Once considered possible terrorist by his fellow Marines, Affraz Mohammed is putting his life back together; all he needed was for someone to listen.
By Christine Graf
In August 2002, Affraz Mohammed was a 26-year-old corporal stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. His military career, and life, changed after a fellow Marine sold him an illegal weapon. The details of the case are complicated. Evidence presented at his court-martial proved Mohammed believed the gun was legal.
After purchasing the weapon, six government agents arrested Mohammed. He was thrown to the ground and a machine gun was held inches from his head. He was handcuffed and placed in a car with three agents who took him to the Naval Criminal Investigation Services headquarters. During the drive, Mohammed says he was interrogated about activities at his local mosque and asked to provide names of Muslim terrorists. He repeatedly told the agents he did not know about any terrorist activities.
After being interrogated for several hours, Mohammed ended up at the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia.
It is standard procedure for a Marine who is arrested on base to be taken to the brig. Instead, Mohammed was never told why he was taken to Alexandria. He was strip-searched and placed in a cell where he was deprived of a bed, pillow, blanket, food, and water. He was not allowed to make a phone call. His family never knew his whereabouts.
“I would have never been treated like that in the brig. I would have been treated like a Marine. I would have been treated with respect,” Mohammed says. “I thought about confessing even though what they wanted me to say wasn’t true. But I could only take so much, and they made me feel less than human.”
Mohammed was taken back to Quantico the next day and placed on house arrest in the barracks. According to Mark Hurst, a staff sergeant at Quantico at the time, “Everybody was running around saying he was a terrorist. When he got pinched and they hauled him up to Alexandria, people were quick to jump to the wrong conclusions. If you got hauled up there, it usually means there was a terrorism connection.” Hurst did not believe the rumors. “He was hard-headed and had a big mouth at times, but he was no terrorist.”
Mohammed says he constantly harassed after returning to Quantico. Marines would bang on his door at night and yell, “Wake up, Taliban Marine. We’re coming to get you.” He was warned of friendly fire and called “Mohammed, the terrorist.” He had to cut grass with scissors and collect pubic hairs from the latrine. “They treated him like crap,” Hurst says.
“They almost made me lose it,” Mohammed says.
Captain Shannon Drake was the JAG lawyer who represented Mohammed. “Affraz was a hell of a Marine,” says Drake. “I had people tell me they wish they had five more just like him working for them.” His excellent record led to an assignment reserved for an elite group of Marines to serve at the inauguration of George W. Bush. It took a jury of five Marines just three hours to deliver a unanimous not guilty verdict. Mohammed was promoted to sergeant shortly after his trial concluded. Although he planned to be a career Marine, he knew there would always be a cloud of suspicion hanging over his head. He was honorably discharged in September 2003.
Today, Mohammed still battles the scars from the ordeal. The events changed Mohammed. He became depressed, scared, and paranoid. He says it was hard for him to be around people. “I was having nightmares and flashbacks and couldn’t sleep,” he says. “I was always jumping out of bed, running around the house, and checking the doors and windows. I thought that government agents were going to try to kill me.”
His paranoia affected his parenting skills. He and his wife, Natalie, had a son in 2005 and a daughter the following year. But Mohammed says he “felt no connection with my kids and just went through the motions.” His demeanor was so aloof his wife never left him alone with the kids. In 2008 he was diagnosed with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and classified as 100 percent disabled. He was unable to work and forced to give up his dream of becoming a police officer. Natalie divorced him in 2010. “My wife could only take so much,” he says. “I was always screaming at her and blaming her for everything.” He finally decided to seek help from a local VA. He felt the psychotherapists and psychologists were distant and didn’t care about his story. It all changed in 2012 when he was assigned to work with clinical social worker Dan Pitzer.
During their first three months of weekly sessions, Pitzer says Mohammed spent most of his time yelling about how he was treated.
“He was very angry, very resentful, and very defensive,” says Pitzer. “I don’t get put off by anger, so I just listened and continued to listen. Guys like him who feel angry, slighted, and unheard are setting up a situation for you to reject them. They eventually run out of gas when they realize they’ve been yelling at you for so long, and you haven’t thrown them out. It’s not until you ‘pass the test’ that you start getting somewhere.”
Pitzer concedes he had no idea if Mohammed’s story of what happened to him at Quantico was true. Mohammed had hundreds of pages of legal documents that confirmed his story, and Pitzer became convinced he was telling the truth. For Mohammed, that’s when everything began to change. “I just wanted to be heard,” he says. “I wanted to be believed.” Pitzer was the first person who was willing to look at the documents related to his case. Pitzer went one step further and helped him document the details of his story. “That’s when a lot began to change,” says Pitzer. “He felt validated and legitimized. It was very cathartic for him and allowed him to find some peace finally.”
After Mohammed began to trust Pitzer, they focused on his PTSD. Pitzer believes Mohammed’s arrest is just a small part of what contributed to his PTSD. He says feeling betrayed by his country and not being believed by his peers made Mohammed feel isolated. One of the things they worked on was Mohammed’s anger and confrontational demeanor. Pitzer taught Mohammed to separate his feelings from his actions. “It’s about learning how PTSD guides their behavior,” Pitzer says, “so they can learn how to live life again and deal with anger and frustration.”
Pitzer says he teaches his patients to use the logical part of their brain to calm themselves down. He says it is often as simple as teaching them to remove themselves from a situation before it escalates. He encourages clients with PTSD to formulate an “escape plan” before entering a stressful situation. Pitzer also encouraged Mohammed to become more integrated into the veteran community. When Pitzer needs someone to help out a fellow vet, he says, Affraz is the first guy to do it. It gives him a purpose.
Mohammed is now co-parenting, and he’s able to see things from other people’s perspectives. For the first time, Mohammed was able to enjoy being a father. He’s active in his children’s lives; he and Natalie are now friends. Mohammed doesn’t know where he would be without Pitzer. “Dan is my hero,” he says. “He saved my life. The Veterans Administration needs people like him in charge and holding high positions.”
Said Pitzer, “He’s a very significant part of my life. It means so much to me to see him happy and enjoying life after being a prisoner in his own body for so long.”
As for Mohammed, he is incredibly proud of his service to his country. In his heart, he says he will always be a Marine. And he will always be grateful to Pitzer, the one person who was willing to listen. Mohammed wants others to know about his ordeal and his condition. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He aims to bring attention to PTSD and its impact. He even opened up to the world, penning a guest column for the New York Times in August. In the column, a particular passage stands out. “My treatment and recovery have helped me accept responsibility for my actions and to do what is necessary to rebuild the damaged relationships in my life. I’m not living my life without fear — I’m learning to live in spite of it. I am no longer constantly looking over my shoulder, no longer carrying around a stack of documents, hoping someone will look at them and believe my story. I am able to talk about my arrest without shame. I know what’s true. I know what happened. I can live with it.”