Someone once told me that, when a man goes to war, he comes home six feet under or six feet over, and either way it’s in a box. It’s a powerful statement that I didn’t fully appreciate until I took a hard look at myself after coming home from my last tour. The box that I, and so many of my fellow soldiers are in, might be one we fashioned ourselves, but is no less restrictive then a coffin. Ours is made by a complex fear network created out of necessity after the unpredictability of combat. In combat we could control nothing. At home we try and control everything to ease our minds from the past traumas inherent in warfare. We isolate ourselves in a comfortable environment, blocking out the multitude of potential triggers that the outside world might present. While we may be ok while locked away in our box, nobody can live their life like that for long without causing all sorts of other issues. Not to mention, eventually, you have to come out of that box for one reason or another, and deal with those problems you brought home with you – only you have no tools that will help you cope. Our boxes may come in many different shapes and sizes, but they all fall under the title of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In the veteran community we have seen it run rampant after more than a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a profession where feeling or looking weak is not tolerated, most people would rather struggle than show that weakness. I myself was one of those people. It took close to ten years to finally admit that this was a problem in my life. Ignoring my problems left me with unnecessary burned bridges and bad memories. It required education of my symptoms and training to combat these invisible demons. Soldiers in today’s armed forces do not receive formal education to recognize the symptoms of PTSD and our leadership doesn’t recognize it as a problem until Soldiers have gotten into trouble. Before it is effectively recognized, claims of PTSD are often labeled as an excuse for poor behavior. That may be the case in some situations but a competent leader should let a professional decide.
What I hope to do is pass on a better understanding of what PTSD really looks like in a veteran so that we can effectively recognize before affected hit rock bottom. Too many of our brothers and sisters have taken their own lives because of PTSD resulting from their service to our nation. They choose isolation over admitting that they need help because of the stigma that comes along with this condition. As a nation we need to look at changing our pre-conceived notions on what PTSD is and how it affects those who have been exposed to the harsh reality of warfare.
Not many people are immune to the effects of combat. Lest we forget, veterans are often sent to the “darkest” places in the world, environments where brutality and danger are commonplace. Despite this, there are those who think PTSD is the result of a weak mind or spirit and not from exposure to these extreme life situations. Comrades have been known to berate those who admit to this illness because they “clearly have no heart.” To the healthy, it’s unfathomable for it to affect them because they are the hardest, deadliest, most courageous that this country has to offer. In the rank and file, the topic is often joked about: “I thought I had PTSD one time so I took a knee, drank some water, and got the fuck over it. That PTSD shit is made up anyways.” They laugh about how they can’t go to see fireworks on the 4th of July or go to their kids sporting events on weekends because of the crowds like it is normal behavior. The sad part is that a select few condone and even advise behavior like the use of alcohol to deal with the invisible wounds of war. Then turn around and pass judgment on those who seek professional help. How does that make sense?
It’s easy to tell when it begins to wear on some. They might seek out the Jameson or Jack a little too heavily, a little too often. For others, maybe something triggers in their head and they react in a way that is not acceptable or proportionate to the situation. A sufferer might find themselves suddenly laying on top of their crying child, shielding him/her from a loud bang the garbage truck made emptying the contents of their neighbors trash can. Maybe this sounds familiar or maybe it doesn’t. But for some, the symptoms aren’t as obvious. Most often, a competent professional is necessary for diagnosis and treatment.
It took a bunch of people, way smarter than me, to help see the evidence of PTSD in my life. Such a realization required them to educate me on the many faces of PTSD.
Under the Hood
The first thing to understand is that PTSD is the brains common response to an uncommon situation. To be afflicted is not a conscious decision and there is no amount of will power that will suppress it. It boils down to how we are built. We have a portion of our brain that is intelligent and rational. It allows us to reason, learn, innovate and communicate in the advanced way we do but at our core we are still animals with instincts. These instincts or autonomous functions drive things like breathing, heart rate, sleep, and desire to procreate. It regulates all the things we take for granted as living organisms.
Most relevant to the subject of PTSD is our fight or flight response. This basic response tells us to either fight or run in a moment of hostility and will override rational thought in order to survive. It is natural to draw on this instinct a handful of times in your life. Everyone activates this instinct at some point for one reason or another but in the extreme nature of warfare it can leave a lasting impression. In combat this is an absolute necessity for your survival but can be debilitating in normal everyday life at home in the states.
In combat the fight or flight response is turned on 24/7 for as long as you are deployed and as many times you have deployed. We are taught hyper vigilance because we don’t know when or where the danger might strike from. So our brain adapts to this constant state of danger allowing us to tap into our adrenaline quickly when a threat to our lives inevitably presents itself. We become capable of superhuman feats doing things we would normally never think possible in split second. It is through training that we are taught to override the rational part of your brain that would hesitate, and instead react to protect ourselves and our fellow service members.
We essentially rewire our brains to rely heavily on this instinct. As a result, our baser animal mindset begins to dominate the human. It is also important to note that any one traumatic event can cause you to switch on this mechanism because your instincts tell you that you cannot, under any circumstance, experience it again. Your basic instincts have no concept of geography, so when you come home your brain doesn’t know that it has moved to a relative position of safety and you continue to use these practices in your everyday life. Where it is a necessity to live in this way overseas, it is not a healthy lifestyle to maintain for the rest of your life.
War is a dirty business. In order to survive it you have to snuff out any and all connections to humanity. It is much easier to do your job without feeling the weight of all the people back home wanting you to come back safe. If you worry about everything outside of what’s at hand, you may hesitate. We’re taught that hesitation in our line of work means death. So, we trade empathy and compassion for emotions that make sense faced with this situation. Anger and aggression. Anger is the most compatible state of mind to be in to handle the rigors of combat. Humanity, as a basic rule, has a natural aversion to killing members of it’s own species. It only takes seeing the loss of one friend or atrocity by your enemies to allow yourself to be consumed by hatred. That hate and anger makes it easier to rationalize the acts of violence you inflict on other human beings. These emotions paired with our fight or flight response are the best combination for a war zone. But, what happens when we come home?
Homecoming and the Symptoms
So after your deployment you land back in the middle of the United States. Let’s remember that your brain is now rewired to focus on survival with a default emotional state of anger and aggression.
For me, home felt different in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I would run into the symptoms of PTSD but because of pride I pushed them down because that’s what you’re supposed to do to “be strong.” After being around a lot of veterans who suffer from PTSD, I learned that many of us have several things in common.
Anger/Irritability – Often, if a sufferer has a fuse at all, it’s short and soaked in lighter fluid. You snap and lose composure over even the smallest things. Even things you know are trivial in hindsight. No one is safe from this anger. Worst of all is that the closest to us typically receive the brunt of this rage. It creates a rift in the very support channels you need to reintegrate back into society. Your survival instinct recognizes threats and reacts. It takes over and drives us to action much faster than we can reason out that we’re no longer in danger or on deployment. Even something as simple as a criticism from family or friends can feel threatening and you may over react with hurtful words to eliminate that perceived attack. Anger and aggression as your baseline emotions leave you little maneuverability once your survival instincts kick in.
One of the only places left to go for us was from anger to rage. It can culminate into a situation far beyond normal behavior before rational thought could bring you back from making rash decisions. Before you know it you could turn into the incredible hulk following some asshole to their house who cut you off on the highway. You are ready to confront this person with violence for the perceived attempt on your life.
Hyper vigilance – sufferers condition themselves to trust nothing. On deployment you are taught to constantly be on guard waiting for shit to hit the fan. When you bring that home you’re expecting the same moment to come and you may have the added stress of loved ones near that you feel compelled to defend. You begin to modify your basic behavior to make sure that you feel safe. You do things like sit with your back against the wall so you can see the entrance at restaurant or to avoid people walking behind you. You might find yourself switching lanes when you see some litter on the shoulder or swerving when you go under a bridge. You cannot help studying people’s hands and facial expressions for suspicious behavior. You avoid crowds and periodically get up when watching TV to check the locks on your doors and look out the windows. You subconsciously find yourself identifying clearings on the side of the road that would work well for a MEDEVAC. Tiny movements out of the corner of your eyes make you snap your head in whatever direction it comes from.
In our world, the bottom line was, everything is dangerous until we can prove it is safe. For a “normal” person, the opposite is true.
Memory – For you to process your short-term memory, you have to actively pay attention to the information presented to you. How on earth are you going to remember a conversation with your family members with all that hyper vigilance and anger going on? It is hard to remember things when your mind is constantly distracted scanning for danger.
Sleep – Sleep makes you vulnerable. Vulnerability is at odds with your hyper vigilance and your elevated survival instincts. The slightest noise will wake you. Sleeping after deployment for a solid eight hours isn’t an option. We couldn’t let our guard down for that long and now wake up every 2-3 hours like clockwork. The slightest noise would have us pop out of bed like a rocket ready to go. Ready to fight.
Others often agree with me that we slept better on deployment. While our buddies manned the towers of the COP or strongpoint. We could trust them to protect us in our vulnerability. I could sleep because I knew they would be as vigilant on my behalf as I would be for them.
Nightmares – Nightmares are nature’s way of reminding you to keep your guard up. We know our survival instinct is in charge now but sleep is still a necessary function. But our survival instinct gives us some not so subtle reminders of the trauma we’ve experienced to keep us vigilant. If it’s always fresh in your mind, you never will be caught off guard again.
Alcohol – For many of us, getting to sleep, calming down from the hyper vigilance, or relaxing is next to impossible without tools from professional help. But we can’t get diagnosed because PTSD is still against our version of the Warriors ethos and spirit. The good news is, alcohol is a spirit too. One that can be used to fill the void of the one you lost while forsaking your humanity overseas. When you drink you can relax. When you relax you can feel other emotions. You can laugh again. You can be around people again. So you drink to feel good. For others, drinking numbs the pain or puts us into a state of emptiness. If you are haunted by your experiences it can wipe away the pain one drink at a time.
Either way you need that drink. When that drink is not enough you have more. Before you know it you develop a habit. Alcoholic dependence is a dangerous path to go down and has its own set of problems that go with it. It goes for any other substance abuse as well. Think about it really hard. Can you honestly only feel good when you have had a couple of drinks?
My traumatic experiences melted away with every drink. It did for all of us who felt this way. It felt good to feel or to feel nothing at all. Alcohol kills brain cells, but no amount of dead brain cells could make me forget everything permanently. I had to learn that the feeling of happiness or numbness from a substance is not a permanent solution. It was a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound.
Guilt – It’s like an overwhelming sense of anxiety when things are going well in your life. A feeling like you don’t deserve it. You’re reminded that you still have friends down range and some friends that didn’t make it back. You find yourself constantly searching for the negative in everything because happiness is a conflict with the idea that a comrade lost will never experience that happiness again. You have to punish yourself because they’re dead and you’re still alive.
In my mind I replay the events that led to a friend’s death over and over again. My mind would analyze 100 ways I could have done something differently to change the outcome. I made it and they didn’t. It should have been me instead. Guilt is a prick.
In the end I thought about the people who were lost to this war. I thought about their hopes and dreams they had in life. I realized how selfish it was of me to waste the sacrifice they made by punishing myself for being the one to come home. They were good men. They were brothers. I know that they would be disappointed in me for behaving in that way. So I combat the guilt by doing my best to live life to the fullest because I know that’s what I would want if the roles were reversed.
Depression/Isolation – Your home is your castle. Your guns are in your castle. You installed that extra lock and that camera system so you are safe in your castle. You lose your interest in just things or activities outside the castle because it makes you feel safe. You push everyone away because there is no way they will accept your flaws. So, you accept this new reality and stay home and in isolation. Isolation may ensure you do not encounter the anxiety that the world outside your home makes you feel but it comes at a price. The price of bitter loneliness. The price of having the demons in your head as your only companion.
At home we can ignore things that made us feel weak. You can be in control and can put on any face without fear of being judged. Alone no one would see the underlying problems.
So you went to war and came home. People are happy to see you but you aren’t as excited to be home as you thought you would be. You look into their eyes and see the “naivety of their sheltered lives.” People care more about some cat video on Facebook or what Miley Cyrus did this week to end up in the tabloids, then all the dangers around them that only you can see. Meanwhile, you can’t shake the feeling that danger is waiting around every corner.
You find yourself wishing you were back overseas where life was simpler. Kill or be killed. You miss your unit and the people you deployed with because they are the only ones who can truly relate to what you have been through. You need to talk about the shit you are feeling but you remember, saying so is a sign of weakness.
The bad feelings and the inner turmoil can lead to a snowball effect with dire results. If you aren’t the person described I can almost guarantee you know someone who fits part or all of these symptoms. The real question is “What do I do next?” What if I’m not this person but I know this person?
Talk to someone. Whether it’s you that is experiencing a little anxiety or unease after deployment or you know someone exhibiting the characteristics above, talk to someone. If you’re friend has these issues pull them aside privately. Let them know you’re there. If you’re a fellow Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Devil Dog remember we had each other’s back overseas, and we’re there now that we’re back too. Encourage them to speak to a professional because getting through it will get you back to “normal”.
If you are the one going through it? Calling one of your buddies is probably out of the question in your mind. But pick your closest friend and try them. They will likely surprise you with how much they care and how little they judge you. Chances are they are hiding demons of their own for the same reasons you are. You are not broken or weak. We didn’t choose how war or trauma affected us but we can choose not to let it dictate the rest of our lives. You can keep all of the experience and wisdom you found as a warrior but leave behind the baggage. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it to feel free. And hey, it’s freedom that we’re fighting for right?
If you still feel that a friend or loved one isn’t the right person to turn to for you. Please remember that there are confidential counseling services to you and other members of the military. They are free of charge and COMPLETELY CONFIDENTIAL. If you’re still in, your command will never know you called one. If you’re out, they won’t be calling the local media to tell everyone how “jacked up you are” in the head. Just pick up the phone and talk to someone. There are no judgments.
Healing begins with fostering an environment of understanding and compassion for those individuals who are battling PTSD. No matter what your personal beliefs are on the subject it is up to everyone to place judgment aside to help. If this is not fought on a unified front we will continue to see men and women fall through the cracks. We once vowed never to leave a fallen comrade and it’s time to make good on that promise.
List of free confidential resources:
Military One Source (for active duty and reserve)
1(800) – 273 – 8255
Department of Veterans Affairs
Veterans Crisis Hotline (for veterans)
1(800) – 273 – 8255 extension 1
Department of Veterans Affairs
Veterans Crisis Hotline Chat (for veterans)
A special thanks to @thislawyersays former SGT, USMC for his contribution to ensuring this message is clearly heard and his continued support of the veteran community.