Iraq war veteran struggles with return home
Veterans were honored with a breakfast Friday at Hawthorn Middle School South in Vernon Hills. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 27, 2012 3:56PM
VERNON HILLS — Perched atop a steep hill along the outskirts of an Iraqi village, Mundelein resident Darrin Jens was a “spotter” who reported what buildings insurgents were shooting from.
His last day of active duty in the Marine Corps was in mid-January 2003.
An improvised explosive device detonated and killed eight of a group of 12 colleagues patrolling the bottom of the hill. Jens ran down to help, but another bomb exploded in front of him.
The impact caused severe brain and spinal trauma, punctured one of his lungs, and severed half of his nose.
Jens was one of about 35 veterans who attended a Nov. 9 Veterans Day Breakfast at Hawthorn Middle School South. He attended for a different reason than the other veterans – it was part of his therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jens’ goal is to learn how to talk to others without divulging too many gruesome details.
The event, from the school-side, served two purposes. School Principal Robert Natale said the annual breakfast allows students and staff to honor servicemen, while creating an opportunity for students to conduct small group interviews for research papers.
When students asked Jens if he had any injuries from the war, he simply said “yes, a bomb knocked me down and I was in the hospital for a long time.”
The more questions he was asked, the longer his answers became. When students asked what he did before going to Iraq, Jens told them he was a police officer for Pentagon City.
One student asked, “Were you there on 9/11?”
“Yes,” Jens said. “When it became a recovery, instead of a rescue, I had to pick up random hands, arms and legs.”
Jens was about to tell them how the skin on his legs began pealing off due to exposure to jet fuel, but he caught himself. “A lot of people got hurt,” he said. “I hope it never happens again.”
After being discharged from the Marines, Jens became an air marshal who flew on plane after plane, secretly watching passengers. When he wasn’t at work, he isolated himself and didn’t talk to anyone but his wife, Michelle.
“I felt like a monster,” Jens said. “All I could think about was war. I couldn’t make conversation with anyone because they wouldn’t know what I was talking about. Even to this day, I can’t sleep more than two hours. I have nightmares every night.”
With 20 years of service to the federal government, Jens was granted retirement in June. His wife convinced him to get help from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“People at these events thank me, but I’m not the strong one,” Jens said. “My wife, she’s the strong one. I did a job I was trained to do. She wasn’t trained for dealing with a traumatized husband. That’s why she’s incredible.”
Jens said he became emotionally distant. His brain couldn’t handle the nightmares and daydreams, so it “stopped feeling everything,” Jens said.
“The government releases ‘scientific studies’ that say only 15 percent of soldiers have PTSD, but it’s wrong,” Jens said. “At least 50 percent of returning servicemen have some form of it. It’s an invisible wound, and the numbers will climb and become unavoidable.”
To continue his therapy, Jens has volunteered to talk about “stranger danger” and basic facts about 9/11 at various local schools.