Article 25

The Cost of Education

In Uncategorized on 01/24/2014 at 3:36 pm

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Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue plays with his daughter, named for the stars’ illumination of the sky. Photo by Paul Davis.

A poet makes a killing

By Gregory Flannery

Although the patient is in the locked psychiatric ward at the Veterans Administration Hospital, mental illness is not what prompted him to write, “The three universal forces are chaos, space and Arnold Rothstein.” He is a poet (see page 10).

Mental illness is not what prompted the patient to react with glee when he found two packages of instant coffee in the therapy room, hiding them in his shirt.

“They don’t let us have caffeine,” he says.

For purposes of this article, the patient chooses the pseudonym, Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue, which, he says, can be shortened to Ab-Norma-L-I.

Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue is the father of a 1-year-old girl whose name bespeaks the stars’ illumination of the sky. He is a veteran of the U.S. war on Afghanistan, the source of the mental illness that caused the incident that led his wife to call police, who took him to the Veterans Administration Hospital, whose staff locked him in the psychiatric ward for a week in December 2013.

Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The danger of combat did not cause his PTSD, even though a building 200 yards away blew up when he was at Bagram Air Base. The fact that Taliban fighters wanted to kill him did not cause his PTSD, even though he knew he could die at any moment.

What caused his PTSD, he says, was his comrades’ reaction to a video that showed how well they were doing their jobs.

‘Get the job done’

Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue, 29, joined the U.S. Air Force in 2007 and received an honorable discharge in 2012, five months before his term of enlistment ended. By that point, he says, he was homicidal and suicidal – and his superiors knew it. That’s why they took him off his job and assigned him to mopping floors.

He had enlisted in the hope of going to Harvard University.

“I was not joining the military to make a career,” he says. “I was not joining the military because I loved my country. I was joining the military because of a free college education. The second benefit was travel.”

The first trip was to basic training in San Antonio, Texas, a place that he did not like.

“There are too many mean people in Texas,” he says.

The second trip was to technical school on Okinawa, Japan, where he was always near the Pacific Ocean.

“The water was the perfect color all the time,” he says.

On Okinawa, Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue learned to assemble bombs. The hard work – mixing the chemical components and building the triggering mechanisms – had already been done by highly skilled contractors. For the airmen and airwomen on Okinawa, the job was a matter of following detailed instructions, with multiple layers of protection.

“I was in the second easiest job in the Air Force,” he says. “Everything about my job was as simple as Legos. The bombs that kill the most people are built by the lowest-level intelligence of workers.”

That’s not to say the work was hazard-free. The most dangerous materials he worked with were flares and chaff, to be discharged from aircraft as “bogeys,” drawing heat-seeking or radar-seeking missiles fired by the enemy in Afghanistan.

“Certain cell phones could set off these flares,” he says. “You would have a fireball the size of a jet engine. All the oxygen from a huge radius would be sucked into that. It would rip the oxygen out of your blood and from your lungs. You would die from full-body asphyxiation. And that’s where they have the second-dumbest workers.”

Chaff – described by Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue as finely shredded metal filaments – would stay in a person’s skin or lungs forever, like asbestos, if an airman or airwoman were exposed.

“It scared the bejeezus out of me because it was this creepy small thing,” he says. “I compared it to human-made bacteria.”

An accident involving 2,000-pound “penetrator” bombs ironically reassured him that the larger explosives posed no threat to him. An airman was driving a forklift holding four penetrator bombs 15 feet in the air when the bombs fell to the floor.

“He was going probably 20 miles an hour because we were trying to get the job done,” he says. “Someone got into his path, and he slammed on the brakes. All four of these penetrators fell 15 feet to the floor, breaking all the packaging. Nothing happened. That’s when I stopped being afraid of bombs.”

The Air Force sent Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue to his third destination, Afghanistan, in August 2009. Five days before deploying to the war, he married the woman he had loved since their high-school days in Cincinnati.

“My first impression of Afghanistan was that everything was the same color palate as basic training – the cheapest colors, beige or brown. It was very clean-looking but also very dingy.”

There was no time to take in the local culture or cuisine. This was not Okinawa.

“When you’re in Afghanistan, you immediately go to work,” he says. “You move into a room with seven other people – probably 15 feet by 15 feet. We’d work six 12-hour days a week. When you get there, the people you replace are dicks, because they’ve been there a long time, and they can’t wait to get out. We replaced a group from England. Our upper management didn’t like the way they were doing things. Meanwhile, we’re still doing the job with people doing it the old way.”

‘They needed to kill’       

Trouble began for Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue soon after he arrived. He argued with a superior over whether to watch TV or listen to music.

“Two weeks after being there, I got in trouble for yelling at a technical sergeant,” he says. “I told his boss, ‘If you don’t take that son of a bitch out of there, I’m going to take an axe and split open his head.’ That showed how aggressive I was already.”

He says that, having trained for two years on Okinawa, he wanted to do the best job he could – an attitude not necessarily welcome in a war zone.

“I started using my knowledge and initiative to improve the job,” he says. “After a month and a half,

I realized nobody at the top was concerned about how the job was done. They were concerned about impressing their bosses. It became obvious to me I was not going to be rewarded for doing the right thing. The only way I would be rewarded was if I did exactly what people told me to do, regardless of whether that was the best way to do that job. There were tons of resources that were lost in that place. I was seeing it so much in the little corner I occupied in the entire military sphere. I got a very distinctive impression that all war is just waste.”

Infractions led to niggling disciplinary problems and rising tension.

“My mind moved into a different realm,” he says. “I was already pushing myself into depression.”

And then came the moment that changed Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue. An effort by superiors to bolster morale was, for him, a moment of terror, haunting him to this day. He suspects it will haunt him the rest of his life.

“It was in October, maybe November,” he says. “I became aware that there were videos of the bombs we were building being dropped on their targets. They would find a group of people that they needed to kill. They would fly in planes, and the people would be afraid because they were being tracked by these planes. A lot of these videos would show people – individuals you could see running. Then there would be a big cloud. The blast would kill them. All their skin and bones would disappear into this mist.

“There was a video of a bomb we built that was a dud. It was dropped on a guy and hit him in the head and neck and tore that part of his body off. Then there was a bomb that was not a dud. That blew him up. Everybody I worked with loved that video. I did not.”

In point of fact, that video – or rather, his comrades’ reaction to it – terrified him.

“They all liked this death that they were a part of,” says Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue. “They liked it so much that they laughed. How much more Disney villain can you get than laughing at despair and violence? I became afraid of the people I worked with, the seven other people I lived with in that 15’x15’ room. It was unbelievably terrifying. They were sadists, as far as I was concerned. I never would have believed I could be afraid of a group of random Americans.”

Soon he was taken off his assignment and relegated to mopping floors.

Moral trauma

When Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue left Afghanistan for assignment in North Carolina, he continued to have disciplinary problems. In addition to the fear generated by his fellow soldiers’ reaction, the video caused something of a moral trauma.

“From that moment on, I started really despising what we were doing,” he says. “I despised it so much that I wanted to sabotage what we were doing. I’d never felt like war was all that bad. I had never felt that there was the personal harm.”

Before Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue entered the military, many of his friends and family tried to convince him not to go. He says he ignored all their arguments.

“I had already made up my mind,” he says.

Now he faults himself for not leaving, not refusing to continue to build bombs for the Air Force.

“I could have just stopped,” he says. “They would have sent me home and sent me to jail. But I could have just stopped. But I didn’t. There’s a lot of self-loathing that I carry to this day. Am I as bad as the rest of them? My answer always is no. But I know I’m saying that because I want to believe it.

“Seeing someone die because of something you built means you remember every purposeful action you took to make sure the device was working perfectly.”

While in North Carolina, Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue and his wife went to New York for their delayed honeymoon. Returning to duty, serving with the same people he had been with in Afghanistan, he knew he couldn’t continue doing his job.

“I was afraid of them,” he says. “I couldn’t deal with them. I couldn’t deal with being around any of them. I was homicidal for the first six months after I got back from Afghanistan.”

He began seeing a military psychiatrist and taking medication for depression, anxiety and insomnia. He failed two physical-fitness tests, experiencing panic attacks that rendered him unable to finish. Then he got an idea. If he failed a third, he’d be discharged.

“I began to deliberately gain weight,” he says.

He succeeded in failing the third and final test.

Even so, Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue received an honorable discharge.

“I was always a good worker,” he says. “They appreciated that. Inside the shop, I was the go-to guy.”

More than a year after his discharge, he continues to deal with the trauma he experienced watching the video in Afghanistan. And his fear is no longer limited to soldiers.

“I have never trusted Americans since,” he says. “I never felt like that before. I don’t know how ugly your face can get. Now I think about the monstrous feelings in the people I see in the grocery store. I have been changed. I now think most people are bad.”

In December 2013 Abraham Norman Lyndon Issue wrecked his car. He had no driving license and no insurance at the time. The car was destroyed. Unemployed since his discharge from the Air Force, the crash was more than a legal and financial difficulty.

“It took away my freedom and the only piece of property I had,” he says. “It was devastating.”

The next day he argued with his wife.

“I said I wished I had died in the car wreck,” he says. “I told her I was so angry that I would rather die or kill her. She called the police.”

The police officers who responded did not charge him with any crime. They handcuffed him and took him to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Clifton.

“I wasn’t going to hurt her or kill myself,” he says. “I was just angry. I was glad they took me to the hospital. I was happy to get out of there.”

He says his stay in the psychiatric ward was “peaceful, useful, dull, not informative about mental conditions, banal, pleasant.” A few days after he arrived, he had an angry tantrum that led his roommate to request a room change.

He now sees a psychiatrist once a week and says he enjoys “talk therapy.” He takes one medication for depression, one for sleep, two to deal with anxiety and one for high blood pressure.

“That video sickened me so much,” he says. “It still makes my chest hurt and makes my heart rate go up. I used to cry about this. But it’s just a part of me now.”

 

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