Dealing with PTSD : An inside look from a veteran

Joining the Air Force in 2005 as a Security Forces member (military cop), I knew I would have to deploy at some point in my career. “The war on terror” had been going on for a few years now and deployments were at an all time high.

Some may think that Air Force does not deploy to combat areas on the ground or that they just get comfortable “deployments.” For the most part, this is true. For Security Forces, this is halfway true. There are some places in Asia or even South America that is a very easy going deployment.

Then there is the other ones.

Security Forces specialize in base defense. In most deployed locations the usually guard the perimeter of built up bases. Sometimes, like my first deployment, we pushed outside the wire in QRF (Quick Reaction Force) or ASO (Area Security Operations). In Iraq, my mission was a turret gunner in a 13 person squad in 4 gun trucks. I was either rear or lead gunner with my .50 cal machine gun.

The third day in this job we responded to our first IED strike (Improvised Explosive Device). An Army unit, that was doing the same job as us, got hit on top of a bridge. The gunner was launched from the turret and received minor injuries, but the drive took the main blast of the EFP (Explosively formed penetrator), which is a molten copper slug that can push through most armor. The driver lived an hour after the blast, but due to waiting for the MEDIVAC (helicopter) to pick him up, he bled out and passed away.

Our truck leader had my driver and I dismount, as he stayed in the turret,  to go look up close and personal what this (the IED) could do to us. The blood was dried already, even though it had only been one hour. This sight brought the realization that this was a war and people would be trying to kill me.

That started my first night of barely sleeping.

Over the course of the next few months, the base would be hit many times with mortars, even though they rarely damaged or injured anyone, and our units kept getting hit with ill placed IEDs. The IEDs would explode way ahead of time or in between the units, not damaging anything.

Due to the amount of IEDs being planted in the area, we would have to man the bridge 24 hours a day in rotating shifts. I watched other convoys get hit with IEDs when they would travel from their locations, yet there was nothing we were allowed to do. The British would come and help them while we manned the bridge.

I would gun 5 out of 6 days that I would work a week. My driving day was normally on Wednesday, but for some reason this week it was on a Thursday and I had to drive the squad leader’s truck. I felt so out of place and something didn’t feel right. When we headed out to our bridge, there were no units on the bridge. This immediately threw up some red flags. The Army unit was under the bridge to get out of the sun.

The squad leader had us set up and do our sector sweeps around our trucks. As I was doing mine, I looked down and saw 3 Iraqis lookup up at me, waving, and saying “Hi Americans.” This was another red flag, due to us being in the same location for about 6 months, I did not recognize any of the men. I pointed it out to my squad leader as I started setting up our position more.

As 2 of our gun trucks started driving up to clear another position, one being my normal truck, a PSD unit (private security detail or civilian contractors) flew passed our position. I look up from the trunk on my hummer and shout a cuss word at them for how fast they were going.

That is when the IED went off. The PSD unit was hit roughly 50 yards ahead of our lead truck, but we had no communications for the first 30 seconds with that truck, so the worst went through our head.

It didn’t seem real

One person died immediately from the blast. The driver died minutes later due to shock/blood lost, but we loaded the gunner (the guy that sat in the rear of the SUV) into one of our gun trucks and drove as fast as we could back to base. He lost both legs to the blast. Other units were already there securing the scene.

These were guys that I would see every day at the chow hall. To know they were dead and see their bodies was a shock. Another part of the shock was thinking that could had been me. If I was gunning that day I would have told the guys we should push forward.

To this day, questions still run through my mind. Would I have seen that IED? Would things be different if I was gunning? Would I be dead if I was gunning? Could I have saved their lives if I was gunning? Why didn’t we close off the area?

Nightmares just stayed….

Nightmares happened and kept happening, replaying this situation over and over again. I still had to get up and do my job while deployed. I had to keep it together for the safety of my squad. Everyone on my squad was affected.

We headed back Stateside and went through some evaluations. I was honest on mine saying I was having trouble sleeping because of that day. They kept me on base and I would have to see the counselors nearly every day. They would not sign off on my leave until I was “better”. I just wanted to go home and see my family.

I told them I was better when I wasn’t.

Over the next 2 years it got better. I moved on to my next duty station and wanted another deployment. I was on shift when they told me my next deployment was back to Iraq. Baghdad this time.

That night, the nightmares came back. I started drinking more and more to suppress it. I would never drink and drive or go to work drunk, but anytime I was off work, I was drunk. My deployment changed to Kuwait. But I was still on edge the entire time.

I broke my leg one day at work and it never healed right, so they medically discharged me. I had to go see the VA (Veteran’s Association) for my screening to get out. They checked out my poor sleeping habits and alcohol usage. The doctor managed to get this story out of me and diagnosed me with PTSD. I tried to downplay it as “Oh, just acute PTSD right?” she told me no.

I couldn’t handle having that diagnose. I wasn’t in major combat like the Army or Marines. Sure I watched people die. I watched IEDs go off. Mortars explode. I wasn’t injured though. How could I have PTSD?

After getting out and moving back to Washington State, I stayed busy. I grabbed a fast food job and wanted to keep on moving with my daily life. I was used to working 8 to 12 hour days and having time off killed me. More time off I had the more I would slip into depression. I would drink more. I would be angrier towards loved ones. I never wanted to kill myself though. I have been asked frequently if I ever wanted to self-harm. Simple answer. No. I love myself too much. I have goals.

That didn’t change my thoughts though. I still had the nightmares.

One day, I got a dog. I heard that animals help those with PTSD out a lot. The first time I saw my puppy, I knew I had to have her. Her name is Mercedes.

Mercedes gave me something to care about and look after besides myself. Since it was just the two of us, she was always by my side.

I would wake up to her shaking and licking me. I couldn’t figure out why she was shaking so I would hold her close. Eventually I realized it wasn’t her. It was me. I was shaking. She was licking me to wake me up from the nightmares that I was having.

After that night, I decided to go and get help. My school work was going downhill due to lack of sleep and my overall health was deteriorating. I contacted the VA and they helped me find a counselor. I started to talk with other vets about what they went through and how they coped with it.

It has been a few months since my last nightmare. I am still on guard.

If you have a similar problem, talk to someone. You don’t need to be a vet to have PTSD. Victims of violent crimes, cops, firefighters, or anyone going through something traumatic could have PTSD. My number one advice is not to fight it alone. Get help. I know I have a long battle ahead of me, but it is one I am wanting to fight.

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