10:29 AM EDT on Monday, October 3, 2011
By G. Wayne Miller
Journal Staff Writer
By March 2008, John DiRaimo had been home from Iraq for nearly two years.
Still an active member of the Rhode Island Army National Guard, he was living in a Cranston apartment and periodically visiting the Providence VA Medical Center for treatment of what he now understood was PTSD. He was not fully complying with the terms of his care, and his life had become unbearable.
His nightmares continued and sometimes, in his bedroom in the middle of the night, he saw the apparition of a young Iraqi girl who may have been tortured and killed by Saddam Hussein’s forces, her mutilated body buried in a distant part of what became the U.S. camp at Ar Ramadi, where DiRaimo was based.
Awake, he cycled through periods of anxiety, anger and depression. His engagement to Susan Storti had ended, the strain of his PTSD having proved destructive, but they remained close friends.
“I just couldn’t take it,” DiRaimo says. “The nightmares were too strong, too vivid. I was getting no sleep. I was just totally burnt out, and I just felt that life wasn’t worth it anymore.”
DiRaimo owned a pistol, and sometimes he slept with it, loaded, under his pillow. He had prescription drugs in his medicine cabinet, enough for a fatal overdose, he figured. And so on this day in March 2008 –– after three nights of no sleep, after binge drinking –– he sat on his couch, gun and pills within reach, and prepared to kill himself.
Storti found him. DiRaimo was not answering his phone, so she let herself in with her key.
Storti took away the gun and pills.
What were you going to do? she said.
I can’t live no more, DiRaimo said. It’s too much for me.
You have to live.
I can’t. All the horrors I’ve seen –– they won’t get out of my head.
DiRaimo hated this stranger he had become. He couldn’t resolve the guilt he felt over having lived while others died — others, including many half his age, their lives still ahead of them, that he could not save.
“My biggest thing is not what I did out there,” he says today. “It’s what I couldn’t do. That weighed so heavy on me. I just couldn’t handle it.”
Storti took DiRaimo to the VA Medical Center, where he was admitted to a psychiatric ward. He stayed a week. His medications were adjusted and he began to appreciate the therapeutic value of unburdening himself, of talking with professionals individually and with groups of other veterans who experienced similarly unspeakable things.
“I had so many issues to get out,” he says. “That started the whole thing.”
After discharge, DiRaimo joined a drop-in case-management class organized by Rochelle Fortin, a social worker and therapist at the VA Medical Center who coordinated the center’s PTSD clinic for two decades.
Growing numbers of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan were joining the veterans of the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam who, to that point, composed the predominant population receiving treatment. Fortin helped arrange for DiRaimo and other post-9/11 soldiers to be admitted to a six-week inpatient PTSD program at Northampton VA Medical Center in Massachusetts.
At Northampton, he discussed his distress with a Catholic chaplain.
When I was in Iraq, he told the priest, I know I killed some people: insurgents and terrorists and people that were trying to kill us. And I killed several of them. I want to go to Communion, but am I a murderer? Am I a killer?
No, the priest said. As long as you were doing it to protect yourself or to protect others, as you do in war, you’re not considered a murderer. You can get Communion.
A Wednesday in August 2011 in a conference room in Building 14: the PTSD Clinic, Providence VA Medical Center.
To help relax, DiRaimo rides his Harley-Davidson on the open highway. He needs to be wary of large trucks, which trigger traumatic memories The Providence Journal / John Freidah
DiRaimo and several other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have gathered around the table for the weekly drop-in session run by Fortin, who now has greater responsibilities as OEF/OIF/OND (Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn) Program Manager. But she continues to provide some individual therapy, and she hosts this two-hour meeting every week.
Typically at these meetings, discussion centers on mental health — its effects on the veterans themselves and the people in their lives. Fortin moderates and offers guidance on managing anger, stress and the withdrawal-like symptoms some veterans experience leaving the adrenaline rush of combat. She encourages the veterans to stay on the therapeutic road, regardless of setbacks.
On this August day, DiRaimo, 50 now, recounts recent events involving his girlfriend, Joyce LaForge, who he has been seeing since his engagement to Storti ended. DiRaimo is three years seriously into treatment, but his PTSD still sometimes overwhelms him. This is the nature of the disorder.
In this instance, DiRaimo has withdrawn completely for days, locking and barricading his apartment door and ignoring his phone. He zoned out with TV and his thoughts turned, as they have before, to the contrast of life in Iraq and life back home.
“How come I can’t handle it here?” DiRaimo says to the group. “This is easy stuff. The stuff we went through was horrendous and people around here couldn’t even deal with it. We dealt with it. But we come home and we can’t handle the easiest, easiest things. And I can’t even pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m having a bad time, yeah, I need you to come over.’ Or, ‘I’m having a bad time, I just need to be by myself.’ ”
When DiRaimo and his girlfriend did finally talk, he listened.
“I started thinking: a lot of stuff she said is true. I keep it to myself. I try to be the man, I try not to cry — and yet, I do cry. I’ll admit it. I do. I break down. I get to the point where I don’t want to call anybody and talk to anybody, and I don’t want to show my emotions but my emotions do come out.”
“In order to survive over there,” Fortin says, “part of it was being able to numb out your feelings and not deal with really what was going on emotionally — but getting through the mission. Then you come home, and you have all of that kind of baggage with you. Things start to unfold. You’re in therapy, you’re processing some of what’s happened, and it’s OK to cry. We’ve said that over and over: It is OK to cry. It’s part of the healing process.”
“It kills me,” DiRaimo says. “All the time I was over there, I didn’t cry once. I didn’t break down. I was the sergeant. I was in charge of seven, eight other guys. I couldn’t afford to break down and I did my job and I did it well, and all my guys came back alive. Why the hell can’t I figure out [stuff] here? That’s what bothers me the most. I’m on medication and it helps, but lately… ”
Veterans, reservists and active members of all branches are welcome at Fortin’s Wednesday sessions. Newcomers sometimes join regular participants that also include Massachusetts Guardsman Joe Petrone of East Greenwich; Santo Lobuono, a Navy reservist from Scituate; ex-R.I. Guardsman Richard Krepp of North Smithfield; ex-R.I. Guardsman John Fournier of Lincoln; R.I. Guardsman Sekou Toure of Pawtucket; and ex-Marine and ex-Guardsman Robert Kohler Jr., originally from Coventry.
Former Army soldier Richard Menard of Whitinsville, Mass., is also a regular member — and on this August day he, like DiRaimo, has an episode of depression to share. It was prompted by what psychologists call a trigger: a noise, sound, smell, sight, anniversary, death, news report, conversation or other stimulus that resurrects traumatic memory, precipitating painful reaction.
In the case of Menard, who ordinarily brings an optimistic wisdom to the group, several recent triggers have combined to bring him low. He has further withdrawn into the security of his tool shed, the one place he truly feels safe. Seeking similar isolation, other veterans find comfort in a windowless basement or bedroom with blinds closed.
“I just lost a good confidante,” Menard says. “He was a Marine Vietnam vet. So I have no one to really cope with anymore. He was the person I could go to in the afternoon, just before I picked up my son, to break up the day — get me out of the shed for a while, because I spend most of my time in my shed.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Fortin says.
This week marks the anniversary of the suicide of Menard’s best friend’s son.
“A lot of times he’ll be sad, he’ll go the graveyard and visit his son, and then he’ll come and see me. And unburden his problems on me. Then, they trickle onto me the next day.” The dead Vietnam vet also used to visit Menard in his shed. “And my wife sits in the same chair and she’ll tell me her burdens. So I got this counseling room going on. And I ain’t doing too much counseling for myself right now.”
“You definitely want to take care of you in all of this,” Fortin says.
With hard effort, John DiRaimo has found a measure of peace. Honorably retired from the military, he receives income from government disability programs. He rents a new apartment in Cranston, where an American flag blanket covers his bed. He finds pleasure on his motorcycle and in his pickup truck, which he lovingly tends, and he enjoys the company of his daughter, Kristen, a 2010 Providence College graduate who works for a doctor and plans to become a physician’s assistant. She is protective of her dad.
DiRaimo continues in a relationship with his girlfriend, and Storti remains his friend as well. In her consulting work on veterans’ issues, Storti sometimes tells his story. And her early experiences with DiRaimo and other veterans and their families moved her to initiate the inter-agency study that produced “The Rhode Island Blueprint: Addressing the Needs of Returning Soldiers and Their Families,” a statewide plan to help the men and women who have fought the post-9/11 wars. It has become a national model, she says, recognized by the Department of Defense.
But war forever changed DiRaimo: For him, as for many, it was the monumental division of a life into two, sometimes irreconcilable, parts. DiRaimo agreed to share his story in the hope that other veterans who need help will get it — and that it will advance public understanding of PTSD and other issues facing many women and men for decades to come.
Coming home, he says, “the biggest thing that really, really pissed me off — and today, it still pisses me off — is [hearing] ‘Get over it.’ You know what? If I could get over it, I’d love it. I’d love it. And I would be as normal as whatever normal is. But there is no pill –– believe me, I’ve asked every friggin’ doctor. There is no pill. There’s no book you can read. There’s no movie you can watch.”
Asked his fondest wish, DiRaimo says:
“Let me not have so many triggers, let me not have so many visions, let me not have so many nightmares. But I don’t wish I’d never been there, because we did do a lot of good. And we got a lot of bad guys. I’m glad I was there, I’m glad I served my country. And I was with my guys and I’m proud of that, I’m very proud of all of them.”
A smile crosses his face.
“Maybe I wish I could forget it for a day — one whole day, one whole night. No, I’m going to be greedy: one whole week of not remembering any of it. Just one week! Oh, and I want eight hours’ sleep. Eight hours’ sleep with no dreaming.”
This, too, DiRaimo remembers.
A summer day in 2005, a distant area of the vast Camp Ar Ramadi, Anbar Province, Iraq. The Guard’s 861st Engineer Company has recently arrived and, on this day, DiRaimo is observing heavy-equipment operations. Men with machines are fortifying perimeter defenses.
DiRaimo is having a smoke when his boot contacts something hard.
“I kicked something and it looks like a bone,” DiRaimo says. He thinks it’s the remnants of a meal, of a rib of beef. “I said, ‘What the hell is a rib bone doing down here?’ It was broken, snapped, but not all the way. What the hell? I kick again and I see another one.”
DiRaimo digs into the sand.
“I see these little things that look like teeth. I find this little jaw. Little teeth. All the bones were all broken, the teeth all knocked out.”
Other bodies would be discovered in this outer region of Camp Ar Ramadi. The rumor would spread that deposed dictator Saddam Hussein operated a torture center in the vicinity.
“I found out later that’s where Saddam tortured old people and little children to make the parents talk,” DiRaimo says. “This evil man did that.”
The little girl, who was estimated to be about 7 or 8 years old, was given a proper burial. The Americans never learned her identity.
Back in Rhode Island, in his bedroom in the middle of the night, DiRaimo sometimes wakes up sweating. The little Iraqi girl stands at the foot of his bed. She has long black hair and wears a pretty dress. She is silent. DiRaimo thinks he must be completely crazy.
This year, in the summer of 2011, he finally shares this burden. He tells Storti about the girl.
She’s in heaven, Storti says. You released her from the horror.
Months have since passed. The girl has not visited DiRaimo again.
Coming Sunday: Day Three, Skyping from Kabul. Families hold it together when mom or dad is deployed to a war zone.About this series
On Oct. 7, 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States and Great Britain attacked Afghanistan in what was labeled Operation Enduring Freedom. The War on Terror had begun. On March 20, 2003, when allied forces invaded Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom was also under way.
In the decade since then, 43 soldiers with Rhode Island and Southeastern New England ties have died. Thousands of veterans have returned forever changed.
In “The War on Terror: Coming Home,” a seven-installment series beginning Oct. 2 and concluding Nov. 6, The Providence Journal tells the stories of several who served.