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March 19, 2014

When 19-year-old Joe Schiano came home to tell his mother he was joining the Marines fighting in Afghanistan, she reacted like any mother would. She grabbed him around the throat with both hands, pushed him against the wall and yelled, “You can’t do this!

“I have given you life and I am the only one who can take life from you!”

Then she sighed and wrapped him in a bear hug. “I saw this was what he wanted to do,” Debbie Schiano said recently, from the distance of seven years. “He felt he needed the discipline. I understood it.”

Read The Huffington Post's three-part series on moral injury »

Despite her deepest fears, Joseph came home from his two combat tours at age 22, physically sound. But the demons of his moral injuries followed close behind and eventually closed in on him. It turned out, she realized too late, that coming home was more dangerous than being at war. “It wasn’t Afghanistan where he died,” she reminded me. “It was right here.”

Debbie, Joseph and her two other children, Tyler and Nicole, were close, close in the way families can get when times are hard. She was a single mom and they were scraping by. Their apartment in a moderate-income housing development in Riverside, Conn., had little furniture. At one point they had to sleep on the floor. They did without.

But her kids were smart. Joseph, her eldest, had a sharp memory. He would blow off his homework and then ace his tests. By the 5th grade, at the red-brick Hamilton Avenue School in nearby Greenwich, he’d published three poems in the school newspaper. One, written after a class lecture about drinking and driving, described the thoughts of a driver as he was dying in a car crash.

At school, Joseph was bullied. Debbie complained. When a teacher suggested Joseph might be “instigating” attacks on himself, Debbie told her: “You are instigating me to bounce a ball on your head!” One time Debbie punished Joseph for misbehavior, and he objected. “I can’t believe you did that – you’re supposed to be my friend,” he complained. She shot back: “I am your mother first. Then we can be friends.” And they were.

Joseph went off into the Marines after an unsatisfying year at Drexel University and he and Debbie stayed close. “One thing Joseph and I have – had,” she corrected herself, “is communication.” She knew his unit, Charlie One-Six (C Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment), was called Suicide Charlie because they felt they were always being dangled out as bait for the Taliban. Debbie sent them box after box of goodies, snacks, toiletries, boxers, cigarettes, socks and Ziploc bags. Cartloads of stuff from Costco.

At home, she fretted, feeling alone in a sea of upscale suburban Connecticut families whose kids were not in Afghanistan. “You just go around like everything’s fine,” she said. “But I was losing my mind.” She wondered — is it normal to be planning your child’s funeral? — and was grateful when she found a website for Marine parents that answered that question (yes).

Joseph and One-Six flew to Afghanistan in March 2008 from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and on May 1, assaulted into a suspected Taliban stronghold in a town called Garmsir. There was little resistance. The Marines came home that October and 14 months later, in December 2009, they went again. This time was different. The Marines were sent to clear insurgents from the Helmand Province town of Marjah. The plan was for the U.S. and Afghan governments to pour in assistance and government services and turn Marjah into a model of development and democracy.

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Joseph and his fellow Marines in Afghanistan’s Garmsir village in 2008.(Washington Post / Getty Images)

But the fighting was fierce and prolonged. After 90 days, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the top allied war commander, admitted Marjah had become a “bleeding ulcer.” It would be 10 months before the Marines could declare victory.

Charlie One-Six was in the thick of it. They started taking casualties even before the battle officially began. “There was a lot of death. They lost close friends. I know he was having anxiety issues over there. They blamed themselves,” Debbie said.

Much later, she learned the details of one awful day, when Joseph’s platoon had been caught in a firefight with the Taliban. The Marines were in a gully, taking intense fire from an adobe-walled farm compound, and unable to advance or retreat. As a last resort, Joseph was directed to fire a rocket into the house. And from the smoke and rubble came the dying, dragging the dead: the women and children the Taliban had herded into the compound. Joseph sagged against a wall, horrified and sobbing at the sight.

For Joseph, it was a classic moral injury. Firing back at the Taliban may have been a justifiable military necessity. But the moral burden, the image of those bloody innocents, the guilt, the shame – the inescapable truth of what he had done – that’s what he evidently took away from Afghanistan.

The way Debbie described Joseph, the moral pain would have been acute. “He loved people. He would do anything for anyone,” Debbie said. He was convinced, she said, that the rocket he fired had gone through the head of one of the children.

Even before One-Six got back to Camp Lejeune in July 2010, Navy psychologists had diagnosed Joseph with PTSD. He was having trouble sleeping; when he did drift off, he’d jerk awake with terrible nightmares of maimed children. In a panic he would call home. Debbie would quickly think up something silly his brother Tyler had done to make Joseph laugh and break the tension.

One by one his platoon buddies were getting out of the Marines. Finally Joseph left too, and came home to Connecticut on Jan. 12, 2011. He left behind Frankie, his beloved pit bull mix; there was no place for him in Debbie’s two-floor duplex.

A day or two later, Joseph called the VA to get help with his PTSD. He was told to send an email request. As Debbie remembers it, he received a VA letter two weeks later saying they’d get back to him in eight or 10 weeks. (The VA was unable to confirm this sequence of events.)

With his military service behind him, Joseph started to pursue a career with the police or fire department or in emergency medicine. He got the books and studied, but none of it stuck. “Mom, I just can’t remember anything,” he said. “It’s okay,” Debbie told him. “Take your time.”

One night, he came home from drinking with friends, and stormed upstairs. His sister called Debbie: “Mom, you better come up here, there’s something wrong with Joe.” Debbie raced up the stairs. He was shouting at himself in the mirror: “I’m a Marine! I don’t need anyone! I can do this by myself!”

When Debbie tried to intervene, Joseph exploded, shouting that they were being shot at and needed to shoot back. Tyler tried to grab him and Joseph turned with a look of hatred and screamed, “I’m gonna come shut you up!” That’s when Debbie put her hand on Joseph’s shoulder, and he slid down to the floor, his back against the wall. Debbie slid down with him, and as he burst into tears, she held him and rocked him.

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“Joseph used to lay his head on my lap when he needed to talk,” Debbie writes. “This was one day before his deployment to Marjah, Afghanistan, and he told me he was too old to do this.”(Courtesy of Debbie Schiano)

“It broke my heart, he just cried so hard,” Debbie says now, through her own tears. “He just couldn’t understand why he had to lose so many friends, why he was the way he was. He kept saying it should have been him out there [who got killed]. And he just saw the image of those kids all the time. He lived with that image every time he went to sleep.”

But after that episode, he seemed to pull himself together.

He stopped drinking. Tried to quit smoking. Made plans to fix up a room for himself in his grandmother’s house, and bring Frankie up from North Carolina. He found a new girlfriend and would drive his Volkswagen Jetta the 40 minutes up to Somers, N.Y., to see her. He’d go Friday night, come back Sunday, and along the way he’d put on Zac Brown. The music often made him cry. Maybe he had on their hit, “It’s Not Okay,” with its haunting lines, “He said he didn’t want to shoot that man / and it was his thing and I wouldn’t understand / And that he had done all he can…”

Just after noon on Sunday, March 20, 2011, Debbie canceled plans to go get a manicure. She felt sick, and was lying down when the police came to the door. Joseph’s Jetta had run off Route 139, a narrow winding road in Somers, and struck a utility pole. He was dead.

The VA never did get back to Joseph. After his funeral, they offered counseling for Debbie and Tyler and Nicole. Debbie and Nicole declined. Tyler went a few times, then he enlisted in the Marines. He is currently on active duty.

Debbie’s own grief runs deep, her loss beyond words. Hers is a moral injury of the war, too.

She can manage to say: “I miss Joseph. But I think he’s in a better place.”

There are inevitable questions about whether he took his own life. “I know for a fact he didn’t commit suicide,” said Debbie. “He had problems. He felt like he didn’t belong. But he was making plans.” Like other veterans, Joseph said he missed the adrenaline rush of combat. Maybe that’s why he drove so fast, Debbie thought. Tempting death.

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Joseph (left) with a close friend and fellow Marine in 2008.(Courtesy of Debbie Schiano)

It is a tragic measure of his moral injury that Joseph may have felt the only way to end his pain was with reckless speed. Certainly he needed professional help, steady, insightful and caring. The VA has acknowledged its shortage of mental health therapists, and has hired 1,600 additional therapists in the past two years, but long waiting lists still are common.

Debbie thinks that veterans should not have to wait. Period.

“Joseph was dead inside of 12 weeks! How many guys are dead that were waiting those 12 weeks? Hire some more people!” Debbie said. “You’ve got a lot of kids coming home – this is a time of war. Cut back after the war!”

Toward the end of a long conversation, Debbie paused, exhausted. “I don’t know what the answer is,” she acknowledged. Except the obvious: “There needs to be more people who can listen,” she said. “I don’t care how much the story makes you sick to your stomach, just listen. Don’t turn your back.”

Joseph at least had Debbie and Tyler and Nicole to talk to. And his fellow Marines of One-Six. When Joseph died, they swarmed Debbie’s house and stayed for the funeral. They still call to check in on her.

“I am grateful for every one of those guys,” she said. “I get my strength from them. I see them going on with their lives. No reason I can’t do that.”

Debbie Schiano joins HuffPost Live to discuss Joseph's moral injuries.