Mental Health and the Military: A Personal Story of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome
We began this series of interviews with people who have served in the military with Paul, who is a Vietnam war veteran. It turned out to be a very emotional interview with many varied responses but ultimately bringing our community closer together. I don't think I understood going into this how very powerful this topic would be. It made me realize that we need to be talking more often about our people who serve in the military. This is a population who need to be recognized and whose needs are very important to all of us.
This next interview is with KJ who has made a career of serving in the military. This is a very different type of interview as KJ comes from a different generation and as you will read, times are different now as they were then back in previous generations of soldiers. Mental health issues are now paid attention to more directly. But some things still remain the same as in the amount of dedication and commitment these men and women bring to what they do in times of service.
I wish to humbly thank both Paul and KJ for granting me the honor of these interviews. You make a difference, then and now, with all that you have done to serve our country. We appreciate your talking to us so candidly on this highly charged subject.
And now I present to you, KJ.
I joined the Army when I was 17 and started my service two weeks after I graduated from high school. I spent three years on active duty as an Intelligence Analyst and then left active duty to continue my education while still serving in the Army Reserve. September 11th was a big turning point for me. At that time I was a Sergeant First Class, counter-terrorism specialist, who had never deployed or seen action. I really wanted to get involved!
As soon as possible after September 11th, I joined a local Army National Guard Special Forces unit that was preparing for deployment. After just a few months with that unit I deployed to Afghanistan. I was in charge of a small organization that spent considerable time meeting with the local populace around Kabul. I travelled as far as the border with Pakistan and spent a lot of time on the road. I was also a liaison to other foreign military forces in the country. I was there from August 2002 until April 2003. Our unit saw a lot of action at a time when we could still get out and meet the locals.
In 2005 I volunteered to accompany an active duty Special Forces unit that was deploying to Iraq and was short-handed. The idea behind this trip was that I would learn new techniques that would help my National Guard unit out. I was in Iraq, just north of Baghdad, from January 2006 until September 2006. On this tour I hardly got out of the camp at all. I sat behind a computer and read and wrote reports. I was a Master Sergeant.
In early 2007 I was again called to duty with my Guard unit. This time we went through a very long mobilization and training period. I was on active duty from February 2007 until October 2008 but only in Iraq from October 2007 until June of 2008. I was in a very bad part of the country and spent a lot of time on the road. I worked with the Iraqi military and police and met several locals.
Late in 2008 I moved and changed jobs. I am now serving in a completely different type of unit and probably will not be deploying again with the Army. (I will be deploying again as a civilian). I'm looking forward to retiring from the military soon. I have over 30 years time in the Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard. I'm an Intelligence Senior Sergent and a Linguist.
Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to be in Iraq? What was a typical day like for you?
Each of my tours was very different from the others. On my most recent trip I was assigned to a big base in the north of the country. It was odd having a well equipped gym, stores and gift shops, Burger King trailer, movie theater, barber shops, etc. and still hearing gun fire and random explosions around the base daily. We could easily call home or get on the Internet almost whenever we wanted to, but I remember how odd it felt when I was on the phone to my wife or kids and had to tell them, "I've got to run. Something just blew up and I need to check on it." Kind of surreal.
Most of my work confined me to the base, but I was able to get out and get on a convoy to go to a meeting or visit a subordinate who was stationed at another base about twice a month. Some of those trips took up to a week since we were spread out all over a big area. Though there was a danger of road-side bombs, I really enjoyed getting out of the base and I took a lot of pictures.
I worked very long hours on all of my tours. I probably averaged a 16 hour day, seven days a week for most of my deployments. I'm a night-owl and preferred to start work at midnight when it was cooler. If we had an operation it was usually at night so I had the most work to do between about midnight and 6:00 am. After that I was either preparing briefings, giving briefings, or sitting in briefings. I was one of the senior Intelligence guys and was concentrating on the local enemy situation.
For those of us who are not in the military, is it at all possible for us to imagine what things are like there?
That's hard to say. I've seen some good news reporting on what it's like to be there, but it still doesn't really capture the whole feeling. For me it's the little snippets of memories that really paint the picture. Some of this is really dark and horrible, but some is really fantastic and positive. I remember visiting with an Iraqi Christian girl and comparing the Sunday school that she went to with the Sunday school that my girls go to in the States. I thought we had a lot in common until I heard that she couldn't tell me her real name or what town her parents lived in out of fear for their lives.
How did you cope with being so far away from home? How did you keep up your spirits?
I tried burying myself in my work. I really enjoy my military job. I'm also a senior leader so I'm responsible for looking after my subordinates. I get a lot of satisfaction from that. I really missed my wife and kids but I tried to call home at least once a week and send an e-mail almost every day. On this last tour I don't think I coped as well as I did on the previous tours. In hindsight, I needed more time to myself. I battled depression and health issues. I celebrated my 47th birthday in Iraq by taking an extra two hours off from work and watching a movie by myself.
Do you feel that the people who serve in Iraq are more at risk for depression or mood disorders?
Yes, definitely. Just being that far away from home is a huge stress for most people. Your normal coping and support mechanisms (family and friends) aren't as accessible. There are only so many outlets to work off pressures or get away from problems. Emotions tend to be exaggerated in that kind of environment. Everything just feels so much more intense. Also keep in mind that many of the troops over there are teenagers or in their early 20's. Other than military training they haven't been away from home for an extended period, and they haven't been so close to the kind of violence and potential sudden death that exists.
Do you feel that there is support for service people who may experience mental health issues? What help is given there or at home for such issues?
There is really world-class support for mental health issues in the military right now. This is finally getting the attention that it deserves. In the Army we receive mandatory briefings on what to look for as far as signs of depression and anxiety. We have mandatory suicide counseling training. We also have Combat Stress Clinics in the field. These aren't perfect by any means, but we are much better than we've ever been. The Veterans Administration also has a fantastic program for recognizing and treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am taking part in this myself and it is awesome and effective.
When I was in Iraq in 2006 one of my Soldiers started having outbursts and acted insubordinate a couple of times. Eventually I learned that he was having family problems and he wasn't communicating with his wife any more. After a couple of counseling sessions with me, I passed him up to our Battalion Chaplain for additional counseling. The Chaplain eventually called in a mental health professional and we got my friend on a plane and sent back home. His family situation has been resolved and he's still in the Army and happy. This is a success story.
There are still some challenges in getting mental health counseling to members of the military. Most military people I know are from a certain demographic that is a little more old-fashioned or conservative and not as open to counseling. The military culture does not encourage anything that makes a person look or feel weak. Depression or anxiety is perceived by many as a sign of weakness, so we still have some problems to overcome in this regard.
Tell us more about your Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What is that like for you? How do you cope with this?
I always had the idea that PTSD came about from a single traumatic incident that someone had trouble coming to terms with. I didn't think that was me so I just brushed off my symptoms and tried to find other reasons for depression, anxiety, bad dreams, etc. After a trip to the emergency room with an extreme panic attack (I thought heart attack), a perceptive medical doctor picked up on the fact that I had just returned from my third combat deployment in five years. He sent me to the VA Mental Health people who started unraveling my problems.
In my case I went through a three year period some years ago where my father was diagnosed with a severe neurological disease, my mother attempted suicide, a close friend committed suicide, and my wife of four years died of heart disease. Like a rock - I stood through it. I worked for a police department at crime scenes and saw a lot of death there too.
On my tour to Afghanistan I went through a period that included two of my friends being badly wounded in an attack, several local kids being killed on a training range we were using (they were the children of some of the soldiers we were training), a suicide bomber killed a handful of civilians at the base across the road from ours and I had to photograph the body and scene, seven foreign soldiers (three of whom I knew) were killed when their helicopter crashed, and I was threatened by some random local guy with a rifle (I came close to shooting him). All of this happened within a few weeks of each other. Again, I just worked through it.
Eventually the incident with the kids took over my thoughts and messed me up. This is mostly what I'm struggling with. I'm in one-on-one counseling at the VA (cognitive behavior therapy) and prescribed Citalopram for my mood.
I don't feel particularly depressed but have been given this diagnosis after interviews and questionairres. I believe what the doctors key in on is my detachment from things and fatalistic views. I suffer from hypervigilance, specifically I am jumpy and uncomfortable if I don't have a wall behind my back. I am suspicious of people's actions. Because of my job I'm living apart from my wife and kids right now, but my wife says that I'm very jumpy and look "scared" all the time. I don't sleep well and have frequent bad dreams. I'm getting better now, but I was very much a thrill seeker when I first came back from each tour. I was confrontational, picked fights, suffered from road rage, etc. This is common but not healthy.
**What would you most like people to know about how the experiences of serving in Iraq can affect one's mental health? **
There's a perception that most of the people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health issues are suffering from PTSD from a single traumatic event. As we approach the eighth anniversary of September 11th we need to realize that many of our troops have been on multiple deployments and have experienced numerous traumatic events. We also can't ignore the fact that you don't have to personally witness a traumatic event to be effected by it. Waking up to a distant explosion and knowing that you are in range of the next mortar round, and there's nothing you can do about it, can have a gradual effect on one's mental well-being as well. People need to be aware of this.
I would advise people to not be overly judgmental about the troops and their experiences. Coming back with feelings of anger or sadness are to be expected and don't necessarily equate to mental health problems. Try to ignore the bad language. Listen to the stories the Soldiers have to tell, be there to support but mostly just listen. When I got back to the States I really wanted to get caught up with my family (school work, household chores, etc.), but I was just operating at a completely different "level" and unable to really get in the domestic frame of mind for a long time. We would have done better if I didn't get hit with a lot of family business right away. I would have preferred to just vent about the poor leadership, lousy working conditions, etc. for awhile.
I'm told that people with PTSD tend to avoid situations that remind them of the trauma that they experienced. I believe I'm an exception to that. I get relief from talking/writing about my experiences and I thank you for the opportunity to tell my story.
I wish you and the readers well.