Being in Iraq was in Many Ways Less Frightening than Being in the USA
I find it interesting and sometimes painful to see how institutions and some people within the institution will label those of us who have gone to war and came back as gooned up with PTSD. The biggest tension and issue, and I admit it as my own is that we get stereotyped and sometimes viewed as “broken.” I admit that I have issues, in fact a lot of frickin’ issues and I have a pretty good awareness of them. I see Elmer the Shrink to help me through the rough spots but there are times when I bump across those that appear to use my condition as a weapon against me. Whether it is intentional or not, it is not fun to deal with. I’ve had it happen a few times since I have started getting help last year and every one of the people involved were people who have not been to combat to use a pejorative term from Vietnam they are REMFs .
I know several others who have experienced this mentality. We all feel really vulnerable because all of us have opened up to people, or to use the Star Trek analogy to “drop our deflector shields.” Pulling down shields makes you vulnerable, if you do it because you think you are in a safe area. When you take “friendly fire” is really sucks. It is actually easier in theater. If I was sent to Iraq or Afghanistan today I would be back in my element and probably suffer little from PTSD symptoms. Sometimes I wonder if the Navy would be better off to ship me over again. Admittedly with the health of my parents and a position at my medical center that is important for me to remain in for the time being, there is something that says at some point I need to go back, maybe not now but later. See out there the PTSD defensive reactions fit. There are bad guys and good guys, friend and foe and the body and brains’ reaction to real or perceived danger are natural. I am wary of people until I figure out if they are friend or foe. When I make a mistake in my IFF it usually bodes ill for me.
When you come back out of that environment you find that even though you are “home” that you have changed and nothing is the same as it was before. Your body and brain have divided the world into two camps, friend and foe or safe or unsafe or maybe even secure versus dangerous. In my life I notice this with people as well as situations such as being on the road in our nutty Hampton Roads traffic which by the way even if you don’t have PTSD is quite the adventure I have become a very offensively minded defensive driver with faster reflexes and reaction time than I had before I went to Iraq. I have to say that I am now a very aware person to perceived threats and actually that is not a bad thing of itself. In Iraq I was probably operating at a 9 or 10 of ten on my perceptions of and reactions to real and perceived danger. Since I have returned and gotten some therapy I probably operate at a 3.5 to 4 most of the time and depending on the situation move up higher sometimes being very aware of possible danger and hyper-vigilant . Before I went to Iraq I probably operated at about a 1-2 on the scale of 10, pretty oblivious to danger and not too worried about it either. Truthfully I am happy at an increased level of the 3.5-4 and maybe on occasion 5. I don’t like getting up above 7-8 because it really makes a mess of my nerves and general requires that I take my docile pills. Recently I’ve had a few of those days. Trust me it is no fun to have a nervous tremor. When that happens I feel like Gene Wilder’s character in Blazing Saddle’s Jim the Waco Kid response when Sherriff Bart (Cleavon Little) questions him:
Jim: Look at my hand.
[raises hand and holds it level]
Bart: Steady as a rock.
Jim: [raises his other hand, which is violently trembling] Yeah, but I shoot with this one.
Although I can occasionally find some morbid humor in what is going on with me I can’t say that it is any fun.
There is a perception by some, which I think is often systemic in parts of the military that people with PTSD are “broken.” Some in the system as well as others who have been granted the privilege of knowing your vulnerability consciously or unconsciously sometimes use it against you, I personally think it is intentional when this happens but I try to give the benefit of the doubt to the offender. Like I said before this has happened to my on a number of occasions and in every instance I have felt attacked, devalued and re-traumatized and I don’t like that feeling and it takes me a while to get back through all the crap. When it happens to me I get angry, defensive and now as opposed to my pre-Iraq life will shoot back. I’ve stopped rolling over and letting people get away with this behavior and when I see it happen to others I get equally pissed. Unfortunately I have a number of friends who have had similar experiences and as we share our stories we realize that some people or even the system in general will write you off as damaged goods. What is the bad thing is that the worst comes from people who have not been in harm’s way. Likewise, if they went to a combat zone never left one of the big FOBs and never had to deal with the danger of being outside the wire. Nor have they experienced what many medical personnel who remained on the big FOBs experienced in dealing with never ending trauma of dealing with the death, wounding and suffering of young Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen. Another group are the men and women who perform the tasks of getting the fallen back home. One of my Chaplain friends had this job in Kuwait and had to meet every aircraft with the bodies of the dead leaving theater performing memorials and conducting honors all the time caring for those who cared for the bodies of these Americans and came back in pretty bad shape.
What saddens me is that this still attitude of men and women dealing with PTSD being “broken” or as one called me a “shipwreck” happens even though we have been making the conscious effort since Vietnam to treat people traumatized by war. The end result is that those who are traumatized are again and again re-traumatized by the system as well as individuals in it. I have seen enough of this to make me throw up. Thankfully the Navy as a whole does better in this than the Army, Marines or Air Force but there is a lot to be done. When I have a REMF screw with me or my friends it does get to me and I can say that I get angry and the person moves out of my “circle of trust.”
Likewise I get discouraged and when I see my countrymen from both of the major political parties, elected officials and regular party members tearing themselves and the country apart because of the hatred that they have for each other and each other’s positions on the issues that face our nation. I came home at the beginning of the 2008 primary season and within a short time became quite disheartened by what I saw on both sides of the line. There is no civility in the land and no peace at home for those of us coming home from war. We come back and see our brothers and sisters, fellow Americans all saying and doing things doing things that can only in the long run further divide and destroy the nation. I can understand the anger that the returning German soldiers and sailors of the First World War came home to in 1918-1919. It seems that the only thing that we lack to be like Weimar Germany is for right and left wing militias begin fighting in the streets, killing each other and trying to take over power by force. As it is these are fighting at political rallies and raising the invective to frightening levels. In the case of one protest men brought semi-automatic assault weapons to protest outside of a venue the President was speaking at. They said it was a Second Amendment rights protest but all that is needed is for one deranged individual to act on a homicidal urge to blow the whole damned place up. I have seen the results of such folly in both the Middle East and the Balkans and I just don’t get it, it is frightening to me and the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum seem like they are doing their damnedest to destroy the country that I love so much and went to war to serve. Regardless of what extreme they are on I just say a pox on them all.
I have been asked a number of times why I would open myself up and show my vulnerability on this website. It is certainly not for fun when I deal with this subject because I am really wound up in it. When I write I often have to live the experience again. While many times this is emotionally draining it is something is something that I know that I have to do. I know so many vets from the current wars and Vietnam who struggle with some of the very things that I do and often a lot more but do not have the ability to really share their stories. The Marines who fought at Hue City are a group that I still have contact with as are people from my last base chapel job, the Vietnam Veterans of America men who man the beer stand at the Church of Baseball Harbor Park Parish, Wayne the Army Chaplain and decorated Vietnam infantry scout who dealt with his own PTSD and helped me in my discernment process to become a Chaplain. Likewise I have this connection with my brothers and sisters who have served in Iraq and or Afghanistan. In a sense what I want to do in my articles about PTSD as well as those about my tour in Iraq is to help people who have not been or not experienced this to get some understanding of what happened to me and to many others. I don’t want guys to fall through the crack like in Vietnam and I think that educating the public is the best way of raising the issue and helping people care for us. So I guess this is my “cause” and maybe even a crusade. I hope and pray that those who love and care for our combat veterans who read this will take the time to learn, take the time to care and take the time to be with us as we walk through the often dark places that we walk.
Today was not a good day for me it was very painful but at least I was able in this post to use it to help explain what we who deal with our return from war go through. I guess that the Deity Herself knew what she was doing today. Pray for all of us who live in the surreal world of PTSD as we pray for you and our nation. Pray for me a sinner.