Two years ago I was preparing to leave EOD Group Two and getting ready to move over to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. At that point in my life I was falling apart. The ravages of PTSD, depression and chronic pain from shoulder, knee and ankle injuries sustained in Iraq had taken their toll. Chronic anxiety, flashbacks, night terrors, vivid and disturbing dreams of Iraq, nearly uncontrollable emotions that ranged from intense sadness complete with that girl thing of crying to intense anger and rage, especially in traffic were a daily staple of life. Fear of large crowds, noise and light sensitivity panic in airports and fear of new places brought me more isolation and pain. I went to the new assignment with trepidation but with a desire to make an impact.
When I got to Portsmouth I did my best to cover up the affects of PTSD and everything else that I mentioned in my life for the sake of work. I threw myself into the job; especially the patient and staff care aspect of it. I worked painfully long hours usually due to my own need to know that I was still of some use despite all that was wrong with me and I ended up getting worse and not better. I was in therapy and most of my colleagues and my boss tried to take care of me although I’m sure that they probably wondered if I was salvageable at times. I am thankful for their support as it was needed and vital to getting me through but I still sunk down deeper into the abyss. Nothing was getting better and I even doubted if God was even around, or if he was around if he even gave a damn about me. I was experiencing what I am now not afraid to call, not just PTSD but let me call it what it is, mental illness. In addition I was in a full-fledged crisis of faith. During the year I had experienced the loss of a number of friends and colleagues and each one deeply affected me plunging me deeper into depression. Christmas of 2008 was the worst that I had ever experienced from a spiritual point of view. I left the Christmas Eve Mass at my wife’s church before the Mass began into the night for an hour before I got home. I looked up at the sky and cried much of the time wondering if God was there and if he was wondered if he had abandoned me. As I got worse I stopped doing the things that I needed to do to take care of myself, good nutrition and exercise was out the door and I gained 25 pounds in 6 months and ended up on the fat boy program. By late August I was in worse shape than I had been the previous September and it was in mind, body and spirit.
For someone like me this was almost more than I could handle and my boss, recognizing that I was not doing well pulled me kicking and screaming out of the ICU and PICU and pushed me to take care of myself and get help. I began to do this but if you have been as down as I was you understand that recovery doesn’t happen in a day, or even a week. It is a continuous and often painful process mixed with times where you begin to see occasional fleeting glimpses of hope. I struggled for the next three months until a couple of weeks before Christmas I was called to the ER and in a moment of grace in the midst of my own despair I was called upon to perform Last Rites for a retired physician that was Episcopalian. As I performed the Sacrament he breathed his last, his wife and son said it was like he was waiting to receive that before he died. Something happened that night and things began to turn around, unfortunately the young Intern physician that called me to the scene and with whom I took remedial PT tests and nutrition classes died a little over a month later.
However, Christmas of 2009 was different, for the first time since I was in Iraq I felt joy, and slowly things began to turn around. The first part was spiritual, the next physical and psychological. Each month I got a bit better and it was if a thick blanket of California Central Valley Thule fog was dissipating with the sun beginning to peek through. In February I was felled by a kidney stone for a month, my physical recover was slowed but didn’t stop. Spiritually things were getting better, on the psychological side of the house my PTSD symptoms were evening out, panic attacks were going away and for the first time since before Iraq I was beginning to sleep.
In June I had three events that converged to change my life. I was selected for promotion for Commander on June 22nd, or at least that was when the message was released. The next day my dad who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for nearly 7 years passed away and two days after his memorial service I found that I was being transferred to be the Command Chaplain of the Naval Hospital at Camp LeJeune North Carolina.
As far as promotion I am grateful to my boss because I showed up damaged and was not fully functional he chose to grade me on my potential for service on my fitness reports and made sure that what went to the promotion board was something that would help my selection. I would guess based on my knowledge of the system that not many senior chaplains or for that matter senior officers would do the same thing. I would have been dealt with like I was a broken piece of equipment and allowed to serve out my career but never rising to anything more than that. This leads me into the transfer which will allow me to get my feet wet as the Command Chaplain of a decent sized hospital on a very busy base which is fully engaged in the war. It will be challenging and I will supervise three chaplains and three enlisted religious program specialists. Much of what I have learned recently will help me in that job and I hope to do well in it to serve the patients and staff in that hospital. I want to be a good boss to the men and women that work in the department and hopefully am able to do some things that will knit pastoral care even more tightly into the interdisciplinary team for better care of patients, their families and hospital staff.
I have mixed feeling about leaving. I will really miss the people that I have worked with the past two years. I will not miss the perpetual staff shortages and having to be the go to guy so often, maybe even get to take some leave that is actually the kind for refreshment versus taking care of family emergencies.
My friends at Portsmouth will be that and I will miss them and keep up with as many as I can through e-mail and Facebook. Some have been, are being or will be stationed in LeJuene and it will be great to be with them in North Carolina.
Today was a frustrating day that kept me going all day and with the exception of my PT test which I crushed with 100 sit ups, 70 pushups and just under 12 minutes for the 1.5 mile run, which I did on a stationary bike so the calorie count was converted to the run time. Not too bad for a 50 year old. I would have done the run as my ankle and knees are fully healed but I couldn’t do it until noon when the temperature was too hot. When I get to LeJeune I will do the run. My interval training and PT program coupled with my diet is paying great dividends. I have lost 4.5 inches around my belly since late November 2009, lost 16 pounds and 10% body fat, going from 32% body fat to 22%. I am not done as I want to lose 3 more inches around the belly and 10-12 more pounds of weight. I’d like my body fat to be under 20% and keep it there, getting lower of I can.
I’ll have some more reflections over the next couple of weeks. My friends in the ICU are planning something for me and I am really blessed to have such great friends and colleagues. I am told that the pastoral care staff will have a good-bye as well, but that is kind of expected, the real joy for me comes from the people that I have gone through difficult times within the ICU in the high stress environment of live and death situations, ethical consults and pastoral care administering prayers, counsel and sacraments to our patients, their families and our staff, my friends. That means more than almost anything to me as they have walked with me through the darkness.