Mental trauma keeps Iraq vet from holding job

Mental trauma keeps Iraq vet from holding job


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Estimated read time: 10-11 minutes

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HOUSTON (AP) — The past several months have given Xavier Watt the opportunity to ferry his 10-year-old daughter to and from school, take her to visit her grandparents and go out for ice cream. He does the grocery shopping and keeps the house clean for his wife and little girl. He has time left over to play video games.

It's not the kind of freedom he wants. For Watt, 31, also enjoys his job installing and calibrating temperature-control systems and heating elements as an instrument and electrical technician for SunEdison in Pasadena. He wishes he were still clocking in each day.

But like hundreds of thousands of soldiers back from the war in Iraq, Watt has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is finding that complicates things in the workplace. He takes medication to control his dark moods, he's had extensive counseling to help him cope with conflict and he leans on his supportive family as he wrestles with scarring memories earned a decade ago far away.

He says he is OK to return to work and that he's got medical reports to prove it. So far, SunEdison won't let him back.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates 400,000 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have some form of PTSD.

The agency has seen a spike in the number of PTSD-related complaints by workers. Many allege their companies failed to make accommodations for them in the workplace. Before 2002, the agency didn't track these types of complaints; in 2011, it received nearly 600 nationwide.

Joe Bontke, of the local EEOC office, said that when behavioral issues arise with war veterans, many employers' first question is, "What if he comes back with a gun?"

"They think of the worst-case scenario instead of, 'What do you need?'" Bontke, EEOC outreach manager in Houston, told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1r2qQEM).

Bontke is not familiar with Watt's story, which is rooted in the earliest days of the Iraq War.

Watt was among the first U.S. soldiers deployed to Iraq in April 2003, though he avoided the attendant media fanfare.

"I had tears in my eyes," he said. "I didn't want to leave my mom and my brother."

At Aldine's Nimitz High School, he had made good grades and served as swim team captain and track team co-captain. He aspired to study chemical engineering in college, but that dream always seemed financially out of reach.

Until 10th grade, he lived with his mother and brother in a one-bedroom apartment that, he recalls with a certain fondness, was so small only one of them could move around at a time. His mother worked hard to move the family into a house and held down two jobs to hold onto the semblance of a middle-class life.

"She worked really, really hard to get us out of that apartment," Watt said.

Watt pitched in, putting his earnings from an after-school job toward mortgage and other household expenses. The summer after he finished high school, a recruiter for the U.S. Army Reserves offered him a $7,000 bonus if he'd sign up. Though he'd never considered a military career, he took the money and gave it to his mother. Then he shipped out for basic training.

"I was terrified," he said.

Watt started community college classes but dropped out after receiving notice he would likely be called up for overseas deployment. He needed to get his "affairs in order."

"When other 19-year-olds are focused on final exams, I was writing a will and getting my power of attorney written," he said.

Watt spent more than a year in Iraq, working as a specialist in chemical operations, supporting the search for weapons of mass destruction. Much of what he did is classified and he can't talk about it.

He doesn't want to talk in detail about picking up the bodies of dead soldiers and bringing their remains back to camp, about seeing people get shot, about nearly losing his own life to a roadside bomb. His normally strong voice reduces to a quivering whisper when asked about those trials.

"The toughest thing mentally," he said, "was not knowing if when I close my eyes at night it will be my last night."

On March 11, back when he was still on the job, Watt was overtired. He had been up late the night before driving another veteran to San Antonio and back for medical help and he knew that fatigue could quickly boil over into frustration. Painful memories linger, and Watt has had to learn to control the feelings that can trigger frustration and anxiety.

So Watt arrived at the SunEdison plant early to make sure he could snag one of the golf carts used to tote the heavy tools and supplies for the day. His back still hurts from injuries he sustained in Iraq falling off a truck while wearing a 70-pound rucksack.

A co-worker, however, asked if he could use it instead because he's an "old, out-of-shape guy." On most days, it wouldn't have been a big deal. But on that day Watt did what he learned through his therapy sessions when he felt rising frustration: He backed off and got an OK from his boss to take the rest of the day off as vacation.

"I was really rattled," Watt recalled of the quarter-mile walk to the guard shack en route to the parking lot. Instead of heading straight to his truck, he dropped by the nurse's office to regain his composure. He had a good relationship with the plant nurse, he said, and felt comfortable talking with her. This time, he says, she refused to let him drive home, telling him "it was my PTSD acting up."

"Maybe because I had tears in my eyes or showed frustration," Watt said.

The nurse did not return calls for comment. A SunEdison official declined to discuss the circumstances.

Waiting for his wife to pick him up, Watt wished he would have just kept walking instead of stopping at the guard shack. If he had done that, he believes, he would have been back to work the next day.

Instead, Watt was barred from returning until he received clearance from a psychiatrist that he was not a danger to himself or others.

He got a note from his doctor, but SunEdison, which makes components for solar panels and computer chips, refused to accept it on grounds the psychiatrist couldn't make an assessment based on just one visit, emails and other documents show.

Then SunEdison hired its own psychiatrist. Watt said that while he hasn't read the written report, the company's psychiatrist did not clear him to return to work.

United Steel Workers Local 6000 President Debbie McDonald questioned company officials about why they would accept its own psychiatrist's assessment because it, too, was a one-time visit.

Jim Lefton, staff representative for District 13 of the United Steelworkers International Union, called the situation "disgusting."

"He didn't do anything wrong and now you have him sitting at home," Lefton said.

Gordon Handelsman, director for brand and corporate communications for SunEdison in Belmont, Calif., said the company wants "to get employees back to work as soon as possible." He added there is a clear path to return to work in accordance with the Family and Medical Leave Act.

When asked whether Watt could return to his job, Handelsman cited corporate policy that prevents him from discussing the medical condition of any employee.

Watt, who spent 13 years as an Army reservist, said he never had so much as a disagreement during his nearly two-year stint at SunEdison. Nor does he have any disciplinary history.

But like other veterans who have been diagnosed with what is commonly known as PTSD and who have tried to ease their way back to civilian life, Watt finds himself having to prove he's not a threat to his co-workers or his company. Advocates say it is not unusual for veterans to face one hurdle after another.

"I keep hearing: 'We just want everyone to be safe,'?" said McDonald, who has been trying to get Watt back to work.

Jeff Hargrave, director of operations for Pros 4 Vets, which provides free legal representation for veterans having legal issues in Oklahoma, said companies often prevent employees being treated for PTSD to return to work even when there have been no workplace-related incidents.

"I think a lot of people are scared," said Hargrave. "They don't know enough about it."

Bontke, of the EEOC, said the disability can be easily accommodated by, for example, allowing employees "breather time" to walk away from tense situations, providing written instructions to counter short-term memory loss and lack of concentration, reducing distractions and providing a workspace with natural light.

One of the best things a company can do when hiring returning veterans is to have those who have faced similar challenges already on board in human resources, organizational development and other key parts of the company, said Bob Cartwright, who has become an advocate for returning veterans looking for jobs. He founded Operation Job Match after he saw how hard it was for one of his relatives, a former Navy SEAL, to find civilian work.

Several companies do a good job hiring returning veterans, he said, but many still express concerns.

"The PTSD question keeps coming up," Cartwright said.

Since coming home from Iraq, Watt has built a solidly middle-class life. He reconnected with a former high school classmate, and their romance led to marriage.

"I was an athlete, she was a geek," he said, referring to his wife, an air traffic controller who also owns a business that prints invitations, stationery and menus that she started after planning her own wedding.

Watt used his GI Bill benefit to attend Lee College for one year. He got an instrument technician certificate and the job at SunEdison, which pays $35.65 an hour. The Watts bought a four-bedroom home in a relatively new subdivision in Baytown.

Now Watt, who knows what it's like to eat cold ravioli out of a can, worries about how long the good life will last.

While trying to iron things out, Watt applied for short-term disability that would pay 75 percent of his regular income for up to six months. Initially, the company claimed he didn't qualify.

Then Watt hit another hurdle: The disability insurance policy wouldn't cover anyone who became disabled by an act of war.

Local USW president McDonald said she argued Watt's case with human resources by referring to the war-related exclusion as a "PR nightmare" and got it straightened out. Watt got a check for six weeks of back pay.

To get by, Watt's taken out a $11,000 loan against his 401(k) account to make sure he and his wife can keep up their car payments and keep the lights on. They've sliced out such extras as restaurant meals and unnecessary driving.

At the request of SunEdison, he also agreed to an intensive four-week, in-patient psychiatric treatment program through Veterans Affairs.

Watt finished the program in late July and received clearance to return to work, McDonald said. But, she added, SunEdison officials refuse to let him back. The company wants him re-evaluated by its medical examiner.

"He has jumped through so many hoops," McDonald said. "It's never enough. It never ends."

Meanwhile, Watt's short-term disability benefits ran out in mid-August. And he has no idea how long he'll be eligible to receive long-term disability benefits.

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

Editor's note: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chronicle.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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L.m. Sixel

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