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I met with my social worker today for a counseling session and to give him a sense of where I am. We came to a few conclusions that I want to share. He helped me understand why I made a few decisions that I made in seeking out another deployment.
As many of you know, part of my PTSD comes from an artillery strike in the early days of the war in 2003. The Iraqis were able to walk artillery in on us by virtue of our convoy stalled on a high road and unable to turn around expeditiously. As such, I had the pleasure of basically having to sit there and hope it didn’t hit me. It did.
Throughout the war, numerous explosions and detonations occurred near me that led to my symptoms. RPGs whizzed literally inches from my head. 7.62 AK rounds cracked the surrounding air, violently shoving their way towards their target. The sounds of war are unmistakable. If you’ve never experienced it, the closest thing to reality that I’ve seen are the opening scenes to Saving Private Ryan. To fully gain perspective, though, you’ll need a good surround sound system. You probably also shouldn’t live in a townhouse. Turn that sucker up just enough to make it uncomfortable and you’ll get an idea.
Anyway, I had explained to Doc one of the reasons I wanted to deploy was to, I think, gain some closure. I felt like I needed to come back and experience combat again in order to deal with the experiences of last time. My initial intention was do what I’m currently doing and eventually weasel my way back into the fight. By fight, I don’t necessarily mean actually having to pull the trigger, but to just be able to walk the streets and conduct my normal mission.
Even without coming under fire, my job can be a stressful one because it involves walking through the neighborhoods and speaking to people that may or may not want to kill me. There is a heightened sense of attention to detail out there. Every day is a thrill and Doc said that many folks with PTSD want to relive that as a way to overcome their anxiety issues.
It made perfect sense, even though I may not have recognized it. In order to cope with getting shot at, blown up, and barely surviving I had to get shot at, nearly blown up, and fight for my life. Turns out, I came to the right place anyway.
In the first few nights here, I heard the sounds of combat I came to expect from my experience. Bombs exploding, A-10s rocking the Gatling, and jets streaking across the sky. The first few weeks weeks were rough.
Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban so it made sense to me that there would be sustained and heavy combat around me. Turns out that our living area is near a major range where AC-130 gunships, A-10s and other aviation assets sight in their weapons. Controlled detonations also occurred on this range.
The sounds I thought were combat were coming from a range, not a real threat. But, before I recognized that, I was able to learn to process the sounds of combat and put my anxiety control methods to work that I had learned over the past two years. I no longer grab my rifle with the expectation of a phone call to man the perimeter – though I’m always ready.
Another good thing about living on Kandahar – if it can be called that – are all the indirect fire attacks we have here. The Taliban are good at lobbing 107mm mortars and rockets at us. But a 107mm mortar has a much different sound than a 155mm artillery shell. But, the explosions that I’ve been near when they landed (not unsafely near) also added to my recovery.
I don’t know if that makes sense or not, but it does. The Lord has a funny way of helping us. Initially, I was complaining at having to be stuck at KAF for my entire deployment. However, it turns out that being here has actually been quite therapeutic. I’ve been able to face the very things that have chased me since 2003 and resolve them in my head.
Doc explained that what I’m experiencing professionals call “prolonged exposure therapy.” Many hospitals are using this method to treat Soldiers with PTSD across the country. Since many Soldiers have already left military service, they don’t exactly have the opportunity that I have to come back and face those experiences. So, programs have been created using scenarios in virtual realities to approach those same trauma-related thoughts, feelings, and situations that may have been avoided due to the distress they cause.
Another treatment is called “cognitive processing therapy.” In essence, this type of therapy helps you to understand and cope with those feelings and thoughts that won’t seem to go away. It provides an alternative rational for dealing with what are essentially irrational thoughts. One of the problems of PTSD is the feeling that threats are everywhere. CPT helps to train your brain that these threats don’t exist and how to handle those feelings when they pop up.
Through both types of therapy, I’ve come to recognize nearly instantly when I wake up to a perceived attack every time I hear an explosion that the most likely cause is training. I usually take a few minutes to make sure and listen for any alarms. If none are sounded, I’m able to convince myself that there is no threat and actually fall back asleep.
This progress didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken me nearly two years (and about 60 rocket attacks since arriving in theater). I still get anxious during a rocket attack, but that is a natural reaction. I also understand that my life is in the hands of God. If it’s my time, it’s my time. I can’t shoot a rocket out of the sky and I can’t redirect its path. So, I have to do whatever I can to stay alive.
Another good thing I’ve done is that I recently fired Doctor Grisham. He’s the guy that keeps telling me it’s okay to stop taking my anxiety medications. My other Doc made the suggestion and I took his advice. I even had his “license” revoked so he doesn’t try practicing his destructive medicine on others. The medications have helped to regulate my moods, especially anger and frustration. And contrary to some ignorant people’s ignorant ramblings, this anger and frustration doesn’t make me violent.
On Thursday, I will restart group therapy as well. This is a necessity that I sorely needed in Ft. Hood, but never found. Not only do I need the camaraderie that comes with meeting with fellow veterans that have faced similar experiences that I have, but I think it’s the responsibility of survivors to share their stories and methods of success with others still struggling. That is one reason why I’m working on a proposal to develop a new program within the Army that focuses on using survivors to help the struggling. I also refuse to allow certain individuals to affect me emotionally, personally, mentally, or professionally in spite of their best failing efforts.
The bottom line is that progress is again being made. I’m dedicated to getting better and being there for my family. I think the military is doing it right with the programs available in theater to assure this progress for me and so many others. We’ve learned something over the years.