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The Power of Seeking Help
CAUTION: THIS POST CONTAINS WRITINGS THAT MAY BE DISTURBING TO SOME READERS. IT CONTAINS A DEPICTION OF AN ACTUAL COMBAT INCIDENT.
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.