Returning Soldier Finds Role as Advocate

As part of the Span of War Series, NPR's Joseph Shapiro concludes a two-part story on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Herold Noel is a veteran of the war in Iraq, with PTSD. In this segment, Noel talks about the groups that helped him find a place to live and find some purpose in his life.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Often it's soldiers who teach us the most about the injuries of war. Yesterday we told you the story of Herold Noel, who is trying to get his life back together after a grueling tour of duty in Iraq. To help himself, he's trying to help others, fighting for the health care that many veterans need. Today is part of our Span of War series. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has part two of our story.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

Herold Noel is sitting behind the wheel of his red Jeep. It's parked on a street in Brooklyn. He rolls down the window and remembers how he drove a fuel truck in Iraq.

Mr. HEROLD NOEL (Iraq War Veteran): This is how you are: your hands on the steering wheel, your rifle out the window, just like this. That's how you're driving for seven months. Somebody walk toward your door, you just--don't ask no questions, don't say--tell them to get off; just blow the person's head off. You got to do that to survive. You got to do that if you want to see your family. So that's what I got to live with.

SHAPIRO: Noel has post-traumatic stress disorder. That's a psychiatric condition that can sometimes result from being in great danger or witnessing a traumatic event, like killing another human being. We expect soldiers to kill, but then they're pretty much on their own to deal with the difficult emotions that can result from killing.

Mr. NOEL: The Army trains you to kill. You shoot at phony targets and stuff like that. That's about it, and it gets you mentally strong, but when you see all them killings of kids and stuff like that, you sleep with them images in your head. You wake up every day seeing that stuff--You understand?--hearing the voices.

SHAPIRO: Noel says he saw adults and children die in Iraq. When I pressed for specifics, he changes the subject.

Mr. NOEL: 'Cause look, I got eight more of these in the back.

SHAPIRO: He reaches behind the driver's seat. From under boxes of rented DVDs, he pulls out a curved piece of dull metal about eight inches long.

Mr. NOEL: See this right here? This is my magazine to my M16. For every body I got, I kept the clips, and I got eight clips in the back.

SHAPIRO: Noel was one of the first soldiers into Iraq in 2003. He was a private first class with the 3rd Infantry Division.

Mr. NOEL: Eight clips, murder, destruction. I keep these because these saved my life, and I look at these magazines every day, and that's my purpose, you understand? 'Cause too much lives was taken by these magazines, too much for one person to bear. See, when I look at these, it just reminds me I got to give a life back. My own crazy way, I may be--instead of thinking about taking lives, I gotta give somebody hope for life.

SHAPIRO: Noel says he'd never heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, but when he first got home, he knew things weren't right.

Mr. NOEL: It was real strange. My wife felt like an Iraqi lady. She looked like an Iraqi lady for some reason. I thought my mind was playing games with me. I didn't want to hold my kids. I didn't want to hug my wife. I didn't want to do anything. I just wanted to be away from everybody.

SHAPIRO: Hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs have some good programs for post-traumatic stress disorder, but for someone with PTSD like Herold Noel, it can be hard to get through the VA bureaucracy. Noel says the VA gave him some medications and some counseling, but he'd still get drunk and angry. He had no job. He became homeless. Last winter, he'd sleep in his car parked on this dead-end street. One night, right here, he put a gun to his head and thought about killing himself. Herold Noel says what saved him was finding a role as an advocate. Now he speaks out for other soldiers with PTSD.

Mr. NOEL: That's my little self-medication, speaking out, you understand? Letting people feel my frustration, my pain, my dreams, letting them see my dreams. That's how I rehabilitate myself, by talking to people. If I stop talking, I'll go crazy again.

SHAPIRO: Paul Reickhoff got Herold Noel into advocacy.

Mr. PAUL REICKHOFF (Operation Truth): What we're starting to see is more and more troops returning with untreated PTSD, resulting in problems.

SHAPIRO: Reickhoff started Operation Truth. It pushes for more armor and safer equipment for troops in Iraq now and for more funding for medical care at the VA for when they come home.

Mr. REICKHOFF: They're literally in Baghdad one week and then Brooklyn the next. And we spend millions of dollars and lots of time to get them ready to go to war but on the way home, we don't spend as much time. And I think we're going to see a tremendous human cost as a result.

SHAPIRO: Reickhoff led an Army infantry platoon in Iraq.

Mr. REICKHOFF: Having been home for a year now and having served on the ground for a year with 38 guys, I've seen that the biggest toll on my guys has been mental health problems which result in problems with their wives and problems with their kids and problems with drugs and alcohol and getting jobs and holding jobs and, in one case in our unit, a suicide, which I think is another story that can result from PTSD.

SHAPIRO: Reickhoff fronts Operation Truth out of a busy square room in a Manhattan office building. He's got a shaved head and a blunt and friendly manner. On this morning, Herold Noel comes by.

Mr. REICKHOFF: How you doing? All right?

Mr. NOEL: Yeah, I'm doing all right. I'm doing all right.

SHAPIRO: Noel has some news. He's here with his wife, Tamara.

Mr. NOEL: Yeah, I finally got my wife a ring.

Mr. REICKHOFF: Ah.

Mr. NOEL: 'Cause, you know, we pawned the other ring so to save up some money, but I finally got her another one. You want to see it?

Mr. REICKHOFF: Yeah, I want to see it.

SHAPIRO: With a shy smile, she holds up her hand.

Mr. NOEL: It's beautiful.

Mr. REICKHOFF: Yeah.

TAMARA: Oh, OK.

Mr. REICKHOFF: You look good. Well, you haven't walked in here with a smile on your face in a long time.

Mr. NOEL: Yeah. I'm, you know, basically happy, trying to enjoy life. You understand? I'm just seeing there are better things in life and...

SHAPIRO: When Noel was homeless, Reickhoff helped him find the anonymous donor who was putting up money for an apartment for one year. Today Noel has come by to sign a contract for his new place to live. This spring, Noel and Reickhoff went to Washington.

(Soundbite of jet plane)

SHAPIRO: It's a sunny day with flowers blooming. Herold Noel's never been to Washington. There's something he wants to see, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Unidentified Woman: Do you see it?

Unidentified Child #1: I see something. I feel it.

SHAPIRO: Boys and girls put white pieces of paper to the black granite. They rub with pencils and names of the dead appear on the pages.

Unidentified Child #2: Hollings--what is it?

Unidentified Child #3: Hollingsworth. Eddie C. Hollingworth(ph).

Unidentified Child #2: With an H.

SHAPIRO: The Vietnam Wall is a place for healing, a nation's belated thanks to those who served in Vietnam. But it doesn't heal for Herold Noel. He wants to be careful with his words, but he wonders if his country's committed to troops who come home with injuries, often ones that will last a lifetime.

Mr. NOEL: Best thing I could say is, we should honor the living as well as we honor the dead, and it's like, being in the memorial made me feel like I should have died, you know what I'm saying? 'Cause the living soldiers that come back and fought hard isn't getting the same respect. Where's the memorial for the living?

SHAPIRO: The day before he came to Washington, Noel got some good news. The Department of Veterans Affairs reversed itself and said it would pay him monthly disability benefits for PTSD. Noel says he'd been trying for 18 months. Not long ago, Herold Noel was homeless, angry and saw no future, but on this day in Washington, he's about to speak to members of Congress.

Unidentified Man: Thank you very much for coming. We appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: He's asking them to support a bill to expand mental health benefits for returning soldiers.

(Soundbite from congressional chamber)

Mr. NOEL: Hello. My name is Herold Noel. I've told my story hundreds of times, and all I can say is, just imagine if it was your child, your nephew or yourself that had been to through war and came back to no assistance. Me raising my kids and living out of my car...

SHAPIRO: Noel's sport coat, white shirt and patterned tie are right out of their wrapping. They seem like an uncomfortable skin. Noel speaks without notes but from the heart.

(Soundbite from congressional chamber)

Mr. NOEL: I'm not speaking just for myself. I'm speaking for other soldiers 'cause those are my battle buddies, and my battle buddies is fighting for a piece of the pie, a piece of the American Dream. This is the second phase of my war. This is my mental war, and I'm going to fight it till I die to make sure that this doesn't happen to any other soldier. So thank you today for hearing me.

(Soundbite of applause)

SHAPIRO: Today, Herold Noel says he thinks he won a small battle for himself and for other veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: For those of you who missed the first part of Herold Noel's story yesterday, you can still hear this most powerful report on coming home at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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