DES MOINES, Iowa -- Kate Lay had always been skeptical of love at first sight. She’s practical. She’s a surgical nurse who was born and raised in Iowa. But she says practicality flew out the window the first time she laid eyes on the man she would eventually marry.
“He was a Marine. So, he was big and buff, and beautiful. I fell in love with him right away,” she said.
After proposing, Brandon finished his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. They married, bought a house, and started life on their terms. She said Brandon’s job as a delivery driver wasn’t fulfilling his ambitious dreams of traveling the world and helping people. She could see that he was bored. Still, she never dreamed that one day he would disappear.
Kate said, “Everything that I thought I knew got torn out from underneath me.”
One day, she came home from work and Brandon was gone, along with his Jeep and his dog. Kate called the police. “I didn’t even know if he was alive.”
Several days later, Brandon finally called. He was in a small town in Montana. The secrets were about to be revealed. Kate explained, “Not a single person knew what was going on.”
Brandon had become addicted to crystal meth. He’d been a master at hiding it from Kate. Remember, she’s a nurse. He explained that the week prior he’d lost his job as a result of his drug use.
At that moment, Kate realized, “I don’t know this person that I’m living with.”
Brandon was the only person who knew. Even he wasn’t sure anymore. He explained, “Life and death situations were real to me every day. Wiping away the dirt from an IED...is it going to explode in (my) face? That changed me. I became numb. I lost all hope of the future. A lot of pain. Thinking how wonderful it would be just to end it.”
It’s a raw, aching description of life with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Kate didn’t realize when she looked into her husband’s eyes he was reliving the explosions that literally rattled his brain, the gunfire, the atrocities, the deaths of his three comrades. One was his best friend.
“It drives you to want to take your head through the wall. You don’t want to relive those (memories). It stirs up so much emotion in a short period of time and it can come on from anything… so, to me, drugs was just like, ‘Well, I’ll give it a shot,’” said Brandon.
One-hundred and five-thousand U.S. veterans admit to abusing drugs. Nearly 340,000 have PTSD. More than 500,000 are classified with depressive or neurotic disorders. But those numbers come straight from the VA. They don’t account for the men and women like Brandon who never went to the VA for treatment.
Once Brandon had detoxed and come home, Kate figured the practical thing would be to point him in the right direction. She searched and found a new initiative. Together, they flew to New York. They met with Gen. George Casey. They helped to launch a new project that recruits men and women who have been to battle.
Project Cohort is a wilderness course specifically designed to help vets with PTSD. Brandon said, “It sucks. Addressing those problems. Reliving those memories. But it’s gotta be done."
Brandon is completing training for his new career as a Project Cohort guide. And Kate? After PTSD led to drug use that nearly cost her marriage, Kate decided the most practical thing to do would be to take on Brandon’s mission as a team.
She said, “The current rate is 22 vet suicides per day. We’re here to help you if your life looks perfect and it’s not.”
Click here for PTSD resources.