Like living under a stronger gravity
I am a friend of a former Captain who worked in Military Intelligence. Growing up he was the youngest drummer at age 12 or so to play a local playhouse and get paid for it. He was even on the news for it, back when it was something really truly special to be featured on television for something. There was no way anything in his past prepared him for war. The one thing that stood out to me about him was that everybody I grew up with, loved him. I wasn't aware of him having a single enemy. He was a decent man, and an even more decent officer who attended to his men, like they were men. His job mattered to him and he did it even though it meant years away from his family. One day he woke up in his tent on duty somewhere in the Gulf and he couldn't move his legs. He thought he was hit. They diagnosed him with depression and said it was the depression that did it. His wife left for greener and easier pastures and he hardly ever saw his children. Years later he was to suffer depression even more deeply to the point where he was in a Veterans Home, so doped up that he was almost catatonic (I got this from someone I went to school with who visited him). When I finally heard from him, he said he was doing much better and life was looking up. His friends finally rescued him from the home and helped him out into a better place to live. His boys grew up, turned 18 and moved in with him to help him out, Thank God. He got a job as a beach body coach and helped people lose weight. Part of the job meant that you have to keep up with the workouts and use the same solutions as those you try to sell to. Working out was a part of his job and he needed to be able to do that.
Then one day he broke his shoulder. The VA scheduled him for an appointment for two months from that day. After that appt. he was to endure months of strange mistakes, they would schedule him for appts. too far in advance,, tell him to come back in two months if he's not better, send him for an MRI and then give him a sonogram and then when he finally got to see the doctor the doctor said he couldn't use the sonogram and really needed an MRI, between appointments, they'd just dope him up on pain medication. The pain medication worsened his depression. He already had a fairly serious problem with insomnia and his broken shoulder made it even more difficult to sleep. His PTSD was so bad that even with pain medication he rarely slept more than 5 hrs per night. He woke up at 3 am almost every night. I was so worried that he'd become suicidal I spent every waking minute trying to figure out what to do to help him. I got him the phone number of the patient advocate, I helped him by purchasing a brace for his shoulder. He got so sick on the pain medications that he wound up in the hospital for 8 days straight with persistent non stop vomiting and had to get off the pain medication. I was afraid he was going to die, or that he would be really close to the trap door of suicide. He had all these medical problems that never got fixed. First he had some kind of issue with his intestines and throwing up a lot for no reason. Here was the man that everyone loved, who was a decent guy who faithfully served his country, his family and his ex wife, suffering and there wasn't a thing I could do to stop his suffering. I sent him things that I thought would cheer him up and helped him get security doors so he could feel more secure in the crime ridden neighborhood that he lived in.
He had PTSD but he refused to ask for anyone's help. He suffered alone. He didn't want to burden people with his problems. He never took out his PTSD on anyone. He wasn't the type of person to yell. He just silently dealt with it by himself, rather than lose his family and friends. He thought that if he reached out, they'd get sick of it. I have PTSD from something non combat related, so I understood him and hoped he felt comfortable talking to me. By the time Christmas rolled around, I was so worried sick about him and something bad happening to him that I had a breakdown of my own. My actions and words ended our relationship and now I have no idea if he is well, if they fixed his broken shoulder or if he's being taken care of. I sneaked in a phone call by using a phone number he wouldn't recognize and found out that the VA hadn't yet fixed his broken shoulder. This is a man who lived his life by a code of decency in how you treat people. He was described by someone who knew him well growing up as just a solid guy, a real upstanding kind of dude.
I am not able to help him anymore - so I help other vets and hope that the help I give them, somehow translates right to God and God knows that's why I'm doing it and he gets the help he needs to get well and get his shoulder fixed. I hope that he is able to somehow make some kind of money doing beach body, even though he might not be able to work out or have fit club workouts with other people. All I can do is pray for him now, pray and donate money to the Wounded Warrior Project and send him a gift card from time to time. He had enough people telling him to get back up again, he didn't need me telling him that, he needed me to be supportive, but it's so hard. I cringe every time they say things about "Lets just get all those vets with PTSD jobs!!" as if jobs is what they really need, not treatment, not care, not a greater understanding. They do require care, over and above the needs of others who have been discharged and they often are perceived to be chronic whiners. They are people who struggle with things that you can't understand unless you've been through it. It's like trying to go through life living under a stronger gravity than everyone else. There is nothing you can do that comes easily, everything is a struggle to focus and stay focused and even some days to just simply get up and get out of bed. Nothing inside your mind moves. You can't often even remember how to move it. You wish you could, too you can still sometimes barely remember normalcy. Often you just can't even remember what it felt like to be or think normally without angry strange obtrusive weird thoughts cramming into your mind demanding attention when you need to give your attention to something else very important...
Please support any cause that helps our veterans with PTSD and disabling war injuries. It is truly not their fault that they are where they are at. They are all brave and seek a life of purpose and meaning. They are not out championing for themselves, because that's not how most of them are. They need us to fight for them and their rights. Please don't give up on your vet.
If you were to ask my childhood friend, Brett Foley, why he joined the Marine Corps right out of high school, he would probably tell you that he didn’t really know—or that he joined because it sounded cool or because he didn’t know what else he could to do with his life. He told me once that he only got the idea after he saw a commercial on TV.
I think, however, that under the surface there was much more to his decision than that. Serving his country wasn’t necessarily something closely tied with his way of life. It was more something that was necessary for him to pass through and not around. Once it was over, Brett could rest easy knowing that “it” did not need to be done again. The “it” is that something inside us all that demands we do something special. One thing that remains with Marines, no matter what ultimately happens to them: Each of them has a sense of being highly select and of belonging to a highly select group.
That feeling, however, can be lost when the Marine is flung from the battlefield, back into civilian life. When he came back from his second and final combat deployment in the spring of 2010, the world Brett once knew was turned upside down. He couldn’t believe—after all the death he had seen—that he had made it back alive.
Before he could go home, though, he had to finish his contract in Okinawa, Japan. He was a short-timer and only had a couple of months before he could go home for good. After being placed in a new platoon with a new commander and a bunch of new Marines, many of whom had not yet been to war, Brett found that he wouldn’t be doing much of anything in his remaining time with the Corps.
He also found that he could get away with pretty much anything—after all, he was a combat veteran and a short-timer. The non-deploying Marines on Okinawa looked up to him because he had been in the “shit,” and his commanders often turned a blind eye because they knew he was going to be out soon anyway.
One day, Brett was standing in formation while his Sergeant Major was trying to motivate the men, talking about the history of the Corps and what the Marines were accomplishing in Afghanistan. Having been there himself, and feeling justifiably bitter, Brett couldn’t help but think to himself, “Why can’t this guy talk to us like a normal fucking person? Does anyone really buy all this bullshit?”
Before he knew it, he began to shake. Looking back, he thinks it was probably a panic attack. Or maybe he was just so pissed off he couldn’t control what some have called “war tremors.” He was shaking so badly that the Sergeant Major asked him what the hell was wrong with him. It was a nervous tick, he said. He was told to get it checked out by a doctor. Brett decided to drink the tick away.
He would crawl into a bottle as early in the day as possible. Then call his wife back home. Most of the time he didn’t remember calling, and he wasn’t sure the next day what he had actually said to her. A couple of years later, his wife told me that he would call in the middle of the night and tell her about the men he had seen die, how their deaths seemed to be meaningless, and how he wanted nothing more to do with war. They both had had enough.
While he was in Okinawa, Brett had wanted to forget. But once he got home, he realized that forgetting wasn’t a viable option. After months of drinking too much, arguing bitterly with his wife, and struggling to muster the energy to even get out of bed in the morning, something clicked. He realized he was making matters worse by trying to avoid reminders of his trauma. He realized that he needed to remember—and process—what had happened to him in Afghanistan. He realized that only by remembering—and finding the truth—could he make meaning of the seemingly meaningless.
The Greek word for truth, alēthea, means literally “that which is unforgotten.” In his search for the truth, Brett started trying to reconnect with the guys he had served with. He scoured the internet, looking for blogs, YouTube videos, or newspaper articles about the attacks he was in, or about the guys he knew who had been wounded or killed. One day, Whitney came home from work and Brett asked her to take a look at something on his computer screen. He found a website that was started by a man he was with in Afghanistan who was wounded severely in an IED attack. There were pictures of the mangled truck, the pools of blood from the wounded, and the man himself. Whitney struggled to hold back the tears. She asked Brett what had made him look for this man. Brett told her that he needed to know what had happened to him and that he was relieved to learn the man was happy and healthy. Knowing that gave Brett a sense of closure, something he desperately needed to move on with his life.
If it’s one thing Brett has learned, though, it’s that talking about your trauma can help—as long as you can find someone you trust and who helps you to take a fresh look at your experiences. While you may not be able find complete and final truths (none of us can, really), you can create meaning out of your painful experiences by creating a coherent narrative that explains them. That is what Brett has done, and it has made all the difference.
[Photo: AP. If you'd like to share your own story, email Hamilton@Gawker.com]