News: A Soldier’s struggle with PTSD
Story by Capt. Thomas Blackburn
CHEYENNE, Wyo. – My first nightmare occurred right before I came home from Iraq for my mid-tour leave.
As I slept, my dream sent me out on to the streets of Mosul, Iraq, a place I was very familiar with after seven months of patrolling there.
In this inaugural terror, I was doing my job, leading my platoon on a combat patrol through a neighborhood. After passing a checkpoint manned by the Iraqi Army, I stopped my truck, and got out to talk to one of the soldiers. As I exited my vehicle, a man approached me, lifted his hand to shake mine, smiled, and blew up.
I jolted awake in my bed back on Forward Operating Base Marez, sweating, shaking, and terrified.
That was the beginning of a non-stop, multi-round boxing match with my sleep. I returned home in January 2009, and still suffer through what many other comrades share: restless sleep, anger, heightened awareness, and incredible discomfort in crowds, to name a few.
It’s called combat stress, shell shock, battle fatigue, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Whatever the names, it's all the same in relation to its effect on a combat vet.
And it’s common.
In my family alone, I have two people who suffer from the disorder. My father, who was present when I got home from Iraq, told me that he still had nightmares from his one year tour in Vietnam in 1969. That was 40 years before my deployment! Even more shocking, he told me he had a nightmare not more than three days before I got back home.
I also had a brother who participated in the initial Thunder Run to Baghdad in 2003. He suffers from several symptoms of PTSD, and we shared war stories over lunch countless times while I was stationed in Indianapolis, our hometown. Some of his strongest nightmares that grip him relate to the United Nations bombing, where his unit was one of the first on the scene after the explosion.
As for me, I spent 15 months in a city that had become labeled by media as the "Last Stronghold of Al-Qaeda in Iraq."
In 2008, Baghdad was becoming safer, so many enemy elements focused on Mosul, and it was a battle. Within a month of my company's initial combat operations, I had hit three improvised explosive devices, one directly, been mortared, ordered my platoon to fire seven main gun rounds from our tanks, and been the target of numerous rocket attacks and small arms fire. This was against an enemy force that refused to stand still and fight for more than moments at a time.
Others had much more intense deployments than me. My brother was in firefights almost every day when he was there in 2003. My experience was concentrated on reopening routes the enemy had littered with IED’s and work with Iraqi security forces to retake their city. The enemy wanted to hide and attack my platoon at their choosing. They were ghosts. Therefore, every day, I stressed and wondered, where was the next ghost strike going to be?
Luckily, I made it through the rest of the deployment. In fact, my whole platoon returned back to their families safe. However, my war was not over.
Within a week of lying in my own bed, with my wife, and sheets that smelled Downy fresh, I suffered two nightmares. My honeymoon phase lasted through my first two months until after my return to work from block leave. Immediately, I became impatient, quick to anger, and completely emotionless, especially to my family members. This was the complete opposite of my personality before I left.
My wife Bethany was pregnant with our first child, but I felt little excitement or joy. I didn't care about my son's birth. All I wanted to do was be by myself, alone. Television shows I loved prior to my deployment no longer interested me, I quit planning or doing dates with my wife, and I grew very defensive in discussions. I had little joy for life, so Bethany worried. My family back home worried. My dad knew the road I was on and called to check up on me constantly.
However, prior to me leaving Iraq, before talking to my dad three days after my return, I had already made a commitment. Not knowing how I was going to be when I returned, I already had a premonition that I was going to have trouble adjusting and therefore sought counseling immediately.
Others in my unit waved off the idea of seeing a counselor because they thought they didn't need it, that there would be an image of weakness, or that they could handle their personal business on their own. At in-processing at Fort Hood, when asked if I wanted counseling help, I blurted yes before the nurse finished reading her script. That week I was in front of a social worker. My appointments quickly became twice a week visits.
As a leader, I wanted to prove that seeking help was not a weakness and so I told everyone what I was doing. My platoon. My chain of command. Veterans I talked to at restaurants or at the mall. Everyone. I admitted I wasn’t myself and my family suffered. But I was seeking as much help as possible.
I have not met an active military person in my whole career who acknowledged that they were seeking help. I don't know if they fear others knowing, but I refused to stay quiet about my troubles. What my leaders and peers thought of my mental fortitude mattered little to me; I only cared about sharing my journey. The fact that my father, who had several troubled marriages and an emotional exterior like a bulldozer, never sought his own treatment, made me realize that his past had a lot to do with who he had become as an older man. That wasn't going to be me.
Looking back on that first year I was back from Iraq, I can honestly say two things kept me moving in a positive direction. My wife, who survived my deployment to only go through a tumultuous time during my adjustment, stood by me, willing me to help myself. She refused to let me sink into a dark hole. Then there was my son. It was imperative for me to maintain my marriage, and therefore heal myself mentally, so that he wouldn't be raised in a divorced household. I went through that and didn't want to do it to him.
But the healing process wasn’t quick, it’s one that can go on for years.
While I was initially going to my social worker, I grew frustrated with my work environment. I was given the opportunity and time to seek my counseling, but, I quickly felt like no one cared. In fact, during a 10-month assignment to a staff position in 2009, my supervisors knew of my struggles, but not one person asked how I was doing until the day I conducted my exit counseling.
That bothered me, not so much for me, because I didn’t need their assurances that I was doing well, but it made me worry about the soldiers out there who had problems and didn’t feel like they could address them. I made it my mission to ask every soldier I knew how they were doing, especially if they had returned from the deployment with me. If they did say things weren’t going well, I then offered myself to help them. I drove soldiers to counseling sessions, I took texts from those seeking advice, and I provided phone numbers of those who could talk a person down from a bad night.
Now, I’m five years removed from Iraq and I’ve improved. I still don't allow my son to have balloons at home in case they pop, or remain uneasy when popcorn pops (sounds like an AK weapon). I still battle my remorseless attitude, but I feel more tuned to my family’s needs. The time it takes me to get frustrated is still quick, but Bethany and I work together to keep me calm and relaxed through talking and awareness.
Even with my time home, I still face challenges. But, I continue to seek mental healing, even this far out from my traumatic events. In total, I have seen five counselors in multiple session settings since 2009. I will continue to seek more counseling if I feel that times get tough for me in the future. Hiding behind a false bravado or afraid to come forward won't work well in the long run. Look at my dad. He lived the majority of his life with his demons. I might do the same, but I have the knowledge and awareness going forward to overcome it.
Now, when my nightmares come, I wake up, remind myself it’s not real, and roll back over and go back to bed.