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The New War on Terror

Robert Rath | 19 Sep 2011 09:00
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Specialist Hawker[1] was thirty-seven years old when he fell from the tower. He was a military policeman tasked with training the Iraqi Army, and had over a decade of service as a soldier. His introduction to the military was Desert Storm, which he spent guarding nuclear missiles in-theater when he was barely out of high school. Now, he was the oldest man in his company. He saw himself as a mentor figure, looking out for the younger guys, and avoided promotion to NCO in order to stay closer to them. His team usually rode front or rear truck in every convoy-the most dangerous positions-with Hawker riding the gun. The reasoning was that he was experienced, and wouldn't get jumpy on the trigger.

"I Rambo'd," he says. "I got up, ran to the wall and started letting loose with my weapon." He doesn't remember any of it.

The IED that hit him consisted of two 220mm mortars and fifty pounds of explosive. It tore through a set of T-walls and blew Hawker and his partner twenty feet out of the watchtower. He remembers a bright flash, followed by someone telling him to get down, but in-between those events, there's a blank space. "I Rambo'd," he says. "I got up, ran to the wall and started letting loose with my weapon." He doesn't remember any of it.

Three weeks later he was ordered back to the tower. His reaction was immediate. "I flipped out. I had a real fear of being in a confined space." It was the first indication that Hawker had developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Regardless, he finished his tour.

During that time, he took two more blasts from roadside bombs.

Six months ago, Hawker returned to the tower again, but this time he did it in Battlefield: Bad Company 2. His goal in doing so is to confront his PTSD by simulating the event that still haunted him, and to a certain degree, it's working. In fact, Hawker is joining a growing number of veterans who use game simulations, both officially and unofficially, to treat their trauma.

"When I came back, I wasn't the same person," Hawker recalls. "I mean completely different. I was reclusive. I was quiet. I'd get angry at nothing and get depressed because my job went away while I was gone." He credits his wife with holding the family together. "A lot of families have disintegrated because of a deployment like that. Obviously my kids were confused and upset. My two year-old didn't know me when I came home." Hawker had flashbacks and nightmares, triggered by everyday occurrences like staying in an enclosed room or seeing sandy colors.

Due to his injuries, he was unable to take pleasure in the same activities. Before his deployment, Hawker collected Warhammer 40,000 miniatures and had won several painting competitions. However, after sustaining a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) , he's lost his fine motor skills and can no longer paint. That's only one in a laundry list of physical problems that changed his life: "The arches in my feet have collapsed because of the the weight of the armor, my neck is messed up, my lower back is messed up, my center of gravity is back 20 degrees and to the left 20 degrees, and one of the small bones in my right ear was destroyed, destroying my sense of balance, so I start to fall over if I close my eyes." Art was out, and sports weren't much of an option.

"I lost control of things that I used to be able to do, so I got back to doing one of the things I love, which is playing games." A fan of the Battlefield series, Hawker picked up Bad Company 2 only to find that the demons of his waking mind bled through onto the screen. He was unable to play the Recon class, since sniping by nature necessitated sitting in watchtowers and holing up in small spaces, two things he found intolerable-and then there were the suicide bombers.

[1] The veterans mentioned in this article have had their names obscured for the privacy of both themselves and their families.

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