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

The 3 Things Veterans Want You To Know

Before the Veterans Day Parade in NYC, I asked a few Vets this question: What three things do you want civilians to know?  I spoke to some Vets that were there with IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) and a Vietnam Vet. These were not in-depth interviews as there was an impending parade. You’ve heard of speed-dating? This was a speed-survey.  But I got a lot for investing just a few minutes.

Tireak, Marine Corps Veteran 

1. We need a hand up not a handout.  We’re proud.

2. We’re normal.  Don’t be afraid to learn about Veterans

3.  Tom Hanks had an interesting idea about service in a speech he made at Yale. He talked about our years of service and challenged them to match that service by helping Veterans transition from soldier to citizen.

I pulled this excerpt from Tom Hanks’ speech:

We all will define the true nature of our American identity, not by the parades and the welcome home parties, but how we match their time in the service with service of our own….Give it four years, as many years as you spent here at Yale, in acts both proactive and spontaneous and do the things you can to free veterans from the new uncertainty that awaits them.

Lyndsey, Army Veteran 

1. Please don’t forget the family.  I get a lot of thanks.  That doesn’t recognize the strength this takes for our family members.

2. Not everyone has PTSD.

Lyndsey mentioned trying to do a project at work involving soldiers. It was not embraced for fear that “something might happen” because of PTSD.   She felt this was an inaccurate perception and an overreaction.

3. Take advantage of our leadership skills.  Capitalize on our service.  We can handle stress and deadlines.  We already have.

Moses, Marine Corps Veteran

1. We’re still people. We’re human, not robots.  I still yell at the TV during the game. My Giants are killing me. (NY Giants lost that day)

2. We’re not helpless.  We’re used to leading and we love to serve.

3. Serve with us. You see Vets doing Team Rubicon, helping with Hurricane Sandy. Involved in giving back in so many ways.  Serve with us in the community.

Matt, Air Force Veteran

1.  We’re very motivated.  We continue to serve in different ways after [our military] service.

2. “Thanks” goes a long way.  When I travel I shake the hand of someone in uniform….I know it meant something to me.

3. Employing a Veteran is the best decision you’ll ever make.  They’ll be the best employee you ever had.

Maria, Army Veteran 

1. Embrace PTSD as normal.  It’s not a stigma.  It’s normal to be different.  Handling this kind of stress can take even greater strength.

2.  Employers shouldn’t think we are without experience because we don’t have industry experience.  Our skills are transferable.

3.  I would also say more support for the families.

Tom, Vietnam Vet

1. jobs

2. we want to know people care

3. jobs

ME:  Okay Tom, everyone wants jobs. Could you be more specific about what Veterans need?

TOM:  We need mentors in different fields.  Vets often don’t know how the skills they have acquired translate to a specific industry.  Personal attention makes a difference.  I organized a job fair but kept it small so they got personal attention.

A few more voices

This is obviously not the entire list of everything Veterans may wish to share.  (Also I’m missing Navy and Coast Guard here) but maybe it’s a conversation starter. I didn’t speak with Paul Rieckhoff who leads IAVA, but I heard him say three things that day that stood out to me so I’m adding them in.

1. Vets aren’t a charity, we’re an investment.

2. We’re not a problem, we’re the solution.

3. Make every day Veterans Day.  Put them on the frontlines of your company.

One day closer

Almost all of my volunteer work has been for deployed troops.  But each day, every one of them gets one day closer to completing their service.  To becoming a civilian again.   They will be shaped by their experiences.  Some will have scars both seen and unseen. But whatever their individual story, I hope they will find the support they need to come home and thrive.  Last, but of course not least, thank you to all our Veterans and their families.

© Gina left the mall, 2012