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Aftereffects of military service linger at the home front

  • Abby , Michelle Williams's  wife listens as  Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. <br/><br/><br/>

    Abby , Michelle Williams's wife listens as Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD.


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  • Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war.<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>

    Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war.




    Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/>Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD.<br/>


    Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/><br/>Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war.<br/><br/>



    Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Abby Williams, Michelle Williams's  wife listens as  Michelle talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. <br/><br/><br/>

    Abby Williams, Michelle Williams's wife listens as Michelle talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD.


    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war.

    Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Abby , Michelle Williams's  wife listens as  Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD.

    Abby , Michelle Williams's wife listens as Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war.

    Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Abby , Michelle Williams's  wife listens as  Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. <br/><br/><br/>
  • Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war.<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>
  • <br/>Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD.<br/>
  • <br/><br/>Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war.<br/><br/>
  • Abby Williams, Michelle Williams's  wife listens as  Michelle talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. <br/><br/><br/>
  • Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war.
  • Abby , Michelle Williams's  wife listens as  Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD.
  • Michelle Williams talks about her time on tour in Iraq and what her life has been like since she has been home concerning her PTSD. Above she shows her tattoo which says Iraq veterans against the war.

Michelle Williams was sent to Iraq with the U.S. Air Force 820th Base Defense Group in 2004 and she couldn’t get there fast enough.

“I wanted to go to war,” she says. “I wanted to be aggressive.”

Just 20 at the time, Williams, who’d grown up in California, had chosen the military instead of college. Her father had served in Vietnam, she said, “and I guess I wanted some kind of recognition from him.”

Today, she lives in Sunderland with her wife, Abby Williams, the couple’s two dogs and with the aftereffects of her military service.

At 27, Williams has short, dark hair, a solid build and a direct, compelling way of speaking. Though she still has the tough, hard look that’s visible in photos taken of her in Iraq, she also has an ornate tattoo on her right arm that says: Iraq Veteran Against the War.

She describes herself as wary of trusting anyone, quick to anger, and often unable to focus or concentrate. In her own home, she obsessively locks the bedroom doors and windows every night and is apt to check and recheck her car to make sure it’s secure. She has severe headaches and nightmares. Out shopping once in Target she fled the store, panicked at the sight of a female customer wearing a head scarf. She avoids parties, movie theaters and other crowded places where she thinks something might happen. Now unemployed, she says she worked as a hospital security guard but overreacted to situations and had to quit.

And as PTSD is known to do, Williams’ struggle with it has impacted her wife. “I know that she’s not doing this to me, but I’m not going to lie — sometimes it does get old,” Abby Williams said. “I love her, and we work really well together. But I can’t make it better and sometimes I do worry about her life and my life, years down the road.”

Michelle Williams is doing what she can.

About once a week, she drives to the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds for mental health therapy, help with memory problems and stress, and medical appointments to deal with neck and back injuries.

“Sometimes I feel like a living, walking patient and not a person anymore,” she said.

Williams was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries at the VA in Leeds in December 2009. She has nothing but praise for those who have treated her there. “I think of some of them as family,” she says. But as she sees it, there is one overriding reality that she still can’t change: In Iraq, she was part of a killing machine that took the lives of bad guys and innocents alike. And she cannot forgive herself for that.

“I’m not willing,” she says, “to live with the idea that my actions were acceptable.”

False sense of power

Williams, an E-3 airman first class, says she chose the Air Force 820th because it offered a chance for action. “Our job was combat,” she said. One of four women in a 300-plus person unit, she says her zeal before departing for Iraq was obvious to others.

One day before leaving, she said, an airman recently returned from the war took her aside.

“He could see how excited I was,” she recalls. “He was like, you’re here for the wrong reasons. He said he’d been like that too, but now all he wanted was to get out. I just thought he was weak.”

In her first weeks on the base at Kirkuk, about 30 miles outside Baghdad, Williams loved the excitement — the rocket attacks, and the house-to-house missions searching for the people who were believed to be planting improvised explosive devices. When you’re young, armed and riding around an occupied country in a Humvee, she said, “you have a sense of power.”

But about three months in, chinks in her gung-ho armor began to appear. The truth was, she said, that they couldn’t always tell who the bad guys were and if innocents sometimes got caught in the middle — well, that happens.

“The people who set up the IED’s and the rocket launchers — it seemed like you never got them,” she said. And it started bothering her that the side she was fighting for sometimes seemed to go after people who might not have done anything.

One night, riding in a convoy of Humvees, the vehicle in front of hers hit an IED. “It went 90 degrees in the air,” she said, seriously wounding one of the soldiers inside. “It was total chaos, blood everywhere.”

Frustrated and angry, the Americans later counterattacked, according to Williams, by going into nearby villages. “We went into houses, kicked down doors. That night was horrible.” By her account, civilians died that night who most likely had never harmed Americans or planted explosives.

On guard

Williams was sometimes posted as a guard at gates leading into the base. On the other side of one gate was an open field where children often gathered to play soccer. Curious about the foreigners, they’d also approach the Americans, asking for bottles of water, or using their broken English to try to sell DVDs or whatever else might bring them a little money.

The mingling was harmless, but one day — why, she’s not sure — Williams said she lost it.

“He was maybe 5 or 6 years old. He kept asking for water, and I was like, go away. He just pissed me off and at one point I pulled out my 9 mm and put it in his face. For a bottle of water!” The boy walked away, and nobody got hurt. But Williams, unnerved by what she’d done, asked herself afterwards, “Who the hell was I?”

Tensions rose between the Americans and the Iraqis, she said, and at one point she’d heard that Iraqis living nearby were telling their people to stay away from the base and stop mingling with the Americans. Children were told to stop playing in that open field.

One day, as she watched the field, she thought it seemed eerily quiet. Peering through her binoculars, she could make out one boy in the distance, about 6 or 7 years old, walking by himself toward the gate. She wondered if it was Ahmad — “a funny little kid, just different,” whom she’d taken a liking to. “He’d interact with me, ask me to take his picture, things like that,” she said.

Then she heard a gunshot and saw the boy crumple to the ground.

She got on her radio, screaming, “Who the hell shot the kid? Did anyone shoot the kid?” Everyone said no.

For more than 10 hours, the boy’s body lay in the field until a couple of village boys picked him up “like a bag of potatoes,” she said, and carried him away.

It was Ahmad, she found out later. To this day, Williams says she isn’t sure who shot him, but she believes her fellow Americans were telling the truth when they denied firing. She thinks the shooter was an Iraqi intent on punishing anyone who disobeyed instructions to stay away from the base.

“We were extreme,” she said. “But they were extreme, too.”

She’s clear about what happened to her that day: “That was my turning point,” she said.

Getting out

Back in the U.S. after her six-month deployment was up, Williams says she was “a wreck,” drinking too much, unable to sleep, suicidal at times. She visited her father in California, who insisted on throwing a congratulatory party for her, which she hated. “I was so mad at the attention,” she said.

Already slated to go back for a second tour, Williams was sent first to New Orleans for 45 days after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. Fishing bodies out of muddy water, she says, was a grim reminder that death indeed was the great equalizer: “There was no difference between Iraqi bodies and American bodies,” she said.

Her second deployment to Kirkuk, in 2005, lasted close to eight months. One night, out on a mission after an attack, Williams says she lost her way, slammed her vehicle into a ditch and lost consciousness. Williams says she believes the accident caused brain injury, worsened by exposure, she estimates, to more than 50 blasts and explosions during her time in Iraq.

Williams says she became more and more distraught as her second tour continued. “I would snap a lot easier,” she said.

She describes that time as mostly “a blur,” set against a backdrop of one clear thought: That she had to get out of the military. She did not, under any circumstances, want to go back for the two remaining tours she was scheduled for.

Williams returned stateside in June 2006. By then, she said, “I couldn’t relate to people at all.”

She knew, though, that she was still regarded by her superiors as an able-bodied fighter, no matter what she thought about the war. And that meant breaking her commitment wouldn’t be easy.

In the end, Williams decided that the way out was to play the only card she had: She told them she was gay, an admission that, with “don’t ask, don’t tell” still in effect, was grounds for discharge.

“I told him that I could no longer live a lie, which was not the truth at all,” she said. In fact, she says, the men she served with hadn’t cared about her sexuality one way or the other. “They treated me like one of the guys,” she says. “I was extremely respected.”

Williams’ admission set in motion the process that led to her honorable discharge. Neatly typed on her paperwork, dated Oct. 12, 2006, are the words: Homosexual admission.

After her discharge, Williams spent time in California and Texas, before coming to western Massachusetts several years ago with a friend who had ties to this area.

In Northampton, she met Abby, and the two soon became inseparable. There was no pretending, says Michelle, who told Abby up front that she was getting help at the VA for a range of problems.

“We’re so committed to getting through this, that we have a closeness I feel some people never have,” Abby said in an interview last summer. Still, she said, it hurts to see the person she loves struggle so much.

“She can put on a tough face but I get to see the heartbreak and the extreme lows,” she said.

For her part, Michelle says she still has days when she wonders if there is really a point to living anymore.

“I have taken a life that didn’t need to be taken,” she said. “And I don’t feel I deserve forgiveness. I feel sad about what I did but I guess I also think that the sadness I feel at least makes me human.”

Online resources

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD
http://www.ptsd.va.gov/

PTSD: Weakness or Wound?
TIME U.S.
http://nation.time.com/2012/05/08/ptsd-weakness-or-wound

Study links PTSD to Hidden Head Injuries Suffered in Combat
University of Rochester Medical Center
http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/news/story/index.cfm?id=353

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Legacy Comments1

What a story. Now realize that this story is the same for many, many thousands of young vets. Michelle, please realize that you performed a duty that has been inherent in (wo)mankind since the beginning of time. You did what you thought was best for your country. Your intentions were honorable, and that is what you will be judged on. You are not guilty, you are not unforgivable. War is, and has been an integral part of humanity. Someday it won't, but you cannot be expected to be part of the future. I will pray you reconcile with yourself. And thank you for your service to our country, I, and others, respect your intentions.

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