A Soldier’s Story
A young man, like many others, helplessly watched on television as the devastating events of September 11 unfolded before his eyes. He was temporarily paralyzed with fear, but this event evoked within him a profound sense of patriotism, which propelled him to make a life-changing decision. Shortly after this dismal day, he walked into a recruitment office and made the fearless decision to enlist in the United States Army. The young man could not have foreseen the cataclysmic event this decision would ultimately thrust upon him. I had the chance to interview this soldier whose name I have chosen not to reveal. This is his story.
How were you diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
I was stationed in Germany, and my brother had come to visit me. We were drinking a lot that night, and my brother started spouting off about how we shouldn’t be in the war and that war is wrong. All of the sudden, I just snapped and started pounding him with my fists. My wife got scared and called the military police (MP). When they arrived, they tried breaking up the fight, and I hit one of the MPs who had grabbed my shoulder. After that, my command team told me to report to mental health. So I did. I met with a social worker, and he referred me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with PTSD. I then went back to the social worker for therapy.
What was the contributing event that led to the diagnosis?
I was in a theater in Mosul, Iraq, and I experienced a bombing while dining at the chow hall. I couldn’t believe it. One of our Iraqi counterparts entered the facility strapped with explosives and detonated himself in the middle of the room. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. Body parts were all over the place; the smell of the charred human flesh was overwhelming. The Federal Bureau of Investigation came to investigate the blast, and they started handing us bags. We looked at them and wondered if they were serious. They were handing us the bags so we could pick up our dead comrades’ body parts. I mean, we had just endured the blast; they should’ve gotten somebody else to do it. I still can’t get those images out of my mind.
What are your symptoms and have you learned to manage them?
After the event and before being diagnosed with PTSD, I would self-medicate. I would drink until I was drunk just so I could talk to people without breaking down. That was the only way I could stand being around other people. Following my diagnosis, however, I stopped drinking for a year. Now I only drink occasionally. I still have nightmares though, and I lock myself away from my family at times. Sometimes I find myself completely disinterested in anything. I’ve learned to avoid large crowds. I manage my symptoms day by day without the use of medications.
Has the Army helped or hindered your recovery process?
The Army keeps me going. Without my job and my family, who knows where I would be. When I was first diagnosed, I was sent to a social worker. He wasn’t trying to diagnose me; he just wanted to listen. That guy helped me out a lot. I chose to stay in the Army after having been diagnosed with PTSD, despite knowing there were certain jobs I would be locked out of, like the Rangers (a special elite Army task force). I know I can do my job and do it well, with or without a PTSD diagnosis. I will say, though, that the constant deployments (he has been deployed three times) have set me back a bit, but I work through it.
Does the Army environment make it easier or harder for you to seek treatment?
The Army makes the route easy. But even though you know where to go to seek treatment, there’s still a stigma that goes along with it. Let’s just say I don’t go around telling everybody I have PTSD. I’ll only share that with a battle buddy.
What are your goals for recovery?
I want to get my family back in order. I want to be able to walk into a large crowd and not worry about freaking out. I want my life and my marriage to improve.
I feel it’s important to convey the plight of what soldiers go through after war, and, unfortunately, it’s an occurrence that is all too familiar. It also reminds me that social workers can truly make a difference. From the interview, most of you will have gleaned that the soldier is experiencing many of the typical symptoms associated with PTSD: episodic anhedonia; voluntary isolation; social phobia; re-experiencing the traumatic event and avoidance. As an interviewer, I found the most beneficial thing I could offer to this young man was an ear and an empathic heart.
Periodically, I found it difficult to listen to his story and to fight back my tears. Later that night, I wept like a newborn. I hold profound hope that this young man will one day fully recover; his family will improve; and he will emerge a stronger, more resilient human being. I believe hope is a contagion, and perhaps I have infected this brave young man.
To all of our uniformed men and women: Thank you for your service, honor and commitment.
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