A vet’s sanctuary

A vet’s sanctuary

For years and years and years, we shut down everything in terms of what you feel. ... I survived off of hate, anger and fear. Those were the three things that kept us alive. You bottled everything up. The best therapy was a good firefight, because everything that you kept bottled up, you got the release. It was not a great release, because you ended up taking other people’s lives. That wears on you after a while.

There’s a few gentlemen here that I know if it wasn’t for this place, they would drink themselves to death or go to a different means to ending it. I’m one of them. This place has literally saved my life, because I was so tired of not understanding that I wasn’t crazy.

They were sometimes referred to as “bullet sponges.” The job of the Army infantry in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan was to be the front line.

When Daniel Klutenkamper joined the Army in 2003, he knew there was a good chance he’d be sent to a war zone. He was OK with that. By October, the Missouri native who grew up in Lakeville was on his first overseas deployment to South Korea. In 2004, he was sent to Iraq.

His unit was stationed between Fallujah and Ramadi. After a few months, they moved to Ramadi itself, the site of some of the heaviest fighting of the Iraq War.

When he returned home, the adjustment didn’t go well.

When we first got back from our first tour, we were pretty much told if anything you saw or did overseas bothered you that you were to (expletive) delete it. And if you sought any sort of mental or behavioral help, you would be barred from promotions and eventually, you would be chaptered out of the service. Because that wasn’t how we were supposed to be.

So a lot of us just started drinking heavily. It was one of the only ways I could fall asleep was hit the bottle pretty hard every night.

Klutenkamper got into some legal trouble and sobered up for a while. Then came the orders for a second deployment. He started drinking again, knowing the fighting was likely to be more intense than during the first tour.

A photo taken during Dan Klutenkamper's deployment.
(Submitted photo)

In 2006, he was sent back to Iraq for a yearlong tour that would stretch into 15 months due to the surge. In December 2007, he came home.

But then in May 2009, he was sent to Afghanistan for a year, to Kunar Province. Afghanistan made the two tours in Iraq look like a training exercise. The enemy knew how to fight, and they blended into the civilian society.

It was always expect the worst, and there really was no hope for the best. Because regardless, even if it wasn’t your friends getting killed, somebody else was being shot and killed. ...

You think you can go through all that stuff and not have any of it bother you. If none of it bothered you, there is something wrong with you. The fact that it does bother you means that you have a lot of humanity left.

After Klutenkamper returned to the United States, he turned down an offer to re-enlist. He didn’t want to get out of the Army, but re-enlisting would have meant he’d be back in Afghanistan within six months. He needed time to decompress.

Klutenkamper sought mental health help before he left the Army, but found it lacking.

We were actually told by the higher-ups that if anything bothers you, you’re a pussy. We don’t have pussies in the infantry. We have hard-core, door-kicking bastards that will kill anything and everything that they need to. So that was the mentality we lived with for so damn long.

All that bloodshed sitting on your hands just wears you down, but you don’t want to say that it bothers you.

Veterans who did receive treatment were often prescribed medications, which Klutenkamper didn’t want. He’d seen veterans who were prescribed opiates, such as oxycodone for pain, become addicted. When their prescriptions ran out, they were on the streets looking for whatever they could get.

Instead of actually fixing the issue, they just gave you pills for stuff. I didn’t want pills. I just wanted ways to go about sorting things in my head that would be constructive, instead of getting a pill that would eventually get you addicted to it.

Klutenkamper was told when he left the military that his records would be transferred to the Veterans Administration. But it took him a year to get his first appointment at the Minneapolis VA. In the meantime, he self-medicated with alcohol and marijuana.

My binge drinking almost killed me a couple of times. So I switched from drinking and went to pot, which I figured was the lesser of two evils. ... I know eventually, I would have been caught with it and ended up in jail.

That’s why a lot of us would drink and we would use, because we didn’t want to face the demons that had been following us for years and years and years. So instead of facing those demons, we would try to kill them through use, without regard to what our use was doing to ourselves or our families or the ones we held close to us. We just didn’t see it.

He received treatment at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System for alcohol and substance abuse, and underwent cognitive processing therapy at the Minneapolis VA. It helped, but after 12 weeks, it was over.

He was supposed to be fixed, and he wasn’t.

He’d hoped to get into the specialty track for post-traumatic stress disorder at the St. Cloud VA, but he learned he didn’t get into the program.

They’re turning people down that really, really need it, because a couple of college-educated shrinks that read a bunch of books and talk to us maybe every now and then deem us not ready for the track. So they send you out the door with a bag of tools that they know are going to fail us, and we’re going to go back to self-medicating, drinking heavily. They set us up for failure.

Without the structure of the military, Klutenkamper spiraled downward. He applied for a security job at a casino, but he was turned down because he was deemed too aggressive.

On the application, when asked what he’d do if he saw a man beating a woman up, he’d responded honestly. He’d beat the guy up. The correct answer was call for help, but Klutenkamper couldn’t imagine standing by and watching.

He got a job at a gas station but lasted a week. He couldn’t stand being instructed in detail how to perform simple tasks, or working with teenagers who seemed to think they were entitled to things without having to work for them.

He saw people smoking while they pumped gas, and couldn’t understand what they were thinking. If they flicked the cigarette on the ground near a puddle of spilled gas, and the fumes ignited, the whole place could blow up. He’d seen that enough times already. He lost patience and yelled at them over the speaker.

Dan Klutenkamper laughs as he plays at the Eagle’s Healing Nest in May with his service dog-in-training, a half-grown golden Lab named Odie.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson, kanderson@stcloudtimes.com)

Klutenkamper’s options were limited. He had eight years of infantry experience, but it didn’t train him for many civilian jobs except law enforcement. With only a high school diploma, most careers were out of reach.

He struggled with being around people, especially crowds. His friends asked him to go the movies, but he refused. A dark, crowded theater filled with strangers and only one exit? A mass casualty situation, for sure.

His friends joked and called him paranoid. But it was the life-and-death way he’d been trained to think.

I feel more comfortable overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan than I do walking around the streets here, and I don’t know why. ... I’d just almost rather be over there than here sometimes, because life made sense over there.

He thought about going back to school, but the idea of being on a campus where weapons are banned makes him uncomfortable. And at 32, he doesn’t relate to college students anymore.

Then he heard about a place in Central Minnesota where veterans were welcome to stay and heal together. He decided to give it a try.

Klutenkamper arrived at the Eagle’s Healing Nest in Sauk Centre last October. It has become his sanctuary, a place where he finally feels safe.

He talks to the older veterans, the ones who served in Vietnam and Korea. They share common stories and offer advice. He listens.

Here, it’s not just three meals and a place to sleep. It’s not just shelter. I’m back among some combat veterans. ... It’s the brotherhood again. I’m not paranoid, because I know I can trust these guys. ... I don’t feel as if I have to be 100 percent responsible for the safety and well-being of everybody else around me. Like I know everybody has everybody else’s back.

Klutenkamper still hopes to go to college and major in social services, with an emphasis on treating post-traumatic stress disorder and chemical dependency. He wants to help other veterans, to pay it forward. But he’s worried about how he will handle the stress and workload of college.

In the meantime, he’s acquired a goofy, half-grown golden Lab named Odie, who’s being trained to be his service dog. Watching Odie romp and play distracts Klutenkamper and occupies his constantly vigilant brain. He laughs more easily.

Here it’s just nice, because you can relax and you can decompress, and you can do it at a rate where the only person putting pressure on yourself is you. ... This place has been a lifesaver. It’s given me a task and a purpose again.

For now, Klutenkamper will stay at the Nest.

Dan Klutenkamper laughs as he plays outside with Odie at the Eagle's Healing Nest in Sauk Centre.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson, kanderson@stcloudtimes.com)

Talk About It

Share stories and strategies for coping in a new online place for Central Minnesota veterans and their families at www.facebook.com/scarsofservice

Follow the #ScarsofService hashtag on Twitter.

And join the discussion as Terry Ferdinandt and Hector Matascastillo take questions from readers on sctimes.com.

About the reporters

Kirsti Marohn has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1998. She has covered local and state government, social issues and the environment. Her father was a U.S. Marine and her husband served in the Minnesota National Guard prior to 9/11.

Marohn became interested in writing about veterans after hearing about the struggles many have faced since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and how community resources were not always adequate to help them.

You can follow Marohn on Facebook and on Twitter @kirstimarohn.

David Unze has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1997. He has covered primarily courts, public safety and higher education.

The problems that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face came to his attention through the interactions that police and the courts have with veterans in crisis. He also learned about the challenges that vets face when they return home and try to resume their education.

You can follow Unze on Facebook and on Twitter @sctimesunze.