August 16, 2006 - Some nights, as the security guard wanders the more dimly lit passages of La Encantada Shopping Center, she backs against a wall before rounding a corner.

For a brief moment, Jotrisha Cook acts as if back in Iraq, where she saw four months of combat in 2003 and 2004. Mental health professionals call such behavior - unprompted memories or thoughts of combat - "intrusive thoughts."

"I've pretty much convinced myself that (insurgents) aren't coming to get me," the 21-year-old joked recently.

But she still has the thought.

The Army taught her to drive with several meters distance between her vehicle and the one in front of her. That way, one bomb wouldn't destroy them both. Without knowing, she often does the same on Tucson's streets. She startles when an impatient driver zips in front of her.

Cook spoke of such memories - and her frustrations - recently at the VFW Post 10008, flanked by two Vietnam veterans, Jim Driscoll and Mike Brewer, with similar experiences. The older men have asked the young woman to find other Iraq-era veterans she can talk to, with the hopes that she might learn the lesson their war taught them: to heal while she still can, before those memories become locked away and dangerously inaccessible.

Driscoll has started a series of support groups throughout the country called Vets4Vets. But the Tucson resident has yet to find willing participants in Tucson, that is until he met Cook.

Now the 21-year-old veteran plans to scour the metro area looking for vets with their own stories to tell, those wrestling their own demons.

The thousands of troops who have returned from fighting in Iraq since 2003 constitute the largest group of veterans this country has produced since Vietnam. Cook's experiences upon returning home might well be shared by others in similar situations.

"You can't push it down and never have it come up," Driscoll said recently of the transition from combat. "Vets have to learn to help themselves."

After getting out of the Army last year, Cook wandered into a local VFW post. She didn't know why she was there or what she wanted.

As an 8-year-old kid, she remembered asking her mother - a Vietnam-era veteran - if they could attend a fish fry at one of the Tucson-area posts. Her mother always said no.

"I'm a veteran, but not of a foreign war," Cook recalled her mother saying.

She finally managed to attend a fish fry when she turned 20, but considered the experience a let down. She didn't know what to say to the veterans gathered there and vice-versa. She was the only 20-year-old in the room.

Some months later she wandered into Post 10008 and met its quartermaster, Mike Brewer. The two made an instant connection. Yet when Brewer told her of Vets4Vets, the young woman bristled.

Brewer wanted her to attend one of the group's "empowerment" workshops held last month in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"I was scared … I didn't like it," Cook said flatly as she lit a cigarette. She worried that she might feel out of place, or worse yet, have nothing to say.

Cook never used to consider herself a "cautious" person. But the Army trained her to never enter unknown situations alone, without a "battle buddy."

"There's this saying in the Army, that it's a 'crutch.'"

She wore a Wonder Woman T-Shirt and camouflage calf-length shorts on a recent Wednesday morning at VFW Post 10008, at 2444 N. Tucson Blvd. She wore her cap low. It cast shadows on her face in the dim light of the post's back room.

She hardly looked the part of a former soldier, let alone one who saw combat. Cook never shared her darkest memories of her time in Iraq. Her gaze grew distant at the thought of them.

She dropped out of high school, but managed to get a general equivalency diploma at age 16. Three days after her 17th birthday, on Jan. 3, 2002, she enlisted in the Army.

"I wanted to get out of Tucson," she said. "I really wanted to go to Afghanistan and kill terrorists."

She had no clue that she would end up in the featureless desert of western Iraq, "dealing with the kids who are hurt or so angry that they throw goat shit at you."

As she spoke, Driscoll and Brewer listened quietly. They appeared to understand her naivet�. Occasionally they nodded, as if they also understood parts of her story.

It may well have been part of theirs.

Driscoll has worked with a number of veterans groups and long has served as an advocate for their needs. He started the nonprofit Vets4Vets a little more than a year ago with the idea that in a confidential, unprofessional setting veterans might begin to make sense of their experiences.

"Sometimes you can only hear it from another veteran," said Larry Johnson, a readjustment counseling technician at the Tucson Vet Center.

An arm of the Veterans Administration, the Vet Center provides counseling to combat veterans from all of America's wars.

A veteran of Iraq himself, Johnson has spent the past several months meeting with returning troops, trying to urge them to seek help whenever they need it.

As if it learned a lesson from Vietnam, the Department of Defense mandated that its fighting branches work double-time to ferret out veterans experiencing trouble - mostly in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - after returning from combat.

The Army created a debriefing program called "Battlemind" to address the issue, and Johnson has traveled to bases and to National Guard, American Legion and VFW posts to deliver Powerpoint presentations on what veterans can expect to experience some three to six months after returning from combat.

"The idea is that (veterans) learn these different skills and strengths that serve them well in combat but can turn into liabilities at home," Johnson explained. "The idea is to get to them early before its turns into a vicious cycle."

The Vet Center treats Vietnam veterans who let war's psychological wounds fester for decades. Its counselors don't want veterans from the latest war suffering the same fates, Johnson said.

Since March 2003, an estimated 2,591 troops have died in Iraq - 80 percent of them in combat operations. Another 19,387 have been wounded in the fighting.

More than 430,000 troops have been discharged from the military following fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the VA. About 120,000 - less than 30 percent of them - have sought medical or mental health treatment.

"Some of them will never come in," the Vet Center's Johnson said.

At one of his recent "Battlemind" presentations, about 90 National Guardsmen were screened for Vet Center services. Twenty-eight of them made appointments to see a counselor.

When he mustered out of the Army in 2003, Johnson recalled that only a few of his fellow soldiers had a working definition of PTSD.

The psychiatric disorder can affect anyone who goes through a traumatic, life-threatening event. It's common in combat veterans as well as in victims of car accidents, violent crimes and sexual assault.

The disorder produces physical as well as mental symptoms that can lessen over time. But, in some, the symptoms worsen and start to affect personal lives and relationships.

When Jotrisha Cook returned from Iraq, she found that she'd hardly lived life. Though she saw combat, the then-20-year-old had never held a job, paid rent or even written a check. Yet she had a 1-year-old son to raise.

She didn't want to leave the Army, but at 115 pounds, she didn't make the re-enlistment cut. The girl didn't eat while in Iraq.

Ironically, shortly after she mustered out of the 1st Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, the Army did away with its minimum weight requirement for enlistment. It also has since raised its minimum enlistment age to 42.

She had seen untold, awful things in Iraq. One night a rocket-propelled grenade landed a few feet from her, but didn't detonate. There were other close calls to be sure, but she didn't want to talk about them with a reporter.

An estimated 94 percent of the troops in Iraq have received small-arms fire, according to the VA's National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. An estimated 86 percent of the forces in Iraq know someone who has been seriously injured or killed. More than three-quarters of the troops have shot at their enemies, and an estimated 28 percent had shot at non-combatants.

The VA also has tracked troops' behavior since many have returned home. Statistics show that:

� In 2005, some 20 percent of Iraq War veterans have suffered psychological disorders.

� Alcohol use among soldiers rose from 13 percent to 21 percent a year after they returned home.

� In November 2005, nearly 15 percent of veterans ages 20 to 24 remained unemployed - three times the national average.

� Since March 2003, at least 20 soldiers and 23 Marines have committed suicide since coming home, though no precise figures exist.

� Calls to the Miles Foundation Domestic Hotline for Military Spouses increased from 50 to 500 per month since the start of the Iraq War.

One night, months after she'd returned, Cook woke up in a panic reaching for her gas mask. Today she knows she had a flashback - a temporary break with reality. By her count, she's had only one other flashback.

But, much more common, she's had "intrusive thoughts."

It took Mike Brewer two decades to seek treatment for the lingering effects of his service in Vietnam. He nodded knowingly as Cook shared her experiences at the VFW post.

Brewer has seen Cook change in recent months. "She was in a shell three months ago," he said looking at her.

"I was really angry five months ago," Cook added.

"You can't compare scars," Driscoll added. "But, qualitatively, just getting vets to meet with one another … is a success."

Her old friends couldn't relate to her anymore - or she couldn't relate to them. How could they possibly understand what she went through?

Vets4Vets aims to connect with veterans on a level that most cannot. It operates under the assumptions that war and military service damages veterans and that that damage can be healed over time.

"What we're hoping is that Jotrisha can find others like her to talk to," Driscoll said. "Gradually they can open up and establish relationships they keep afterwards."

Cook will hold open Vets4Vets meeting at VFW Post 10008 every Thursday at 6:30 p.m., hoping that other Iraq veterans might show up. She gets excited when she talks about the thought of others like her gathering at the old post.

On a recent Wednesday morning, she took her nearly 3-year-old son, Christian, to Fourth Avenue for a walk.

"He loves this place," the young mother said. She referred to the tyke as her "little soldier."

It was her pregnancy that bought her an early ticket home from Iraq the first time. She hated leaving him when she went back.

Walking the sidewalks of Fourth Avenue, Cook recalled some fonder memories of her time in Iraq.

She often managed to buy American Malboro cigarettes from an Iraqi carpet vendor. He called her "the beautiful American."

She remembered playing pranks on her fellow soldiers during their down time.

"Your family shrinks when you get out," Cook said.

It's just her and her son now most days. He's her only constant.

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