The Conleys Kevin, Dylan, Tina and Brynn gathered April 2 to watch Dylan compete with his Salesianum School rugby team at a field in Brandywine Hundred. (William H. McMichael/The News Journal)
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MIDDLETOWN, DEL. — The photograph over the fireplace is the very picture of a loving, happy family. Seated together on the floor, close enough to be touching, Kevin, Tina, Dylan and Brynn exude a natural warmth that seems entirely unforced.
The picture was taken before Kevin Conley, 43, a 9th-grade earth science teacher and now-retired major in the Delaware Army National Guard, left on a year-long deployment. He spent most of it in a remote corner of Afghanistan with a team configured to help local officials build a viable community after years of war.
He also saw, and felt, the worst of what the war can do to innocent children as well as grizzled troops.
Kevin was deployed in 2010. When he came back, he was a changed man. Like many, he'd suffered injuries, some of them serious -- though none were the result of combat. Like hundreds of thousands of others, he suffered psychological wounds, as well.
These are the wounds that cannot be seen, yet have been suffered by troops since wars were first fought and, often, have gone undiagnosed. The impact of these invisible wounds can be debilitating, changing the lives of the troops and their loved ones.
Kevin counts nine surgeries since his return -- vertebrae fused in two parts of his spine, repair of a shoulder joint, meniscus tears, and more. He's supposed to use a cane to support his weak right leg, but stubbornly refuses.
But it is the high anxiety, the getting lost while driving, the middle-of-the-night outbursts and the need to lean on others to remember everyday chores that have taken a toll on his family.
And now, he and his wife Tina await the repercussions of a late-night incident at a neighborhood bar-and-grill.
"She's been through the wringer," Kevin says.
Tina doesn't mince words: "It's horrible. It's been horrible."
Tina, 43, wipes away tears. "The kids have had to grow up more than they should have," she said. "He has lost his ability to connect emotionally. So when you think you've had a relationship with somebody for the past 25 years ... not being able to connect emotionally with the person that you live with who's supposed to be your best friend ..."
"It's not just him having this disease," she said, finally. "It's just ... you've lost all of that. So now, you just make the most of what you can."
At first, Kevin hardly seems like someone who is rated 100 percent disabled and struggles, at times, to cope. During an extended conversation, he's affable, observant, funny and quick to recall details of his life the past few years, for better or worse. When he speaks, the words come in torrents; his hands sweep through the air, emphasizing his points.
It is when he begins to recount the death of his best friend during the war -- a death that took place while he was on leave with his family -- that his voice quavers, his eyes begin to well up, the color seems to leave his face and the confidence washes away, as if the memories are sapping him of his strength and resolve.
At times like this, when visitors aren't present, he sometimes just leaves. "He'll go check into a hotel," said Brynn, 13. "He gets stressed.
"When he first came home, he used to have nightmares." For a young teen having a sleepover with friends, it was pretty disturbing, she said.
"It's kind of like having a temperamental older brother," said Dylan, 16, who plays rugby and wrestles and is a volunteer with the Volunteer Hose Company of Middletown. "One day, he'll be happy, and the other day he'll just be all, like, pissy. ... It's day by day, and you gotta learn, like, what sets him off."
Dylan said he also was forced to learn how to handle things most his age do not.
"Just had to grow up a lot faster, basically." His dad, he said, left to go through training for months at a time before he deployed. "That's where it kind of eased me into it more than normal, just kind of picking up dad's slack," he said. Now, when he sees Kevin in need of being "defused," as he termed it, he'll take the lead.
"Sometimes it's like, 'Hey, you want to go fishing? Let's get out of here,' " Dylan said. "And he'll come back happier."
'Just like our kids'
Kevin, a combat engineer with command of a Guard engineer unit under his belt, began getting hurt even before he left for Afghanistan. During a casualty training exercise at Camp Atterbury, Ind., the troops carrying him on a stretcher dropped him. His head struck the pavement, causing a concussion, a torn shoulder joint and a ruptured disc. It hurt, but he didn't want to miss the deployment.
"I told our medic (I was fine)," he said.
Shortly after arriving at Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan and the point where most troops first arrive before going forward, Kevin was riding in an armored vehicle when it flipped over and he was crushed by another soldier inside, injuring his back. Again, he declined treatment.
The Vermont unit he'd deployed with subsequently detached him to a New Zealand provincial reconstruction team in the Kahmard district of Afghanistan's rugged and central Bamyan province. That is the area where Taliban extremists blew up two massive sixth-century statues of the Buddha in March 2001.
Kevin and his New Zealand comrades, part of a team of more than 50 troops, State Department advisers and technical experts -- worked with local officials to build up a tribal area that had no paved roads and plenty of corruption. He mentored the ministers of rural rehabilitation and education, and often found himself interacting with children. Being a public school teacher back home -- he also has a master's degree in secondary school administration -- he naturally took to it.
Kevin had volunteered to pull guard duty so troops could get more rest, and found his shift often overlapping with that of Lt. Tim O'Donnell of the New Zealand army. They hit it off and spent hours talking about their lives and families.
On Aug. 4, 2010, O'Donnell, 28, was killed when his patrol was ambushed. Kevin, on leave in Germany with his wife and kids, took it hard. He started sobbing, he recalled.
"I just couldn't believe this kid was dead," he said. "They never did find him all."
In September, after returning from Germany, Conley finally started getting medical attention at Bagram for a variety of issues that had vexed him, including his back and knee injuries. He and a local businessman started a running group for Afghan children, funded by their contributions, and those from his running group back home in Middletown.
"We bought 500 pairs of kids' running shoes, all coordinated by this Afghan guy," he said. "And then these kids came up, all with their moms and dads ... and we fitted the kids for shoes.
"So I started really wanting to work with these kids in Afghanistan," he said. "You sit down and start talking to some of these kids, and people ... they're normal people," he said. "Just like our kids."
Kevin made it a point to visit the Afghan kids who'd been injured by nearby fighting or were wounded by a land mine explosion.
The often-devastating injuries the children had suffered, he said, really began gnawing at him.
"You start looking at these kids and it's like ... as a parent, we just don't have to go through that in America.
"It's why I can't go back to school teaching," he said.
Nine years of war in Iraq and more than 12 in Afghanistan have left an indelible mark on the psyche and bodies of those who served, and those who love them. So far, 6,803 have died, and 52,047 have been wounded.
Perhaps hundreds of thousands have come home with PTSD, the war's signature injury. The Department of Veterans Affairs says between 11 percent and 20 percent of the 2.5 million who served in both wars have PTSD; a Stanford study said it could be as high as 35 percent -- or as many as 910,000 men and women. And since 2000, the Pentagon says that more than 287,000 service members have been diagnosed with TBI, a disruption of brain function caused by a blow to the head.
Kevin has them both.
When he came home, he was bounced from one treatment center to the next for his various ailments -- Fort Meade, Md., Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. He said the Delaware Guard gave him a hard time -- that his pay was withheld for six months, and someone spread a rumor he was "faking it" -- before things got straightened out after a face-to-face meeting with the state adjutant general.
The physical and, especially, the mental issues, have turned his life, and that of his family, upside down.
"The last three years have been absolute hell for them," Kevin said, his voice cracking. "I was home -- but I wasn't home."
"I'm trying to find what his heart's in," Tina said. "His heart's not in a lot."
Kevin remains unemployed. But he's found a positive outlet: helping veterans in need, along with his father, Bill, a retired lieutenant colonel. Along with corporate backing from Home Depot -- his uncle works at the local store -- their nascent veteran resource center plans to take on projects to help disabled vets live more comfortable lives.
"It's a quality-of-life thing," Kevin said. "I'm really excited about it."
"He's most comfortable around wounded warriors," Tina said.
Over time, Kevin has gotten better, Brynn said during an interview in March. "I'd say he is," said Dylan. "Not drastically, but it's not as bad."
A trigger point
On Sunday, April 6, Kevin's issues, Tina's protectiveness and three years of frustration seemed to come to a head.
According to a police report, Kevin and Tina were out at a local restaurant when Kevin exchanged words with a 42-year-old restaurant employee just before the 1:30 a.m. closing. The police report said he brandished a switchblade. Middletown Police said he threatened to kill a 25-year-old female worker.
Tina got the knife away from Kevin, concealed it and they left and began walking home. He reportedly became physically aggressive with the first officer to respond, and as he was being arrested, Tina tried to kick the officer in the groin and "interfered with the arrest," police said. She also was arrested.
Both face multiple felony charges: Kevin for aggravated menacing, possession of a deadly weapon during a felony, terroristic threatening and more; Tina for second-degree attempted assault, disorderly conduct and more. Both are charged with carrying a concealed deadly weapon and resisting arrest.
Kevin said that some of this "didn't happen" but that he can't elaborate because of the pending charges.
Then, he did. "It was triggered by a gentleman in the bar questioning me about my tattoo that has my battle buddy that died in Afghanistan. And he said, 'Was it worth it?' "
Tina says Kevin "has the tools to deal with that." Still, Kevin said, "I started getting agitated ... I started feeling my blood pressure going up." He tried to leave but said the doors were locked, which clubs often do at closing to keep new arrivals out. That, he said, sparked a flashback to Afghanistan, "and that's what started the whole thing."
Kevin's PTSD, a psychological condition, and the training concussion that is the cause of his traumatic brain injury, are a particularly awful combination. The two conditions, according to the National Council on Disability, have overlapping symptoms, including disturbed sleep, irritability, physical restlessness and difficulty concentrating.
Persons with TBI can experience chronic problems with irritability or aggression, according to the National Institutes of Health. And while most veterans with PTSD do not act violently, some combat veterans with PTSD are at greater risk of violent acts than those without it, according to the Pentagon's Deployment Health Clinical Center.
Kevin said his criminal case was considered for transfer into Delaware's Veterans Treatment Court, an alternative court that handles cases involving veterans with mental health diagnoses. But he was recently told he won't be accepted. He said he hasn't been told why.
It means Kevin and Tina will both have to go through the normal court system, Kevin said. They waived their rights to preliminary hearings, and both now are awaiting hearing dates. "We're completely in limbo," he said.
Meanwhile, Kevin's veteran resource project continues moving in a positive direction. Warriors Helping Warriors was incorporated in May, has 16 active members and has acquired the use of a house in Middletown, rent-free for one year, to create a resource center and temporary home for vets in need. One project, to build a fence for a nearby vet and his service dog, was launched the week of June 9.
The job was finished June 16 -- six days after Kevin was medically retired from the Army National Guard.
It's been a long, up-and-down road. Three years ago, a frustrated Tina wondered what a fortune teller could tell her about Kevin and his return. She brought Kevin's dogtags. During the session, the seer rubbed them together.
"This soldier's dead," the fortune teller said.
Later, she told a friend what she'd been told. Her friend replied, "Didn't part of him die?"
"Yeah," Tina said. "Part of him died."