Forever wounded, still willing to fight

Forever wounded, still willing to fight

“It was kind of crazy. Every day when I got up in that truck I had to be ready to die. That’s just the way it was. I was dead. Every day, I was dead. And I had to be OK with that, otherwise I couldn’t do my job.”

The scout gunner peered through the turret of the Humvee, surrounded by a sea of sand and darkness. Lights off to avoid detection, the truck crawled through the night, a convoy trailing about a mile behind.

The job of that Humvee, and the soldiers inside, was to clear a safe passage for the convoy behind. Posting at the turret was Brian Peterson’s side job when he served in Iraq with the Red Bulls. It was a job of daily danger, an assignment to get shot at, blown up, taken out.

“We were the truck to be eliminated so the rest of the convoy could go on safely,” Peterson said. “We were the ones to die, so the rest of the convoy could go. That was our job.”

Never mind that Peterson’s official job title in the Army National Guard was mechanic. That’s just something he did when he wasn’t manning that turret.

The third time, his unit got hit was by a 155 mm mortar round that blew up 6 feet from the Humvee. Caught between bombings from the north and the south and with all of the vehicle’s tires blown out, his unit had to save itself.

It was a blast that rocked Peterson’s body and marked at least the third time his brain was concussed while serving his country in battle.

Brian Peterson during one of his two deployments
(Submitted photo)

He could feel the vibrating in his head. His organs seemed to shake.

“My eyeballs were bouncing in my skull.”

That concussion came after a previous IED explosion knocked him unconscious and sent him into a three-day “concussion coma,” as he calls it.

The traumatic brain injury was just one of the wounds that Peterson brought home to St. Cloud. Shrapnel injuries to his wrist, blown discs in his back that needed to be fused together, discs in his neck that eventually will need to be fused, a shoulder that repeatedly popped out of its socket have left the 30-year-old with a body that seems at least twice its age.

“It sounds like popcorn when I move,” he tells his wife, Christian. “I am broken, destroyed.”

He can’t walk the stairs without leaning heavily on the railing. He can’t sit for more than a few minutes without his back tightening up, a result of the fused discs. He sometimes passes blood when he urinates. And the post-traumatic stress, which he’d masked for years with painkillers, reared up six years after his service ended, leading to a suicide attempt in July 2013.

He’s not unlike a whole generation of soldiers. They volunteered to fight and have come home with debilitating injuries that, in some cases, are eating away at them silently.

Learning what it is that is gnawing at you — both physically and mentally — is one thing. Understanding it is another.

After two deployments, Brian Peterson has been declared 100 percent disabled. Peterson always wanted to serve his country and remains deeply patriotic.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson,

Specialist E4 Brian Peterson wanted badly to serve his country, joining the National Guard at age 17 after his junior year in high school. He completed basic training during the summer before his senior year.

Right after high school, he did his advanced individual training, learning the job of mechanic. It wasn’t what he dreamed of doing, but it was the quickest way to reach his goal of being deployed.

“That’s the one thing that I’ve always wanted and dreamed of, was to go serve my country,” he said.

It finally happened in 2004, when he was sent to Kuwait.

It was there he was blown off a truck by a gust from a sandstorm and landed on his shoulder, dislocating it. From then on, it would pop out of joint routinely and he would need help getting his body armor off to reset the shoulder.

His second deployment came two months after the first ended. He was in Iraq from early 2006 to July 2007. His unit was a mishmash of medics, cooks, mechanics.

Their scout vehicle would clear the way for the convoy and put down flares to illuminate the way. It was a rewarding and dangerous job, and he talks with pride about his unit coming home without casualties.

There were close calls, though. He saw a comrade nearly die from a roadside bomb that left his body ripped by shrapnel and the road soaked in blood.

Brian thinks the discs in his back were injured from a collision between the Humvee and a dump truck. He counts at least three concussions from explosions targeting his unit.

The physical injuries that were beginning to pile up were mostly treatable, but bigger demons were lurking inside.

Brian returned from his second deployment already looking ahead to a third. When his unit gathered in Cottage Grove to prepare for another deployment, he met Christian Gilman, a medic in the unit to which Brian was attached as a mechanic. They both were prepared to deploy when they reported to Fort Ripley.

That’s where Brian learned that he wasn’t going to lie his way into a third deployment.

They stopped him from going on the third tour.

“They said I was medically unstable,” Brian says with a laugh.

He told his doctors that his back was just fine, along with the rest of his body. The problem was that the first sergeant and commanding officer knew him from his previous tours.

And Christian soon would find out that she wasn’t going to be deployed either.

She was pregnant with her first child.

Christian Gilman Peterson, holds their children, Jessi, 4, and Andi, 18 months, just after starting dinner one October night. With Brian's PTSD and disabilities, Christian sometimes takes on almost every family duty.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson,

So the two began to carve out their life in St. Cloud, Brian taking a job at Sears as a mechanic and Christian going to St. Cloud State University to study public relations.

Brian went through some outpatient treatment for post-traumatic stress and endured the continuing pain and degradation of his back.

“I’d go to the bathroom and stand at the toilet and nothing would work anymore,” he said. “I’d just stand there and I couldn’t go. I’d try to walk and my left foot was dragging. Couldn’t lift my left foot up anymore.”

He turned to painkillers to numb the throbbing, and while the narcotics masked the pain in his back, they also masked his post-traumatic stress symptoms.

The job at Sears lasted only about eight months before he started blowing up on employees, customers and his boss.

He quit that job and “pretty much sat at home drinking and popping pain meds,” he said.

His back problems continued to worsen and so did his reliance on painkillers. He battled with the VA — and lost — about whether his back injury was service-related.

The VA wouldn’t order an MRI, he said.

The doctor thought the problem was Brian’s kidneys and sent him to the urologist, who found no problems.

He finally got his civilian doctor to order the MRI and a discogram, which showed three discs destroyed and a fourth herniated.

His VA doctors argued that his injuries weren’t connected to his service. Brian spent the better part of six years using cortisone shots, painkillers and physical therapy while trying to get the surgery he needed. His civilian insurer approved the surgery then denied the claim afterward, saying his back injury was a pre-existing condition. He finally had the operation in June 2013.

Although one physical injury was getting addressed, his mental health wasn’t.

Then the medical bills started to come in.

Brian already was battling diagnoses of traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, intermittent explosive disorder, borderline personality disorder and depression. The seemingly smallest things would set him off, and he often didn’t know why.

The same day Brian had his back surgery, Christian learned she had a brain tumor. The death of her brother-in-law would soon follow.

“It was a really stressful time,” Christian said. “And to add all of that on top of it with his PTSD and the mix of the narcotics, he just decided that he was better off dead and that I should take the life insurance money and just be fine.”

Military life insurance pays off for suicide, unlike civilian insurance.

So on July 10, 2013, Brian decided Christian would be better off without him around.

They had been at a Summertime by George! concert at Lake George when Brian went to sit down in a lawn chair that belonged to Christian’s sister.

The chair collapsed underneath him. Someone told him that he was lucky he hadn’t broken a chair that belonged to another family member.

Brian blew up, upset that people seemed to care more about the chair than whether his surgically repaired back was OK from the fall.

He stormed off and went home alone.

“I grabbed the bottle of Percocet and took a whole handful of those and some Oxycontin and grabbed some beer and just sat there and started drinking beer,” Brian said. “By that time something clicked in my head that ‘Yeah, you’re probably done now, so say goodbye.’ ”

“He wrote me a nice little letter,” Christian said.

She found the goodbye note after rushing home when she sensed something wasn’t right. She found him “stoned out of his mind,” she said, and rushed him to the hospital.

He hadn’t taken quite enough to kill himself.

Veteran Joe Ripple (left), Peterson, friend Peter Hillesheim and Christian Peterson talk during a commercial Jan. 19 while watching the AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. For the Petersons, getting together with friends to watch football is one way to have a normal life together as a couple, away from PTSD.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson,

The next day, Brian was in a double-locked unit at the VA. He was discharged the day after that to the dual-diagnosis program, which addresses a veteran’s PTSD and substance abuse issues together.

But he sat there for four days without seeing anyone prepared to counsel him. He recalls staff playing the movie “Saving Private Ryan” while he waited to see a doctor.

“I was in the program for four days and didn’t see one doctor,” he said. “I’m at the lowest of my low. I just attempted to commit suicide and you’re not going to have me see a doctor or anything? And I was like, I’m out of here.”

When he left the VA, it was the first time in five or six years that he had been off of narcotics for five straight days, and Brian began to feel like he was going to be able to handle life. I can do this, he told himself.

I can do this on my own.

He came home and went back to his job designing and selling refrigeration systems.

But the flashbacks, the nightmares, the anxiety came crashing down on him within days.

“My hands would be trembling at my keyboard and I’d be looking behind me constantly. People would walk by and I would be freaking out. I couldn’t wait to get home. I’d be driving home and the whole time it was like I was on a convoy traveling to Baghdad again. Every vehicle on the road I’d be thinking it was (a vehicle with a bomb), thinking that it’s going to blow up on me. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

He made it three days at work and two weeks out of the program before he woke Christian up in the middle of the night after he’d stayed up late drinking.

He can’t remember how many drinks he’d had, but he recalls stopping himself at midnight.

“I woke her up and I was like ‘I don’t want to do this again. I have to go back,’” he said.

Christian could see it in his eyes.

“He was terrified,” she said.

He went back to the dual-diagnosis program and this time he vowed to stay the 45 days it required. They pressed the VA to get him in right away, without the wait he had experienced before.

This time it worked.

One requirement of the program was that he write a positive message to himself about his service.

Peterson wrote this letter as a way of practicing compassion toward himself in the VA's dual diagnosis program shortly after a suicide attempt.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson,

“Brian: I’m sorry that you had to see everything that you did overseas. I sorry you had to see all those dead people and not be able to help anyone when you could of. Please remember you always did your best and kept your team alive! You took control when you had to and did your job to the highest honor. Be proud.”

“Healthy self-talk” was a cornerstone of the program, Brian said — remembering to say positive things when you catch yourself with unhealthy thoughts.

He learned how any type of abuse — drugs, alcohol, sexual — interacts with PTSD. He learned about depression and how positive thoughts and reinforcing talk can bring back self-esteem.

He learned about the things that can trigger explosive episodes like those ended with him cursing at Christian or their daughters.

“It was really effective,” Christian said of the dual-diagnosis program. “There are some things that they are just never going to be able to fix, not that there are things that are wrong with him. He’s just never going to be his pre-deployment self again. That’s never going to change.”

Christian used to take great offense when he cursed at her, called her a bitch.

“I would get really mad. I mean, it still hurts when he says it, but ... I have to understand that, you know, some things I just have to live with,” she said.

A greater understanding of what causes his problems is only one step. The learning curve about his PTSD is continual.

Sometimes he doesn’t know what it is that makes him erupt, but he’s gained a better understanding of the things that amp up his stress level.

“What’s it like walking around not knowing if you’re going to freak out in the next second?” he asks. “It sucks. It’s scary.”

He and Christian have talked about it, and she’s referred to him as a walking time bomb.

“In a way, no I’m not a walking, ticking time bomb, but I can tell, especially with actually going through treatment at the VA, I can tell throughout the day when I’m getting more and more stressed, more and more anxiety, more and more irritated and I can tell when my fuse is getting a lot shorter,” he said. “And the shorter and shorter my fuse gets the less it’s going to take to blow up.”

And there are still blowups. It could be the prolonged crying of one of the kids or something as simple as one of the kids taking the dog outside when he didn’t want to dog to leave the house.

Brian Peterson comforts his daughter, Jessi, 4, as the family gathers with friends to watch a football playoff game. Peterson's back was in spasmodic pain and he didn't dress for the day.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson,

Sometimes he can remember after it’s done what it was that set him off. Sometimes it’s just a fog and he can’t recall what precipitated it. And sometimes he disassociates during the episode.

“We’ve learned that her and I have to discuss it right away,” Brian said. “That was a hard thing to learn. That caused a lot of fights just so we could get to the point where we learned that right away, when it happens, we both need to calm down and then come at each other both calm, relaxed, collected. Come at each other like referees, kind of, and apologize and say, ‘I did this wrong, we did this wrong and next time we should try this.’”

Christian has had to quit a paid internship in her field because Brian can’t be home alone for long without getting anxious, irritated or even suicidal. So she only leaves the house in the morning for a workout and then returns to care for Brian.

“For the family and for my sanity and for the kids and for him, I had to stay home,” she said.

Brian can’t do the family’s financials, often won’t eat if he isn’t reminded and can’t take care of the kids alone for an extended period.

He’s aware of the effect that his disability has on her life.

“I feel even more horrible because she spent all this time in school and she had a job that she really loved and it’s hard on me knowing that I’m the reason she can’t go to work,” he said.

Peterson wrote this letter as a way of practicing compassion toward himself in the VA's dual diagnosis program shortly after a suicide attempt.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson,

He recently was declared 100 percent disabled, and she recently was accepted into the family caregiver program. That acknowledges that she has to care for Brian and brings in a $588 monthly stipend in addition to the $3,300 he gets from being disabled.

It also makes her eligible for mental health treatment at the VA.

Brian recently filed for bankruptcy protection to get out from under the more than $200,000 in medical bills from his surgery. It gets their family back on better footing, but at a cost. They had to give up their two newer vehicles for older ones. Christian was forced to give back her wedding ring as well.

“I cried a lot. I’m OK with all of that now,” she said. “The debt was something that we didn’t pay for because we had to put food on the table for the kids.”

She’s also trying to find a way to explain to those kids — 4-year-old Jessi and 2-year-old Andi — what has happened to Brian and why he sometimes loses his temper with them.

She has joined Facebook groups, most of them military-related, about PTSD. She can read about how others relate to their spouses and their responses so she has an idea how to respond.

She credits the book “Tears of a Warrior” with helping her understand what was going on with Brian’s PTSD. But nobody has answers about how to explain to the kids why Dad all of a sudden gets mad for no reason and starts raising his voice, she said.

“No one has told me how, and I haven’t found or read anything, on how to do that,” Christian said. “How do you explain PTSD to a 4-year-old?”

“It hurts so bad,” Brian says. “To do that stuff like that to your own kids, you know, how could you ever do it again? But you just can’t control it.”

With all of his physical problems and mental health challenges, Brian would do it again — volunteer to go overseas and fight, knowing how he has turned out.

“In a heartbeat,” he said.

“It’s who I am. Serve my country. There’s a lot of people in our country that don’t either have the heart to do it or, — well, I shouldn’t say that. They have the heart to do it but they don’t have the body to do it or the mental capacity to do it. So, we need people like me to do it so we can continue to have a country like we have.”

Even if it means he returns without the body or the mental capacity he had when he left.

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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.