War Gives Way To Financial Strife For Returning Veterans
When he was still scrambling through the brush and dust of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, listening to his buddies’ frantic pleas for a medic, Brendan O’Byrne gave no thought to whether he would be able to pay his bills when he returned home to the United States. He did not contemplate his future credit rating, or his ability to land a job.
Within the netting of heat that enveloped his rickety camp on a rocky hillside 7,000 miles from home, the entire world was compressed to the 19 other young men in his platoon. His life had one organizing principle: to protect the guy to his left and his right; to survive the white-robed insurgents who were plotting over handheld radios to attack him, and who killed seven of his friends during his fifteen-month deployment.
But when O’Byrne came home in December 2008, all those other considerations were waiting for him. The myopia he had adopted to survive the Korengal Valley -- a remote, mountain basin then considered one of the most dangerous assignments in the American military -- lingered on and became a liability.
During combat, the present was his only frame of reference. If his heart was beating at sunrise and still beating at sunset, he was a success. But in the civilian world, time became more complicated. The future now had currency, and mundane matters tripped him up with regularity -- bills, bank accounts, and credit cards. He was a young man lacking both money management skills and an instinct to plan beyond the moment. This, combined with residual strains of combat -- a bad case of PTSD and a tendency to drink -- brought him to a personal crisis.
His finances were the collateral damage.
“It sounds like a very sissy thing to say,” O’Byrne says, “but I just couldn’t deal with it. Like, being in a firefight would have been easier for me.”
The potential medical implications of combat are clear. The amputated limbs. The burn units. Bereavement. The financial implications are more nuanced, yet they reach large numbers of people for whom the consequences endure well after their tours of service have ended.
Some 2.3 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are confronting the worst job market since the Depression. Among young male veterans who have served over the last decade, the unemployment rate reached nearly 27 percent this spring, almost three times the national average, according to a report released by the staff of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. One in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression, which can impose professional limitations, making it that much harder to secure a job and cover the bills.
Beneath these grim statistics are the people paying the human costs of war and its complex aftermath -- people like Brendan O’Byrne.
O’Byrne enlisted in the military while still in high school in Pennsylvania. He spent two years in the National Guard as a tank mechanic, and four years in the Army as airborne infantry.
In May 2007, when he was 23, he deployed to Afghanistan.
During the time he was there, the six-mile-long Korengal Valley absorbed three quarters of the NATO bombs dropped inside the country.
He survived that. Whether he can navigate the next chapter of his life -- reintegration into the civilian world -- remains an open question.
In 2006, when O’Byrne was bored out of his mind at Fort Bragg, waiting for an assignment, he bought a used Acura.
At the time of purchase, he elected to put his $408 monthly car payment through the military’s allotment system, in which debt payments are automatically withdrawn from a servicemember’s paycheck. As a result, he remained current on the account without ever having to deal with it, which was a good thing because less than a year later he deployed to Afghanistan.
While abroad, O’Byrne earned $4,344 a month, more money than he’d ever seen in his life. Even after his $2,017 in military deductions, his car payment and his $100-a-month storage unit, which he also put through the allotment system, he pocketed $1,818 a month, all of which the military automatically deposited into his bank account.
There was nothing to buy at his platoon’s remote mountain camp. There weren’t even hot meals or running water. By the time he returned to America, he’d inadvertently squirreled away roughly $25,000.
That O’Byrne empowered the military to pay his bills made sense. Even while stateside, he’d opted to use the allotment system. Servicemembers routinely relocate, and as he moved around the country for various trainings and assignments, the allotment system saved him the hassle of reestablishing contact with his creditors. However, while the system protected him, it also had the unintended consequence of enabling O’Byrne to avoid learning how to manage his money.
“There are all these skills that I should know as a 24 year-old guy getting out of the military,” he says. “I should know how to balance a checkbook, how to pay rent, and I had no idea … I was just living off the money I had and didn’t plan anything. I just sort of took it day by day.”
This had worked well for him in the Korengal, but became a problem once he transitioned to the civilian world.
Additionally, he was having nightmares. Night after night he got shot, or his gun malfunctioned, or he watched a friend die. The only way to avoid them was to drink until he passed out, so he did, sometimes emptying two bottles of Jack Daniels in a day.
The drinking caused its own problems. He got arrested once for a bar fight, and other times for being “a little bit out of control, drunk, and mad at the world.” He collected unemployment and continued to ignore his bills.
“I have no idea how to catch back up,” he says O’Byrne. “I don’t have any way to figure out how to plan.”
It was as if his body was back at home, but his mind was still in combat, interfering with his ability to strategize during those first few months. “My head is spinning so fast at this point that I try to commit suicide,” O’Byrne says. “I can’t stop my brain from just racing all day. And I’m supposed to worry about this debt? Worry about this car payment?”
It was winter 2008 and the American economy was collapsing. So was O’Byrne.
O’Byrne’s platoon was profiled in Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, “Restrepo.” Junger also wrote about him in his best-selling book “War.” In April 2009, O’Byrne went New York City for a day of follow up interviews at Junger’s apartment. The two men had become good friends during their time in Afghanistan, and that day they discussed what O’Byrne considers “some of the deepest parts of Afghanistan.”
“My brain couldn’t take it,” he says, adding that the trauma of revisiting those times sent him on a “week-long bender.” Over the next few days, he slept on park benches and suffered seizures from the volume of alcohol pounding through his body. “I had pennies in my pocket when I finally knocked on Sebastian’s door and said ‘I need help.’”
The Veterans Administration in Montrose, New York was willing to admit O’Byrne to its 45-day, in-treatment program for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But first the facility required that O’Byrne get sober, and remain sober, for a month.
O’Byrne feared that if he returned to his apartment upstate he would start drinking again. He wanted to stay in New York City, where he felt he had the support to remain sober. But he’d drank his way through his $25,000 in savings. He didn’t have money for rent, and his family didn’t have any to spare.
So Junger rented O’Byrne a room in a YMCA in Manhattan. O’Byrne attended daily alcohol classes, passed his random urine screenings, and entered the program in May.
Two months later, in July, he moved to North Carolina and married his high school girlfriend, Liz, a marine stationed at the Cherry Point airfield.
The coupled survived on Liz’s salary, but O’Byrne was uncomfortable with the arrangement.
“I felt like one of those guys you see in the movies with the dirty wife beaters on, the old war vet, the stereotypical war vet that can’t take care of himself, that’s all messed up and a good woman is taking care of him,” he says. “And I wanted to participate in taking care of myself also.”
But taking care of himself required finding a job, and that was proving to be a challenge.
In Afghanistan, O’Byrne had led three paratroopers and maintained hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment. He was confident in his abilities, and figured those abilities would allow him to work for a living.
“I just wanted to be useful again to society,” he says.
He applied for a job at a factory that manufactured cabinets, but the company turned him down. Then he applied for a job at a Walmart.
“I sat through an hour-long interview at Walmart, and they were talking to me about integrity and loyalty and values and stuff like that,” he says. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘What do you know about any of these skills?’”
When Walmart rejected him, he was stunned.
“Coming out of Afghanistan, leading men in goddamn combat for fifteen months, to being turned down at fucking Walmart, it does something to your ego,” he says. “I wasn’t going for a supervisor role. I wasn’t going for any role. I was going for cleaning floors in the middle of the night. You know, it was such a shock to me that I was turned down for that. And it really, it scared the hell out of me because I thought ‘Oh my god, if I can’t get a job at Walmart, how am I going to get a job anywhere else, and what am I going to do for money?’”
In part, O’Byrne says, his difficulty landing work reflects his troubles with the law: He has to check affirmative when asked if he has been arrested, owing to his drinking and fighting. But a deeper problem exists as well. He has struggled to translate his military skills into workplace skills.
“You give me a group of people, and you give me a job to do, I can lead that group of people into doing any job you give me, whether it’s to build the Statue of Liberty or just get them to walk down a street,” he says. “I can do anything with that group of people. But I have no certificate proving that.”
Because he is accustomed to confronting matters that are literally of life or death, O'Byrne is creative in solving problems. He possesses a classic, military-bred self-reliance, yet is also comfortable working as part of a team. But in his opinion, those abilities are trumped by the cold reality that he looks bad on paper. He didn’t go to college, and his most tangible skills were developed during combat, which is controversial for some employers and outright unappealing to others. In the current job market, when even people with university degrees and relevant experience are struggling to find work, O’Byrne’s resume doesn’t exactly put him at the top of the pile.
Further complicating his job prospects is his hypervigilance, a mode that he instinctively developed in Afghanistan, where he grew able to sense unseen dangers.
Once, he was patrolling a village when he noticed a young Afghan boy staring at his fellow soldiers. He watched the little boy watch the soldiers and felt that something was wrong. Moments later, the boy took off running towards a house that O’Byrne decided to search. Inside, the soldiers found an illegal camouflaged jacket used by Taliban fighters, and met a man who O’Byrne will only describe as “pretty shady.”
That ability to glean danger is a skill he brought back with him to America. But here it’s a liability, a sense of being hunted that makes him nervous.
“That feeling still remains to this day, but it’s doing nothing for me,” he says. “I can’t get the feeling that saved my life in Afghanistan out of my body because, in my brain, it kept me alive in Afghanistan, why shouldn’t it keep me alive here? And it’s causing me this massive amount of pain and turmoil … This feeling that saved my life once is now destroying my life.”
These are the challenges he confronts as he tries to persuade an employer to bring him aboard.
“I can barely sit by myself,” O’Byrne says. “I can’t even sit without my back against the wall because I feel threatened. So, I mean, explain that to your boss.”
On a sunny Wednesday morning, O’Byrne stands in the driveway of a large, stucco home in Brookline, Massachusetts, near Boston, eyeing a 45-foot tree.
“I’m bad at this part,” he says as he tosses a rope high into the branches. He is trying to snag the rope around a limb so that he can climb the tree. As the rope drops awkwardly into the branches, he sighs.
“Sebastian never showed me this part,” he says as he gathers the rope to try again. “I suspect that’s because he’s bad at it too.” He flashes a quick smile, then swings the rope again.
Two years ago, after O’Byrne was rejected by Walmart and O’Byrne’s wife, Liz, deployed to Djibouti, Junger invited O’Byrne to his barn in Massachusetts, where the journalist spent a week teaching the young veteran to trim trees -- work Junger had done decades earlier to finance his first reporting trips.
Rather than return to an empty apartment in North Carolina, O’Byrne elected to stay in Massachusetts, where he lived rent-free in Junger’s barn. Junger introduced O’Byrne to his old boss from his days climbing trees, and O’Byrne’s been working for the man ever since.
Liz returned from Djibouti last summer. Today, the couple lives in a quiet town twenty miles south of Boston. Liz is using the GI Bill to attend her first choice college, Northeastern University, where she is working towards her bachelor’s degree in finance. She’s also looking for a part-time job to supplement their income, which consists of the $2,300 a month she receives through the GI Bill, plus the roughly similar amount that O’Byrne earns tending to the trees.
Last week, O’Byrne got some good news. Outward Bound, the outdoor adventure company, offered him a job working with high-risk teens and veterans. He’ll start as an “assistant to the assistant instructor” this fall, and by spring he’ll be a full-fledged instructor. Because it’s part-time work, he will continue working as an arborist when he’s not in the field.
He hopes to use this as a springboard to one day establish a farm where combat-weathered veterans can openly discuss the experience of war while also gaining marketable skills.
“In a psychologist’s room or psychiatrist’s room there’s no connection, because you can’t connect, because that’s not their job to connect,” he says. “Their job is to understand, evaluate, diagnose and treat. But a group of guys that have seen combat, have seen people die -- that’s human, that’s connection, where people can cry and they can start shedding some of this guilt with guys that know what the hell they’re talking about.”
He has regained a sense of purpose, along with his footing in the civilian world.
Multiple factors help explain this turnaround, factors not enjoyed by every veteran. He has a patient, supportive wife who he adores and who adores him. He has loyal friends. And, in Junger, he has access to a prominent person with the resources to help him.
Yet despite these advantages and his hard-won stability, managing his emotional wounds remains a struggle.
“I can’t even enjoy myself in a restaurant because I feel like everyone’s staring at me and what the fuck are they staring at me for?” he says. “Is there something wrong? Do I have to do something? Are they plotting something? It’s these crazy thoughts in my head, you know?”
And the cold, hard facts remain that, in the reckoning of the financial system, he is just another social security number bearing baggage. He is not a special case, not someone to be given lenience by dint of his experience, but rather a young man with tattered credit and no certain income potential.
Financially, O’Byrne says, he and his wife are “right above surviving.” His credit history is shot due to the prolonged period when he simply stopped paying his bills after returning home.
They have a plan to repair it. First, they are trying to pay off their current debt, which O’Byrne says they’ve accrued during the course of everyday life.
“We had a few flat tires we had to get fixed,” he says. “We fixed Liz’s car up so it didn’t have that whirling sound going on. I bought a truck. Rent. We need to get cheaper phones. You know, all that stuff.”
Once they’ve paid that, they’re planning to start paying down O’Byrne’s older debts, such as a $600 cable bill that went to collections.
The war is now behind O'Byrne, but the daily struggle to recover from its personal costs is still under way.
This is the first installment of “The Green Zone,” an occasional series examining the financial issues facing servicemembers both during their military service and as they transition to the civilian world.