Photo by Harley Soltes
Mike Colson calls Mondays his "milk run." At 8 a.m. he hits the Everett Naval Station. After that he drives to the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island. And by 11:30 a.m. he's on a ferry, headed for the Navy's Bangor base on the Kitsap Peninsula. With such runs, and assorted other trips to bases and coffee shops from Seattle to Bellingham, the 52-year-old retired Navy commander and chaplain has put 26,000 miles on his car in the past year. Working for the Seattle Vet Center, Colson's job is to reach soldiers and sailors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and connect them with help—both physical and mental. Not that he'll ever use the term "mental health," which carries a particular stigma in the military. Instead he talks about "readjustment."
Colson has a shtick, in full evidence on a recent Monday as he hauls the camouflage helmet bag that he uses as a briefcase out of his car and walks into a classroom at the Bangor base. "When was the last time you slept really well?" he asks the assembled, some 50 sailors in civilian clothes who are soon to leave the Navy. "Recently," says a guy who raises his hand.
"Which means you were drinking," Colson deadpans.
Laughter erupts, at which point he emphasizes that anger and sleeplessness can soon lead to recklessness, and that the vets might need help. And he closes the deal by telling them there's a cash benefit to recognizing their inner and outer wounds. The Department of Defense uses disability ratings to determine the monthly income injured veterans will receive.
Typically, he says, about a third of the soldiers who hear his talk follow up with e-mails or calls, and he'll make referrals for them to the VA Puget Sound complex on Beacon Hill or to neighborhood Vet Centers (which are part of the VA). He says he can barely understand some of the people who call. "They speak so slowly it's almost as if they're developmentally disabled," he says. Likely they're suffering from a traumatic brain injury. One guy he says was "completely trashed" just by having his head bump up and down against his humvee as he rode the rough roads of Afghanistan.
The war stories take their toll on Colson, not least because he has his own. During his four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Colson's job was to travel to "points of contact" (i.e., battlefields), examine soldiers, and help them to keep functioning. On one such trip, he dropped 60 feet out of a helicopter, breaking his back and snapping his Achilles tendons. He underwent eight subsequent surgeries, but still lives in constant pain. In 2003, after his second combat tour, he was diagnosed with PTSD. Back at his Camano Island house for a prolonged period, he moved into his garage because he couldn't handle living with his family. He had too much anger, sleeplessness, and need to control every part of his environment, even the amount of light. Under a therapist's care and with sleep medication, he got better.
But others haven't been so lucky. Colson's own nephew fatally shot himself in the temple three years ago, following two tours in Iraq. "It drives home how critical it is for me to get my message across," he says.—Nina Shapiro