An Iraqi veteran recounts coming out as gay, and his passion for helping other veterans deal with PTSD.
By Jeff Key
My story from Iraq is atypical, and I’ll say out of the gate that I was never in a firefight. I was fired on, but it was from such a distance that the rules of engagement determined that there should be no return fire. I’m quite happy that was the case.
When I got back from Iraq in 2006, I came out of the closet on CNN and forced them to kick me out under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That decision enabled me to become a more vocal activist concerning that policy and the war itself.
On one particularly memorable day, I was in Rhode Island speaking against the Bush war policy, and someone spat on me. I was quite shocked. I had heard the stories—some of them suspect, to be sure—about Vietnam veterans spat on by people. Well, it happened to me. Soon after, I found myself surrounded by a small group of Vietnam veterans. I’ll never forget that they had the wisdom not to say anything. They knew that there was nothing they could say. They just stood there lovingly, holding the space for me.
I decided that I was going to learn from this older generation of veterans. Many had not fared well upon their return, yet others seemed to be doing fine. What were the constants among the ones who made it through (relatively) unscathed? Here’s what I learned: they were in contact with other veterans who had an understanding of what they’d been through as soldiers. They were involved in causes important to them and were creative. They were sculptures, writers, and musicians. So, I stay in contact with other veterans. I’m politically and socially active with causes that are important to me. And I am creative. PTSD often comes with feelings of powerlessness, and this works in contrast to that phenomenon.
I wrote a play based on my Iraq war journals called “The Eyes of Babylon.” The Showtime network made a movie about my story called “Semper Fi: One Marine’s Journey.” The play and the movie saved my life. I set up a nonprofit, The Mehadi Foundation, to focus on bringing my generation of vets into the entertainment industry. I’ve written a second play, “Lilac and Liquor,” which is a meditation on PTSD and the creative process.
Ultimately I’d like to offer apprenticeships to veterans interested in the production process from page to the stage—everything from stage management to lighting and costume design, acting, and writing. Veterans have often said that post-deployment life in the work world holds little interest, given the enormity of what we did as soldiers. Bringing art to life offers a sense of a higher purpose.
It wasn’t until I started working with other veterans hoping to help them with their PTSD that I started to recognize the symptoms in myself. For example, I’d been pitching, punching, and crying in my sleep. I’m trying to get some help for that. I recently took part in a sleep study at the local Veterans Administration. I’d always laughed off the suggestion that I might be suffering because, in my opinion, my short time in Iraq was infinitely more comfortable than those who had it far worse.
I spoke at Harvard as part of a symposium on different treatment modalities. I told the organizer that she probably wouldn’t want to hear my position on PTSD. She asked what I meant. I said that I would advocate for the removal of the “D” at the end of the abbreviation because I believe it’s misguided to pathologize people for what are reasonable, human responses to trauma. Indeed, if someone returned unaffected by the things that some of us have seen, I would consider that person to be more damaged than the veteran that we so often label as “broken.”