Henry Gomez is now a civilian, but he doesn’t look like it. He is unusually burly, his knuckles are covered with large, dark callouses. A big scar sits above his eyebrow. Every now and then, beads of sweat roll down his forehead. His experiences in the Army’s First Armored Division stick with him.
While talking about firefights, mortars exploding near his unit’s position or retrieving dead soldier’s bodies in 120 degree heat back in Iraq, while he was an E-4 Specialist in the Army, his chest tightens, his eyes turn red, but he holds his emotions inside his 230-pound frame. He exhales, takes a deep breath and he can continue.
As he drive down Seventh Avenue to Bartel-Pritchard Square, Gomez grips the steering wheel tightly and drives carefully. When he first got back from a 14-month tour of Iraq with the Army in 2004, he would swerve if he saw a Coca-Cola can sitting in the street. Once he got out of the way, he’d feel relieved as if he avoided an IED.
He said back in Bagdad, the Taliban would hide bombs inside the red aluminum cans. If your truck ran over it, “BOOM,” he explained, “you’re done.”
Gomez, who is now 39 years old, suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and lost a good deal of his vision, especially in his right eye, due to untreated diabetes while at war. When he got back stateside, an Army doctor told him that he is “unemployable” at this time. He has the potential to be “very violent” and any little thing can trigger his outbursts.
“Now, I know I have PTSD. But I had to come to that realization,” Gomez explained. “As a soldier, you don’t want to be told that you’re broken, or accept that you’re broken in any way, shape or form. To me, having PTSD is being broken because that’s what they teach you. If you can’t work, you’re broke.”
Gomez, who was born and raised in Park Slope until he was 27, hasn’t been able to hold a job since he got out of the Army in 2005. He was active for three years, eight months and seven days. He has a wife and three kids and survives on a pension from the Department of Veteran Affairs and Social Security, but it is not enough.
He was deployed to Bagdad in March 2003 as a 28-year-old and spent just over a year there, operating out of the Radwaniyah Palace. But, when he came home he wasn’t the same person and the Army wasn’t giving him enough money to pay for medicine, mental therapy and enough financial assistance since he couldn’t hold a job.
“The lack of sleep, the incoming rounds, people shooting at you, people killing your friends. You deal with this for a year straight, it takes a toll on you,” Gomez said, explaining that he was only getting about $400 a month from the VA when he first got back and had to pay for his own health care. “You serve your country, you fight, you kill and then you come home. But at home what do you have?”
He said he suffered from severe nightmares and paranoia. He’d get up at 4 a.m. sweating and disoriented. He would not know where he was and he’d check all the windows and doors, then go outside and do a perimeter check around his house, like back in Bagdad, to make sure the enemy was not encroaching.
“When you’re all jacked up in the middle of the night you have nobody to turn to,” Gomez said.
His wife eventually separated from him for almost a year and he was left homeless, living out of his car and showering at a gym. His wife was afraid of his violent outbursts, although he never hit her, she couldn’t understand what he was going through.
Even his father was afraid of him. After waking Gomez up from a nap to move the car, Gomez did not know where he was and became violent. His father called the police and had him arrested. Gomez went under three days of mental evaluation before he was released.
“You can’t even rely on the government, can’t rely on the VA because of all the bureaucracy and if you get the help, you’re lucky,” Gomez said, explaining that it took nearly five years to get health care provided for him by the VA.
At first, the VA denied his claims that he developed PTSD, diabetes and the fact that he was unemployable due to his experiences during the war in Iraq. He was originally only receiving 40 percent of his pension and he had to pay for his medicine he needs to live and function in the civilian world.
He has to inject himself with insulin three times a day, take an anti-depressant, another pill for nightmares and another to sleep at night.
Eventually, the VA bumped his benefits up to 70 percent, which gave him health care but did not cover his wife and three kids. His claim for 100 percent of his pension, so he can have an income he can survive on, was just pushed back to the first phase this month. Now, he has to wait while only bringing in $800 a month.
But there was one thing he said that the VA did that helped him to integrate himself back into society, just enough to deal with getting out of the house without breaking down.
He went to the VA Brooklyn Medical Center for a readjustment program, went under psychological evaluation and had therapy sessions.
The outpatient veteran program helped him get out of the house for social events, taught him how to deal with stress and get back into the swing of things. It is usually only a four to eight month program, but he was there for 13 months, almost one month for each month he was in Iraq.
His nightmares stopped being as intense, his paranoia subsided and he stopped doing parameter checks around his home. But, he still is not fully integrated.
“I still consider myself a soldier, I still have the habits,” Gomez explained while sitting down at a café and telling his story. “But it’s hard to separate myself from the way I was during the war to how things are now at home. It’s what has lead to a lot of my family problems.”
Eventually, after he under went intense therapy for five days a week for over a year straight, he convinced his wife to move back in with him. Now with 70 percent of his pension and health care and Social Security benefits, he was able to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Bensonhurst. After the VA’s program, he went to another program for veterans called Exit Strategy, which a Vietnam veteran he met suggested he try.
But this month, when the VA denied his claim for 100 percent, he said he almost lost all the progress he has made.
“I almost reverted back to the way I was, it was such a big blow,” Gomez explained. “I started to think about all the things that I have done and everything that I have seen.
When he talks about what he went through in Iraq, he gets visibly overwhelmed. As we’re sit in the back of the café, with a clear view for the front door, he describes a day when he cleaned up the remains of a solider who committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
“The soldier was upset with himself that he couldn’t deal with it, so he blew his brains out on to the ceiling,” Gomez said. Gomez was sent off on a detail with the 31st Casualty Unit to clean up the soldier’s remains.
He said that brain matter and pieces of skull, with the scalp and hair still attached, were stuck to the ceiling. He cleaned it all up with brown paper towels. It was just another day in Bagdad, Gomez explained.
“Going and seeing all these things…” Gomez said as his voice trailed off, needing to take a minute. His eyes glazed over and brought him back to another place. A place where taking a ride through the city meant piling up in a Hummer with eight other guys with their guns pointed out the window, “to make sure no one runs up and throws a grenade in your truck.” He was back there for one minute, until he came resurfaced in Park Slope.
“It f@$*s with you,” he finally said.
Now, with his family back with him, he feels more stable.
“If it wasn’t for my wife and kids, I’d be in a pine box right now,” he said, explaining that 18 veterans a day commit suicide. This rate means that more veterans from all the wars have killed themselves after coming home than the 6,460 American casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
As he gets better mentally, he has started a mission to let other veterans know that getting benefits from the VA is not impossible, it’s just extremely hard and takes years.
“I am not the only soldier going through this s@$t. I have been fighting since 2006 to try and get the benefits I deserve so I can get a decent place to live and provide for my family,” Gomez explained. “I don’t want to be in the system, but I need help, I need help.”
After years of resubmitting claims and being uninsured for years, he still will not give up.
“After I fought for my country, after I killed for my country and for me to come back and have the same people who sent me out there to deny the things I did in Iraq and deny me help, what does that leave me?” Gomez said.
Bringing light to his struggle to get benefits, he hopes, will help other soldiers know they are not alone.
“I want them to know that the trouble I have had coming back is the same as theirs,” Gomez said. “ When the VA says ‘No,’ keep saying ‘Yes.’ The care for us coming back is majorly lacking, and there is no reason for that.”
But, at the end of the day, he knows that the war he helped fight was not for nothing.
“Don’t get me wrong: I love my country, I fought for my country and I have been other places, America is the best place to be because of our freedom,” Gomez said.
“But that freedom is something that I have helped to provide and a long line of soldiers who came before me helped to provide,” Gomez said. “And soldiers after me will help provide. If this is going on with me now, what’s going to happen for the other soldiers are coming back?”