Interview with Iraq War Veterans Kayla Williams and Brian McGough
I spoke with Kayla Williams and Brian McGough for about an hour on March 10, 2014. I've made my questions bold to allow you to skim through the interview. Topics discussed include: women in the military, the Iraq War, sexual harassment, PTSD, reintegration, college, and recovery. Kayla's book can be purchased on Amazon.
Andrew Lewczuk: Kayla Williams and Brian McGough are veterans of the Iraq War. They served in the 101st Airborne Division. Kayla was a sergeant and an Arabic linguist. Brian was a staff sergeant that earned a Bronze Star while also serving in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Kayla’s new book, her second memoir, is, “Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War.” It tells of the beginning of their relationship after they returned home from Iraq, overcoming their injuries together. Her first book is titled, “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army.” The first book details your year in Iraq and returning home. Hearing about the second book and that you and Brian met while in Iraq, I read through the first book anticipating the introduction of a Brian character and finished the book to discover you changed his name instead. How did you select Shane Kelly as a name for Brian?
Kayla Williams: The publisher made me change everybody’s name in the first book, and Brian was actually really cranky about that because we were already married when the book came out. The publisher stood really firm on making me change everybody’s name. So his middle name is Kelly and we kept that. They probably would have been disappointed if they had known because it’s identifiable by inference, or something. I think, the publisher might have suggested Shane, I’m not sure. We went with it because we weren’t that emotionally invested in the fake name.
Brian McGough: It’s not worth fighting for a fake name.
AL: You were a literature major in college so I think I can assume you always had an interest in writing. How did you decide to write your first book?
KW: So while I was deployed, I wrote paper letters home because we didn’t have email for a long time. I kept really extensive journals and as you guessed correctly, I’ve always written and always wanted to write. One of the people I exchanged letters with was my university professor while I was in undergrad. He said, when I got back, “this is a really interesting and compelling story. It’s one that’s never been told. Have you ever thought about writing a book?” So, that was the beginning of it. He knew an agent and you can see in the front flap that we worked on the first book together. Michael Staub was one of my professors in undergrad.
AL: It’s about being young and female in the army. I think there were civilians who were confused about a woman’s role in the war, right?
KW: When I first got home, people asked me if I was even allowed to carry a gun because “I’m just a girl.” Other people asked if I was in the infantry, which as you know, is still not authorized under current regulations so that’s in the middle of changing right now. Those jobs could be open in a couple more years. I saw that the only women soldiers in the popular media, or in most people’s conceptions, were Jessica Lynch and Lynddie England, and those were not the women that I wanted representing me or the other women I served with, who were much more diverse and more complex, rounded people. Both Lynddie England and Jessica Lynch were kinda cardboard cutouts of female soldiers that the media plastered on the cover of every magazine. The heroine and the villain. They weren’t like whole human beings. So I wanted to give a little more nuance and complexity to the story of what it meant to be a woman in the modern military.
AL: I read in your Slate article that you were initially opposed to women serving in combat jobs. How did you come to change your mind on that?
KW: Not exactly. I didn’t think the military was ready for it. It wasn’t that I was personally opposed. It’s that I thought the resistance among infantrymen would be too high. When I first got back I thought: in like ten years they’d be ready but right now they might not be. Sure enough, about ten years later, it looks like they’re probably going to be ready and the military as a whole is making that change.
When I was in Iraq, I talked to guys who had never served with woman and they believed some really bizarre things. They actually believed that we would have to be medically evacuated every seventy-two hours for showers, or we might die, which to me, shows the really fundamental lack of understanding about humans that is a little frightening. Over half the world’s population doesn’t have indoor plumbing today. The human species wouldn’t have survived long enough to develop indoor plumbing if we died without access to showers. They had these really bizarre conceptions. But as more and more of those men have served with women, seen us in action, seen us in combat, seen us living in the same austere conditions as they were, they’ve come to understand that we can fulfill important roles - not just in replacing men - but in some ways, unique roles. In counter-insurgency, in predominantly Muslim countries, for example, women can be particularly useful in connecting with the half of the population that is female but would otherwise not be able to talk to U.S. troops at all.
AL: Brian, what was your experience working with women in the military?
BM: Very limited. I was in an all male unit. There were a few females in artillery but not very many.
AL: What are your views about having women in combat jobs?
BM: If they can do the job, they can do the job. I don’t think they should be pushed in if they can’t do the job, but if they can do the job, they can do it. That’s fine.
AL: Kayla, do you still encounter people that are against having women in the military today?
KW: Oh, yeah. Not that many, and most are either old or religious fanatics or both. But every now and then, I do still encounter people that think that it’s not right for a variety of reasons. Some of them still say “the hygiene issue.” They won’t say what that means and I find it amusing. I have a son and a daughter and I use baby wipes to clean both of them. Baby wipes don’t care what gender you are. They do a perfectly good job of cleaning your genitals either way. I talked to some people who have said that they think it’s human nature that men are killers and women are homemakers, and that’s the way it is and should be. Maybe based on their biblical interpretations.
I talked to people who believe that men won’t be able to focus on their jobs if there are women around, either because they’ll be so distracted thinking about sex or because if an actual firefight broke out, or a woman were wounded, that the male troops would forget all their military training and discipline and drop everything to protect the women. When I was deployed and we took direct or indirect fire, I never saw men dropping their jobs to throw themselves on top of the women. People did their jobs and stuck by their training. When it comes to “they might try to save the women,” so if a man throws himself on a grenade to protect to his male comrades, he’s a hero and might be awarded the Medal of Honor. But if there’s a woman there, then suddenly it’s less honorable for him to do that? I find that a really incredibly bizarre mindset.
AL: In your first book, you’re critical of two women who cried publicly while in Iraq. You say that, “The guys already think we can’t handle it.” And there were moments when you fought back the tears and eventually let them go when no one else was around. I was wondering since you guarded against people seeing you cry in Iraq, did you hesitate to reveal in your book that you did actually have a few crying moments there?
KW: No, because I wanted to tell the truth about what it was like. And still, when people ask me today, if I have any advice for women joining the military, the first thing I say is, “cry in the bathroom.” I see internet memes or footage of male troops crying and it’s held up as this honorable thing. That this guy loved his comrades so much that he cried when one of them died. Or this guy looks like such a tough soldier, but he’s crying over a dead child. He’s still human and how touching that he’s so caring. I want to try and push back on some of these weird, cultural things we have where if a man cries, it’s a positive thing, that he still has a heart and is tender and caring. But if a woman cries, it’s a sign of weakness? It means a completely different thing for women to cry.
But in order to push back against that, I think it’s worth being honest about the fact that I could be tough because I had to be, but still cry, because I’m still a human being. Men are the same way. Culturally, many women cry more easily than many men, and sometimes for different things. I would cry when I was angry when I was younger because I had not been raised to think it was acceptable to show anger and so it would come out in the wrong way. Whereas guys, when they get angry might be more likely to punch a wall or yell or scream at people. Either way, human beings feel deep emotions, and that’s ok if you can learn to handle them appropriately.
AL: In your first book, you mention that you were opposed to the Iraq War. You said that you didn’t believe in it. What was it like to be deployed over there when you disagreed with the war?
KW: I thought the reasons we were given for going to Iraq were disingenuous at best. But it doesn’t matter. I swore an oath to the Constitution, not to a given president. I would obey the lawful orders of those above me, and a duly elected Congress authorized the Iraq war. So, off I went. Once you’re already in the situation where you’re about to go over there, for me, as an Arabic linguist, I knew that I had an unusual opportunity to make a difference for not only my fellow troops but for the Iraqi people.
It didn’t occur to me seriously to not go. I had been training with these troops for a long time, and I felt loyalty to the people I served with and to the country I served, even if I disagreed with decisions by individual politicians that sent us where we’re going. That’s part of what differentiates America from other countries - that we have civilian leadership that tells the military what to do and the military doesn’t get to decide for itself whether or not it’s going to follow those orders. It’s under civilian control and that’s the way it should be.
AL: Brian, how did you feel when you went from Afghanistan to Iraq?
BM: I kinda thought it was a waste of time. We were in Afghanistan fighting a war against people who were actually proud that they were associated with people trying to kill us. And we were going into a country that really had nothing to do with any of that. It seemed like a giant waste of time and resources. But again, my job wasn’t to question those types of things. My job was to go there and do the best I can to make sure that the people to the right and left of me came home.
AL: Kayla, in your first book, you wrote that it’s somewhat necessary to treat all the Iraqi civilians as the enemy in order to survive. However, you were one of the Americans over there that could communicate with them. Whether in the form of giving and receiving gifts like scarves, or being called Britney Spears, you had memorable interactions with the Iraqis. Was there a struggle to avoid seeing all of the complexity or to in some sense, dehumanize them without a convenient language barrier?
KW: That was one of the things that was hard for me because I could talk to them. I always saw them as people, especially once what came to be known as the insurgency started to pick up, once Brian was injured, and other people in my unit were getting hurt. It was really hard to not get angry. It’s really hard when you’re there and you genuinely believe you want to help people, and they’re trying to kill you. It’s really hard to not hate them, or lose your patience, or temper.
In a book that I read by a journalist, named Aidan Hartley, called, “The Zanzibar Chest,” he quoted a U.N. official who said, that U.N. troops were in a horrible situation in Africa. I want to say Rwanda but I could be mixing it up. That the U.N. troops were expected to have a gun in one hand and a spoon in the other. I thought that summed it up really well. That’s how we were supposed to be in a lot of ways. We’re here to bring freedom and democracy and help people but, if they’re bad guys, shoot them and kill them, and be ready to do that right away. It’s a degree of cognitive dissonance that it’s really difficult for soldiers to maintain in their minds at every instant - that we’re here to help you and liberate you and put soccer fields together for your kids to play in and we’ll shoot you if you threaten us.
It’s really a difficult environment to be in. Not like any war is ever easy. I would never want to give that impression ever, and if you look at body counts, World War II was definitely far, far worse. But in some ways, it would have felt cleaner to have an enemy that was wearing uniforms like ours, that was a clearly identifiable enemy instead of one that was blending into the population.
AL: Brian, how do you think the Iraqis viewed you when you were over there?
BM: When we first got there, the majority of the people seemed to be happy that we were there. I think the longer we stayed, we outdid our welcome. It turns into this circular reasoning - where you go out and start seeing people as the enemy, and then they turn into the enemy, and then you’re always against the enemy. I don’t think we did a good job of winning the hearts and minds. It just started getting worse as we wore out our welcome.
AL: Some of the Iraqis you met, called the Yazidis, brought you food, Kayla, which was somewhat of an issue in Iraq because you’re a vegetarian. How did you maintain your diet on MRE’s?
KW: At first it was tough because my platoon leader wouldn’t request the kosher meals. In regular MRE’s, there are only two in a case of twelve that are vegetarian. So one out of six, but I’m one person on a four man team, so the math didn’t work out very well. But the kosher MRE’s, like six out of twelve are vegetarian, so it’s a lot easier. But my platoon leader wouldn’t ask for them for me because it wasn’t for religious reasons. So that was annoying.
Then once we were out on the mountains, the Yazidis, these local peasants, goat herders and shepherds, they would bring us eggs. I got to try turkey eggs, which was really cool, and vegetables, which was nice. I don’t think MRE’s are designed to sustain people for a year and there are a lot of things that are not in them. They have fruit, because fruit's packed full of calories but they don’t have a ton of vegetables. It was really nice to get fresh vegetables and just to have some flavor and variety in the food we were getting.
Overall, I lost a lot of weight during the initial invasion, but I think everyone did. All of the other troops I knew lost a ton of weight. Then later, when the war started dragging on and on and on, we started get chow four times a day. There were troops who lived on the fob that started to gain weight and excess weight became a problem. It was just so weird to live outside the wire and then come in and see people having surf and turf night. It was really strange.
AL: Were there other vegetarians in the army that you knew of?
KW: I’ve met other vegetarians in the army. It’s not common but you meet them.
AL: I saw an article over the weekend on a vegetarian in the military and it confused a lot of people because I guess they didn’t think you could be both. Can you explain how you can both in the military and a vegetarian?
KW: I don’t understand the question. I don’t see how they’re in conflict. It doesn’t make sense to me how those two things would be in conflict. People choose to not eat meat for a lot of reasons, including environmental reasons or caring about animals or health reasons, and I don’t see how that’s in conflict with choosing to serve your country in uniform.
AL: I agree with you. But there was a lot of controversy and there were a lot of angry people.
KW: There are a lot of angry people on the internet.
AL: (laughing) Brian, what was your experience with the food in Iraq? Did you have a favorite MRE over other ones?
BM: I was pretty sick of MRE’s by that time. They all start to taste the same after a while. I don’t remember if I had a favorite one or not. I just ate one and was ok with it. I’ve been in Afghanistan, not too long before that Kosovo, not too long before that Bosnia, so I was really sick of MRE’s.
KW: There were interpreters that were making rice and chickpeas all the time and he would eat that all the time.
AL: So I guess you wouldn’t have one now to be nostalgic?
BM: No, they’re all different now. But I always liked the ham slices.
KW: I would combine things from different MRE’s. So I would put the mashed potatoes from one of them on top of the minestrone stew from a different one to make a vegetarian version of shepherd’s pie. I’d mix the white rice from one with the pinto beans from another one to make beans and rice.
AL: In your first book, there were a few moments when soldiers tried very straightforward pick-up lines that I can’t imagine were ever successful. Even once on the Iraqi border before invasion. Without context, they could be better categorized as sexual harassment, although not necessarily. You mention that there is a foggy area between inclusion in the military humor and language, to be within that camaraderie, and from what taken out of context, would be considered not funny at all. I think you and Brian might have had such conversations. Can you talk about that?
KW: I tried to explain this to civilians a lot and not always felt that I succeeded terribly well. Maybe I come across as sounding really sexist occasionally, too, because I’ll say that when I was out on the side of a mountain, as the only women there for months at a time, sometimes I felt like I was watching men in their natural habitat, like they would forget that I was a woman and just act like I wasn’t there. I was genuinely surprised because I had never seen men that way, and I had no idea that men talked about masturbation and defecation so much. Women do not spend that much time talking about masturbation or defecation, but, yeah, men talk a lot about pooping and masturbating. It’s really bizarre. I definitely encountered a great deal of sexual harassment while I was in the military. I thought of it as almost chronic. It’s such a normal background to daily existence that at a certain point, you stop seeing it as weird or abnormal because it’s just so rampant and so much a part of every day. If they happened to me now, in my civilian job, I would be shocked and appalled and contact HR.
But in the military it was so normal, so much a part of my day-to-day existence that it didn’t even seem abnormal anymore. But at the same time, seeing the way the guys treated one another, it didn’t necessarily feel like it was sexual harassment. So guys are teabagging one another, guys would ‘good game’ each another, smacking each other on the butt. They would pretend to hump one another. So when guys are treating each other in that weirdly sexualized way, if they do anything similar to women, is that sexual harassment or is that inclusion? It’s hard to clearly differentiate much of the behavior that was normal in those settings - behavior that the military today is trying to reframe as being outside of army values, and just generally unprofessional and unacceptable. I don’ know how much luck they’re going to have in changing that culture, but in order to have a genuinely professional force, a lot of that behavior will have to go. When Brian and I first met, it wasn’t very romantic out there on the side of a mountain in uniform in incredibly austere conditions. So any sort of vague flirting that we did was not tender or romantic at all. It was crass. So Brian would say, “Fix me some eggs, bitch,” but I didn’t get offended and go cry in my sleeping bag. I just shot back with, “fix me some coffee, asshole.” It was verbal sparring. It was the only thing that would have worked in that setting.
AL: I read in your Slate article, that you were never sexually assaulted while in the army. Having read your first book, there was a moment where I thought you were sexually assaulted. Am I mistaken?
KW: That’s one of the things that makes me empathize with researchers who research sexual assault because how you frame a question has a lot to do with the answer you’ll get. So if you ask me, was I ever sexually assaulted while in the Army? I would say no, because I do not think of myself as being a survivor of sexual assault in the army. I was sexually assaulted when I was in high school, and there’s no doubt in my mind, no other way to perceive it. It happened.
But in the Army, there was an experience that I had that if you asked me differently, if you changed the phrasing, to “did you ever experience unwanted sexual contact?” I would say yes. A man pulled out his penis, he tried to put my hand on his penis, that was unwanted sexual contact, but in my mind, I don’t think that as being sexual assault. That’s one of the things that makes this type of research so difficult is that how people conceive of experiences that happened to them can vary based on subtle differences in terminology. I know women who were raped in the Army. I was raped while I was in high school. So when I hear "sexual assault," penetrative sexual assault is what springs to my mind the most, and what I experienced on that side of the mountain with that guy, I had my weapon, I didn’t feel like I was in danger, and in my mind, I don’t characterize that as sexual assault. I don’t want to speak in the public space and present myself as a sexual assault survivor when so many others have experienced things that were so much worse and I don’t think of it, I don’t frame myself that way in that setting.
AL: Your first book is now nine years old. Do you look at it differently now than when it was first published?
KW: Yes, I do. It came out so soon after I was in the military. Most of the writing was done while I was still active duty. I didn’t have any emotional perspective. I didn’t have any space. I didn’t have any distance between what had happened and where I was. If I had waited five, ten years, it would have been a completely different book. I would have had more empathy for the other people I served with. I would have progressed a lot further down my own path of reintegration and healing. It would have been a totally different book.
It wasn’t until I started reading other people’s books that I could put my experiences in context. So I read Anthony Shadid’s book about covering the Iraq War as a journalist. He wrote about how, while they were in a hotel in Baghdad waiting for ‘shock and awe’ to begin, he and this other journalist would have arguments. This other guy would yell at him for smoking, not for the smoke but for the way he breathes while he smokes. Now Anthony Shadid was old enough and experienced enough that he understood that that wasn’t about the fucking breathing or the cigarettes. It was about that they were afraid they were about to die.
When I came home, I didn’t have that perspective to be able to look at my squad leader, who was incompetent, and see that she was also terrified - that she was afraid she was going to die, that she was afraid the people under her were going to die, and that she was responsible for that. That had to add tremendously to her stress and the pressure she was under, and that contributed to the decisions she was making and the way she was presenting herself. But I didn’t have that perspective or that emotional distance. I was just pissed at her because she could have gotten us killed.
So if I waited, it would have been a really different way to tell the story. The story wouldn’t change. It is what it is, but my perception of what happened, my ability to communicate what happened, would have been really different if I waited. I’m glad it came out when it did. I think it’s a good documentation of how things were and how I felt in that moment, but, I purposely chose to wait longer for this book and to have more perspective and have emotional distance on how bad things were for Brian in those early days after the injury before writing this book. If I’d written it five years ago, I would have still been just too angry, too wrapped up in the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’ and ‘how.’
AL: How did you get the title of your second book?
KW: When we were on the side of a mountain in Iraq, and I knew I was attracted to Brian but it was Iraq and we couldn’t go clubbing or go out to a fine dining restaurant. At one point, I confessed to him that I wanted to get to know him better, and he said “Don’t worry. There’s plenty of time for that when we get home.”
AL: Did you believe him when he said that?
KW: Yeah. But then he got blown up and I thought, I’m never going to get that opportunity. Turns out, I did after all.
AL: Can you recall what happened on October 17, 2003?
BM: I kinda remember it but it’s like watching it through a movie for me. The best description is in the book.
KW: So Brian was on a bus coming back from mid-tour leave. The bus was hit in one of the first really coordinated attacks in our AO, right outside of Mosul. The convoy that he was on was hit by small arms fire, RPG fire, and an improvised explosive device, IED or roadside bomb. He was riding on a bus and shrapnel from the IED went through his skull, underneath his Kevlar on the right side and travelled forward and exited near his right eye. He was medically evacuated down to Baghdad where he had emergency neurosurgery. After he had been stabilized, was sent Landstuhl, and from there, evacuated back to Walter Reed after he had been further stabilized.
AL: I saw the photos from the surgery on your facebook page. Why weren’t the photos included in the book?
KW: You would have to ask the publisher. They thought they were too gruesome.
AL: It reminds me of a President Eisenhower quote. That, he “hates war as only a soldier who lived it can, only as one that has seen its brutality....” And that photo is brutal. What is it like to know that that photo is you, or it’s your husband?
BM: I’m a guy, so I think it’s pretty cool. I can kinda show it off. It’s also surreal to see that. It’s pretty brutal. I wish it was in the book, I think it should have been. Unfortunately, the publisher did not think it should be. Some things are worth fighting for and others are not.
KW: I tracked down the neurosurgeon who operated on Brian to interview him for the book because Brian obviously does not remember being operated on. He was unconscious for that. Brian thought that Dr. Armonda wouldn’t remember him. Dr. Armonda remembered him immediately and had these photos which I couldn’t believe. He had photos from all those years before and was able to show them to us and tell us details about the injury and the operation that we never would have known otherwise. To see the pictures was really astonishing. I don’t know how to say this without sounding like an idiot: I knew my husband had sustained a brain injury, but until I saw the photos, I did not truly understand the severity of the injury. I did not get how serious his wounds were until I saw the photographs of them.
BM: And I didn’t understand how serious they were either because when I was in the hospital, I talked to the neurosurgeon who did surgery on me zero times. But he did surgery on me in Iraq, then I was in Germany, then I was in Walter Reed. Never saw the guy again. The stuff I was told was that just a little piece of metal went into the back of your head. To find out that it was much more than that was surreal as well.
KW: I think that Brian didn’t know that a piece of shrapnel had severed an artery inside his skull and that he was bleeding to death inside his skull and would have died if he hadn’t gotten into surgery right then. I don’t think he knew that until we sat down with the neurosurgeon and interviewed him. Talking to Brian’s mom later, Brian’s mom knew some of the details but Brian didn’t know. He maybe was told some of the information while he was still in in-patient, but he had just sustained a really severe brain injury and if he knew it, he didn’t remember it. It was really kind of amazing. Now, when I’m trying to be funny, I joke that I have photographic evidence that my husband has a brain.
AL: After he recovered enough to leave the hospital, how did you begin to discover that something was different with Brian’s behavior?
KW: At Walter Reed, for a while he was an in-patient, and then he was kinda an out-patient, living at a house that was like a hotel. Then, eventually he was released and sent back to Fort Campbell. That happened after he was told, “Well, you can walk and talk and wipe your own ass, so you might as well go back to your unit.” For reasons we are totally unclear on, he was sent back to his artillery battery, not to a medical company. He probably should have been sent to what was then known as a med-hold company. If it had been a few years later, it would have been a warrior transition unit. But those didn’t exist yet.
Then the rest of us got back from the Middle East, and we all got put on block leave. So I had a month of vacation and we just hung out all the time. I either didn’t notice or willfully refused to acknowledge that there might be anything wrong. I was like making excuses for it or maybe didn’t think anything was really messed up. I couldn’t remember my PIN number from my ATM card after being deployed for a year, so Brian couldn’t remember a lot of stuff either. Is that weird? We’ve been away from home for a long time.
So I didn’t register that there might be cognitive deficits. Then I had to go back to work and Brian didn’t go back to work because his unit said don’t show up. You can’t wear head gear yet, and you know how the army is. They really like people to wear their hats. His incision was still too fresh so he couldn’t wear his hat at all. He couldn’t carry a weapon because of the PTSD. They must have known he had some cognitive deficits. They said you can’t do your job anymore. And they said: you look so screwed up that you’re bringing the new guys down that had just showed up out of AIT. You’re freaking them out and everybody knows we’re going to war. So just don’t come in. They didn’t even make him come in for accountability formations, which is not the army I knew.
So I’m getting up bright and early to do PT and he’s just staying home. That’s when I started to really see that there were serious, serious problems. He wasn’t staying up all night just to party with everyone else. He had nightmares that prevented him from sleeping and he was trying to drown those out with excessive alcohol. His cognitive deficits were such that he wasn’t able to balance his checkbook or pay his bills. Things were just falling apart and getting progressively worse.
Also, Walter Reed would periodically bring him back for follow-up testing. His scores on the neuro-psych testing started to decline. There’s some evidence, which I did not know about at the time, but TBI patients - when they’re in a really structured environment - perform differently than if they’re in an unstructured environment. So when he was in a hospital, in a structured environment, he was doing well on these neuro-psych tests but then after he got released and was in a totally unstructured environment and had all these different inputs and all these other things fighting in his brain for attention - stuff like that - when they brought him back for more testing, his scores had actually gone down. It became increasingly clear that things were profoundly wrong.
AL: Your first encounters with the people you were seeking assistance with your recovery with, I’d call them insulting. Disappointing is another word.
KW: Which one of us?
AL: Both of you, actually. Brian, was told that “it was in all in your head.” Kayla, when you went to speak with someone, they laughed at you. Can you talk about how you eventually found the right people to help you?
BM: Trial and error? I don’t necessarily know that we have always found the right people. It was frustrating for me because I was told things like, “it’s all in your head,” or, “we have lots of resources but it’s only for the people who really got hurt.” Kinda frustrating to hear. I’d hear certain things like one case manager said, “Oh, you have a brain injury? You should go see X person, or you know they have these programs?” And I would go to the programs and they would go, “No, no, no. We only have so many resources. These are for the people who are really, really hurt. You should save it for them.”
Looking back, I think that stunted me for a while because I wouldn’t get help unless I really, really, really needed it because other people may have needed it more. I think we’re still finding our way. I worked at the VA for a while and haven’t gone back in a while - not because it’s not good care because it is good care. But it’s far away and it takes a whole day, and I’m trying to work and go to school and I don’t have an extra eight hours where I can just go to the hospital. We found a good team; it’s just that they’re far away.
AL: I would imagine there are a lot of people who wouldn’t keep trying like you both did. What advice would you have for them?
BM: Keep trying.
KW: What I tell people now is: "Look, if you bought cinnamon toothepaste and you didn’t like it, would you quit brushing your teeth forever? Or would you try peppermint? Try something else." I talk to a lot of people that say, “Oh I went to see a psychiatrist once and I didn’t like the medication they put me on so I never went back for any mental health care ever again.” I’m like, “Dude, come on. That’s not the right answer.” Try a new toothpaste if you don’t like the flavor. Try new behavioral health intervention if it didn’t work for you the first time.” If you don’t like being on medication, go to a psychologist instead of a psychiatrist. If you don’t like the big VA medical center, try a vet center. If you don’t like formal behavioral healthcare, try equine therapy. There are places where vets with PTSD can go ride horses or go fly fishing or go kayaking or get a service dog. There are so many different things out there, people trying to help in new ways. Just try until you find something that clicks with you because it is different for all kinds of different people.
Also, I would really appreciate it if you included the Veterans Crisis Line, which is 1-800-273-8255. If you go on the website, there are tons of different resources and people should keep trying until they find one that does work for them because no one should have to deal with this stuff alone.
BM: To add to that, the resources now are much, much more expansive than they were back then and they have a lot more money. So if people are getting excuses of, “this is only for the people who are really hurt,” there are tons of resources out there. Find another resource. Get on twitter. Get on facebook. NRD.gov Let people know that you tried to get help and it didn’t work out, and to get some suggestions.
AL: I was discussing the second book with a friend, and they said, “So is it like an ‘It Gets Better’ for PTSD?” And I told them not so much, and that there were a lot of dark moments. What do you think about that comparison?
KW: I would love to see an ‘It Gets Better’ campaign for PTSD. Both the VA and the Army have tried. The Army has a ‘Real Warriors’ campaign and the VA has ‘Make the Connection.’ Neither of them have gone viral, let’s put it that way. I would love to see a viral ‘It Gets Better’ campaign from people who have actually been through it - that takes off the way the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign did because that was so grassroots. It was just people doing it and it spread. I would love to see something like that where people share their success stories.
I do believe this book is inspirational and it does tell the story of us getting better. But I don’t hide the worst parts of it. I’m very blunt and explicit about the negative experiences that we had on our road to recovery. The first half of the book lays out how things got bad, and the second half of the book lays out how things got better. I would love to see a viral youtube campaign where people highlight, “Hey, it used to suck and then it got better,” and lay out what works for them and stuff like that - to give people going through it right now hope.
AL: Did you consider leaving out some of the low moments of the struggles? I’m talking about the incident with the gun. Did you consider leaving that out?
BM: We talked about it and both decided, in order to be as effective as possible, it had to be real and honest, and it wouldn’t be as much of an attention grabbing moment if it was not the truth. It wouldn’t look as authentic. I want to go back and talk about the ‘It Gets Better’ for PTSD. I differ from Kayla on this. I don’t necessarily like the idea because I don’t necessarily think it always gets better. It gets different. I don’t want to say ‘It Gets Better’ and then someone out there doesn’t get better. Mental health issues are huge and can be complex. So if someone hears, “Hey look. It gets better for Brian. It can get better for me.” And it doesn’t get better for that person, that can push that person deeper down the hole and stuff like that. So I think "it gets different" and "it can get better" are two good messages, but sometimes it doesn’t always get better. Sometimes it stays bad for a while and can get better, but it gets different.
AL: Brian, in the years since you returned home, your TBI affected your reading comprehension. I was wondering...have you read Kayla’s books?
BM: Yes. It took me a while to read the first one. I read the first one in parts and pieces. I read the second one while she was doing it. She would send me chapters to read and help out with and let me know what was going on. I probably had some editorial abilities that I didn’t necessarily collect because if you don’t want someone to write about your life, don’t marry an author. I read a lot now. I still have problems and issues. Sometimes I have to read things a couple times. I have ADD kinda crazy, and if it’s really not interesting to me, it’s very hard for me to read. But I still have to make it through it because I’m in school right now. Accounting is not the most interesting thing in the world, but I have an accounting class so I still have to read my chapters.
AL: Are you an accounting major?
BM: No. I don’t know what I’m going to major in. Probably history.
AL: So what is your experience as a veteran college student?
BM: This is my second time going back. I went back 2007, pretty recent after getting hurt. I think I wasn’t ready. I got to campus and there was an older woman in an office who essentially signed your paperwork so you can get your check. Completely different now. I go to Northern Virginia Community College, right now to figure out what I’m gonna do. There’s a large veterans group there. There’s a veterans lounge. It’s much more open and inviting and I’m finding there are more veterans in my classes. I think I only have one class that there isn’t another veteran.
AL: Kayla, how was your experience as a veteran when you were in grad school?
KW: I think grad school is a little easier in some ways than undergrad because more of your fellow students are older. So there were no eighteen year olds in my classes, right? So that was nice. The first year, I don’t think I was in class with any other veterans and the second year, there were a couple of other vets in class with me. The specific program I was in, American University in the School of International Service, was split between people who came straight from undergrad and most of them I felt no connection with, and they just seemed really sheltered and privileged and living in this theory world that was disconnected from reality in a lot of ways. The other half of the students had gotten their undergrad degrees and worked in the real world in some way, shape or form and were coming back to school. Some of them had been in the Peace Corps, some of them had worked in international development. Some worked in government, or on the hill, or in business and a lot of them lived in third-world countries or travelled extensively. They had a lot of that real world experience and they were totally fine.
It was really nice in grad school to learn a theoretical framework that helped me understand what I had seen from a boots on the ground reality - both in terms of international relations and, in one of my classes about Iraq, my professor was an anthropologist, and there were terms in anthropology for the Yazidi living pattern of spending summers in the mountains herding animals and winters in villages. There’s a name for living that way. So learning an intellectual framework for things was a nice way to help me move forward. I liked going to grad school. It was tough to learn to write again in an academic way because the army writing style is so particular with its ban on semicolons and the passive voice. So having to learn to read and write at a graduate level was definitely challenging.
AL: You both identify yourselves as progressives. Brian, I was hoping you could talk about your confrontation with Rush Limbaugh.
BM: I did an ad in 2007 against what he said, “Any soldier that says something against the war is a phony soldier.” I took umbrage to that and did an ad. He reacted in a typical way, and I called him on it again, and nothing happened. I got a couple emails, threats, and heard from people on the internet. I bump into people and sometimes they remember or have heard it, and they’re like, “Oh, you’re the guy that did the ad against Rush Limbaugh.” Nobody ever comes up to me and screams, “Oh you did an ad against Rush Limbaugh? I’m gonna kick your butt!” Like they would on the internet. People like to talk trash when there’s not someone 6’6 staring at them.
AL: How did you feel when the Iraq War ended? What was your reaction?
BM: Bittersweet. I think it probably should have ended long before that. I know for some people, it’s still not over. I was talking to a friend of mine the other night, and we were talking about it. It seems like there’s this big push to make emotions the new tactical advantage. So if they’re looking at the war, and they want to call all these Iraq War veterans and say, “People just died in the town you were fighting for. That makes you feel bad. We should go back in there and fight some more, right?”
There’s no field manual in the army that says you win a battle by making sure that the veterans that fought it are happy that they fought it. There’s tactical advantages and technical objectives, and if you achieve those, you achieve them. I think we achieved as much of a tactical objective as we could achieve a long time ago, and we should have been out before that. We’re still in Afghanistan and to this day, most the American public doesn’t necessarily care anymore until it’s in their face and then they put a little sticker on the back of their car and say, “We Support the Troops.” Five, six years ago, people were telling me, “Thanks for your service,” but now I find people say it less and less. The people that say it to me are generally people that have served themselves. Sometimes I just say it back to them.
AL: Kayla, what was your reaction to Iraq War ending?
KW: Anti-climactic because we won the war super fast, right? ‘Shock and awe’ and then the counterinsurgency started, and dragged on and on and on. By the time, it finally actually ended, however many years after the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on the stupid carrier incident, I don’t know. And obviously, it hasn’t ended for the Iraqi people. The U.S. involvement in Iraq may have ended but the Iraqi people are still living with the aftermath. Every now and then, something will remind me how long it’s been since I’ve been home. I’ve been home for a decade now and it seems astonishing. How has that happened?
AL: How is your reintegration back home as of today?
KW: Generally pretty good. Every now and then something will still happen that will make me feel like I have nothing in common with civilians who have only lived in privileged settings. We live in the second richest county in the country. Sometimes I meet people who have never even been camping, not a single day in their lives without running water and flushing toilets and cable tv. Every now and then someone will say something and I’m like, “Oh. I have nothing in common with you. I can not connect with you emotionally.” But overall, I think things are going really well. We have generally fairly normal lives for modern upper middle-class Americans. We worry about our kids and how to afford daycare and potty training. Regular people stuff, by and large.
Every now and then little things will either make me feel disconnected from my fellow citizens, like I just mentioned, or put me back in Iraq. Certain smells especially make me feel like I’m back in Iraq, and that can be very jarring. But by and large, most of the time, I think my reintegration is largely complete though I try very hard to hold on to the positive with my sense of perspective and my deeper understanding of what’s really important. I try really hard to not get pissed when Brian leaves the toilet seat up because I know it’s awesome that we have a toilet. So I tried to keep in mind what’s really important. What really matters is that my kids are not going to die from a fucking IED; that really matters. Little stuff, like someone cleaning up the toothpaste, that doesn’t matter. Little stuff is not that important. I try to take that with me to work and everywhere else. And people get so hung up on deadlines and something being a crisis, and I’m like, “Is someone going to die? No? Probably not that big of a deal.” Focus on what really matters and find some perspective and do what we need to do without panicking.
AL: Have you thought about how you’re going to approach your children eventually reading your books?
KW: Yes, especially because my step-daughter is fifteen and I decided that was old enough and let her read my first book. I let her read the second one before it came out, in case she had any questions for me or her dad about the earlier stages of his recovery especially. I definitely think about it. The little kids, who are two and four, they’re just way too young to understand it. I’m trying to talk to my son about how his dad got hurt. I tried to think how to explain this to a four year old. “Your dad got hurt fighting the bad guys in the war.” And he’s like, “With a sword?” “Noo, with a gun.” “A gun?!?!” I think our four-year-old might still have thought his dad used to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or something. We’re working on slowly helping them develop a better understanding of what happened.
AL: In the book, there was a night where you both started watching the French film, Amelie, before Brian turned it off because it was too difficult to understand following the injury. I was wondering, did you ever end up finishing the movie?
BM: I have not.
KW: Thank you for that fun tip for our weekend. If we can ever get caught up on "True Detective," I know what’s going on our Netflix queue.
AL: You haven’t watched the finale of True Detective?
KW: No, no. We’re in the first episode. Don’t say anything. I’m six episodes behind on "The Walking Dead," too.
AL: How are your Fourth of July’s now? Are they still difficult to experience with the fireworks?
KW: We do OK on the Fourth of July itself because you know it’s coming. Brian, will buy some small fireworks and set them off himself because if you’re the one who is controlling it, it’s totally different. The unexpected ones leading up to it or after it or for random other holidays. We have a lot of neighbors from India and Pakistan and they will sometimes set off fireworks on their traditional holidays that we don’t see coming. I don’t know when Diwali is, or whatever it may be. So somebody will set off fireworks in a completely random time of year, and that always totally freaks me out.
AL: Kayla, do you have any stories about speaking Arabic in public in America? Have you ever gotten any bad reactions?
KW: No. I usually get very good reactions, usually from Arabs who are thrilled to have somebody try. Every now and then, based on somebody’s name, I’ll take a stab at speaking Arabic to them on the hopes that they speak back to me, and if I guess wrong and their native language is Urdu or something instead, and they look at me like I’m an idiot and Brian gets embarrassed. But other than that, no.
AL: Is there any final message you’d like to say?
KW: I would urge anybody who is struggling, to seek help because there are effective evidence-based treatments for PTSD and lots of other mental health conditions. People should reach out and find the help that they need and the same goes for caregivers. It was really hard for me to cope with some of the worst stages of Brian’s recovery and to adjust as he started getting better. It was really important that I sought care and support for myself. I think caregivers sometimes have this sense that they need to be martyrs, to be perfect, and can’t admit weakness or that they need help or can’t do it by themselves. That’s really dangerous too. You have to do self-care if you want to care for someone else. So not just people struggling but also those caring for them, should reach out and get the support and services that they need to get better.
AL: I want to thank both of you for taking the time to answer these questions but also for putting the book out. As a civilian, both books put compelling faces and stories to the military uniforms you wore. I want to tell you that I experienced the second book almost like a screenplay where I was rooting for the Hollywood couple to somehow get through all the obstacles and make it to the end of the movie and --Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert!--you did. I was relieved to see that you made it to the last page and beyond with children, a three-legged dog and the luckiest broken ankle possible. I’m really glad you both made it home and from seeing the photo of the surgery, it seems like a medical miracle that I just had a conversation with that brain. I hope that your family has and will continue to have plenty of time at home. That’s the title of the book, “Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War.” Maybe one day coming to a theater near you. Thank you for your service and thank you for speaking with me.