“I thought I was fine when I got back from the service, from my first deployment,” recalls U.S. Army Corps Veteran Matthew Kahl. “But I was gravely mistaken. I was not OK at all. I was hurt inside.”
Kahl, who served in the 101st Airborne Division from 2007-2011, didn’t grow up wanting to join the military. A contentious relationship with his father, himself a career U.S. Marine Corps officer, prompted Kahl to oppose military service. It was only after his son was born in the years following 9/11 that Kahl felt drawn to serve. And his first deployment of Afghanistan went “extremely well.”
Or so he thought.
Despite how “well” it went, it left Kahl a changed man. In fact, the change had taken place during his envoy’s first engagement, when an ambush blew up one of the convoys he was traveling with, instantly killing the driver and seriously injuring the others passengers. While some of the passengers recovered and eventually rejoined Kahl’s team in combat, “They were changed; they were very obviously changed from that point on. Well from that point on a lot of us were changed. Not many of us really knew it at the time, how changed we were.”
It didn’t take long, however, before Kahl started to deteriorate.
It began when he was reassigned. Older than most of his fellow brothers in arms—Kahl was 29 when he enlisted—and comparatively better educated, soon after being deployed he was pulled off the front lines and put in a commo job. The new assignment saw him removed from his platoon and, more importantly, the support their shared experience provided him. Instead, Kahl found himself isolated in a concrete room for 90% of the day most days.
“That’s when my mental health started to slide,” he says.
He soon began seeking relief from both the physical injuries he’d sustained and the mental anguish that was increasingly taking hold of his life in the form of prescription opiates and psychoactive pharmaceuticals like benzodiazepines, as well as alcohol.
“I just became more and more withdrawn from everyone, and my unit, too. My unit noticed that I wasn’t really engaging much with anybody. I would kind of just drop off the face of the planet.”
A downward spiral
Upon returning home in March of 2009, Kahl also isolated himself from his family.
“I stopped talking to my wife,” he says. “She knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t tell her what it was. I didn’t know myself.”
He continued taking his prescription medication, and was drinking increasingly more. He found himself lashing out at his wife and children. The anger and anguish grew and grew until two days before Christmas, when the pain became unbearable and he tried to take his own life.
“I ate every pill I could find: every prescription medication, every over-the-counter medication, every cold medication, cough syrup, you name it. I took it all.” Kahl woke up 48 hours later in the hospital, on Christmas Day. “And my wife and my son, who was like three or four at the time, came in, and my son asked me, ‘Why are you hurt, Daddy? What’s wrong with you?’ And I didn’t have an answer for him. I mean, I had an answer, but I couldn’t tell him it, that I was there by my own hand. I did it to myself and I couldn’t tell my son that. So what I did instead was I told him that I was getting better and that he was never going to come see me in the hospital again. And I shouldn’t have told him that because it was a lie.”
Indeed, eight months later, still not really wanting to live but believing he could help prevent another batch of young infantrymen from dying, Kahl deployed again, this time as a volunteer.
“People who volunteer, they get sent on a lot of dangerous assignments,” he says. “It didn’t take very long for me to get injured.”
As Kahl came to understand later, his post-traumatic stress disorder was already full-blown at the time of his injury. But once he was medevaced, it got significantly worse. He was extremely agitated, seeing threats everywhere, and could barely sleep.
Then back at his base in Fort Campbell, Ky., as Kahl was finally preparing to leave the service, his wife travelled to North Carolina to give birth to their second son. “It was brutal,” he says. “I was sleeping with a weapon and I was patrolling the house constantly. Even though they were in North Carolina, I would hear my son crying and I would race through the house looking for him and I would be terrified because I couldn’t find him and what was wrong with my son, and it would take me about 15-20 minutes to realize he was in North Carolina; he was not in Kentucky. He was not in Fort Campbell. So I was having some issues, obviously, and then I started seeing shapes move outside the windows, and that was the Taliban for me. It didn’t matter that I was in Fort Campbell; that was the Taliban. The Taliban were coming to get me. So I was spending a lot of time in an extremely heightened state of arousal and I started to lose it. Completely lose it.”
Armed with a sharp object, Kahl began to hurt himself. Luckily he had the presence of mind to call his wife, who immediately urged him to go to the hospital. It’s there that he would go on to spend his final enlisted days.
His mission ever since: to get off the prescription medications entirely, first with the help of cannabis and, eventually, ayahuasca.
In search of rebirth
“The cannabis is helping a lot, but it’s not the magic bullet. It’s not the be-all, end-all. And there is more healing to be had,” says Kahl.
“If I can simply find something to crack this seed open, to germinate this seed and cause it to grow within myself, to have a renaissance of my own personality, a rebirth of who I was, before all of the horrible things that happened to me, all of the horrible things that I’ve been forced to do, if I could recapture who that person was and move forward into the world with compassion and with love, with empathy, with understanding, honor, integrity, mindfulness and being one, moving forward with unity with all of creation and my fellow man.
“Whatever the universe has planned for me—and I know it’s something big; it feels like it’s something big—if I can just move forward with love, understanding, joy, happiness, honor, integrity, all of those things, then I’ll be alright no matter what the world throws at me.
“That’s why I want to seek ayahuasca.”
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