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The Power of Seeking Help

All Posts  September 18 2009
 — By CJ Grisham


This past week was one of the worst weeks I’ve experienced probably since I left Iraq.

As you know, I’ve decided to seek help for some of the issues I’ve had since returning from Iraq in 2003. For more than six years, I’ve worked very hard hiding depression, nightmares, and social discomfort. I haven’t slept more than four hours straight without medication in that time.

But, there came a point where I felt very hypocritical telling my Soldiers it’s okay to seek help for mental health issues while I was still hiding my own. Truth be told, there were many people who weren’t fooled by my acting. How can I, as a First Sergeant or a Senior NCO, tell my Soldiers to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself? So, in June, I wrote “One Step At A Time” making my commitment to my troops – and myself – public.

One of the things I wanted to do was convince troops out there that it’s okay to seek help. The Army has made a very public plea to troops to get help without worrying about their jobs. I promised to document this here and I plan to do so honestly and openly.

Let me start by saying that my unit completely pissed me off after my announcement. After reading my post, my higher headquarters undermined my efforts to seek personal help and performed a command referral citing ONLY what I had written and not my job performance, actions, or leadership ability. How can I tell Soldiers about the self-referral process when I’m now being FORCED into counseling?

It’s important to understand what a command referral is since it’s not always negative. A command referral forces the health care system to see me. Appointments must be timely and there are repercussions if the system doesn’t do their part. Once that was explained to me, I calmed down a bit, but I didn’t like the fact that now my unit would have access to some of my records. The Doc explained that they don’t get specific information, even for a command referral. I was told the unit wanted to ensure that I got the help I needed as a basis for their decision. Great! So, why hasn’t anyone in my chain called or emailed me in over six weeks since I began this process to see how I am doing?

Thankfully, I don’t need their fake interest to get better. I’m doing this for ME and no one else. I need to get fixed because PTSD can be (and has been) destructive to me and those I care about, not because someone in the military told me to. So, while I ask the question about where they are, I really don’t care.

Every week, I visit with a doc locally for about an hour to break down the walls and get to the heart of my problems. In the past six weeks, I’ve hit rock bottom as we slowly destroy all my defenses to get to the heart of the matter – those significant events that have altered my state of mind for so long.

I would be a bold-faced liar if I said this has been easy. Revisiting some of the things I’ve tried for years to forget has been one of the most stressful things I’ve done ever – probably even more stressful than the events themselves. In combat, I’m armed and can defend myself. In the doc’s office, I’m completely naked (not physically, sickos!). I have no walls or vehicles to hide behind.

During my first extremely tearful visit, I briefly touched on why I was there. I told Doc about some of the events that I have had nightmares about for years. Last week, after weeks of counseling, advice and friendly conversation, he decided that I should write down one particularly troubling event in as much detail as possible.

When I published my journal after returning from Iraq, I intentionally self-edited. I do not regret anything I did in Iraq, but there are some things I’m not proud of having to do. I’d do it again if placed in the same situation, but I’m not happy about it. Doc told me – and I agree – that in order to overcome what haunts combat vets, we have to talk through it.

For the past week since that visit, I’ve focused on trying to write this story. I was supposed to write it down and bring it in to talk about this week. Since that appointment, every moment of every day I was thinking about what I had to do. Frequently, I sat down at the computer to begin writing and each and every time I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. As yesterday’s appointment got closer, I got more and more stressed out that I hadn’t written this story yet. I did not sleep for virtually the entire week.

When I got to Doc’s office yesterday, I told him I just couldn’t do it. I explained how stressed out the “assignment” made me feel and that I hadn’t slept even with my medication. He asked me if I was able to at least talk about the incident and he would write it down. I told him I would try and I did. In excruciating detail, I relayed the events of March 23, 2003 in As Samawah, Iraq.

I couldn’t breathe. I was crying so hard, I could barely speak about that day. As I choked out the story, Doc wrote down every word. Before we began this exercise, he asked me where my stress level was on a scale from 1-100. I told him I was at 100 at least. I was shaking. I knew what was coming. After telling this story, he asked me where my stress level was. Honestly, I had dropped to about 40. A 10-ton weight had been lifted.

Docs have a great way of stating the obvious. “That is absolutely horrible that you had to experience that,” he said when I had finished. “I can’t imagine how you have dealt with that for over six years.”

But, talking about it helped. It helped tremendously and my stress scale had dropped to about 20. By the time I left, I didn’t feel stressed about anything!

As far as I can remember, I’ve only told even a broad version of this story once before. Of all the people I could have told this to, I told it first to a Code Pinko outside Walter Reed a few years ago. She made the mistake of bringing up all the innocent people who we’ve killed in Iraq and I blew a gasket. One of my Freeper friends had the foresight to pull me back recognizing the rage building up inside of me at that comment.

Can you tell I’m putting this off as long as possible? I don’t have to do this, but I think it will help me. And if it helps me, I hope it will help those of you suffering from similar issues to tell your stories so you can also heal.

There is nothing worse than when a Soldier is called upon to take the life of an innocent person. While the media and anti-war goons get a kick out of broadcasting how uncaring we are when innocents are killed, I think the fact is that anytime a Soldier realizes his actions contributed to the death of innocent people it kills that Soldier inside. Our purpose is to protect the innocent. We take great pains, many times at our own peril, to protect the innocent. But, sometimes, we have no choice. That doesn’t make me feel any better about it, but I had no choice.

Such was the case on March 23, 2003. I had no choice. A member of Saddam’s Fedayeen was providing covering fire for a mortar position. We had already killed the fighters manning the tube once, but they really wanted it. As fighters would approach the tube, we’d mow them down. The diner on the corner across the street from the tube no longer had any windows in it, leaving behind a 3-4 foot wall behind which Iraqis were hiding.

At one point, a Fedayeen fighter appeared behind the wall grasping an Iraqi woman by the neck. His AK-47 was resting on her right shoulder and he was firing at our position. There was no clear shot. Blood was pouring out of the woman’s right ear as she screamed with each squeeze of the trigger by the fighter. She was a wearing dark, long sleeve traditional Iraqi dress that buttoned up to the neck.

This event took no longer than about 10 seconds from start to finish, but it felt like hours. I aimed straight for her chest, hoping to take her and the fighter out in one shot. As she fell to the ground, I squeezed another round at the now-exposed fighter who was also beginning to duck behind the wall. The force of impact forced him to fall backwards and I never saw either of them again.

What kind of human being uses an innocent woman as a human shield in combat? What kind of monster forces another human being to kill completely innocent people to save the lives of others?

I see that woman often in my dreams and sometimes while I’m just sitting, minding my own business. I see her lifeless body fall to the ground in super-slow motion and the look of shock in the fighter’s eyes as he probably realizes how exposed he now is without his flesh shield. His AK is still resting on her shoulder as she falls and before he can lift it, he is propelled backward as he himself falls victim to my aim.

That 10-second incident has taken six years of my life. There are other things that still haunt me, but none as much as this. This incident kicked off the next two weeks of sustained combat I would encounter. And it altered my compassion for humanity.

(36) Readers Comments

  1. That sounds really great, that he was able to let you talk and write it down himself. That point is exactly where I got stalled in my counseling-I couldn’t write it down and was getting stressed out, but they didn’t offer me the talking option, just said come back next week and try again.

  2. You did NOTHING wrong, brother. Nothing that wasn’t required.

    HE brought her into the fray. It has nothing to do with you reaction to the event.

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  4. The house of my soul is too small for You;
    may You enlarge it.
    It is in ruins; may You restore it….
    I am but dust and ashes:
    yet suffer me to speak, through Your mercy.
    -Augustine, The Confessions, Chap.1

    Peace, CJ; may you continue to find respite and peace on your journey.

  5. I have been wondering about you. So glad that you are finally seeking the help that you need and so deserve. There are many others out there like you who are suffering in silence that will benefit from your bravery of putting this in writing and “out there”. Perhaps they will also seek the help they need.
    I wish you the best with your healing process.

  6. I don’t know what to say other than I am proud of you that you are now looking into the eyes of your “moment”. I do not, though it probably doesn’t matter what I think, think you did anything wrong. Some men would run for this their whole lives. I am sure the trial is not fully over yet and there will be shock waves for a long time but the “storm” is over. You have established a wonderful example for enlisted and commissioned alike. Even those of us that are not in the military. 3 cheers for CJ!!!

  7. I’m proud of you for doing this, CJ. I can’t even begin to imagine what it has been like for you these past 6 years. I just know you’ll make it through okay.

  8. Thank you for sharing, my friend. I really had no idea.

  9. I don’t know if you remember, but you told me this story some time back. I often wondered if it bothered you. Just know that I was proud of you then for having the courage, training and clear mind to make the right choice then and I am even more proud of you today. dad

  10. CJ,
    I am so glad that you are seeking help and that the counselor had the good judgment to let you tell your experience and he could write it down for you.

    I don’t judge you for what you did. You were forced to shoot and the Fedayeen fighter is the one who is to blame for the whole incident.

    Hang in there and continue to talk, it is so good for the soul. I am praying for you that God will bless you and heal your heart and soul.

  11. CJ, just being able to finally decide that you needed to seek the help and then following through with it, says a lot to me. You’ve taken the steps you need to heal and you’re doing a good job in getting where you need to be. Having been in the shoes of your counselor, I must commend him on not just brushing you off when you were unable to write this down. He pushed you as far as he needed to get you to talk about it and that’s exactly what you needed. Not all would have done that and I can honestly say you’ve got yourself one hell of a counselor. And now, you are able to write about it. Keep working my friend, things will get better and things will get easier. You’re making great strides already and I’m SO proud of you!

  12. Between your story and your Dad’s comment, there is no way I couldn’t have tears in my eyes.

    I’m so sorry that the enemy forced you to make that decision. I know that you know it was what you had to do, but I also know that doesn’t make it haunt you less. I pray that talking about it helps to some degree.

  13. I love you CJ and I’m so damned proud of you!! The prayers are constant as is the love in my heart for you and Emily and the kids. Hugs!

  14. You are braver than I am for speaking and writing about this. True guts, man. Alot of stuff ocurred over there that ordinarily shouldn’t, but it clearly isn’t your fault. I don’t see what other choice you could have made.


  15. Please talk to your pshrink about Prolonged Experience Therapy (PET). I had some wonderful results with it. My stressor had to do with watching a rocket hit in the middle of a crowd and seeing various body parts sailing around. The experience you had with telling your story and having a weight lifted can be one of from 100 down to 10 with PET. Do something though. I only got started when I called the National Hotline and told them that “If I were in my platoon right now, I would take my weapon away from me…” That landed me in a psycho ward with James Brown, Jesus and Elvis. It was supposed to be a PTSD ward but “what the heck! we need the room”

    Skybird from OIF 3

  16. You did your job. I’m honored to have you as a friend! Love you!

  17. Cj, you are a blessing. Love and support to you as you move forward in your journey of healing!

  18. Hi CJ, I don’t know who you are but maybe have met you at some time? I was the nurse case manager at one of the clinics & just recently move back to another department.
    Your story sounds like so many, many soldiers. I have heard the nightmares, embarressment, lack of leadership support and insomnia stories from so many soldiers of all ages & ranks. It’s about time the public reads and see’s what it’s all about. I’m so proud of you for writing this. You are an amazing NCO to your soldiers for leading by example and potentially saving a life. Thank you for doing this, it takes courage to do this.

    Thank you for your service to your country,

  19. CJ..You have made the first most important step and I am very proud of you for it. This particular event reminds me so much of my hubby’s VN experiences. One that really still bothers him is when he almost stitched a black-clad person (with something in the arms) in the back but fortunately a split-second before pulling the trigger; a female turned around and it was a baby in her arms; not a weapon.
    You are doing the right thing and my prayers for your complete recovery from all of those bad memories. We love you (my adopted son LOL)

  20. Thanks to everyone for the support. My hope is that those who are dealing with similar issues, will understand that healing comes through talking about it. I was skeptical, but the past few days have been a definite improvement.

  21. P.S. I need to make that clear…he did NOT pull the trigger..after reading again..felt I needed to clarify that.

  22. May God give you and your family strength and healing and give your Drs. the wisdom to help you through this. Thank you for your service and sacrifice!

  23. CJ, you took a hand and held on to it. You spoke and someone listened and cared. We have also listened and cared, so we have learned from you as you share your life with us. Thank you for that, continue to talk and we will continue to care. Now you have many hands to hold on to.
    We’re all here to learn a lesson from life, yours was an important lesson, a difficult lesson for sure but nothing that you can’t handle. Stay strong, ok? SA Annie

  24. CJ, you are very brave to go forward with working at healing yourself for those you love & who love you. That poor woman was not your victim. She was the other soldier’s. He would surely have killed her or used her or another woman or child if you hadn’t had the courage to do what you had to do. With a lot of work & tears & time, you won’t be like my dad, now 90 yo, who sat 2 yrs ago at a Vet Center I took him to & recounted to the counselor events on Iwo Jima that he had never spoken about for all those yrs. He spoke like it had just happened. What a weight to carry. You are so so brave to embrace the more enlightened therapy of today.

  25. God Bless You CJ. My son is in A-stan now and I hope and pray he will be able to get the help you are finding now. You are setting such a wonderful example for your troops and others to follow. Thank you for all you have done for our country. We have not forgotten. I thank God for you and the rest of our soldiers everyday. God Bless You.

  26. Thanks so much for being a true leader to your Soldiers for going through this process. PTSD is a very serious condition, even more so these days of multiple tours of duty and your writing about it can only be a help to others who need to deal with theirs.

    Bless you CJ.

  27. I’m so so sorry that you were used just as she was..You had no choice and as I read this I was so moved. I’m just a pediatric nurse and mom so can’t imagine the torment that bad cause you to live but when I’ve had a kid fail to make it I beat myself up a million times over wondering what I missed, what could I have done better etc. Your experience was much different requiring instant almost premeditated thinking and problem solving..I’m so sorry you had to go through what you had to go through, It was wrong and not right and I can only pray that you find peace and can sleep once more…thank you for what you did for us all…truly thank you and commend you, your job wasn’t an easy one for sure…nikki

  28. You’ve proven yourself to be a brave and honorable man. You did what you were trained to do and other brave and honorable men lived and were able to return to their families because of YOU. If not for your actions there’s no telling how many other innocent women that gunman would have killed.

    PTSD is an awful thing, I’ve suffered from it myself. I can tell you that once you get to the point where you can open up to someone time and therapy are the best healers.

    I wish you a speedy recovery and many good night’s sleep.

    Thank you for your service!

  29. I am blessed by reading your story. I suffer from PTSD as well and your bravery (both at home and abroad) astounds me. Thank you for your service (both here by writing and in our armed forces). The phrase “thank you” seems so hollow here…

    I have used guided imagery and meditation to help with my traumatic event. I go to http://www.healthjourneys.com for their titles (especially Healing Trauma (PTSD) and Healthful Sleep) and I even read about studies on this phenomena with our service personnel via today’s Huffington post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/belleruth-naparstek/finally-figuring-out-what_b_292402.html).

    Best wishes and much gratitude…

    - Cate.

    • Cate, I’m glad you’re doing this. You might even want to check out a yoga studio someday, to accompany your daily meditation.

  30. I remember the first day I self-referred. The shrink at Womack actually got pissed off at me for coming in, asked if I had been doing drugs and then sent me off for a full series of blood tests. I found someone else to talk with and kept it away from the unit before transferring to USASMA. They docs in Texas were better prepared although I wasn’t. But by that time I also found that I wasn’t the only former 1SG with issues. There were several in my class which we as individuals could recognize while others around us didn’t really understand the symptoms. It helped to talk with peers, sometimes over too many drinks.

  31. …not that I’m recommending that method.

  32. I think the first part of this –your anger about being “discovered” is very much encountering issues that have to deal with the stigma against mental health. Whatever the reason for you doing this, I’m glad you’ve stuck with it. All experiences are transformative –the ones that led you here, the ones that will set you on a path.

    I’m really proud of you, coming forth like this. Rehashing our past isn’t easy, it’s painful and often we mistakenly think that not dealing with it will make things easy. It doesn’t. The release of emotions, of regret, sadness, anxiety, fear are all necessary. That pent up stuff makes it impossible to breathe, to see the larger picture ahead. And so it had to happen before you could go forward. It was the keystone keeping you from proceeding on the path to next block –which you will have to remove as well. Finally, once you’re on your way, you’ll come across old stones in your way and you’ll know how to handle them.

    Last week, I ran this story about a man in Phoenix AZ who started his stress-reducing pilot program this week. Eric is a veteran, who went the path to become a yogi. Anyway, you might want to read it and then click on the link to see about the THRIVE program.

    Just remember, you have a whole lotta people pulling for you.

  33. I commend you on your strength to come forward with your experiences. You are a true leader!
    I have some information that may be of interest to you, if you would like to email me.

  34. I know this comment is very late…but I have learned that when you carry a burden like this – it becomes a type of IED in your life. Sitting there – waiting to explode at any moment without warning.

    I’m so glad you are seeking help, that you are able to work through this. A good therapist is soooo valuable. I know God has dealt with me in a very real and relevant way in the therapist’s office many times over – hard hard lessons that I thank God for every day.

    Keep going, it’s hard and sometimes can feel like the worst beating or the hardest workout but you will come out the other side stronger… God Bless.

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