This morning I saw on Facebook that one of Eric’s former fellow soldiers lost another friend to suicide. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is killing our military and former military at a rate of 22 per day experts say. 22 per day! We personally know of several that have fallen into that number and Eric was almost one of them a couple of times. PTSD is real and can be devastating. PTSD can kill.
Eric has always been a soldier in every sense of the word – proud, honorable, true to the mission and his brothers-in-arms. He was always positive, sure of himself and had one of the biggest hearts of anyone I’d ever known (even though he will never admit that). This is just a few of the many reasons I fell in love with him. By the time we were married both of us had our fair share of emotional/relationship baggage – just like most people – but were able to truly communicate and work through whatever problems came our way as a team with very little to no arguing.
Then Eric deployed to Iraq as an infantryman in 2003. We had no clue at the time how much our lives would change. When he left, he was frightened (like the rest of his brothers) but was firm in the belief that what he was doing was for the good of not only our country but the world as well. He was proud and ready to do his job. I was proud too – proud of my husband and his courage, proud of my soldier. The FRG (Family Readiness Group) gave briefings on what we could expect when our men arrived home – signs to look for, reintegration issues, time lines, etc. I listened, researched and thought I was prepared. To a certain extent I was – he wasn’t. Neither of us was prepared for his knee-jerk reaction to vehicle backfires and other bangs that had fallen into background noise until then; the dreams; the violent thrashing in his sleep; the paranoia of his surroundings. His temper was the worst part.
The first argument we had after Eric’s return in 2004 was over the assembly of a piece of furniture. His frustration and rage took me off guard – it wasn’t like him. He had always been easily irritated, but not like this. After things calmed a little bit, he told me that the part that frustrated him the most was that he didn’t feel like he belonged anywhere anymore – that there was no place for him. And so, the creature that is PTSD was a part of our family – whether we liked it or not. The rage and erratic behavior slowly became worse from there on out. Slowly being the operative word. It was so slow that you almost didn’t notice it. Very much like watching your child grow – one day you look at them and say to yourself, “Wow! When did that happen?”
Eric is a master at adapting – like most trained military professionals. They assess the situation and take actions to “fix” whatever is broken – that is a man thing in general. So he began shutting down his feelings, building a wall in order to “fix” what was happening to him inside. I saw this and tried desperately to bring him back to me, the closeness we once had. Doing everything I could to make things “perfect” again. My frustration began to mount as well. The house would not stay clean, the kids could not stop being children, and the eggshells I walked on in my efforts to make the home a comforting, welcoming, warm place were multiplying faster than I could keep up with. I researched PTSD and strategies to use at home to tame the beast that she is – but truthfully, all of it only goes so far if your significant other refuses to see what the real problem is. Eric would laugh with his buddies about having PTSD – make light of it. He knew deep down that it wasn’t a joke – that it was real but wasn’t ready to openly admit it. How could he? Back then, PTSD was taboo. It was a career ender. All the guys knew how to lie during the re-deployment psychological testing. From day one our military is told to “be strong,” “suck it up.” If they didn’t they were ostracized and ridiculed for not being man enough or tough enough. In some cases, admitting to the “weakness” was considered to be detrimental to the whole team dynamic.
I truly believe that one of Eric’s saving graces at that time was that he remained in the same unit after they returned. He was able to be comforted by his brothers that knew and understood without having to say a word to each other. A few of them left the service within months of getting home. I would receive phone calls from these boys (and I call them boys because they were just that – young and lost) asking me what they should do, where they should go. The civilian world was so different from the world they had just left and their girlfriends/wives couldn’t even begin to understand. There was nothing I could tell them at the time other than I was there for them to talk to without judgment. The ironic part of all that – I was hearing more about what had happened in Iraq from Eric’s soldiers than I was from him. It wasn’t until years later that he told me why – he did not want me to know the monster that he had become. It was easier for him to hide that part away from me so that I wouldn’t run from him in disgust or fear. Yes – PTSD is a complicated woman.
During Eric’s second deployment to Iraq in 2005-06 with the same unit, things got worse. No, they weren’t cleaning feces out of buildings to provide themselves semi-safe shelter from attacks anymore, but the violence had escalated. The vividness of it was closer than it had ever been before. For the first time ever, Eric began questioning his own position in the military. At least before he had faith in his job to hold on to, with this doubt came even more doubt in himself as a person. He was a Soldier – what did that mean now? He was ready to be done with the Infantry, to move on to something with more meaning to him personally and professionally. When he returned from Iraq, he dropped his Warrant packet and was one of the first 11-Charlies in the Army to be picked up for a new branch of Warrants. We felt as though our prayers had been answered and the craziness would find its way to an end. How naive we were! PTSD is far more complicated than a change of scenery.
The guilt began to seep in while Eric was at WOC (Warrant Officer Candidate school). Amidst our excitement of his new MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), he heard that his old unit was once again preparing to deploy. His anger turned inward as news of casualties reached us. He insisted that he should have been there with them; he had betrayed his brothers by wanting something different for his family and himself. His depression deepened, and I was helpless against it. No matter what words of encouragement I offered, no matter what I did to try to console him – he was angry. As his wife and the person who knew him best, I could see more and more clearly that he needed help; that he wouldn’t be able to do it on his own forever. I would try to talk to him about it with the response usually being something similar to, “Yeah, yeah – I know.” Then silence. My daily prayers consisted of asking for strength for my family and comfort for Eric. The balancing act continued for me – trying to keep him happy and the kids happy and the appearance of “normal” to the outside world despite the outbursts of rage, the drinking, the nights out with the buddies.
It wasn’t until Eric’s first deployment as a Warrant that the beast reared her ugly head with a vengeance. He was in Afghanistan as a Targeting Officer. The pressure of knowing what his brothers were going into without being there with them nearly broke him completely. When he came home for R&R, his whole appearance was that of being lost, lonely, confused and tired – very, very tired. It felt very much to me like when he came home from the very first deployment – only worse. He was even more shut down emotionally than ever before and he knew it. The feeling of utter helplessness is all I remember from that R&R. He was not well and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to help him. Having struggled with Major Depression most of my life, I knew what he was going through with that – understood in ways some probably can’t. But deep depression was a new and completely foreign feeling for him – he was always the positive one, the life of the party, the one who never let life get him down. When he returned to Afghanistan, things seemed to progress even faster in the most negative ways possible. He tried talking to his longtime friends and co-workers about what was happening with him only to be laughed at. He tried speaking with his chain of command only to get a pat on the back and a “You’ll be ok, soldier. You’re a tough one.” Our communication all but stopped. When we did Skype, he looked so tired and kept saying that he knew I didn’t want him home, that I didn’t have time for him – all so far from the truth that I would actually break down into tears and beg him to tell me why he was saying such things. No matter how many times I told him that I loved him no matter what, that I was with him through anything that he was dealing with, that I would never leave him – it seemed to fall on deaf ears. At the time I took it all to mean that he didn’t love me anymore – that he wanted a way out because of it. I know now that PTSD is an evil seductress – able to manipulate the mind and turn it against one’s self. He had reached the lowest he had ever been before that and was shutting me out as well as everyone else around him.
In the late fall of 2009, Eric locked himself in his hooch and put his M-4 into his mouth ready to end it all. By the grace of God, he did not pull the trigger! He went to talk to the chaplain instead – the one man who listened to him and took him seriously. He told me at that time about talking with the chaplain and the relief he felt, but he did not tell me about the near suicide until months later. The rest of that deployment was not easy for either of us. Comfort in each other was not easy over Skype or IMs. His homecoming the following summer was the worst imaginable. He was emotionally dead at that point and I was completely at a loss of what I was supposed to do or how to act.
Still – I refused to give up on him, on us. We finally were able to work back toward a place where we could talk beyond Eric’s rage. Things were looking up again – then another deployment. Communication and his own frustration at work led to old detrimental patterns; the difference this time – I was prepared and stronger. While home on R&R, we had a very serious discussion about his actions and behaviors. He still had not recognized his own broken mind – he could only say, “I don’t know why I’m doing the things I am. I don’t know why I feel this way.” Flabbergasted – I began pulling up stories from other service members; blogs, statistics, all the resources I had at the time to show him he was not alone! That PTSD is not something to be pushed aside or ashamed of. To my great relief – he finally understood, finally admitted, finally realized he was not the only one and it was ok! He had to go back to Afghanistan but with the promise that when he returned he would seek help; that while he was still over there he would work very hard to maintain contact and not shut me out. But PTSD is a cunning, sly mistress. He kept his promises for a while, but the old patterns again returned. When he got home, he didn’t seek help as he said he would and things got even worse.
Eric’s drinking became near constant and he began hanging out with his biker friends more than he did the family. Our arguments reached terrifying levels. Once I ran out of the house and hid beside the cars for fear of my life. He swears he never would have hurt me, but the rage in his eyes at the time told me a different story. Eric was no longer the man I married, the man I loved. He had turned into the monster he was so afraid that I would see.
Easter Sunday in 2014, everything came to a head. After spending the day together with friends and promising that he would be coming home right behind me and the kids on his bike, Eric decided to stop by his favorite bar. After hours of not being home, I went looking for him. The fight that ensued was one of the worst we’ve ever had. After a near physical altercation, he threw his motorcycle helmet at me then took off down the road on his bike at top speeds towards home. That’s where his friends found him. He had his Glock in his mouth ready to end it all again. After some time, his friends talked him down. This was the worst it had ever gotten. The worst it could ever be. Eric finally agreed to get help. Although it did take several more months before he got serious about it.
It was a slow process. PTSD is not something that a pill can fix. It’s not something that can be addressed and forgotten in a few therapy sessions. Eric went through months of counseling, but in the end, he had a better handle on himself and the PTSD. He acknowledged the walls he had put up, the self-medicating he had been doing. He began to heal. The PTSD is not gone. He still lives with it every day; the difference is that now he knows what the triggers are – he knows his limitations and accepts them. He still needs to sit facing the exit when we go out to eat. He still scans his area for potential threats. He can no longer watch certain shows that he knows will trigger him. The PTSD is still there, but it no longer controls him unconsciously. He’s come a very long way! Our relationship is as good as it has ever been now too. We talk again – about everything. He no longer keeps me on the outside.
If you or someone you love has PTSD, please know that you are not alone! Reach out! Seek help – there is no shame in it! 22 veterans a day is 22 too many! Eric’s story is one of success – proof that there is life even with PTSD. I am still so very proud to call him my husband.