I have PTSD. I came back with it from my tour in Iraq. I’ve mentioned this indirectly in previous posts.
Honestly, when I went to Iraq I knew about PTSD, however before I went there I really didn’t understand it, despite having been a trauma department chaplain in an urban trauma center. I knew people who suffered from PTSD but presumed that it is not as bad or prevalent at it really is among our veterans.
It actually took me a while to figure out what was going on with me. My assistant and I traveled about all of Iraq’s Al Anbar province working with small groups of Americans working with the Iraqi Army, Border Forces and various police and other security forces. I worked out of a base where when I first arrived a Army helicopter went down and I was greeted with a memorial ceremony for the 5 soldiers killed. This was followed in rapid succession by a number of mass causality events where I was busy praying for and anointing Marines and Soldiers wounded by insurgent attacks along the very roads that I would be traveling on. In my tour I experienced a lot, while we never were in a convoy that got hit, we did take small arms fire, had rockets fly over us and had aircraft come under attack by ground fire and shoot back. We also traveled in convoys of no more than three American HUMMVs and maybe a couple of Iraqi vehicles occasionally having to examine suspected IEDs and go through areas that were rife with insurgents. Additionally we were in meetings where corrupt Iraqi officers were relieved by their Iraqi commanders with the US advisers present. All participants in these meetings were armed except me. Since I came back I have seen several reports of advisers being killed or wounded by renegade Iraqi troops while engaged in humanitarian missions. All of this took a toll, the wear and tear of constant travel in dangerous areas with minimal protection worm me down without me even realizing it. About two thirds of the way through the tour we came back from a mission and some idiotic bureaucratic thing was brought up at our base of operations. I lost it. I was kicking HESCO barriers (big wire and canvas containers that held sand and dirt to protect soft buildings from rockets and mortar fire and cussing when my assistant, RP2 Nelson Lebron puled me aside and said “Sir, you need to get some rest, it’s not worth being upset, they’re idiots.” He was right, but it took me a while to realize what was going on with me. I couldn’t sleep at night and when I came home was in a constant state of anxiety, sleeplessness and was terrified by noise, light and crowds. Situations in traffic sent me into rages. Hyper vigilant I could not relax. The noise of helicopters and sight of certain types of helicopters sent me into flashbacks. Nightmares were common while living with a constant state of anxiety, depression and even paranoia became normal. Even church was painful to visit. A church convocation where I had to fly through Orlando International Airport so traumatized me that I was a wreck for weeks to come. When I came back to my unit from Iraq I found that my personal gear had been moved out of my office and placed in a trailer as the unit was going through a major reorganization. It was not personal on their part, but I felt cast aside by the Navy when I returned. While it was not personal I felt rejected and without a home. Due to the effects of PTSD on my Sailors who had been to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times I was asked to start working on ways to help those traumatized by combat and the loss of friends.
In spite of this I pushed myself hard. I couldn’t believe that there was anything wrong with me. Then the fires in the Great Dismal Swamp began shrouding our area in a pall of smoke the color of which looked like a sandstorm and the smell like burn pits or the acrid smell of burning debris in Iraqi towns was overwhelming. Driving by a cow pasture or sewage treatment plant sent me back to Iraq. During a presentation by a national expert which I had arranged for my unit on the effects of trauma and combat I struggled to keep myself together. My unit doctor looked at me a the end of the day and said. “Chaplain you don’t look good.” I told him “I’m not, I need help.” Thankfully he listened, as did my command. My CO was shocked, I was experienced and well trained, and I was falling apart. My doctor helped me to get the help I needed. My command was brought into the situation and both my old CO and new CO expressed thier support to me. The new CO asked me where a chaplain went for help. I met Dr Elmer Maggard at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center and started to get help. When I transferred to be a staff chaplain at Portsmouth my department head, Chaplain Jesse Tate pulled me aside and told me that he knew my work and would support me in my recovery. He has been good on his word. Other chaplains at Portsmouth have been supportive even on my bad days. My work there on the ICUs with our staff has been healing as I meet others who have experienced PTSD or combat stress reactions. The sharing of experiences and stories of Iraq among people who have been there is healing. Sharing time with Vietnam vets has become important for me too. There is a brotherhood that those of us who have seen danger in a combat zone share which is deep and timeless.
I’m getting better. Chronic pain, fatigue and anxiety are moderating somewhat. Thanks to a fair amount of medications I can sleep much of the time.
Is there a stigma to PTSD? I do think so, thankfully at least the Navy is starting to get things right in dealing with it. I hope that the other services are doing better as well, but I am not sure. Army statistics seem to indicate a major rise in the suicide rate for soldiers. My guess is that I do think that among many there is a stigma. Getting psychiatric or psychological help is still seen by a lot of people as a sign of weakness…some things never change.
Part of my healing process is to let others know about this. I cannot sit back while those that I served with suffer at the hands of cold bureaucracy and discrimation by others who only believe that visible physical injuries matter. George Patton be damned but people traumatized by combat are not weak, and those who espouse Patton’s philosophy in dealing with men and women injured in this manner can go to the infernal regions.
Does this mean that I would not go back to Iraq or to Afghanistan or some other combat zone? No, I would go and even volunteer if my particular skill sets were needed. I would do it for myself and my fellow Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen who serve, not because I am enamoured with war, but because they are my brothers and sisters, fellow warriors who selflessly serve. I can honestly say that I hate war. I have seen what it does to people and nations, I’ve seen suffering and death both of Americans and Iraqis. Unfortunately this war will not be over anytime soon.
Today I saw an article on CNN’s web page about two Army Generals who have decided to share their experience of PTSD. God bless them. The link is here: http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/03/06/generals.ptsd/index.html
I’m lucky. While things have not been easy I’ve gotten help and support. I know others who have not. God bless these and others who have come out about their experiences. Keep them and all of the rest of us in your prayers.