About this commentary: As part of the 10-year
anniversary of the United States deploying soldiers to Iraq and later
Afghanistan, Patch Senior Local Editor Brent Champaco examines how Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder forever changed local veteran David Chesser.
When authorities responded to a disturbance at a University Place bank
in early 2013, they found a veteran who was suffering. Like others
living and suffering with PTSD, David Chesser's battles didn't end when
he came back from war.
Part Two: David Chesser went to Iraq and saw his fellow soldiers -- his friends -- die in front of him. It was an experience that would forever change his life.
Three hours before David Chesser, wife Jenifer Chesser was on the phone with her husband.
David had said he was going for a walk. When he called her, it was clear he’d been drinking heavily. Actually, he’d been sober for a month but in the past couple of days he began to unravel again, she said.
Back from the war, Chsser was unable to find regular work and unable to keep it when he did. He was drowning in back rent payments, and their landlord called to say they were out of chances.
“It’s hopeless,” he told her over the phone. “If I was dead, at least you and the kids would be taken care of.”
Then he hung up.
That’s why Jenifer Chesser’s heart sank when she saw the University Place Police deputy near her front door three hours later. Walking back from a friend’s house in her cul-de-sac, she was bracing for the worst.
“Let me know if he’s alive or dead,” she blurted before the deputy said anything.
Born in Kentucky, David Chesser lost both parents when he was 13 years old. His dad died from a gunshot wound, and his mother died of a heart attack three months later, his wife says. After that, he was shipped off to a military boarding school.
At 16 years old and staying with his grandparents, he ran away and lived on the streets until he was 18, when he joined Job Corps in Oregon. From there, he fought fires with “hot shot” crew at blazes across the Western United States.
During his time in Oregon, he met the woman whom he’d eventually marry in 1999. Different Jennifer Quotes
He had stints at different jobs, including a medical equipment-shipping job that brought him and his family to the South Sound.
After that job, he enlisted in the Army National Guard and was eventually assigned to what’s now the 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team based out of Seattle, which deployed to Iraq around 2005.
“All he wanted to do was join the National Guard and serve his country,” Jenifer Chesser said.
One of the missions of the 81st was to provide convoy security in Iraq. On the day his convoy was attacked, Chesser was supposed to be in the lead vehicle.
But a superior commanded Chesser into the vehicle behind the lead. It’s a move that would cost that superior his life. An improvised explosive device detonated, killing or injuring the soldiers in the first vehicle.
Chesser rushed to the lead and pulled out one of his soldiers. The man died in his arms.
On a later deployment, in 2007, his wife says, that a rifle he was shooting blew up next to his head. It knocked him unconscious. His commander pulled him off convoy and replaced him with another soldier who was Chesser’s friend.
Again, an IED exploded during a mission, destroying that convoy vehicle -- again killing Chesser’s replacement.
Saddled with a brain injury and the guilt of escaping two missions in which the soldier who replaced him died in an explosion, a different version of Chesser returned home to his family.
“He wasn’t the happy-go-lucky guy I knew,” she said. “He couldn’t even find everyday joy with his kids. He wanted to just sit in a dark room and be left alone.”
And at night, when his mind flashed back to combat, he’d wake up the whole house, screaming the names of the soldiers who died in those blasts.
“He’s still in deployment mode,” Jenifer Chesser said. “He’s never come home, decompressed and realized he’s in the civilian world.”
It's a tragedy played out over and over among returning PTSD soldiers.
Standing on her doorstep, the deputy told Jenifer that her husband was at the hospital. He had been arrested after he broke into a bank and vandalized it. He didn’t take any money, but he fought the officers.
He was doing anything he could to get officers to pull the trigger, the deputy said.
“Your husband was almost shot tonight,” the deputy told her. “After we arrested him, we literally thought you and your children were dead.”
But even in the hospital, it wasn’t clear the system could do anything to help David or the other soldiers who came home in the same condition.
Chesser gets disability pay, but the military is
paying him at the rate of a single soldier because of a clerical error, his
wife says. The family is owed disability pay, but that will likely come in a
lump sum months from now.
And with the backlog of claims with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, they don't have much hope.
The family of five has to survive on $1,200 per month.
Earlier this year, he entered a plea agreement with the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office that required him to undergo mental health treatment at the VA hospital and pay almost $7,000 in restitution.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said he took Chesser's mental health condition into consideration, as he has had to do with other PTSD soldiers who commit crimes.
"The crime itself," Lindquist said of the Umpqua Bank incident, "had crazy written all over it."
During an interview with a reporter in January, Jenifer Chesser’s cell phone rang. It was her husband calling from Pierce County Jail. She cried, asked questions, and cried again.
She said she knows her husband isn’t perfect and should be held accountable.
But she also hopes people understand how a war veteran could sink so low that he thought breaking into a bank hoping police would shoot him was his only option.
The community needs to do whatever it can to help the David Chessers, and the Robert Bales, and the Ty Michael Carters of the world. We owe it to them.
Jennifer Chesser said it best when she spoke to me:
“We need to start realizing there’s people doing these things. It’s not just his responsibility. He’s not the only one to blame. He fell through the cracks. If we can’t take of our soldiers coming back from war, then what good are we?”