War demons haunt Iraq vet’s new venture

For an Iraq veteran turned entrepreneur, the killing fields are never far away.

By Alexander Stein
Featured on Fortune Small Business

(Fortune Small Business) – These days, Will Payton avoids crowds. They petrify him. The entrepreneur and Iraq war veteran recently overheard his 9-year-old daughter telling her 14-year old sister how excited she was about visiting Disneyland.

The older girl replied: “You know how anxious Dad gets in places like that. I don’t think we’ll be able to go.”

“That isn’t a conversation kids should be having about their father,” Payton told me. Sad and racked by guilt, he hardly knows how to change things.

A National Guardsman for 13 years, Payton (not his real name) was put on active duty and sent to Iraq in 2003. He was 34, and left behind a wife, four children (then aged 3, 5, 8, and 10), and a career as a broker and financial planner.

Stationed outside of Balad in the north and then Nazaria in the south, he served as a combat medic – the only one for a company of 160 soldiers. He stayed on active duty for four years, except for a single two-week furlough.

Payton won’t – he can’t – talk in specifics about what he saw and experienced in Iraq. For people like him who suffer from combat-related PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), verbalizing past horrors can be more re-traumatizing than therapeutic.

For the listener, no matter how gruesome, it’s only a story. But the telling can trigger flashbacks. Time and space distort, rationality peels away, and all of a sudden that loud noise in the mall is a bomb exploding in a crowded market. Instead of wiping tears off your daughter’s face, you’re drenched in blood while you compress a pulsing, shredded stump.

I could tell that Payton was driving his car during our phone conversation. I was frankly concerned about his driving while we were talking, given the subject. Was it a coping device for Payton, putting him in control while distancing his conscious mind from traumatic war memories? Or could it be reckless behavior prompted by his fragile emotional state?

One psychoanalytic tool I use is called “countertransference” – closely monitoring my thoughts and feelings as clues to what my patient is experiencing in his own mind. Guided by clinical experience, I took my pulse and made a calculated judgment call: Payton wasn’t going to crash from talking to me. But just to be sure, I asked whether he was safe to drive.

“I can talk about this and drive at the same time,” he said laconically. I believed him.

Though Payton came through Iraq physically unscathed, his tour of duty scarred him permanently.

“I used to be open and caring,” Payton said. “But that guy died and somebody else came back.”

A daily fight

Payton struggles daily with fear, anger, and depression. He avoids the Magic Kingdom, and places like it, because crowds make him feel agitated, insecure and hyper-vigilant. By attending therapy and support groups for veterans, he has learned how to intellectualize his issues; he knows the psychiatric lingo. But the word he uses for himself is “crazy.”

I asked Payton what “crazy” meant to him.

“Out of control in how I feel and respond,” he replied. “I have a heightened sense of alertness to danger and death. I live in constant anxiety.”

Payton used to help people plan for retirement. But Iraq killed his interest in selling financial advice: “Plugging numbers into spreadsheets just seemed idiotic to me,” he said. “The first time I lost a soldier in my battalion, I realized that we only have so much time here.”

So Payton quit his job and launched a small video-production business. The company’s first project, the lure for this particular career-switching opportunity, was an instructional video that a friend’s husband had made about how to survive radiation exposure and terrorist attacks.

At first, the business seemed promising. Payton threw himself into his role as CEO and developed good working relationships with his business partner and their investors. A major national retailer expressed interest in distributing the video, promising more than $1 million in first-year revenue.

But the retailer asked for changes to the video. Although the requested edits were relatively insignificant (trimming some transitional material to quicken the pacing), Payton’s partner refused to make them, and negotiations collapsed. Payton became enraged. He quarreled with his partner, and verbally attacked him. Not surprisingly, the partnership ended.

Although he started the video business because combat had changed his outlook on life, Payton was unprepared for how drastically his response mechanisms and decision-making skills had been altered.

How, specifically?

“Before the war, I’d probably have been able to suggest compromises, been less confrontational, and able to nurse the enterprise to smaller-scale objectives,” he replied.

Like many returning veterans, Payton is still at war. But the battlefront is now internal: He’s struggling to live a positive, productive life, but his combat experiences have conditioned him to see danger and uncertainty at every turn.

I think that when Payton’s business partner wrecked their plans, Payton reacted as if his life had literally been threatened. As a result, his goals of growing his business and providing for his family were overridden by rage and fear.

By the time Payton and I spoke, he was in triage mode. He’d reconciled, tentatively, with his former partner, and was again trying to move the video business forward. His ambitions now include releasing a series of instructional videos (not just one). He hopes to network more effectively and develop new marketing and distribution strategies.

But for Payton, reality still feels as harsh and random as an Iraqi sandstorm. Depression is a frequent companion. Sometimes, not even the prospect of spending time with his wife and kids or meeting a business challenge can pull him out of bed.

But there are also good days, when he’s filled with energy and plans for the future. Payton told me that what motivates him most powerfully now is recouping his investors’ money.

It’s not just the investors whom he’s trying to make whole. At bottom, Will Payton is still working to reclaim the self he left on a dusty, bloodied roadside in Iraq.

Dr. Alexander Stein is a psychoanalyst and consultant in practice in New York City. He is also a training analyst and faculty member of The National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, and a principal in the Boswell Group.

Disclaimer: This column is designed for educational purposes only. Due to the individual nature of each situation, Dr. Stein cannot offer advice or suggestions beyond what is presented here. You should not rely on this information as a substitute for personal therapy, or construe it as the offering of a diagnosis or remedy.