Skip to main content

Soledad O'Brien: For veterans, the war comes home

By Soledad O'Brien
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
  • Documentary airing on CNN looks at the fate of returning Iraq/Afghanistan veterans
  • Soledad O'Brien: Too many bring the war home in the form of post-traumatic stress
  • The documentary follows the lives of two veterans, who cope with return from war
  • O'Brien: The two entered a program that used meditation, equine therapy, counseling

Editor's note: Soledad O'Brien hosts "The War Comes Home" on CNN Tuesday at 9 p.m. The former CNN anchor is CEO of Starfish Media Group and reports stories for HBO Real Sports and other media organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @soledadobrien Cameron O'Brien contributed to this article. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) -- Delon Beckett is losing it. He's drunk, stumbling around his living room wrestling with his 3-year-old daughter, Jayla. She kicks him in the groin, and he mumbles "stop."

He can barely stand up and walk but he drags himself to the stairs, pushing her away and faltering. His wife, Emme, is not far behind, putting herself between Delon and two kids, picking up the things he knocks over. Her husband survived the war in Iraq. Now, at home, he wants very much to die.

Soledad O\'Brien
Soledad O'Brien

This fly-on-the-wall scene of Delon opens my documentary "The War Comes Home," the first long-form project from my new company, Starfish Media Group, for air on CNN. The documentary follows the journey of two men crippled by the traumatic stress of returning from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Delon Beckett and Garrett Combs were among the 2.5 million warriors we sent to fight our most recent wars not knowing what we would get back.

The painful scenes reflect the bravery of these men in opening their private pain. It's hard for toughened warriors to acknowledge their suicidal tendencies even to friends, family and therapists. To reveal them to the public takes a special brand of guts.

My aim in displaying their raw moments was to give a human face to the disturbing fact that nearly 8,000 veterans of all wars buckle from the stress and kill themselves each year. So far in the Iraq and Afghanistan fighting, there have been 6,802 veterans killed in action or in accidents, according to Costs of War, a Brown University project tracking those wars. Just do that math.

The War Comes Home

Beckett drinks and drives, drinks and plays with his children, drinks alone or around his wife, who lives with the fear that he may unravel entirely and leave her alone to raise their children. He falls to her lap completely wasted at one point, mumbling that he has given up. That he can't outrun the dark thoughts racing through his head. "The outer shell of him came back," Emme Beckett said, "But everything on the inside was dead. It's like he just died in Iraq."

Yet he is among the living, including another daughter, Lorraina, 9, and he is terrified of what he'll do next. His wife woke him up abruptly once and it was all he could do to not punch her in the face. He sometimes just sits swigging from a bottle of alcohol, lost in the fake world of video games.

"I was having a lot of suicidal ideations. I was having a lot of homicidal ideation, too. And it was getting really scary. Kids just sitting there, they're not doing anything, you know, they're not bothering you," he said.

"You see an object and you start, you know -- for instance I used to see, you know, a hammer and then all of the sudden I would just think about picking up that hammer and just smashing their brains in. And I'm just like sitting there like this, this is like getting, this is getting ridiculous. I was afraid of what I was going to do."

The outer shell of him came back. But everything on the inside was dead.
Emme Beckett

What he did was take on a 5½ day journey with the Save A Warrior program in Malibu, California, run by veteran Jake Clark. The program seeks to jump-start the lives of veterans on the edge by using transcendental meditation, equine therapy, counseling and group exercises with other vets to reel the warriors back from the edge. They also learn about the effects traumatic stress has on the brain.

Garrett Combs, left, and Delon Beckett this month at a screening of \
Garrett Combs, left, and Delon Beckett this month at a screening of "The War Comes Home."

Like many groups, they have begun calling the soldiers' struggle post-traumatic stress, not post-traumatic stress disorder, because the word disorder encourages stigmatizing. Clark believes 80% to 90% of the 100 active-duty and returning veterans who have come through the program were suicidal. So far they are all alive.

The program offers no secret sauce. It is one of many struggling to find an antidote to the horrid thoughts that seem lodged inside the heads of some veterans traumatized by their experiences at war. According to the National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, it is estimated that post-traumatic stress occurs in 11-20% of the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 10% of veterans of the Gulf War, and 30% of Vietnam veterans.

5 things you may not know about post-traumatic stress

Post-traumatic stress has proven to be a significant predictor of suicide, according to the National Institutes of Health. That makes it a probable driver of some of the 22 veteran suicides that happen every day.

I would be remiss to not mention the physical impact of war for veterans. According to the Wounded Warrior Project, in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, for every U.S. soldier killed, seven are injured. If you do the math, that means possibly 47,614 veterans sitting in wheelchairs, missing limbs or suffering from diminished physical capacity -- a post-traumatic stress that is unending.

Study: Rates of many mental disorders much higher in soldiers than civilians

Beckett didn't suffer any physical injuries, but the damage to his psyche can be overwhelming. "It's like being trapped in a burning building and you have the flames in the window and your only way to save yourself is to jump out the window," Beckett told me during a recent screening of the documentary. "You don't want to die but you don't want to burn."

Clark said many of the men and women in his program have tried to commit suicide and had frightening near misses. Attempted suicide by cop, attempted hangings, car crashes, some even tried to kill themselves at home in the company of family or friends. Clark was there himself, no job and struggling in recovery. His experience and those of his friends are what prompted him to scrape up the money to try developing a program.

"The meditation keeps me sober," Beckett said of the central technique in the program. "It was only 5½ days but I learned things for my whole life." One of the things he learned was that there is power in sharing your problem with other warriors.

Combs, who is also featured in our documentary, was only able to admit in Malibu that he has suicidal thoughts that embarrass him because he feels so lucky to have returned to his fiancée and new baby alive and well. The trigger for his admission was his inability to move a horse during equine therapy, his frustration with the lack of control.

First-of-its-kind clinic 'saved my marriage,' Iraq veteran says

In the documentary, Combs acknowledges joining the infantry in a flash of patriotism after 9/11: "I felt like the situation called every guy my age to go and enlist in the service. I walked into the recruiter's office wanting to be a combat photographer and they showed me some cool Ranger videos and they showed me some cool infantry videos and they were like, 'Hey, man you can leave in two weeks or however long it was, a month, if you sign, if you enlist in the infantry." And then I was like, 'All right cool sign me up. That looks fun.'"

"Tragedy plus time equals comedy," Clark said of why people join the infantry, like him at 17, without opening their eyes to what that means.

It turns into this noise and it starts building and it builds and builds and builds until you have...a meltdown.
Garrett Combs

Today, Garrett Combs cannot get through a story of one of his buddies dying in front of him without losing his composure. The feeling of still being at war, this time with warring emotions "starts to really hurt and then it turns into this noise and it starts building and it builds and builds and builds until you have like a meltdown," he said at one of our screenings, where hardened veterans actually walked out to pull themselves together.

Paul Rieckhoff is chief executive officer of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which hosted our first screening along with Defense One, an online publication that covers the military.

My brother-in-law, Jacob Simmons, came to watch the screening and was overcome by emotion. He is on the board of the online college Grantham University, which educates 14,000 veterans, so he has seen upfront how vets are affected in the aftermath of war.

Why suicide rate among veterans may be more than 22 a day

He is a retired Army colonel of 29 years, who worked for the White House on defense issues, and theorized that "because we have a volunteer Army, not all Americans are in tune to the sacrifices that military members and their families make."

What Americans are missing is the crisis of confidence and the vulnerability vets like Beckett and Combs experience when they return. Respondents to an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association survey cite employment and jobs among the top three issues veterans face. The survey revealed that 77% of respondents have experienced a period of unemployment since returning to civilian life, 27% for more than a year.

The national unemployment rate in July was 6.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This in a group where 53% suffered a mental health injury, a rate almost three times that in the general population recorded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Economic and mental stresses heap atop the post-traumatic stress.

A Save a Warrior class forms a support circle.
A Save a Warrior class forms a support circle.

"I'm at the end of the rope anyways. You know?" Beckett said of why he opened up his private life in this documentary, followed day after day by our associates, the photographers of Media Storm Productions.

"Nobody really asks because, you know, you put up that wall, you have on that mask.. They were really nice people and we related really well, so it was just kind of the natural thing."

Beckett, like most vets, did reach out for help at one point. Most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who use the services of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs say they were satisfied with the mental health care they received, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association survey.

Overall, however, only a third of veterans thought the VA and the Department of Defense were doing a good job addressing veterans' needs. The majority of veterans felt that both the VA and the DoD only played a reactive, not a proactive role, when addressing suicide -- something that almost a third of women and men returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have considered. Other concerns were the departments' effectiveness in reaching out to troops regarding mental health issues, and decreasing the occurrence of military sexual assault.

As an alternative to governmental organizations, veterans have begun to turn to smaller nongovernmental organization's for assistance. Among them: Veteran Crisis line, where volunteers connect suffering vets with assistance from volunteers, and the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps soldiers get help from each other and their families, and also enlists the public's aid and fosters awareness.

Iraq war vet introduces military suicide prevention bill

Others include About Face, which raises attention to the issues among those with post-traumatic stress and the public. Give an Hour's mission is to develop national networks of volunteers capable of responding to both acute and chronic conditions.

But our aim was to connect the public to the private pain of veterans, not to endorse Save a Warrior or any of the other innovative programs as a solution, not even to show what the U.S. Department of Veterans has done.

Combs and Beckett chose Save a Warrior because they felt on the brink of suicide or violence and wanted something that pulled them back. Beckett hoped it would help him get sober, which so far it has.

Combs now volunteers with Save a Warrior and feels he has regained his compassion and curiosity for the world. These men got some help, but like many veterans they continue to search for more help. These organizations are fishing for troubled veterans. They are searching for ways to help. We should be, too.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on

Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?