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Iraq vet: 'My brain will not let go'

Story Highlights

• A year after homecoming, young soldier still fighting war in his nightmares
• Bomb survivor Jefferson diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder
• He describes haunting nightmares about blast and feeling helpless
• Jefferson's also struggling for a $50,000 military insurance payment
By Thom Patterson
CNN
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CLARKSVILLE, Tennessee (CNN) -- A year after coming home from Iraq, AJ Jefferson is still fighting the war in eerie nightmares about the bomb that left him and two comrades seriously wounded.

"I've been told it's normal," the Army specialist said with a smile, "considering what I've gone through."

The 21-year-old soldier has been diagnosed by doctors with several ailments blamed on the attack, including severe post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He's also been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, or TBI, which often is accompanied by forgetfulness and restless sleep.

"I have the dreams every night," said Jefferson, who also suffered severe leg wounds that left him unable to run or stand for long periods. "There are nights when I can't sleep because all I'm thinking about is just re-enacting what happened in my head. My brain will not let go of it."

Jefferson opened up about his post-war nightmares over dinner at a steakhouse not far from where his 101st Airborne, C/1-33 Cavalry unit is based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. His attitude about dealing with the nightly torment was obvious, as he joked around with a perky server named Amber who's not much younger than he is.

Between Amber's interruptions at the table to offer details on dinner specials and appetizers, Jefferson described the nightmares that began months after his return stateside in spring 2006.

"They were delayed after I got back," Jefferson said. "But more and more as time went by, the dreams started being about the attack and the feeling about helplessness out there on the ground."

The night terrors stem from the April 25, 2006, roadside bombing, which left Jefferson and buddies Sgt. Erik Roberts and Staff Sgt. Luke Murphy wounded and bleeding on the ground, and their vehicle on fire.

Heat from the flames ignited the humvee's ammunition, which popped off all around them. The trio's comrades, including Pfc. Shane Irwin and Sgt. 1st Class Francisco Rogers, helped get them to safety. Murphy lost his right leg, and Roberts' right leg was badly damaged.

Now, more than a year later, Jefferson's nightmares center on that midnight attack on their convoy in western Baghdad.

His sleep is filled with that "feeling of helplessness, lying out there on the street, not knowing if I'm going to die, if my buddies are going to die, if I'm going to get shot, if we're going to get ambushed. ... That's what a lot of the dreams kind of wrap around, it's just knowing I have no control of what's going on."

'Scared out of my mind'

Jefferson's nightmares come in two basic varieties.

"In one dream, I'm cut off from my unit in Sadr City," he said, referring to the Iraqi capital's sprawling, violence-plagued neighborhood. "I'm in uniform and I'm running through a bunch of street markets. It's just me and nobody else, and I'm trying to find my way back to the guys, and it's a feeling of, 'What am I supposed to do?' That's what I get out of the dreams, just scared out of my mind."

In Jefferson's second recurring nightmare, he's riding on a humvee with the certain knowledge that he's the target of an inevitable roadside bomb attack. Despite that knowledge, he's using a video cell phone to record scenes of the road ahead, where deadly danger surely lies. The blast never happens. Jefferson simply continues to shoot video of the oncoming road.

Dr. James Hebda, a Clarksville neuropsychologist who has treated Jefferson, says these kinds of nightmares are common among troops with vivid memories of intense wartime experiences.

"Our nervous system is designed to remember powerful, negative emotional events," said Hebda. "Our survival depends on it. It's just the way we're wired."

An Army behavioral health counselor listened to Jefferson describe his nightmares for about two hours in July 2006 during a routine checkup for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"She explained why I'm having these dreams, and she said it's just normal compared to what I've gone through," said Jefferson.

Jefferson's Army physician has diagnosed him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Developing post-traumatic stress disorder requires that a person be exposed to a life-threatening situation, that's one of the criteria," said Hebda. "Their response is intense fear, horror or helplessness."

About 60 percent of men and half of all women experience some kind of traumatic event during their lifetimes, according to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Most people who experience such an event will develop PTSD in the days or weeks that follow, the center says. Symptoms include reliving the trauma, avoiding places or people that are reminders of the trauma and feelings of irritability.

Jefferson said his Army physician "didn't really tell me if it's going to go away or not."

Born in Saudi Arabia to a mother who works at the U.S. State Department, Jefferson grew up in Arkansas and enlisted in the Army to earn money for college.

Now he plans to leave the Army soon because of his injuries. He's struggling to prove he's eligible for a $50,000 military insurance benefit paid to injured soldiers who were unable to dress or bathe themselves during their recovery.

Already denied once for the insurance payout, Jefferson is appealing the Pentagon's decision. He says the Traumatic Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (TSGLI) program requires soldiers to negotiate through a complicated bureaucracy that puts an unreasonable burden on wounded soldiers. The Army says it cannot comment on specific TSGLI cases.

As for the future, Jefferson wants to use the insurance money for college or to train for a career as a helicopter pilot.

"This really makes you ready to move on," he said. "It's time to go to school and be normal and not have to worry about this. I'm not even 22 years old yet, and I feel like a 40-year-old."

CNN's Curt Merrill contributed to this report.


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Army Spc. AJ Jefferson seen in an undated photo taken in Iraq, where he served for eight months.

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