We are collecting and publishing true stories from U.S. military veterans about their experiences on the homefront, dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the aftereffects of military service. This week: PTSD survivors speak out.
In addition to first-person stories, many people have sent us recommendations of other resources on this topic. They include this blog by a PTSD survivor; this film about a returning veteran; this photo exhibit by the Philadelphia VA; and this literary journal that focuses on the work of veterans. We encourage you to check them all out.
On to the stories:
I guess I should consider myself lucky given some of the horrendous stories I've heard from my own soldiers, my military friends, and from the stories I've read about here on Gawker and elsewhere in the media. That said, I believe I was more prepared to deal with the aftermath of the war than many of my soldiers.
I was an Army Infantry platoon leader in Baghdad and Baqouba during the Iraq Surge in 2007-2008. My platoon suffered about 40% casualties. 10% of my soldiers were killed and another 30% wounded in various actions during my 15 month tour. I was almost always within about 50 feet of these occurrences and, as my training kicked in, ignored their screams to continue to direct soldiers and fires onto enemy locations. Although this is exactly what you're supposed to do, there still isn't a day that goes by that I don't dream about it at night or think about it during the day. The survivor's guilt was pretty terrible. Why was I not shot and the guy next to me was?
Of the remaining "uninjured" personnel, I had 4 sent home for what I would best describe was "Shell Shock"; this based on movies and stories I've seen or read about guys in previous wars. These guys literally just froze up and couldn't function. At the time, although I was aware of the history of PTSD, I really didn't understand that it was already showing itself in these guys, and even in myself. I incorrectly assumed that they were often trying to just get out of work. Little did I know.
When I got home, I transferred to a new unit across the country and within close proximity to my immediate family. It was around this time that I entered into a year long binge in what I now know was an attempt to forget the things I saw and to sleep. Drinking to black-out 6-7 nights/week allowed me to sleep without waking up screaming, kicking, punching, or in pools of sweat. So, everyday, I'd go to work, hungover or still drunk, sit at my desk and do what I needed to, then leave work around 4pm and head to the bars until midnight or later, wake back up at 5 and head back to work for PT.
At first, I thought this was fairly normal. Everybody who came home went through some sort of drinking stint. I was still able to function, albeit poorly some days, and thought nothing was wrong. The few nights a week I'd get drunk and start crying inconsolably, although often silently, I tried to shake off as simple moments of weakness. I should be tough, like my grandfather returning from WW2, or all the others who seemed to get on day after day without noticeable problems. At some point, one of my squad leaders mentioned to me that he had started seeing an Army psychiatrist and recommended I go. I did so, went through a battery of tests for neurological disorders (I had developed a distinct inability to remember anything, no matter what it was. What do I buy at the store? I don't remember.Where do I need to be for work? I don't know. Why am I doing typing this document and what is it supposed to be about? Complete blank) and psychological evals. I was diagnosed with mTBI and PTSD and put on a host of drugs.
When the lower doses did nothing, they were increased. When that did nothing, I was put on some anti-psychotic medicines generally used for schizophrenia. Eventually, I was able to more or less knock myself out with these pills to go to sleep, but I became a fairly numb shell of a person. Most of my emotions ceased. Rather than highs and lows, I was just in a constant state.I kept drinking though, as that had become part of my routine. Realizing at this point I didn't want my life to be controlled by medicine, I stopped cold turkey and decided to leave the Army. I probably should've done that better. I distinctly recall being able to hear myself blink for about a month after I quit the meds. Not too sure how better to describe that sound, but it was almost like a gooey grating. One of the weirdest things.
When I got out, I signed up for disability and was sent through about a dozen doctors to check for the legitimacy of the claims. I had my retina ripped out by a stick in training, I had my hand crushed in a door in Baghdad, went deaf for 3 days after a firefight, got a concussion from an IED blast outside my vehicle, ripped all the ligaments in my ankle in Baqouba, and so on. All the while, I did what you're supposed to do as a soldier. I manned up and kept doing my job.
When I had made up my mind to get out, I decided to get the issues I could, fixed up. My last 6 months in the Army was spent in and out of hospitals, getting surgeries for everything wrong with me. In some cases, it helped. In others, the surgery did more harm than the original problem. I now have terrible arthritis, have lost feeling in a lot of my left hand, and have constant pain and inflammation. While ETSing (terminating my service with the Army), I went through a bunch of classes that told me to sign up for absolutely everything I had wrong with me. I did exactly that. Many of my fellow junior officers and more of my soldiers refused to do so, thinking it was a sign of weakness. About a year after I parted ways from the military, I was assessed at 50% disability, with about 20 pages more of things that are likely to go wrong, but weren't bad enough yet for an increased percentage. I was told I could come back in the future when those minor issues became actual problems to be reassessed.
When I first got out, I decided to go back to a psychiatrist, as my problems upon stopping the drugs began to come back; the nightmares, the cold sweats, the constant drinking. I tried to get appointments through the VA, but was passed around between various call centers and found my attempts to be seen as totally fruitless. At some point, I decided to seek out a private psychiatrist. My current medical insurance, through my current job, refused to pay for it, so I decided to pay out of pocket. At $250/hr, it ate through a lot of my money, particularly when I first started seeing him 3.5 years ago about 2-3 times/month. This has since declined to maybe twice a year, simply as a checkup. I've purposely avoided getting back on meds and have attempted, with his assistance, to get better simply on my own. Luckily, he has been of great help.
So this is why I consider myself lucky. I simply avoided the VA because I had the educational background to land a good job, family backing for constant support, understanding from my employer, and personal monetary resources to do it. Had I gone with the VA, I have no idea how I would've ended up. Many of my soldiers have become lost in cycles of alcohol and drug abuse; many are in prison for crimes committed upon returning; some have died from drug abuse; many more are simply in a constant state of depression and more or less unable to work, placing a massive burden on their families. I keep in touch with many of them and regularly talk to them about what happened during the tour. I have found gaining their perspectives to be incredibly cathartic. I know it doesn't work for everyone, but I keep myself available to help any and all of my soldiers in any way I can.
For each guy who has had a terrible readjustment time, there has been another who has excelled. Some of the toughest guys I had ended up the worst off. I simply hope that everyone, at some point, can get the help they need and I hope the VA can get its act together to assist those who so desperately need it.
The dark corners of my mind
Reading the accounts of other Veteran's is upsetting to me, but a story that needs to be told.
I exited the Army in 2006 after two tours in Iraq. They were in relatively close order and the ten month break in-between trips was not nearly enough time to readjust. The second trip was worse than the first and exposed me to new and different horrors of war. That deployment compounded what was most likely a case of PTSD from the first tour.
When I returned home I slogged through the VA benefits process with the help and support of my wife and family. For a while I lived away from my wife and newborn son. For a while my father drove me to and from work as the medications I was on rendered me unable to function as I was coming up from them.
Each week for the better part of six years I saw a therapist at the VA and chipped away at learning to deal with a new normal of persistent anxiety and depression. In that six years I fired two therapists and cannot speak highly enough of all the rest.
I quit drinking and all drugs but I am still addicted to work to keep my mind away from the negative patterns of thought that are ingrained from years of training and fighting. I finally got off the antidepressants about a year ago. Despite all that, some days I still break down and cry in the bathroom at work. I consider myself lucky to even have a job.
I wish I could say that after these six years I am an integrated happy member of society, but I am afraid that will not be true for many years, if ever. I can keep the wild and extreme thoughts at bay, but they still linger in the dark corners of my mind. One day seven years ago I took out my gun and considered getting some rest from those thoughts.
That day I doubled down on my family and my therapy and today I am able to survive and more often than not, flourish. I did not do it alone. We Veterans cannot do it alone. It takes lots of hard work and discipline to maintain this steady state. My perspective coming through the other side of this is now valued by my coworkers and family, but only as I am able to present it currently. If it was any rougher or more graphic, I don't think they could handle nor tolerate it.
I am now dedicated to see my two boys grow up and reach a ripe old age with my wife.
From a former Marine
I saw your first request last week about wanting stories from vets. I’ve been [thinking] about that ever since, and I’m finally putting pen to paper. I enlisted in the Marines right out of high school in 2000. During my first tour unit was the first infantry unit to cross the border into Iraq in 03 and we had the first KIA of the war. My second tour was the first battle of Fallujah.
It took me a while to process everything that happened. It wasn’t until after I returned from my second tour that I started having problems sleeping. I didn’t know why, and I couldn’t remember any of my dreams. The solution from the Doc’s was pills. “Can’t sleep here take some of these. Oh and here, have some anti-depressants too.” Then they set my up with a counselor. I’ve always been an open person, and that’s exactly what I did. This was a counselor that had been working with active duty Marines for a while. She left the room in tears. I later learned that she was a sports therapist and really had no idea how to treat someone with PTSD. It’s been really hard for me to open up since. After I EASed in ‘05 I have seen a few of different counselor through the VA and I’d say that less than half have been helpful at all. The most helpful thing was when I took a Psychology 101 class, the professor and his TA help me to understand what was going on, and how to cope with it.
The problems I have with the VA is that there are road blocks set up for everything. Once you get in things for the most part are much easier (a side for waiting 2-3 months to get an appointment). I had to wait 18 months to get approved for my service connected disabilities. No one fully tells you what programs you are eligible for, or even if they exist. And once you find out about them, there are road blocks, lost paperwork or some other thing to prevent you from getting in. The Dr’s and nurses that work for the VA are awesome, it’s just getting through the extra layer of BS full of people trying to justify their existence that make things so hard.
From a military wife
When my husband came back from Iraq I noticed he didn't sleep but we figured it was because of the time change. Then the fights came and the excessive drinking. He drank the whole deployment savings. He would say the meanest things and tell me to leave. He slept on the couch. I had no idea what was going on since no one mentioned PTSD as a reality. Then he assaulted me but STILL no diagnosis. Fast forward two years. Dealing with the VA has been interesting. I have mixed feelings. Initially his doctors failed him. He wound up on the wrong side of the law and in rehab. After his stint in the psych ward at the VA hospital things have turned around but the mail order program that sends out meds for the vets needs improvement. They have to wait for meds to come and sometimes they don't and then there's a delay for docs response. The docs in the psych ward practically kicked my husband out after three days on meds. How can they see if they are effective after three days? The Texas Vet system is over inundated with current vets and pending vets. I hope they get more help. I know plenty of people who are out of work that could benefit and help. Thanks for listening.
[Previous installments of this series can be found here. Thanks to everyone who wrote in. If you're a veteran who would like to share your story, you can email Hamilton@Gawker.com. Image by Jim Cooke.]