For parents, their own trauma
When Army Sgt. Ryan Kahlor returned from two combat tours in Iraq last year, he was a walking billboard for virtually every affliction suffered by today’s veterans. He had a detached retina, a ruptured disc, vertigo, headaches, memory lapses and numbness in his arms. Fluid seeped from his ears.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. He was violent and suicidal. He carried a loaded handgun everywhere. He drank until he passed out. He cut himself. He burned his own skin with cigarettes. He bit through his tongue just to watch himself bleed.
Kahlor, 24, admits he came back not caring about anyone -- the military, his friends, his family or himself. But pushed hard by his parents, he slowly accepted and then embraced counseling and treatment. Today, he has begun to recover.
His parents are still trying.
The Kahlors -- a college employee and a nurse -- have fought through a series of transformations unfamiliar to most military families.
Tim Kahlor says he and his wife, Laura, have been left with what he calls, only half in jest, “secondary PTSD.” He says his doctor prescribed antidepression medication to help him cope with his son’s ordeal. And both parents, haunted by their son’s physical and emotional breakdown, are fiercely opposed to the war.
Tim Kahlor, 50, who had felt a patriotic surge after the Sept. 11 attacks, turned against the war after Ryan complained during his first tour about ineffective body armor and poorly armored vehicles. Laura Kahlor, 53, blames the war for her son’s psychological and physical torment. Though she is now grateful for the treatment he eventually received, she -- like her husband -- wishes they had never let Ryan enlist.
They are still bitter over the several months that their son drifted while they pleaded with both Ryan and the military for effective PTSD treatment. Ryan survived several roadside bomb attacks in Iraq but was traumatized by the violence he witnessed.
“I was so naive. I was this kid from the Bible Belt who thought our country would take care of our soldiers,” Tim Kahlor said. “I have guilt for helping him get into this.”
A year after the terrorists struck America, Tim Kahlor drove Ryan, then 18, to the local Army recruiting office to sign up. Though the Kahlors would have preferred that Ryan attend college, they were proud of his determination to serve his country.
When Ryan wrote about equipment shortages, Tim telephoned and wrote to the Pentagon and Congress. Laura sent Ryan a hand-held GPS device after he complained that military devices kept failing.
Tim Kahlor joined Military Families Speak Out, a group opposed to the Iraq war. He marched in protests behind caskets, lined up boots outside the U.S. Capitol to represent the war’s dead. He put up a sign outside his home: “Support Our Troops -- Let ‘em Come Home.”
He confronted military recruiters. He intercepted young men outside recruiting offices, warning them: “You have no idea what you’re getting into.” He read to them from Ryan’s journal -- including descriptions of collecting the gear of a close friend killed by a sniper:
My stomach soured. . . . His gear was soaked with blood. My hands could still feel the moisture of his sweat. I felt like something was missing in me.
Tim was thrown out of a political fundraiser for railing against the war. He approached motorists whose cars sported yellow ribbons, demanding to know exactly how they supported the troops.
Some days, Tim wears a button to his job as a payroll coordinator at UC San Diego. It features an updated number of the war’s dead and a question: “How Many More?”
When Ryan returned in early 2007, “he came back a stranger to me,” his father said. Tim focused on his son’s deteriorating mental and physical condition. He described delays in effective treatment as Ryan was put on desk duty, unable to perform simple tasks because of his brain injuries but also prone to violent outbursts.
“I was either going to die by my own hand -- or someone else’s,” Ryan said.
But through it all, he said, “my dad fought tooth and nail for me, knowing people in the military can’t speak for themselves always. My dad pushed me to get help. He doesn’t let me cut corners, and he’s always on my butt.”
In November 2007, Ryan was sent to be treated at San Diego’s Naval Medical Center. His therapists say he is making remarkable progress after months of physical and speech therapy and mental health counseling.
“We look at Ryan and we say, ‘Thank God, we got a good one here,’ ” said Colleen Leners, a nurse practitioner who is his primary care manager. “Ryan wanted to get better. Not all patients do. Some want to keep being a patient.”
To treat his PTSD, Ryan was referred in May to the National Center for PTSD in Palo Alto, run by the Veterans Administration. He completed an intensive 65-day group program with veterans from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.
There, Ryan said, he learned to recognize his “stuff points” -- traumatic experiences in Iraq he was afraid to confront.
“There’s no time to grieve in combat, so you just stuff it,” he said. “You see your friend die and then you go back to work.”
Without treatment, Ryan said, “I’d be sitting a dark room somewhere -- or dead.”
Ryan said he suffers from survivor’s guilt and intends to seek more counseling. He is still being treated for vertigo, for speech and memory difficulties, and for fluid and ringing in his ears.
The military has provided him a PDA to help him remember appointments. He draws maps to help him locate his parked car. “As many times as I’ve been hit in the head, a lot of stuff that seems simple on a daily basis becomes difficult,” Ryan said.
Even so, he chose a challenging subject -- the Russian invasion of Georgia -- for a speaking exercise in group speech therapy.
“His strategies have really worked out for him,” said his speech-language pathologist, Brooke Roberts. “His ultimate goal is functioning in day-to-day life.”
Laura Kahlor considers her son a newly minted person, just as she considered the tormented young man who returned from Iraq a different person than the son she sent off to war -- the one who had “Duty, Honor, Country” tattooed on his leg.
“He came back so violent,” she said, recalling the images of bloody Iraqi corpses Ryan brought home on his laptop. “It was a nightmare. I was afraid he’d use his gun on himself.”
Today the gun is locked in a drawer, and Ryan is evolving into the caring, gentle son his parents remember. At the request of a counselor, he often talks to other soldiers with PTSD, encouraging them to seek treatment.
Ryan does not publicly discuss his father’s activism or his own feelings about the war. He says only: “That’s what we’re fighting for -- for people’s rights to speak out.”
When his enlistment ends in March, Ryan plans to leave the Army. He is shopping for a new house and intends to enroll at a community college. He wants to become a history teacher or physical therapist.
After all that has befallen him, would he enlist again?
“Probably not,” Ryan said. “But since I did it, I’m glad. It’s matured me. It’s made me stronger, more confident.”
His mother says that although she’s grateful for Ryan’s counseling and for the travel and educational benefits the military has provided, “it still wasn’t worth it.”
Tim Kahlor, sitting in his living room at dusk, flanked by his wife and his tall, strapping son in Army fatigues, reflected on his family’s six-year ordeal. He paused and said, finally, “I wish he had never gone in.”
See an audio slideshow about Sgt. Ryan Kahlor and his physical and emotional recovery after two tours of duty in Iraq.