PTSD and Me, from the North County Times

Here is my latest column in the North County Times- a bit more on my personal experiences with PTSD:

Life “outside the wire” in a combat unit is the pinnacle of stress and a morass of boredom, with every minute lasting an hour and every hour lasting an eternity as you wait for the crack of an AK-47 and the snap of a passing 7.62 millimeter bullet. It is a way of life unlike any other, and to live through it changes your life forever.

I served four tours in two wars in five short years. Iraq was more kinetic —- which is the military word for people doing their best to kill each other with guns and bombs and such —- while Afghanistan was less personally violent.

My teams and I logged well over 200 missions “outside the wire.”

Most missions were accomplished without getting shot at or shooting back, but enough weren’t to keep us on our toes. We never really knew which trip into enemy territory would be our last, and collectively our minds shifted into overdrive as we departed the relative safety of the forward operating base or combat outpost for insurgent territory.

Being in combat consumes you. You become completely focused on the now. Thoughts of home and family are pushed completely from your mind as you look in a hundred directions at once: Is that an IED or just a pile of trash? Where would a sniper hide? Are those kids just playing, or are they lookouts for an insurgent ambush? Where are my teammates? Is that a tripwire? Does that man in the distance have a shovel or a rifle? Is he digging in an IED or fixing a broken pipe?

You are completely immersed in what is happening at the moment. You are consumed by your mission and completely focused on what is happening around you because you are never more than a split second away from the absolute chaos of a firefight or IED attack. You are always looking for cover, for something to dive behind when the bullets start flying. You become attuned completely to the environment and as one with your teammates.

That level of intense and singular focus is crucial to survive in combat. It is also impossible to seamlessly turn off when you come home.

I know because that describes me. PTSD takes many forms, and the inability to turn it off is mine.

I developed hypervigilance, which means that I have essentially developed adult-onset ADHD. I can’t sit still or relax without feeling pensive and anxious. I am compelled to be in motion in spite of myself.

I can’t sleep. I have not had a full night’s uninterrupted rest since 2005 —- well, not at home. I sleep fine in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not in San Diego. I snap wide awake every few hours, and if I am lucky, I can get back to sleep. I’m not often lucky.

I can’t remember anything. I have misplaced my short-term memory; I must write every task down as soon as I learn of it or I will forget. It drives my wife to distraction when I can’t remember what I went to the store for, or why I am standing in front of the pantry with a blank look on my face.

I can’t forget many of the events I experienced in combat, despite how much I wish I could. Every day I find my mind wandering back to firefights and attacks and blood and death, even though such things are the last thing I want to think about. Memories abound in my subconscious and they bubble to the surface unannounced, reminding me daily that I have killed for my country and come frighteningly close to dying for it.

PTSD is always with me as I move through my post-war life.

It is not hopeless, however, because there is help out there for those who seek it. More on that in my next column.


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