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Veteran Health DEPLOYED HOME Trying to live a post-war life

Veteran Jesse Briggs killed himself after years of emotional toil upon returning from active duty in Iraq

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Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2013 11:30 pm | Updated: 12:35 am, Thu Feb 7, 2013.

Lance Corporals Jesse Briggs and Jeffery Montee smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and chewed the fat during the early morning watch in Iraq.

Those are the fondest memories Montee has of his friend and comrade, Jesse, who died in University of Montana student housing on Nov. 9 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

“This was a dude you didn’t get a lot of conversation from,” Montee said. “But you could burn one of his perfectly rolled cigarettes and get a good five minutes of bullshit in a country where you think the whole thing is bullshit.”

The days in Iraq got pretty monotonous after awhile.

“You wake up,” Montee said, “burn three cigarettes, back to back, scarf down a protein bar because you don’t want to eat an MRE, scrub your mouth with some expired toothpaste, patrol until it’s too damn hot to move, clear a house to stay in for a night, and it starts all over again.”

Jesse and Montee were part of Lima Company, a unit based out of Ohio. The two were together on the morning of Aug. 3, 2005, when the unit moved in to secure a small town in Iraq.

“As the unit moved into the town, there was some miscommunication — some Iraqi truck was supposed to meet us,” Montee said.

After returning from Iraq, Jesse told his father about what happened on Aug. 3. It was something that could have been avoided if headquarters hadn’t made a mistake.

Interim Director for Veterans Affairs at UM, Leonard Leibinger, is in charge of helping veterans receive the benefits they are entitled to in the GI Bill. He provides resources that help veterans make the transition from active duty to the college setting.

“(Veterans) got some special issues to deal with the normal graduating senior won’t have.” Leibinger said.

Returning veterans often find it difficult to relate back to the life they lived before war. Civilians feel awkward asking about the time the soldiers have spent overseas, and most soldiers don’t want to share, Leibinger said.

Even with people who they are close to, veterans will often shut down. Statistically, veterans who return from war have a higher divorce rate, Leibinger said.

“(Veterans) tend to eat their feelings,” Leibinger said. “And that is not healthy.”

Even though the VA at UM has resources for soldiers with mental health problems, the resources must be sought out. The stigma associated with mental health issues causes many soldiers to feel uncomfortable about asking for help.

“Nobody wants to be crazy,” Leibinger said.

 On Aug. 3, Jesse’s platoon received orders to return to the road when it hadn’t been properly cleared. When they got back onto the road, Jesse’s military vehicle moved into position behind another vehicle. As the vehicles moved forward to secure the town, the first vehicle hit an IED. 

The explosion flipped the 30-ton vehicle completely upside down and everyone inside was blown out. All were killed. Eleven were from Jesse’s platoon, three were support Amtrak drivers the platoon had worked with throughout their deployment, and one was an interpreter.

Montee said the surviving platoon members went into autopilot mode after the explosion. They were able to get to safety and secure a house, but everything had changed. Fifteen of the men Jesse and Montee had slept next to and fought with were dead.

“It was clearly the worst day of my life,” Montee said.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, which afflicted several survivors of this incident, wasn’t recognized as a real mental illness until the 1970s. Before then, the military called it shell shock or battle fatigue. Soldiers returning from the Vietnam War with a large number of mental health issues brought the issue to light.

In World War II, soldiers were brought back as a unit and the time it took to return home was much longer then in modern day. The time gave soldiers a transition period they don’t have in the modern world. Returning Vietnam soldiers often went straight from a war-torn country to civilian life in a matter of hours, Leibinger said.

Like the Vietnam soldiers, Jesse returned to Montana without his platoon. He returned to his parents, Bill and Amy Briggs, and began assimilating back into civilian life. He began his first semester of college at Montana State University in the fall of 2007.

 When Jesse returned  home, his father and mother did not notice any signs of mental trauma. Several of Jesse’s friends told his father that it usually takes a little while for post-traumatic stress issues to present themselves.

When Jesse began having sleeping problems, the first physical sign of his post-traumatic stress disorder, the lack of sleep exacerbated his mental problems.

“Insomnia is their biggest enemy,” Bill Briggs said.

Jesse started taking Ambien, which the family later learned caused disruptive sleep behaviors, including sleepwalking and memory loss. These problems peaked during his time in Bozeman while taking his first semester of classes at MSU.

Jesse awoke one morning in his dorm at MSU, where he lived alone, and discovered how erratic his sleep had become. 

“He had broken a window and stuff, and he didn’t remember doing it or anything else,” Bill Briggs said.

The family was able to switch Jesse to a new medication but the problems resurfaced again soon after. Jesse had a severe PTSD episode about a year later.

“The guilt and everything just came back,” Briggs said. “Jesse went through very severe hell in Iraq. He lost his whole family, over there, his whole Marine family.”

Jesse spent some time in and out of the hospital, but when he came to Missoula he began to feel good about himself and moved past some of the problems he had faced when he returned from Iraq.

When Jesse came to the University of Montana in the spring of 2010, he had changed his major to physics and seemed to be starting fresh. He had a fiancee and he was enjoying his classes more.

“We thought we were through the worst, I mean, we were, and things were real good over here in Missoula,” Bill Briggs said.

Nick Scott, a former Marine and a work-study student at the UM office for Veterans Affairs, worked in a combat zone in anti-tank and demolitions. He said it’s a surreal moment when you are discharged from the military.

“For years you are told what to do and where to go,” Scott said. “I had about $1000 in my pocket and came home, messed around for about six months and learned how to be a civilian again.”

When Nick Scott began at the University of Montana, the Veterans Affairs office wasn’t what it is today. The VA used to share an office with the registrar in the Lommasson Center, and when Scott started there all of the work-study students quit. Many veterans resented the VA office because they felt like it couldn’t help them, Scott said.

The former director of the VA was able to purchase a house on the outskirts of campus for the VA office in the fall of 2011.

“We got this place,” Scott said. “We started moving everything, and back then everything was done physically.” Many veterans’ files were lost in the move.

“It was like going from the Renaissance and plummeting into the Dark Ages,” Scott said.

The VA house recovered from the move and built itself up to something new. The house now holds a large living area complete with TV, Xbox, and bookcases filled with military fiction and biographies. The downstairs has a computer lab that veterans can use, and work-study students are available to help register veterans for classes or work with their files to ensure they are getting their full GI benefits.

The VA is unlike most around the country — rather than just an office, veterans have a place to build community. Some work-study students often felt like lines of communication were poor between the University and the VA during the transition to the new house, Scott said. However, some work study students say, this has improved in recent months.

The VA that operates now makes it easier for veterans to transition back to civilian life, and the staff is very knowledgeable and friendly, Scott said.

“Most vets do need help at first,” Scott said. “We help them apply for benefits.”

Katie Goidich, another work-study student at Veterans Affairs, was an intelligence analyst and interpreter for the Navy. She worked in what she called a passive combat zone.

“We would sit there and get mortared, basically,” Goidich said.

She refers to her time in the military as a kind of love/hate relationship.

“They break you down to build you back up,” Goidich said. “By the end of it you are crying, listening to ‘Proud to be an American.’”

Now Goidich is a UM student majoring in anthropology and archeology with a minor in linguistics. She uses her GI Bill benefits for pay for school tuition as well as most of the expenses in her life.

“If you are frugal, and understand the limitations, it’s great,” Goidich said. “Certain classes it won’t pay for, but if we fail a course they will pay for us to retake it.”

Every veteran Goidich knows has had a bad semester, including herself. During her second semester of college she went through a three-month period where she couldn’t function properly because civilian life and her schooling were too much.

During those times, Goidich said the VA house near the edge of campus was a great support system for her to fall back on. Being around people with the same experiences she had during the war made her feel comforted.

It’s a lot like returning to the place where you grew up,” Goidich said. “People understand it here.”

On top of the mental struggle veterans face, those wishing to attend college must work with the strict guidelines of the GI Bill.

“The new GI Bill has a lot of intricacies,” Leibinger said. “(There are) a lot of rules and if they aren’t paid attention to, you won’t qualify.”

GI Bill students need to be very focused in planning their schedule so that they take the most direct route to graduation.  Otherwise, the GI Bill benefits might run out before they graduate.

“That’s basically what the new GI Bill is pushing,” Leibinger said. “Thiry-six months to graduate with a diploma, so they need to be on a pretty strict path.”

Jesse, who had been forced to drop and retake classes several times, had already been in school since 2007. Bill Briggs said he’d wished Jesse had more control over the rate at which he took his classes.

 “You know, if they start feeling overwhelmed,” Bill Briggs said, “they could back off without losing (too many credits).”

Once a veteran qualifies for benefits and starts classes, they have to face yet another challenge: being in class with 18-year-olds who are straight out of high school. It can make a lecture class frustrating for veterans who are used to a certain level of maturity and respect.

“A lot of veterans who have done their service on active duty have a certain level of PTSD,” Scott said. “It’s hard to control your anger when you see a student disrespecting the professor by texting or something. You just want to get up and snap their neck. But I don’t want to go to jail, you know?”

Also, the lasting effect war has on returning veterans is something not many civilians understand, Bill Briggs said.

“We’re a short-term memory race, you know?” Bill Briggs said. “A month has gone by and people expect him to be dropped back into society, and be normal. But when they’ve gone through the severity that Jesse and his friends have, there is never going to be a ‘normal.’”

Jesse used the remodeled VA office as a student at the University of Montana. He didn’t hang out in the house like many veterans do, though, and the work-study students didn’t know him as a regular because his transition seemed smooth.

When Jesse died last November, there were no warning signs. Afterward, his parents checked over his medical records and tried to find some sort of explanation for what happened, but everything appeared fine.

“Somebody in (Jesse’s) position, we can never understand it,” Bill Briggs said. “Depression is not their worst enemy here. I do believe most of these suicides from post trauma are not the standard suicide.”

Jesse blamed himself for many of his friends’ deaths, Bill Briggs said. He felt guilty that he couldn’t save them.

“Jesse loved his fiancee,” Briggs said. “He loved life, he loved us, you know. The only thing that could’ve ever pulled him away was his love for his Marines.”

Jesse’s parents have to create a new sense of normal since the death of their son.

“Somehow — you don’t know when it’s going to be, you don’t know what day —you’re going to start feeling a little better,” Bill Briggs said.

Despite his pain, Bill Briggs hopes Jesse’s story helps people.

“It’s kind of like highs and lows,” Bill Briggs said. “You get feeling good for a few days, then something hits you and takes you back down. But it’s working its way through.”

 

ashley.nerbovig@umontana.edu

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