You know it really wasn't until I got to the WTB that I really knew what a "flashback" was. I had had training in methods of reducing or treating Combat Stress, I could recite all the symptoms of Acute Stress Reaction in my sleep. As a Medic, I was the one stop shop for all the medical needs for 35 men. I had a reference book (a very good one that I still have) that I carried with me for anything that I couldn't fix right away. I could tell you all the methods of alleviating the inevitable stress that would come from combat losses. None of that knowledge or reference material helped me a damn when I was the one that needed help.
I didn't even know I needed help until I was pulled aside by my commander at the time and sent for a mental health eval. It was standard procedure, and I grumbled but went. What came out was a bit surprising. It really was getting to me. I mean I had been deployed before. Seen death, gruesome injuries, and felt unbelievable fear but somehow this was very different. I knew the men I was trying to treat. I couldn't separate myself and view the injuries objectively. Keep in mind this is still in Iraq.
Fast forward. I've been moved to the WTU, before it became a battalion, I'm heavily medicated, and still somewhat hopeful that I might at some point soon be able to hop on a plane and go back to Iraq. I was just leaving formation and nothing was really happening, No one had said anything in particular, but it was cold, and one of the soldiers behind me made a kind of snoring sound trying to get the snot out of his nasal passages.
I can not describe in words exactly what happened. The white became dark, I could still see Riley and the snow on the ground but I wasn't there I was back. Over There. I was holding a young man who had been hit by an IED, the back of his turret had been blown clear he had been blown forward his jaw crushing on his saw, he made these horrible snoring respirations as his body fought to stay alive. It was one of the most painfully powerless moments in my life. I could not save this man. Each exhale would splatter blood all over me and the drivers seat behind me. All I could do was hold his airway open and talk to him.
I mist have been completely stationary for a while because my squad leader came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder. I know I jumped, and tried to play it off like I was trying to remember something I had to do, but the incident had really shaken me. I wish I could say that was the last time. I wish I could say that I never had to relive shoving Kirlex into a man's leg as he was screaming for me to stop. I wish I could say that I never had to remember when an AT-4 inside a burning humvee went off 20 meters away from me, I wish I could say that that one time was the only time I had to worry about my past barging into the present in such a shocking way. Sadly all that and worse happened.
Once when one of my friends, Gary, took me out to the only decent bar in Junction City, my right hand started to shake, like Tom Hank's did in Saving Private Ryan. It freaked me out that my hand just would not stop shaking. I drank more and more and blacked out before midnight. When I woke up the next morning it was still shaking. It kept going for a week strait. It eventually quieted down, but would act up on occasion. Fortunately it was cold out so I played it off as me trying to be a hard ass and not wearing enough snivle gear, but I do remember once I saluted an officer, and for some reason he stopped and looked at me, I naturally stopped as well. I held the salute, and the longer I held it the worse the shaking got. When he finally returned the salute he patted me on the arm and in an almost fatherly way asked if I was getting that looked at. Sadly, this problem persists. If I get angry, nervous, or excited my hand will start to shake, not nearly as bad as it did, but it still bothers me. Sadly I do not know the cause.
To say I was nearly crippled by my Post Traumatic Stress is not an understatement. I was barely able to function for even minor tasks. I would space out when driving. I was unable to focus on anything, I would over react to minor things, and I would hide as much as possible, from the world, from myself I'm not sure. I have already admitted I almost killed myself twice, but what I never really talk about is knowing basic pharmacology, and using it to get a desired effect. I had a nurses desk reference (2003 edition) which I would use to great effect to mix up OTCs with my prescribed meds and alcohol to get the kind of buzz that is (for very good reason) illegal. I can tell you that this is not something you should ever do, but at the time I wanted the flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety to stop.
What saved me was really a couple of things. The first is actually the fact that Gary was worse off than I was, his great ambition was to die in battle, and he was depressed that he was still alive. It might seem strange but something about having someone worse off than me kicked in the old medic training in me and I had to help him. Another strange thing, is that indeed a love of a woman helped unbelievable, but losing that said woman made me realize just how far I had fallen. It made me realize I needed help, and made me realize I needed to get serious about getting help or I was going to suffer until I simply ceased to be human. Lastly and most painfully was confronting the men I had treated (and at the time felt I had not done enough for), and the families of the fallen. Talking with the families took years to build up enough courage. I want to say Staff Sergeant Brian Beaumont, is a true American Hero. When I went to him and told him all the things I had done wrong when I treated him, and all the things I should have done, he stopped me
"Doc, shut up. You saved my life. That's all that matters"
I wrote down what happened to Craig and Harrelson, and for me writing really does help. I called and talked to Craig's mother, I talked to Harrelson's mother, step-father, and sister. All are good people, and I did what I could to tell them what happened and how their loved ones died. It gave them peace to hear it from someone that was there that they were not alone and that they were loved by their brothers in arms. There will come a day, perhaps soon when I will go to their graves, and have a long talk with absent companions.
PTSD can be crippling. You can run from it in many forms. Sometimes you can run for a long time, but it always catches up with you. The only way you can really get better is it turn around and confront your pain. You don't have to do it alone, there are people out there to help you. Please, I say this to any Veteran out there that is suffering, if you need help, get it. If you can't find it come to me. If I can't find it for you I will try to find someone who can. You can live a full and complete life, it just takes a little courage. Never give up. You can still do great things. You can still make a difference. Trust me I know. Please don't suffer in silence.