Each and every morning, Kevin Workman's girlfriend, Amy, writes down the list before leaving. It is waiting there, usually under his coffee mug, when he makes the long climb out of sleep, shambling downstairs with a head full of drugs, drenched from the previous night's nightmares. There are times, even now, four years after Baghdad, when he sweats so thickly that the mattress is soaked all the way through to the springs. He brews the day's first of several pots of coffee, lights up a Kool with hands that shake badly, and plops himself down at the breakfast table to squint at her few requests. They're the same each day – make the bed, feed the dogs – but she may as well ask him to free-climb Eiger or write a string concerto. Those dogs will have to learn to feed themselves.
So the day begins for Workman, whom the army promoted to sergeant last year when he retired at 46. There is much to be done on the tumbledown house that he and Amy bought, a two-story cottage on two and a half acres in the tiny hilltop town of Genoa, New York. The porch is rotting off its piers in front, and he'd better get a guy in to price out shingles before the roof above their bedroom caves. But these things demand a focus he can't piece together, and the hours just seem to run away. On the mornings his skull doesn't pop like spring ice in the grip of a two-day migraine, he wanders into town to sit at Barb's Diner and buy lunch all around for retired farmers. Not that he can afford to, but Kevin forgets that he's broke and hasn't paid his heating bill. He and Amy fight about his fire-wagon spending – the useless trinkets he buys at auctions, the turkey he had mounted for a fortune in town – but how do you reason with a man who can't remember to turn off the jerky smoker before it burns down the house around him? This past summer, his father told friends at the gas station that Kevin came back from Iraq "different." In a town of 2,000, word got around fast, and Kevin was shamed and stung by the lingering stares.
For 20-plus years he'd been unsinkable, a cop turned state trooper who'd proven his mettle by staying calm when shots rang out. "One of the bravest guys I know, always first one through the door, but the big thing was his cool in handling the public," says Sergeant Frank Hart of the Myrtle Beach Police Department, who partnered with Workman on the bellicose streets of that inveterate party town. (Workman, once a cop in New York State, relocated after a divorce in 1990 and was a deputy or state policeman in South Carolina for more than 15 years.) "It's crazy here on weekends – lots of gunplay and bar fights, and drunks would yell stuff like, 'You're ugly' or 'Stupid' whenever we cuffed 'em up. Kevin would just laugh, saying, 'Wait'll you see my brother,' or, 'Matter of fact, my mama thinks so too.'"
In 2000, Workman joined the army reserve to earn some extra cash. Freshly remarried to a woman he's since divorced, he had twins on the way and was hoping to get ahead of his new expenses. Then the war began and, inflamed by 9/11, he took a leave of absence from his state trooper job and transferred to the national guard, eager to bring his cop skills to Iraq. Instead, he was tabbed to do convoy work, guarding the long chains of mammoth trucks that carried food, gas, and ammo to forward bases. It was, he says, "like being a duck in an arcade," barreling seven days a week on bomb-strewn roads under constant sniper fire. Even after the VBIED incident, he never took time off to recuperate. That was a mistake, though not solely of his making: Someone in command should have pulled him from duty and gotten him acute-care treatment. Thorough bed rest after a concussion is vital to recovery, along with prudent use of analgesic drugs that don't promote bleeding, say experts. Per the army's rules, a soldier with a concussion should be kept behind the wire till symptoms pass, then given a battery of exercise tests to ensure that the pain and dizziness don't recur. But those rules weren't drafted until 2007, and many medics lacked the training to spot TBI.
"There's a cumulative effect from added exposures, especially if you still have symptoms," says Dr. Ross Zafonte, department chairman of physical medicine at Harvard Medical School. "The analogue is athletes with multiple concussions that make them more prone to the next one. Think of players like Al Toon or Wayne Chrebet, who were symptomatic years after retiring."
For Workman, the headaches that started following the blast got worse and worse by the week, and soon he was choking down so much Aleve that he bled on the toilet each morning. "It's like a gun going off . . . in my brain," he says in the kinked, sawed-off cadence of TBI. "Pressure behind my eyes, front to back." Then he stopped sleeping, started chugging Red Bull and coffee and catching an hour-long nap before dawn. His mood turned black and his memory went to pieces, but he chalked that up to the "chemicals in the sand" and the toxins he'd inhaled from all the bombs. From the VBIED alone, he gulped so much phosphorus that his lungs filled up with fluid. He spent two days on a nebulizer, fighting the first in a series of chest infections.
But hurt soldiers are like athletes in a second regard: They never beg out of the game. "Once I asked for help, that was it for me as a policeman," says Workman. "It's a law that you can't carry a gun and take these meds. How was I gonna feed my kids if I had no job?" And so he pushed on, making hellfire runs from Kuwait to the Syrian border. He was rocketed in Fallujah, mortared in Ramadi. Twelve times, his crew was struck by IEDs, including one big enough to blow the trailer of a semi straight up into the air. He emerged from those blasts a different man, one he doesn't seem to know or want to be.
"It's just hard, getting used to this . . . level," Workman says. "I was always up there and – and now I'm down here. Hard for me to take that it's . . . forever." Laid out for him on the counter is his daily choke-roll of pills, including four antidepressants, three drugs to help him sleep, and "other things for headaches, but they don't work," he says. On good days, he manages to mask his condition, holding court at the luncheonette with his ex-cop's profane charm. More than once, though, he's menaced store clerks over petty offenses and is often out of steam after the trip to town, nodding off, upright, at the kitchen table while he waits for Amy to come home. She's eager to get back to him – "he's the light of my life, and I'd give anything to make him happy," she says – but when she walks in from work, exhausted and frayed, she can't always help herself. "Couldn't you feed the dogs?" she hears herself snap. "It's the one thing I ask! Can't you at least do that?"