Cover Story: Nightmares of War

Veteran, 23, battles to win back health and job

The Key to His Future

It's not an unusual predicament for a 23-year-old: Eric Huth has been looking for steady work since getting fired by the U.S. Postal Service three months ago.

He was late four times in five weeks, say the termination papers signed Oct. 23 by Kings Mills Postmaster Ruth Fisher. Huth's not arguing that point.

His point is that, as a disabled veteran, he deserves a little leeway. The episodes he relives in his dreams make waking and getting to work before 10 a.m. difficult for Huth.

They come from another life, when he was known as Spec. Eric Huth, 3rd Battalion, 15th Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division of the United States Army.

He was the driver and team leader for one of the infantry fighting vehicles that charged 700 miles north into Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq.

"Delta Force, CIA snipers, Special Forces, they all rolled with us," Huth says. "We were their support.

But as far as movements were concerned, they stood behind us so that we would encounter heavy resistance first."

He was one of the first 10 Americans through the gates of the Presidential Palace, Saddam Hussein's palace and the palaces of his sons, Uday and Qusay. Huth stormed Ba'ath Party houses, what he calls "former mosques" and the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.

Then, in a southern part of Baghdad on April 6, 2003, an artillery shell exploded 3 feet away while Huth chatted with a couple of his men. It threw him 30 or 40 feet and shredded his left thigh. As a good luck token, he still carries the 3-by-1 inch chunk of steel that struck him in the back and would have killed him if he hadn't been wearing body armor.

"I had to get up, help the wounded into the back of the Bradley, then hop 8 feet — got in, somehow drove and, as soon as we drove off, another round landed right where we were," he says.

It seems clear Huth was a lynchpin in his unit. Maybe that's why they wouldn't hear of sending him home.

"They took a piece out of my leg and then sent me back into combat," Huth says. "They said, 'Can you fire a gun?' "

" 'Yeah, I'm an infantryman,' " he answered. "Of course I can."

So they sent him back to the front, with "strict orders to stay in a tent and listen to the radio or something. I'm like, 'We don't have no tents. What are you talking about? We're storming the cities.'

"It was hell storming the palaces and shit, hardly being able to walk, you know? But your adrenaline is pumping so much that you don't even realize what you're doing until it's time to slow down and you're like, 'This hurts.' "

Three infections later, his commanders finally relented to doctors' wishes to send Huth home. In addition to losing 40 percent of his left thigh, he suffered cracked ribs, a bruised kidney and, he soon found out, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

He says the dreams started in the hospital the night after he was wounded.

'It's always horrifying'
Huth lives with an old friend in a small Union Township apartment he calls "ManLand." A tin can on top of the refrigerator holds coins they've saved since moving in six months ago. One day the coins will pay for a Kegerator.

The self-styled scavenger lights up a string of Doral Lights and shows off his prized possessions: Coke bottles from Hungary and Bosnia, a camouflage Bible, a Bradley track pad, his helmet cover, American propaganda in Arabic, a full Russian uniform and SS silverware from a former Nazi in Bosnia.

The Curious George stuffed animal on his bed helps with night terrors.

"That's my boy," Huth says. "I take him everywhere with me. He's been to 28 countries."

His roommate and friends can vouch for the impossibility of waking Huth when he's reliving an episode in his sleep.

"If you, like, pull me out of it, I have no control," he says. "I've thrown stuff, yelled stuff, I've punched people."

He says he almost killed his sister.

"She came and was shaking me on the shoulders," he says. "That's why they say, 'Never wake a soldier up from the waist up. Always shake his boot.' But she was right over top of me and I just — " he pantomimes wrapping his arms around her — "and then she was screaming and I woke up and I was all, like, 'I'm sorry.' "

His neighbor James Benken has found the magic combination: light a cigarette, put it in Huth's mouth and hand him a Diet Coke. Stand back and watch him freak out when he wakes.

Huth grows embarrassed as his friends gently needle him.

"No, I don't make you do that," he protests. "It wakes me up, though. Thank you."

The dreams visit without warning, maybe three nights in a row and then not another for a month.

Experiencing his nighttime episodes isn't like dreaming — it's out-and-out reliving. That's classic PTSD, as the brain's fight-or-flight impulse kicks into overdrive and renders memories more real than so-called reality.

Often the action is in slow motion. Sometimes it'll replay in black and white. There are vivid smells and sounds, though "I never really hear it in full stereo. It's always like an echo," Huth says. "It's always a different angle. It's always horrifying, no matter which way you see it."

He refuses to go into more detail.

"It's not fair," he says. "No offense, you just wouldn't understand. I wouldn't expect you to. It's about the guy next to you, you know."

Though getting wounded in Baghdad seems to have kicked in full-fledged PTSD, Huth says that not all the episodes he relives at night are from Iraq. With difficulty, he offers this much:

"We were never fighting in Bosnia, but we uncovered mass graves that had 130-140 people in them that had been executed during the Serb-Muslim War back in the early '90s — clothed women and children shot in the head."

Then he swiftly changes the subject: Would the reporter like another Diet Coke?

Front line to unemployment line
His first deployment was a 2000-01 NATO mission to Bosnia called Operation Joint Forge. In the three years that followed, he traveled to 28 countries and served in combat missions in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq. He speaks Serbo-Croatian — fluently — and French. But he says he still can't find a job.

Back in the states, after several surgeries and innumerable physical therapy sessions to teach him to walk, Huth started seeking civilian work. He says McDonald's told him he was overqualified to drop fries, but the former Army team leader wasn't interested in managing. He lived on savings from the service while waiting in vain for places like Wal-Mart to return his calls.

He finally found work as a lead server for what he's dubbed "the slowest damn Frisch's in the world," sometimes bringing home $18 a night. Then he discovered that, though it was dangerous, driving a cab earned him as much in one night as he'd made at Frisch's in a week.

He gave up cab driving for a job at the Kings Mills Post Office, where he enjoyed clerking and earned $17 an hour from Sept. 2 until he was fired Oct. 23.

"They knew when they hired me that I was going to be late if I was having nightmares," he says. "They knew before I could even work my first day. I said, 'I'm a disabled vet,' went in with my resume, Purple Heart citation, DD214 (military service discharge form), disability benefits, everything. They had to have a signature from the doctor I was seeing."

The post office might have violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by not accommodating Huth's scheduling needs, according to Lance Woodruff of the Clermont County Veterans Service Commission.

"Eric can come off sometimes as a little cocky and maybe that might have rubbed somebody the wrong way," Woodruff says. "But that doesn't excuse them from at least trying to work with him. If it was within their power to do that, I think they should have done it."

Huth wants the job at the post office. It paid well, and his government benefits transferred nicely. He's filing an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint and talking to a lawyer about recourse through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I'm looking for just a good job, nice retirement, good pay," he says. "Someone who's lenient with me, who will understand, 'Hey, we understand it's a little rough for you now but it'll get easier for you in the future as far as your conditions. We're willing to work with that.' That's what the post office said to me. And what do they do? Throw it back in my face."

Postmaster Fisher didn't return a reporter's calls to comment for this story.

'Everybody was a casualty'
A gaudy-looking key is from Hussein's private bathroom, Huth says.

"I'm keeping that in case I ever go back," he says lightly.

"I just keep on thinking that I wish there was more I could'a done," he says. "You come back with that feeling that you don't think you've done enough, because they're still sending more people over. Every time I hear the news about we're sending more people over, it's like, well, maybe if we just would've done our job a little better...."

He grows pensive after rifling through the box in the porch shed that holds much of his Army gear. It includes what he wore the day he "got blown up," as he puts it.

"I don't know, maybe I hold onto a lot of stuff maybe because of memories or the illusion that one day war will come to America and I can fight for my country without joining the army," he says.

Huth makes it clear one way to honor veterans is not to push them. But he agrees to consider a question. Those men in the Bradley that carried his men into Iraq, did he lose any of them?

Huth's aspect changes. He stares at the table, lost in something in his head. His mouth works but he doesn't say anything. After a long moment he speaks quietly.

"Everybody in that Bradley was a casualty of some sort, whether directly or indirectly" he says. "Everybody lost something over there, lost their own reasoning, lost their cool."

But it's not just American casualties that haunt him.

"A lot of enemy guys, too," he says. "And that's what hurts, you know. You've got the rest of your life to think about it and you're like — it messes with you.

"I didn't mind, you know, going up into battle with uniformed soldiers. But when it came down to enemy soldiers that were wearing civilian clothes carrying weapons and shooting from buildings, you're like, 'What the hell?' "

Huth isn't at all impressed by the yellow ribbon magnets stuck to cars. If you really want to support the troops, go to and toss some Hostess cupcakes and cigarettes into a box for them, he says. Take a chessboard to the VA; no one visits those guys.

He at first grows defensive when asked about justifications for the war in Iraq. He's unequivocal: You can't support the troops without supporting their mission in Iraq.

Pacifists are pussies, he says, and questioning the war erodes the support for soldiers. However inadvertently, that's tantamount to murdering them, he says. When soldiers start to question and doubt, soldiers start to die.

'Why are we here?'
Later Huth talks more openly about the toll that rock-steady belief can take on returning veterans.

"Everybody fought that war for their own reasons," he says. "Maybe they thought they were attacking Iraq because of 9/11 or they were attacking Iraq because they had weapons of mass destruction or they were attacking Iraq because Saddam was a very bad guy or they were attacking Iraq to liberate them.

"That's what soldiers do. They have to find ways to justify to themselves that what they're doing is right to them, because they have to find ways to deal with, to operate on that level that they trained for. And they can't be able to question themselves. I mean, if you stutter, you can cost yourself your life. Or the guy's life next to you.

"So that whole entire trip, nobody ever talked about it. I mean, sure, we talked about it, like, 'Why the fuck are we here?' You know? 'What the fuck are we doing here?' You're looking around, all you see is sand. 'This is what we're fighting for?'

"But I believe every soldier who fought was doing it for something that they believed, not something they were forced to believe. Whatever they chose to believe in, that's going to be their main focus on bringing them back to reality. So it's going to affect more people.

"So, for example, I think if a person believed that they were attacking Iraq because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and they were bad, go through the war and find no weapons of mass destruction — I can't confirm that, not my area to confirm — but I think that person who fought this whole entire war would be depressed more because he let himself down. He believes he was let down that there wasn't anything there, as compared to the soldier who went to war believing that they're fighting Iraq to free the people and then the people actually becoming free. That's one more goal that's lifted off that one soldier when there's still a burden on this other soldier.

"I believe that's why you might not see any action and you'll still have that posttraumatic stress, because you don't know what to feel because all of your (hopes) were let down.

"It's a whole different war than from 10 years ago, 12 years ago. They're trying to treat Iraqi Freedom's vets with the same shit that they're trying to treat the Gulf War vets with. I got a packet in the mail from the VA about Gulf War Syndrome. Well, shit. But hey."

He pauses.

"I don't know what I was saying," he says with a smile, returning to ManLand.

"That's something I do a lot too," he says. "Just lose it. Start talking and then — hey, is that a quarter on the ground? I don't know if my mind's just forcing me to block it out or what."

Eric Huth says he will consider any job offers. Contact him at 513-753-8487 or at [email protected].