Oval Office Ambush

Iraq war veteran Alexis Janicki paces the wrought-iron fence surrounding the White House, plotting. Beyond it sprawls the manicured fairway of the north lawn, interrupted by a large, sputtering fountain. Beyond that is his target: President George W. Bush.

It’s October 14, 2006, and in the gray chill of the late afternoon, the unreasonableness of forcing a meeting with the president seems reasonable to Janicki, a 24-year-old Independence, Missouri, resident. Janicki’s mind betrayed him after his time in Iraq.

Janicki wants to talk to President Bush, to tell him, soldier to commander, that the Iraq war is an unwinnable clusterfuck.

He scans the herd of tourists. Their cameras seem to be aimed at him. Their conversations seem to be coded discussions about him. He is sure that he’s under surveillance.

The fence stands about 10 feet tall. He scaled bigger walls in boot camp. Keep moving, he tells himself. Just keep moving. It would be a three-move summit.

He grips a fence post firmly and pulls himself up. With each step upward, his mind replays memories from Iraq like a film reel. It’s 2003 again. He’s surrounded by a mob of screaming men inside a clay hut in an Iraqi outpost village near the bombed-out palaces of Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. His Army unit kicked in these men’s doors the night before during a search for insurgents and have returned to offer food. Men surround him and shout. He has no idea if any of them are armed or strapped with explosives.

Janicki puts one hand over the other. He edges his foot onto a crossbar. Suddenly he’s back in a chow hall. Outside the base, insurgents shoot mortars from passing cars and then speed away. The cafeteria pitches and shakes as blasts detonate all around it. His buddies slip flak jackets over their uniforms, put on bucket helmets and continue eating.

At the top of the fence, Janicki swings a leg over. When he lands on the White House grounds, his mind brings him back to jerking the steering wheel of his Humvee. He’s trying to avoid an ambush. A satellite dish is strapped to the back of the truck. An insurgent in a Toyota Land Cruiser spots him and swerves directly in front of him. Janicki accelerates and dodges the kamikaze attack.

On the White House grass, Janicki runs at a full sprint. He feels euphoric, better than he has in months. Life finally has a purpose again.

Two days earlier, Janicki and his wife, Jamie, had arrived in Washington, D.C., to visit Janicki’s mother. Janicki announced he didn’t feel well, but they went on with their plan to visit a conference on green energy. The crowds on the subway made things worse. When they reached the expo, Janicki snapped. After Iraq, crowds often have that effect. He took off without a word, dashing roughly 10 blocks toward the White House.

Now, as Janicki approaches the fountain, three Secret Service agents blitz toward him. Their guns are drawn. One man holds the leash on a German shepherd. Tall and lithe, Janicki swings wide around the fountain, keeping it between him and the men.

Past the fountain, Janicki darts at full speed. He’s just 10 yards from the White House doors when the agents intercept him and raise their weapons.

Janicki pulls up. He raises his hands. “Stop!” he screams. “All right, you got me.” Janicki chuckles, then cheers, “Whoo-hooo!”

Two agents lunge. They grab his arms and wrestle him to the ground, then drag him away for interrogation.

That evening, Secret Service spokesman Kim Bruce announces that Alexis Janicki faces federal charges. His attempt to reach the president would’ve failed anyway; Bush was on vacation at Camp David.

For everyone else, this is where the story stops. The White House doesn’t make public that Janicki was an Iraq war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. Janicki wears a red Old Navy sweatshirt and the Washington Nationals stocking cap he purchased from a street vendor a few hours ago. His left arm and abdomen are already bruising from the impact of the Secret Service’s tackle. Government agents with color-coded lapel pins huddle around him.

They ask him to explain his actions. They demand to know how long he had planned to storm the White House.

Janicki says he’s not sure. “I just felt froggy, and I jumped,” he says, clearly impressed with his wall-climbing skills. “Who are you looking for? I’m not al Qaeda.”

His cell phone rings. An agent grabs it and answers. It’s Janicki’s mother. A squad of agents is dispatched to search her home for drugs or terrorist paraphernalia. They come back empty-handed.

An agent spots Janicki’s wristbandlike tattoo. It reads Pitbull, a reference to the unofficial Army mascot. “Because I’m tenacious like a pit bull,” Janicki says absent-mindedly. This seems to annoy his captors even more.

The agents scour his service record. It shows that he joined the Army in 2000, when he was 18 years old. Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, Janicki had rolled with a posse of slackers. They threw beer and weed-fueled bashes at an older friend’s apartment. He quit school and earned a GED. They spray-painted graffiti in Georgetown; Janicki’s tag was “Hero.” One day, he walked into an Army recruiting station hoping he had found a place to belong. The desire to join an alpha crew overwhelmed him.

“I figured the military was the same close-knit group, just more legal,” he recalls.

But Janicki didn’t do well in boot camp. He had a problem with his joints that made humping heavy gear for long periods of time painful. A base doctor prescribed Zoloft after he became depressed and anxious. He ended up with the 124th Signal Battalion, which provides communications for the 4th Infantry out of Fort Hood, Texas.

Near the end of his enlistment, on March 19, 2003, he landed in Iraq.

Janicki’s squad was stationed at an abandoned airstrip just outside Baghdad. As a satellite operator, Janicki relayed communications from 4th Infantry soldiers on the front lines. With a satellite dish strapped to it, Janicki’s Hummer looked like a giant target. When his unit stopped to relay messages, he’d watch the sunlight glint off the dish. It made them visible for miles.

His meds had made him sluggish, so they were taken away in the war zone. Doing without made him jittery. In his mind, he’d repeat the training-march yell “Kill, kill with cold, blue steel.”

But he was rarely within shooting distance of hostiles. Mostly, he couldn’t even identify the enemy. During civil-affairs missions, he handed out food and candy to hostile men who shouted threats in response to having their guns taken by American soldiers. Janicki and a buddy came across a group of insurgents near a stockpile of weapons one day, but his commander told him to retreat until backup arrived. Every night, insurgents would lob mortars over the walls of the base and retreat quickly in pickup trucks, like American drive-by shootings. He slept in canvas tents and metal trailers that offered little protection from explosives landing nearby. One night, Janicki was checking the equipment on his satellite truck when he heard an incoming mortar. He couldn’t see it, but its cartoonish whistle sounded improbably close. He dived blindly behind his Hummer. The bomb exploded 10 feet away, spraying hot chunks of shrapnel across his truck. The inability to strike back left him more rattled than a battle might have.

Janicki’s video has reportedly been viewed 20,000 times on YouTube:

When he returned to Fort Hood in January 2004, an Army psychologist at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Waco, Texas, gave him a multiple-choice computer questionnaire about his deployment. He indicated that he still found himself scanning buildings for snipers. He’d flip from calm to riotous in an instant. He was afraid of crowds at Wal-Mart. And he was engaging in risky behavior by picking fights with superior officers. He showed all the signs of PTSD.

But Janicki wasn’t assigned to counseling. He met once a month with a PTSD specialist, who prescribed him medication to even out his emotions. In the Army, you do as you are told, and because Janicki wasn’t told he needed counseling, he didn’t think more about it.

He was part of a health-care system stretched to its breaking point. More than a million soldiers have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11, 2001. And, according to a 2004 study by the New England Journal of Medicine, as many as 10 percent of them now show signs of PTSD.

Janicki self-medicated by smoking dope, drinking and hitting strip clubs with his friend, Sgt. Brent Gaunt, another soldier with PTSD. The Army seemed unsure what to do with them. “They left us alone for the most part for the longest time,” says Gaunt, who is from Chillicothe, Missouri. He recalls Janicki’s temper. “If you had a problem with him, he was gonna tell you, ‘I’m gonna straight rip out your throat.’ That was Janicki. No one was messing with him. He had that crazy look to him.”

Janicki failed a drug test and was assigned to extra duties, including picking up cigarette butts and setting up barracks for returning soldiers. When he pissed hot again, he was sentenced to 30 days’ confinement and was demoted from private first class to private.

Before deployment at Fort Hood, he’d eased his mounting stress creatively, apprenticing at a tattoo shop near base. Involuntary overtime now kept him from that. Janicki raised his morale a bit in June 2004 when he met Jamie Frame, an apartment manager near the base.

In part because of his problems with drugs, the Army gave Janicki a general discharge on November 14, 2004. The general discharge — which is different from an honorable discharge — can keep him from receiving veterans’ benefits. But Janicki was glad to be done with the Army, and he and Jamie moved to Kansas City in 2005. They got married in March 2006.

Without his squad, Janicki’s paranoia thickened. He couldn’t hold a job. While tending bar at Ameristar Casino, he became unsettled by the sound of jingling coins, which reminded him of spent bullet casings. When he worked as a beer vendor at Arrowhead Stadium, the roaring crowds unnerved him.

“You come home wound up,” he says. “They make it your idea to kill people. And then there’s no one to kill. And then you wonder why you are wound up all the time.”

After interrogating Janicki, the agents who busted him concluded that he was not an immediate threat. Janicki spent a weekend in the District of Columbia jail. A judge signed a restraining order that barred him from coming within five blocks of the White House. He faced two misdemeanors: unlawful entry and possession of marijuana (because the feds found a joint in his pocket). He was allowed to return to Kansas City. But he still felt menacing anxiety. Beneath his shirt, his body reflects his struggles. His upper torso is covered in tattoos: religious and patriotic images on his right side, and visions of death and destruction on the other. His right arm bears a Statue of Liberty armed with a machine gun, and a portrait of a weeping Jesus. On his left arm, a skull with a bandanna mask is superimposed over crossed pistols and a scorpion.

It’s November 7, and it’s been a few weeks since Janicki has visited the Kansas City VA Medical Center. Doctors had explained what led to his D.C. outburst: He was so fearful of attack that he had forced himself into a confrontation. They prescribed another antidepressant to calm his nerves, but the medication did little to help.

He’d been out of the Army for two years, but he still hadn’t been able to hold a job. He and his wife struggled to make the payments on a small, rented bungalow near Interstate 435 and 23rd Street. He had trouble adjusting to home life. When a van was ransacked in his neighborhood, he began carrying his AK-47 to the mailbox.

Jamie had been working as a certified nurse’s aide at a nursing home, and when she got home earlier that day, Janicki confronted her. He accused her of pretending to love him so that she would have access to his disability stipend, $389 from the Army each month for his PTSD. He accused her of having an affair.

He took the money his mother had sent to help cover his attorney’s fees and left.

His goal is his mother’s house in Virginia. But he ends up lost on rural highways. Time seems to slow; the digital clock on the dashboard ticks off minutes that crawl like hours. Janicki begins to hallucinate. Through his windshield, Janicki watches the moon swing back and forth across the sky like a hypnotist’s watch. His memories from Iraq play as if on instant replay.

Suddenly, blue and red lights flash in his rearview mirror. A police officer pulls him over outside Bloomington, Illinois. Though days seem to have passed, he’s less than 400 miles from home. He speaks sluggishly to the officer, who tickets him for a busted taillight and driving with an expired license. Because the car is unregistered, the cop orders it impounded.

“That’s fine,” Janicki remembers telling the officer. “I’ll walk.”

He’s held at the police station until Jamie arrives the next morning in a borrowed car to bail him out. With no money left, they leave the Volkswagen at the impound yard.

“I was just stressed at that point,” Jamie says. “I just didn’t know what to do. I just knew he had to get to the doctor.”

At home the next day, Janicki’s paranoia returns. He checks doors and windows to make sure they’re secure and pleads that neither of them should leave the house. It takes her six hours to get him to come with her to the gas station so that she can buy a pack of cigarettes. Even then, he insists on staying in the car and with his pit bull, Purdy.

Three days after his road trip and arrest, Janicki finally allows Jamie to cart him to the emergency room of the VA Medical Center. The doctor tells him that he’s in danger of having a full psychotic break, which could lead to dementia. His prescription cocktail is switched from olanzapine (which is marketed as Zyprexa) and clonazepam (Klonopin) to the antidepressant citalopram hydrobromide (Celexa). And for the first time, the VA doctor recommends that Janicki pursue regular therapy with a VA counselor.

Of course, Janicki already has a PTSD counselor and has for months expressed concern about his mental well-being. The VA hospital assigns him a staff psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Yaffe (who declined to be interviewed for this article). Meanwhile, Janicki fears that he’s being medicated into a neutered state, without anyone fixing his overall mental problems. “All she does is prescribe stuff,” he says.

Sitting at home beside Jamie on a recent weekday, Janicki lights a cigarette. His hands shake. “PTSD was called shell shock in World War I,” Janicki says. “They’ve humbled down the name, and now they are trying to humble down their actual ties to it, basically.” His pit bull sleeps near his feet. To make rent, he recently pawned his 9 mm handgun and sold his AK-47 rifle. Their car is still impounded in Illinois; an Army friend lent Janicki his Pontiac Grand Am.

The Secret Service still classifies his arrest as an open case and recently called his mother to see if he was coming home for Christmas. He missed his court dates, so he has open bench warrants for his arrest in D.C. and Illinois.

He fiddles unconsciously, messing with the dog or twisting up paper coffee cups. “I always feel antsy, like I’m supposed to be doing more but there isn’t more to do,” he says. “In Iraq, you’re always paranoid of everyone outside your small group, your small unit, because they are all Iraqis. When I came back, I was paranoid of everybody outside my small group of my family, and then I started getting paranoid of, like, family members as well.”

“He’s 100 percent better,” Jamie says unconvincingly.

She smokes and watches her husband intently before she adds, “But what if, God forbid, it happens again?” He passes over a package-handling gig because it’s too far away; his wife has the car most days. He skips a painting job because it requires the initial investment of tools; he’s too broke for that. He ignores a delivery position; it requires a clean driving record. Construction is out because of the cold weather. A whole column of opportunities is skipped for his own self-respect, because they pay less than $10 an hour.

He rolls one of the ripped-out ads into a paper ball that he passes between his fingers. “Probation officer?” he reads, trying to see if the title fits. He chuckles. “Yeah, right.”

“Casinos?” He shakes his head. He couldn’t take the crowds. And there are warrants out for his arrest.

He eyes the computers nearby. They’re all taken. He was hoping to check his MySpace account. In the Army, he ran satellites to connect commanders to their units. Now he must compete with a handful of loitering high school kids to reach the Internet.

Back in October, he made a video of his story and posted it on YouTube. According to the site, Janicki’s video has been viewed more than 20,000 times. Many of the people who have seen the video have sent him e-mails. He responds to few of them. Even on the Internet, he’s fearful of new people.

He wants to use the Army’s G.I. Bill to enroll at the Aviation Institute of Maintenance in midtown to learn to fix or fly airplanes. To do so, his discharge papers must be upgraded from general to honorable. He has been talking to the VFW and national veterans’ rights groups about how to do this. If his effort succeeds, he hopes he’ll be able to handle sitting quietly in a classroom of strangers.

He rips out a classified ad for a store that needs a security officer.

“Security? Sure!” he says, scanning the ad.

Between his fingers, the paper ball has been smashed as small and hard as a BB.

“It says ‘prior military experience a plus.’ We’ll see.”

He takes out his wallet and stuffs it with his collection of torn opportunities.

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