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“ 14


IN BATTLE, WE FELT EACH


OTHER’S SOULS.OULS


Ayres, second from left, in Ramadi, Iraq during his 2005-2006 deployment. Courtesy photo





In the Hornet’s Nest


Army scouts are forward reconnaissance. Ayres’ job was to go out in front of the main effort and establish a safe area for the infantry and logistical groups to start building a Field Artillery Brigade. The last area he helped establish was three clicks from the Pakistani border near Kamu, Afghanistan. The terrain at Combat Outpost Lowell made for signifi cant diffi culties. Almost like the bottom of a bowl, the outpost was surrounded by mountains and caves hiding insurgents. As a squad leader for the Apache Troop of the Sixth Battalion, Fourth Cavalry, his focus was to hold down the enemy’s main supply route through the rugged terrain, an old goat trail that could accommodate pickup trucks. For months, Ayres and his fellow warriors would withstand attacks from as close as 100 meters. “Anybody who wanted to shoot at us, that’s why we were there,” Ayres says.


“We’d get a pop shot in and it was like poking a hornet’s nest.” Many soldiers would go three to four days without any sleep. At nighttime, they would receive brief reprieves because the blaze of a muzzle fl ash would quickly reveal an enemy’s location. But the horrors of the day would haunt the dreams in the soldiers of what Ayres refers to as “Little Vietnam.” Ayres now suffers from a spinal cord injury that limits the use of his hands and has paralyzed him from the waist down. These injuries are not a result of what he endured in the battlefi elds of Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather of the lingering effects after he returned to American soil.


Shouldering Post-War Burden


When Ayres came home in 2009, he encountered a battle between “himself as an individual and his own mind” in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Warriors tend to suffer in silence, and Ayres found solace in alcoholism, which led to a car accident and sustained lifelong injuries. “People kept saying, ‘You’re different, you’re different,’” Ayres says. “I felt like they were saying, ‘He’s sick, there’s something wrong, I should stay away from him.’” Ayres is not alone. According to a major study by the RAND Corporation, at least 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD and/or depres- sion. The same study revealed half of those with PTSD choose not to seek treatment. Ayres says pride is a huge factor for veterans in admitting there is a problem.


He didn’t seek help initially and his life changed drastically as a result of that decision. After waking up from a 37-day coma as a quadriplegic, a fellow combat veteran intervened. “One of my battle buddies yoked me up and said, ‘I’m coming to get you,’”


Ayres says. “He dropped everything and moved me to Kentucky with his family.” In February of this year, Pedro Rocha, another squad veteran, offered to move


to Oklahoma to care for Ayres full time. He says it wasn’t even a thought to put life on pause to help another warrior. “You get to reignite that bond you’re missing from the civilian life,” Rocha


says. “With veterans, you have to take a deep breath and have a lot of patience, but the payoff for that relationship is very high.” Ayres has a network of about 30 warriors like Rocha he is in touch with every


day. Among this group, they have a deep, unconditional bond that helps them understand what the other is thinking. “It’s something unexplainable,” Ayres said. “In battle, we felt each other’s


souls.” To continue his recovery, Ayres searched for further help reconnecting and reestablishing community. That’s when he discovered the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) and a specifi c program that reached past some of the traditional care models to foster independence.


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