was 22 when I left for the Army. I knew there were risks, but my need to find a purpose in life outweighed those worries. I knew very little about the military prior to joining. Even with a dad who had served in Vietnam and two grandfathers who had been in World War II, Hollywood would be what provided me with much of the knowledge I gained. Even though the movies differed greatly from the real thing, those films gave me my first glimpse of the way in which war could change you.
I had little understanding of things like PTSD; a disorder I grew up knowing as ‘Shell Shock’ and ‘Battle Fatigue.’ It was never spoken of in our household or referenced in school. It was hardly even mentioned in the Army until after our deployment when guys started struggling with various symptoms. We were required to go through numerous periodic health assessments and at each one I was asked if I thought I had PTSD. Like most soldiers, I had learned how to brush things off to speed through the process, bury whatever was bothering me beneath a dark sense of humor, and get back to work.
My lack of understanding for PTSD left me under the impression that, for a service member to have such a disorder, they would have had to witness something brutal, like actual combat. Since I held a support role in the Army, I figured I would never be eligible to make such a claim. Even after experiencing military sexual trauma (MST), I figured nobody would believe someone like me, a supply and dispatch clerk that had never been outside the wire on deployment, could have experienced any real trauma during their time in service.
Upon returning from Afghanistan, I had become more watchful. I had lost my tolerance for large crowds, I had to think twice about debris in the road, and children made me nervous. However, I figured that was all normal behavior after spending nearly a year waiting to be attacked in a foreign country. I had also spent months prior to our deployment training for the Female Engagement Team (FET), which taught me about insider threats, bomb-making operations, and torture methods used on Middle Eastern women. Identifying potential threats had become as much a part of my muscle memory as clearing a weapons malfunction.
When our deployment ended, it felt instant. I went from being in a combat zone with my buddies one minute, to being at my apartment in Kansas, freaking out over thinking I’d misplaced my M4 rifle, and being overwhelmed by the sudden loneliness. The abrupt change was confusing and difficult to handle, to say the least. Nobody had warned me that I would feel like I had completely changed, but the environment I’d return to would feel exactly as it had 9 months prior. Nobody told me I’d feel like a stranger in my own home or that I’d have to learn to blend back in as though I had never left; that I’d have to pretend as though life hadn’t moved on without me while I was away.
After deployment, an Army psychologist had diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). His reason behind leaving out the “disorder” was that I wasn’t suffering from trauma, rather from an inability to unwind from being in a high-stress environment for an extended period of time. Less than a year later I was re-diagnosed with having generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and I foolishly thought I was out of the woods from being diagnosed with PTSD, but I was wrong.
I struggled with the transition from soldier to civilian. I couldn’t really find my footing, which left me feeling out of place, lost, and lonely. I no longer had those buddies I could count on to embrace the suck right alongside me. I no longer had comrades I could lean on, and the brothers I had been so close to during my service, suddenly seemed out of reach. On top of that, another one of my battle buddies had just committed suicide.
Instead of chasing after the big plans I had made prior to getting out, I began to panic and worry that I’d go down the same road as my friend. I ended up isolating myself from everything and everyone. I joined the Army Reserves with hopes that it would give me some purpose back, and restore my value. Instead, what I found was that I could not relate to people that were used to only playing soldier part-time. I didn’t see the same bonds I had found in a combat zone, or even feel like wearing that camouflaged uniform meant the same as it had before. So I continued on, feeling alone, misunderstood, and broken.
I searched for ways to cope in all the wrong places. I drank to try and numb both the physical and psychological pain, since it felt like the only option at my lowest point. The VA had me on and off anti-anxiety pills, sleep aids, and painkillers, so I teetered between feeling decent and feeling numb. And in my efforts to end the loneliness, I was willing to let anyone into my life that could accept me as I was. Unfortunately, some people I let in only wished to exploit a veteran that they believed came with financial benefits.
It took a long time for me to finally admit that I was struggling. Opening up and reaching out felt like it went against everything I had learned as a soldier, which was to bottle things up and keep pushing, regardless of how bad things felt. I knew nothing of self-care; only of placing duty first. I had failed numerous PTSD assessments at the VA and anytime I was asked if I wanted to make a claim, I would say I didn’t have it. It wasn’t that I was in denial, I just felt the VA wasn’t the place to talk about trauma sustained outside of the service. Admitting that I believed that I had PTSD meant that I’d have to inform someone of the domestic abuse that was occurring at home.
Even though the PTSD I suffer through does not stem from my service, and the PTS that was experienced after my deployment was not the result of a traumatic combat incident, I’ve come to understand far more than I did prior to the military. I couldn’t relate to others through war tales or stories of heroic acts, but I understood aggression, insomnia, frequent nightmares, anxiety, and fear quite well. I was able to comprehend why so many service members were choosing to suffer in silence, rather than announce their struggles.
Having someone diagnose me with PTSD was like a slap in the face. I wasn’t offended by the doctor’s diagnosis. I was upset that I endured so much over 6 years of service just to end up with PTSD at home. It was at this time though, that instead of allowing myself to be negatively consumed by it, I tried to make something positive out of it. The realization that other veterans were also suffering, alone, gave me the purpose I had been desperately trying to find since leaving Active Duty.
While I can’t say that I discovered the key to conquering PTSD, or that I have a remarkable success story concerning transitioning from the military, I will say this: take things a day at a time, don’t try to tackle mental illness alone, and don’t rush the healing process. Additionally, show fellow veterans and service members support and encouragement, rather than criticism or disapproval when they do finally make the attempt to reach out and ask for help. You never know what someone is going through, what traumas people have endured, or how close someone is to giving up.
Once I found the strength to put my story out there, I felt like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders. Reaching out and discussing mental illness, along with my issues with transitioning, helped me to realize I was not the only person experiencing these kinds of struggles. Speaking up has also been rewarding because it gave me the opportunity to see how a personal story could mean everything to a complete stranger. That thought alone has helped me to continue fighting the invisible wounds.
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