More than a Warrior

Co-authors: 
“I thought I’d be tough enough just to go over there, do my thing in Iraq and it wouldn’t affect me. But that’s not the case.”
Attribution/Name: 
Jared Starkel
Affiliation: 
OIF veteran
“Most veterans feel a tremendous amount of guilt and shame that they survived and other people didn’t.”
Attribution/Name: 
Rich Cohen
Affiliation: 
Exec. Dir, National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates
"He’s a Marine. He’s proud. He’s tough. And yet when those kids walk in the door, he’s nothing but a puddle of mush.”
Attribution/Name: 
Cassie Thornton-Starkel
Affiliation: 
Jared's wife

By Michelle San Miguel
News21 / Syracuse University

Jared Starkel was walking past the dairy case at Prince’s Center — the grocery store where he worked — when the “threat” appeared out of nowhere.

An Arab man was coming toward him.

Jared’s mind processed the data: Turban. Beard. Blue, flowing garment.

So he took cover — the stock room. Within a quarter-hour, he had retreated home, where he shut himself in his room and recoiled in bed for six hours.

“All of a sudden, I just knew that I had to leave,” Jared said in an interview this summer, shortly before he decided to quit his job. He told his boss that day that he was sick. How could he talk about the thoughts that infiltrated his mind? Who would understand, even if he did?

“How am I supposed to say I have to go home when this stuff happens? And I can’t give you exact dates and times of when it’s going to happen,” Jared said.

Today, Jared recalls the 3-year-old encounter as though it were yesterday, so vivid are the memories of the “enemy” from his three tours in Iraq as a U.S. Marine . There are many “triggers” that still send Jared literally into retreat, just like the customer that day at Prince’s who probably was one of the Arab shoppers from Canada who frequent the store on Sundays.

Jared once faced battles and death head-on. Today he tries to flee from his memories of it.

There are many veterans like Jared here in rural northeastern Washington, from current and past wars. One of them is a Vietnam vet finally helping Jared pursue benefits for his back pain, hearing loss and other maladies. As many as 1,000 Vietnam vets — decades removed from that war — live in the nearby surrounding mountains “off the grid,” having retreated from life itself, not just their war memories. Twelve in every hundred residents in Okanogan County is a veteran; in neighboring Ferry County, it’s 15 in every hundred.

Jared is trying to “plug in,” rather than withdraw.

Nearly four years have passed since his last tour in Iraq and he is now searching for order in his life. He's finally filed for his service-related disability benefits. He can’t duplicate the structure of the military (although his wife admits he sometimes tries to).

“My work is a lot more stressful than what the military was,” Jared says.

In the complex and confusing world of the war veteran, this makes perfect sense.

Jared says he was frustrated by the lack of structure at the store, though he could still find humor comparing his work as a grocer to a Marine. “Definitely not as action-packed as the military was,” Jared laughs. “The worst thing I gotta watch for is like rotten fruits and vegetables.”


SIGN OF DISGRACE TO ASK FOR ANYTHING

Jared is among the more than 2.2 million servicemen and women who have served in the Global War on Terror. As of March 2010, 1.1 million veterans from the war were eligible for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs; however, only 442,000 of them had filed claims for war-related injury, according to the group Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit organization.

“Veterans look upon it as a sign of disgrace to ask for anything from the government. Most veterans feel a tremendous amount of guilt and shame that they survived and other people didn’t,” says Rich Cohen, the executive director of the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates. “And even the ones who were badly wounded feel that there are others who are more wounded and deserve more than they do.”

Jared — until just this spring — was one of them.

The weeks and months leading up to the mid-June birth of Jared’s youngest child, Garryn, led him to re-think things. Haunted by his memories of his time in Iraq, Jared can hardly go through a week without having nightmares that he believes are caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Jared has not been diagnosed with PTSD, but he’s sure he has the symptoms. He is waiting for that claim to be processed, plus four more medical claims: migraine headaches, lower back pain, hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). He’s also seeking a supplemental cash payment.

And he decided to leave the grocery for college.


DRINK MY WORK AWAY

On a typical day this summer at home, Jared unwinds in his oversized chair after finishing a 10-hour shift at Prince’s that started at 4:30 a.m. He polishes off a Bud Light and retreats to his familiar corner in the family room. Food crumbs crowd the carpet; the laundry basket overflows; dust coats his children’s portraits on the fireplace mantel.

“I’m just trying to drink my work away,” Jared admits.

Across the room, his wife, Cassie Thornton-Starkel, busily collects census forms from her team. She is a census crew leader and repeatedly answers cell phone calls from her workers. Meanwhile, Jared’s 2-year-old son Clark finds a new toy in a yellow broom that he lifts up in amazement. Jared quickly pulls it away from his son.

Looking out from the family-room windows, Jared is constantly reminded of his job. The front of the house overlooks the back of Prince’s. Jared worked there for almost three years earning $11.28 an hour; he decided to leave at the end of July. He worked everywhere from meat to dairy to produce.

Before he moved here to Oroville, Wash., Jared called the streets of Iraq home. He served three tours as an infantryman with the U.S. Marines between 2003 and 2006.

In Iraq, Jared says he had to “find the enemy and take ’em out.” He cleared the enemy from buildings, and looked for insurgent weapons caches and documents.

He doesn’t volunteer details, but recalls them when prompted:

  • A sniper shot 5 feet from where he was standing.
  • A white truck stacked with more than 20 dead bodies.
  • Seeing one of his friends get “blown up”.

After Jared returned from his last tour in Iraq more than four years ago, he married Cassie and quickly became father to her two daughters from a previous marriage — Ashleigh, 9, and Katy, 5. Together, he and Cassie had two sons: Clark and newborn baby Garryn.

Together, they all cope with his war memories and nightmares.

He remembers having a dream where he thought he was getting shot at, and another that he was back in Iraq and had fallen asleep while serving at a post. Jared says it’s hard to pinpoint when the nightmares started because they’ve been going on for years.

“I thought I’d be tough enough just to go over there, do my thing in Iraq and it wouldn’t affect me. But that’s not the case,” Jared says. “I guess it kinda makes me feel weak and vulnerable that I’ve been having dreams.”

Ashleigh remembers a night when Jared had a nightmare that someone was trying to kidnap her and the other kids. Just as he did at the grocery store, Jared responded to the threat: He started urging everyone to make sure the front and back door of the house remained locked. Ashleigh says she feels bad that her dad wakes up in the middle of the night because he’s having nightmares.

Fortunately for Jared, a new federal regulation is now making it easier for veterans with PTSD to receive health-care and disability compensation. In the past, the VA required veterans to prove that they witnessed a specific event that caused them to suffer from PTSD. Under the new rule, veterans need only to have served in a war where the event they describe was likely to have happened. Veterans will need to see a VA doctor who will determine whether their stressful experiences support a diagnosis of PTSD.

Cassie remembers one night when she was pregnant with Garryn and Jared was thrashing beside her in bed. She worried he would swing and hit her. And now, the hardest part for her continues to be not knowing what to do to help her husband.

“As the spouse, you just want to help them but you can’t. You don’t have a clue what they went through,” Cassie says. “They don’t tell you. You only know what they tell you.”

“The important thing for a spouse of someone with PTSD is to really seek help for themselves to connect with a clinician so that they really understand all the aspects of what PTSD is and how it may be manifesting itself within their particular spouse,” says Dr. Bozena Robertson, vice president of Clinical and Supportive Services for the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester, N.Y.

Dr. Bozena says spouses of veterans should get help because they may begin to think they are triggering their spouse’s PTSD. “A lot of spouses feel very guilty that somehow they’re contributing to it.”

When Jared’s nightmares have been at their worst, he’s had episodes for three consecutive nights. Some nights, Jared says Cassie has noticed that he’s stopped breathing and will wake himself up. Other nights, Jared will talk or cry in his sleep. Jared says he doesn’t remember most of it.

Jared sometimes takes up arms against bad memories by turning to alcohol. In a typical week, he says he drinks a 12-pack of beer. “The drinking kind of helps calm me down, but honestly it doesn’t work all the time,” Jared says. “And I don’t want the kids to see daddy’s having a bad day — he’s gonna need a beer.”

While Jared admits that he sometimes drinks to suppress his reality, Cassie does not think her husband has a drinking problem. “People that have a problem can’t walk away from it,” Cassie says. “Jared can walk away from it.”

Still, Jared says he'd consider going to counseling and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings if his drinking got worse, though he doesn’t consider himself an alcoholic. “I know I’m at a point where I shouldn’t be drinking as much,” Jared says. “I’m not an excessive drunk. I don’t need it to go to bed, but at the same time who’s to say I won’t be that guy a year from now if I don’t get that help now?”

That’s one of the reasons Jared is seeking professional help getting his claims filed. He also tries to cope with his emotional turmoil by going to the gym for exercise- mixed martial arts and weight training.


IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY

While finishing off his third beer after a stressful day at work, Jared opens an envelope from the VA. Inside he finds a 24-page document that lists the six claims Jared is seeking to prove. Jared received the paperwork four months after sending the VA his first form.

Leafing through the thicket of two dozen pages, Jared is flustered by the kinds of details the paperwork asks of him. His family’s birth dates and Social Security numbers. Witness statements for his claims. He asks himself: Does each claim need to be filled out on its own sheet because there aren’t enough forms for his six claims? He’s not sure what he’s supposed to do.

“I don’t really want to have the stuff I’m applying for waived or denied just because I mess up on it,” Jared says.

He retreats to the kitchen for his fourth Bud Light and settles back into his chair nestled between two windows in the family room. Grabbing hold of a bucket of sunflower seeds and his beer, Jared continues to sift through the pages, back and forth.

“Let go of your packet. It’s going to be okay,” Cassie tells Jared.

While Cassie realizes how important getting benefits is to Jared, she is more relaxed about it. “If it happens, it’s great. But if it doesn’t, we’ll go from there,” Cassie says.

For Jared, getting his benefits isn’t just about the money. It’s about getting help. Jared has had lower back pain since finishing his first tour in 2003. He can’t sit in a chair for long because his back gets sore and sends numbing pain through his leg and sometimes his whole back.

“I’m 27 and I feel like I’m actually like 87,” Jared says. In Iraq, he was sometimes carrying up to 100 pounds at a time, which included his combat gear, M249 SAW weapon, a sleeping bag and extra clothes. Jared’s back pain affects his everyday life. Even when roughhousing with his kids, he says he can’t do it for too long because his back will start hurting.

His back situation is aggravated because he has no health insurance. When he was at Prince’s, he never had insurance because employees had to work 40 hours a week for six months straight before they could get insured. He says he hasn’t had a dental appointment in years and only remembers having gone to the doctor a couple of times in the past three to four years when he was feeling ill.

Jared says the VA benefits aren’t just for him. “It’s for my family because medical and stuff nowadays is just so, so expensive. And obviously we’re on our fourth kid, so that’s going to be a lot of medical stuff coming up.”

It took Jared almost four years after leaving the military to get the benefits process started this past March. He says he tried calling various 1-800 numbers, but it led him to dead ends. “I kinda just got frustrated with it all and said ‘Forget it. I won’t bother with it right now.’”

When he saw an ad in the newspaper urging veterans to contact a man named Dale White if they needed help with their VA benefits, Jared took action. White helped him get started filling things out; White admits that the form can be daunting, which is why many delay filling it out.

Over the past 30 years, White says he has helped more than 10,000 veterans get their benefits. White used to work for the VA, and he is accredited to help veterans file their claims.

“The younger vets now, most of them don’t really do the paperwork well,” White says. “Not because they’re not educated but because they just want to get away from it. They think ‘Okay, if I can just get away from it, everything should be fine.’ It doesn’t work that way — usually not.”

White described the VA as a big bureaucracy where administrators come and go often, making grand promises they can't keep because they don't stay long. Ultimately, White says, it’s the veterans who get hurt.

White does all he can to encourage veterans to file their benefits claims. “Never give up. Always look for someone to represent you. Don’t try to do it all on your own,” White says.


I WAS A LITTLE UNSURE

Baby Garryn is the ultimate motivation.

“I was putting it off and I was a little unsure of myself,” Jared says. “And I was unsure of what I wanted to do. … I just started thinking about why am I here. It kinda went from there. I complain about it, but I have all this college money — why not use it and try to get out of there (Prince's)? And that’s why it kinda just clicked. Like why did I think about this just now after so many years.”

Jared says he has at least $40,000 from the GI Bill that he’ll be using to take online college classes for his bachelor’s degree in health science and wellness. He says he’d like to own a gym one day. “I’ve gotta make this move because where I’m at now I’m not gonna be making much more than what I am now,” Jared says.

While he works toward his degree, Jared will be working as a junior high volleyball coach and is looking to get another coaching position. For Jared, it all boils down to doing what’s best for his family. “I think that’s the one thing that gives my life a purpose: having a family. Because before, I really had nothing to work for except myself. But now that I got a family and stuff, I got higher goals and more of a drive to meet those goals.”

Cassie calls him an “amazing” father. “He was born for that role. I cannot explain what an amazing guy he is. He’s a Marine. He’s proud. He’s tough. And yet when those kids walk in the door, he’s nothing but a puddle of mush.”

Jared’s not sure when his nightmares will dissipate — or if they ever will. He’s not sure when he will get his benefits, or if he even will. And he’s not sure what life as a college student will be like. But of one thing he is certain.

“I know that I need to do whatever’s best for my family,” Jared says.

And he believes he is doing just that.

Posted in