Kris Goldsmith: The Horrific Documentation of Death
Warning: This episode contains depictions of corpses, substance abuse, a suicide attempt, and some foul language. Viewer discretion is advised.
Kris Goldsmith is an Army combat Veteran who served in Iraq. As a 19 year-old, he was assigned the task of photographing corpses and documenting mass graves. He developed severe PTSD, and in 2007, as the result of a suicide attempt that caused him to miss redeployment, he was given a less-than-honorable discharge. After years of legal battles, that discharge was upgraded. Kris went on to become an advocate for veterans with “bad paper” discharges, and helped pass crucial legislation that helps them receive the benefits they deserve.
To learn more about Kris, his advocacy, and his work fighting domestic extremism, listen to his episodes of Burn the Boats, out next Wednesday.
Learn more about his organization, High Ground Veterans Advocacy, here
Find Kris on Twitter at @KrisGoldsmith85
On this episode of Warriors In Their Own Words, we hear from an Iraq war combat vet, Kris Goldsmith, who, as a 19-year old soldier, was tasked with photographing corpses and documenting mass graves. He developed severe PTSD, and in 2007, as the result of a suicide attempt that caused him to miss redeployment, was given a less-than-honorable discharge. After years of legal battles, that discharge was upgraded. Kris went on to advocate for other veterans with PTSD who received “bad paper” discharges, and helped pass crucial legislation that helps them receive the benefits they deserve.
For me, Kris’s story is especially important. It reminds us that, for many of America’s warriors, the experience of combat can have lifelong effects. Kris’s interview is only partly about his time in Iraq. It is also about the battles he fought at home, to change the way the military treats service members suffering from PTSD.
If YOU are a veteran in crisis, or have a battle-buddy who is suffering, know that help is available. The veterans crisis hotline is free. That number is 800-273-8255.
Thank you for listening.
So I wanted to join the military from the time I was a toddler. I feel like a lot of young boys in the United States go through a phase at some point where all they want to do is wear their police uniform or their fireman's uniform from Halloween on like every day of the year. And I kind of never grew out of that. In most pictures that I can think of off the top of my head of me as a little kid it's me wearing camouflage with a pair of dog tags. I saw the military as an opportunity to serve the United States and that is just a drive that I have always had. It's baked into my character, and quite frankly, I can't quite put my finger on the genesis of it. It's just, and even today I gain no more satisfaction than feeling like I've left the world a better place.
When I was a kid and even when I was serving in the military I didn't quite have the same concept of democracy and liberty and justice, these values that are enshrined in our constitution and founding documents and everything. But those are things that for some reason I was just always obsessed with as a kid.
So I was born in 1985. One of my earliest memories is of the conclusion of the Gulf War and the yellow ribbons that were wrapped around trees in my neighborhood to symbolize waiting for people to come home. And I remember the parades after the victory of the Gulf War. For the rest of my childhood it was peacetime and then 9/11 happened. As a Long Islander, when 9/11 happened I was close enough that I could see the smoke of the towers from my house. It felt like while I didn't know anyone who died on that day, it felt like everyone in my life had lost someone.
All of my friends' families, a lot of people have parents who worked in the city, they all knew someone who had died on that day. So my desire to serve became a little different because now there was an explicit enemy, at least that I perceived at the time. And I joined the Army after I graduated high school in 2003. Went to basic training in 2004. And I enlisted as a forward observer. So my job was essentially blowing stuff up. And the way that I explain this to people is if you ever see a movie like Forrest Gump, where everybody's walking through the jungle or a city and they start taking machine gun fire from somewhere and everybody hits the ground and then the camera cuts to a nerdy guy with a big radio on his back and glasses, yelling into the mic. Well, I was that nerdy guy with the glasses. That's what I joined the Army to do. When the infantry got attacked it was my job to blow stuff up and try and get everybody home.
But when I went to Sadr City, Baghdad in January of 2005, a year after I went to basic training, it was too densely populated for me to do the job that I was trained for. So they kind of made something up for me. And this is something that kind of became the standard for a lot of forward observers both in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly in areas where you couldn't use things like mortars and artillery. And I became an on the ground intelligence reporter.
So what that meant is at the age of 19 years old it was my job to do things like photo document mass graves. And that is something that there is no training for that I know of. There is no preparation for that. There is nothing like human death. You could be a hunter, you could be a fisherman, have killed animals, have killed fish, gutted them, cooked them, and everything. But that type of death has purpose. The stuff that I was experiencing was just simply witnessing and documenting violence against human beings that I couldn't understand.
It wasn't always mass graves. It was more typically ones and twos of people who were just murdered for reasons that we would never discover. One example would be one day we were talking to an Iraqi policeman at a police station and he seemed kind of nervous and he was trying to communicate through our interpreter that he didn't feel safe. We went back out on our patrol and then we got a call to say that we had to go check on a body that was discovered outside a police station and we went back to that police station and it was that guy that was just telling us he didn't feel safe. He was probably murdered by the other cops that we just continued dealing with for the rest of the deployment. And it was my job to take photos of his face and his brains that were on the street.
Another day, it's like the only date that really sticks out for me during my deployment is May 15, 2005. We were called in because they had found a body in a trash dump. We get there, drive the Humvee up over a berm and this spot is like the beginning of fields just outside of a really really densely populated city. It's like a very hard stop. You have a city across the street and then it's trash fields. It's also where all the sewage runs. So I remember pulling up, getting out of the Humvee, and there's a dead donkey sitting there, just maggots. You could see maggots writhing under the skin. The immediate, the stench of that death plus the sewage that was streaming by us and pooling around us. And the trash. May 15 is pretty close to as high as the sun gets in the sky. So it's baking, baking hot. So hot you can't touch your weapon without gloves.
As we get into this scene, we had gotten the call for a body or a couple bodies. It ended up being over a dozen. It was my job to take this 2005, like 1.2 gigapixel camera and document everything that I was seeing and witnessing. So I was doing things like taking pictures of a couple teenagers and young men pulling on the arms of a fresh corpse that had I guess been buried just shortly before discovery. It was my job to take closeup photos of each of the faces as they loaded the bodies into the back of these little flatbed pickup trucks. Another soldier would lift the face by the hair and I would get up right in front of the face and take a closeup. The blood that was coagulating inside the sinus cavity would sling out and fling at me as the flies were landing on the dead bodies. The blood, all of the mess. The flies would land on my face. They're seeking moisture when it's that hot. They need a ton of moisture just to survive.
One of the things that I came home with was every time I took a picture, on the back of the camera there was this one and a half inch screen, and I didn't realize this until later on but I wasn't really looking around directly at things, I was looking through the camera at that little screen. And every time I took a picture it would freeze that photo on the back for a couple of seconds. And each one of those little photos on the back of the camera, just burned into my mind. And when I came home the smell and the taste of the air stuck with me. The images were there and any time that I saw almost any level of violence in a movie or a TV show, those images would come back in my head. With the hindsight of a lot of therapy I realized why I always drank vodka after I came home. Because in my mind it was like the closest thing that I could get to rubbing alcohol. I was trying to burn the taste and the smell of that particular scene out of my body.
One of the things that I would do when I would drink this ton of vodka is I would get into the shower and put it scalding hot and I would pass out. My roommates would find me sometimes hours later, skin pink and scalded and covered in vomit. These are things that I was doing when I was too inebriated to know what I was doing. So I'm kind of just putting it back together after the fact. But it wasn't like a one time thing. It wasn't like a once in a while thing. This is kind of like all I did for years after coming home.
My job ended up basically being kind of take part of what the Lieutenant's job was supposed to be and prepare a debrief after every patrol. So whereas everybody else got off a patrol would kind of take off their gear, relax, get some sleep if they could, shower if we had water available, I would sit at my computer sometimes for hours putting together what was supposed to be intelligence to go passing up the chain. So rather than coming back and decompressing and talking about it the way that I think would probably be a lot more healthy, I was immediately reliving it. Trying to do an analysis of photos. I wasn't trained. Like some sort of CSI or NCIS forensic scientist. I was just a kid and I was basically tasked with writing the intelligence briefs that were ostensibly to help these victims of torture and murder find justice, which I'm absolutely 100% sure that none of that work that I ever did helped any of the victims in any way. It was basically just- my job was documenting brutality for the fuck of it because somebody needed to be able to say that we did a report at the end of the day.
You know, I had the same brotherhood as everybody else. I lived in an infantry unit, with an infantry platoon. So me and the medic for the platoon, we being kind of specialized and needed for every mission, meant that rather than cycling through things like tower guard, which frankly I never wanted to do tower guard. It was a good part of the deal as far as I was concerned. Never had the sit around for a few hours and talk to somebody kind of thing. For me, my deployment was, if I was awake, I was working the vast majority of the time. My platoon, my company as far as I can tell, my battalion, had a policy of rotating guys out. The entire platoon is never out at the same time. There's not enough trucks and there's not enough room in the trucks for everybody. So some people got cycled out for rest. That never happened for me. So at 19, 20 years old, any day that the platoon was moving, I was moving too.
So after I came home from my year long deployment it was immediately clear to everyone else in my life that something was seriously wrong and needed to be addressed. And for me now at this point in my life, looking back I recognize that I had really severe post traumatic stress disorder and was exhibiting signs and symptoms two years before I was diagnosed with it. Coming home still in an infantry unit,your sense of normalcy is based on your surroundings and your experience. For us, we were all going through the same thing. We all used to joke about "These frat boys in college think they can drink. Well they don't know. They can't hold a candle to what we do." Well, we weren't necessarily drinking for fun. We may have had fun when we went out and drank, but we were at the barracks doing a whole host of things that weren't drinking for fun. We were punishing ourselves.
In a lot of cases a lot of guys would just drink hard liquor. Not like drink hard liquor neat from a rocks glass. Like drinking Wild Turkey or Everclear out of the bottle. That's not fun. Nobody likes it. Doesn't matter if they pretend to. We would all drink until we threw up and then we would drink some more. We were getting in fist fights. I was lucky to have never landed in legal trouble, but there was a night when I got in a fight with a guy who was twice my size. I choked him out. We both rolled through some glass and I thought I killed him. There were times when I'd be in a crowd and I would for some reason focus on someone who I thought had done something wrong and wait until that person in the crowd was next to me and I'd go after them. I'd be out drinking with friends that I grew up with who had not gone through the military experience. We'd be at a bar and the next thing they'd know I'm outside rolling on the ground with somebody. Some guys got DUIs. Some guys ended up getting demoted. And most of the bad things that we experienced and that we did had to do with our deployments and the things that we had experienced during them.
In my case, the guys that I was drinking with, for us, we drink, we fight, we throw up, whatever. That's all normal. So the thing that made me different from a lot of guys is I never got in trouble. I was very good at basically passing out before I could do anything too stupid. I got promoted ahead of my peers. I made Sergeant in just about two years of active duty. I was given, after becoming this "intelligence guy" using air quotes, I was made the Communications Sergeant because they were like "This kid has a brain and he's trustworthy so we'll put him in charge of a couple million dollars worth of equipment that he's not trained or qualified to maintain."
As much as I was not happy with the Army or with my deployment, I was very good at it. I could meet and exceed all expectations even though after I came home from Iraq I was miserable and I was suicidal. I went for about a year after coming home where I was starting to realize that something was wrong and I was kind of trying to get help. Like going to the medics and saying "Hey, how do I see somebody to talk about this?" Huge failure of my unit at the third ID. They moved the mental health ward from these trailers that had been across the street from where I had to show up for work every day with my company, which still had the signs, like Behavioral Health and everything. They moved the unit to the hospital without telling any of the medics. So when I was asking for help they'd say "Yeah, just go across the street." And I'd open up the door of a trailer marked with behavioral health and it looked like a scene out of The Walking Dead, like knocked over tables, decrepit furniture and stuff, papers strewn about.
I never got help until I started having panic attacks at work. My first panic attack came after I found out that I was stop lost. That was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back. So my contract was supposed to end with the Army in May of 2007 and in January of 2007 George Bush announced the troop surge into Iraq, which means that it doesn't matter what my contract says because the deployment date for my unit got moved up. I'm going with them. So because we were expecting it to be a 16 month deployment or so I would effectively be kept in the Army for an extra 2 years. And after all that I had experienced and the deep unhappiness, the deep depression that I was experiencing for so long and the anxiety of feeling like I had lost control over my life, it started to push symptoms into my life that I could no longer ignore, I could no longer suppress, and I could no longer drink away.
I remember one morning shortly after finding out that I was stop lost, we went for a release run. So we'd run out like I don't know, three miles or something like that and once we get to that three mile point they say all right, go at your own pace, run back to the battalion headquarters, company headquarters. And having been a cross country guy and a track guy, I was faster than everybody else. So I used to be in the habit of getting back, race everybody, beat everybody, and then sit down and wait for 15 minutes, a half hour, whatever it was for the rest of the company to show up. So I could deal with the final formation for the morning and go home and shower. During that time, I used to kind of do this meditation thing where I would run and during that time, before anybody else was back at the headquarters I would sit down on the ground and basically imitate a monk that I had seen on TV or something like that and just kind of control my breathing and feel my heart rate slow down.
There was this day when I tried to do that and I could feel my heart in my neck. I could feel it beating in my neck and my head and the pace did not shut down. It didn't slow down at all. I waited 15 minutes and people started showing up, a half hour later and my heart is still beating hard and fast as if I were still actively sprinting. And at this point I'm freaking out because I think I'm having a heart attack. It feels like I'm having a heart attack. My chest is just tightening and it's hard to breathe and my heart, I can feel. With the tension in my chest I can feel my heart moving in my chest. So I tell my supervisor, I'm like "Hey listen, I think I'm having a serious heart problem. I need to go to the hospital." So he lets me go. Go to the hospital. These symptoms persist for, I don't know, what feels like hours.
They eventually get me on an EKG and they detect no arrhythmia, no irregular heartbeat, and do the blood pressure and bloodwork and everything and finally at the end of the day, this has been a whole day of tests, I sit down with the PA and the Physician's Assistant asks me like "You're one of the healthiest people we've seen in here. There is absolutely nothing wrong with your heart, with your breathing. You are a perfectly healthy young man. So do you think maybe you might be stressed?" And up to this point that was the first time that anyone had asked me anything remotely like that at all, under any circumstances in the Army. I didn't exactly unload on this guy but I did tell him some of what I had been through. Not necessarily what happened to me in Iraq but the symptoms that I was feeling and saying like "It really started to exacerbate when I found out I was stop lost and now I can't breathe." I clearly think something's wrong. And he just goes "All right, well you just walk down this hallway and that's where the behavioral health clinic is." So after a year plus of looking for this behavioral health clinic I finally find it because I had a panic attack.
Sit in there for a couple more hours. Finally I get to see a doctor for a couple of minutes and I get prescribed this anti-depression drug or anti-anxiety drug. I would only find out months or a year later or so that for someone in my age range some of the symptoms of taking that type of drug and the type of drugs that I had been kind of cycling through over the following four months is increased suicidality, increased depression, increased anxiety. So I can't say that the medicine made it happen, but I can say for certain after that first diagnosis, the first prescription, things just got worse. That culminated I guess like four months or so later, the weekend of Memorial Day I attempted suicide.
And thankfully, my roommate at the time, and best friend from... Guy I knew from basic training figured it all out as it was happening, called the police, and luckily they found me. I ended up for about two weeks on a locked down mental ward at Winn Army Community Hospital at Fort Stewart. And from that moment that I woke up, everything was different. I had been a golden boy in my unit, never got in trouble, promoted ahead of my peers, had tons of friends and everything. And then all of a sudden, I woke up and I was treated like a criminal, total black sheep.
So not only had I lost my sense of control in life, I had, with my suicide attempt, lost my entire support network. And shortly after that, within three months, I was out of the Army. Went for being Sergeant Goldsmith back to Kris living in his childhood bedroom, for my suicide attempt, which they considered to be an act of misconduct. And that only exacerbated the PTSD. So though I did still qualify for mental health or VA health care benefits, I no longer qualified for the GI Bill. And coming into the Great Recession, I spent about five years in the dark. And honestly, I can't remember most of my early to mid 20s.
I spent about five years in a very dark hole. It was one of those things where like everyone around me could see something's wrong and with hindsight I can realize that I kind of saw it in their face even if they never actually said anything to me, that a lot of people in my life knew that I wasn't the same as I was prior to all these experiences. But thankfully with general discharge I qualified for VA healthcare. And through a lot of therapy and a lot of talking it out and describing my experiences. I was invited to speak at colleges basically, by like college professors who wanted their students to have a firsthand account of what the Iraq war was like and the veteran experience was like. So that was kind of my exposure therapy. Rather than sit down and talk with a doc about the same thing over and over again, about a traumatic experience, I would dump all of that on a bunch of poor college students.
And at this point in my life it's far less raw than it used to be. But I remember going into an auditorium and just watching a ton of people cry as I talked about the shit that I had just gone through. I guess they could see it in my face literally to a certain extent because I often had fresh bruises and scars and cuts on my face from getting in bar fights. They could see the physical toll that it had taken on me. And after doing that unofficial re-exposure therapy I would go to the doctor and talk about that instead. And thankfully that seems to have really helped me process a lot of this stuff. It took half a decade and a lot of harmful self-medication but I eventually started getting better. And things really turned around when I found out I was eligible for vocational rehabilitation or VRNE, which would help me go to school.
So with my bad paper discharge I had been excised not just from the Army, but from the veteran's community. I was ineligible to join all major veteran's service organizations. With a general discharge, getting kicked out for misconduct I didn't really feel comfortable around other veterans. I knew that I had served honorably, but that scarlet letter of the bad paper discharge, it pulled me away from the brotherhood. When I got to my community college after years of really not associating with other vets a whole lot, I was introduced to Student Veterans of America. That was the first veteran's organization that I truly became a part of. It was the first thing where there were defined meetings and there were mutual interests and missions and activities. And I'm not talking about flag football. I'm talking about inviting public speakers to talk about their transition experience and what kind of services are available to combat vets who maybe don't feel comfortable going to the VA.
I kind of went from being this… playing a lot of bad stereotypes or exhibiting a lot of bad stereotypes I guess, of being the disgruntled vet who didn't feel comfortable talking to anybody, so even among vets I would go into our student veterans club area and kind of have a hood over my head and earphones in and sit there and do my homework and not really even look at anybody. And within the first semester a bunch of combat vets who, whether they knew what they were doing or not, I can't honestly still don't know, but they helped pull me out of it. They literally saw me sitting by myself and forced me to socialize.
And that was a major breakthrough for me. After being so alone and so depressed and suicidal for so long, I got my brotherhood back. It wasn't the same one. It wasn't the guys that I deployed with. I still don't have a relationship with a whole lot of them after the way that I left the military. But I had a bunch of other combat guys who if they didn't go through something exactly like what I had, they had close friends who might have gotten run out of the military or who had survived suicide attempts. And through that student veterans organization I went from being the guy who doesn't talk to anybody and sits in the corner to getting elected to serve as the President, as the representative of a bunch of vets. And from that position, it was the first opportunity I had to get a taste of the leadership role that I had as a Sergeant. And feeling responsible for people and feeling like I was able to help other vets who were having trouble transitioning to have an easier time than I had.
And through that veterans organization I found advocacy. And thanks to a real good mentor, not a vet, but somebody who knew how DC worked and policymaking worked, I was able to use my role as President of this community college's Student Veterans of America chapter to move the nation on the way that veterans with bad paper were not just perceived by the general public, but were perceived by policy makers in DC and the military and veterans at large. When I had bad paper in 2007 I was excised from the community and that was not just a "The military did it to me" kind of thing, like the brass did it to me kind of thing. It was imposed by the vets community too. There were not a lot of veterans organizations at the time that would accept a vet with bad paper, even a general discharge like my own, let alone a veteran with an OTH.
Within a year of my first semester of college as the President of the Student Veterans Organization I was on the ground in DC with a couple other vets from my college, walking around Capitol Hill trying to get my first bill passed. Within a year of first setting foot in DC I succeeded. Through that process I learned how to not just tell my story and tell people how bad it is and the bad things that I went through for it, I learned how to make things better.
With my first bill, the Military Mental Health Review Board Improvement Act, I made sure that what happened to me, which was in appealing my bad paper discharge, a foot doctor, a podiatrist looked at my mental health records and determined that he wasn't going to perceive my PTSD as legitimate and therefore deny my discharge upgrade appeal. Well now, that doctor, because according to the law there had to be an MD there, now that expert witness has to have specific training in mental health. So if not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, someone with legitimate certifications and training so that they understand mental health and that they're not just able to say "I'm a doctor and I'm looking at stuff that I'm not qualified to review or provide judgment over."
So over the years since then I've found that advocacy is kind of my calling. A year after getting my first bill passed I made it into Columbia University and not having ever really even wanted to go to college, only wanting to have served in the military, to live... I think a lot of people join the military thinking they're going to retire, then reality hits them. I found that continuing to serve my country through helping other veterans, to stop them from meeting these arbitrary rules and laws and regulations that frankly, ruin lives for the good of nothing. I've spent years helping people understand that just because a veteran got a bad paper discharge, even if they did do something wrong, it's not necessarily right to hit them with a lifetime punishment. The loss of a lifetime of benefits, which are meant to help vets heal, recover, and move on after they serve their country.
You can do something wrong in the civilian world and you go to jail and you get out and that's the end of it. It may mess up your credit score. It may make it a little hard to find a job. But a lot of people are able to recover. But the military, you're going in with bad paper discharges a lot of the time with things like PTSD and traumatic brain injury and other illnesses and injuries that are unique to the veteran population, are unique to people who have volunteered to serve their country. And for a lot of us, during a time of war, knowing that we'd be sent to combat. So I took that lesson of learning to tell my story and come up with a policy proposal to use my story as an example of something bad that happened and then provide an answer. Like it doesn't have to happen if we do this or get this law passed.
So in my case, get a mental health professional to be the judge of mental health medical paperwork. And I now teach that to other veterans through my nonprofit, High Ground Veteran's Advocacy. That story, that individual's story of their experiences in the military as a veteran is an incredible tool. I have had the honor and the privilege to see other veterans raise issues that I had never heard about and take my experiences, all of the pain and the suffering that I went through to learn these lessons, and ultimately advocacy, and turn them into positive changes for vets who are facing problems and issues that I, before meeting them had never heard. It's been really cool being able to figure out a way to continue to serve my country. Wearing the uniform didn't work out for me, but I can honestly say that all things being as they are, there's not a whole lot that I could do in uniform to make the world a better place. But as a veteran advocate, I've been able to if not help millions of people, at least set the future up in a better way for millions of people.
That was Kris Goldsmith, an Iraq war combat veteran.
To hear more about Kris’ Veterans Advocacy, and his most recent work fighting domestic violent extremism, listen to his interview on our other podcast, Burn The Boats, out next Wednesday.
And again, if you are a veteran in crisis, or have a battle-buddy who is suffering, know that help is available. The veterans crisis hotline is free. That number is 800-273-8255.
Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, we’ll hear from James E.T. Hopkins, a thoracic surgeon and member of Merrill’s Marauders who was tasked with treating wounds on the battlefield.
Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Warriors In Their Own Words.