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Veteran: Two tours and PTSD not holding Hunter back

The youngish-looking man serving beer and burgers to the elder ex-soldiers and sailors who congregate at the local VFW post may actually have more combat experience than many of them.

This is not exactly what James Hunter signed up for, but he says he’s glad that he did. And he’s willing to talk about it—even about the mental health challenges that followed his two tours in the American invasion of Iraq.

“It’s not really the typical recruiting story,” says Hunter, 39. “I signed the dotted line five months before 9/11.”

Hunter says he expected that becoming a reservist in the U.S. Marines would help pay for his studies at Old Dominion University. Two weeks into his freshman year in 2001, however, two hijacked jets slammed into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon. Even after 9/11, Hunter says that thoughts of getting called out of college and into active duty were far from his mind.

The son of an Army officer at the Charlottesville military facility now called the National Ground Intelligence Center, he’s a lifelong local who graduated from Albemarle High School and dreamed of a civil engineering degree. But after the end of his spring semester at ODU, he was sent off to Marine boot camp, combat training and technical school. “When you put your name to something, you uphold it,” says Hunter.

“Get ready for the sandbox”

That commitment would be tested in December 2002, when he was hanging out at his rented house in Norfolk. The phone rang with a call from his unit’s gunnery sergeant.

“He said, ‘Hey, get ready for the sandbox.’”

Hunter was in the sands of Kuwait in February and poised to invade Iraq after that nation’s then-leader, Saddam Hussein, had been accused—falsely, as it later turned out—of amassing weapons of mass destruction.

At the age of 19, Hunter found himself crossing over the “berm,” the border between Kuwait and Iraq. His role was driving an Assault Amphibious Vehicle, a larger and heavier successor to the so-called Duck boats of World War II. 12 feet tall and 27 feet long, an AAV can carry 25 Marines, and it tips the scales at 32 tons.

“It floats like a boat and tracks like a tank,” says Hunter, an unabashed fan of the vehicle.

To cross the desert to take part in the Battle of Nasiriyah, Hunter says he drove his AAV through the night. About a week later, in early April 2003, the amphibious ability of Hunter’s AAV was put to a test. Iraqi military planners had destroyed bridges to block the American invaders, so Hunter captained his AAV into the waters of the Diyala River and cranked up the propeller.

The captain of this ship that landed in Baghdad was neither an old salt nor an old man.

“I had my 20th birthday in Baghdad,” notes Hunter.

From surviving to struggling

After that tour of duty, Hunter remained on active duty and served another tour in 2005. That later combat experience included Operation Matador, a sweep against insurgents in Iraq’s northwestern Anbar province, and Operation Spear, which intercepted Syrian fighters crossing the border into Iraq.

Hunter and his AV-mates survived those operations, but he says that one man from his Norfolk unit was killed by a roadside bomb. Three stateside suicides of veteran friends have been, he says, even tougher to handle.

“You start questioning things,” says Hunter.

He says he sometimes finds himself consumed by survivor’s guilt, and he admits to a past filled with “drinking, smoking, fighting, and anger.” In hope of leading others to treatment, he makes no secret of the counseling that he gets from COVER, Community Outreach to Vietnam Era Returnees, a Charlottesville-based agency that treats veterans with military trauma.

“He, like many others, really struggled in the beginning,” says COVER’s director, Mary James. “But over time and a lot of work he was really able to manage and engage with people— just great social skills and great relationships.”

One person with a particularly close relationship to Hunter is Mercer Reeves, his longtime companion. She’s seen some struggles.

“Charlottesville is a hard place to live as a military person his age because there are not that many people who have been a combat veteran like he has,” says Reeves.

Working on her own master’s degree in counseling, Reeves says that a key component of her training deals with the plights of veterans.

“The thing that’s different about James is his ability to say ‘It was hard, I suffered, and I need help,’” she says.

Reeves observes that Hunter has little patience for people who complain about life’s little peeves, like getting a colder-than-expected cup of coffee. They both recall days when Hunter’s crew found its meals rationed because the AAV had outrun its supply lines and how the crew sometimes had to burn its own excrement.

War stories, however, are sometimes no match for PTSD stories.

“His friends will quietly crowd around him when he talks about the counselor that he sees, and the fact that he has these things that he suffers from,” says Reeves. “And it is not something that he’s ashamed of.”

Hunter says he left the Marines in 2008 and found himself adrift. A love of walking the Rivanna Trail kept bringing him past the property of Post 1827 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, located on River Road near Free Bridge. Nationally, the organization has seen its membership fall by half in the past 30 years, due to the aging of the voluminous WWII and Korean generations and also as deployment into hostile zones—a prerequisite for membership—has fallen. Hunter joined.

“I’m one of the younger ones,” he says matter-of-factly.

While he never returned to ODU, Hunter earned a business degree from Piedmont Virginia Community College in 2020. And that helped him become the Post’s quartermaster, the person in charge of the supplies.

Taking a break from his duties on a recent morning, he says he never expected this path but relishes his job with the VFW as well as the ongoing counseling he receives.

“There’s a lot of things in my head that keep me a little depressed,” says Hunter, pausing briefly. “But still staying strong.”


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