left a lot of blood in Iraq, and now I really know it's special."When I joined the Corps, I wanted the toughest, dirtiest job I could find. Of course I knew death was a possibility, especially in the infantry. But you never really count on a sniper's bullet hitting you from behind." Collier can no longer serve in the Corps because of his wounds, and medical retirement seems most likely. After he is medically stable enough, he will go home to his family and future wife, Kelly, in Nashville."I just can't do it anymore," said Collier. "It really bothers me that I'm not what I used to be, but I did my part. Rex Collier agreed: "It will be nice to have him home again. My son did his duty for this country. I just can't wait to have him back and help him adjust to a normal life again."For Marines like Collier and Anderson, their physical wounds will heal, and with research and understanding, they have a better chance to overcome PTSD. Those who never tell anyone about having the disorder have a significantly smaller chance to recover. For now, adjusting to a normal life is the battle. For more information about PTSD, visit the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Web site at www.ncptsd.org.