Luke Jensen pauses while recounting some of his experiences during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2009. Jensen is coping with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his deployment. (Christopher Gannon / The Des Moines Register)
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Luke Jensen was patrolling the perimeter of Kandahar Airfield one morning in September 2009 when his radio crackled.
An accident had occurred outside the base. An Afghan girl, maybe 8 years old, had darted onto the road just as an American military vehicle drove by.
It might be a fatality, the voice on the radio said.
Luke, a 31-year-old military policeman with an Army Reserve unit out of northwest Iowa, had been in Afghanistan less than two months. Things were not going well. On his first night in country, an insurgent rocket attack struck a U.S. military vehicle inside Bagram Airfield. Later, at a smaller base in the mountains, he lived in a tent near the base's edge. Constant explosions kept him awake every night. He saw soldiers injured and killed.
Panic attacks made his heart race. Sweat pooled wherever he rested his hands.
And now this.
Luke drove his Ford Ranger pickup truck toward the main gate, sped outside the wire, then pressed the brakes when he came to the tiny roadside village a quarter-mile away. The village was nothing more than a few wooden shacks covered by tin roofs, with no running water or sewage.
Blood spattered the front of the American truck, a huge mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle known as an MRAP. Villagers had covered the girl's mangled body with a rug, and, according to Islamic law, wanted to bury her as soon as possible.
They were irate at the Americans. But Luke had to follow military protocol and secure the scene for investigators. That meant keeping the villagers away from the body.
He peered under the rug. The girl was dead that much he knew. The villagers were shouting at him, but an interpreter hadn't arrived yet, so Luke had no idea what they were saying. As Afghans kept driving past, the crowd grew, to 30 people, 40, 50. Luke and another military policeman, armed only with 9-millimeter pistols, roped off the scene. The villagers pushed toward the body. For nearly an hour, Luke waited for backups: a Pashto interpreter, a criminal investigation unit, anyone.
Luke Jensen is a bull of a man, a former undercover drug cop, a lover of motorcycles and weightlifting, the person you'd pick to handle a situation like this. But angry Afghans far outnumbered him. He never felt so exposed or so afraid.
And right then, in the middle of this explosive moment, Luke could feel the change inside his head the instant when everything came apart.
Joining the Reserves
On the surface, Luke Jensen would be the last person you'd expect to have a mental breakdown during a combat deployment.
Luke's driver's license picture intense blue eyes, shaved head, long blond goatee says it all: The dude's tough. That was the look Luke aimed for so he could make undercover drug buys, then felony arrests.
He'd always wanted to be a cop. As a lanky wrestler at Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Luke did ride-alongs with city police. After graduation, he signed up for the Army Reserves to become a military policeman, a foot in the door to a law enforcement career. Luke was following family footsteps through that door. His grandfathers were veterans of World War II, his father a Vietnam-era Army vet.
The night before he left for boot camp, Luke was surrounded by family: his own as well as the family of a girl he'd met studying criminal justice at Des Moines Area Community College. Luke popped the question: "Abi, will you marry me?" After boot camp and marriage, Luke was sworn in at the police department in Nevada, Iowa, the county seat of Story County. The date was Sept. 10, 2001.
The next day, planes slammed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Life changed for everyone, but for military families most of all. Ten days later, Luke left for a yearlong security deployment at seaports around the country.
When he returned, he worked his way up the law enforcement ladder. He joined the county Emergency Response Team. On big raids, he was the first one in the door. On patrol, he was the kind-hearted cop who could defuse heated situations.
At home, he was that same blend: tough guy with a soft heart. He fought in mixed-martial arts bouts, but he also put his two young daughters to sleep with made-up stories where the girls played superheroes. Elsie was an eagle, Libby a tiger, and Luke spun them bedtime tales of adventure.
He got his big break in 2006, a job as a deputy for the Story County Sheriff's Office. He was named to the Central Iowa Drug Task Force as an undercover cop.
The job was a rush, but every time he went into a hairy situation, Luke felt in control: firearm tucked in his waistband, a wire taped to his chest, cop buddies nearby if things went bad.
Then during a drill weekend in 2008 in Pocahontas, his Army Reserves commander delivered some life-changing news. The 415th Military Police Detachment, Luke's unit, was going to war.
He passed his pre-deployment physical in 2009 with flying colors "Fit as a horse," the doctor told him. Leaving his wife and daughters was painful, but Luke had a job to do. Anyway, he'd be over there with his tight-knit group of military buddies. That calmed his mind.
Except, just before leaving, they learned their job had changed. Originally the unit was supposed to stick together. Now, they would be split into smaller groups at seven separate bases.
And that, Luke's therapist later came to believe, became a key factor in his rapid mental decline. He was prepared for one set of circumstances; in Afghanistan, he found something far different. Luke's support system was fractured. And inside the mind of this tough-guy cop you wouldn't touch in a bar fight, cracks of vulnerability formed.
A sitting duck
Luke arrived in Afghanistan on Aug. 8, 2009. A week later, he was transferred to Forward Operating Base Shank, in Lowgar Province, a remote mountainous region not far from the Pakistan border. People called the base the Wild West. It was an alien landscape. Goats grazed on dirt, and old Soviet tanks loomed like skeletons.
In his first week there, two soldiers were killed. Artillery fire shook his bed day and night. In his tent, he heard mortar and rockets from afar. Luke felt defenseless.
"With the SWAT team stuff, I know how to react and be in control," Luke said later. "In Afghanistan, I was put on these fire bases, middle of nowhere, and the only attacks were from outside mortars. I felt like a sitting duck on these little fire bases, surrounded by only a chain-link fence. It was just a helpless feeling." The sleepless nights wore on him. So did the constant pallor of death, like the occasional announcements on the public address system: "All soldiers with A-negative blood should donate blood immediately." One morning, he went to the medical tent for sleep aids. Inside were bloodied soldiers in the same uniform as Luke. They'd been struck by an improvised explosive device. Luke walked out. He felt like a coward, asking for help when others had serious physical injuries.
Luke's mental health kept declining. He had heart-pounding panic attacks all day. He sweated so much his hands looked like prunes. He was depressed.
When Abi talked with Luke on Skype, she noticed the changes: His sudden weight loss. The bags beneath his eyes. His fragile emotions. She hated hearing of his night patrols, when he'd drive along the razor wire-topped fence, his headlights making him a target for insurgents.
A thought crept into Luke's mind, which soon became an obsession: I'm going to die here.
"It felt inevitable I wouldn't see my kids or wife again," he said.
Doctors put him on sleep aids and depression medication. He was transferred to a larger base, Kandahar Airfield, with better behavioral health services.
He still couldn't sleep. The medications dehydrated him. He lost 25 pounds in less than two months.
Then the Afghan girl was killed, and Luke felt so exposed and vulnerable, even after an interpreter and American troops arrived. From that moment on, he lost hope.
On Sept. 23, a military doctor described Luke's mental state in a report: emotional shock, insomnia, depression, feelings of helplessness. "He denies suicidal intent," the report reads, "but would not mind surviving a (car accident) and being returned home." A couple of days later, Luke drove to the medical tent for counseling on his suicidal thoughts. In the parking lot, he paused. Another force seemed to take over. Luke pulled out his handgun. Shaking, he removed the safety. He pointed the gun at his gut. Maybe I can hurt myself, he thought, and since I'm so close to the medical station they can fix me up. And if I die, I die.
Another soldier drove up and looked at him. Luke lowered his weapon.
Days later, another military doctor wrote about Luke: "Severe mental health condition with high risk of suicide. The risk of suicide is increasing as days go by." That day, 53 days since he first set foot in Afghanistan, Luke was medically evacuated from Kandahar to Bagram. He would return to the United States a broken man.
Home, but hurting
He was home. He was surrounded by family. He was hugging his two daughters at their comfortable house in Colo. He was no longer in constant danger of death.
So why wasn't Luke getting better and maybe even getting worse? Luke had spent seven weeks at Fort Campbell, Ky., going to group therapy, one-on-one therapy, relaxation classes. He tried yoga and meditation. But he was still wound tight. When he heard a helicopter taking off, or guns fired at the range, he jumped.
He headed home in December, later receiving an honorable discharge. The sheriff's office gave him a position as a civil deputy, easing him back to law enforcement. Life seemed to be getting back in order.
Except it wasn't.
Afghanistan wouldn't leave his head. He watched war documentaries. He devoured news reports. He read 20 books about Afghanistan. He became anti-social. He was angry at the Army, which he blamed for all his problems, yet he was obsessed with everything military. He thought he was a coward, a once-tough guy who had a mental breakdown.
"I was creating my own misery," Luke said. "I couldn't stop thinking about it, so I started reading about it. And the books would actually cause me stress. And I would do it book after book after book." He'd be at Hy-Vee, see a man wearing the type of scarf that Afghan men wear, and feel compelled to do something arrest the man, call Homeland Security, whatever. He stopped going to the grocery store. He went to therapy at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital in Des Moines, but the nonintensive counseling appointments were 30 days apart didn't help.
One night in spring 2010, Luke polished off a 12-pack. He argued with his wife. The alcohol mixed with the medications put him over the edge. Carrying his 45-caliber pistol, he stalked around his house, crouched toward the floor, made strange noises. "You don't know what I've seen!" Luke screamed at Abi.
Abi was terrified of her husband. She locked the girls in the bathroom with her. It was 3 a.m. Abi yelled that she was calling the cops.
Luke put the pistol to his head: "I'll kill myself! I'll (expletive) kill myself!" Abi's brother, who was living in their basement, ran up the stairs and took away the gun. Luke didn't resist.
"What I saw that night was not Luke," Abi later said. "It was just so hard, seeing somebody you love hurting that bad. So much in our life was going wrong." The next morning, Luke woke up with foggy memories of the night before and an overwhelming feeling of shame. Abi sat on their couch, crying. She told Luke: Get help. Lots of help. If he didn't, she would take away his daughters.
"He was untrusting," said Luke's new therapist, Don Hall. "It was going in a bad direction for the family. But the most helpful thing with trauma like this is seeking treatment quickly, which Luke did. Some veterans don't speak about their military experience for years, even decades. You let something simmer for that many years ... and your progress is not as good as someone like Luke." Slowly, on Hall's therapy couch, from appointment to appointment, the memories of Afghanistan poured out of him. At first when he put himself back in the moment, Luke got emotional. His body shook. He cried. But his therapist pushed him: You can't hide these memories away, or they'll keep tormenting you. To beat this, you must be able to talk about your experiences in Afghanistan.
Slowly, Luke started feeling better. He became less emotional, less tightly wound. A new combination of medication seemed to be working. At his therapist's suggestion, instead of staring at the television for hours like a zombie, he started spending an hour a night focused on playing with his daughters. He was looking forward to rejoining the drug task force and getting back to life as a real cop.
Then he lost his job.
Demoted, in debt
Luke had told another Story County deputy about his struggles. The deputy told his supervisor. The supervisor, concerned about Luke having a gun in his current mental state, put him on leave and took his firearms. A doctor hired by the sheriff's office said Luke shouldn't be in law enforcement.
(Luke's therapist disagreed and thought he'd get better with therapy.) In April 2010, Luke was told to resign or be terminated.
Luke protested, and eventually the county came around. Sort of. They gave him a job without a weapon, at the county conservation office.
He lost seniority. His salary dropped from $48,000 to $32,000. (A spokesman for the Story County sheriff's office said it could not comment regarding employment issues.) He hated the job. It felt below him.
"I used to do felony cases," he thought, "and now I'm picking up diapers out of fire pits in parks." Luke wondered: Why was this demotion permanent if he was working on getting better? Would they have treated him differently if his war injury was visible, a lost leg or a wounded arm? Why was a mental injury any different? He felt alone.
"People who are dedicated to the law enforcement profession, it's not just a job, it's a way of life," said a former boss, Nevada police chief Mike Tupper. "When he wasn't able to do that anymore, it's kind of like losing a piece of yourself. It just seemed like he was lost." The family worried about bills. Abi's job as a preschool teacher couldn't make up for his loss in salary. They bounced checks. They were six payments behind on their house, weeks away from foreclosure, when Abi got a loan of $7,000 from a family member.
His symptoms got worse. Sometimes he couldn't sleep, regularly staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. Other times he couldn't keep his eyes open, coming home from work and passing out at 7 p.m. His blood pressure skyrocketed. Worst of all were the suicidal thoughts, always swirling in his head.
Then, during one of his appointments, Luke's therapist told him suicide can be contagious in families.
"That," Luke said, "was a slap across my face. It woke me up and stuck in my head. I have kids and wanted to get better for them."
Helping other vets
On a recent evening, Luke Jensen sits at his kitchen table after a dinner of barbecue pork. Outside, summer storms are brewing over the Story County cornfields. But inside the Jensen household, everything is serene.
"It's a happy little ending here," Abi says.
Luke's daughters, Elsie, 6, and Libby, 8, sprawl on the living room couch, watching "Harry and the Hendersons." The family's 11-year-old Basset Hound, Tank, lies on the floor. Abi puts a hand over her husband's as he does something that, not long ago, he couldn't: He talks about Afghanistan, and he doesn't lose control of his emotions.
It was, Luke says, the worst 53 days of his life. He talks about knowing, just knowing, he was going to die. He talks about the little Afghan girl's corpse. He talks about returning home and constantly being on edge.
That's a main goal of his therapy, to take the edge off his experience.
He's not there yet. As he talks, Luke grips the table with both hands. His voice cracks. His face gets red. When the oven buzzer dings for brownies that Abi is baking, Luke jumps.
Yet instead of hating the military and hiding away his uniform, Luke is embracing that part of his life.
In May, Luke took a job with the Story County Veterans Affairs office. He helps veterans with health care, with career counseling, with filing claims for possible post-traumatic stress disorder. He uses his own successes at sifting through red tape to guide others. He got 70 percent disability from the U.S. military, and he got back pay from the county from his temporary salary reduction.
"Things have been made right," Abi says. "It makes me feel like our old life again." On his first day on the job, Luke, now 32, helped an 89-year-old World War II veteran enroll in the VA system for the first time. He helped a Vietnam veteran with rental assistance. And he spoke with a 22-year-old veteran fresh from Iraq.
"He's been through the system himself," said Brett McLain, director of Story County Veterans Affairs. "But the biggest thing is, he's able to bring more young veterans in because we have an Afghan veteran in the office now. And he's the type of person that gets great enjoyment from helping people." He's still in therapy, and he still has problems with sleep, with high blood pressure, with depression. But the new job centers him, and when he comes home, he's closer to his normal self.
The awful times of the past two years, Luke says, make him appreciate the good times with family. He's thinking about going back into training for mixed martial arts. He just bought a new motorcycle.
And not long ago, Luke got a large tattoo on the right side of his torso.
It's a skull, cracked, broken and missing a tooth, with a Kevlar helmet sitting on top. It symbolizes how he felt after Afghanistan, broken and ashamed. Something about putting it in ink, about acknowledging this is a part of him, makes it easier to deal with, finally, and eventually put it away.
"I'm done being ashamed about it," Luke says. "It's not like I chose to act that way. I broke down, and that's what happened. And I got help. Even if you don't want to get help for yourself, do it for the people who love you."