360 Politics: Disabled veteran remains hopeful of Trump's presidency
HOLTS SUMMIT - Joshua Lee is a retired sergeant from the Missouri National Guard where he served from 2007 to 2014. After coming home from Afghanistan, he was diagnosed with PTSD, inflammatory arthritis, fibromyalgia and multiple destroyed joints.
Joshua Lee said he has been medically retired and “100 percent disabled” since 2014. He now spends the majority of his time with his wife, Julia Lee, and two sons at a house he finally calls “home” after almost 30 years longing for one.
He said if someone ever wonders why he thinks President Donald Trump would end an already “corrupt and broken” government and “won’t let the evil prevail,” they could find the answer in his life story.
Watch our 360 video of Lee's story below.
“I joined the military to better discipline myself”
Born in 1983 on the West Coast, Joshua spent most of his childhood moving. Campers, trailers, school bus-turned motor homes; he’s lived in them all.
He said “the crushing defeat of living far below the poverty level” as a child sparked his determination to never let that happen to his children.
He married Julia in 2002, one year after he moved to Missouri. When he made up his mind to join the National Guard in 2007, Julia said she didn’t like the idea but supported him anyway.
She said at that time, she did not know he would be deployed overseas this soon, and she wasn't prepared for the consequences.
“War is hell”
In 2009, Joshua left his family for Afghanistan to serve as a wheeled vehicle mechanic with the 203rd Engineer Battalion of the Missouri National Guard. He said his primary mission was to fix trucks and vehicles while traveling throughout the countryside to drop off supplies.
“Subjecting yourself to lots of ambushes and things of that nature, so no matter what you see, no matter what’s going on around you, around the convoy - your job isn’t to stop and save or protect anyone whether civilians or locals or anything that may be happening. You gotta just keep going,” he said.
He said it was hard to walk away from people who needed help.
“Because a lot of the situations that you’re seeing or experiencing in Afghanistan or any other countries especially in war zones aren’t what you would be experiencing driving down the streets of America,” he said.
He said his mind was stuck in a war mode and there was “a constant adrenaline rush” that never stopped.
“Even when you’re bored. You’re completely bored, flopped back, going ‘I have no idea what I’m gonna do,’ and you heart’s still thumping just a little bit. Because you know, at any minute, something could happen,” he said.
He teared up when talking about the flood of memories that comes back from time to time.
“For me, it’s not so much that I’m flashing back to specific incidents,” he said. “It’s more that I’m flashing back to the feelings in those incidents of helplessness and being unable to help people, and being unable to do the right thing - even though you needed to.”
27 pills a day, more than 9,000 pills a year
Joshua came back to Missouri in September 2010. Six months later, he started having physical and mental health problems.
By last March, he was prescribed to take 27 pills a day - amounting to 9855 pills a year.
“Narcotics, opiates, muscle relaxers, SSRIs, Benzos and pills to control all the side effects, of course,” he said.
He said the feelings of pain and hopelessness were overwhelming.
“It was killing me. I was 220 pounds. I was a size 40. I was depressed. I was drinking heavily. I was a rage-filled zombie,” he said.
According to a 2015 statement by Veterans Affairs official Carolyn Clancy, almost 60 percent of returning veterans from the Middle East and more than half of older veterans in the VA health care system live with chronic pain.
“The treatment of veterans’ pain is often very complex. Many of our veterans have survived severe battlefield injuries, some repeated, resulting in life-long moderate to severe pain related to damage to their musculoskeletal system and permanent nerve damage, which can not only impact their physical abilities but also impact their emotional health and brain structures,” the statement says.
Joshua said, “I came back from Afghanistan a completely changed man. I came back a worse man.”
Trump “would be the greatest instrument of change”
When the 2016 election rolled around, Joshua said it was the first time he ever voted, and his only hope was to get someone into the White House to fix a government already “destroyed” by lobbyists and politicians.
“I basically knew that if I vote for an independent candidate, it’s just casting my vote to whoever I don’t like the most in the popular ones,” he said. “And if I voted for Hillary, I really, truly felt that would be voting to continue an already broken system. Whereas voting to put someone in place who has no concept of how the system works, and who doesn’t truly understand or didn’t seem to understand at the time - how to stand up to some of the more divisive elements in his own party, then I figured that was going to spur people into action.”
He said nobody changes unless they are uncomfortable, and Trump was the best candidate to bring about the greatest change.
“Suddenly, if there’s someone up there who makes them uncomfortable, whether you are right-wing, moderate or leftist, then you are gonna stand up and say something needs to be done,” he said. “It would get people motivated and back into American politics that hasn’t happened in generations. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen.”
Joshua claimed himself as a moderate Republican. He said most veterans he knows are moderate.
“We don’t need a perfect plan when it comes to any issue of the day that veterans care about,” he said. “Veterans just care that we come up with a plan that’s better than what we have now. Is it too much to ask for? Seriously, we don’t need the perfect tax plan; we don’t need a perfect health care plan; we don’t need the perfect mental health reform - we just need something better than what we have now. And that shouldn’t be too damn difficult.”
All the changes he wants to see
Joshua said his personal experience gives him and his family a better understanding of how the military and VA systems work in the U.S., and how he thinks they should be fixed.
1) Lack of VA medical centers in rural areas
Joshua said some of his veteran friends who live in rural communities have to travel to Jefferson City or Columbia for minor problems like allergies.
Julia said, “They have to travel long distances to the VA hospital and cannot always make that trip due to financial issues or mobility issues.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Research and Development, veterans are more likely to live in rural areas than non-veteran Americans.
“Rural veterans have lower average household incomes than other Veterans; they often face long driving distances to access quality health care; and there are fewer health care providers and nurses per capita in rural areas,” the office says.
2) Gap between the military and civilian world
Joshua said it’s a struggle relearning how to live a normal life.
“[When in Afghanistan] you are tuned and you are hardwired, you alert and you adapt to react to everything around you for 365 days - maybe a two-week break to come home. And then, the next thing you know, you are back in the civilian world and ‘Oh, hey, yo, wait… I can’t act like that anymore - that’s not normal,’” he said.
He said he misses his “brothers and sisters” in the military dearly. He said those were the people who “would absolutely jump on a grenade” for him, even if they just got done arguing with each other.
“So that’s a different level of trust and expectation than what we find here in the civilian world,” he said. “I mean, that’s a year’s worth of forced and closed living conditions, inside jokes and getting to know each other on a deeply intimate level that you don’t for most people in the civilian world. And suddenly, I don’t have any of them.”
He said many National Guard members go through this “incredibly difficult” transition journey.
“That’s something that I don’t think is quite properly addressed in the needs of service members returning from deployment,” he said.
3) Better training for military spouses
Julia said, “When he left, I didn’t have a military base to help me out - had to do it all on my own. I had no idea what was coming. I didn’t know what to expect. Nobody told me anything.”
She said she didn’t know how to respond when the kids asked what was going to happen to their dad.
“I had to be strong that whole time, because I couldn’t break for my children,” she said.
The struggle was not over when Joshua finally made his way home. Julia said it’s a “sad truth” she had to watch her husband suffer.
“He was different. It was hard. It was an adjustment. But nobody thinks about the adjustment the family has to go through, and we are the silent victims,” she said.
She said military families deserve a better social network of help and a program created to assist them through different deployment phases.
“So that these families are prepared and ready not only before the deployment, but also during deployment and when the soldier comes home. Because a well-prepared family helps the soldier so much more and also prevents a lot of trauma in the family itself,” she said.
4) Waste of military resources
Every year, the U.S. military uses hundreds of thousands of rounds of bullets for training purposes. Joshua said many of these bullets were simply “wasted.”
“Literally, we were told to waste 30,000 rounds, so that we wouldn’t have to turn them back in and go through the hassle of inspecting them,” he said.
A 2016 article in The New York Times Magazine says, “When the military distributed weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq, a different dynamic was in play. Keeping track of the weapons in any reliable fashion - documenting who got what and what went where - was often not a priority. It is impossible today. And so no one knows where many of the weapons are…”
Joshua said it was especially difficult for him to watch and take part in that practice.
“Because, you know, my entire life, my wife and I struggle to provide for our family, for our children. And when you see a government organization wasting money like this - it really drives home. That’s the money I could be using at home. That’s the money we could be paying our soldiers,” he said.
A year of change with a startup nonprofit
Joshua and Julia said they are not counting on politics to solve their problems, and that’s why they founded their own nonprofit, Veterans Alliance for Compassionate Access, last year.
Joshua said, “Politics is politics. Honestly, once you sit down and look at both sides - whether they are red, blue or green, they are all insisting that everybody else is wrong. So doesn’t that make them all the same?”
Julia said, “I have always hated politics. I really have. Because it’s something that would cause people getting into arguments, and it just seemed like most of the politicians - at least in Washington, D.C. - are more about themselves and keeping their own power.”
Joshua said when someone is “powerless” and “doesn’t have a voice,” it’s hard to get things done.
Julia said, “So when he suggested and talked about starting this nonprofit, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is a great idea. Let’s make it an actual change. Let’s actually stand up and let these people know what veterans want.’ So now I have to be involved in politics, which I never thought in my life I would be.”
According to Joshua, the nonprofit advocates for veterans and their families in various areas, such as physical and mental health reform, economic opportunities and legalization of medical cannabis.
He said although many people have known the organization for its involvement in the medical cannabis movement, he wants the community to know it also works on other veteran-focused initiatives.
“Right now, medical cannabis just happens to be the No. 1 priority through the legislative session and everywhere else throughout our organization at the moment. It dovetails neatly with all three of those [areas],” he said.
A hopeful future
Joshua and Julia said polarization is the worst thing ever happened to American politics.
Joshua said, “I have far more respect for either a red or a blue elected official or of any variety, if they are willing to step across the aisle and say, ‘I see your side of things, and I understand you have a valid viewpoint. We need to work together.’”
Julia said, “It’s much better to have bipartisan than just be one side or the other. You know, have both sides come to the middle and figure out what is the plan that we might not be both exactly perfectly happy about, but it’s going to work.”
Joshua said when things are not working right, the president shouldn’t take all the blame.
“The president is one man, and we elect a lot of other people to do the rest of the work, so why is everybody blaming one person when there’s a lot of people on both sides contributing to the fight?” he said.
He said the reason he voted for Trump worked and he looks forward to seeing the rest of his presidency sparking more change and conversation.
“It’s only been one year. There’s only been 25 percent of his presidency. There are plenty of presidents throughout history - even the last 30, 40 years - whose first year or first two years was shaky, and then their third or fourth year, they accomplish big things,” he said.
Editor's note: This story is part of a series, 360 Politics, profiling mid-Missourians of different backgrounds and political viewpoints.