Because I Asked

It was hard to understand this soldier. Slurring his words, he told me “check your email.” It turns out that answering my question about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) dredged things up for him. So he increased his meds and had a few drinks. I felt terrible. He told me not to worry because “it’s always there.” Yeah, that didn’t make me feel any better.

The question

On Veterans Day I had asked a few vets what they wanted civilians to know. Their answers helped increase understanding. I figured maybe I could do the same with PTSD. So I asked this solider who has PTSD If he could tell me what he and other combat veterans would want us to know. That is, if it wasn’t too much trouble and if he didn’t mind. Notice the amount of “ifs” in there. But soldiers are very mission-oriented, and he was going to make sure he completed the task.

It hurt to read his email. So now what? Because just hurting isn’t good enough. I want to DO something. Then I thought the holidays are coming and that can be a difficult time. Maybe knowing what some troops are going through will be helpful to them or those around them. Maybe at this moment, that’s what I can do. So, because I asked and because he answered, here’s what I now know:

Dear Gina,

I have been giving this a lot of thought. It is a much harder question than I think you realize. I went around work today and asked a bunch of the guys. The response was overwhelming silence. What is the number one thing we want people to know about PTSD? Nothing. We know way too much about it to wish that kind of knowledge/torture on our own people. True combat-related PTSD controls your life. It focuses all of its evil on making you wish you weren’t here anymore. It truly ruins the rest of your life, until you get to a point that you are able to control, or tame it a little. However, it is never gone… I can’t watch certain kinds of movies, news segments, enjoy fireworks displays, play paintball with my kids… Even certain smells bring me back. Those are some of the worst days.  Holidays, forget about ’em, I’m useless. All I can do is put on a fake smile, over take my meds, and drink enough to stumble through the day.

So what can I honestly tell you that I would want people to know about PTSD?  I wouldn’t want anyone to know what I know.  What do I think people need to understand about it? To understand about us?

POSITIVE
1) One thing is this, we are incredibly loyal!!  A grunt that has been knee deep in his buddy’s intestines, is a man that will stay by you no matter what the cost!!

2) Hard working. Our suffering is a sign that we know how to give everything we have, day in and day out for very very long periods of time! You wont find a career civilian with half the drive for success that we have.

3) Along with these things will come the need for perfection, correctness, reliability, and attention to detail. Because PTSD is partially the result of these things keeping us alive!!!

NOT SO POSITIVE
1) I have spent my entire adult life training to fight, learning to survive by going from zero to infinity in a split second with little to no provocation or warning. PTSD sometimes makes this an impossible thing to turn off.

2) When we look like we might be having a moment, we probably are.  However, don’t run and hide, let us know you care. One time, we cared, and now we suffer, but we have never stopped loving what we fought for.

3) When veterans holidays (and possibly a few others that we individually tell you are days that give us fits every year) roll around- we might appreciate a special pat on the back, shake of the hand, or even (especially me) just a look. This look lets us know that you may not understand why I have tears in my eyes and want to just sit in a corner for a few minutes, but it tells us that we can take that moment for our own reflection. Remember, when you were 19 you were trying to figure out how to sneak beer into the theater. I was writing a letter to a mother, a wife, a sister, a father, or a brother telling them that I held their loved one in my arms as he passed away in combat. That I carried him as long as we needed in order to try to save him, and listened as he said his final goodbyes and I love you’s.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

18 thoughts on “Because I Asked

  1. This makes me want to hug every fighting man or woman–if they want to be hugged! Gina, thank you for bringing tears to my eyes and joy to my heart with your every post.

    • Thank you for caring about our troops! I know this post was a tough one. But I think it’s important to understand. Especially as more vets return back to civilian life. I also think being aware adds more weight to the words, “thank you for your service.”

      As for tears and joy, I try to have balance in the posts so…less tears next time. Thank you for reading!

    • It is awful. I wish I knew how to make world peace break out. But I don’t. So I do the small things I can for the 19-year-olds in harm’s way. One of which is to make sure that they are not forgotten. That the things they endure are not unknown. And, while I do these things, I pray for that elusive peace and their safe return home.

  2. Gina, thank you for sharing this with us. I have often wondered what I can do and never quite figured out anything beyond just being understanding and compassionate. Thank you to this soldier who felt safe enough to reply honestly. It did help.

    • Mrs P, your kind words will mean a great deal to him (as they do to me.) He went through the pain of answering in order to help both soldiers and civilians. And there can never be too much compassion or understanding in the world.

  3. Well said Gina, once again you managed to capture what is important to us. You are correct, it was painful to visit this topic and to try to put something into words. However, if it helps even just one soldier, then it was worth it to have been able to help. Keep up the good work and stay in touch. I look forward to reading next week’s article and seeing what you come up with next!

    • Hi Dave, my name is Kyndal. I am a big fan and a big supporter and prayer warrior of the troops!! And I am also a neice of a Vietnam Vet. Hey Dave, hope you won’t mind if I tell you this, I would just like to tell you “Thank You” for your wonderful service to our country. And I know that you didn’t hear this when you came home and for that I’m so sorry. So now I want you to hear this from me, WELCOME HOME!!!!!!!

  4. My brother was a veteran of the Korean War who struggled with the effects of PTSD his whole life. In those days there was virtually no attention paid to it. He was never the same person again after he returned home.

    • I am so sorry that your brother has suffered this way and for the pain your entire family has endured as well. The “no attention” part is a level of bonus pain that need not be. It is also such a missed opportunity to help our veterans. Many of our Korean War and Vietnam War vets suffered in silence. I’m hoping the attention paid today means a different fate for vets of our current conflicts. And maybe even gives even a small measure of comfort to their brothers those that served before them.

  5. Admittedly, this is hard to read. As you know, Gina, my husband is currently in Afghanistan. In the three months he’s been gone, I’ve already seen him change so much. I fear for him when he returns. He’s always been a “heart on your sleeve” kind of guy. Not so much more sensitive than a typical man, but tends to show it more often. We have six months left and I worry about the man who will come home. It’s a real and imaginary fear all at once…

    • You know, I worried about doing this post. I didn’t want to put my military families through any bonus stress or added worry. But I also didn’t want guys like Dave suffering in silence with their stories untold and civilians unaware.

      My “outsider” experience from what soldiers and some wives have told me is this- the guys often pull away during deployment then ease back after they transition home. While that “pull away” is not the norm for your husband, their examples give me hope that whatever he’s like right now is temporary. When I say my prayers with Sofia at night, he and your family will be in them.

      Also, I’m pretty good with a happy supportive letter so, if you’d ever like me to write him, you can send me an email privately with his address. You can reach me here: gina@ginaleftthemall.com I’m also pretty good with OPSEC/PERSEC so you don’t have to worry about that.

      • Thank you hun. I’ll keep that in mind. As hard as it is to hear stories like these, they are stories that MUST be told. It’s important to break the silence that torments so many of our troops. As a victim of violent crime, I can testify to the silence that haunts my own life. I cannot imagine what these men and women go through and how deafening the silence must be.

  6. Wow..that is hard to read! I’m a social work major in school, and I just wrote a paper on posttraumatic stress disorder after sexual trauma, but of course you really can’t do research on PTSD without reading into combat related cases. The reason I was interested in the topic was because I have it. I’ve obviously never been a soldier so it’s not combat related, but I was sexually assaulted and it really messed my life up. It’s something that’s hard to talk about, especially now that I’m in a relationship. It’s been really hard moving on from that. Luckily my boyfriend is a soldier, so he understands PTSD in general, but I hate explaining things to people (even him) about why I react to certain things the way that I do. Walkie talkies will make me freak out, and so do hugs. How do you explain to someone you don’t want a hug? But now that it’s been about a year, I still deal with those things, but I’m a lot stronger of a person than I ever would have been. I have a work ethic and a drive to accomplish things that I had never previously possessed. But the one thing I’ve taught my boyfriend and friends is that, no matter how I react to a question that they ask, I don’t want them to regret asking. Because every time I struggle through an answer with tears in my eyes, I’m working through a piece of my life that I would have other wise left hidden, which is even more dangerous. If anything, their questions just affirm that what I feel is real and not something that I’ve made up in my head. Sorry for the long comment, but you are helping! You of all people are doing an amazing job of just caring for our soldiers! Which is way more than most people will ever do.

    • Jessie, I am so sorry to hear what you have been through and continue to go through. But I’m very glad that you have caring people around you. I think the fact that you let others know how you feel about questions and other things is huge. I imagine many friends and family of those with PTSD aren’t sure what to say or do. When I heard this soldier on the phone, I felt like the most thoughtless person in the world for asking him about it and putting him through more pain. I was so happy when I read his reply that he felt it was worth it.

      Please continue to let others know what you need to thrive. And please tell your boyfriend that I thank him for his service.

    • It is amazing to know that “understanding” can make such a difference. It costs nothing and the effort required is small. While other aspects of PTSD may be difficult to address, this part is doable. I hope this post is one more step in reaching that goal.

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