I’ve always considered myself to be a mentally tough person. Someone who isn’t easily flustered, or even get overly emotional about things. It’s not that I don’t care, or that I’m an unemotional robot, but I don’t let my emotions blind me to my task ahead.
I started writing a few years ago, and it seemed a welcome release for my thoughts. Instead of keeping them inside, there was a feeling of release by expressing my thoughts and feelings. As I learnt to voice those thoughts more and more, I came to realize that having feelings and showing vulnerability was not only normal. It also had a bit of a cleansing feeling, keeping your feelings berried deep could be toxic. Knowing all of that, it came as a surprise to me when a few months ago that all changed. I had reverted back to keeping my thoughts to myself, to internalizing my feelings, to not be as social with friend’s and family. I was having a hard time understanding why there was this sudden change in my mental state. Of course the past few months have been fraught with national tragedy after the next. Whether it was the shooting in Charleston, the shootings in Ohio, the police incidents with Black citizens in South Carolina, Texas, or many other cities around the country. It seemed each week brought a new tragedy to the headlines. Given that back drop, I felt like my words were pale in comparison to that kind of grief.
In the time that I’ve not been writing, I’ve instead been doing a lot of reading. From Between the World and me – by Ta-Nehisi Coates to After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey – by Dan Sheehan. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book shook me to my core, awaking me from my slumber. For awhile I was naive in believing that those Black people that lost their lives, somehow did something, “I would never find myself in that situation” “That would never happen to me” Yet in examining each case more closely, there wasn’t anything I would have done differently. Ta-Nehisi’s words dislodged something in me, perhaps it was my cognitive dissonance as to what it is to be Black in America. Perhaps it’s because I was born in a different country, some aspects of the African American struggle are foreign to me. While this new insight did awaken me, it wasn’t until I read Dan Sheehan’s After Action, that there was any real awakening to the lies that I’ve been telling myself.
Some of you may know from my other posts that I was an Active Duty Marine. As a teachable moment, don’t make the mistake of saying a Former Marine, or Ex-Marine, lol they get VERY offended about that. There’s a mantra, once a MARINE, always a Marine! Which get’s complicated because if I say I’m a Marine, you might thing that I’m still currently serving.
To be clear my Active Duty service ended in 2007; almost 10 years ago. In my time in the Marines, I did also go to Iraq. My primary job was a Helicopter Mechanic, working on AH-1W Super Cobras. While I was in Iraq, and just a few miles away from Fallujah, the epicenter of some of the biggest conflict of 2003-2005 in Iraq. I wasn’t directly involved in the fighting, I was on a Military Base on the outskirts of the city. My main focus was on making our Helicopters Combat ready, and working despite the harsh desert conditions.
The Myth about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Marines like any other Military Service member hold themselves in high regard, we think of ourselves as Warriors, capable of any feat. Not the kind of people you’d want to tussle with. I’m sure in some circles, those Chuck Norris jokes, are actually about Marines; well that’s how they think of themselves! There’s a kind of an idea about PTSD, in that the sighs are those who are abusive, suicidal, and overall incapable of functioning in society. Even more dangerous is the notion that only those who have killed, lost limbs, or seen their friends die; are somehow deserving of having PTSD. In the case where a warrior has suffered those horrible experiences, and isn’t a complete mess. Anyone who suffers an experience less traumatic, isn’t deserving of claiming to have PTSD. If you didn’t fight in WWII or Vietnam, you didn’t do anything deserving of having PTSD. While this isn’t the medical diagnosis of the disorder; this is how military service member’s see themselves. The book I mentioned earlier After Action by Dan Sheehan, was written by one of the Pilots in my unit. Many of the people and references he made, I had first hand experience or knew those same people. Like many veterans, Dan had a kind of a cognitive dissonance about his experiences. Seen in this except:
I could relate to the feeling the veterans were having, yet my experiences ranked nowhere near theirs in horror, guilt or pure trauma. I felt like an idiot with a sunburn whining in the burn ward of a hospital. I felt so weak for feeling my discomfort in the face of such real suffering.- pg 347
For context, here’s another excerpt Dan made about 1 of many enemy soldiers he killed from his Helicopter: (Warning the following mental images are quite graphic)
My missile streaked into the cab and exploded in a nasty puff of grey smoke. The three who were closest simply ceased to exist, their organic matter reduced to particles too small for me to see…it happened so fast that I didn’t see him go up, only his clothes coming back down…- pg 204
The imagery of killing those soldiers is graphic and visceral. That was 1 incident over several weeks, and only at the lower end of the traumatic experiences of all his other experiences. My point is that to walk away from an experience like that and be completely unscathed, is virtually impossible. In my mind much like Dan’s interpretation of his Combat experience. Mine was not even remotely close to his, therefore I shouldn’t be traumatized by my experience. In describing my time in Iraq, it went something like this “I didn’t have to use my weapon, or didn’t get shot at ( although we were regularly attacked with rockets and mortars, which would have had a similar effect as the scene described above), so I came back ok. For me that meant I wasn’t an alcoholic, I wasn’t physically abusive to my family or those close to me. I wasn’t a recluse, or someone who was jumpy at any sudden sounds. But I’m learning that the effects aren’t always so overt. The absence of those symptoms doesn’t mean that you don’t have any subtle ones lurking in the shadows.
It’s important to compare Apples to Apples!
In his second book Continuing Actions: Dan Sheehan makes an important distinction about what PTSD is. Comparing your experience to someone with a worse more visceral and traumatic experience, isn’t the predictor of whether you will have mental scars from combat. While my experiences were virtually harmless compared to his or 1000’s of other veterans, it doesn’t mean that it is any less traumatic to MY mind. Despite what I may have thought about my time there, my body was telling me something very different. While still in Iraq, towards the middle of my tour, there was an incident where I thought I was having a Heart Attack. This episode took place when I was sitting reading a book, not doing anything dangerous, or not even after any of the Rocket Attacks by Insurgent Soldiers attempting to hit or base. After returning home, this continued for several months. While I wasn’t jumpy or having any other overt signs of PTSD. There were many other occurrences when I would wake from my sleep because I was having a panic attack. Which was confusing because this was never preceded by flash backs, or nightmarish memories playing back in my mind. Even though it’s been 10 years since I left Iraq, from time to time I still have these episodes. I’m not sharing this to garner any sympathy, but I’m sharing this to show my unconscious mental reaction. While overtly I may say I’m ok, my mind clearly is showing something differently. I think this is the mistake many veterans make. We say that were not effected by our time in combat because a) Another Veteran with a worse experience is fine, ergo we should be too. or b) I don’t see any of those BAD symptoms, therefore what I’m experiencing must be something else.
Acknowledging there’s a problem is the first step!
While this revelation isn’t a source to ALL my problems, it’s a window into my overall mental state. I’ve always been under the impression that I was unaffected by my time in Iraq. Since I didn’t show any overt symptoms, I wasn’t mentally effected by my combat experience. Secondly because my experience wasn’t as traumatic as countless others, I don’t feel worth of claiming that I’m experiencing mental trauma from my time there. While I may only have a “paper cut” of an injury, it still causes discomfort from time to time. My overall mental state is good, but as anyone with a paper cut knows; it sure is uncomfortable from time to time.
My hope is that for the few that read this post, will get the courage to talk to veterans you may know. They definitely won’t talk about it, but I also think that getting them to a stage where they’re willing to acknowledge that there may be more going on under the surface; is a step in the right direction. There is no real clear line that designates that some traumas will cause mental scars. There isn’t also any experiences that are too small or minute to not deserve to be called mental trauma. When evaluating your own Post Traumatic Stress, I think Dan says it best:
But you can’t measure the impact of experiences like that. Does it matter if a person is exposed to one second or ten years in combat? Not to that person. What matters is the impact that person’s experiences had on them – and that cannot be measured solely by duration or even by their intense or dramatic nature. What I experience inwardly in a given situation can be very different from the impact that same event has on you, the person standing next to me. My personal experience and yours are that unique – Continuing Actions (pg 527)