On PTSD

Megan has an interesting and awesome blog post here, about being a teacher, being an alcoholic, and being public with her addiction. It’s a short but worthwhile read. She talks of the strength of AA, but the fear of being an alcoholic and what the exposure would mean – until now, when she publicly blogs about it.

And I totally get it. I have PTSD. I have had it, for coming up on a dozen years. It’s been, for too long, something we don’t talk about. Except – I’ve always talked about mine. And that was deliberate.

I tell people that I “earned” mine in 2003, during the ground war. I wasn’t blown up. I wasn’t exposed to horrifying trauma. My best friend wasn’t decapitated in front of me. No, I earned in the way a lot of intelligence professionals earn it – I was put under unhumanly amounts of stress, for too long. The preparations for the ground war, and then the pressure to take Baghdad, was incredible. I carried the weight of the world on my shoulders, leading 100 men and women in exploiting 4000 U2 images and 9000 satellite images in support of ground targets from the Kuwaiti Border all the way north. I went as long as 60 hours without sleep.

In times of war, there is no amount of personal sacrifice that you won’t make, if it will keep safe one more Soldier. You’ll skip one more meal. You’ll skip one more hour of sleep. You’ll wring one more ounce out of yourself, if there’s more than can be done. Because more can be done.

I changed. By the time we left the desert, I knew I had it. I knew. Those closest to me – not my wife, of course, my in my unit – they knew, too.

I was withdrawn, I was depressed. I had nightmares, the likes of which no one should ever experience. But those are things that aren’t observable. You can mask those – you tell stories, you find reasons to be alone, you have an extra beer or three.

But there were observables, too – my startle response was off the charts. drop a book, make a loud noise, and I would leap 12 inches off of the ground. And with it, my fight-or-flight response would trigger. There’s no hiding that.

I did one tour in Iraq, and then quickly did another tour. Honestly, I was happy to go back. The stress was comforting. I’ve heard it been compared to being a drunk and being off the wagon; I am good with that comparison. But at that time, the Army did not talk about PTSD. It did not talk about combat stress. It did not talk about resiliency; there were no programs in the Army then, like there are now. In 2003 and 2004, we ate Motrin like it was going out of style, and if we still had problems, they would give us throat lozenges – combines, 800mg Motrin and throat lozenges were believed to cure anything.

But, I did talk about mine. And there’s a simple reason – I was a Company Commander. I was a leader of troops. And I was having problems myself.

I didn’t give grand speeches. I didn’t make PowerPoint slides on the topic. But I did bring my own experiences into my leadership efforts. i did this, because I had been taught and shown that leadership had to be a very personal thing. And if I could see that my own junior leaders, or my own Soldiers were struggling with issues, or were showing signs of what I suspected was either combat stress or PTSD, I would be failing as a leader if I did not lead openly and honestly and talk about my own issues.

So, I did. And in 2003 and 2004, that was uncommon. And in the world of military intelligence, that was very, very uncommon.

Intelligence has long had this hangup with flaws. In the olden days, when I started, anything and everything could be seen as a flaw and could be seen as a reason to suspend or revoke a security clearance. Which never really made sense to me, by the way. Someone was gay, especially openly gay, and they were were at risk for having their clearance suspended or revoked — apparently, the logic was that this fact might be used to blackmail them (again – there’s a flaw in the logic, if they are openly gay.) It always seemed to boil down to that – some secret for which one could be blackmailed – that was reason enough to suspect or revoke a security clearance, and in the intelligence world, that’s fatal for a career. No security clearance, no career.

For me, this was a big part of why I did talk about my post-combat stress. And why, after I went and got help in 2005, I kept talking about it. Having been diagnosed with PTSD in 2005, I had no issues telling people that I had been diagnosed with PTSD. Obviously, the Army wasn’t running me out because of it. I had developed the resiliency skills I needed to continue to Soldier on. It was readily apparent to me, as a leader, that I needed to continue to champion not just a change in the culture in the Army, in bringing combat stress and getting help for it out into the open to be discussed, but to make it a leadership topic and challenge for current and future leaders.

And it became more important to me, as I watched the war in Iraq seemingly go to hell in a handbasket in 2006-2008, from the al-Askari Mosque bombing through Iran’s change in involvement, backing of proxy groups, and introduction of increasing lethal aide specifically to target US Soldiers while the US presence grew under the great Surge strategy. Iraq was becoming a PTSD factory. And it wouldn’t be PowerPoint slides that would help Soldiers deal with their stresses and their problems, but leaders.

During those days, I was very active on the Army’s professional forums for company commanders and company grade officers, commonly referred to as CompanyCommand.com although that had stopped being it’s actual URL. I wasn’t going to Iraq then – I did a tour to eastern Europe during that period – but i did what I could to work with fellow Company Commanders, in Iraq and Afghanistan, who were living, breathing and dealing with it on a daily basis. It was the best I could do, from my fat, comfy, padded chair in Germany.

And in 2009 I was back in Iraq. I was leading again. I was very openly talking with Sergeants, Warrant Officers, new Soldiers and old, about plans and strategies for dealing with the stress of a tough year in northern Iraq. I was on my 6th deployment, my 3rd to Iraq; I was an old timer. We had a truck-ton of brand new Soldiers, fresh out of Basic Training, so new that they got lost in sandstorms, trying to find the porta-potties. Eat right. Make time for sleep. Get cardio. No, eat better than that. Talk to family, talk to friends. Get it out of you, you can’t keep all of this pent up inside. I was also still using Cookie Diplomacy, with thanks to my sister Anne – if you wanted one of her amazing cookies, be ready to talk about what’s going on in your life and where your stress levels are.

And cardio. Cardio, cardio, cardio. Self-medicate, through cardio. I had them all running that year, because I showed them what endorphins would do for them and their stress levels and stress managements. I made no effort to conceal from my team how stressful it was to be back in Iraq, or what I was doing to deal with the stress. I was open and honest, and talked bluntly, about own coping tools for dealing with my PTSD, because as I looked around, I didn’t see many other people saying that they were back in combat with PTSD.

When we redeployed, I talked and talked and talked with my junior leaders about how they were doing, and about they need to check on and engage with their own Soldiers about their from Iraq and reintegration. Where they adjusting? Were they returning to normal? Were they sleeping okay? Were they having problems with being withdrawn, or depressed, or having nightmares, or drinking too much? By 2009, the Army was actually teaching Soldiers and junior leaders on what to look for with regard to combat stress, and what they should expect for a normal vs abnormal reintegration. I just needed to ensure that they were doing their part, and that they were looking at their own lines too – which i was able to spur, buy talking openly and honestly about how my own reintegration was going, and how I was doing myself now that we were home.

I repeated that process in 2011 and 2012, when we went Baghdad then dealt with a tough redeployment period. We had a lot of people who were showing the signs of he stress while we were in Iraq, and I had no qualms – none – about bringing it up with them, and using my own PTSD as the basis for bringing up what would otherwise be an awkward conversations. Only, I don’t see it as awkward – I see it as leadership. We’re suppose to talk about these things. It’s what the Army expects (sure), but more importantly, it’s what is needed.

And I have spent my time here in Charlottesville also talking about PTSD. I came here as the Deputy Commander, and during that period, I interacted just every Soldier, NCO, and officers. And our assignment here is about as low-stress as it comes. It’s been the ideal time for all of us assigned here to get those needed repairs – a bad knee, a banged up shoulder, and yes, for a bunch of them, to admit that they have PTSD and to get some help with it. And for a bunch of them, it’s taken me say that I have it, I got help with it, and that made a huge difference in my life. Months and years after combat, we’re not suppose to still be having nightmares, but we do. We’re not still suppose to be wound up like a top, but we are.

In my time, these twenty years that I have served, I am perhaps most proud of how we as an Army have changed our culture with regard to leadership. We stopped hitting subordinates. We started treating them liked what they actually are – the most valuable asset in the Army inventory. And sometimes, during the course of Army operations, we damage or break them. As leaders, we have a responsibility to care for and repair them, not just because they are some prized tool, but because they are America’s sons and daughters, and they deserve this.

3 thoughts on “On PTSD

  1. Art, Thank you for this moving account of your experiences. I’m deeply affected by your accounts. Now understanding issues much more clearly. Your honesty is riveting.

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