Discarded Heroes

Washington sends them off to war -- and screws them upon return.

Rick Clasen has trouble remembering little things, like names, doctor's appointments, and where he put his hat. But the 25-year-old Iraq war veteran has no problem with the details of July 27, 2004.

He emerged from the underground bunkers at Camp Steel Dragons to a clear Baghdad sky. It was 7 a.m., a comfortable 80 degrees, and he had a hot tip on where to find some powdered Gatorade -- a delicacy among infantrymen.

Clasen carefully placed the packets of lemon-lime powder atop the trunk of his Humvee, which he loaded up with water and ammo. To his right, 23-year-old gunner Mike Boozier stood in the turret of another Humvee. He slid his weapon onto the stabilizing pole and prepared his rounds. In the distance, speakers blared with the day's first reading of the Koran.

It was business as usual. Until the first blast.

At first, Clasen didn't know what to think of the explosion, except that it was close -- definitely on base. The blast knocked him to the ground, where he retrieved his fallen packets of Gatorade, wondering which moron had misfired his weapon.

Boozier glanced in Clasen's direction and saw Specialist Castillo, who was walking between their vehicles. A Nerf-sized mortar landed at Castillo's feet.

The explosion lodged a piece of shrapnel in the side of Castillo's head.

Clasen ran around his vehicle to Castillo -- blood was pooling beneath his body "like in a horror movie," Clasen says. "At that point, it was as though everything slowed down, and the seconds turned into hours."

The base burst into chaos as mortar after mortar blew shrapnel into unsuspecting appendages. "I'm hit!" shouted soldier after soldier.

Ten of the 12 men in Clasen's platoon were injured. Every three or four seconds, another mortar hit.

"We're under attack!" screamed men as they ran for the stairs to their bunks.

"We'd been in a lot of mortar attacks," says Corporal Brent Nixon. "But nothing like this. This was right there where we lived at."

As men scrambled for their lives, Clasen and Boozier ran to Castillo's side. Clasen pressed a pressure bandage against Castillo's wound. Blood spurted onto his uniform.

"I was sure he was dead," Boozier says. "He wasn't talking, he wasn't breathing. The blood was just pouring out everywhere."

A medic and a corporal finally appeared and Boozier, feeling he was in the way, retreated to the bunks to make sure that the rest of his platoon was accounted for.

Clasen stayed to assist, despite the incessant downpour of mortar rounds. Several men watched from the stairs as the three resuscitated Castillo amid blasts and flying metal. "Everyone just left them up there with this guy," Nixon says.

When the ambulance appeared, Clasen stumbled down to his room, which he shared with his best friend, Corporal Mike Gaytan.

Gaytan jumped from his bed to see Clasen covered in blood. He thought his friend was dying. "Are you OK?" Gaytan asked.

"No, I'm not," Clasen said. "I'm covered in another motherfucker's blood."

Clasen joined the National Guard just months after the September 11 attacks. "It wasn't the only reason I joined," he says. "I actually wanted to get some discipline, the experiences, the training, and I figured a little money couldn't hurt. I was definitely drawn in by the prospect of getting some help with school."

It was also in his blood. The men in his family had served America from World War II to Vietnam.

He had grown up with his mother in the projects by Euclid Beach Park and his father in Cleveland Heights. Too restless for television, Clasen spent most of his time climbing trees and camping with the Boy Scouts. Not long after high school, he became a state mountain-biking champion. So he left for California to race professionally, bagging groceries on the side. He also enrolled in Grossmont College to study psychology. But in the winter of 2003, only two months into his first semester, he was called to Iraq.

Clasen was one of two Ohioans in a unit of California natives. He was also one of the few white, blue-eyed boys in a sea of Latinos. It was here that he met 32-year-old Mike Gaytan, whose woeful brow and chiseled cheeks are softened by a calcium-rich smile. His hands and wrists are covered with faded military tattoos and chunky native jewelry.

They're the ultimate odd couple: Gaytan is hyperbolic and tough, punctuating his stories with broad laughter and various conjugations of "fuck." He was a high school student from the El Monte barrio when he first enlisted in 1991. "I wanted -- no, I needed -- discipline," he says.

Clasen, by contrast, is philosophical and measured, speaking with painful precision, his words punctuated by long, hard gulps. "Clasen was always very quiet, to himself, very focused on his work," says Alex Ramirez, who served alongside him.

By the time they met, Gaytan had already served four years of active duty, reenlisted, and finished off a tour in Saudi Arabia. "I don't get civilians," he says. "There's no order to your chaos."

Gaytan made the company's first kill in Baghdad on April 9, 2004.

His convoy was escorting six Iraqi civilians when it came under fire. Gaytan spotted the insurgent, a rocket launcher on his shoulder. Gaytan fired. The guy was down.

When Gaytan got back to base, his sergeant pulled him aside. "I heard you had to do some not-so-nice things today," he said.

"Yes, First Sergeant."

"I understand you deprived a child of their father today."

"Yes, First Sergeant."

Then the sergeant walked away.

"There is a certain amount of, I don't want to call it regret, but, you know, we're taught killing is bad," Gaytan says. "But there is also an elation factor, like 'Fuck, yeah!' I was overjoyed. And then I realized that I almost shit myself with fear."

In Baghdad, Clasen and Gaytan did their best to keep each other sane as the constant stress wore them down. They were working two of the deadliest jobs in Iraq: Clasen was a driver and Gaytan a gunner. They slept in 3-hour intervals between 16-hour shifts riddled with gunfire, car accidents, and the fear of surprise mortars. "I can tell you that both Rick and Mike were good soldiers who slowly went downhill, due to the stress of pressure of life in war," says Corporal Brent Nixon.

Before the attack at his base, Clasen's convoy was escorting Iraqi dignitaries along the road to the Baghdad airport, known as "Route Irish," the deadliest in Iraq. A civilian truck heading in the opposite direction ignored the convoy's signal to slow down. Instead, it sped in Clasen's direction, forcing him to swerve his Humvee into a guard rail and crash. Clasen's shoulder was injured, and he spent the rest of his tour powered by Motrin, Bextra, and Vioxx.

After the mortar attack, Gaytan had his own accident. His convoy was about to cross through the "Tunnel of Love," a dark passageway through downtown Baghdad, infamous for its abundance of hidden bombs. Gaytan was scanning the overpass for insurgents when a car broke up his convoy, causing his driver to swerve away from the tunnel. Gaytan was thrown from his turret, only to land inside the Humvee on his head, with his M-16 pointed at his feet, his finger on the trigger. The accident left him with compressed discs in his back, forcing him to walk with a cane.

The daily mortars and roadside bombs not only caused Clasen and Gaytan to develop tinnitus and hearing loss -- Gaytan already wore hearing aids from his tour in Saudi Arabia -- but also kept them tense and nerve-racked.

"You'd be standing out in the open, without cover, because you had to, because it was your job," Gaytan says. "Maybe the mortars start hitting, or you're doing a routine check of a civilian vehicle, and all you had was the comfort of telling yourself, 'I'm OK, I've got my vest on,' which is a joke. So then you tell yourself, 'This might be my time to go.'"

Their bravery usually went unnoticed. Clasen received a "Certificate of Achievement" for helping save Specialist Castillo's life, but his last name was misspelled and he was referred to as a private rather than a specialist. "The fact they misspelled my name and got my rank wrong made me feel slighted," Clasen says. "I would have preferred nothing at all. It was a slap in the face. Among soldiers, there's definitely a disillusionment over being awarded."

Last March, Clasen and Gaytan finally finished their tour. Yet it would not be the end of their war. "They teach you how to fight a war," Clasen says. "But they don't teach you how to come home."

During his time in Iraq, Clasen stayed in frequent contact with an old friend from home, Miriam Goldman. Through long weekly letters, romance quickly bloomed.

Before his return to Cleveland Heights, Miriam rented a modest apartment, which remains almost bare save for some hand-me-down furniture, a mattress, and blankets used as makeshift curtains.

Within two months of Clasen's return, Miriam was pregnant.

On a snowy Sunday in December, they sit side by side at Phoenix Coffee, staring out at Cedar Road. Miriam, now his fiancée, is not a stars-and-stripes soldier's wife. She wears leg warmers, reads Vonnegut, and keeps her freckled face makeup-free.

The two never stop holding hands as they explain, in tandem, how Clasen's homecoming has been difficult.

Within the first week of his return, Miriam was jolted awake by Clasen's kicking and screaming in his sleep. "I struggled to wake him up," Miriam says.

Clasen is tormented by the details of his dreams. He'll see vivid images of mortar and IED blasts. Then, as he lies semiconscious next to Miriam, his body will suddenly burst into action -- flailing for his vest or a weapon, or waking with a scream. "It's the purest terror," Clasen says. "You can smell and taste the smoke from the mortars. And then I panic."

Clasen says the dreams didn't start until he got home. In the first few months, he tried to avoid them by simply not sleeping. Then the images began seeping into his waking life. He now stiffens at the sound of a slamming car door. "The compression has the same sound as a mortar popping."

Something as simple as the crackling of a campfire can make the hair on his neck stand up and his muscles tense, and soon he'll be looking for cover. "Even before I can make sense out of the sound, my body begins to react," he says. "Then I begin to think about it, and it takes some time to explain to myself where I am, and that I'm safe. The process becomes totally exhausting."

But he's never far from falling into soldier mode.

Once, at the grocery store, he and Miriam strolled through aisles where he couldn't see what was on the other side. As he began to conduct reconnaissance, he clenched his fists in frustration. Not only was he unable to find safety; he also couldn't talk himself out of his delusion.

He left the store and waited in the car, where his panic was quickly replaced by an overwhelming sense of embarrassment. "It makes me feel useless," he says. "Just leaving the house takes so much effort."

Clasen also suffers from moments of irrational anger. There was the time a neighbor blocked his car in their shared driveway. He'd already been irritated by the parking situation. This was the third time he went downstairs to find his neighbor's truck blocking him in, and he lost it. "He came back upstairs, fuming -- just in a total rage," Miriam says.

Miriam sat him down. "This has nothing to do with the guy upstairs," she said. "You need to figure out what this is about."

Each situation boils down to the most minute details of his experience in Iraq, from how to park a Humvee properly to the subtle sound of a bullet rushing by his ear.

Still, getting to the root of his stress doesn't solve one of Clasen's biggest issues -- finding work.

Thanks to his injury from the crash on Route Irish, he can't find a job. He's skilled in drywall, construction, and painting -- work made impossible by the pain in his shoulder. He tried a stint as a truck driver hauling steel, but the 12-hour shifts induced flashbacks, forcing him into paralyzing anxiety.

The brunt of the bills has ended up with Miriam, who is not only eight months pregnant, but working 40-hour weeks as a receptionist -- all while beginning her doctorate in English literature. Clasen helps as much as he can by doing odd jobs at the Cleveland Armory for $60 a day.

He understands that his reactions to "civilian life" aren't normal, which only adds to his depression. "You can't live a civilian life as a soldier, but how do I deprogram myself? How do I stop these feelings from surging back? How do I erase these memories?"

These are questions that Veterans Affairs should be answering. But trying to get the VA's help has become his biggest battle yet.

The second Clasen got home, he went to the Cleveland VA to file for disability benefits. He also requested the disbursement of his G.I. Bill, so that he could attend Tri-C in the spring.

Figuring that it would only take a few months for the claims to go through, the couple budgeted accordingly. It would work out perfectly -- Miriam could take maternity leave, and Clasen would only have to work part-time while going to school.

But 11 months later, they have yet to see a penny.

"Among veterans, we have a saying when it comes to the VA: delay or deny," says Larry Scott, who runs VAwatchdog.org. "It's sad, but that's the way it is. Either your claim is delayed or denied. Either way, it's the same thing."

It's a familiar tune among older vets, but the VA's negligence came as a sore surprise to Clasen, who only three years ago was signing up for the perks sold in Army commercials.

Each month he gets two letters from the VA: One says that he will soon receive his G.I. Bill money, and the second states that he's been denied.

The confusion is partly due to the creation of a new and supposedly improved version of the G.I. Bill, which increases a veteran's aid based on the amount of consecutive time served overseas. It was passed in typical Washington fashion -- approved in 1997, but officially delayed until December 2005. Despite the braying patriotism on Capitol Hill, Clasen still hasn't received a dime.

He should also be eligible for vocational retraining -- or at least some help with job placement. The problem is that he must wait until the VA finally rates his level of disability. That will happen only after his claim has been processed, which takes an average of nearly two years.

"It takes too long to process claims," says Robert Funk, quartermaster for the Department of Ohio Veterans of Foreign Wars. "But it's always been that way. In 2001, the Cleveland VA had to set up a special task force just to expedite claims for WWII veterans before they died."

In a federal report published in December, the VA acknowledged its laggardly ways -- which have only gotten worse since 2003.

It's now sitting on 346,000 pending claims, 119,247 of them filed by troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA admits that it underestimated the funding needed to accommodate returning soldiers.

To compound Clasen's problems, the military also lost his records, which would make clear that his injuries were combat-related, not baggage he brought to war.

The VA responded by notifying Clasen that it isn't responsible for his missing records and that it's his duty to find them or to submit supplementary evidence of his combat-related conditions.

"I only have one piece of documentation showing that I was in that car accident, and that's by sheer luck," he says. "How am I supposed to find the rest of my records? They were never in my possession. They could be anywhere in the world."

He also met with a VA psychiatrist, who preferred to discuss Clasen's childhood, rather than the war. Vets say it's a common tactic the VA can use to avoid paying benefits.

"By going back to his childhood," says Scott, "the shrink is trying to make a case that he came into the service with this emotional baggage, and that's what he's come back with, and it has nothing to do with his service, so we don't have to compensate him."

The psychiatrist diagnosed Clasen with "readjustment disorder," which means that he was simply struggling to readjust to civilian life, would get better in a few months, and would never be eligible for compensation.

"The doctor was bringing it all down to one point," Miriam says. "That the difference between readjustment disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome is that PTSD would only be diagnosed if it related to one specific incident. I guess it's more of a philosophical discussion, because what is an incident? Is it a moment or a year? Is it a war or one mortar attack?"

Matthew Friedman, executive director of the VA's National Center of PTSD, says it's both. "It can be one moment of terror, or it can be a prolonged exposure to a war zone," he says. "The VA does get that."

What the VA doesn't get, says Scott, is that the men and women who went off to war had a deal with America. The soldiers did their part, but the government is reneging on its end.

"These just aren't people popping out of the woodwork, who say I want help or I want money," Scott says. "These are people who, under law, are qualified to receive help and treatment. The VA is the best health care you can get as a combat veteran, if you can get it."

Unless Clasen's claim is approved, he is entitled to only one more year of treatment. All returning veterans are awarded two years of VA treatment for combat-related issues. "But they really burn your time," Clasen says. "I've been in four times in eight months."

That's because the VA is completely overwhelmed. Approximately 215,000 veterans receive treatment and benefits for PTSD alone.

"I was talking with a VA psychiatric counselor," Scott says. "He said his workload is so heavy, he's seeing guys once every three months for 15 minutes, writing them a 90-day scrip, and then going to bed praying that they won't hurt themselves or someone else."

Less than a week before Christmas, Clasen got a distressing call. Gaytan, who was living in El Monte, California, was a week away from being homeless.

Miriam quickly ordered him a pizza from a delivery place in his hometown. Clasen bought him a ticket to Cleveland.

Though life had been hard for Clasen, it had become virtually impossible for Gaytan.

When he arrived home from Iraq, he didn't leave the house for two months. "I didn't want to go outside. I didn't want to talk to people," he says. "I wanted to be alone and figure out what I just went through."

His entire earnings -- $30,000 from his 14-month tour -- were burned trying to build a new life. Finally, his fiancée left him. "I have no money, no fiancée," Gaytan says. "But I have a kick-ass $2,500 pistol."

A VA doctor ordered him not to work because of the compressed discs in his back, but he can't get unemployment because the feds have been sitting on his disability claim for nearly a year.

He was seeing a VA psychiatrist for his PTSD. Then his doctor left, and he was never reassigned to a new one. "The greatest benefit that Rick and I have is not the VA," Gaytan says. "It's that we're here for each other."

The day after Gaytan arrives in Cleveland, he and Clasen sit in a downtown coffee shop and share war stories. As Clasen recounts the day he saved Specialist Castillo's life, Gaytan becomes agitated. He quietly slips on his coat and walks out for some air.

"Is he OK?"

"I don't know," Clasen says. "I really don't know."