MADISON — Heavy snow fell the night of Dec. 29 as Jeffrey Hayden drove his snowmobile home. He had had a few beers and because of the storm decided to ride along the road rather than on trails.
“I was in a hurry to get home and thought it would be faster, although it turned out to not,” he said.
As he approached what appeared to be a snowbank, Hayden crashed the vehicle into what was actually a parked car. The impact threw him off the snowmobile and sent him flying 15 feet ahead of the car onto the icy road. He blacked out after he hit the car and remembers waking up confused and barely able to see.
He had three broken ribs and torn ligaments in one of his knees. A neighbor spotted his helmet lying in the road — it had cut his chin as it was flung off his head — and called 911.
When paramedics responded, they told Hayden that he was lucky to be alive — something that he says he took for granted before the accident. Police responded as well and charged Hayden with driving the snowmobile under the influence.
Hayden is a former Marine of Lima Company, 3rd platoon, 2nd squad who served 14 months of full-time active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and four years in the inactive reserve. He returned to Madison from active military duty in October 2006.
Hayden, 31, said he knew there were aspects of the war that bothered him and that he didn’t want to talk about, but he refused to get the counseling or help available at the VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus for about a year. Instead, he said, he turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
“I didn’t want anyone to know my issues. I thought I could handle them, but then I proved to myself time after time that the way I was trying to handle them wasn’t the right thing to do and it affected not just me but my family, my friends, everybody,” Hayden said.
One in eight troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006 to 2008 have been referred to counseling for alcohol problems, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
It’s been nearly eight years since Hayden returned from active duty, and he says the pain — from seeing friends and fellow Marines get hurt or shot at — is still there. He hopes one day he can feel normal and is worried about how his decisions have affected his family, especially the OUI charge that arose from the recent snowmobile accident. The charge could result in a minimum 30-day jail sentence that also would disrupt the counseling he receives three times per week in Augusta, he said.
“I’m not trying to make this a scapegoat, but it’s factored into a lot of things I do. I wish things would be back to normal, but everywhere I go I feel out of place,” Hayden said.
Since his snowmobile accident, he has been attending counseling and substance abuse support groups three times a week.
There are no national or state data on the number of veterans in the criminal justice system, but there is a nationwide movement to establish more veterans’ courts, a program under which veterans convicted of less serious crimes can avoid lengthy prison sentences if they adhere to strict counseling and treatment requirements.
Maine has one veterans’ court, which was established in Augusta in 2012, and legislation is underway that would expand the veterans’ court system.
Hayden spent three days in jail on his first OUI charge, and for the second, he paid to do community service as an alternative sentence.
“What good is it going to do a veteran if you put him in jail?” Hayden said. “He’s going to be in the same place he was, if not a little worse, because he was locked up, didn’t have his space.”
He said his time in combat made him anxious and made him feel a need to be on the lookout for danger everywhere he goes. He has also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric disorder that can occur after witnessing or experiencing a violent or traumatic event and that can cause anxiety, changes in mood, feelings of detachment and stress. About one in five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars reports symptoms of PTSD or major depression, according to the Rand Organization, a nonprofit global research group.
“War fighters are trained to be self-dependent, strong warriors,” said Shad Meshad, founder and president of the National Veterans Foundation and a veteran of the Vietnam War. The foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides public awareness of veterans issues and offers support for veterans and their families. “When they come out, that is a built-in thing that continues and they may not be eager to show weakness by admitting they need help. One outcome of that is that it explodes and they commit a crime.”
The struggles that veterans and their families face can last for years after a soldier returns home, Meshad said.
A 2002 graduate of Madison Area Memorial High School, Hayden enrolled in the military right after graduation. He was stationed in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, and during his first few months continued his training overseas in places such as Thailand, Japan and Bali.
When he was growing up, he said, the military seemed like an attractive career because he didn’t have a lot of family ties and it was an opportunity to travel around the world.
In 2004, Hayden was deployed to Afghanistan. He returned to Maine to marry his wife, Kara, on Dec. 31, 2005. They spent two months together in Hawaii before he was sent to Iraq, where he was deployed from March through October 2006.
“I was very depressed to have to come home and not know if I might ever see this person I was in love with again,” said Kara Hayden, who found out she was pregnant and had to convey the message to her husband through another military official before she could talk to him.
On his tours, Hayden said he got used to never relaxing; he was always on guard looking for snipers or bombers around him. He automatically became close with the other Marines, whom he calls his military family, but was hurt many times when he saw other Marines shot or killed.
In Iraq one of his best friends and team leader was shot in the head while Hayden was putting on his gear to go relieve his friend at the same outpost. Another friend was killed after a grenade was thrown into a cave, hitting his friend in the leg and causing him to bleed to death.
There were also close encounters with death that Hayden himself faced. He was one of six men in a ditch assigned to guard a road where insurgents were known to plant explosives. The men were lying on their backs, trying to keep cool in the 110-degree heat, when they heard a loud boom — the sound of mortars being fired at them and rocks dropping around them.
Hayden looked out of the hole and saw bullets flying inches from his face and hitting him with sand and dirt. “I just laid down and started shooting back,” he said.
There is also guilt.
One time Hayden said he engaged with a group of farmers on the side of the road, shooting one of the men in his leg after instructed by base leaders to do so. They thought the men were digging ditches for explosives and only learned later that they were farmers just collecting sand.
In November 2006, Hayden was interviewed by the Morning Sentinel along with four other veterans from the Madison area in a story about four boys from Madison who had grown up together and all gone on to careers in the military.
Hayden said it took him more than a year after the story was published to go to Togus and talk about things that were bothering him — nightmares that would cause him to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat or yell in his sleep.
Kara, who was only 20 when she married her husband, said she didn’t foresee the struggles that military life would put her marriage through.
“Things were good for a few years, but the whole time he had been struggling, trying to readjust to coming back home from war. It was just in the past couple of years that I really realized things were worse than I thought,” she said.
State and national departments of veterans’ affairs can be hard to navigate and getting help can be a timely process, Meshad said. “They end up taking their distress into their own hands. Alcohol and drugs is one way to medicate yourself. It’s very common and something we see a lot of,” Meshad said.
He said there are different levels of readjustment for veterans returning home and that for almost all, it takes several years to get over the horrific experience of going to war.
“Society really doesn’t know and many times doesn’t want to know the horrors of war. It’s not like you see on TV,” Meshad said.
Today, Hayden works as a bucket loader for contractor Merle Lloyd and Sons Inc. in Anson, a steady job that he says has helped him heal.
When he returned home, he originally had planned to be a police officer because of the prospects of working with the public and helping people, but he said his job now gives him quiet time to think while sitting behind the bucket loader.
“When I first got out, I was still kind of gung-ho,” Hayden said. “I wanted to keep fighting and protecting people, but I changed my mind. I like what I do now. The quietness helps me a lot in getting through my days.”
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 [email protected]