When a wounded soldier returns home, Eric Greitens makes sure that the mission doesn’t end.
Not a day passes that Tim Smith doesn’t think about his buddy Norman Darling. He also wears the memory of April 29, 2004, like a tattoo. On that date, Smith, then a Pfc., had been deployed for four and a half months in Operation Iraqi Freedom. His unit was stationed in the Triangle of Death; the enemy was feeding them a daily diet of mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenade fire. The day before, Smith and Pfc. Darling were talking about their favorite subject, their families. The 29-year-old Darling had just purchased a cellphone and was looking forward to running up the minutes with calls to his loved ones in Middleboro, Mass.
Just a few hours later, a truck bomb exploded, killing Darling and seven other soldiers from Smith’s 1st Armored Division. Smith was on guard duty at the time and didn’t find out until the next day. When he did, his life changed forever.
“You grow real close to these guys,” Smith says. “You learn a lot about each other. And for you to see them one day, and the next day they’re gone, you become really numb.”
After his honorable discharge in 2007 (by then he was a sergeant), that numbness, along with severe chronic conjunctivitis from the harsh desert climate and tinnitus from his unit firing hundreds of artillery rounds, followed Smith home to his native St. Louis.
He tried to put April 29, 2004, out of his mind and concentrate on his wife, Teri, and his two young sons. But there were still nights when he woke up jumping out of bed and scrambling for a weapon, thinking he was back in Iraq. He soon was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which, according to the Veteran’s Administration, afflicts at least 35 percent of Iraq War veterans.
“I knew something wasn’t quite right,” Smith recalls. “Thinking about the past. Things I couldn’t change. I’d have flashbacks sometimes. I just wanted to forget about it — unfortunately, I don’t think you ever [do]. For a lot of us, idle time is the devil’s playground. I couldn’t find a job for about six months.”
Of more pressing concern was that he didn’t feel like he was being the father or husband he could be.