Christopher Killian is a combat Iraq war vet suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

'Everyone was scared of me when I came home'

Christopher Kilian's left hand seems to have a mind of its own, twitching relentlessly as he tries to rest it on his thigh.

His left eyelid blinks constantly.

"I'm on pills to reduce the twitching but when I get any stress, it always increases," he explains, then adds, "Sorry about that."

The Iraq war veteran from Fieldbrook, Calif., is receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City.

Kilian was admitted on Jan. 19, barely three months after being discharged from the Army on Oct. 14, 2006.

"The cops were coming to our door at least once a week, sometimes twice a week," says the former Eagle Scout, who was a standout wrestler at McKinleyville High School near Fieldbrook, a small town outside Eureka.

"I got detained by cops 14 times in a two-month period ... that's nothing I'm proud of."

"Everyone was scared of me when I came home," he says, noting that included his parents, Star and Esther Kilian, in Fieldbrook. "I had real serious problems with violence when I first got back home."

True story, his father acknowledges.

"At first, when he came back, he was very quiet and reserved," Star Kilian says. "He didn't say much. We didn't ask. We figured he would talk about it when he wanted to.

"But several months down the line he started drinking a lot — his rage was uncontrollable," he adds. "He couldn't sleep. We didn't know what to do. The VA in White City turned him around."

Were it not for the program for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at SORCC, Christopher Kilian figures he would now be serving time. He had been arrested for disturbing the peace and driving under the influence.

"I was facing a public disturbance charge after going manic and tearing up our lawn furniture," he says. "I told the judge I wanted to go to White City."

Undefeated for two years during the regular wrestling season in high school, Kilian, 30, is now grappling with a foe far stronger than any he faced in his 160-pound class: PTSD apparently brought on by the nearly 24/7 vigilance required at a forward operating base near Baghdad. He tells of going up to four days without sleep, of never letting down his guard, never relaxing.

Returning stateside, he suffered blackouts. He couldn't hold a job. His memory was shot. And he was off to fist city when confronted.

After high school, Kilian served in the U.S. Air Force as an enlisted man for four years, working as an aircraft mechanic. He joined the California Army National Guard in 2001, then was activated into the regular Army. Assigned to the 185th Armored Battalion of the 81st Brigade, the corporal, who was a member of a mortar squad, was deployed to Iraq in mid-March 2005.

He was sent to an FOB dubbed "Bob Kalsu" — named after the only professional football player killed in the Vietnam War — about a half-hour drive southeast of Baghdad.

"When we got to Kalsu, it was a six-foot berm of dirt in a circle," he says. "There was a bunch of tents that needed to be put up and some lumber. They told us to build a camp."

He describes the base as a desolate area where local Iraqis kept their distance. The insurgents did not.

"The very first night we were there we had insurgents trying to get into our perimeter," he says. "We were up all day long and up all night. That went on and on.

"We were always awake, manning our guns," he adds. "We ran out of water, ran out of food. It was not a good place to be."

The militia controlled the local residents with an ironclad hand.

"People were too scared to give us any support," he says. "But it wasn't their fault. The militia would have killed them. They killed our water truck driver. Then they killed his son who took up the job. Then they killed his brother. Any Iraqi who waved at us was usually killed. It was pretty hairy. We were attacked all the time. Mortars. Rockets."

He pauses for a moment as he goes back in time. There were about 30 soldiers in a tent, he recalls.

"Being mortar men, we could hear the first blast before anyone else could," he says. "The first blast was when it went off, the secondary blast was when it landed in your perimeter.

"We were moving at the first blast because we knew in 45 to a little over 50 seconds there would be an impact," he adds.

His unit would man their mortars while most soldiers poured into a bunker.

"Sometimes we went three or four days without sleep," he says. "On good nights, if we got four hours' sleep, we were lucky.

"But even when you hit the sack, it took a while to unwind. You'd be laying there, still awake, then — boom! — you're up again."

Although he was later sent to a friendlier FOB called Scania, about 15 minutes farther southeast by desert road, the constant vigil at Bob Kalsu had taken its toll.

"I didn't realize how much adrenalin I was on over there until I got back home," he says of returning to the states in March 2006. "I've had a lot of anxiety issues."

First there were the blackouts.

"I had a period of time when I was out of it," he says. "My roommate noticed it at first. I would walk up to a doorknob or something and just stand there."

Then came bouts of anxiety followed by panic attacks.

"I had a hard time breathing," he says. "I wouldn't know how to deal with any problems other than with violence."

Anyone getting "in his face" had to be prepared for a fight, he says.

"I didn't want to be in any more fights," he says. "But once that trigger was switched, the next thing you know I'm hurting someone."

While the police were merely doing their job of maintaining the peace, their presence sometimes triggered his violence, he says.

"The fact they came up with their hands on their guns, well, anyone putting their hand on their weapon is a threat to me," he says. "I had been in survival mode for so long. I would charge them full blast."

Friends and relatives repeatedly cautioned him to think about the ramifications of his violent actions.

"But they didn't understand there was no thinking about it when it happened," he says. "You put your hand on a firearm and I'm gonna be charging you. I don't even think about it."

It was the intervention of a Vietnam War veteran in nearby Eureka that prevented his jail time, he says, noting that the veteran urged authorities to allow Kilian to get help at SORCC. The convening judge knew about the program in White City, he says.

Counseling and medication has helped him change his behavior, Kilian says.

But he will tell you his experience is not unique. Several of his comrades-in-arms have similar tales, he says.

"A lot of us coming back are getting into skirmishes with the law," Kilian says. "The way the system is now, too many guys are being sent to jail. They're not sending them to get help.

"When I got back from Iraq, they gave us a counseling session that was supposed to be an hour but they let us go in 20 minutes," he says. "Of course, back then, none of us really wanted to go through it."

Many combat veterans who need help are too proud to ask for it or afraid of being stigmatized, he observes, noting that communities don't have the expertise to deal with PTSD issues.

"And here are these guys who went and served, because they are too proud to admit to themselves they have a problem, being thrown in jail," he says. "Society doesn't know what to do with them.

"Maybe mandatory counseling when you are in the service is the answer," he suggests, adding, "These guys sure aren't going to get any better in jail."

Christopher's younger brother, Nathaniel, a captain in the Air Force who is also an Iraq war veteran, doesn't suffer from PTSD, their father says.

"But he was behind the wire — he didn't have to go on combat patrols," Star Kilian says. "It just seems to be the ones who were in combat. And the one thing I've observed with the Guard guys Chris was with is that they worry about not being macho if they ask for help.

"But what happens with guys like Chris is that when they keep getting in trouble with the law, they don't get the treatment they need," he says. "It's not fair to the veterans or their families."

Christopher Kilian, who says he now calls his parents nearly every day, says family members can't deal with it alone.

"My relationship with my parents was damaged — they were scared of me," he says. "Now that things are back on track, I'm closer to them than I've ever been in my life."

He also has a girlfriend now, a nurse who understands his situation.

His long-range plan is to return to college to earn a degree in psychology. He wants to help others who have had similar experiences.

"But I have to take it slow," he says. "I'm in a great environment here. And sometimes I think I'm getting better, then I get swamped with something and my anxiety and stress level shoots up. Just the smallest thing can set me manic again.

"It's kind of a humbling experience, to be like this," he adds. "I've never been in a situation where I can't take on what I'd like to take on in life."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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