Specialist Lance Pilgrim was among the first Army troops to enter Iraq in March 2003.
Afterwards, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress.
When his parents — Judy and Randy Pilgrim — sat down for StoryCorps, they remembered their son’s four-year long struggle to leave the war behind.
Specialist Lance Pilgrim died in August 2007. He was 26 years old.
The Pilgrims filed a civil lawsuit against the US Department of Veterans Affairs claiming negligence in the treatment of their son. The case was settled in 2011.
In 2004, in his attempt to get his discharge turned around, Lance wrote a letter to the Veterans Affairs hospital. His mother, Judy, wanted to share it.
Click here for the transcript.
Randy Pilgrim (RP): When I first realized that something may be not right, he got in the truck with me and there’d been an animal run over, I suppose a dog. And as I went around it, Lance just broke down crying. I pulled on over, I said "Are you ok?" And he was sobbing, he said "We tried once to go around bodies in Iraq, but we were ambushed. So we were told from then on, don’t let anything slow you down." So he said "I had to run over people." ‘But, he said, "I don’t think I’ll ever get that out of my mind."
Judy Pilgrim (JP): That summer, on his base, he found out that he could deal with his panic attacks and nightmares by taking pain medication, and he became dependent on it. He came home during the middle of the week. We said, "How did you get to come home during the middle of the week?" And he said, "Well, I just left."
RP: Yeah, and then they couldn’t get him to stay on base. So he was finally discharged with an "other than honorable discharge." He was trying extremely hard to get back on track but he went from a strong, independent young man to just, he couldn’t do anything on his own anymore, he was just almost helpless.
JP: He had a number of tattoos and he had added a new one, it was a spider web. And I said, "What does this mean?" and he said "Well, that’s what I feel like I’m caught up in." The night that he died, he had panic attacks that day
RP: I remember him driving up and I know he feIt he had let me down. And I wish I had been more supportive at that moment. Now, if I could do it all over again, I’d give him a big hug and just say, Don’t let this be a stumbling block for you. And you know I didn’t do that. An it was the last time I saw him alive.
JP: Lance had actually been prescribed hydrocodone by the VA hospital. He was not supposed to have it because he had had problems with it. And he died from an accidental overdose.
RP: We requested a military funeral, and it was denied.
JP: He did everything his country asked him to do.
RP: Uhuh. The Army reviewed all the information to get his discharge turned around.
JP: And it was was finally turned around. It was completely honorable, and his medals came in the mail, in an envelope… but it was two years after he’d died.
JP: I don't know what's wrong with me, but I do know that before the war, I loved the Army and wanted to make it a career. Upon return from Iraq, I went from a Specialist promotable who knew my job well and loved what I did, to nothing in just a few short months.
Now I take my life one day at a time. I still have terrible nightmares and wake up violent and panicking. I can't stand to watch anything with military in it. It makes my anxiety level rise.
I always feel like I have to protect my home and family, like someone is coming for us. Some nights, I stay up all night listening for intruders. I worry I might sleepwalk and get a gun sometimes. My father has had to remove all the guns out of the house. Some nights I worry about how I would kill an intruder without my gun. I'm always planning ahead in my mind what I'll grab if they come, what I'll do. I'm always over-alert to what's going on around me. My worst days are the days after one of my dreams. I wake up and my my zeal for life is gone.