FRANKLIN, Ind. -
The sight of an old van parked on the street sent the soldier's mind back to Iraq.
Tyler Armacost darted off the front porch of his parents' house and into the street because he thought he saw an Iraqi insurgent in the van. His mother tried to shake him and tell him no one was there, but he looked right through her as if she weren't there.
Scott and Karen Armacost searched for their son after he ran off into their Franklin neighborhood but couldn't find him. Later that night, they found him curled up in a ball and sleeping behind the shed in their backyard.
The memory brings Karen Armacost to tears. She knew he was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder following the war but never saw him behave that way before, she told the Daily Journal.
After serving 16 months in Iraq, killing insurgents and seeing fellow soldiers die, the high school athlete who wasn't afraid to hug his parents and tell them he loved them was gone. When he came home from war, he had a hard time even looking them in the eye.
Tyler Armacost wouldn't sit with his back to a door, always on the watch for the enemy. Some nights he would wake his parents after having graphic nightmares. The medications for his back and knees, which he injured in combat, and the anxiety and fear he felt every day sometimes made him groggy and sluggish.
And when Tyler Armacost was killed in a car accident in March, his parents know that the stress of his military past and the medication he was taking to help him try to cope likely were factors in the fatal wreck.
The hardest part about losing their son at age 27 was that he seemed like he was finally starting to recover, Scott Armacost said. After more than four years of dealing with memories of war, financial hardship at home and struggling to readjust, the Tyler Armacost from before was re-emerging.
"We had lost him, and he was coming back. And that's what hurts the most," Scott Armacost said.
When Tyler Armacost graduated from Edinburgh Community High School in 2004, he told his parents he wanted to enlist in the U.S. Army.
The notion came as a shock. Scott Armacost, a professor at Franklin College, assumed his son would be headed to college.
"He just wanted to protect everybody and felt that was his best way. Of course, our first thoughts were he was going to be in a line of duty or line of fire," Scott Armacost said.
Karen Armacost's cousin was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Scott's father served in the Korean War. To Tyler Armacost, both of those were a call to arms as if the family had a long and proud military history, Scott Armacost said.
His parents tried to talk him out of joining the military. But by May 2005, Tyler Armacost felt he had to do something to protect his family and his country. He signed the enlistment papers with the U.S. Army without telling his parents and broke the news to them that he was heading to basic training.
By July 2006, he was being deployed to Iraq as part of the 82nd Airborne Division to jump out of airplanes and helicopters and fight insurgents.
Scott and Karen Armacost stayed glued to CNN to watch every update about the fighting in Iraq, wondering if their son was safe. He sent letters home often, but within the first year they could see his personality changing.
"I could tell he was getting more militarized and less family, less sweet, less compassionate. The letters got more straightforward. There was still `love' and `miss you' and everything else, but they were more matter-of-fact and, `Here's what we're doing,"' Scott Armacost said.
Tyler Armacost was able to fly home at the end of his first tour of duty in Iraq in December 2006 for what was supposed to be a six-month break. He was with his parents for a day before getting a phone call that he was being sent back to Iraq in 48 hours.
He fought a second tour in Iraq from January to November 2007 before returning to the U.S. He was discharged and came home to Franklin in September 2008.
"When he got home it was dead-evident. When he was home, he couldn't face you in the eye and couldn't hug you and couldn't say `I love you,"' Scott Armacost said.
Thirteen of his fellow soldiers were killed over the 16 months in action.
Tyler Armacost couldn't deal with the guilt that he lived and came home, when they didn't, his father said.
At 19, Tyler Armacost watched a friend sacrifice his life to save his own. He was the first of the 13 to lose his life in combat.
Armacost's unit was fighting insurgents south of Baghdad when the enemy got around to their side of their position to get a clear shot at him and another soldier. His friend in the unit, T.J. Barbieri, saw the Iraqis pop up and moved to cover the other soldiers.
Barbieri was shot several times and killed. It was
then that the war became real for Tyler, his mother said.
"He always said, `Mom, I was 19 and I started getting shot at. So I could either lay down and act like a sissy or I could stand up and fight back.' And that's when he said he really became a man," Karen Armacost said.
By the time he came home, his doctors said the bones in his back were grinding against each other and in the condition of a 70-year-old man, his mother said. He injured the ligaments in both his knees from the strain of jumping out of helicopters and carrying heavy gear and pushing his body too far to qualify to become a part of the Army's Special Forces.
Tyler Armacost killed seven insurgents while serving in Iraq, his father said. He jumped from airplanes and helicopters, fired shots and was fired upon frequently. He took part in interrogations of enemy soldiers, which he refused to talk about with his parents.
The deaths, the combat with enemy fighters and the interrogations he described as gruesome caused him to have post-traumatic stress, his doctors told his parents. He wasn't able to come to terms with the things he had done, Scott Armacost said.
"One of the worst things that I think hurt him the most was the way he was brought up morally and ethically and what he had to do in the war to survive and to interrogate his enemies," Scott Armacost said. "I think that was too much of a nightmare for him."
When he returned to Franklin, Tyler Armacost struggled to adjust back to civilian life, but financial and personal stress and physical pain only added to the trauma from war.
He started attending Franklin College but had a hard time focusing in class. He told his dad he understood how the students could be so wide-eyed and carefree but seeing it every day bothered him.
"It was hard for him to just relate and understand why the students just thought everything was OK and hunky-dory and there's no problems in the world to them," Scott Armacost said.
Tyler Armacost got a job at a warehouse in Indianapolis, but the heavy lifting and moving added to his back and knee pain. He worked as a recruiter for the Indiana National Guard for a short time, but his nightmares and anxiety became worse and he had to quit, his mother said.
He couldn't work and wound up in debt. What little money he had coming in went toward bills, which were growing faster than he could pay. While in Iraq, he wrote home often about getting a new pickup truck. But when he came home, he could never afford it. He was in debt $12,000 but refused to file bankruptcy, which ate at him every day, his father said.
He began applying for disability benefits about two and a half years after he returned home. But he hadn't gotten approval for the benefits by the time he died in the car accident this year.
"That wasn't an Armacost thing not to pay your bills. He was embarrassed that he owed that much money," his father said.
And he was taking eight different pills each day, including strong painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone and anti-anxiety pills such as Xanax. If he could take up to three pills for his back pain, he was taking the maximum most days, Scott Armacost said. Some days the medicines put Tyler Armacost in such a haze it was like they completely erased his personality, Scott Armacost said.
"They just start throwing all the meds at you. Let's just give you medicine for this and medicine for that and they just become zombies," he said.
Tyler Armacost and his girlfriend -- his parents call her his soul mate -- broke off an engagement and separated.
"He thought that God was punishing him for what he did in the war," his father said.
The pain from his back and knees, the memories of war, the medication, the money problems and his relationship struggles were all adding up and breaking him down every day, Scott Armacost said.
But during the last six months, his parents were starting to see a change. Tyler Armacost devoted himself to movies and TV, and the escape from the real world was helping him improve.
He would spend several hours each day in front of the TV. Occasionally he would watch shows about the military but preferred films with emotions and strong bonds between people, movies like "Harry Potter" or "Twilight." His father thinks seeing the conflicts the characters went through and overcame was helping Tyler get perspective on his own life.
"I really started to think that he put everybody that he knew into a character in a movie or of a show or a series and that was them. That was his world, he was starting to go into a world where he could write the scripts," his father said.
Scott Armacost decided he needed to devote more of his time to helping his son. He made plans to retire from Franklin College at the end of this year and would spend the time he wasn't working in the living room, watching TV with Tyler.
The movies, the time father and son spent together and the time that had passed since the war were making a difference, Scott Armacost said.
"Every time I left, he would grab
my hand and say `Bye Dad. Love you Dad.' Then he started hugging me when I'd see him at night, things were starting to change. And he goes `I understand now. I did a lot in the war, but I do need to go and try to get these things fixed,"' he said.
Scott and Tyler Armacost were planning a trip to California this summer to a clinic specializing in helping patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. And the two were making progress gathering the necessary medical records and filing the right forms for Tyler's disability claim.
In March, Tyler decided to take a trip to visit friends in North Carolina and clear his head, Karen Armacost said. He told his parents he would be gone for a few weeks but called and said he was coming back after two days because he was homesick, his mother said. He told his father to have two movies ready when he got back.
Tyler never made it home.
On March 25, his sport utility vehicle crossed into oncoming traffic on Interstate 75 near the Kentucky-Tennessee border. His vehicle was hit by two semitrailer trucks, he was thrown out of the vehicle and killed.
Snow was falling on the highway when the accident happened. His parents think he may have taken his prescribed painkillers or anti-anxiety medication while driving but haven't received test results from the autopsy. He was probably tired, since he was used to running on little sleep from his days in the Army. Maybe he was texting or otherwise not paying attention, they said, but they don't know for sure.
Tyler Armacost was a few weeks away from getting approval for his disability benefits, which would have helped him pay his bills, Scott Armacost said. His personality was returning. He was planning to have surgeries on his back and knees to try to relieve his pain.
Losing Tyler when his life looked like it was improving rapidly made it even harder, Scott Armacost said. They had become best friends over the last six months.
After years of feeling powerless to help his son live with post-traumatic stress disorder, Scott Armacost wants to now find ways to help other veterans returning from war. He'd like to get involved with the Wounded Warriors project or find ways to get involved with groups that help with post-traumatic stress disorder. He'd also like to research ways to help veterans apply for benefits, since he and his son were having a difficult time finding the right records and filling out the right paperwork.
Tyler Armacost wasn't the first to struggle so badly after coming home from war and won't be the last. But his family hopes they can save another family the pain and helplessness they felt.
"We realize there are another 150,000 Tylers out there," Scott Armacost said.