‘A War Within Myself’: One Veteran’s Struggle for Life After Combat

“The rest of the morning was spent picking up body parts, still warm, in perfect condition, like they had just fallen off the owner. My Marines were crying and I yelled at them, calling them demeaning names and to man up. This day caused so many feelings & emotions in me that I wrote my dad about the event and how much it was tearing me apart. We never talked about it, but one year later, he died and I found it in a safe under his bed. Nothing else was in the safe. He took it to the grave. I felt so guilty and ashamed that I told him. I thought that I caused the stress that led to his fatal heart attack.”

IOWA CITY — Brandon Ketchum was on a rescue mission on a rainy morning in July when he pulled into the parking lot of the VA hospital here. Strolling into the towering building, Ketchum cut the same trim figure, with perhaps a few extra pounds, that he carried in the Marine Corps when he twice deployed to Iraq during the height of the insurgency, then served in Afghanistan with the Iowa National Guard.

Except now, at age 33, the blue-eyed veteran wore a full red beard that his 4-year-old daughter loved to cut with an electric razor and he had needle tracks on his left arm from the heroin he’d been shooting up for a month.

“I have run my life out of control to the point where I can’t live it anymore,” Ketchum had jotted on a notepad back at his home in Davenport, Iowa.

But a part of him wanted to live, and that’s why he was seeing his psychiatrist at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

This is the story of one combat veteran’s desperate fight against the self-destructive urges pulsing through a generation of men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Through a series of interviews, an examination of a thousand pages of medical files and a review of Ketchum’s extensive journals, USA TODAY gained rare insight into what he called “a war within myself.”

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SOURCE: Gregg Zoroya and Tony Leys
USA TODAY Network