His body and mind still recoil when he thinks too much about what happened Feb. 27, 1991.
Tsangarakis, 42, has been in therapy the past three years for post-traumatic stress disorder. He sees a psychologist once a week. She had urged him to oblige a reporter who wanted to revisit events from that morning.
Tsangarakis sat down with The Buffalo News one evening in late May. He grilled T-bone steaks in the backyard of his home in the Tampa area and spoke for a few more hours at a nearby cigar bar. He was gracious, laid-back and glib.
He is charismatic and philosophic, a proud Greek who immigrated to Queens and joined the Army, he said, for “something bigger than myself.” He has piercing green eyes deeply set under bushy, black brows, an aquiline nose and a goatee. He bears a striking resemblance to actor Colin Farrell.
Tsangarakis often smiled as he shared unvarnished recollections about the Persian Gulf War and what it has done to him. Yet there was no glint in his eye; it was a dead smile, more of an expression that continually asked, “Can you believe all this?”
Past midnight, Tsangarakis would need to pop his “magic pill” to fall asleep. Seroquel is prescribed for depression when other antidepressants don’t work and is serious enough that it’s often used to treat schizophrenia.
For five days after he rehashed what happened to him in Iraq, Tsangarakis nose-dived and couldn’t pull out. He slept 18 hours a day. He couldn’t eat. He wouldn’t leave the house. He couldn’t bring himself to answer the phone.
“Complete disorder,” Tsangarakis said two weeks later. “I could not function. The first three days, I thought I was going to die.
“I relived the entire thing all over again. It was real. Four nights in a row, I had the same recurring nightmare that I was under a boat and I was drowning with both legs chopped off and trying to swim to the surface.”
Tsangarakis was 21 years old when the horrors of war changed him forever, and the episode was captured on film for the world to see.
He appeared at the center of a controversial photograph that changed the way generations of Americans viewed war. Not since Vietnam had such a stark image of U.S. soldiers been taken.
Detroit Free Press photographer David C. Turnley was embedded with the medical unit that swooped down to snatch Tsangarakis, Sgt. Ken Kozakiewicz, of West Seneca, and the body of Pvt. Andy Alaniz.
Each soldier had been in a Bradley with the mission of sweeping Jalibah Airfield, where more than 1,000 members of Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard tried to make a stand. The Bradleys were mistaken for the enemy and fired upon by a U.S. tank unit that was supposed to be watching over them.
In the photo, Kozakiewicz and Tsangarakis have just learned who their dead mate is. Kozakiewicz wails while gazing out the right side of the helicopter. Tsangarakis, his face still obscured by white bandages, creates a mysterious and poignant effect in the middle of the frame.
“We were lost souls,” Tsangarakis said while examining a copy of the photo. “What the f--- are we doing here? When are we going back home?
“We were there for the ride of our lives for six miserable months. We had no idea.”
No escaping the battle
Tsangarakis is a backyard bon vivant. He tends so many different types of plants – many of them for culinary purposes – that local school districts should consider dropping kids off for field trips.
He grows carnations, concord grapes and bamboo. There are ponderosa lemon, banana, peach, plum, lychee and loquat trees. Multiple varieties of jasmine climb lattices. Oregano and thyme grow near his grill, for when he needs a pinch.
Tsangarakis relishes quiet time on the lanai with his two cats, a Maine coon named Sookie (after the heroine from HBO’s vampire series “True Blood”) and a snaggletoothed white Persian named Kramer (after the “Seinfeld” character).
His morning routine usually involves a quick trip to Starbucks for coffee and, hopefully, some tranquility on his back patio.
“Every day when I wake up,” Tsangarakis said, “I think, ‘I just want this day to be peaceful.’ I clench my fists and say, ‘I’m going to make it through this day, no matter what.’ I would like to get to a place where I don’t have to clench my fists, just be relaxed.”
Tsangarakis has found martial arts to be a gloriously effective energy release. He’s a green belt at Tiger Schulmann’s in Tampa. He specializes in kickboxing and submission grappling.
His training helped him drop 50 pounds from his 5-foot-10 frame. It also clears his mind.
“I think that’s kept me alive,” Tsangarakis said. “I would have been gone a long time ago. I would have lost myself. That’s my church.”
Tsangarakis also volunteers as a youth instructor, working with kids as young as 5 years old. Their innocence, he said, gives his volatile life perspective it otherwise wouldn’t have.
Last week, however, Tsangarakis decided to avoid the dojo for a bit. Six minutes into guiding the kids through a warm-up session of jabs, crosses and knee kicks, he became wrought with emotion for no apparent reason. Tears welled in his eyes.
“It’s hitting me all at once,” he said last week by phone.
In the movies, a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder is a ragged soul who served multiple tours in World War II or Vietnam and faced enemy gunfire for days on end.
Tsangarakis joined the Army during peacetime. He was a touted young soldier, winning the Expert Infantryman’s Badge in 1989 and being named his brigade’s soldier of the year while stationed in Germany. He planned to re-enlist and earn his sergeant stripes to get a better pension. That was before the U.S. went to war with Iraq.
He saw live action only once, while riding toward Jalibah Airfield. What he witnessed that morning was plenty. Two soldiers died in the battle. One was in his Bradley, and the other rode with him in the helicopter.
After piling out of the Bradley, he vividly remembers blood spurting on him as he tried in vain to put a tourniquet on a screaming soldier’s severed leg.
“You’ve got to try to save the kneecap, but there was really no way to do it,” Tsangarakis said. “It’s not a place a 21-year-old expects to be, just unbelievable. I’m not a doctor, you know?”
Even 21 years later, he hasn’t totally escaped the battle. The 120 mm round that whizzed through his Bradley was depleted uranium, a substance with a radioactive element. He and Kozakiewicz get tested every two years to see whether the exposure has poisoned them.
Tsangarakis pursued a pilot’s license in New York but stopped a few credits short, realizing his panic attacks weren’t conducive to flying planes. He struggled with jobs such as pumping gas, delivering pizzas and working construction.
He claimed his anxiety is acute enough to make him feel like he’s actually about to die. A dispute with one of his neighbors hospitalized Tsangarakis this spring.
“The mind never rests,” Tsangarakis said. “Once it goes to that severity of death and destruction, it never rests again unless it’s heavily drugged.
“The slightest thing gives you overwhelming amounts of stress. Traffic! Oh, my God! My mind goes into war mode. It’s impending doom just around the corner.”
Tsangarakis was married for seven years but got divorced because his post-traumatic stress disorder repeatedly detonated the relationship. He wants children but realizes the clock is ticking.
Family relationships are dicey. Tsangarakis didn’t talk to his father for 10 years, although they started to reconnect a few months ago. He and his brother are distant. He said arguments make him want to “just walk away forever.”
He occasionally gets consumed by survivor’s guilt. To know that Alaniz left behind a wife and unborn child intensifies that grief.
“It’s the reason why you’re chosen and this guy’s not,” Tsangarakis said. “Sometimes you contemplate ‘Why?’ “
Tsangarakis admitted to having suicidal thoughts in the past, but he doesn’t consider that a legitimate concern anymore.
“It’s gone through my mind,” he said, “but there’s always something that says ‘I’ve made it to this point. I can make it a little further.’ I’ve already reached that no-turning-back point. I just survive day by day.”
The scars of war
Veterans routinely struggle to adjust to civilian life. Many suffer in silence, declining to reach out to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help because the process can be aggravating or they don’t want to be stigmatized as mentally broken.
A February 2012 Army Times article reported that 18 veterans commit suicide every day and that 20 percent of all U.S. suicides are veterans. From 2008 to 2010, about 950 veterans enrolled in the VA committed suicide each month, but only 6 million out of a possible 22 million possible veterans are enrolled.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimated that 67,000 vets are without shelter on any given night, and while veterans comprise 8 percent of the American population, they make up about 20 percent of the homeless population.
Of the 700,000 veterans deployed in Operation Desert Storm, more than 300,000 have filed disability claims.
Dr. Candice Stewart-Sabin is a clinical psychologist who treats Tsangarakis at the VA’s Palm Harbor Community-Based Outpatient Clinic. The VA allowed her to speak with The News for this story, but only in general terms about post-traumatic stress disorder. She was not permitted to speak specifically about Tsangarakis.
Stewart-Sabin explained a fundamental basis of PTSD is an inability to feel safe.
“The person has an experience where their life is threatened, and they have an intense sense of horror and helplessness,” Stewart-Sabin said. “Your safety is compromised in your mind.
“The worst-case scenario is they will become completely isolated, because the symptoms are so overwhelming. They may live the traumatic experience from combat over and over throughout the day.”
Stewart-Sabin outlined three categories of PTSD symptoms and some examples:
• Reliving the trauma (flashbacks, recurring thoughts, uncontrollable mental images, nightmares).
• Avoidance of stimuli (giving up an activity such as driving or conversation because it causes too much anxiety).
• Hyperarousal (violent outbursts, irritability, insomnia, inability to concentrate).
Most soldiers experience war within a brotherhood, or within themselves. Tsangarakis’ mournful moment followed him back to the United States, where it was shown on television, in newspapers and on magazine covers. A snapshot of his misery always is a quick Internet search away.
“When you see something that reminds you, it can be overwhelming,” said Stewart-Sabin, referring not specifically to Tsangarakis but any soldier who might see war footage on the news or in a movie. “It could trigger a cascade of symptoms.”
Over the years, Kozakiewicz has done countless interviews, especially with Buffalo news outlets. Alaniz’s widow is even more familiar with reporters. She has spoken about her late husband and her father, who died in the 1994 Oklahoma City bombing. She testified at Timothy McVeigh’s trial.
Relatively speaking, Tsangarakis has remained anonymous. He was interviewed by the Greek media after Turnley’s photograph circulated the globe, but the combination of Tsangarakis’ veiled face and his name being misspelled in the caption when the picture originally went over the wire kept him out of the spotlight.
In a box full of his certificates and military paperwork is a photo that does show his face clearly.
His skin is red and raw from the burns. He’s seated on a cot and has just received his Purple Heart. He’s showing it off for the camera with an unimpressed expression.
“I’m thinking, ‘How the hell did I end up here?’ ” Tsangarakis said.
He was asked if getting the Purple Heart means anything to him. He doesn’t display the medal, but his 2012 Toyota Corolla does sport a Purple Heart license plate to help him get out of traffic tickets.
Tsangarakis added, without an ounce of sarcasm, that being a veteran gives him 10 percent off at Lowe’s and Home Depot. He gets into the national parks for free.
And what if he never enlisted?
Tsangarakis held his breath while he thought for a few beats and released a deep sigh.
“I’d probably be a scientist right now,” he replied. “I got a smart mind, a great mind. But I’m just trying to do the best with what I got.”
The complete series, published in June 2012:
Part III: Still reliving the nightmare of war
Nearly three years after the series ran, Tim Graham wrote this story: