TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 24

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. For some returning from war, a ‘G.I. bill for farming’ eases the transition home.

By Abby Wendle at Harvest Public Media

2. In Egypt, a class project to fight sexual harassment has grown into a campus-wide movement encouraging women to “Speak Up.”

By Ahmed Fouad in Al-Monitor

3. Your kid’s school is missing the tech revolution, and it’s all your fault.

By Jason Tanz in Wired

4. Community courts focus on rehabilitation and compassion for non-violent offenders.

By Henry Gass in the Christian Science Monitor

5. A new ‘Uber for packages’ service is partnering with Waffle House to build a network of delivery points around the south.

By Amar Toor in the Verge

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Crime

Vietnam Vet Loses Bid to Stop Execution on PTSD Claim

Andrew Brennan was convicted of shooting and murdering a 22-year-old cop

A decorated Vietnam veteran who argued he was suffering from post-traumatic stress when he killed a sheriff’s deputy in 1998 lost a bid for clemency on the eve of his scheduled execution. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole declined to commute the death sentence of Andrew Brannan to life in prison after hearing from prosecutors and defense lawyers at a Monday hearing.

Brannan was convicted of murdering Laurens County deputy Kyle Dinkheller, who had stopped him for driving 98 mph. Dash-cam video showed Brannan dancing in the street and saying “shoot me” before he pulled a rifle from his car and…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Veterans

Killed in Action, Far From the Battlefield

Iraq Archive 2007
Benjamin Lowy / Getty Images Iraq, 2007: Both a VA psychologist and the veteran who allegedly killed him served in Iraq that year.

VA psychologist gunned down by Iraq war vet

If you check the latest toll at icasualties.org, 4,489 Americans died in the Iraq war. But a killing Tuesday at a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in El Paso, Texas, should have pushed that figure to 4,490—one of many additional KIAs in the Iraq war that will never be added to its final tally.

KIA means “killed in action,” and might not seem to apply to the death of Timothy Fjordbak, 63, allegedly at the hand of Jerry Serrato, 48, on the fourth floor of the El Paso clinic at Fort Bliss.

But, unfortunately, it does.

Serrato, 48, had served in Iraq for several months in 2007. He was discharged from the Army in 2009 for undisclosed physical reasons. He worked for a short time at the clinic in 2013, where Fjordbak, 63, was the chief psychologist.

A former employee at the clinic has told the Washington Post that Serrato was upset that the clinic had found his claim of post-traumatic stress disorder unwarranted.

“Although we do not know all the details, what we know of the case suggests anger at the VA for denial of benefits,” says Elspeth Ritchie, who served as the Army’s top psychiatrist before retiring in 2010. “Unfortunately, the scenario of angry patients killing their doctors is way too common, both in and out of the military.”

In October, 2013, Serrato allegedly threatened Fjordbak at a grocery store after Fjordbak didn’t recognize him, the FBI said following the murder. “It was a verbal threat —real or not—his (Serrato’s) perception was some wrong had been committed against him,” bureau agent Douglas Lindquist said.

“I know what you did,” Lindquist quoted Serrato telling Fjordbak, “and I will take care of it.” Fjordbak reported what he perceived to be a threat to local police.

Mid-afternoon Tuesday, Serrato went to the top floor of the four-story clinic and killed Fjordbak with a .380-caliber handgun.

VADr. Timothy Fjordbak

Fjordbak left a private practice after 9/11 because he wanted to help veterans, officials said. He had served in Iraq for several months in 2007, just as Serrato did. There was no known doctor-patient or workplace relationship between the two men.

Fjordbak was lauded by troops he had treated, as well as colleagues and friends. “His main thing was that he could differentiate between symptoms of PTSD and traumatic brain injury,” Michael Rushton, a U.S. Air Force veteran treated by Fjordbak in November, told the El Paso Times. “It was a five-hour appointment and it was a very comprehensive series of tests. He was amazing and an excellent guy.”

The tragic case highlights the fog that is PTSD. Few PTSD sufferers are violent, and it’s challenging to attribute specific acts to the malady. “Although PTSD is associated with an increased risk of violence, the majority of veterans and non-veterans with PTSD have never engaged in violence,” according to the National Center for PTSD.

Was Serrato mentally ill? Angry over how the VA handled his case? Suffering from PTSD? Or some combination of those factors?

Victoria County, Tex., Sheriff's Office
Victoria County, Tex., Sheriff’s OfficeJerry Serotta, following a 1997 drunk-driving arrest

We’ll probably never know. After killing the psychologist, Serrato went into a restroom on the clinic’s third floor and killed himself.

Better up that toll to 4,491.

TIME mental health

The Link Between Mental Trauma and Diabetes

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Women with more PTSD symptoms appear to be at a higher risk for Type 2 diabetes, a new study says

Women with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a two-fold increased risk for type 2 diabetes, according to a new study.

“When we are under stress we are more likely to get sick, but women with PTSD are in this extreme stress response a lot of the time,” says study author Karestan Koenen, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The new study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, looked at 49,739 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study II to assess the link between PTSD symptoms and type 2 diabetes over 22 years. They found that women with the most symptoms had double the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and that the association increased based on the number of symptoms women experienced.

“It’s so important that people understand PTSD isn’t just in veterans. Most PTSD is just in regular people in the community,” says Koenen. One of the most surprising findings in the study was that using antidepressants and having a higher body mass index (BMI) accounted for about half of the increased risk for type 2 diabetes in women with PTSD. Past research has linked PTSD to having a higher BMI, with some research suggesting that elevated stress response could result in cravings for highly caloric food and lead to weight gain.

The antidepressant link is the most unexpected. An obvious explanation for the link is that some antidepressants cause weight gain, but the researchers argue weight gain isn’t caused by all antidepressants and therefore cannot account for all of the effect. “It’s probably one of the most interesting findings and I don’t have a good explanation for it,” says Koenen.

The researchers say it’s possible that extreme stress can cause changes in the regulation of the body’s immune system, inflammation markers and hormones, which could contribute to the onset of type 2 diabetes.

Ultimately, Koenen believes the study is important because it provides further evidence that medicine can benefit from a more holistic look at patients that includes not just disease but also mental health and psychology. “Our health care system acts like the brain and the body are two separate things. This is just one of hundreds of studies that have now shown that mental health affects physical health and mental health,” she says. “We need a more integrated medical system where the mind and body are worked on together.”

Koenen, who used to work in veterans affairs, says veterans have been asking for such care for a long time, with studies and surveys showing patients often ask for alternative services like yoga. “Patients understand this but the medical system hasn’t caught up,” she says.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

The Spice Ingredient That Can Block Bad Memories

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A study in rats points to the anti-inflammatory power of curcumin

Curcumin, a compound found in turmeric that may have protective effects against neurodegenerative diseases, might one day help those with PTSD let go of bad memories, suggests a new rat study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Researchers at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York wondered if the compound could help post-traumatic stress disorder. To test the idea, the researchers fed rats either regular chow or pellets enriched with curcumin. They then conditioned the rats to fear a certain sound by playing a tone, then shocking their foot. After the conditioning, the researchers removed the rat brains and analyzed them. In other sets of experiments, they tried to get the rats to recall the fear memory by performing memory retrieval tests on them.

They found that rats who ate curcumin-spiked food had a much harder time retrieving the fear memory, suggesting that the compound played a role in keeping bad memories at bay.

“The curcumin effectively prevented the reconsolidation of the fear memory, and the effect was very long-lasting,” says Glenn Schafe, PhD, study coauthor and professor in the department of psychology at Hunter College. “It looked to us like very convincing data that the fear memories lost were lost in an enduring manner.”

You can’t draw human conclusions from rat studies, of course, but the results were so promising that the researchers plan to devise a way to test human subjects next.

They don’t yet know the mechanism behind curcumin’s memory magic trick, but Schafe suspects its anti-inflammatory property plays a role. Curcumin can affect cellular processes in the brain, and it’s especially good at targeting inflammation: a response implicated in a wide range of diseases from cardiovascular diseases to Alzheimer’s and even PTSD, he says. “The brain has its own kind of immune system,” he says. “The idea that curcumin, which is a natural anti-inflammatory compound, when introduced in the diet can affect these processes—which have also been implicated in memory formation—is pretty well grounded.”

Memory reconsolidation is a hot area of psycholofgy and psychiatry right now, Schafe says: A therapist will sometimes ask a person with a traumatic memory to recall it, a process that weakens and destabilizes the memory before it’s put back more permanently. Targeting that window with a dietary intervention like curcumin could be useful. “The idea is that the curcumin [interferes with] cellular processes in the brain that are critical for putting a memory into long-term storage,” he says.

Schafe’s rat study used 1 gram of curcumin per kilogram of body weight, which would translate into about 68 grams of curcumin per day for a human—out of reach for even the most avid curry lover. They used such a high dose because the compound is very poorly absorbed by the body, Schafe says, which is one of the major drawbacks right now for this promising natural remedy. And while cooking with turmeric is a good idea, the spice contains only about 3% curcumin. “The question is, how do we get this compound that does so many great things medicinally to get into the human in a concentration large enough to actually make a difference?” he says. “That is the future of this area.”

He hopes that one day, scientists will make a modification of the curcumin molecule to make it far more absorbable with effects at much lower doses. “The fact that we can feed rats curcumin at these very, very high doses that would be untenable in humans and show these effects certainly suggests that it’s worth pursuing,” he says.

TIME

‘Trauma Ruptures You in Two’

Rhiannon Cosslett is a writer, columnist and the co-editor of feminist blog The Vagenda.

Four years ago, a man tried to sexually assault and strangle me to death. Your brain does strange things when it thinks you’re about to die

Your brain does strange things when it thinks you’re about to die. It is difficult to articulate just how strange. We forget, most of the time, that we are animals. We are civilized, rational beings, secure in our autonomous personhood, safe in the unassailable certainty of self – “I begin and end here, at the tips of my fingers, at the surface of my skin.” But when another person tries to disrupt that personhood, tries to take from you that autonomy that you have been taught to hold sacred, the primitive takes over and you become unrecognizable. Your sense of self is upturned.

The only way that I can describe it is to say that trauma ruptures you in two. It happened to me when, four years ago, a man tried to sexually assault and strangle me to death as I walked home from a party. Suddenly, there was this new, unrecognizable me, existing in parallel to my normal, rational self. In contrast, she was completely irrational and unpredictable. She was a wounded animal in the corner, flinching at every perceived threat.

As if living your life in a fragile state of fear and hyper-awareness weren’t enough, additional problems come when outside observers try to impose their rational view of the world on trauma victims. Friends and family, police officers, prosecutors, college counselors and, perhaps most relevantly here, journalists, will view your trauma within their own, undisrupted, rational frameworks. They might question why you are recounting the incident with such a lack of emotion, or why you are laughing. They might say that your testimony is inconsistent, as Rolling Stone did when its editors backtracked on their report of the alleged gang rape of student Jackie at the hands of a group of University of Virginia fraternity brothers. There were, they said, “discrepancies” in her account. An original version of their note, which has since been revised, said their “trust in her was misplaced.”

As people clamored to accuse Jackie of lying about her assault, to make her a poster child for false rape accusations, all I could think was, “Discrepancies? That sounds about right.” As Lena Dunham, whose own rape testimony has been subject to the doubting scrutinity of reporters, said, “survivors are so often re-victimized by a system that demands they prove their purity and innocence. They are asked to provide an unassailable narrative when the event itself is hazy, fragmented, and unspeakable.” If anything, I would have been more surprised had a woman who has been held down in a dark room and raped by man after man for hours been able, after all that horror and trauma, to produce a lucid, cohesive, play-by-play account of events.

I don’t know whether Jackie was raped. Only she and the alleged men in the room that night know this. But I do know that discrepancies are a natural consequence of extreme trauma. Few people seem to realize that a muddled, incoherent account of a traumatic incident is almost humdrum in its predictability.

From a neurological perspective, a traumatic incident triggers a fight-or-flight response. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, social behavior and personality expression, is temporarily impaired. The non-conscious parts of your brain take over and stress hormones are released. As a result, traumatic memories become stuck, and the rational parts of your brain are unable to access them.

Trauma can severely affect the hippocampus, which converts short-term memories to long-term memories. Memories of the incident become disordered, fragmented, and incoherent. The two sides of the brain stop working together. Trying to produce a coherent narrative from the event, as a police interviewer or a reporter will attempt to do, is an obvious challenge. The victim will struggle to give a linear account and inconsistencies will be pounced upon.

I became aware of the fallibility of memory after I entered therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Part of the treatment revolved around reliving, in detail, the night I was attacked. This helps your brain store your chaotic, confused memories properly. Think of it as a filing cabinet, except all the papers are in a muddle on the floor. Your task is to file them. It was emotional, and often tedious work. As the months went on, the Word document that I kept on my computer became longer and longer as events and actions were suddenly recalled and filled in. In comparison to my initial police statement, it was rich with detail. It took nearly a year to get there.

Law enforcement officials will naturally expect a timeline peppered with facts, but for many victims of rape and assault, establishing that timeline is not just a struggle but a near-impossibility. Police and prosecutors need to be more aware of this. They are, essentially, dealing with someone whose brain has been damaged.

We inhabit a culture in which female victims are so often blamed for their own assaults. Yet so many of these victim-blaming statements can be attributed to the affects of trauma. Aside from patchy and disjointed memories, there are other classic behaviors that are relevant here. Observers may ask, “Why didn’t she fight back?” when to freeze and enter a dissociative state is a common response during a traumatic incident. A lack of emotion or numbness when describing events can be explained by the symptom of flat affect. A failure to cooperate with interviewers can be attributed to hyper-vigilance – a need to control the circumstances surrounding the assault after what has amounted to a complete lack of control. A reluctance to go to the police at the time could be explained by the classic evasiveness displayed by a PTSD sufferer. The victim may want to avoid reliving the incident for fear of flashbacks, which inevitably trigger a primitive, panicked response exactly like that which took place at the time. This evasiveness can be conscious or subconscious. I am usually not a forgetful person, but in the months after my attack I would repeatedly forget appointments with my Victim Support officer.

Then, on top of all this, you have the guilt and the shame. The belief that it was your fault. The fear that you will not be believed. A fear that Jackie may have hinted at when she said she tried to withdraw her testimony from Rolling Stone. A fear that was then confirmed. People do not believe her, yet according to a report by the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, only 2% to 8% of rape accusations are false.

I have no doubt that our tendency as a society to victim-blame women has its roots in misogyny. But I also think it shows a fatal misunderstanding of the effects of trauma on the brain. Retraining those working in the field is expensive and laborious but of urgent necessity. Your brain does strange things when it thinks you’re about to die. We owe it to victims to try to understand this, to help them piece their ruptured selves back together.

Rhiannon Cosslett is a writer, columnist and the co-editor of feminist blog The Vagenda.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Etiquette

I Have PTSD, and It’s Not a Joke

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I’ve been struggling with this illness for more than half my life now, and I can assure you: it’s not funny

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

Sometimes writers make questionable decisions for the sake of comedy. They might drop an f-bomb for comedic emphasis, or use shocking words for dramatic effect. Recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing new trend: using “PTSD” as a humorous term. In the same manner that we’ve begun to remove the words “gay” and “retard” from our “comedic” vocabulary, I believe the same consideration needs to be applied to the term PTSD.

Case in point:

On November 11, xoJane posted two otherwise harmless articles. One, about silly underwear, said: “…I have tween angst PTSD…” Another, an article about expensive beauty products, had a quote that read in part, “I still have ‘poor kid’ PTSD…”

These articles were both published on Veterans Day, a day meant to honor those who serve — many of whom suffer from PTSD themselves. I’m sure this wasn’t intentional, but it was the poorest possible timing.

In the context of these articles, Poor Kid PTSD and Tween Angst PTSD are supposed to be amusing. You’re supposed to imagine that being an angsty tween and a poor kid, respectively, was so traumatic that they now have horrific flashbacks about it. But being embarrassed about shopping at Hot Topic or being afraid that you might experience poverty again is not the same as actually having a PTSD flashback.

As a PTSD sufferer, I have trouble looking the other way when this term is misused, and it bothers me that we are perpetuating this improper use on xoJane. I’ve been struggling with this illness for more than half my life now, and I can assure you: It’s not funny.

The English language is very dynamic. Over the years, the meaning and usage of terms tend to shift. People become a little lax with the words they use, causing their misuse to become commonplace (“literally” now means “figuratively,” for example).

In the case of medical terminology, however, this can be extremely damaging. Using PTSD in a casual, joking manner contributes directly to the deterioration of the term as a whole. Misuse encourages misuse (“Selfie,” anyone? It’s short for self-portrait. There should only be one person in it) and before you know it, you’re dealing with a bunch of people who think they know the proper definition of PTSD, when they actually just know how it is used in comedy writing. It’s dismissive to those of us who actually have the disorder. Imagine the scene:

Me: I think you should know, I have PTSD.

Friend: I know exactly what you mean. I got a really bad haircut last year and I totally have PTSD about going to cheap salons now.

That is not PTSD.

PTSD is not a slight aversion. PTSD is not an embarrassing thought that still makes you cringe a little when someone reminds you of it. PTSD is not a fear of haunted houses or horror movies or clowns.

PTSD is a scratch across the record album that is your brain, forcing your memory to get stuck in a rut and skip. PTSD is a harsh interruption and a reminder of terrible incidents — truly terrible incidents. Incidents that were so disturbing, your brain didn’t know how to process them… so it continues to try.

When I hear people use PTSD in improper context, one thing becomes perfectly clear to me: these folks do not understand what I have gone through. The same way people use the term OCD when they mean “particular” or “well-organized,” using PTSD to mean, “I worry I’m going to get a bad haircut,” is alienating to those of us who suffer from the disorder.

PTSD can be a very solitary illness — one of the symptoms is self-isolation — and hearing someone misrepresent it only seems to further drive home the fact that when it comes to our illness, we are truly misunderstood and alone.

During a PTSD flashback, your brain rewinds to the worst moment of your entire life. Then that horrible moment is amplified and played over and over again. Every nasty sight, sound, smell, and physical sensation, replayed in your brain in an infinite loop. You hate it. You don’t want to see it, you don’t want to think about it, but you are powerless to stop it.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) has been shown to help, but there are two caveats: EMDR is expensive, and it also tends to make your flashbacks worse before it makes them better.

The truth of the matter is, my own PTSD — a result of childhood trauma that I’d rather not disclose — is very mild. I have persistent, recurring thoughts, and I am hyperaware of the danger lurking in any given situation. (I like to think of it as being prepared for all possible outcomes, but it means that I can come off as an extreme worrywart.)

The worst of all my symptoms, however, is that I startle easily. Inexplicably, I actually enjoy haunted houses, but in my normal waking life, I’m liable to scream (and sometimes, punch!) if someone approaches me too quickly, or shouts my name from another room. These symptoms have been very difficult to deal with, so I cannot imagine how hard it must be for people who are suffering from severe PTSD.

“How do you have PTSD? You haven’t been in a war.”

That’s what my mother said when I was first diagnosed. Yes, war veterans are extremely likely to suffer from PTSD (more than 30% of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime, and between 11-20% of veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have had PTSD in a given year). But the fact is, PTSD can be caused by just about any traumatic experience: being in an automobile accident, being the victim of a violent crime, witnessing death or injury, being sexually abused, and of course, facing combat.

About 10% of all women (that’s 10 out of every 100) will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, so it’s likely you may already know someone who is suffering silently from the disorder. I urge you to exercise some sensitivity with your use of this term. It’s a real and painful illness, not something to weave into your comedy routine.

Alison Downs is a copy editor living in Connecticut.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Research

PTSD Raises Risk of Premature Birth, Study Says

The researchers hope that treating PTSD could reduce the risks of premature birth

An analysis of more than 16,000 births by female veterans found that women with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are significantly more likely to give birth prematurely.

PTSD has long been suspected of increasing the risk of premature delivery, but the study, jointly conducted by Stanford University and the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, provides strong support for the need to treat mothers with PTSD.

“Stress is setting off biologic pathways that are inducing preterm labor,” Ciaran Phibbs, the study’s senior author and an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford, said in a statement. The study, published online on Thursday in Obstetrics & Gynecology, offered hope that treatment could prove effective in reducing the risk. While women with PTSD in the year leading up to delivery faced a higher risk of premature delivery, women who had been diagnosed with PTSD but had not experienced symptoms of the disorder in the past year did not.

“This makes us hopeful that if you treat a mom who has active PTSD early in her pregnancy, her stress level could be reduced, and the risk of giving birth prematurely might go down,” Phibbs said.

The implications extend beyond women in combat, since PTSD is not unique to combat. In fact, half of the veterans in the study had never been deployed to combat.

TIME Combat

Exclusive: A SEAL Recounts a Kill Mission and the Emotional Aftermath

Mark Owen is the pen name of Matt Bissonnette, a veteran SEAL and the author of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden and the forthcoming No Hero: The Evolution of a Navy SEAL.

The only thing Mark Owen says his SEAL training didn't teach him: how to return to normal life after a brutal combat mission like one in Iraq, 2006 (WARNING: this article includes some graphic content)

I’ve been through shooting courses. I can go rock climbing, ride a dirt bike, drive a boat, and handle explosives. The government spent millions of dollars training me to fight in the jungle, arctic, and desert. I took language courses and I can parachute at night and land right on target. But I’ve never been trained to handle the stress of combat. We spent months learning how to be SEALs and hours of every day keeping those skills sharp, but we got no formal training dealing with any of the emotional stuff.

Before I joined the SEALs, I wondered if I would actually be able to pull the trigger. Could I defend myself? I only really thought about it before I became a SEAL because once I was on missions I didn’t have time to think about it. Everything I did overseas was done to protect the guys to my left and right, and my country. I obeyed the rules of engagement and never targeted innocents.

But that doesn’t mean it didn’t f-ck with me. To this day, if you ask [my SEAL teammate] Phil about “the cat,” he’ll tell this story of a 2006 mission in Iraq.

***

The unmanned drone flying over the target reported seeing a half dozen men sleeping outside. It was summer in Iraq, and even at night it was too hot to stay inside without air conditioners. The village was really just a cluster of about ten squat, adobe‑style houses. I didn’t see any power lines coming into the village as we patrolled, so we expected people to be sleeping outside.

We closed slowly on the village just before three in the morning. The desert was flat and wide open and it was hard to see the horizon, even with my night vision goggles down. The village could have been on the moon. Nothing surrounded it for miles except sand and rocks. Above me, the stars were thick and bright.

Now, close to the houses, the march was one slow step at a time.

The troop chief gave the word and we moved into a large “L”‑shaped formation and started to close on the village. The base, or bottom, of the “L” was going to set up just outside of the village and, if needed, provide a base of fire and cover our movement. The vertical part of the “L” was going to move through the village searching for fighters. I was in the second group.

On the radio net in my ear, I heard updates from the other assault teams. I knew that circling above us and just outside of audible range, we had drones to give us eyes in the sky and an AC‑130 to cover us in case we needed immediate close air support. I scanned over to where the drones reported seeing the sleepers. I could make out about ten bedrolls.

A pair of men stood, scanning the desert. They weren’t talking, or at least it didn’t appear so. It looked like they were straining to see into the blackness of the desert night.

Did they hear something?

I was sure they couldn’t see us. Maybe they heard the AC‑130 above. Finally, one man moved over to where the others were still sleeping and began waking them up. His partner never stopped scanning the open desert. I could see the others getting up, slowly, and start looking around.

While the others got moving, the pair of men walked toward the nearest house. The others eventually followed. None of the men had guns so we couldn’t open fire, but it was definitely suspicious to see a large group of men sleeping on the outskirts of the village. Where were all the women and kids?

The group was halfway to a house on the edge of the village when they stopped. The entire group turned and started to walk back to their bedrolls. We were about two hundred meters away and I could see every one of the men clear as day in my night vision.

When they got back to their bedrolls, I could see them grabbing AK‑47s, RPGs, and even a belt‑fed PKM machine gun. Multiple IR lasers popped on and zeroed in on the chests of the fighters as our snipers went to work. Seconds later, three of the enemy dropped.

The others panicked and started running back toward the village. Suppressed rounds continued to pour in on them.

I counted five dead fighters. By this point in the war, we were very conscious of not running to our death, so we paused for a moment. The base of the “L” stayed in place. We were hoping the enemy hadn’t noticed the rest of us off to their right flank. Our position hadn’t fired yet in an effort to stay undetected.

Within minutes I heard the troop chief ’s voice over the radio. “OK, guys, the base is going to hold position and the maneuver is commencing assault at this time.”

“OK,” I heard the troop chief say over the radio. “Take it.” Our entire element got up and began slowly bounding forward in pairs. Two or three SEALs would slowly make their way forward with guns at the ready, stopping a short distance ahead of the next group. They would then take a knee and hold security while the rest of the unit bounded past them. We were just about to enter the village when we saw four men in a dead sprint racing back to the bedrolls.

I was less than one hundred yards from them. I raised my gun and zeroed in on the first guy in the group. He looked anxious as they sprinted, his eyes wide. He practically slid to a stop, his chest heaving, and started to root through the folds of his bedroll. The first man got to his bedroll and knelt down. I could see him pull out an AK‑47.

I put my laser on his chest and fired. My teammates also opened fire. We all hit the same guy in rapid succession, spinning him down. One by one, I followed our lasers to the next target until all four were on the ground, unmoving.

Again, we paused to assess the situation.

I took a knee and began scanning the surrounding buildings, waiting for any more “heroes.” Phil, my team leader, took a knee next to me, and I could hear him whisper.

“That was interesting,” he said. “I guess they really want to fight. Let’s take it slow and careful tonight. These guys mean business.”

“Let’s keep moving,” the troop chief interrupted over the radio.

My team spent the next thirty minutes clearing house after house. I scanned every doorway and window, watching for a fighter to pop out.

Up ahead, I caught a glimpse of a guy peering out of a door. He was tucked back in the doorway, but not far enough. I could see the muzzle of his AK‑47 as he waited for us to come closer. Thankfully it was dark. At least it was dark to him. We had our night vision goggles.

I wasn’t sure Phil saw him at first. The man pulled his head back quickly and I saw Phil’s laser shine on where his head once was. The man slowly slid his head back into view as he attempted to get a look at our position. Phil’s laser was now
on the man’s forehead.

I heard several suppressed shots from Phil’s MP7, and the man’s head disappeared from view. Two fighters ran through the village, popped out the other end, and tried to hide by running out into the open desert. They stood out immediately on the infrared cameras carried by the ISR and AC‑130. A team of four SEALs and a combat dog raced out of the village after the fighters. The AC‑130 banked and headed toward the group. I was keeping track of their progress on the radio. Finally, I heard the thump of the AC‑130’s guns.

When my teammates got to the bodies, it was a shocking scene. It looked like one of the fighters was blown completely inside out. A round from the plane’s one‑hundred‑and‑five‑ millimeter howitzer must have hit him. The one‑hundred‑and‑five‑millimeter shell is twice the size of a bowling pin, and it can do some serious damage.

Back in the village, I was still holding security when Phil’s voice came over the net. “Alpha Two, Alpha One,” Phil said, using our call signs. “Need you in here.”

I stepped over the fighter’s body and saw Phil and two of my teammates searching the main room. The gun the fighter had been holding was leaning against the far wall of the foyer. Phil had taken the magazine out and cleared the chamber.

I looked back at the dead fighter. His head was lying away from the doorway leading to the main room. Had the fighter not exposed himself in the doorway, there was a good chance neither Phil nor I would have seen him. If he’d had a little patience, he would have had the jump on us.

Phil had clearly popped him with a great shot. The bullet hit him just above his nose, flush in the bottom of his forehead. Half of his face was torn off, leaving one good eye staring blankly at the ceiling. Blood was slowly pooling up around the back of the fighter’s head.

I started to look away when a flicker of movement caught my eye. A ratty‑ass‑looking calico kitten, its fur matted to its skinny rib cage, was at the edge of the blood pool. The kitten sniffed at the pool, and then I saw its pink tongue dart out and lick the blood. I expected to see dead bodies, and I had more or less gotten used to it by this point, but there was something about the ratty cat and the blood that didn’t seem right. I didn’t expect it. It was pretty f-cking gruesome.

I turned away and started to search the house. The area was secure, so I wasn’t quiet. I was digging through a cabinet near the door when I heard something behind me. It sounded like a sob or a whimper. I swung around, one hand on the grip of my rifle, and saw a small child huddled in the corner. He was balled up behind a pile of blankets, and my teammates must have missed him in the initial clearance. I squatted down to get a better look at him. I wasn’t sure if he was injured. His hair was matted. His tears washed away some of the dirt from his cheeks. He looked as ratty as the cat licking blood in the foyer.

I looked back over my shoulder and realized that from his vantage point, he would have seen the man in the foyer as he was shot. I had no idea if the man was his father or just a fighter hiding in the house. Either way, he’d watched us shoot the guy and probably saw the cat licking the puddle of blood. “Wow, I’ve seen some crazy shit, but this poor kid is going to be f-cked up by this the rest of his life,” I thought.

The kid was shaking he was so scared. He probably thought we were going to kill him too. Plus, I figured with all of my guns and gear strapped to me, I looked pretty menacing.

The kid continued to quietly sob. I slowly slid a chemlight out of my vest and popped it. The stick lit as I shook it, bathing the room in a green hue. I also slid out a Jolly Rancher and held it out to him. The kid wouldn’t look me in the eye at first.
I shook the chemlight.

“Hey, buddy,” I said. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

I knew he had no idea what I was saying. My only hope was he got my tone. Slowly, he looked up. He was sizing me up, trying to gauge if I was a threat. I tried to smile, but I knew in all my gear a smile wasn’t going to be enough.

He looked away and then quickly snatched the chem light and candy. He didn’t eat the candy; instead he just clutched it in his hand. I got on the radio to figure out where we were consolidating all the women and kids. They were in a house not far away, so I stood up and waved at him to follow me.

He didn’t understand me, so I took his hand and led him out of the house. I tried to block his view of the dead fighter and the cat, still licking at the pool of blood.

We walked through the village. I could hear a few of the women and kids sobbing when I got to the house. A teammate was at the door keeping watch. When the kid saw the other children and women, he let go of my hand and walked into the middle of the room. I didn’t linger. I had work to do and I knew the kid was safe now.

As I walked back to the house to continue my search, I could still picture the cat licking the blood, and the kid watching from across the room as the man’s head was blown off. I quickly pushed the image out of my mind and resumed my search.

***

I didn’t have time to dwell on it. After missions, I blocked it out. I know some guys who make a big deal about killing. I’d shot people from long distances and shot people at point‑blank range. But I always rationalized it this way: If I hadn’t shot the enemy, he would have killed one of my swim buddies or me. I didn’t need another explanation.

That didn’t make it easier when I got back home to the real world. At home, we’re expected to forget everything we did to survive overseas. How did I leave it all over there? I don’t know. All I know was I got better and better at compartmentalizing things. I simply blocked out a lot of the emotional stuff. I pushed myself through the confusion of living one life overseas and another at home.

It was a struggle, one I overcame by redirecting many of the lessons I learned from SEAL training. I simply didn’t let the effects of combat control me. When I came home I never talked about work to people outside of my teammates.

But after the [REDACTED] mission, I couldn’t shake the stress. The mission was spilling out of my mental compartments. As I left the cage after talking to my buddy, I felt better. I felt reassured knowing that others were going through the same mental gymnastics as I was. I wasn’t the only one having trouble trying to comprehend all the shit that had gone on since the raid.

A few years earlier the Navy started trying to address combat stress. Their first idea was requiring us to spend a few extra days in Germany on the way home from every deployment. They wanted us to decompress.

Before Germany, we’d be home sometimes twenty‑four hours after an operation. I’d go from a gunfight overseas and within a day be back in the States at Taco Bell for my routine, two tacos and a bean burrito. It sounds pretty strange, but that stop at Taco Bell was probably me putting up a wall on another compartment in my brain; it allowed me to keep everything separate.

After the policy change, we stopped in Germany and the command’s psychologist flew over to meet us and give us classes on coping with combat stress and reintegration into the civilian world. For the guys with families, the training was focused on going back to the family routine. The funny part was we’d be home for a few weeks, only to head out on our next training rotation, which would keep us on the road for weeks.

The command eventually replaced the Germany stop with a new policy. We all had to meet with a command psychologist. We were required to sit down for a single thirty‑minute meeting after each deployment. The thirty minutes were used to talk about any issues we might be having. Once I went down with another buddy, Gerry, to knock it out. We weren’t buying into this, and it had become just another line item on my to‑do list after returning from a deployment. Each person’s thirty‑minute session had to be complete before they would allow us to take any leave or vacation time. It was something the senior guys blew off, but we were required to go. We knew it was a box that needed to be checked so the Navy could say we were being counseled and trained to deal with the stresses of combat.

It was toward the end of the day when Gerry and I got to the psych office. I don’t remember if it was my appointment or Gerry’s, but when the two of us walked into the office, the psychologist was taken aback. She was pregnant, about three weeks away from popping. She looked as tired as we did.

“Listen, you don’t have much time,” Gerry said, pointing at her stomach. “We’re going to save you an extra thirty minutes by doing our sessions at the same time.”

After thinking about it a minute, she waved us both into her office. Gerry folded his more‑than‑six‑foot‑five‑inch body into the couch. I took a seat across from the psychologist. She sat in an office chair with a notepad.

“We’re going to talk about some stuff, some sensitive things. Are you guys OK with doing this together?” she said. “Gerry knows everything about me,” I said. “And I know everything about him. We’re good.”

For most of the thirty minutes she asked us questions about how we were handling stress and if we had any PTSD symptoms. I can remember her handing us a sheet of paper with a list of symptoms on it. I took a second and quickly read down the list. The symptoms included trouble sleeping, avoiding crowds, and keeping your back to the wall in a restaurant.

“Holy shit, I think I have every single one of these,” I thought.

“Why are we not more f-cked up?” I asked. “Why are we not more messed up from the shit that we’ve seen? You talk about PTSD. Gerry and I have been trained to deal with just about every combat or tactical situation that can be thrown at us, but we’ve never had one second of training to deal with the emotional side of things.”

She nodded.

“The best way I can describe it is BUD/S,” she said, [referring to Basic Underwater Demolition, SEALS, the six-month SEAL training program].

“So are you saying BUD/S made me stronger? Or BUD/S just weeded out the weak?” I asked.

I stumped her with that one. Before she could answer, Gerry jumped in.

“I think we’re just mentally stronger than everyone else on the planet,” he said with a smile.

He was obviously f-cking around. There was no way that we could comprehend all that we’d seen and done. It was easier to just make a joke and ignore it.

We left the doctor’s office after our thirty minutes and never said another word about it. Over time, I started to sleep better, and there was some comfort knowing I was strong enough to compartmentalize the traumatic experiences I’d had overseas. I still have the list that the doctor gave me. From time to time, I read over it, and I still have every single symptom on the list.

From the helicopter crash on the [REDACTED] raid to that small malnourished Iraqi cat licking the pool of blood from the fighter’s head, each experience had its own compartment. The symptoms didn’t go away even after I got out of the Navy. I just choose to block them out.

We all deal with the stress of combat in different ways. The way that I’ve dealt with it isn’t perfect and certainly isn’t for everyone. Being a SEAL is a tough life and career. The sacrifices go far beyond what I’d ever imagined, but if asked whether I would do it all over again, my answer, without hesitation, would be simple.

Yes.

 

NO HERO

From NO HERO: THE EVOLUTION OF A NAVY SEAL by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer. Published by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2014 by Mark Owen.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 5

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Beyond PTSD: Returning soldiers struggle to recover from the ‘moral injury’ of war.

By Jeff Severns Guntzel in On Being

2. On climate and so many other scientific issues, the way we communicate polarizes audiences. We can do better.

By Paul Voosen in the Chronicle of Higher Education

3. Entrepreneurs and educators need to observe students in school if they want to make real change.

By Alex Hernandez in EdSurge

4. Lifesaving ultrasound technology may soon come to a device the size of an iPhone. The applications for medicine in the developing world are massive.

By Antonio Regalado in MIT Technology Review

5. Many Arab governments are fueling the very extremism they purport to fight and are looking for U.S. cover. Washington should play the long game.

By Michele Dunne and Frederic Wehrey at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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