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The path not taken: A war correspondent’s struggle with PTSD

Journalists scrambled behind US Marines practicing squad rushes in northern Kuwait in 2003.Scott Nelson/Getty Images

Yochi Dreazen is the managing editor of Foreign Policy. His book "The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War," from which this essay is adapted, will be reissued in paperback on Oct. 6.

I wanted to be a war correspondent from the day I entered journalism. In 2003, with American troops massing in the Middle East, I got my chance. I left for Iraq that spring, drawn, like so many of my colleagues, by the excitement and danger of covering a war. I wrote about the invasion, flew back to the United States for a couple of months, and then went back to Baghdad in August to help open The Wall Street Journal’s bureau there. I lived in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and, after that, went back every few months to do combat embeds with the troops fighting what had by that point become a full-on civil war.

I saw dead and dying Americans; I saw dead and dying Iraqis. I was interviewing a tribal sheikh in southern Iraq once when my translator stepped away to take a phone call, sat back down, and told me that there had just been a major suicide bombing in the nearby city of Karbalah that had killed dozens of Iranian pilgrims, including a large number of children. In Karbalah, I watched a chador-clad woman slowly make her way up and down each row of corpses, pulling back every sheet, until she found the shattered body of her son. At the sight, she let out a scream and then collapsed to the ground. I will never forget the sound of that mother's grief.

I returned from that trip, and from all of my others to the war zones, far different than when I had left. The war was changing me, hardening me. I felt flashes of pure rage when someone ran into me on the basketball court or cut me off on the road. I chose tables at restaurants that were as far from the front doors and windows as possible, in case a bomb went off outside. I would wake up whenever there was a sound in my bedroom and then be unable to fall back asleep. In some of my dreams, loved ones died. In some, I did. I had full-blown PTSD, but I couldn't bring myself to admit it. I was a war correspondent; I was a tough guy. Tough guys, I believed, didn't need help.


Many of my military friends had returned with the same demons. Some of my friends talked about killing themselves; several went through with it. In early 2009, my editors at the Journal asked me to do an article on the military's growing suicide crisis, and the reporting eventually brought me to the Colorado home of General Mark Graham and his wife, Carol. One of their sons, Kevin, had taken his own life, the other, Jeff, had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Despite their pain, the Grahams had devoted themselves to reducing the stigma that kept troubled troops from seeking help and to changing the ways the military was fighting its suicide epidemic. I would later tell their story in my book "The Invisible Front."


On the sunny day when we first met, Carol told me that I reminded her of Kevin. There was a good reason for that, one she couldn't have known at the time. I had been spiraling downward as I went back to Iraq and Afghanistan again and again, but in the fall of 2010 my slow descent suddenly accelerated. My first marriage had deteriorated two years earlier, and my job felt increasingly empty. Sitting in my apartment, I decided that I didn't want to live like that. Then I decided that I didn't want to live.

I don't know whether I would have actually been able to go through with taking my own life, but, thankfully, I never had the chance. A close friend heard the vacant tone of my voice one night, drove me to a nearby hospital, and stayed with me until I was able to get an emergency session with a psychiatrist the next morning. I was diagnosed with PTSD and given medication to help control its effects. I believe, to this day, that my friend saved my life. I believe, to this day, that things could have been very different. And I believe, to this day, that Kevin Graham's fate could easily have been my own. I wrote my book in the hope that it prevents others from believing they have no choice but to walk down the darkest of roads.


Copyright © 2015 by Yochi Dreazen. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.