Iraq veteran and Akron native Justen Davis was at a rib fest in Cleveland when he heard a series of loud booms.
He immediately dropped to his knee and lifted his hands as if holding a weapon. He aimed toward the noise: kids throwing novelty fireworks.
“This isn’t right. I shouldn’t be feeling like this,” Davis recalled thinking at the time.
Davis, 34, an Ellet High School graduate and now a Cleveland police officer, sought help at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center for his post-traumatic stress disorder. He is one of about 1,700 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be treated for PTSD there since 2002.
Through today — the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War — Patricia Hall, a clinical nurse specialist at the Cleveland VA and program manager of all outreach to veterans who have served overseas since Sept. 11, 2001, said nearly 12,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated at all area VA facilities.
Sometimes, it takes persistence to reach the new generation of veterans who fought in the Mideast, she said. She recalled the reluctance of a Northeast Ohio veteran who was a double amputee.
“We got a call he would be coming to us and when,” Hall, of Hudson, said.
So after setting up appointments for him with primary care, mental health, polytrauma, traumatic brain injury and orthopedics specialists, the VA waited for the veteran to contact the office.
“We called and called and he didn’t return our calls,” Hall said. “We finally started driving out to his house and knocking on the door.”
It wasn’t until the veteran’s mother got involved that he returned calls, Hall said, and eventually everything went smoothly.
Hall said that what often happens is veterans “are done” with hospitals or doctors.
“They want a break,” she said.
Since 2002, the Cleveland VA has worked with 16 amputees (all men), 12 serious brain injuries (two are women), 1,623 veterans who have been screened as positive for possible traumatic brain injury and 98 vets who are considered seriously injured or ill.
Hall said the VA works with veterans who developed PTSD when they were deployed. Some continue to serve in theater and are treated while they are there.
In some cases, she said, the PTSD is so severe a soldier might not be able to function in theater. Others develop the problem after they get home, having been able to repress it while deployed.
And some do not realize they have a problem until years later.
Davis, who served two tours in Iraq — the first as an active-duty Marine at the beginning of the war in a tank unit, the second as a reservist — said he went to the VA for help after he got home.
War was often a confusing jumble of emotions, Davis said.
He remembers seeing grateful Iraqi citizens at the time of their liberation, but still he felt tension everywhere.
At one point, in Saddam City, Davis said he noticed a number of men with their hands behind their backs as well as another man on a roof standing the same way.
He aimed his weapon at the man on the roof, thinking he was holding a weapon. He was ready to pull the trigger when the man pulled flowers from behind his back.
“They were throwing flowers at us,” Davis said.
At the same time, a little girl came up to his unit holding a sign that read “Welcome Americans” on one side, “Happy Easter” on the other.
Davis wasn’t even aware it was Easter Sunday.
“One minute they are trying to kill you, and the next minute they are celebrating,” he said.
Davis still holds vivid memories of a mortar attack during his second deployment, in 2005. A fellow Marine, Cpl. Michael Lindemuth, 27, of Michigan, was mortally wounded.
“That guy was the toughest guy I ever met in my life,” Davis said, but he was not able to save him.
“I want to say to his family, ‘I tried working on him, but there was only so much I could do,’ ” he said.
A few years after his last deployment, he was driving for an armored car company when he saw a line of full trash bags on the side of a road near Kent.
“I got freaked out,” said Davis, who thought they might be roadside bombs. “I changed lanes and I floored it.
“Little things like that stay with you.”
Ten years after crossing the border into Iraq on a tank have not quelled the memories.
“I can’t help but think about Iraq and the things that happened,” Davis said. “It is almost a decade later and this stuff is still in the back of my mind.”
Still, Davis said he is feeling better now.
“I would not be the person I am if it wasn’t for the Marine Corps,” he said, adding that his war experience has made him more grateful. “I don’t feel disconnected anymore.”
Hall said the military is very “keyed in” to the issues of PTSD as well as suicide among veterans. The military is working to try to “change the military culture so it is OK to go for mental health services.”
Every year since 2002 the number of veterans treated in the new generation has increased, Hall said.
“They are a very dedicated group of veterans, both men and women,” she said. “They work hard in the military and they work hard when they get home. They may struggle with adjustments to civilian life at times because it is so different from the military.”
Hall said working with area veterans has become her passion.
“I wouldn’t do anything else in the world,” she said. “I have a deeper appreciation of their sacrifice and their commitment and their courage.”
She said she has learned that the war often doesn’t end when a warrior leaves the battlefield.
“They have to have the courage to face the future and move forward,” she said.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at email@example.com.