Light in the Darkness

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How U.S. Army First Sergeant Eddie Baker helped mend broken soldiers coming home from the ‘House of Broken Toys.’

When one thinks of soldiers coming home from war, there are two images that most often come to mind. The first, for most people, is the flag waving, band playing celebrations that take place in airports all over the country and are shown on every major headline news network, especially as a segway into commercial breaks.

The second, and less pleasant image, is that of flag covered coffins flying back home carrying those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. This image still lingers in the minds of America’s older generations, but has not been placed into the minds of the younger generations of Americans at all, because a ban of photos showing flag draped coffins of fallen soldiers was place by the Pentagon back in 1991, a time at which many of those coming back today in flag covered coffins had not yet been born. This is a controversial issue in and of itself, and a practice that has not been followed by many other western nations, allies of the U.S. in the war on terror, such as Australia, where funerals of the fallen are often broadcast on television so that the younger generations can keep in the forefront of their minds the human cost of war, as opposed to merely the financial costs which are mostly reported by the U.S. media machine.

There is also a third way in which soldiers commonly come home from war. It isn’t shown on television, though the right to do so has not been blocked by the Pentagon. There are no flags waving and no families waiting with big signs and babies to hug. There are no bands and banners and flash bulbs clicking and everything else that goes with the traditional pomp and circumstance of coming home from war. That which awaits this third group of veterans is hospital beds, needles and scalpels, and more than likely an endless supply of medications that may or may not become part of the next battle these warriors end up fighting.

I’m talking about wounded warriors; the soldiers who are sent back home after suffering serious injury or illness in theater, or who are screened at the various military redeployment sites around the country as units come back from war, and are determined to be injured to the point of needing extended medical treatment- sometimes physical, sometimes psychological, sometimes both- and who are sent off to any of the numerous Warrior Transition Units (WTU) around the U.S. for the care they need.

I was part of this third group when I returned from Iraq, a country formerly referred to as “The House of Broken Toys” by the C.I.A., because for years, and not for a lack of trying, no one in the agency could figure out a way to justify invading this Middle Eastern nation. When my unit arrived back to the States from Iraq in 2009, long after some genius somewhere had finally figured out how to invade half a dozen years before, I was separated from my unit at our redeployment site and grouped with a small herd of men that were headed off to the WTU at what was then known as Fort Lewis, in Tacamo, and what is now known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord, home of Madigan Army Medical Center.

The WTU’s themselves have been an issue of controversy in recent years. Many refer to them as little more than warehouses for broken soldiers where drugs are given freely and soldier’s careers are left in limbo. Suicides have been growing at the WTU’s, and suicide visited the WTU where I was stationed while I was there, and many of the veterans who struggle with prescription drug addiction often get hooked while at the WTU’s where it has been implied that soldiers are overmedicated to become subdued and complacent so they’ll cause little friction while awaiting their fate. They have garnered such a negative reputation within the ranks, that many wounded soldiers do all that they can to avoid being sent to them when sick or injured.

When I got to the WTU at Fort Lewis, my platoon sergeant, then Sergeant First Class (SFC) Eddie Baker was waiting on me. He gave me a hearty handshake and welcomed me home and walked me to my private room where I’d be staying for the duration of my time at the WTU.

eddie baker take IIIThe whole way to my room, I griped and complained about how much Iraq sucked, how much my leadership sucked, how much my injuries and the pain that came with them and life all together sucked. SFC Baker said nothing. He listened and carried all of my bags for me and silently continued leading the way while I went on and on about how the paint on the walls sucked and the carpeting sucked and the lighting sucked.

When we reached my room and went inside, SFC Baker put my bags down and flicked the lights on and turned to me and said, “You aren’t there anymore.”

“Huh?” I’d responded. I’d been so caught up in how much everything sucked that I hadn’t heard him clearly.

“You aren’t there anymore,” he said again. “Look. I cannot begin to imagine how terrible things might have been for you in Iraq. I wasn’t there with you. But I’ve been here at the WTU for a while and I’ve worked with a lot of soldiers coming back who have similar stories and attitudes, and what I can tell you is that the sooner you’re able to realize that you aren’t there anymore, the better off you are going to be.”

Heartless bastard! I thought. But I understood that he’d gotten tired of my nagging, so I nipped it in the bud and listened as he listed the house rules.

“While you’re here,” he said after reciting the rules, “I’ll treat you how you want to be treated. And you’ll show me exactly how you want to be treated through your actions, and how you treat me. If you act like a man, I’ll treat you like a man. If you treat me with respect and decency, I’ll treat you with respect and decency.”

His words were soft spoken; though at 6’2 or so and well over 200 pounds he was a sizeable man. There was something in the softness of his words that made that little part inside of me that still held a bit of faith in the human race feel as if this guy actually cared.

“The biggest mistake I see people make here,” he continued, “is spending too much time alone in their rooms and in their heads. Look. I’m sorry that whatever happened to you happened, but if you sit in here all day and think about it, it will kill you. You have to get back into living your life. You’re not there anymore.”

After he left, I sat on the bed. The angry part in me wanted to keep calling him a heartless bastard and continue focusing on my problems, but the part in me, small as it was, that wanted to get better, repeated his words.

“You’re not there anymore.”

“You’re not there anymore.”

“You’re not there anymore.”

SFC Baker got annoying pretty quickly. He was always coming up to me, with this big goofy smile on his face, and asking me how I was doing when he’d see me around the WTU. I felt like I had to explain myself, because of that whole I was an E-4 and he was an E-7 thing, so I’d snap to parade rest and start mumbling something about some stupid duty I wasn’t really on, and he’d give me that big, goofy smile again and laugh and tell me ‘at ease’ and say, “No Specialist Lake. I’m just making sure you’re all right. I didn’t ask what you’re doing. I asked how you’re doing.”

SFC Baker was always inquiring about my post military plans. It had been determined after I’d been at the WTU only a couple of weeks that surgery was in order, and that my stay was going to be quite lengthy due to rehab, and it became apparent that I was not going to be able to shake this big, friendly E-7 who just wouldn’t mind his own business and let me stay angry at the world.

“I want to be a writer,” I’d told him one day after he’d cornered me in a hallway. I’d seen him and his big goofy smile coming, so I’d turned around and tried to limp out the back, but I’d seen a couple of my other care providers who were just as friendly as him coming up the hall and decided that dealing with one was better than dealing with two . “But I need an editor,” I’d continued. “I’ve been in touch with some guy in Seattle I found on Craigslist, but he expects me to go up there and meet him in person, and I don’t have transportation.”

I’d gotten the idea to find an editor for my book “Serial Street,” a novel I’d written about a bunch of copycat serial killers who all live on the same street, from Craigslist, because it was around this time that the Craigslist killer had been caught, and that’s just how my mind works; Craigslist- killer- book about killers- Craigslist- editor.

“Pay attention in formation tomorrow morning,” SFC Baker had said with that big goofy smile painted across his face.

What does that even mean? I thought. Pay attention in formation tomorrow. Heartless bastard!

The next morning in formation, SFC Baker announced that some large corporation in Seattle had donated a bunch of tickets to the upcoming Seattle Seahawks game to the WTU. He asked who wanted to have two tickets so they could take themselves and a friend to the game. It amazed me that not a single hand went up. There were about forty soldiers in my platoon, and none of them wanted to go to a free Seahawks game. However, it frighteningly occurred to me that I didn’t want to go either.

This was the point where I began to panic. Before going to Iraq, I’d loved football. I’d been a sports writer in college, and I had taken my kids to as many University of Virginia Cavalier’s games as I could when we’d lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, and now, I’d been offered free tickets to an NFL game and I couldn’t have cared less.

“See what I mean about sitting around thinking about your problems and staying angry?” SFC Baker said to me later that morning after formation. “I bet that just like everyone else in formation, you would have jumped at those tickets before you deployed.”

“Yeah,” I’d said. “But I just don’t feel like doing anything now. You have no idea what I went through over there. And if I’d just been allowed to go to the doctor when I’d gotten hurt, I wouldn’t be here now. I hated Iraq and the leadership I had while I as there. It sucked and they sucked.”

“You’re not there anymore,” he said, and offered that big, goofy smile. “And didn’t you need a ride to Seattle to meet with an editor or something?”

“Yeah. So.”

Then he held up two tickets and said, “We’re giving everyone a ride up in a van. All you have to do is go. Take your editor friend. No one else is going to take these tickets and they’ll go to no use.”

I ended up taking the tickets and going to the game and meeting with my Craigslist killer inspired Craigslist serial killer novel editor. And something happened at the game for the first time since I’d been home from Iraq that was much more important than hooking up with my editor.

I felt alive!

The smell of the hotdogs, the smell of the perfume on the women in the stadium, the sound of the announcer, the obnoxious ads displayed in big flashing lights on the big screen, the roar of the crowd. For the first time in a long time, my world was not one of darkness and anger. There were lights, and there were lots of them, and they were bright as could be.

After that experience, I found myself actually seeking out SFC Baker and his big goofy smile. Unlike my E-7’s from my National Guard unit who wouldn’t speak to me because I was an E-4, SFC Baker would spend as much time with me as I wanted to spend with him. At first, the conversations didn’t last long and were of little merit, because I didn’t really have much to talk about, and frankly, I’d shut myself off to the point to where I’d almost forgotten how to hold a conversation, but SFC Baker would smile that big goofy smile, and he would listen, and he would always offer positive encouragement.

A couple of weeks after that first Seahawks game, SFC Baker had scored more Seahawks tickets. I took my editor to this game as well and as we sat in the nose bleed section of what was then Qwest Stadium as we had before, I once again felt alive. I’d later attend a Tacoma Rainier’s baseball game and another Seahawks game, as well as go on a weekend long camping/fly fishing trip on the Yakima River, all upon the advice of SFC Baker. I’ll point out, however, that I did NOT take my editor fly fishing. One of the copycat killers in “Serial Street” mirrored Washington’s Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, and there were simply too many word plays going on involving serial killers and my editor for me to feel comfortable taking him, still a near stranger (and his eyes were a little beady) fishing on any river in the state of Washington.

My time spent at the WTU, which ended up being six months, was not perfect. I’d liken it to how I would imagine time spent in purgatory might be. Time itself seemed to move in slow motion. There were drug seekers banging on my door at 3 a.m. if they’d happened to see me at the pharmacy that day. There were drug induced zombies everywhere, and at times, I was part of the walking dead.

I’d gotten hooked to various substances while I was there; substances that at first I needed, but later was only taking recreationally. I’d brought this up with some of my medical care providers at Madigan Army Medical Center and was told, “Don’t be a tough guy. Take your meds.” I did, and ended up fighting addiction for two years after having been released from the WTU. By God’s grace, I’ve taken none of their drugs or the others they’d led to for more than a year, but man, what battle that was, and can still be at times.

In spite of any of the negatives of the WTU, like the drug addiction and the suicides, there were angels in the wings, like SFC Eddie Baker, who were reaching down to lift up the wounded.

In the years that have passed since I’ve left the WTU, SFC Baker has become First Sergeant (1SG) Baker, and he is a detachment 1SG at Fort Carson in Colorado. He leads a team who focuses on medical exit board (MEB) packets for Army Reserve and the National Guard soldiers who are being medically released from service. This is fitting for his MOS 68G, patient admin; though in his nineteen years in service he has also been a recruiter and an infantryman. He counts his days at basic training at Fort Benning, nearly two decades ago, among his proudest moments while serving in the U.S. Army, as he does having helped so many soldiers while at the WTU.

“My Greatest success while serving at the WTU was serving soldiers,” 1SG Baker says now of his twenty two months spent at the WTU. “I like to think of it as the 80/20 rule. 80 percent of our soldiers worked to heal and transition to the next phase of their service to our country. We spent 80% of our energy on the 20% of the soldiers whose intentions were not as sincere as it could have been. I was proud to have served 100% of our soldiers, but the 80% were the ones that we were able to see successfully transition. Those soldiers are the ones that I feel were able to look at the “silver lining” in the WTU process and recognize and appreciate how much effort the armed forces, civilians, and soldiers assigned to work at the WTU work to ‘do what’s right’ for soldiers and their families.”

The WTU care providers, such as 1SG Baker, did not go unscathed by the day in and day out darkness that seemed to sit upon the WTU. “You mention the “dark place” that the WTU could be,” 1SG Baker said this week while we discussed our days together at the WTU at Fort Lewis. “I remember performing a memorial nearly every month. Sometimes twice a month. Some due to suicides and some due to illnesses or accidents.

“We serve with soldiers, watch their medical treatment and walk with them through it; we get to know soldiers and their families… Physical combat is the only real difference between your experience in combat and our experience at the WTU. The mission had physical effects on me and I was taking anti-depressants most of the time I served there. It was a tough but rewarding assignment for me. Surviving it, and maintaining my mental health, with the Army’s support, so I could return home and continue having productive relationships with family, friends, and particularly my son is a great success. I also appreciate the fact that the general stigma that used to exist of ‘help is for the weak’ did not apply, and I was able to maintain my leadership position while I received my own treatment.”

1SG Baker also shared with me that his blood pressure was through the roof when he was at the WTU and that he was on medication for that as well, but his blood pressure has stabalized since leaving the WTU.

There are still times that I’m visited by the darkness. I’ve written about it before. But when it comes, I am more equipped to handle it, because I’ve had people like 1SG Eddie Baker in my life, who taught me that when I want to isolate, and lock myself in my room and hold my head and rock in the darkness, that I need to tell myself, “I’m not there anymore,”  and to get out and do something; go for a mountain bike ride, go to the beach that’s less than twenty minutes from my house, spend time with my family. It sounds simple, and it certainly isn’t the entire answer, but it is a big part of it.

And I realized now, all these years later, that there was nothing goofy at all about 1SG Baker’s big smile. For me and many others, that smile was a light in the darkness.

*Kevin E. Lake is an author and an Iraq War veteran. His most recent novel, “Off Switch” was written to raise awareness of the veteran/soldier suicide epidemic in the U.S.

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