PTSD and the Courage to ask for help

There is an epidemic happening among our returning service men and women, it is known as PTSD- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Back during WWI and WWI it was known as shell shock, in Vietnam it was called combat fatigue, today it is PTSD, but it is the same thing. And it has come to light in recent weeks due to veterans being involved in various crimes, and committing suicide. Most recently in the case of SSG Bales who is accused of killing 17 Afghan citizens. The cause is Soldiers going to combat and doing and seeing things that no human should ever have to do or see. Young men and women are sent into combat and told the enemy is evil and it is their duty to kill that enemy, many of these young men and women are given basic combat training, given a rifle and taught how to fire it, given a radio and taught how to talk on it,  given a truck and taught how to drive it, but never told what to expect in a kill or be killed situation. It is against human nature to take another human life, 99% of humans will not kill even if it means they will die, it’s just hard-wired into us to preserve life not take it. Yet time and again we send our young men and women into combat and expect them to be able to just kill the enemy, and expect them to come home in one piece.

Well I’m here to tell you it doesn’t work like that. No one can go into combat and come back unfazed, it’s impossible, unless of course they are a sociopath or a psychopath to begin with. Even if they come home physically in one piece there are some injuries you can not see. I know this from first hand experience, I have been to combat four times in the last six years, twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan. I have been involved in fire fights, been struck by multiple IED’s, shot in my chest plate, been in hand to hand combat, and I have killed my enemy. I knew something had changed for me during my first tour. It was New Years Eve 2005, I was in my rack and the British Explosive Ordnance Disposal team decided to blow up 2 tons of explosives. It shook my hooch, I didn’t even think, I just grabbed my gear and ran out the door, I saw a shadow coming around a building with what looked like a gun. I took aim and right before I shot a buddy of mine grabbed me and asked what the hell I was doing. I shook my head and came back to reality, the shadow I saw was a third country national who had just cleaned the latrines and was carrying a mop. My buddy took me to the combat stress docs right then and there. That was when I realized something wasn’t right. But me being the good Soldier I was I ignored it. I went back out there and kept on doing my job. When I got home I was having problems sleeping, and I was going through drastic mood swings, but I thought it would pass. I was having anxiety attacks but didn’t realize it at the time. I thought this was normal and would pass.  After I got home from Iraq the second time I still had some problems but no one was talking about PTSD, so I kept it inside, I didn’t want to seem weak, I didn’t want to screw up my career with a mental health diagnosis, so I kept it to myself. Then the Military started talking about this new thing medical problem- PTSD. A scary new problem, a problem that affected weak Soldiers, and I wasn’t weak.

Then I deployed to Afghanistan, I thought it was just another deployment, no big deal, I got this. Then I came home. And my problems were getting worse, I would jump at any little noise, I couldn’t drive my car without seeing IED’s everywhere. I wasn’t sleeping, and I couldn’t even get through shopping at Wal-Mart without having a panic attack. I thought I was going crazy, I started having nightmares anytime I got to sleep, which wasn’t all that much. I thought I was losing my mind. I had to do something. So as much as I hated it I went to see a behavioral health specialist, which is Army speak for a shrink. I couldn’t keep going like I was, and my family deserved better than what I had become.  I was shocked after talking to the doc, he diagnosed me with the dreaded PTSD, along with depression. I was like no way, I’m stronger than that. Then after we talked for a while I realized this was what was going on with me. He described the racing thoughts, the nightmares, sleep problems, the drastic mood swings, the anxiety, I still didn’t want to believe it. But there it was, I had PTSD. And you know what, with therapy and through medication I came through it and continued my Army career. I came far enough along that I was able to deploy with my unit to Afghanistan again, for what would be my last deployment.

PTSD is not an ailment of the weak, not only “bad” Soldiers get it. It is not visible, and you can’t just look at some one and tell they have it. Seeking help for it does not show weakness, it actually shows the exact opposite, it shows strength and courage to stand up and say, “Hey there is something wrong, and I need help.” No one can deal with it alone, it takes help to get out from under the weight of PTSD. I urge every one out there who knows not only a returning veteran, but also the community first responders, police, fire fighters and paramedics, because they also do and see things normal people don’t, I urge you to talk to them and if you think something isn’t right, speak up. Some times those effected by PTSD can’t see the problem.  And if they blow you off and say everything is good, do everything in your power to get them help. If you have to call the paramedics, have them taken to the hospital and get checked out. Yes they might resent you at the time, but when they get the help they need, they will thank you.

If you do know someone who is effected by PTSD don’t trivialize their problems. Listen to them, try to be understanding, no you will never totally understand, just listen and be supportive. Don’t tell them they can deal with it on their own because they can’t. They need professional help. PTSD is not a death sentence, unless it is left untreated. If some one you love says, or does things that make you believe there is a problem encourage them to get help. In the end it shows real strength to ask for help. There is an epidemic out there, but through education, care and encouragement, we can help end it.

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