Christopher Winters was a senior at Barnsdall High School in Barnsdall, Okla., when a U.S. Army recruiter invited him to go fishing.
Sergeant Cooley was a persuasive man, said Winters. “The military would be my ticket to a different horizon. Little did I know how it would completely change my life. Twenty-two days after I graduated from high school, I was in basic training.”
Winters, who is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Nation, discovered both sides of Washington thanks to the Army.
“I got stationed at Fort Lewis,” he said. “I turned 21 at the Yakima Firing Center. I was on my second enlistment.”
He did two tours in Germany in the late 1980s, and trained in marksmanship and nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, then returned to Fort Lewis, where he met his wife.
They married in May, 1990. In August, Iraq invaded Kuwait.
He deployed to Saudi Arabia, then Kuwait, then joined the push across Iraq toward Baghdad.
“It changed my life completely,” he said. “It was hell on earth. I’d never seen this much carnage in my life. The whole of Highway 1 was a graveyard. On both sides there were vehicles for headstones. There was no grave registration. We saw dogs carrying body parts.”
It was disturbing in the extreme.
“A kid in my unit was college-bound,” Winters said. “He volunteered at the Cincinnati Zoo. He was going to be a zoologist.”
After that, the soldier couldn’t bear to be around dogs. He changed his career plans.
There were fires burning in the oil fields, and the air was fouled. No one knew what, exactly, they were breathing, Winters said. “A number of us encountered carcasses of animals who convulsed until their backs broke and their stomachs came out of their mouths.”
He believes some kind of nerve agent killed them.
“My last operation was detonating munitions,” he said. “A lot of stuff we detonated was from the Iraq-Iran war. Explosives, chemicals, we had no idea.”
People began charting the plumes of smoke, and later linked them to what came to be known as Persian Gulf War Syndrome.
Winters began hearing about veterans reporting health and mental health issues to Veterans Affairs, and getting the run-around. He’d left the Army with shrapnel from mines in his body and with bad foot problems he traces to rough marches in boots that didn’t fit. He felt as if his body had aged 15 years. Home again, he fell into nightmares he ties to PTSD.
“When I go to bed at night, I see a lot of people who aren’t here anymore,” he said.
He built a career as a painter, and was finding strength in volunteering with his union.
The more he learned about the war and what he was exposed to, the more he encountered other damaged veterans, the angrier he got. The more he challenged the VA to shoulder its responsibilities, the angrier he got when it failed.
“It took a long time to not hate the situation I was in, to look at the flag and not say, ‘What did you do to me?’” Winters said. “To deal with that, I dedicated myself to volunteering, to giving back. I’m volunteering on just about every veterans’ outreach.”
He has focused on working with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.
Through that work he met the team from PCMARVETS, a non-profit that uses its Mobile Veterans Service Office – a 1997 Fleetwood motor home - to find veterans and connect them to the benefits they have earned.
“These guys sought me out,” he said. “I introduced them to the Puyallup Tribal Council’s Veterans’ Committee, and we have been blanketing the area, driving up and down the county.”
While PCMARVETS veterans service officer Erica Westling is helping clients file claims, Winters is connecting them with peer groups, helping them find jobs, and pushing for funding.
“The need for veterans’ organizations could not be any greater than it is today,” he said. “The people who set the budget for the VA have to be reminded of the mission of the VA.”