The War Within
Story by Brady Henderson // Photos by Paul Moore
"Sometimes I'll just start thinking about what life was like living there," says Lawson, a 26-year-old Western sophomore. "It's a feeling of despair and anguish. I'm still having these sorts of reactions after three years. Sometimes that causes me to cry."
Lawson suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a severe anxiety disorder characterized by prolonged negative reactions to a past traumatic experience. With an estimated 20 percent of the 1.7 million U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan with PTSD, Lawson is one of more than 300,000 veterans whose severe anxiety will jeopardize an already difficult return to civilian life.
A common symptom of PTSD is the avoidance of situations associated with the individual's traumatic experience. Other symptoms include nightmares, insomnia, inability to concentrate, irritability or outbursts of anger and feelings of hopelessness.
The resulting stress typically affects a person's behavior and ability to function, says Dr. James Orr, a psychologist from Western's Counseling Center who has treated PTSD for 25 years.
"Someone who has experienced a traumatic event but hasn't resolved it gets nervous when someone gets too close to them," Dr. Orr says. "They avoid going out in crowds. They're not performing the way they know they can." The unresolved trauma in Lawson's life has taken, making normal tasks difficult or impossible.
"A lot of people don't realize how many problems I have," Lawson says. "I have to deal with it every single day. It makes me mad because I know I wasn't like this before."
Lawson grew up in the Snohomish County town of Lake Stevens. A sociable kid with diverse interests, he participated in Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) – which helps students develop business skills – and made the varsity tennis team as a freshman at Lake Stevens High School.
"I didn't really have a specific group of friends," he says. "I was kind of friends with everyone."
His mother, Nora Lawson, says her son was talented and artistic and remembers watching him act in school plays. She also remembers his deep concern for the welfare of others, as he volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and Big Brothers >> Big Sisters.
He joined the Army National Guard in 2002, hoping the training he would receive as a medical lab technician would lead to a career in medicine. Recruiters told him the Army National Guard would never be called to war, but two years after enlisting, Lawson's unit was deployed to Iraq.
Stationed in Balad, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, where he worked at a hospital analyzing blood and urine samples. It was there that he witnessed the gruesome reality of war. When helicopters arrived at the hospital, he would help offload injured soldiers, some of whom would not survive.
"He's been through hell," Nora Lawson says. "God-willing he can stand a chance to get better."
Resting against a living room wall in Lawson's Happy Valley apartment is an encased acoustic guitar – unopened and unplayed. He wants to learn the instrument, but says he hasn't had the time. He hopes one day playing the guitar will be therapeutic, compared to the self-destructive way of coping he has relied on in the past.
After returning from Iraq in 2005, Lawson worked in Los Angeles where developed a severe drug addiction. What started as occasional use to combat his emerging PTSD symptoms soon became an everyday compulsion.
He moved back to his mother's house in 2006, but continued to be dependent on drugs and alcohol, an addiction he struggled with until last summer.
"I've been sober now for 138 days," Lawson says, glancing at a calendar hanging on a kitchen wall.
Though substance-free, he is confined by his own mistrust, anxiety and anger.
Aside from his girlfriend, Valery Tolle, Lawson says he has few close friends in Bellingham.
"I don't really feel like I can relate to a lot of people," he says. "I don't trust anybody. People reach out to me and want to talk to me and give me their phone numbers. I never call them. It never happens."
He speaks gently, flashing a smile that helped land him some minor acting and modeling gigs in Los Angeles. But his friendly demeanor can become volatile. Since returning from Iraq, he's been involved in numerous incidents of road rage and bar fights.
"[I was] trained to kill or be killed," Lawson says. "That's not a problem when you're a soldier, when you're in combat but when you come home that becomes a big problem. Whenever I see people coming close to my space – whether that's my truck, my house, my girlfriend, me, anything – I'm really defensive of that."
Even stepping outside is not easy for Lawson. His PTSD makes it difficult to manage his anger and he fears his quick temper will get him into trouble.
"The longer I'm outside around people the more possible it is that I'm going to jail because of hurting someone or getting into a conflict,"Lawson says. "I choose to stay here where I know that I'm not going to go to jail. There's times where I won't leave my house for several days."
School isn't easy, either. He studies law, public policy and veterans' affairs at Fairhaven College. He says he fell behind last quarter and at one point had several assignments weeks past due. The thought of doing homework or attending class becomes trivial when he thinks about the gravity of war.
"After being in an environment where you feel afraid for your life every day and are seeing people die regularly…I started to realize the significance of death," Lawson says. "I really just started to not care about a lot of things. No one's going to fucking die if I don't turn in my homework on time."
Lawson's fate and that of other veterans with PTSD will depend largely on whether the military culture prevents them from addressing their potentially deadly affliction.
Part of Lawson's difficulty in dealing with his PTSD is due to what he says is a flawed system of reintegration, one in which soldiers are urged to disregard any symptoms to ensure an earlier discharge. Upon returning from Iraq to Fort Lewis, he met with psychiatrists for an evaluation of potential mental illnesses.
"They said, ‘If you want to go home, tell me you've got no problems, otherwise you're going to be here for a long time,'" Lawson says. "I had been in Iraq for a year. I wanted to go home and see my family."
Ten months after Lawson's return, he was officially diagnosed with PTSD. He now sees a therapist at the Bellingham Veterans Center about twice a month, but he is uncertain of the therapy's effectiveness.
"I don't really talk a whole lot about what I went through. Talking about that stuff in detail is so draining and takes you to such a bad place," Lawson says. "I just go and talk to him about my daily frustrations. I don't feel that it's helping, but I go. I'm hoping that long-term it will help."
For other veterans, a military stigma discourages them from ever recognizing their PTSD, says Sgt. Erik Hardwick, an Iraq War veteran and coordinator of Western's Veterans Outreach Center.
"We're tough guys, we don't display emotion, if we're hurt we don't show it," Sgt. Hardwick says. "There are a lot of [veterans] who don't seek treatment that would help them because of that mentality. It's very hard for some people with that mentality to step forward and say, ‘I need help'."
Dr. Orr says the military environment creates a tendency in soldiers to not acknowledge their PTSD for fear of leaving other soldiers vulnerable. "If you get pulled out while you're over there to get treated then your unit is weaker," Dr. Orr says. "Your captain knows that you're putting them at risk and they all know you're putting them at risk and you don't want to do that so you don't say anything."
This inaction is dangerous because symptoms of PTSD become worse if they are not treated.
"Anxieties can generalize and increase," Dr. Orr says. "These things that people avoid, they get stronger because they haven't done it in so long and now the fear of doing it gets bigger. First you couldn't go to the mall, but now you can't even go downtown."
Vietnam War veterans are a sad example of what can happen if PTSD is untreated, Dr. Orr says.
"In that war, [PTSD] wasn't recognized as much and there wasn't a system to really deal with it like there is now," Dr. Orr says. "Many, many vets isolated themselves."
The Vietnam Veterans of America estimates that 200,000 of America's homeless are veterans, many of whom have untreated PTSD.
Lawson doesn't want to become a statistic. After he graduates from Western he hopes to attend law school at Harvard or California-Berkeley. In the meantime, he and Tolle run an art exhibit in Bellingham called "The War Experience Project," where local artists paint on the back of military uniforms to express their feelings about war. He hopes the project will encourage dialogue about war and understanding of the struggles veterans will encounter.
The Veterans Services Office estimates about 100 veterans are enrolled at Western.
"These people are going to be the future of this country," Sgt. Hardwick says. "The veterans who have experienced these emotional things are going to take it with them for the rest of their lives. It's going to be a hard road for them."
Lawson knows his road to recovery begins in therapy.
"I don't want to be 40 years old and dealing with shit like the Vietnam veterans were dealing with," he says. "I'm trying to deal with it now, but it's not easy."