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United States

Former US soldier helps traumatized veterans

Kym Sanchez helps traumatized US veterans. She was a soldier herself and has suffered serious depression ever since. DW's Ines Pohl reports from New Mexico.

It is shortly before 7 a.m. in Taos, New Mexico, and shadows still dominate the landscape. Hoarfrost clings to the desert grasses on this late-summer morning, and a thin layer of ice floats upon the water in the drinking troughs. Everything is silent. It isn't until the sun comes up that the crickets begin chirping, something they will continue to do until the sun disappears again behind the mountains at the end of the day. 

Kym Sanchez starts her morning with Dolly and Donny, her two ponies. "Dolly wouldn't let anyone pet her for the longest time, her previous owner really abused her," says the former soldier. Now the pony casts its big brown eyes trustingly upon Sanchez. Dolly likes the petting just as much as her first helping of hay.

Many animals have had to suffer bad experiences in their past. So it seems fitting that these two are here, at a place where traumatized ex-soldiers are supposed to learn how to deal with the horrors of their own pasts.

Twenty-one million veterans in the US

Kym Sanchez and her current partner, Don Peters, started this project in 2015. They used her deceased husband Paul's inheritance as start-up capital. A lot of ex-soldiers live in the Taos area. There are small off-grid farms all over, where people try to live as independently as possible. "Veterans like that. They no longer believe in the government, they feel abandoned and betrayed," says Sanchez.

Taos Reportage (DW/I. Pohl)

'Not Forgotten Outreach' is located on a 9,000 square meter property in New Mexico

Moreover, many think that the wars that made them sick were only fought to stabilize oil-producing regions far away. "Living self-sufficiently is a kind of boycott." There are 21 million veterans in the United States, 60,000 of them are homeless, and a great many of these are black and Hispanic.

Sanchez and Peters call their counseling center "Not Forgotten Outreach." The heart of the 9,000 square meter (2.2 acre) property is an earth-brown adobe house. It stood empty for years. Now, if everything goes according to plan, six guest rooms will be ready for use by the middle of next year. "It's not our house, it's a house for veterans and their families. A place where we can come together and talk, where we can help and console one another."

Sanchez explains the idea is that veterans and their families can come stay at the house for up to five days free of charge. Meals are cooked in the big community kitchen every Wednesday, and all are invited to take part. "That costs money." Besides that, the project is run on donations and volunteer support. 

"We vets don't buy bullshit," says the ex-soldier. "We can tell if someone knows what they are talking about right away." That is why she says it is her calling to help other veterans. "I know what these men and women go through. Why they live alone in the mountains - why they are terrified that they might flip out and hurt others."

Kym joined the army when she was 20, after finishing her studies in theology and psychology in Eugene, Oregon. "I had to pay off my student-loans." After a short training session at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, she was sent to Germany, first to Kitzingen and then to Würzburg. "Helping others always gave me a lot. So it made sense that I was assigned to help a military chaplain in his daily work." She planned trips and helped prepare prayer services. Kym liked it.

Organizing memorial services

On the third day of her deployment Kym meets Paul Timothy Sanchez. They get to know each other and eventually become a couple. He is the love of her life. Both are making their way up the career ladder. In her fifth year, Kym is put in charge of organizing memorial services for fallen soldiers. It is actually a job for two, but she does it alone: Kym is responsible for 29 battalions and organizes 187 memorial services in Germany. When a soldier stationed in Germany is killed, she speaks with the family, friends and comrades. Although rules are strict, she tries to make the memorial services as personal as possible. "I wanted to properly honor the fallen. Sometimes the routine of the military is pretty heartless."

Taos Reportage Kym Sanchez (DW/I. Pohl)

Sanchez joined the military to help pay off student loans

She keeps a diary about each one. There are nights when she can't sleep because the dead speak to her, accusing her of not doing enough for their families and their children. Kym realizes that it is not good that her life is only filled with death. Yet no one wants to hear about it. "In the military you learn to keep your head down and keep going. Those that show emotions are weak. And those who confess to having fears or panic attacks are labelled losers."

Kym and Paul decide to marry. She leaves the military, heads back to Fort Drum in New York, and takes a management job at the cosmetics company Estee Lauder. She says she can still feel the farewell hug that Paul gave her on the day after Thanksgiving back in 2006. He had to head back to Iraq. 45 days later her doorbell rang. "I knew Paul was dead." They had been married for 14 months.

Loss of control

Kym had a total breakdown. Paul was always able to help her keep the demons of her experiences in check. Now she loses control. "You can't breathe and you are gripped by a fear of death and loneliness. And at the same time you are ashamed because you can't get a better handle on things."  

Taos Reportage Kym Sanchez (DW/I. Pohl)

Sanchez: I need to have something beautiful on me

Her arms and body are covered with tattoos of flowers, peacocks and brightly colored butterflies. "I need to have something beautiful on me. Something that makes me happy when I look at it. And it works," she says, as she brushes aside her blonde dreadlocks with red-colored ends. She laughs, but the laughter doesn't fill her eyes.

It took almost six years before Kym, with the help of medication, was able to more or less function once again. "I never would have made it without the love of my mother and my family. You don't get anything from the government." Nor from the military, she says. "They use us for their game as long as we function. And when we are broken, we are on our own." It is difficult for traumatized persons to have intimacy, and relationships. In fact, even to live closely with others.

There are a lot of days when Kym simply cannot go on past noon. Then the shadows of her past take control and she becomes exhausted. She has to lie down, and often just stays in bed until the next morning comes. "Then I get up, because I know that I am needed. And that my animals will be happy to see me. That is the only happiness I have now."

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