Boston Marathon wounds raise anxiety for Iraq, Afghanistan war veterans

Cpl. Christopher Levi, of Holbrook, at Walter Reed Cpl. Christopher Levi, of Holbrook, at Walter Reed during his recovery from a battlefield attack that cut off his legs off just above his knees. Photo Credit: Viorel Florescu, 2008

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The horrific wounds on the legs of some Boston Marathon spectators were all too similar to those witnessed and experienced by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Timothy Strobel of Shirley, a former Army medic, who rushed to aid the wounded when a Baghdad suicide bomber injured 38 Iraqi civilians at a crowded gas station in 2007, had to turn away from television images streaming out of Boston.

Christopher Levi of Holbrook, a former soldier with the 10th Mountain Division, who during a 2008 roadside bombing in Iraq lost both legs, felt vulnerable as he heard accounts of amputations in Boston.

They are among veterans who said the images from the Boston bombings, which killed three and wounded more than 170, inflamed their own anxieties about their experiences in war.

"It brought me right back there," said Strobel, 30, who served during one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq War, and who now counsels veterans coping with war-related anxieties. "I had to turn the television off."

Strobel is a program coordinator for the Suffolk County-based PFC Joseph Dwyer Veterans PTSD Peer-to-Peer Program, which works with veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder. After the group's Facebook page urged veterans who were experiencing anxieties related to the Boston bombings to contact the program, more than a half dozen replied.

Trauma doctors have likened wounds caused by the bombings with those inflicted by the improvised explosive devices that are a grim hallmark of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

IEDs used in the wars inflicted their damage by driving debris, including pebbles and metal bits, into the bodies of their victims. The devices that exploded at the Boston Marathon -- two pressure cookers -- accomplished the same damage because they included nails and ball bearings.

Strobel was called into action when a truck bomb detonated amid scores of Iraqis who were waiting to receive rations of fuel at a Baghdad gas station. With lives at stake, he said he was able to quiet his emotions about the horrific wounds and focus on stabilizing patients.

Watching the Boston bombing's aftermath left him wondering whether he would be emotionally overwhelmed if he found himself in a similar situation.

"I've treated people with these exact wounds," Strobel said of what happened in Boston. "At the time in Iraq, I was a rock. But when I was watching what was happening in Boston, even with my medical training, I don't know if I could have responded. I imagined feeling helpless."

Tom Ronayne, director of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency, said scenes of last Monday's carnage and Friday's images of the military-style hunt for the suspect in suburban Boston, threaten to worsen symptoms for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I talked to an Iraq vet who was distressed, who said he had been watching it over and over," Ronayne said.

Levi, who walks on prosthetic legs, said his sister had been at the finish line to greet him when he completed last year's Detroit marathon riding a hand cycle. He said the Boston bombings made him feel his family was vulnerable in a way he had not felt before.

"I went to Iraq and Afghanistan to stop those exact things from happening here, but lo and behold, it's our own people who are doing it to us," Levi said of the two suspects -- Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19.

The brothers lived in the country for a decade, and the younger brother was a naturalized U.S. citizen. "It gives me a sinking, empty feeling to know that no matter how much I've sacrificed, it's still happening," Levi said.

Strobel said veterans who are experiencing emotional distress can speak to a fellow veteran by calling 631-672-1201.

 

A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to Iran, instead of Iraq, in the headline.

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