Coming Home: The Scars of War

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Andy Sawyer On the end table in Leslie Stump-Milam's home sit a photo of her son, Dustin Stump, a Bible and a letter he sent to her from Yakima County Jail, where he is awaiting trial for armed robbery. While in Iraq, Stump suffered traumatic bring injury, PTSD, and was hit by the impact of IED's several times.

From War Hero to Jail Inmate

by Phil Ferolito

YAKIMA, Wash. — From behind a visitor’s window in the Yakima County jail, decorated Iraq War veteran Dustin Stump vividly recalls the firefights, explosions and killings in and around Baghdad.

He proudly remembers the time he provided cover fire for his fellow soldiers, an act of bravery that earned him the Army Commendation Medal.

“Everyone said, ‘Stump, you were out in the middle of that field and rounds were going off all around you,'” the 24-year-old recalls with a subtle laugh. “They said, ‘Man, you crazy.'”

But since those glory days, life has taken a sharp turn for the slim war hero from Satus. He’s been in jail since September on charges of armed robbery, leaving his mom, Leslie Stump-Milam, devastated.

“It’s very gut-wrenching,” Stump-Milam says tearfully. “A mom never wants to see her son do this, especially after he’s gotten back from where he came from.”

A good country boy who always made his mom proud, Stump went off to war with his head held high, only to return with the kind of physical and mental scars that would test the bravest of soldiers.

He’s been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury from an explosion that knocked him unconscious for four hours. One of his ankles was shattered after he stepped on an improvised explosive device. And he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety illness with symptoms as varied as flashbacks, insomnia, agitation and unexplained anger.

He receives no help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and he’s not getting any disability from the military.

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On top of all this, Stump finds himself deep in the criminal justice system.

While most of the 2.1 million service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan readjust to life at home with a minimum of stress, many do not. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, one in five service members returning from the wars report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. That amounts to 420,000 service members deployed in both wars since 2001.

Statistics on the number of injured vets who turn to crime are nearly impossible to come by, and those that are reported are disputed.

But experts say vets who end up committing crimes have fallen into a black hole between the time they are discharged and when they break the law. And it’s in that critical time that many don’t seek help and end up in jail, homeless or suicidal.

It’s a gap that U.S. Sen. Patty Murray hopes to close. As the new chairwoman of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, she said in a recent telephone interview that she will seek legislation requiring all branches to link a service member with a military officer who would be their advocate at the VA before discharge.

Because once they’re out, Murray says, it’s nearly impossible for the VA to locate them.

“When you go into the service, the service worries about what you can do for them, not what they can do for you when you get out,” the Washington Democrat says. “We need to change that culture.”

Dave Brown, who heads the Yakima County Veterans Program, says he sees about 15 veterans a month jailed in the Yakima Valley, mostly for drunken driving and other charges related to substance abuse.

“They don’t seek help a lot of times until the crisis point,” Brown says. “A lot of times they don’t even know they need help. A lot of them come out (of combat) and look normal.”

From FFA to armed robbery

Growing up, Stump stayed out of trouble, played sports and presided over his high school’s FFA club, his mother says.

“How does the president of the FFA go from being such a good kid doing the things he did to an armed robber?” Stump-Milam asks. “He was a good kid. He was a hard worker. He had good morals and ethics.”

Court records show her son had no prior criminal history.

Combat has changed him, she admits.

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Stump enlisted in the Army three months after graduating from Mabton High School in 2005. About a year later, he was deployed to Iraq.

He came home four years later, angry, short-tempered and easily irritated, she says.

“He was secretive — he didn’t trust anybody,” she says. “We didn’t laugh about things anymore. Everything was a serious matter with him down to the minute things.”

Stump agrees that his troubles began after he returned from Iraq.

He had his pay taken away for more than a month and performed extra duty after the military prosecuted him for two drunken driving charges while stationed at Fort Richardson in Alaska.

Things got worse at Fort Richardson. The ankle shattered by a bomb rendered him unable to serve, and he was medically discharged last April.

“I wanted the military to be the career of my life — get out in 20 years, you know,” he says. “But I got into all the trouble I did. I had mood swings really bad. I’d get really angry, then depressed and then at times I just wanted to kill myself.”

He says painkillers, whisky and beer became the answer to the night terrors, episodes of anger, depression and pain in his back and ankle.

“I was snorting any kind of pills you can find,” he says. “I was trying to get out of reality. I was having so many dreams I couldn’t sleep.”

His family also felt his pain.

Friendly wrestling matches and basketball games with his little brothers, Josh, 11, and Quinn, 6, would sometimes turn rough.

“Thank God nobody got hurt,” says his mother.

And it was tricky trying to wake him. She tried once, and startled him: “I ended up in a headlock on the ground.”

Stump suffers frequent headaches, episodes of blurred vision, memory loss and often loses feeling in his hand and the leg he had ankle surgery on. He can’t be around loud, ongoing noises.

“He’d always say, ‘I got to get out of here, Mom, I’ve got to get out of here.’ And if he didn’t, he’d blow,” Stump-Milam says. “He was aggravated, he was paranoid, he just wasn’t Dustin.”

Out of painkillers on Sept. 23, 2010, Stump grew desperate. Armed with a large knife and his face hidden behind a black hooded sweatshirt and mask, he walked into a Mabton convenience store and ordered the clerk to open the cash register. He took an undisclosed amount of money and left with an accomplice in a blue Subaru.

Later that day, he confessed to the crime after being stopped by police. Now he’s awaiting trial, set for early May.

“I needed money so I could get drugs,” he says. “The way I was selling it, I could keep using it.”

War scars

Many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans come home without knowing they are suffering from traumatic brain injury caused by explosions. Although new lightweight armor offers better protection, the shock can still violently jar the brain.

A wide range of physical, mental and behavioral problems are associated with traumatic brain injury, including blurred vision, memory loss, violent mood swings, irritability and even paralysis.

Of the roughly 2,400 known Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Northern Idaho, Eastern Oregon and most of Central Washington, about 100 receive treatment for traumatic brain injury and nearly 500 have been diagnosed with post- traumatic stress disorder, says Veterans Affairs service program manager Dave Beebe in Walla Walla.

A good chunk of them are also suffering from depression and substance abuse, he says.

Stump felt the impact of explosions more than once. On his first mission in late October 2006, he was walking with his unit along a dusty road outside Baghdad, a hot spot for roadside bombs and other explosive devices.

Silence was broken by the thunder of a mortar, shaking Stump. Shrapnel dented his helmet. He remembers standing dizzily with a loud ringing in his ear.

Roughly eight months later, he was in a convoy of military vehicles on patrol when an IED took out the rear of his Humvee and the front of another following closely.

Stump, who was manning a gun atop the vehicle, vaguely recalls the blast. He was slammed into the vehicle so hard that his helmet bounced from his head. Blood spilled from one of his ears. He was hospitalized for 12 hours. His medical records say he was unconscious for more than four hours.

About a month later, he was on foot patrol when he stepped on an IED. “It was a toe-popper,” he says. “It had glass, nails, rocks, stuff like that.”

After a few surgeries and repeated injury to the ankle, he was given a medical discharge.

Unseen wounds

But not all wounds are physical.

Stump’s mom says he’s haunted by what he did in Iraq. She says he talked about being ordered to assassinate combatants by shooting them in the head.

He also talked about a street fight in which a 6-year-old boy — the same age as his youngest brother — was riddled with gunfire. Medics took the boy, but Stump didn’t know if he survived, his mother says.

“The things he would tell me, I’d stop him,” she says. “I couldn’t listen to it.”

His former sergeant, Kuwayne Davis, who is now stationed in California, says when Stump was injured, his inability to serve weighed heavily on him, especially because he lost friends in their second deployment.

“A lot of stuff could have contributed to what was going on in his head,” Davis says. “But I can tell you he had a lot to deal with and he didn’t always have someone to talk to. I was kind of that relief valve for him.”

Stump has the medical records to prove what he endured, but still, he hasn’t been able to access the VA system.

A roughly 4-inch-thick stack of documents describes his hallucinations, headaches, dizzy spells, night tremors and suicidal thoughts. At one point, he was hospitalized on suicide watch, according to the records.

But breakdowns in communication between the military — where he was receiving some help for all of his problems — and the VA left him without services after he left the Army.

He says he submitted paperwork to the VA office in Walla Walla and spoke with someone over the phone. But when he went to Comprehensive Mental Health in Yakima for counseling, there was no referral or any other paperwork from the VA.

Beebe, the Veterans Affairs service program manager in Walla Walla, says Stump is not on file in the VA system.

“His case, it looks like he made an appointment, but who he talked to and what happened, I don’t know,” he says. “I know some guys slip through the cracks. On the other hand, they could have lost it. They could have spelled his name wrong or didn’t fill out his Social Security number correctly.”

Davis says Stump was trying to get disability from the military.

“Every time I saw him, he was always trying to get his paperwork together so he could get his disability started,” he recalls.

Stump’s mom says the impacts of war and lack of help became too much for him.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think Dustin got a fair shake when he got out, and now he’s in trouble,” she says. “This is a kid who laid his life on the line numerous times for his country, and he needs help.”

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