Welcome to week three of the PTSD Awareness Series here on Alpaca Roaming. Thank you for revisiting the blog but if this is your first week reading I thank you and encourage you to check out the other articles both on the subject of PTSD as well as the food memory series. This week I will be covering the topic of PTSD in the armed forces. It is what most people familiar with PTSD associate as the cause of this dis-ease but as I have covered in the past two articles, PTSD can occur from any traumatic experience. In each week of the series I have dedicated a certain subject to the article to both bring awareness to the specific topic but also to expose you as the reader to the various symptoms associated with PTSD, the different causes of PTSD and the various coping tools for PTSD as well. More on coping tools in another article.
I have several friends, family members, colleagues and acquaintances who have served in the various branches of the U.S. military. For this article, I spoke with a friend and colleague about his Army experience and life with PTSD.
I work with a man named John who retired from the army after 18 years of service. He was deployed to Afghanistan, Korea, Alaska and then some. We have come to know each other fairly well and I even jokingly call him my big brother from time to time. The joke is funnier when you know that I am a “pagan” Andean Native from Venezuela and he is a German Catholic. He is a good man who, like many of our military personnel, experienced things that we as civilians will never experience nor understand. John and I both have PTSD and every once in a while we even talk about it.
John comes from a family of men who have served in various military branches. His father served as an air force pilot, but not just any pilot. He was one of the top pilots in the country and every couple of years when a new plane came out he would study, train and pass the exam to fly the new aircraft. John’s brother served in the army just like him but they had different careers within that branch. John started his career as an Artillery Meteorologist but spent most of his career there after as an M240B gunner. They are called “Smoke” in the army. He also served as an air traffic controller during his career.
From time to time John and I will keep each other company and chat over a beer after our kitchen shift. It’s a chance to decompress and come down from the adrenaline rush of dinner service. He quickly found out that as an Army Brat I actually know some of the military terminology and he could talk to me about some things that he simply can’t with others, not even his wife. Now to be clear, John’s wife is amazing, this is not a shaming moment of a spouse. It’s a difference of life experience. She did not come from a military working class family, John and I did. We also both have PTSD. Those three life experiences are what drew John and I to be friend outside of the dinner shift. We understand the large pieces of each others lives while most others do not and when you find someone on the same page as you you are grateful.
One night we tried different bar just across the street from our own kitchen and I asked if he would mind sharing some more details of his experiences in Afghanistan. He told me about the 18 hour missions, the sleep deprivation and how it affects him now as a civilian. He and his team coped with a dark sense of humor, not at all uncommon under the circumstances.
They would make bets on who was going to die first before they started their mission. John would say, “I’ll be the first one to go today, I’ve gotten this far and I’m still alive so today is the day my time runs out.” Another man would say, “No way! Based on my position in the caravan I’ll be the guy who gets his head blown off!” And it would continue like that one team member at a time and they would start their mission.
John recalled a time when his team had completed their mission and another team was geared up and ready to relieve them. The men were ready for their break as some were heading back state side while others were to remain in country but were being relieved until their next mission. When a commanding officer approached John and another team member that they needed to go right back out with the relief team they clearly were not excited for two back to back missions. That’s when the darkness circled back but it was no longer humorous. John and his buddy looked at each other and reluctantly followed orders. As a Smoke, he was standing in the tank operating the gun but was strapped into a harness, John called this his ‘sex harness’ because of how it looked. The harness would keep him in place in the event of a roll. With out even looking at me he told me, “When we were ordered to go back out with the relief team I decided this is it. I got into my sex harness and accepted that I wasn’t going home…This is it…This is going to be the day I die. I wasn’t suppose to be there. I was suppose to be relieved with the rest of my team but instead they sent me and another guy back out. This is the day I die.”
I’ve heard stories like this before. These folks know how dangerous their job is and make peace or pray to their God or otherwise cope with the fact they they will likely be injured or die. We all cope in various ways and we are all coping for different reasons but what our military personnel experiences is something that no civilian ever will nor need to learn how to cope and for that I will always have a soft spot for those in uniform.
While I’m not in the habit of recommending television and movies as a reference for learning about PTSD, I have admittedly come across a few productions that are fairly accurate. You’re The Worst, was actually recommended to me by a friend in Tennessee who is a physician and did rotations at the VA during internship and residency. While she does not work for the VA nor specializes in PTSD cases, she does remember some very powerful moments during her education there. The episode she specified as particularly pertinent to me and my writing about PTSD in an effort to spread awareness on the subject was episode number five from season three entitled “Twenty-Two.” For those not aware, twenty-two is the number of veterans who commit suicide daily. In this television series, Edgar, played by Desmind Borges, is increasingly struggling with PTSD due to his time in the military.
While his PTSD is a part of the series, this particular episode revolves round him and what a single day is like for someone living with PTSD. Something else I’m not in the habit of doing is admitting to crying, but folks, I cried during this episode because every bit of it made sense. While PTSD varies from case to case, the broad strokes of it still resonated with me and some of his coping tools in the episode and coping tools discussed between him and a supporting character are things that I have done to cope as well. Again, more on coping before the end of the month.
To give you a quick synopsis of a day in the life of PTSD for Edgar, the episode starts with him not being able to sleep. He eventually gets up and starts dancing to the music playing in his headphones. He tries to go to sleep after that but it doesn’t happen so he puts on his music again and goes for a run until he encounters a car that comes to a screeching halt and a young man runs out of the car. You can tell Edgar’s training and triggers kick in because he runs behind a car and moves from one to another, getting closer to the danger ahead. When the car drives past him and a newspaper is thrown out of the window at his feet both he and the viewer realize that someone is just delivering newspapers, there was never any danger.
Edgar has other triggers. Bags of garbage on the side of the road are potentially IED’s (Improvised Explosive Device), people in a grocery store looking at him are tracking his movements because they are part of the enemy force, the person tailgating in the car behind him is part of a surveillance operation, a worker in the bucket of a boom-type powered elevating work platform is a sniper, and the list goes on.
John shared with me that when he came back to Colorado on leave he had a very difficult time walking downtown because he was doing threat assessments in his mind for all of the buildings surrounding him. While his threat assessments are based in military training, I have my own threat assessment process based on my assault during the Summer of 2017. When men walk past me, especially behind me, my body tenses, my breathing slows to a near halt and I am ready to fight and defend myself or run to safety. There is no prejudice as to the race or ethnicity of men who cause this reaction, it’s any man, not just the ethnicity of the man who assaulted me.
Edgar went for a run in the middle of the night to help him sleep. A few months after my assault my insomnia worsened and I didn’t sleep for several days. I kept going to the gym in the middle of the night in an attempt to exhaust myself into sleep but it barely worked. To be honest, I was going through another round of, “I’m afraid to sleep,” so even though I was barely functioning at least I wasn’t having nightmares those nights.
PTSD is a complicated, misunderstood and often mishandled dis-ease that it requires so much more education and awareness than what is typically available. If you have PTSD, as difficult as it is, I urge you to advocate for yourself. If you know someone with PTSD, as awkward as it is, I urge you to listen to your friend or family member. Reach out by giving them a call, sending a text, taking them out for coffee. You don’t have to say, “So how’s that PTSD going? I hear it’s a real bitch!” But just the act of being there means more than that person is often able to say. Below are a few repeat resources and a new resource. Until next week my dears, remember to be good to yourself and to one another. It’s what makes us human.
Colorado Crisis Services: 1-844-493-8255
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK(8255)