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Distant battles still haunt these soldiers

Marine Sgt. Matt Reid, fourth from right, poses with his squad during one of his tours in Afghanistan.
Marine Sgt. Matt Reid, fourth from right, poses with his squad during one of his tours in Afghanistan.

‘I stood looking at a man I didn’t recognize: Eyes sunken, hair disheveled, face left unshaven for weeks. There was a hollow, disconnected look in his eye; something scary and uncertain lay in that look. I stood looking in the mirror at what I’d become.” — Former Marine Sgt. Matt Reid

I got a call from Greg Shearer (a driving force behind the Veterans Express) a while ago. He wanted to know whether I’d like to talk with a couple of veterans — Matt Reid and Daniel Pitocco — who were dealing with post-traumatic stress (PTS) in their lives and reaching out to other vets who are similarly suffering.

Not knowing much about the condition, my answer was yes.

Our chat was remarkable for several reasons, not the least being that these two guys seemed to be the epitome of physical and mental health. “USMC” was tattooed on powerful arms; they were articulate, yet soft-spoken. And then Reid got up abruptly and left the interview, heading for the front door.

Perhaps 10 minutes later, he returned, having gone to his truck to weep in the parking lot. It was an unsettling introduction to the mental anguish that those who continue to experience the incalculable cruelty of war deal with on a daily, hourly, moment-to-moment basis. Reid says his PTS is random. A simple question, such as, “How are you?” can lead to symptoms such as depression, anger and isolation. He says he’s still discovering the triggers.

“I knew it would be tough, but I didn’t know it would be as difficult as it’s been,” says Reid, who left the military last year.

“Everyone has bad days, but mine expand to two to three days or weeks. I can get furious with feeling like it’s an endless loop. I used to meet problems head on, but this just goes on and on, causing frustration and anger. I see the light, and then darkness, and I can’t resolve problems. That wasn’t the case before I enlisted and saw action.”

“He lies on the ground, his life bleeding out in front of me as his eyes glass over. He stares through me as if hope were standing right behind me; he slips away quietly without a fight, blood dribbles down from the corner of his mouth, clearing a small path down his mud-caked face. I don’t know this man, this boy, but he looks to be about my age, 20 years old. I don’t know his name or where he lives. I don’t even speak his language, but I sit at his side watching as he struggles.” — Reid

Reid and Pitocco, both 27, served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, with Matt putting in four tours, and Daniel three.

They both saw their first combat when they were 19. In addition to both men being machine-gunners who took up high-profile, vulnerable perches atop Humvees, Reid also was a driver of those same vehicles that were targets of IEDs, roadside explosives that have caused tens of thousands of American men and women in uniform to lose limbs and suffer severe brain damage.

At the time of their discharges, part of the processing procedure of getting out of the service was to sit in a room with some 60 other military personnel and go through a Transition Assistance Program, which covered looking for a job, interview techniques and mention of Veterans Administration assistance.

“But not necessarily anything about PTS. Nothing covering mental health,” says Pitocco.

“I got out in September 2008,” he adds. “I initially experienced more anger and a phase of drinking. The symptoms have changed but not gone away. I almost accepted the fact that I was f----- up and thought that would be the new reality, the way it would be,” says the Templeton High School grad.

“Although the symptoms keep changing, they will always be there,” Pitocco says, “so finding tools for dealing with PTS is the goal.”

Toward that end, the two have formed an organization called Mind Over Matter and are hosting a PTS and suicide awareness conference for combat vets, their families, friends and the public. It’s set for 10 a.m. to noon April 27 at the New Life Community Church in Pismo Beach, 990 James Way. Speakers, a time for vets to relate their stories and a barbecue are the order of the day.

Coming next week: Veterans are committing suicide every 65 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while the VA has tens of thousands of backlogged requests for medical help. How, why and what’s being done to remedy this deplorable situation.