Parents feel their son's stress disorder
By David Zucchino
Los Angeles Times / December 21, 2008
TEMECULA, Calif. - When Army Sergeant Ryan Kahlor returned from two
combat tours in Iraq last year, he was a walking billboard for
virtually every affliction suffered by today's veterans. He had a
detached retina, a ruptured disk, vertigo, headaches, memory lapses,
and numbness in his arms. Fluid seeped from his ears.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and
traumatic brain injury. He was violent and suicidal. He carried a
loaded handgun everywhere. He drank until he passed out. He cut
himself. He burned his skin with cigarettes. He bit through his
tongue just to watch himself bleed.
Kahlor, 24, admits he came back not caring about anyone - the
military, his friends, his family, or himself. But, pushed hard by
his parents, he slowly accepted and then embraced counseling and
treatment. Today, he has begun to recover.
His parents are still trying.
The Kahlors - a college employee and a nurse - have fought through a
series of transformations unfamiliar to most military families.
Tim Kahlor says he and his wife, Laura, have been left with what he
calls, only half in jest, "secondary PTSD." He says his doctor
prescribed antidepressants to help him cope with his son's ordeal.
And both parents, haunted by their son's physical and emotional
breakdown, are fiercely opposed to the war.
Tim Kahlor, 50, who had felt a patriotic surge after the Sept. 11,
2001, terrorist attacks, turned against the war after Ryan complained
during his first tour about ineffective body armor and poorly armored
vehicles. Laura Kahlor, 53, blames the war for her son's
psychological and physical torment. Although she is now grateful for
the treatment he belatedly received, she - like her husband - wishes
they had never let Ryan enlist.
They are still bitter over the several months that their son drifted
while they pleaded with both Ryan and the military for effective PTSD
treatment. Ryan survived several roadside bomb attacks in Iraq but
was traumatized by the violence he saw.
"I was so naive. I was this kid from the Bible Belt who thought our
country would take care of our soldiers," Tim Kahlor said. "I have
guilt for helping him get into this."
A year after the terrorists struck America, Tim Kahlor drove Ryan,
then 18, to the local Army recruiting office to sign up. Although the
Kahlors would have preferred that Ryan attend college, they were
proud of his determination to serve his country.
When Ryan wrote about equipment shortages, Tim telephoned and wrote
to the Pentagon and Congress. Laura sent Ryan a hand-held GPS device
after he complained that military devices kept failing.
Tim Kahlor joined Military Families Speak Out, a group opposed to the
Iraq war. He marched in protests behind caskets, lined up boots
outside the Capitol to represent the war's dead. He put up a sign
outside his home: "Support Our Troops - Let 'em Come Home."
He confronted military recruiters. He intercepted young men outside
recruiting offices, warning them: "You have no idea what you're
getting into." He read to them from Ryan's journal - including
descriptions of collecting the gear of a close friend killed by a sniper:
"My stomach soured. . . . His gear was soaked with blood. My hands
could still feel the moisture of his sweat. I felt like something was
missing in me."
Tim was thrown out of a political fund-raiser for railing against the
war. He approached motorists in cars with yellow ribbons, demanding
to know exactly how they supported the troops.
Some days, Tim wears a button to his job as a payroll coordinator at
the University of California, San Diego. It features an updated
number of the war's dead and a question: "How Many More?"
When Ryan returned in early 2007, "he came back a stranger to me,"
his father said. Tim focused on his son's deteriorating mental and
physical condition. He described delays in treatment as Ryan was put
on desk duty, unable to perform simple tasks because of his brain
injuries and prone to violent outbursts.
"I was either going to die by my own hand - or someone else's," Ryan said.
But through it all, he said, "my dad fought tooth and nail for me,
knowing people in the military can't speak for themselves always. My
dad pushed me to get help. He doesn't let me cut corners, and he's
always on my butt."
In November 2007, Ryan was sent to be treated at San Diego's Naval
Medical Center. His therapists say he is making remarkable progress
after months of physical and speech therapy and mental health counseling.
"We look at Ryan and we say, 'Thank God, we got a good one here,' "
said Colleen Leners, a nurse practitioner who is his primary care
manager. "Ryan wanted to get better."
To treat his PTSD, Ryan was referred in May to the National Center
for PTSD in Palo Alto, Calif., run by the Veterans Administration. He
completed an intensive 65-day group program with veterans from wars
in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam.
There, Ryan said, he learned to recognize his "stuff points" -
traumatic experiences in Iraq he was afraid to confront.
"There's no time to grieve in combat, so you just stuff it," he said.
"You see your friend die and then you go back to work."
Without treatment, Ryan said, "I'd be sitting in a dark room
somewhere - or dead."
Ryan said he suffers from survivor's guilt and intends to seek more
counseling. He is still being treated for vertigo, for speech and
memory difficulties, and for fluid and ringing in his ears.
The military has provided him a hand-held organizer to help him
organize his life and remember appointments. He draws maps to help
him locate his parked car. "As many times as I've been hit in the
head, a lot of stuff that seems simple on a daily basis becomes
difficult," Ryan said.
Even so, he chose a challenging subject - the Russian invasion of
Georgia - for a speaking exercise in group speech therapy.
Laura Kahlor considers her son a newly minted person, just as she
considered the tormented young man who returned from Iraq a different
person from the son she sent off to war - the one who had "Duty,
Honor, Country" tattooed on his leg.
"He came back so violent," she said, recalling the images of bloody
Iraqi corpses Ryan brought home on his laptop. "I was afraid he'd use
his gun on himself."
Today the gun is locked in a drawer, and Ryan is evolving into the
caring, gentle son his parents remember. At the request of a
counselor, he often talks to other soldiers with PTSD, encouraging
them to seek treatment.
Ryan does not publicly discuss his father's activism or his own
feelings about the war. He says only: "That's what we're fighting for
- for people's rights to speak out."
When his enlistment ends in March, Ryan plans to leave the Army. He
is shopping for a new house and intends to enroll at a community
college. He wants to become a history teacher or physical therapist.
After all that has befallen him, would he enlist again?
"Probably not," Ryan said. "But since I did it, I'm glad. It's
matured me. It's made me stronger, more confident."
His mother said that although she's grateful for Ryan's counseling
and for the travel and educational benefits the military has
provided, "it still wasn't worth it."
Tim Kahlor, sitting in his living room at dusk, flanked by his wife
and his tall, strapping son in Army fatigues, reflected on his
family's six-year ordeal. He paused and said, finally, "I wish he had
never gone in."