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Marine Cpl. David Smith has struggled with PTSD since returning from duty in Iraq. The UC Berkeley student waited more than a year for approval of his disability benefits claim.


[On-screen text: Marine Cpl. David Smith, now a political science student at UC Berkeley, has suffered from PTSD and depression since returning from Iraq.

Sleepless, depressed, angry and barely able to concentrate, he applied for disability benefits …]

[ … and waited.]

[Days Smith waited for disability benefits: (Counter starts and continues through video)]

David Smith: You know, even for me, it’s hard to kind of figure out what causes what or why, you know, I react the way I do to things. I think that a very large part of what takes place is that, you know, in order to do the mission that we’re over there to do – which is fight, kill people … but as you do that, your personality kind of changes.

Rocket fire, sniper fire, closer and closer. They dropped a second grenade, couple of rockets ­– I remember that one going off, blew out all the windows in the building. The entire building was on fire, hearing the guy behind me scream and go down, I realized that I was frozen.

It’s almost like dropping a plate on the ground, and when the plate shatters and you can’t quite put it back together again the same way.

Sometimes, I feel like a large part of my soul is actually just missing, like it’s just numbed.

Smith (after exercising): It works, definitely works. Or I just keep going until I can’t think about anything at all.

Smith: I’m a very, very huge-hearted, like, loving, open guy. And that may be why a lot of things from the war affected me the way that they did. I know that when we first got there, I was going out of my way to help all the Iraqis that we were working with. After a month or so of fighting, I just kind of shut down. I started to block a lot of those kinds of emotions.

Matter of fact, I remember my commanding officer walked past me and I said, “Hey, sir,” and I smiled at him. And he looked at me and said, “Smith, you know, that’s the first time I’ve seen you smile since we’ve been here.”

I think that’s one of the times that it struck me. I used to smile all the time.

I just felt like I didn’t care about anything at all. Anything. And when I knew that it got that bad, I finally took all my guns, I gave them to my roommate, and I was, like, just –locked them in his room and left. I was like, I don’t know why I feel this way, I don’t know why I feel so detached and just like a shell of a person as I do right now.

I’ve got a lot of friends who are really severely injured, and for me to have all my limbs and be upright, walking, talking – to go and say, “I’m messed up,” or say, “Oh, hey, I need help” – I don’t know, it just, just seemed weird.

And I think there’s also kind of a culture of, you know, man up and push through it. I think that’s probably what leads to a lot of problems of guys not seeking help like they should.

When I got out of the Marine Corps, I chalked everything that I was feeling up to just being normal. And I met a friend, and he happened to be a Marine. And we just kind of started talking about Iraq and stuff like that, and he could tell that I had some things that I was dealing with.

[On-screen text: That friend was Clay Hunt.]

[He also was waiting for disability benefits.]

Smith: He was the first person who I’d ever really talked to about Iraq, about, you know, some of the more tragic events or some of the more frightening things that happened.

The only way that it was going to happen is if another veteran came and got me and said, “Hey, I’ve been there, too, and I know what you’re going through.”

Clay was just an amazing dude, but definitely had some other issues that he was dealing with. We became extremely good friends. We’d literally go mountain biking, like, every single weekend – I guess try and clear our heads a little bit.

In March, 31st, I was asleep and my girlfriend came in, and she said, “Clay killed himself.”

Clay? My Clay?

It’s just kind of wild. Clay was also working on getting a claim through the VA. It’s kind of ironic – I think it was a week or two after he passed that, you know, his approved disability rating showed up at his house.

From the time that I applied for disability to the time that my disability was finalized, it was 414 days.

[On-screen text: 85,000 veterans are on waiting lists for mental health care.]

Smith: If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything about my decision to serve. Going to the Marine Corps gave me skills, discipline, the ability to lead, a real sense of what honor means. So my decision to serve was definitely the best thing that I’ve ever done.

[On-screen text: The Bay Citizen, A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting]

[Produced by Lonny Shavelson]

[To learn more about veterans and disability delays, visit]

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Lonny Shavelson is a radio and photo/multimedia journalist and an author. He has produced stories on themes from global music for BBC/PRI’s “The World” to science, religion and culture for NPR. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, from The New York Times to Family Circle

Lonny is the author of six books, most recently “Under the Dragon: California’s New Culture,” co-written with Fred Setterberg, which was also an exhibit, “Trading Traditions,” at the Oakland Museum of California and The California Museum in Sacramento.