THE NO SYNDROME | The tragic story of "the man who does not exist"

DISCLAIMER: This is the English translation of a story originally published by the author in Gandul.info, on November 11, 2013. The original story can be found HERE. The video documentary for ‘The man who does not exist can be found HERE (Romanian only)

Despite the Army claiming that there are no such cases, Florin Jalaboi has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and medically discharged immediately thereafter. After three suicide attempts, he is telling his story, as a reaction to Gândul’s „THE NO SYNDROME” investigation (documentary below, followed by the story of Florin Jalaboi).

– The suicidal thoughts started in December and are still here (…) I was carrying my weapon and constantly having these thoughts: I would see myself with my gun in my mouth, with… 

– How many suicide attempts have there been? 

– Three attempts. The last one, two-three weeks ago. 

– The day we were supposed to have our first interview (…) Why these attempts, why these thoughts? 

The discussion ends here. He starts crying while unsuccessfully trying to get a hold of himself. Every now and then, he puts a thumb in his mouth and clenches it with his teeth, to calm himself. He takes a handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his nose. I leave him with his thoughts. 

In the meantine, pay attention to the image below: does it look like this man doesn’t exist? 

Impact of the investigation

In the years following ‘The NO Syndrome” and “The man who does not exist”, the Romanian Army slowly ceased to be the only force among NATO members absurdly claiming to have no PTSD among its troops. The Ministry of Defense started releasing numbers (unrealistically small, but it was a start) of diagnoses.

In early 2018, the Ministry of Defense announced the creation of a new psychology unit, with an overhaul of the PTSD care as its main goal. The Denfense Minister of that time met with his Canadian counterpart and asked for his country’s help in improving our PTSD policies.

‘The invisible’ wounds, those pertaining to the mental health of the soldiers are now on par with the physical ones as cause for special financial allocations.

One of the veterans I interviewed years ago has started an NGO for veterans and is doing fantastic work, even building a center which will also give soldiers access to therapy outside of the system.

Today, gândul.info brings you the story of a man who, if you were to believe the Army’s rhetoric, does not exist. A Romanian soldier diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by the Army experts themselves at just about the same time we were being told by military officials that no such diagnoses ever existed in Romania. He is a soldier who no longer is a soldier, because as soon as he was diagnosed with PTSD, he was quickly removed from the system. Jalaboi was medically discharged on a non-professionally related reason, because, in the eyes of the retirement commission, PTSD after a tour in Afghanistan has nothing to do with the profession of being a soldier. This man who is invisible in front of the Army’s statistics found himself, a year after returning from his mission, with a 571 lei pension ($150), kicked out of the system in which he spent 20 years of his life.

The day of our first interview, Florin Jalaboi tried to commit suicide. It was his third attempt. After a day of no word from him, I received a call: „I was at the hospital, I’ve been having some problems again and I couldn’t call”. I asked him if he was alright. „Better now”, he replied. I let the discussion end there for a few weeks.

“The man who does not exist” reacts to „The No Syndrome”

Florin Jalaboi used to work at the 01564 Unit in Iași – „The Black Wolves”. When gândul published „The NO Syndrome” project, about the denial which defines the way the Army deals with PTSD, he still hadn’t received his first pension. He had been at home for three months by then – waiting. This was at the beginning of September. Then, he reached out to me and this was the first sign I received from the man who does not exist. The real man behind the „zero cases”.  

„I saw that chief psychologist whom you interviewed  (col. Adrian Prisăcaru) how serenely he was claiming that there are no soldiers with PTSD in Romania. The same with psychologist Macarenco”, the man says. When I ask why he thinks the officials pretend soldiers like him do not exist in our country, he shrugs.

After several phone conversations, I reached, at the beginning of October, the house of reservist Florin Jalaboi, in the village of Poiana Mărului, Cepleniţa, Iaşi county. He was sitting there, at the gate, waiting. Inside, his wife was baking something for us, the guests. She took out a pretty box with some coffee cups, put them all on a silver platter, along with the still hot desert.

The first thing that strikes one at Florin Jalaboi and for which a full year of investigation on PTSD still leaves you unprepared is the profound sadness that comes out of every pore in his body. You stand there facing him and he remains quiet, gently playing with his fingers. He resigns himself to telling you whatever you ask him, giving you short, whispered, hopeless answers.

„In January, I voluntarily committed myself to the Military Hospital and there it was that I was diagnosed”

Infantry sergeant Jalaboi served in Afghanistan between September 2011 and March 2012, in a small unsecured base in the Shamulzai district, Zabul province (South-east). Before this mission, he also served in Bosnia, in 1996.

Three days before leaving for Afghanistan, he got married for the second time. He says it just happened this way. With the money he received for his mission, he and his wife build a large, two-story home, which still remains under construction, because of „the problems”.  

„After I returned from Afghanistan, last March, I had the usual recovery and then I returned to work, having been assigned to guard a storage center in Iași. I worked there until December 2012, I would do even 240 hours a month. I was security commander, 24 hours straight. In December, perhaps because of my being tired all the time or because of the problems I had had in Afghanistan, I tried to commit suicide”, he starts reminiscing. After a brief break, he goes on:

„In January, I voluntarily committed myself to the Military Hospital for the first time and there it was that I was diagnosed with acute depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and some other things, I don’t remember the names. They even found something at my heart. Since that moment, in January, I had three other consecutive hospitalizations at the Military Hospital. They changed my treatment two-three times, after which they sent me to Socola Psychiatric Hospital. I spent 19 days there, they changed my treatment and then I returned to the Military Hospital. The evaluation commission decided to medically discharge me. That was around May. From that moment and until June 12, I was on medical leave. On June 12, they made me a reservist”.

That was it. Since that June day, he sits and ponders. He reflects on what happened, what might happen in the future to make his life even worse, what the reasons for all this might be.  

The first suicide attempt: “Not even now did I get rid of the suicidal thoughts”

He tells me about his dark thoughts and he describes them as if they were a name for all the bad things in his life. „The suicidal thoughts started in December and I think they are still here. As a matter of fact, I have been having them for a longer time, since August-September, but it was only in December that, when I went to the warehouse, I was carrying my weapon and would have these thoughts: I would see myself with my gun in my mouth.

For a time, only the ambulance and his family found out about his first attempt. His wife and mother-in-law were the ones who found him. „After I regained consciousness, they wanted to take me to the hospital, but I said no because of work, I was afraid this would cause me problems, if anyone heard of it”. In the end, he did go to the hospital, at his family’s pleading. 

 

“‘You have PTSD’, the psychiatrist told me. She said it was the illness of those who return from theatre” 

„The psychiatrist at the Military Hospital diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. As soon as I stepped into her office and started talking, she said ‘you have post-traumatic stress disorder’. She contacted the head of the department, I was given treatment, had my treatment changed two-three times”.

I ask him if he knew what this diagnostic meant. „I didn’t know anything”. Contrary to the official discourse on how these soldiers are trainedbefore international tours and how they take part in basic classes on military psychology, this sergeant knew nothing. „The psychiatrist told me this is the illness of those who return from theatre”, he explains.

Only now did his unit find out about his problems. „After I was hospitalized for the first time at the Military Hospital, I brought my hospital discharge and medical leave papers  to my unit, and the personnel chief  took me aside – he didn’t trust the doctors, he called the unit psychologist to double-check them.I spoke with the unit psychologist and, I don’t know, no one has said anything since then. I got some advise from the psychologist and that was the only time I saw her. She wasn’t even from our unit, because ours was training for a mission in Afghanistan”, the man recounts.

„We learned the questions by heart, meaning we knew how to lie… And we passed the psychological test”

I try to understand how it got to this point, what happened. He tells me the first problems occurred during the mission in Afghanistan, when he suffered from insomnia, headaches and eye pain. Before Christmas, in 2012, he was sent to an American hospital in Kandahar. „They didn’t find anything wrong with me, they said it was because of the lack of sleep, so they gave me 30 sleeping pills”.

On his return from theatre, he underwent, like all soldiers do, his post-mission evaluation. „I wasn’t told the outcome of the evaluation but since I remained in the Army, it means that I passed”, the man explains, adding: „But, how do I put this, the thing about these psychological exams given by the Army, even before the missions – I took the psychological exam at the Army HQ in Bucharest. The reaction of the colonel who did my screening was: ‘You can tell you’ve been in the Army a long time. You know the answers by heart’. And the truth is we do. It’s a series of personality questions which have been the same from 1994 until now… I don’t know if, were they to answer correctly, anyone would still pass the test. And we learned the questions by heart, meaning we knew how to lie. And so we all pass the psychological evaluations”.

Yet again, the perfect and infallible system the Army prides itself on falters.

„I’d leave home for a week, I’d start drinking”. December: the first suicide attempt”

In many cases, the symptoms of PTSD don’t appear immediately after a traumatic event, but can occur many months later, even years. The later they appear, the more a trigger is needed to bring out all those feelings and suppressed emotions. In Florin Jalaboi’s case, the symptoms started appearing almost half a year after his return from Afghanistan.

In the summer of 2012, he says his behavior started changing: „I started drinking. I didn’t use to drink, for seven years I hadn’t had any alcohol – until Afghanistan. There I started drinking. I can’t figure out why. We were somewhat isolated, there were 15 Romanians in a base, with 50-100 Afghan soldiers. We were working alongside them. We made the alcohol, in makeshift installations, because you couldn’t bring it from other places”.

He says he can’t figure out why he started drinking. What he doesn’t know is that addiction – alcohol, pills, drugs – is among the most common consequence of the surfacing of PTSD symptoms. The drinking, though, was the first sign that something changed within him.

Then, the situation worsened: „Since December, after the first suicide attempt, I started leaving home. I’d just leave, every month, every two months, I’d leave home for a week, I’d start drinking, even smoking – even though I hadn’t touched a cigarette since 2008. I’d go to Iasi, to friends”.

„I even saw a priest”

The second suicide attempt took place after he was diagnosed, in January. He stopped the treatment, because, he says, he wasn’t feeling well, he couldn’t do anything because of the medication, he was always drowsy. „After two weeks, I had another outing. I left home again, I caused only trouble for my wife and then I was hospitalized at the Saint Spiridon Hospital in Iasi. Overdose of…(edited by gândul)”.

Now he says he’s taking the treatment, but he’s still drowsy from the medication. It’s difficult, because they have a farm, animals, land and there’s a lot of work to be done, and he’s constantly feeling tired. „I was sick when I stopped taking the pills. I was sick for about a week. I left home again. After that, I came back home, I was feeling better and Ithought I could heal without medication. I even saw a priest. Exactly after two months – again: at the slightest sign of distress…”. And he falls silent. 

„My wife is at the end of her rope too. She thought she found happiness with me

Now, he says his wife doesn’t let him go anywhere by himself. She’s afraid he’ll disappear for days again. „She’s at the end of her rope too because of this. She thought she found happiness with me, but it seems I just bring her trouble. From the beginning of the year, nine months, she has also lived nine nightmarish months”.

On the other hand, she tells us of his episodes with a smile on her face. One can still see the surprise in the way she talks about the man who, sometimes, is her husband. Far from being the man she knew, sometimes he becomes violent, „you can’t reason with him”, she explains. There are also the bouts of crying.

I ask Florin Jalaboi how many attempts there were in total. „Three”, he says. „The last one two-three weeks ago”. December, January, September, that is.

He tears up, becomes agitated. The last time he tried to take his own life was on the day we were supposed to have our first interview. He wasn’t answering his phone, he had it turned off. The next day, we were speaking on the phone and he was saying he had some problems again and was taken to the hospital in Iasi and couldn’t call me.

Why this new attempt, why is he still haunted by these dark thoughts?, I ask. The discussion ends here. He starts crying while unsuccessfully trying to get a hold of himself. Every now and then, he puts a thumb in his mouth and clenches it with his teeth, to calm himself. He takes a handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his nose. I leave him with his thoughts. 

Haunted by the ghost of an ‘Emperor’

A while later we continue our discussion, but change the subject, to let him become more comfortable with my presence. I ask him about his time in Afghanistan, his daily routine. He says he was part of a team that mentored and acted as liaison between the Afghan army and NATO structures. They trained Afghan soldiers and went on missions with them. After being trained by different structures beforehand, they arrived there to complete their training. It’s what we hear in political discourse as preparation for the transfer of power in view of the post-2014 withdrawal. „We were divided in two teams – half was on cleaning duty and the other team went on patrol missions, with Afghan soldiers. Besides this, I was also base administrator and base electrician.”

He went on patrol and also had these additional tasks. He has nothing good to say about the base and neither about his Afghan colleagues. He shows me pictures and I can see that the base is protected by a roll of barbed wire and a makeshift bunker in case of attack. „There was only a clay wall between us and the village bazaar, which was full of Afghans. After several inspections, from what I heard, it was the worst secured of all the NATO bases – 80 or so in total –in Afghanistan. We were the most vulnerable. We had some wire as a fence. The base was secured by Afghan soldiers – we carried out some security checks on them at night, we always found them sleeping”.

 „I heard that three months after we left they disbanded the base”, he adds. He has many pictures from Afghanistan, taken mostly by an American photographer embedded with the troops.

At one point I see a gorgeous dog, among the soldiers. Very similar to our Romanian shepherds. In a different photo the dog has puppies. „The Afghans shot her”, he says and moves on to the next photo. I ask why and he says that the animal wouldn’t let the Afghans get close to the Allied soldiers tent at night, so they got angry and shot her.

 

“There’s no telling what could have happened”

He shows me another photo. „It’s The Emperor”. That’s what he calls the base commander. Usually, experts will tell you that PTSD at a soldier occurs after experiencing a deep trauma, in a situation of extreme fear, a life and death situation, for you, or for someone close – a colleague, for example. After listening to Florin Jalaboi’s story twice, you realize he’s not part of this category, but of that of soldiers, of people who developed this disorder after they felt humiliated for a long period of time. He talks a lot about this „Emperor” who haunts him, how many problems they had, how he felt humiliated, how he was in situations where he “doesn’t know what he could’ve done”. „Probably if I had not been held back by colleagues… There’s no telling what could have happened”.

„I brought this up when my retirement order came, I told our personnel chief, including our unit commander – the unit commander was also my team leader there, only he was 20 kilometers away, in a different base, he came by to check on us 3-4 hours in six months. I told him and he said it was my mistake not telling him then, because he would have extracted me from the base. I had a colleague who also had problems, and he got extracted and moved to a different base, and I hear that because of the same thing”, the man recounts. There wasn’t even a question of a psychologist. They had one doctor and he was the one-man-band.

“I didn’t know they were having me retire”

What seems to be the origin of his disorder is not a tale of heroism, as we could have expected it to be. It is simply a human story, the story of a man in uniform, not even close to the iron-man the Army prides itself with, a man who wasn’t given the help he needed in time. Instead of all the resources of this institution, that prides itself so much with caring for comrades-in-arms, be focused on granting him professional help, they immediately removed him from the system.

Not even when he went to get retired did they tell him where they sent him. „I found out after the hospitalization at the Socola Psychiatric Hospital, my forth hospitalization, after the one at the Military Hospital in Iasi, I was sent to the commission and there they decided to retire me. Then I had another one of these shocks. I couldn’t believe that after so much time spent in that unit, I got retired at 41”. In discussions with me and with his wife, he tries to make light of the situation, referring to himself as “the retiree”.

He didn’t know he was going to be retired, but if he had, would he have opposed it? He says no. „I became afraid of entering the unit. I don’t know why. As I’d arrive in front of the gate, I’d feel fear of entering, fear, shame.I was afraid of my superiors, of everyone who was above me in rank. I was simply afraid of them, I was ashamed, I didn’t want to face them. Of my subordinates, of those below me in rank I was ashamed. I don’t know, maybe because of the hospitalizations”. At this point everyone knew about his hospital stays.

 

“Ordinary disease”

In the medical file of his retirement dossier, under the medical history chapter, it says: „Participant in international missions in Bosnia, from October 1996 to May 1997, and then Afghanistan, from September 2011 to March 2012. After the last mission, a depressive psychic phenomenology starts occurring, for which he was admitted to the Military Hospital in Iasi, where he was diagnosed with severe depression and PTSD, for which treatment was started (see medical file)…”.

On a simple reading of the medical file, the causality between his mission and PTSD seems obvious. Still, on the second page, after the entire history and naming of the diagnostics, under “Casual connection/Cause of disability”, it says: „Ordinary disease, in accordance with article 68, paragraph 1, letter c of Law 263/2010”.

The law mentioned is the Pension Act, and art. 68 refers to the disability pension. But if you read this entire law, you will notice that, in the case of physical illness, it is very easy to establish and legally argue the cause-and-effect relationship, and whether it is an occupational disease or not.  In the case of any mental illness, there is no guide other than how to give a diagnosis. The rest is up to the expert committee. In Florin Jalaboi’s case, the committee decided that PTSD after a combat mission has nothing to do with the mission.

 

The impossible pension

Seen from the outside, the label doesn’t seem to matter that much. But viewed from inside the Jalaboi family, it does. It matters, primarily, from a financial standpoint. „Had it been an occupational disease, I would have received severance payments and there would have been more benefits for an occupational disease than for an ordinary one.” He thus receives a pension of only 571 lei (a little over 150 dollars), an amount he cannot explain. „I can’t figure it out. I appealed the retirement decision, I have 28 years of contributions to my pension in total. I can’t figure out how it was calculated”, he says.

Even this pension is not a sure thing. „In a year, I’ll have to see the expert committee again. If they find me healthy, whatever that means, I will lose this pension and end up on the streets, with no income (…).  It would be easier if I could be be sure of this income, to be able to raise my children and to be free of these problems, these thoughts I have in my head”. 

The Jalaboi family has three children, two girls and a boy, all of them among the first in their class, the proud father tells us. „I have an 11 years old girl – Carmen, she goes to school here, in our village. She just started fifth grade. She’s a beauty, I don’t know if you’ve seen her. Alexandra is 12 years old, she’s in the seventh grade at the Hârlău Elementary School. Beautiful, like her sister. All the children are among the first in their class, with grades from 9 upwards. And my boy who is 16, a student at the Theological Seminary in Iasi, in his second year”.

They all live off his pension. His wife cannot commute, to find a job in Hârlău or Iasi (there are no jobs closer to home). She’s afraid of leaving him by himself. She, along with her mother, act as clerks at the store they own in the village, but money is scarce. The entire profit for last year was 200 lei. People don’t have money to spend, it’s a poor village and there are also too many stores. They have some land, a vineyard, but this spring a hail destroyed everything. So they didn’t manage to gain much on this side either. The village was declared a natural disaster area. “As luck would have it”, the Jalabois say and serve us a delicious wine, made from the only grapes they gathered this year.

 

When a physical injury can become a blessing for a soldier

Beyond the financial implications, the label of ordinary disease shows yet again the attempt to absolve the system of any blame. The Army’s system of training, assistance and psychological evaluation has never caused such „occupational diseases”.

According to American experts interviewed by gândul starting from Florin Jalaboi’s case, in the US army, diagnosed soldiers are rarely retired, and most of the time remain as active-duty officers, precisely because it is understood that this disorder is treatable. In cases where the disorder is severe, the soldier is no longer active, but he is given a different job (the system is being reviewed in the US as well), as it often happens (in Romania as well) with those who have suffered serious physical injuries.

 On the other hand, the US army has, according to a reference RAND Corporation study from 2008up to 20% of cases of PTSD among soldiers (1.64 million at the time of the study) who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of September 2013, over 30.000 Romanian troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, Romania claims the ‘perfect score’ of zero PTSD cases, and Florin Jalaboi doesn’t exist yet in our statistics, so there was nothing left to do but push this soldier aside, him and his ordinary disease.

As of this translation’s publishing date, Romania is no longer the only NATO country with no reported PTSD cases. Since this story and the investigation that preceded it, the Romanian Army has slowly started to release such statistics.

‘The NO Syndrome’ investigation is archived HERE

All pictures are property of Gandul.info

 

The story of ‘the man who does not exist’ (Romanian)