LYNN — Eight years ago, First Lieutenant Stephen Wood held the pressure-packed job of flying Army generals to Iraq hot spots in his Black Hawk helicopter. When he wasn’t in the pilot’s seat, the Rockland native served as a battle captain from a base in Kuwait, where he plotted missions for some 400 soldiers.
Now 34, Wood faces a different battle: rebuilding his life.
The nonvisible wounds of war, coupled with steep challenges of transitioning back to civilian life, have led him to a nonprofit Lynn facility for psychiatrically disabled veterans. Here at Habitat PLUS, staffers keep tabs on his hygiene, housekeeping, diet, and attitude.
Wood’s journey from decorated officer to struggling veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression has been a humbling one. Always a high achiever, he oversaw teams of analysts at Fidelity Investments before flying for the Army, where testers marveled at his top-rank scores on intellectual as well as physical exams. He signed on for officer training after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, knowing he’d be sent to war.
“I was a very good soldier,” Wood recalled. The Army agrees. He has been honored with six medals.
Despite setbacks in recent years, Wood’s life is once again full of promise. He has transitioned from group home living to a tidy one-bedroom apartment managed by Habitat PLUS. He is now golfing and playing basketball, attending church and Veteran Administration support groups, dating online, and seeking a job as a police officer. He hopes to get a master of business administration degree and is taking Suffolk University classes toward that goal.
Wood hopes his progress will show other veterans what’s possible for those who seek out benefits and get help from supportive professionals, family members, and caring friends.
“There were some pretty dark days there, definitely, where you think things that you never thought you would ever think,” Wood said “But I’ve got a very supportive family, who put me in for the benefits [for combat-related stress]. I’ve gotten the support that I need, and my recovery has come a long way.”
The types of challenges facing Wood are by no means rare. A Rand Corp. study found that one in five Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which can affect everything from relationships to sleep patterns and concentration. As more than 2.2 million soldiers return from these wars, many struggle to navigate a maze of behavioral health programs, which, when utilized, can help reduce suicide rates, according to Rand research.
Wood had no idea he would need VA services after returning from Iraq at the end of 2006. He completed his term in the National Guard with an honorable discharge. He returned to work at Fidelity, this time on a project basis overseeing transitions of jobs from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, Texas, and India. Fidelity offered him a permanent job in Texas, he said, but he opted to stay in Massachusetts to be near his parents and three siblings. With his corporate and military background, he figured, finding a new job would be easy.
But things started to unravel in 2008. As the financial crisis triggered layoffs, he found himself unable to find work and feeling lost for the first time in his fast-paced, ambitious life. While old friends were getting married, he didn’t have a girlfriend, a job, or a role in the Guard. Family members had been worried about him since his return from Iraq, when he seemed excessively concerned about their physical safety. Their concerns mounted over time.
“Being in the Army, and especially being a pilot, he was a little hesitant to seek any advice medically because he might not be able to return . . . might not be able to fly,” said Diane White, Wood’s younger sister, who lives in Braintree. “It was hard for him to get help.”
From 2008 to 2011, Wood lived at times with his parents or his brother, yet stability eluded him. He was going out nightly by himself — drinking, fighting, burning through savings, and having run-ins with police. Erratic behavior landed him in hospitals more than once. He recalls trying to assuage feelings of tension and “let-down” because he had gone from holding important roles on a military team to drifting, with few friends or constructive outlets.
Family members, however, never gave up on him. White, a nurse, became his advocate. She questioned what she saw as excessive use of medication in her brother’s treatment. Sometimes using “tough love,” she urged him periodically to go for counseling. Heeding her advice required a mental shift, he said, from an attitude of self-reliance to one of accepting assistance.
‘I’ve gotten the support that I need, and my recovery has come a long way.’
After the VA Boston Healthcare System referred him to Habitat PLUS in 2011, Wood sometimes needed convincing to get out of bed or make his bed, according to executive director Susan Campbell. He was depressed and fearful of what might lie ahead.
“He told me that even after all the missions he flew in Iraq, the most terrified he’d ever been was the day he was discharged from [the VA hospital in] Brockton,” Campbell said. “He had been diagnosed and was being put out of the hospital and into the streets.”
But at Habitat PLUS, the community of up to 14 veterans functions like a home, she said. The facility was begun in 1989 after Campbell, a trained counselor who had lost a cousin in the Vietnam War, and cofounder Bernadette Forti realized how many local veterans were both homeless and psychiatrically disabled.
An official nonprofit since 1995, Habitat PLUS gradually extends responsibility to those who show they can handle it. Wood thrives here, Campbell said. He guides fellow vets who need a hand up or a nudge to get moving. He drives other residents to buy groceries, see a movie, or go to church. He now leads support groups at the VA in Boston. Sometimes Campbell asks him to intervene when a resident needs motivating.
“Steve will kind of rag and motivate [others] to do what they need to do, more so than if a staff person were to go to them and say, ‘You need to take a shower,’ ” Campbell said. “They respect him. They see how far he’s come in a short amount of time. . . . He has just naturally come to be a very important person to everybody who lives here.”
Because Habitat PLUS residents have been homeless and afflicted by PTSD, most aren’t strong candidates for independent living, Campbell said. In Wood, they see evidence of what is possible when you’re loved and committed to forging healthy habits.
Wood still faces challenges. He dreams about flying, then wakes up to the reality that he might not ever fly again. The letdown can be discouraging.
But he hasn’t given up his flight gear, he said, because the possibility of returning to aviation is still there.
Meanwhile, he’s gearing up for new adventures, such as perhaps a career in the FBI. And no one here doubts he can do it.
“Nobody [from Habitat PLUS] has been totally successful — gotten a job, got married, had a car and a boat,” said Robert Whitney, a Quincy-born veteran and Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained scientist who has lived at Habitat PLUS for 16 years. “Stephen, though, has potential to do this. I tell him, ‘Do it. Go to school. Play sports. Go to church.’ And he’s doing it.”Contact Jeffrey MacDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.