Meadville Tribune

Opinion

April 17, 2014

Many veterans suffer PTSD, which needs to be dealt with

Initially, I intended this article to be about PTSD “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” I wanted to write about the myths and misconceptions that those four words may hold. But as the days went by, the story just wouldn’t come together for me. Everything I typed seemed to miss something. There was no feeling.

I struggled for a few days, and then I decided to ask a friend if he would mind talking with me about his time in the military and struggles he may have had in his 20-plus years of service in the Army. To my surprise he agreed. I say to my surprise, because I know he has served in combat multiple times. I am glad I did ask. Our talk brought about more understanding for me as someone who helps veterans, and I hope it brought a bit of peace to my friend for sharing a part of his story. Keep in mind, it is a tremendously personal thing and a topic I do not take lightly.

Below is a small glimpse into the life of a soldier and his struggle and will to live with PTSD.

Brian served in the Army for 25 years — five years in the Pennsylvania National Guard and 20 on active duty as an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior Helicopter Pilot. This aircraft is used for reconnaissance and close air support.

Brian spent most of his career stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y., but he has served all over the globe, including Fort Rucker, Ala.; Buedingen, Germany; Fort Hood, Texas; Somalia; Haiti; Kosovo; and two tours in Iraq.

With Brian’s retirement from the Army came the struggle of transition from military life to civilian life. Brian tries to explain his hyper alert behavior, low stress tolerance and his demands for perfection to someone who wasn’t in the military, like this: “Pretend you have to drive to West Virginia and back every day for work. For six hours a day, as you drive down Interstate 79, there are people out there that want to kill you. You don’t know where they are, you just know they are there. It doesn’t matter how long you are back home, you don’t get rid of the hyper alert state, your situational awareness. We are so programmed to be in survival mode, to keep ourselves and our buddies alive. It is how we think, even when we come ‘home.’”

“Those of us in the profession of arms ... our job requires doing everything right, to the absolute best of our ability. If you don’t, people are going to die. When you come home, you can’t shut that off. It takes its toll, on yourself, on your kids, on your marriage.

“Certain deployments were harder than others. Somalia in particular affected me the most and I wasn’t even aware of it. It made me into a very stoic person. I lost a lot of my zest for life. I put a lot of blame on myself for some things that happened over there. I didn’t like who I was. I hated looking in my own eyes, because when I did, I didn’t like what I saw. I became callous, closed off from my life.”

He didn’t realize PTSD from an incident that had happened there would tear his life apart over the next 20 years.

“Near the end my first Iraq tour, insurgent activity in Mosul was getting really bad. Helicopters were getting shot up almost every day. While on a mission during this timeframe, we were requested to destroy a sport-utility vehicle on the north end of the city that had been disabled by insurgent rocket-propelled grenades. We needed to destroy the SUV, as it contained intelligence documents. As we approached the target, I made a near fatal mistake ... I did not have situational awareness of the enemy presence before we entered the engagement.

“As I went into a climb to begin our attack, it felt like the whole city opened up on us. I yelled to my wingman to break to the west out over the desert. I didn’t want him going down with us. I thought we were going down for sure.

“I did some of the craziest maneuvers that I have ever done. When we finally got clear of the fire, I remember being out over the desert again. I was in shock. I’d never seen anything like it. My co-pilot kept asking me if I was OK. When I finally snapped out of it, I realized we were going over 100 knots. I had exceeded so many limitations of the helicopter that I didn’t know if it would hold together, but it did.”

“Once we got back and landed, I got out and looked over the aircraft for damage. That was the day I decided there MUST be a God. It was an absolute miracle. I dropped to my knees and started crying. We were only hit one time. It was impossible. We flew threw everything they shot at us and we were only hit one time. I thought we would die that day for sure. It was unbelievable. To this day I still believe that it was impossible.”

“It kind of began a renewed faith in me. There is a God out there. He had to be watching over me that day, but it also messed me up pretty bad. I didn’t feel like flying anymore. With so many of my buddies getting killed, so many people I went to flight school with. It was really tough. At that time, I had six years left before retirement. I just had to get through six more years.

“Right now, at this point in my life, I am surviving. At one point on a night a few months ago, I fell apart. I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. Don’t know what it was about that night, but I finally said ‘God, I need your help.’ I can’t do it on my own. Please help me. I felt this huge sense of peace wash over me. The most amazing feeling that everything was going to be OK. Since that night, I just decided that all the stuff that happens on this planet, we aren’t in control of any of it.

“I gave up control, put it all in God’s hands. I no longer stress about so much. What my life will be or where I will go. It had to happen. I had to hit rock bottom and ask for God’s help for the gates of hell to be opened so I could be let out.

“Day-by-day. I look at every day as a gift. I’m no longer ignoring my reflection in the mirror. I tell myself I will be a little better today than I was yesterday.

“I feel pretty good. I look forward to weekends, going to church. It’s weird. I was never like that. I see a lot of guys who are hurting. Without sounding preachy, I try to spread the word. Twenty-two years of my life has been about a career, money, nice house, toys, etc. You know what? People could say ‘I had it all,’ but all that doesn’t mean anything when you don’t have your family and your life is falling apart. I don’t care about material stuff at all anymore. I am looking at different ideas of helping people. Something to get fulfillment.”

There is much more to Brian’s story, as many of you could imagine. What has been shared here is just a very small glimpse of PTSD, the affects and aftershocks it can have on a person’s life.

This is just a part of one man’s story. Imagine the untold stories of countless other veterans who may struggle. PTSD is not a disease, it is not contagious, but it does need to be dealt with and it is different for each person.

There is a reason I am so involved in Project Support Our Troops and helping our brother and sister veterans. It is for stories like Brian’s, it is for the respect that is due to our men and women who serve our country. It is for the honor of getting to know so many brave men and women, to sit in awe of how far they have come and how much they have been through, and to see that the bumpy road they have traveled is smoothing out for them. As a female veteran living with PTSD, I have an entirely different story than Brian’s but can relate in a small part to his struggles.

Veterans. We are all part of a unique family. When one hurts or is in need, we will do our best to help in what way we can. It is that simple — honor, respect and love for our brother and sister veterans.

May God bless America and all who defend her.

Kim Lengling is co-chair of Project Support Our Troops and recently co-founded Embracing Our Veterans, a nonprofit providing referral resources for veterans and their family members. She can be reached at embracingourveterans@gmail.com or (814) 450-0622. To learn more, visit embracingourveterans.org.

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