COLUMBIA, SC (AP) - Marine Cpl. Steven Diaz had been in Iraq only three months, when, on March 25, 2005, his world exploded.
The 21-year-old was in the passenger seat of a Humvee near the Syrian border when he was struck by a roadside bomb.
The Chapin High School grad was riddled with shrapnel, including one shard that went through his left eye, ricocheted off his cranium and lodged in his brain, where it remains today. Doctors were able to save his left foot and leg.
"I'm very blessed," said Diaz, who now lives in Columbia, attends school and helps other veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related problems through the Hidden Wounds project.
Diaz is one of more than 5,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in the Midlands who returned with a disability - one of the highest per-capita concentrations in the country, according to a national study conducted by McClatchy Newspapers.
The study looked at populations of disabled vets by the first three digits of the ZIP codes in which they live, information gleaned from U.S. Veterans Administration records.
The 292 area - which includes the Columbia city core, Fort Jackson and a portion of Northeast Richland - ranked 28th out of 890 areas in the country. It has about one seriously disabled vet from Iraq or Afghanistan for every 3,000 residents.
The large concentration of vets is due to the presence here of Dorn V.A. Medical Center, Fort Jackson and other nearby bases, such as Shaw Air Force Base and McEntire Joint National Guard Base, experts said. Columbia also has a large contingent of reservists and guardsmen, who add to the numbers.
Also, there is wide support for the military here through strong service organizations - such as the American Legion, VFW, Disabled American Veterans and newer groups such as Hidden Wounds and Wounded Warriors - which build relationships and keep vets in the area when they leave the service.
The data cement Columbia's reputation as one of the most military-friendly cities in the United States. The bases and support structure here, as well as other military bases, support organizations and medical facilities in South Carolina also attract and retain injured service members in the Midlands and across the state, the data show.
The 290 area, which stretches from Newberry through Lexington to Bamberg, ranked 73rd in the nation in the concentration of disabled vets. The 290 area, which runs from Ridgeway through Northeast Richland to Manning and Orangeburg, ranks 82nd. Charleston is 70th. Beaufort is 95th.
"We have a lot of military here, not just in Columbia, but across the state," said Jim Thornburgh, a Vietnam veteran and past commander of the S.C. Military Order of the Purple Heart. "A lot of them get out and decide to stay here. The climate is good. The hospitality is good, and they've developed close relationships in the area. And if you are severely disabled and depend on the VA system, it's very important that you need to be nearby."
'Always on high alert'
One of those severely disabled soldiers is former Army Staff Sgt. Raymond Long, an Ohio native now living in Columbia.
A third-generation soldier, he was a squad leader in 2004 in an engineering unit working near Balad, Iraq - clearing roadside bombs, building bridges, bases and infrastructure, "doing everything, A to Z," he said.
In June, heavy mortars began raining onto Balad Air Base. When Long awoke from being hit, he had a concussion, lacerated liver and was peppered with shrapnel. Around him lay about two dozen dead, dying and wounded soldiers, he estimates.
After treatment for his physical injuries, Long began having symptoms of PTSD - headaches, depression, panic attacks and anger. He suppressed them, kept the problems to himself and even was deployed again the next year, and the symptoms grew worse.
"I took it out on my squad," he said.
After his second deployment, he was transferred to Fort Jackson to learn to become a drill sergeant. But he left the service, in large part because of his physical and mental challenges.
Today, he is 100 percent disabled - a VA designation that determines benefits, not necessarily the level of health or physical ability - and unable to work.
"Triggers," such as large crowds, loud sounds, even odors, can bring bouts of anger and panic attacks. It is difficult for him to attend his children's sporting events. Just being around strangers can be a challenge. He has a service dog, Harry, that calms him when he gets agitated, even steers him away from situations and people that make him uncomfortable.
Agreeing to an interview with a reporter from The State to talk about his experience is part of his treatment, one that he doesn't enjoy. But without a sustained effort to be around people, he might not leave the house, Long said.
"He's always on high alert," said JoAnna Plunkett, a clinical social worker at Dorn, and a member of the hospital's PTSD Clinical Team, along with Long's psychiatrist Barbara Crockett, the team's director. "He is looking for danger when no danger is there. We have to recalibrate him."
Long and others suffering from severe PTSD can attend counseling as much as 12 times a week, Crockett said. That makes living near a VA hospital, with the support of a military community like Columbia, essential.
"There are a lot more opportunities for veterans here than in Ohio," Long said of his decision to remain in Columbia. "They tend to take care of their veterans more here."
'You suffered internally'
PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries are on the rise among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. About 10,000 new patients with PTSD flood VA hospitals nationwide each quarter. In the Midlands there are more than 1,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets with PTSD, 38 of whom, like Long, are 100 percent disabled by it.
That number would have been astounding in wars past - Vietnam, Korea and World War II - when "shell shock" was stigmatized and few service members sought help.
James Owens of Lexington served as a "tunnel rat" in Vietnam as a 19-year-old in 1966-67 - killing Viet Cong soldiers in their tunnel systems with just a flashlight and a pistol. After returning home, he took a long break, then joined the S.C. National Guard in 1980. In 2004 and 2006, at age 57, he served in Iraq in a signal brigade based in Spartanburg.
Today, he is being treated for PTSD and other maladies, something he suffered with for years in silence.
In Vietnam "we weren't able to get the help you get today," he said. "You were sort of ashamed. You suffered internally. You don't have a bunch of scars and broken limbs to show that you are a wounded soldier."
Part of the reason for the rather large number of service members now seeking help for PTSD is the military's aggressive campaign to urge mental as well as physical wellness from basic training on - called resiliency training. Also, the Veterans Administration and service organizations like Disabled American Veterans, Hidden Wounds, the VFW, American Legion and others have outreach programs to urge service members to seek help when symptoms appear.
Also, Dorn conducts outreach programs through their Iraq and Afghanistan caseworker program.
In 2005, Faela Maney was the only caseworker working with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Today she has a staff of seven, who frequently go out on the weekends to find vets and advise them of their care options.
That is not the case everywhere.
She notes that Texas, for example, has more than 122,547 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, with 27,528 enrolled with the VA there for physical and mental health care. South Carolina has 24,000 veterans of those wars, with 21,407 enrolled with the VA for care.
"Different parts of the country have different outreach (programs)," she said. "We are very aggressive."
And there are the disabled vets themselves, like Marine Cpl. Diaz, who urge other vets to seek help and take advantage of the resources the area offers. Having "gotten past the bad part" of his physical and mental injuries, he now works with Hidden Wounds, counseling other service members, many who are contemplating suicide.
"They feel like they are the only ones to deal with this," he said. "I usually have some answers for them."
As for being disabled and living here: "It's just so convenient," he said. "You can get to Fort Jackson. You can get to the VA. And this town, unlike a lot of others, is patriotic. It's just a patriotic town."
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