Emily was seeing brown sand. She was back in the war, and the enemy was coming. She found a weapon. She stood up and pinned the enemy to the wall.
Emily’s girlfriend still has a mark from where Emily held a knife to her throat in the midst of her flashback. She’d gotten drunk with her girlfriend at their apartment with some friends and gone to her room, saying she would go to bed. When her girlfriend came to the room, Emily was crouched down, talking to herself and looking for a weapon.
After that, her girlfriend hid the knives, and Emily agreed to get help.
Emily never drank or did drugs until she got out of the military. And although she finished a therapy program to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in November, she continues to self-medicate. She’s asked that her name be changed and any identifying information be withheld to protect her from potential job loss and criminal charges.
“What makes me an addict are all my [expletive] problems,” she says.
She is not someone who invites sympathy or concern. She looks people in the eye, has perfect posture and manages a long stride despite the fact that she is almost always the shortest person in the room. With an infectious grin, a pretty face and a slight frame, few would peg Emily as a Second Gulf War veteran.
About one in 10 veterans seen by Veterans Affairs (VA) returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with substance abuse, and the rate is double for veterans with PTSD.
There were over 550,000 Gulf War vets in California with 314,667 in Los Angeles County alone in 2014 — over 3 percent of the population. In fact, the state of California has the largest veteran population in the United States. Using the VA’s projection, that would mean about 31,500 veterans are currently struggling with some form of drug addiction, often the result of PTSD. Since these numbers only represent the people who have self-reported, the actual number is likely higher.
When Emily came back to Southern California, the first thing she noticed was how colorful it is in the United States. She saw brightly painted walls, traffic lights, street signs. But back in the desert, everything was brown. After one tour in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, the monotony of color and the fear broke something inside her head.
“You wake up in a dirt hole,” she recalls. “For us soldiers, we have to dig a dirt hole so people don’t see us in the middle of the desert. We call it a soldier’s grave. You wake up, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m alive.’
The fear never really goes away.
Emily says she uses different kinds of narcotics to cope. “I need weed to sleep, I need weed to eat. And as for the coke, do not tell my girlfriend because I do it behind her back.” She does as much as she can afford, working as a nurse’s assistant at the Long Beach VA Medical Center.
She also used to take ecstasy to complete daily activities such as going to class, though these days, she limits it to big raves. It’s the only way she feels connected to other people.
“I have a hard time opening up,” she says, laughing at herself.
Barefoot and loaded
It was in her blood to join the service. Emily was born at the Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Her father was a U.S. soldier stationed at the base. Her mother is Filipina.
Emily was two years old when her biological father went to prison. Her mother married another airman whose assignment moved the family to Okinawa, Japan, where she grew up.
She never got along with her violent and sexually abusive stepdad. By the age of 17, after being thrown out, she began making enough money as a dancer at a strip club to support herself, buy a car and treat her friends whenever she wanted.
Her parents did not attempt to reach her.
“If they ever wanted to come see me or find me, then they very well knew how to,” Emily says. Her parents knew what high school she went to and with which friend she was staying. The girls’ parents worked together on the military base.
“But that never happened, so … ” she trails off.
So Emily joined the military at the age of 19.
Since she chose not to specify a job preference, the Air Force chose for her. Emily was shipped off the Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas, to go to boot camp and to learn how to be a combat medic.
After she was stationed in England, the newly minted medic joined an attachment of Marine and Army convoy missions to Afghanistan in 2004.
Not long after her arrival, Emily suffered a gunshot wound to the head. The Kevlar in her helmet stopped the bullet from entering her skull.
“My reaction was to defend myself, so I picked up a gun and started firing,” Emily says.
“When I got out, it was 2008, and that’s the first question people would ask me: ‘Did you kill someone?’ … You don’t think I’ve been through a lot of trauma to have to say, ‘Oh yeah, I [expletive] killed somebody?’”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, symptoms of PTSD can include feeling keyed up, having flashbacks of the event or feeling numb to things a person used to enjoy.
Dr. Mary Gutierrez, a pharmacy professor for the past 24 years, treated veterans who have psychiatric and substance abuse problems in Long Beach.
“They go to addiction to relieve the psychiatric pain,” Gutierrez says.
Often, these veterans don’t want help, she says. “While they are in the addiction, they are in such pain that they’d rather keep using than seek treatment.”
After Emily got out of the military, she couldn’t hold down a civilian job, so she decided to go back to school to be a registered nurse. Unfortunately, her GI Bill ran out.
The GI Bill, which pays for 36 months of a full-time college education for military veterans, doesn’t usually last until graduation, and if student veterans can’t pay for the rest on their own, they may not graduate at all, according to Cal State Long Beach Director of Veterans Services Marshall Thomas.
“The idea behind that legislation was kind of an antiquated notion that we are a four-year institution,” Thomas says. More often than not, students need at least six years to graduate.
In the end, Emily came out with a certificate and applied for the nurse’s assistant job at the VA where she would be able to be around other veterans. There, people have an understanding with one another. They know what they’ve been through.
Most days of the week, Emily continues to work at the VA taking care of the Long Beach veteran population, whether it’s keeping them company, fetching them popcorn, getting them in the shower or dressing their wounds. She would like to go back to school to finish her RN degree, but she knows she could be drug tested at any time, on any day.
If she doesn’t pass the next random drug test, she’s well aware she might not make it.
Between war and the VA, “I like to think I saved a lot of people,” Emily says.
Is it time to start saving herself?
She shrugs at the question. She doesn’t have an answer.