A small section of the wall in Sgt. Chris Tschida’s bonus room is covered with remnants and honors from his almost eight years in the Army. The Purple Heart medal blends in.
“The Purple Heart — the one nobody wants,” he said. “It means you get hurt. But, you get what you get.”
Tschida, 38, lives in Meridian with his wife and two children. Ten-year-old Annastacia’s room has sparkly pink walls and a plush bear on the bed.
“It’d be fun to drive a tank like my dad did,” she said.
Tschida, who grew up in Caldwell and Jordan Valley, Oregon, joined the Army at age 20 and spent the next eight years in Texas, Korea and Iraq. He “loved every minute” of driving a 72-ton tank, he said, but he doesn’t want the same for his daughter.
“There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve been through that I don’t want my kids to go through,” he said. “I don’t want her to join the military. It’d probably be a different story if I didn’t get hurt."
Tschida’s left arm is missing from the elbow down, and he has a scar on the left side of his chin.
On May 15, 2005, Tschida and three other crew members were patrolling in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq and loading up the tank for a mission. When a soldier knocked his water bottle into the tank and dropped down to get it, an insurgent threw two grenades into the tank.
Tschida grabbed one grenade to try to get it under something to absorb the blast. It blew up in his hand. The second grenade wounded his face. The other crew members were badly injured, too. Tschida's quick action helped save the lives of the entire crew, according to the Idaho Legislature, which in 2012 called on the president and Congress to award him a Medal of Honor. The application is still in limbo, Tschida said.
BIKING UP A HILL
Twelve years after the attack, Tschida's life looks pretty normal: he owns a home, is married, has two children and two dogs, and works as a claims assistant at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Boise. He and his son go fishing several times a week, and the family enjoys trips to the Oregon coast.
“Some years have just been great, and then you get that one little trigger, and it all comes back again,” he said.
Tschida still looks for explosives on the roadway every time he drives. He stays up playing video games until 2 a.m. to avoid nightmares. His mind is back in Iraq whenever he smells diesel gas or hears a motorcycle backfire.
"Mentally and emotionally, it’s still an ongoing battle,” Tschida said.
He describes depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as riding a single-gear bicycle up a hill. Just when you’re almost to the top or you feel some reprieve, something triggers your past trauma, he said, and you roll right back down to the bottom.
The process can feel hopeless. Tschida eventually saw a psychiatrist, but he stormed out of the office in anger when prodded about Iraq.
“I told him to F-off,” Tschida said. “I didn’t want to remember any of it anymore.”
This year has been hard because of disputes with relatives, Tschida said. On three occasions, he has seriously contemplated suicide.
“I had to keep a smile on my face,” he said, “even though deep down inside I was severely depressed.”
On one of the darkest days, Tschida abruptly left work.
“I was lost in the head. I was wandering around the VA campus just thinking of ways,” Tschida said.
He ended up outside of a care center on the campus. He walked in, crying and distraught, and said he needed to talk to someone.
“And they instantly got me help,” Tschida said.
His wife, Elena, came to the center, and they talked to a counselor together.
“She’s put up with so much stuff with me, I commend her. She’s my rock,” Tschida said. “I was able to go through the hard times with her holding my hand.”
Tschida doesn’t expect to be cured of depression or PTSD. That hill, with its ups and downs and triggers, is a challenge he will face the rest of his life, he said.
“Every veteran that’s had a bad experience with PTSD, they may look happy and go-getting now, but deep down inside it’s always in the back of your mind,” he said. “You see something, hear something, smell something, and you’re right back.”
Tschida went back to that psychiatrist he cussed out and is still seeing him today.
They talk about what haunts him: the what ifs.
Tschida wonders every day what he could have done differently in the three to four seconds before the grenades were thrown into the tank 12 years ago. Could he have blocked the tank entrance with his helmet or vest? Could he have jumped over the hole and used his body as a shield?
Tschida has met other veterans who wrestle with similar questions.
“They’re depressed because they’re always thinking about what they could have done but didn’t,” he said.
That’s why fishing and target practice and painting — Tschida spent 29 days on a spectacular mural in his son’s room — are so important, he said.
“When I’m out with my son and out with other veterans, that’s a time of healing,” Tschida said. “A lot of veterans, they try to do that but they don’t have the support. … They’re left alone to dwell on, ‘My life sucks.’
“Your life doesn’t suck,” he added. “You’re alive.”
Unfortunately, the veterans who have the most severe PTSD are often the most resistant to talk about it, Tschida said. He mentioned a fellow veteran who had lost his legs and witnessed his friend’s death in an explosion.
“Those are the types of guys that we need to look at more,” Tschida said. “It’s those types of veterans like him, like me … who need special care.”
JUST DON’T ASK
Surprised looks and questions about missing limbs are enough to make a veteran want to stay home, Tschida said. People in public gawk at his missing arm, he said. Some ask what happened.
Tschida doesn’t like reliving the details.
“I hate being asked,” he said. “I’m nice about it and I say I was in combat … But then they dig — ‘Well, how’d you lose it in combat?’”
At that point Tschida wants to say, “Well, why don’t you just Google it? I’m on the internet.”
He shook his head.
“To me it’s like, why is it so important for you to know where my hand is?” he said.
Tschida advises people to put away their curiosity about a veteran’s injury and instead get to know the person. Veterans who want to open up about what happened will do so on their own time, he said.
“They’re the same as they were before — they’re a human,” Tschida said.
Tschida remembers coming home from Iraq on a short holiday leave and meeting his son Brandon for the first time. Brandon was 3 months old. Tschida can still see his tiny body stretched out on the bed.
“I carried him all over the place,” Tschida said. “I was so excited.”
Thinking about seeing his children grow up helps Tschida get out of his own head in moments of despair, he said.
“I want to see my kids graduate,” he said. “I want to seem them go to prom. I want to see them play football.”
Along with fishing, Tschida and Brandon like to serve lunch together at the Boise Veterans Home. One of the residents they met, who has since died, served in World War I.
“Which one?” Brandon asked his father.
“The really, really, really old one,” Tschida said.
“...So, which one?” the 13-year-old asked again.
The two laugh and tear up when talking about their conversations with the veterans. They have a lot of life perspective to offer — even if some of them might look angry at first, Tschida said.
Hearing the older veterans’ stories and seeing their perseverance make Tschida feel better about his own life, he said.
“God bless all the veterans out there,” he said. “I’m honored to be part of the group.”