For suffering veterans, help is the highest honor
Two veterans, two stories.
The recruiter caught Bryson Alexander at just the right time. He was a senior in high school and wanted to see something other than his hometown of Fort Myers. He had watched the Twin Towers fall months earlier. He wanted to be a Marine.
A year later, he was driving a Humvee toward Baghdad. Two years later, he was back in Iraq for a second tour. He was 21 years old, in charge of 12 Marines, a dismount squad that left their armored vehicles for the madness that was Fallujah.
“The second tour was a lot harder for me,’’ he says, sitting in a restaurant in Porter Square.
IEDs exploded everywhere. His platoon commander was shot and killed. His dreams were chaotic.
He got out and went back to Florida and found he couldn’t relax. He bought a truck, bought a condo, began working at his family’s financial business. But he couldn’t turn it off.
He walked down the street, looking at empty cars, thinking they were going to blow up. He started drinking, taking painkillers, because then there were no nightmares, just darkness.
He left the family business when the economy crashed in 2008. He stopped making payments on the truck and the condo. He tried waiting tables. A customer got upset that he gave her a Coke instead of a Diet Coke and he stood there, barely listening, thinking that two years earlier he was responsible for the lives of 12 Marines in Fallujah and now he was being chewed out by an old lady over a Diet Coke.
“I didn’t blow up on her,’’ he said. “I just didn’t care. About anything.’’
He went back and squatted in the condo that had been repossessed. But after two years on the streets, he went into the VA in St. Petersburg and the doctors told him he had hypervigilance, a classic symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
He tried to get sober but kept picking up. He went on the Internet and found Lesley University in Cambridge and the New England Center for Homeless Veterans in Boston. He arrived in Boston in August 2010 with 20 bucks in his pocket and a bag of clothes. He moved into the vets center shelter. He got sober through intensive therapy there, and they got him into a college-training program at Suffolk University.
“They changed my life,’’ he said. “I didn’t have to explain everything to them. They knew. I moved out of the veterans shelter on Feb. 9, six months after I arrived.’’
He got an apartment in the West End. He jumps on the Red Line to head over to Cambridge, where he’s in his second semester at Lesley, majoring in psychology. He is an amazing kid.
If Bryson Alexander had to hit bottom before he came back up, Bob Kinder hit the top before he realized anything was wrong. After 30 years in the military, the last six of them on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of an IED task force, he came back to civilian life thinking everything was all right. He was an Army Ranger, the toughest of the tough.
He landed at Harvard, at the Kennedy School, to get a degree before setting up a consulting business. He met a woman, Jamie Grossman, and they started dating.
They were at a restaurant in the South End, sitting at a sidewalk table.
“A car drove over a steel plate on the street and I just about went under the table,’’ Kinder said.
They were up in Maine for July 4th. Someone lit off a bottle rocket, in the middle of the day, and the whoosh triggered a memory and he jumped. He was high-functioning, excelling at Harvard. He wasn’t drugging, but neither was he sleeping. He had no appetite. Jamie started plugging words into a search engine.
“I told him he had PTSD symptoms,’’ Jamie said. “It started a dialogue.’’
That dialogue became a full-fledged conversation after Kinder met Roger Knight, a Green Beret, at Harvard. Knight is an outreach coordinator at the Home Base program run by the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital, which is aimed at getting help for veterans and their families affected by the invisible wounds of war, PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
Buried in a story Kinder wrote for the Harvard Gazette about leaving a military career for Harvard was a line about being startled by a street sound as he sat at an outdoor cafe. Knight went and found him.
Kinder catalogued the five IEDs he got caught up in, two car bombs and three roadside bombs. His jumpiness, anxiety, insomnia weren’t going to just go away.
“It took me a year to get help,’’ Kinder says. “I know I have mild PTSD. I think a lot of veterans are reluctant to seek help because there’s a stigma. A friend of mine, a successful businessman, cautioned me about going public with this. But I owe it to other vets, to give them a voice.’’
Kinder says his Home Base counselor tells him to go into the places he feels uncomfortable.
“The treatment is working,’’ he says.
The polished corridors of the veterans shelter on Court Street and the marbled corridors at Harvard are about 4 miles apart. But for veterans returning from war, the distance is much shorter.
Two veterans, two stories, one lesson: in this, the week leading up to Veterans Day, the best way to honor them all is to help those who need it.