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Illustration by Neal Iwan
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David Buckley with his son, Austin; his daughter, Amber; and his wife, Tami. Photo by Jay Paul
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Buckley’s best friend, David Wieczorek. Photo courtesy Brannon Revel
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Buckley, seated left, and Wieczorek, seated right, under the flag. Photo courtesy Brannon Revel
Midlothian's David Buckley was diagnosed totally disabled by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2008, 17 years after witnessing the mortal wounding of his best friend, David Wieczorek, 21, while they served in Iraq during Desert Storm. This two-part series examines how Buckley and his family cope with his PTSD and how he was thrown an unexpected lifeline in March.
David Buckley blinks back tears. "I can still hear him calling out to God and for his Mama," Buckley almost whispers. "I've tried to find members of his family, but I haven't been able to. I have photos of him that I'd like them to have."
The same day a ceasefire was called, Buckley's best friend, David Wieczorek, stepped on an unexploded bomb fragment that cost him his life. Buckley was several yards away from him and was not injured. Another soldier lost a leg, and a third suffered a leg wound. More than 23 years later, Buckley, now 45, constantly relives that trauma in dreams, which also have entangled his wife, Tami.
"He wakes up but isn't really awake," she says. "I don't even think ‘hallucinating' is the right word. One time, when he was having a flashback, I'd just come into the room. He jumped up and threw me on the bed, yelling: ‘Get down. Get down.' It was loud screaming, like what you would see in the movies. So he's yelling and he's on top of me, and he's got his hand up like a gun, making sounds like a machine gun. Then he started doing radio communications and codes."
Tami can't remember if the episode lasted two minutes or an hour. Finally, after David uttered some military term, he released her and sat on the bed staring at her, physically present but mentally absent. In a world of constant nightmares, this one proved to be the worst.
"The movies don't do it justice," she says. "They should film at our house."
Because they share a first name, Buckley thinks of Wieczorek every time he hears his own name. He has attempted suicide twice. "Do I have a suicide plan? No. Do I think about it? Every day."
Buckley also struggled professionally for years, working as a deputy for the Hanover County Sheriff's Department, as an express delivery driver and as a Coca-Cola account manager before being declared 100 percent permanently disabled by PTSD in December 2008.
For those coping with the disorder, which often manifests itself after someone has experienced combat or a traumatic incident, seeking adrenaline rushes is symptomatic. "As odd as it may sound, these soldiers tell me they never felt more alive than in combat, so going to work, church, taking care of kids just doesn't do it for them," says Dr. John Benesek, a clinical psychologist and director of McGuire VA Medical Center's PTSD Program. "I've been told of vets running into a burning house and pulling people out. … It's positive, because they're selflessly trying to rescue someone, but negative because it takes situations like this to help them break out of emotional numbness."
Buckley had changed jobs several times, which is a hallmark of PTSD. "I always excelled and moved up quickly, but I would eventually cave in with the day-to-day stress. When 9-11 happened, that really affected me. The straw that broke the camel's back was when I broke my ankle on the job as an account manager/merchandiser for Coca-Cola. During the recovery, I got very depressed, and it all went downhill fast and quick."
For Buckley, part of that descent included mixing alcohol with medication. He has prescriptions for 13 drugs, seven for PTSD.
Dr. Maurice S. Fisher Sr. was one of the first psychologists to treat Buckley when he admitted himself voluntarily to St. Mary's Hospital in mid-2004 after a series of unrelenting traumatic dreams. Fisher says that it's not uncommon for a veteran to mix alcohol with drugs: "They don't use logic. It's self-medication. They drink to help themselves feel better."
Fisher, who now works for Comprehensive Counseling in Roanoke, doesn't mince words. "People can say all they want about the military keeping peace, but they're training killers, and they don't offer any cross-training because there is none. There's no real integrative counseling to help them get back into society, particularly for those who have seen combat."
Buckley sought help at McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond for several medical issues in February 2005. At McGuire, Buckley started attending PTSD counseling sessions with Benesek. "When you and I are cut off in traffic, we might get angry, but these guys see it as a threat," Benesek says. "Some may be apt to follow the people and pull them out of cars. Their perception is skewed. The key to PTSD is learning to adapt their skills and mindsets to a different environment, from combat/war zone to civilian life."
For instance, Buckley reacts to sounds in daily life that mimic combat. "There are so many triggers, like seeing fire or hearing a jackhammer on a street, which sounds exactly like a machine gun," he says. "Believe it or not, the smell of feces is another. In Iraq, we had to burn the feces. It's something you never forget."
Buckley spends a lot of time at McGuire, often going five days a week. Along with counseling sessions and group therapy, he recently joined an indoor biking program and weight-lifting class. It was a switch from riding horses, something he did at Lonesome Dove, a nonprofit organization in Powhatan that provides therapeutic riding for veterans. Buckley won national riding awards before trading his horse for a bicycle, after recent surgery on his feet. "The stirrups gave me a fit, but I can ride a bike with no problem."
One problem Buckley and his family have faced is how the public views PTSD. That's why he, his wife and children agreed to be interviewed. Tami encountered women at a local church who, after learning of Buckley's issues with PTSD, suggested that she should leave her husband. "I was stunned," Tami says. "I asked those women, ‘If David had cancer, would you suggest I leave him?' I told them that he didn't ask to have PTSD and that I didn't see the difference between cancer and PTSD. I never went back to that church."
Buckley had dreamed of becoming a soldier since he was young. "I volunteered in 1988, right after I graduated from Midlothian High School. As far back as I remember, I wanted to be a soldier and experience combat." He pauses. "Be careful what you wish for. The military pretty much owns you. I was three days from finishing my two-year enlistment when I was involuntarily assigned to Iraq." After an honorable discharge in May 1991, Buckley graduated from Lees-McRae College on the GI bill in 1996. During college, he met Tami.
Buckley rode his bike to his classes, and he always stopped to get a banana at the convenience store where Tami worked. "The first time I saw her, I told my roommate that I was going to marry her. After we dated a few months, I called her and said, ‘I love you.' She pretty much didn't say anything and just hung up, and I thought, ‘Well, I screwed that up.' "
Nothing was screwed up. Tami was just moving at a slower pace. "A few weeks later, I told him that I loved him, too," Tami says. "He had killer eyes and a wonderful smile, the best thing since peanut butter. He sort of grew on me, and we got married two years later."
Their son, Austin, 15, is a rising highschool sophomore. His sister, Amber, 10, is a rising fifth-grader. The marriage started normally enough, with PTSD issues surfacing much later. Tami talks candidly about the struggles they face. "Our life is like a roller coaster," she begins. "The good part is riding up. The bad part is where we're teetering at the top and then fall down. The really bad part is you don't know when you're going to come back up."
"For instance, this past Christmas was amazing," she says. "The first part of December was rocky, but David managed to hold himself together. There was just peace. We didn't fight for a month after the first week of December. I can't tell you how long it's been since that happened."
Good intentions gone wrong is how Buckley might describe his days. "I just cannot make it 24 hours without having a blowup over something. I try so hard to be good, but there are always trigger points. If one of my children gets hurt, or my wife — even if it's a bump on the toe — my first reaction is anger. I blame myself for not being able to prevent the incident, which goes back to Iraq. I used anger to deal with awful things in the military, like my best friend's death. I blame myself for that, too."
Following a morning ceasefire, the two Davids were among a group of soldiers from the Army's 1st Battalion 5th Cavalry, known as the Knights of the Desert, who were exploring the terrain.
"We had arrived the night before in an area near Kuwait. A bunch of us were just checking out the area the next morning. You're trained to listen to your gut in the military. My gut told me we should turn back, but I didn't listen. We just kept walking, looking into bunkers. Even though I was only a corporal, I was the top officer, so I feel responsible for what happened. I was standing fairly close to David when the bomb fragment went off, and I didn't get a scratch. Because of that, I feel like I can't ever let my guard down, that I should be able to prevent people from getting hurt, especially my family and people I love."
Buckley's concern manifests as anger, which spills over frequently. "If my dad gets upset, it affects the outcome of the day for the entire family," Austin says. "For years and years it happened on a daily basis, as far back as I can remember. It's not as bad now; he's gotten a lot better. I think him finding Jesus in his life and properly taking his medicine and cutting back on drinking has helped. He used to have a problem with overdosing his medicines and drinking."
The simplest things seem to set Buckley off. "If I don't brush my teeth before, instead of after, I eat breakfast, it creates a huge argument," Austin says. "It's such a small thing, but he has to control everything — the house, my little sister, my mom. He can't control her, though, and it causes arguments. Usually it ends up that they just walk away from each other for a little bit, then they come back. My dad is usually the instigator. He doesn't like to drop an argument. He likes to pursue it and keep going until it's fixed. Usually we can't fix it. We just move on to the next one."
Tami, who has always worked full time, currently is a job coach at Max's Positive Vibe Café through Chesterfield County Public Schools. She admits to losing her patience at times. "I know I should just walk away and let it blow over, but it's very hard to always do that. I never doubt that David has PTSD, or he suffers from depression or has survivor's guilt, and the list goes on and on. I live it every day."
While Tami is pleased with the counseling her husband has received at McGuire, she is concerned about the number of prescriptions he has. "David has received wonderful counseling from John Benesek," she says. "I don't know what we would have done without [McGuire]. However, I think David is over-medicated. It takes a huge amount of medication to get him to sleep. His body fights against sleep, and without medication, it can be unbearable. It's a double-edged sword."
Tami loves her husband deeply, but dreads the ups and downs brought on by the PTSD. "David has such a good heart. I don't want people reading this to think that we've never had any good times. We have some wonderful memories, but PTSD is a horrible stressor on marriages and families in general. Sometimes we both wonder if we're going to make it."
Some relief has come from attending family camps sponsored by the Virginia Wounded Warriors, a program established in 2008 to improve and expand services to veterans and family members whose lives have been affected by stress-related injuries or traumatic brain injury. Recently, Tami has received counseling through the program and has made appointments for family counseling services there, too.
Even with the counseling and multiple drugs, Buckley is hyper-vigilant, always watching and listening. "He'll run outside, thinking he's heard something," Tami says. "To be the spouse of someone with PTSD, there is just no peace, no calm. Austin has said, ‘No worries. Dad's always on patrol. I pity somebody if they ever try to come into this house.' "
As the anniversary of his best friend's death approaches every year, Buckley's dreams become almost constant, and his daily life unravels even further.
"It starts about October, goes through Christmas, which pretty much messes up the holidays every year, and then gets really bad at the beginning of the new year," Buckley explains.
That Feb. 28 date grabs hold of him like quicksand every year, but this year he received a lifeline of sorts a few days before the anniversary arrived.
Since 1991, David hadn't had much contact with his Army buddies. He traveled to Las Vegas for one friend's wedding soon after discharge, and recently he had found two friends on Facebook. He had wanted to send photos of his friend to Wieczorek's family, but had been unable to locate any of them.
During research for this story, the writer discovered and showed Buckley an online 1991 obituary for David Wieczorek. Oddly, a comment had been added as recently as Feb. 28, 2013:
"I would first like to extend my deepest sympathies to the Wieczorek family. My name is James Borgmann and I was with David at the exact moment that he was injured in Iraq. I was a Specialist in C Co. 1-5 Cav. and I was approximately 20 feet away from David when he was injured. It has taken me over 20 years to talk about this incident and I have thought about David every day for the past 22 years. We did everything we could to try to save David that afternoon. He was a great soldier and he was well liked by everybody in our unit. I hope that my posting this note does not bring back any pain for anyone. I have just not been able to find a way to discuss this sensitive topic without feeling extreme pain. I will always hold the memories of David deep in my heart and I will continue to keep him alive through the memories of him as a great soldier and an even better human being. If any of his family members have any questions or would ever need to talk about David, please feel free to contact me."
Part 2 will run in July.