On January 20, 2006, Charles Cooper's life was forever changed. The 34-year-old Army veteran was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, better known as an RPG, while overseeing a road with his company in Rumadi, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"After the attack, my left leg looked like Swiss cheese. I had a hole in my upper thigh you could put your fist into," Cooper said. "On a humorous point, I was glad I wore my PT shorts that day, because my pants were completely blown off. I still laugh at that."
Despite his good spirits, the Collierville resident lives with chronic pain, and his only relief comes from the pain-block shots he gets every few months.
Cooper is one of about 50,000 veterans wounded in recent military conflicts, according to the most up-to-date statistics from the Wounded Warrior Project. And he's one of many local veterans whose lives are forever changed for a variety of reasons.
While not all returned home with physical wounds, many have mental scars, whether in the form of chronic anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the Wounded Warrior Project, approximately 400,000 armed service vets are returning with PTSD.
Others have struggled with finding a job in the recession-era economy upon their return. Some have turned to substance abuse to cope, and others have taken their pain out on friends and family members in the form of domestic violence or aggravated assault.
The new Shelby County Veterans' Court was launched in July to deal with vets from all wars who end up on the wrong side of the law. And while the court has yet to see many younger veterans, the court's administrator, Curt Wilson, believes that day is coming.
"There's a feeling of euphoria when they first come back, and they may not even know they have problems in their mind. They may not exhibit problems for three, four, or five years," Wilson said. "But something may trigger them down the road. We probably won't see an influx from the last two conflicts for another year or so."
What follows are the stories of four local veterans, each with his or her own set of post-war problems ranging from legal and financial issues to chronic pain.
The Wounded Warrior
Charles Cooper joined the Army in 1997, straight out of high school. It was pre-9/11, and Cooper never imagined he'd be going to war.
"Nobody thought of war back then. Sure, you had stuff going on in Kosovo, but nobody really thought we'd be going to war," Cooper said.
When he was 20, he went to South Korea for a year, where his company "hung out and drank beer" when they weren't practicing what to do if North Koreans came across the border.
"And then 9/11 happened, when I was stationed in Hawaii, and everything changed. A few bad policies later, we were in Iraq. As a soldier, you go where you're told to go and do what you're told to do," Cooper said.
He was sent to Iraq in May 2003, and his wife Jennifer, a military intelligence specialist in the Army, was deployed in mid-June. Their 6-month-old son stayed with his grandmother while Cooper and his wife were off at war.
Cooper returned from Iraq on New Year's Eve 2004, but he was deployed again in November 2005. A couple of months later, his company was hit with RPGs, and Cooper was the only member who sustained serious injuries.
"Even after I was hit, I was more worried about the other soldiers than anything else, because I was their squad leader. I had to make sure they were okay," Cooper said. "But there I am, laying on the ground. My gunner was knocked out, but once my driver came to, he started first aid. I was lucky to be the only one wounded."
Advancements in battlefield medicine and modern body armor mean an unprecedented number of contemporary service members are surviving attacks that would have killed people serving in wars past. For every U.S. soldier killed in World Wars I and II, there were 1.7 soldiers wounded. But for every U.S. soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, there are seven soldiers wounded, according to the Wounded Warrior Project.
After Cooper was hit, he spent 39 days in the hospital. Later that same year, Cooper's wife, who had already returned home from her tour of duty, began having pains in her hips and joints. An MRI revealed a tumor in her leg. Jennifer went through chemo treatments, but her leg had to be amputated. Eventually, the cancer spread to her lungs, and a few months after the amputation procedure, in March 2007, Jennifer Cooper died.
"That whole year, from January 2006 to March 2007, was not a good year," Cooper said. "I sent my son to go live with his grandmother. We'd already been away from our son during the war. And then we had the whole process with chemo. It was tough for a few years after that."
After his wife died, Cooper went to his commander at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and asked to be transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia. But after a year and a half there, he decided it was time to get out altogether.
"It got to the point, being a single dad, that the military atmosphere and the mentality just wasn't me anymore. I came close to getting in trouble a few times from getting into arguments with people," Cooper said.
Today, Cooper, who just graduated from the University of Memphis with a double major in political science and history, is remarried to a fellow U of M student, Dana, and the couple have a 1-year-old daughter. Cooper lives with chronic pain that limits his day-to-day activities.
"There are parts of my leg that I can't feel. The muscle trauma and the nerve sensations burn. I'm always going to have to live with this, so I've accepted that I'm just going to hurt. I have to limit what I do and how I do it."
He goes in for pain-blocking shots every few months, and that helps numb the pain for about two months at a time. But when the shots wear off, he has to deal with intense pain until he can get another appointment with his doctor.
"That's where the red tape comes in. I have to space my shots out for a good month or so after it wears off before I'm able to get another one. I have to wait until I just can't take it anymore.
"When I'm in pain, I get angry, and I just want to be left alone," Cooper said. "I can't take any lifting or constant bending. I have to limit myself on housework. I used to be an avid runner, but I can't do that anymore. And I have to watch my weight, because that adds to the pressure in my back and in my legs."
His injury compounded a failing disk in his back, leading to a herniated disk that caused even more crippling pain and would leave him immobile for three to four days at a time. Cooper had disk replacement surgery in 2008: "My S1L5 is an artificial disk. I'm like a walking bionic man."
But despite his hardship, Cooper isn't bitter toward the military: "I don't regret anything I've done. I enjoyed my time in the military. I had fun."
The Victims of a Down Economy
Lisa Daniels was an Army Black Hawk crew chief in Iraq from July 2006 to October 2007. Shortly after she arrived in Iraq, her helicopter was shot. A bullet narrowly missed her head. She was shaken but not injured.
The real problems for Daniels didn't start until she and her husband, Joe, who served in the Marine infantry, returned home. The 26-year-old got out of the military two years early, after she became pregnant in 2009. Her husband finished his military duty a few months before her.
"It was tough. We were both unemployed, and we had no civilian skills. It was hard to get a job," said Daniels, who joined the Army right out of high school in the hopes of getting her college education paid for. "We lived with my husband's family for the first two years, after trying to live on our own for six months."
Being pregnant compounded Daniels' ability to find work. Her husband eventually got a security job but for only a few hours each week. Eventually, the couple moved to Texas, where Daniels' family lives, and her dad secured a job for Joe in the heating and air industry. But the company let him go after a year. The couple moved back to Memphis, where it took nine more months for Joe to find a job as a security officer.
"The military doesn't pay you anything when you get out. Once you're out, you're out," Daniels said. "When I got out, the Army held my last two paychecks, because they have to make sure you don't owe them anything. So I went two months without getting paid, and my husband was unemployed. It was hard."
When they were in the military, the couple was accustomed to financial security and having extra money to save. Since getting out, they've had to make sacrifices just to get by.
"We've had to cut back as much as we can. We sold my car, and that's hard, because my husband works weird hours, from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday. So I'm stuck at home," Daniels said.
The couple shares a small apartment on the University of Memphis campus with their 3-year-old son Robert. Daniels stays at home with their son and attends nursing classes paid for by the Montgomery G.I. Bill. The bill provides some minimal housing expenses, but new rules instituted in the spring of 2010 mean she no longer gets paid during winter break and over the summer.
"That's a huge cut. I end up going about three and a half months with no pay," Daniels said.
To top it off, the couple hasn't had health insurance in more than a year. Daniels joined the Army Reserves for a year to make sure her family had health coverage, but that stint is over.
"The military benefits are the same as paying for private health care. They're really expensive," Daniels said.
While the young couple has managed their financial difficulties fairly well, that's not the case for many returning veterans who are out of work. Barney Barnhart, the mentor co-coordinator for the Shelby County Veterans' Court, said joblessness is the number-one contributing factor to veterans finding themselves in trouble.
"Our guys just can't find work, and idle hands are not good," Barnhart said. "For some, too much free time with no hope for work leads to too much booze or drugs. It's the same as with the Vietnam days. The booze and drugs take the pain away."
The Vet Court Client
Twenty-six-year-old Brandon Jeffries did 42 months in the Navy before he was kicked out for a DUI charge in July 2011. But Jeffries said he wasn't actually driving when he was charged.
"I was sitting in my car. I wasn't driving. The charge didn't hold up, but they kicked me out of the Navy for it anyway," Jeffries said.
He said he had some of the best evaluations one could get as an aviation mechanic. He'd been promoted early, but the same weekend he'd learned of his advancement, he was hit with the DUI charge. He was discharged with a General (Under Honorable Conditions), a discharge given when negative aspects of a member's conduct outweigh the positive aspects of his or her conduct. That means Jeffries isn't allowed to rejoin and he can't benefit from the G.I. Bill, which was one of the reasons he joined the Navy in 2008.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do [career-wise], and I didn't want to get myself into debt with school, when I could get it paid for. And I wanted to see the world, so the Navy was the way to go," Jeffries said.
After returning home, Jeffries began the process of trying to get his discharge upgraded. But he's still waiting on a response from the Navy.
Before he even deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom, Jeffries began experiencing panic attacks.
"I got anxiety really bad before we went on deployment. After we came back, it never went away. A couple of times, I freaked myself out so bad that I would black out, and when I came to, I would get sick and throw up," Jeffries said.
Although he was never shot at, he saw plenty of horrifying sights, like a dead body being carried onto his flight deck and live videos of fellow fighters under fire, which kept his anxiety levels high. The Navy doctors prescribed him anxiety medication.
"But when I got out, I wasn't prescribed medication anymore," Jeffries said, as he detailed how he was arrested shortly after returning home. "I had two pills in my pocket, and we got a flat tire. A cop came to check on us, and then he searched us. They found my pills, and I told them it was my medication. But I didn't have a prescription anymore."
Jeffries was arrested for possession of a controlled substance. That was in October 2011, nine months before the Veterans' Court launched in Shelby County. He remained in legal limbo for months.
"I've been trying to clear this off my record. I've had opportunities with school, and I've had a few job opportunities, but now I can't do any of that," Jeffries said.
Fortunately for Jeffries, the Veterans' Court staff felt like he was the perfect candidate for its new program. As of July, any veteran arrested in Shelby County is considered for the one-year program. Veterans meet with Judge Bill Anderson every Wednesday in the Division 7 courtroom at 201 Poplar. On a recent Wednesday, the courtroom is filled with mostly older vets, some with graying hair, some still sporting Vietnam-era ponytails.
But a couple of young men, veterans of wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, sit in the room as well, waiting for Anderson to call them to the bench. They've all broken the law, with charges ranging from substance-abuse-related crimes to domestic violence. In this court, these men (so far, no female veterans have made it into the program) will have a second chance.
Anderson orders them to undergo whatever treatment, through the Veterans Administration, that he deems necessary. It could be a 12-step program or a domestic violence program or something else. After the client successfully completes treatment for one year, the charges are dropped.
For Jeffries, that treatment is a weekly support group for veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
"It helps you deal with getting acclimated to civilian life," Jeffries said. "It's just good to talk to somebody who has been through what you've been through and has had the same experiences you've had."
So far, there are 22 veterans in the program, each hand-picked from more than 300 veterans arrested for various crimes since July.
"The folks we're taking on are folks who have a risk of going to jail for a long time — seven months and 29 days up to three to five years — depending on the charge," Anderson said. "We have the ability to make them understand that if they get control of their issues and get help through the VA, their charges will be dismissed."
In addition to court-ordered treatment, clients are paired with a mentor, who provides support and acts as a shoulder to lean on through tough times.
"The mentors are ex-military people who have been there, done that. They know what these folks are going through. That is the major component that makes veterans' courts [across the country] successful," Anderson said. "I'm a civilian. I've never served in the military, and I can't talk to these folks about what they've been through. I can't empathize with them, and I'm not going to try.
"They need someone to talk to who can work through their problems, like when they're driving down the street and hear a car backfire and think about bombs or IEDs. That's real. That happens."
As of today, most of the 20 mentors are veterans of Vietnam or other older conflicts. And most of the court clients are as well, but Jeffries is one of a handful of Iraq and Afghanistan vets who could benefit from having a younger mentor to talk to.
"We're still seeking mentors, and we need younger ones," said Curt Wilson, the court's coordinator. "We only have two from Iraq and Afghanistan, and that's the area where we need to expand the most."
Wilson urges any veterans who are interested in volunteering to sign up at vetcourtmentors.org.
As for Jeffries, he's been prescribed the anxiety medication he needs. Now he's eagerly awaiting next August, when his time with the Veterans' Court is through, so he can move on with his life. And he's got his fingers crossed, hoping that the Navy will upgrade his discharge status so he can access G.I. Bill funds for college.
"I want to go to school desperately. You can't do anything without going to school," Jeffries said. "I want to do something in business management or business finance, but I'm still trying to decide."
The Smooth Transition
Post-war life hasn't been as tough for some local veterans, like Dave Lewis, a Marine Reserves veteran who served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
"I don't have any service-related injuries. I'm not a PTSD sufferer," said Lewis, who works in management for a local construction company. "But everybody has a different reaction to their experience in the military. I happen to have had a positive one. It carried over and helped me be better at my job and finish school."
Lewis was in an infantry unit, and he served in direct combat operations. At the time he was deployed, the war was especially violent and soldiers in his platoon were killed.
"People in my platoon were constantly facing roadside bombs and car bombs and ambushes. It was pretty scary, but it was also exhilarating. There was a unique excitement to it with the adrenaline," Lewis said.
Lewis put that behind him after he returned home.
"You hear about guys coming back and having to go 150 miles an hour on their motorcycle or jumping out of planes to relive those heightened sensations. I haven't had those desires," Lewis said. "I look at it from the lens of it was really dangerous, and people got hurt. Overall, it kind of sucked."
After returning home, Lewis finished college at Oklahoma State University. When he moved to Memphis for a job, he was informed that his unit in Oklahoma was about to deploy to Iraq again. He was able to work a deal and transfer to a unit in Nashville, where he traveled once a month for reservist duty. His contract was up in 2010, and he chose to get out before he ran the risk of having to go back to Iraq.
Unlike many veterans, Lewis didn't join right out of high school. He was 24 when he joined the Marine Reserves and already had two years of college under his belt.
"I joined less than a year after 9/11. That was part of the reason — reactionary patriotism," Lewis said. "And a good friend of mine was going in at the same time. I thought, why not?"
Lewis said his age put him at an advantage to handle military life, and he believes the adjustment to life back home would have been tougher if he'd joined while still in his teens, as so many veterans do.
"I was five or six years older than the average Marine. If I'd gone in at age 18, I would have been in a completely different mindset, not having already lived in the [civilian] world."
Since returning to civilian life, Lewis said his military experience has been an asset when interviewing for jobs.
"I had a [college] degree in one hand and a Marine service degree in the other hand. I could say I was a sergeant in the Marines, and I led 30 to 60 men and managed millions of dollars of equipment. I was uniquely set up for success in that regard.
"But that's not always the case for others. Some employers have a little fatigue with hiring veterans because they may have experienced situations where they didn't get the leadership they expected from a veteran. Plus, there are so many people coming out of this machine."
More veterans will be coming out of that "machine" as the years go by. Although an exit strategy was endorsed at the NATO summit in Chicago this past May, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the longest-running war in U.S. history, continues.
Many more will return with crippling wounds, and they'll be forced to deal with a life of pain. Others will struggle to find work as the economy improves at a snail's pace. Wilson believes the Veterans' Court will play a crucial role in preventing many veterans from winding up homeless and jobless like so many of their Vietnam-era brethren.
"If we had been able to deal with those Vietnam veterans when they came home and had issues 40 years ago, we wouldn't be dealing with them [at the Veterans' Court] now," Wilson said. "If we deal with these Afghanistan and Iraq vets who are coming back now, maybe we won't be dealing with them 40 years from now."
If you're a veteran and interested in mentoring for the Veterans' Court, go to vetcourtmentors.org for more information.