21 Mar 2013

For many of America’s Iraq veterans, the fight continues

US Marine Corps veteran Brandon Blackstone suffered severe injuries when his unit ran over a tank mine. But 10 years on from the invasion, he still believes George W Bush was right to go into Iraq.

Brandon Blackstone (above) heads up the Dallas division of The Fight Continues, a veterans group which specialises in helping people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), writes Kat Hayes.

We meet him at the Veterans Resource Centre, a large complex complete with its own decommissoned Cobra attack helicopter on the lawn. The centre labels itself as a “one-stop shop” for veterans and also provides services for homeless ex-military.

Brandon asks to keep his sunglasses on whilst we do the interview. He finds his eyes are too sensitive to the light. It is one of the small cumulative effects that going to war in Iraq has had on him.

Galvanised by 9/11

He, like many Americans, was galvanised into action following the 11 September terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York.

“When you watch your fellow Americans leap to their deaths so that they dont burn, (and) you look outside and you see that red, white and blue… it gave me chills, so I did what I had to do.”

What he had to do turned out to be enrol in the Marine Corps. In fact, he was sworn in by President Bush himself.

Read more: Washington Correspondent Matt Frei blogs on the search for former US president George W Bush

The Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda were held responsible for the attacks in the US, yet for Brandon involvement in Iraq was a logical response.

“The Iraqis knew what was going on, so I can’t sit here and say they were totally innocent in the whole thing. Maybe we didn’t find weapons of mass destruction… But in any case, we made the right decision.

“If someone is going to attack us on our own soil, we need to reach out and visit them.”

Patriotic promise

Like over one million other Americans, Brandon went to Iraq to fulfil a patriotic promise. His wish: to combat a despotic regime and come home victorious, with the comfort that he had helped make the world that little bit safer.

The reality didn’t quite live up to that expectation. Brandon’s unit ran over a tank mine and he suffered severe injuries, which saw him flown from hospital to hospital across Europe.

He has gone through years of surgery, but it was the mental scars which seemed not to heal. “I went through a bad divorce, took on a lot of debt, spent a lot of time drinking and started using methamphetamine to cope.

“I was in the worst way. I ended up living on the streets.”

Peer-to-peer counselling

Brandon’s story is not unsual. Hundreds of thousands of veterans returned home after the Iraq war with post-traumatic traumatic stress disorder and failed to receive the help they needed and expected.

At his lowest point, Brandon reached out to his family. “I finally went to my parents and said I need help. They didn’t understand – they had no idea what I had been through.”

With nowhere else to turn, Brandon found an organisation run by veterans for veterans called The Fight Continues (TFC). The group offers peer-to-peer counselling, which for him was key.

Since becoming the Dallas representative of TFC, Brandon has cleaned up his act and is about to get married. Despite his horrific injuries, he remains philosophical about the US decision to go to war.

“I was pretty upset with things and the state I was in. I think President Bush could’ve made better decisions towards the end of his presidency in order to help veterans, but overall he made the right decision.”

Kat Hayes work for the Channel 4 News Washington bureau