I'm not sure where you were in December 2018, but I vividly remember where I was. Life found me in the middle of the Mojave Desert with a pistol pressed firmly against my head. At the time, it seemed my demons would never cease their relentless attack on my soul. I felt perhaps that death was the best option. Maybe the only option.
Admittedly, something was comforting about the cool steel of the gun's barrel against my temple. Tears filled my eyes as my finger began to depress the trigger. Inexplicably some force within my psyche prevented me from pulling back far enough to send my spirit into whatever comes next. I removed the pistol from my head and cursed the force that prevented me from ending it all. I began slamming the metal receiver against my forehead as hard as I could. I was in PTSD hell.
Popular culture, particularly in the United States, glorifies combat. Even as a young child, I knew no other path ahead for myself besides the military. Veterans were heroes and people whose convictions were to be admired. Like many of my fellow veterans, I joined with a chip on my shoulder. I had to prove to myself and the world I wasn't "weak" or "stupid."
I experienced a great deal of bullying growing up. The physical and mental abuses of my childhood filled me with anger. I strived to excel in school and athletics. By the time I was in high school, I was operating on only a few hours of sleep most nights. In my senior year, I was a straight-A student and lettered in several varsity sports. It was constant pressure. I now believe these years laid the foundation for a mind ready for combat and primed for PTSD.
A few weeks after graduating high school, I was on a plane to Annapolis, MD, and the United States Naval Academy. The four years I spent at the Naval Academy were the most difficult of my life. I would sooner go back to the streets of Fallujah than endure those four years again. After graduating, I was commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps. Graduation was in May of 2001.
A few months after, the world would change as the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, made war an almost certainty for me and my fellow service members. By the completion of my time in the Marine Corps, I would end up serving four tours in Iraq and one tour in Afghanistan. I was involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the war.
After spending the better part of a decade of my life in combat, I left the military and returned home to the civilian workforce. It was at this point when PTSD, my derailment, began. I never saw much of the glory that was supposed to be in war. I found an abundance of death, violence, and sadness. Like many people in combat, I experienced things no one should ever have to.
I know the unique aroma of a decaying body as the desert sun, insects, and bacteria slowly strip away any semblance of humanness from the pile of organic matter. I know the shared pain and anger felt in a unit as a fellow Marine is killed. The tears of combat-hardened warriors during a memorial service as they honor the memory of someone they loved like a member of their own family. A precious life lost that if you could, you would gladly give up all the battles won and objectives achieved if it meant you could bring back your dead brother or sister.
I know what it's like to burn blood-soaked uniforms and clean the remains of your friend off weapons and equipment so that they can still be used to fight the enemy. I can still taste and smell the all-encompassing black smoke and cordite when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blew up on my HMMWV (Humvee.)
I know what it is like to take another person's life. I have taken many. That feeling of knowing you have ended everything that person was and everything they will ever be. To realize they were not too different from you. Like you, they were trying to stay alive and someday return home, but your actions ended any hope that would ever happen. I know what it is like to write to the children of a fallen brother.
Ironically, I never felt like I was negatively affected by war until I left the military. Shortly after leaving the Marine Corps, I started to notice changes. I became dark and distant from people. There was a great deal of anger inside. I felt I hadn't done enough and that my life should have been taken in place of others killed.
Publicly, I was a successful leader in corporate America, making good money, and enjoying life. Privately, I had developed a severe gambling problem. Besides work, I was isolating myself from almost all human contact. Inside I felt like my soul was still in the war zone.
Most nights, I would take off running into the darkness, purposely going into what most people would consider dangerous areas of the city. I was hoping to get attacked so I could feel the rush of combat. I yearned to exist on that razor's edge where life can so easily slip into death. It seemed to be the only place I felt alive or important.
Survivor's guilt, hate, anger, and sadness fueled my nightly runs. Even years later, after I married and had a family, these thoughts consumed me. I ignored my trauma and, in doing so, treated my family poorly. I often chose to be alone and cut off instead of valuing the love and support given to me by my wife and step-daughter.
My wife especially felt the burden of my PTSD as I was critical of her every move. I was too deep into my issues to realize I was often destroying her confidence and self-esteem as I tried to preserve my own. After years of tearing her down, she finally had enough and got through to me by saying I needed to get help, or she would be forced to leave.
I sought help from the Veteran's Administration and nonprofit organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project. The Wounded Warrior Project and the Road Home program at Rush University in Chicago were beneficial. My mistake was shortly after getting help; I assumed I was "cured" and stopped working through my trauma. In a matter of days, my world came crashing down.
When this happened, I was in the Mojave Desert and armed. Without being proactive in my PTSD recovery, I couldn't manage the nightmares, dark thoughts, hypervigilance, depression, and suicidal ideations. It all hit me like a ton of bricks, and it made it seem like even a small issue was overwhelming.
It was a painful process, but I worked on PTSD and realized I would need to do so for the rest of my life. It is a daily struggle, but one I am grateful for. Especially considering the other option I considered. I have learned a few key things at this point in my journey and know I will continue to learn more.
Dealing with PTSD is a struggle. It sucks, and there will be days where it seems no end is in sight. But the struggler is worth it. I hope these few things I have learned may help you if PTSD is a demon you battle. Ignoring PTSD only makes it worse. I tried avoiding my issue to the point that it almost cost me my family and my life. If you have PTSD reach out for help. As a former Marine Corps officer, I was sure I didn't need any help, and I was wrong.
During my recovery, I found that flying drones was a therapeutic tool. When I am operating a drone, I can take my mind off the war and heal. I found other veterans who were also getting help from drones and started a nonprofit, Vigilante Cares, to help bring veterans and drones together in the fight against PTSD. I have discovered that when I help someone else with PTSD, I can't help but heal myself a little, too.
I've faced addiction, homelessness, depression, and suicidal thoughts. But I know there is a reason behind the struggle. For now, I believe that reason is to help others. I know there will be days of light and days of darkness ahead. I know there will be times when the memories of war get the best of me. But, I also know that there is a reason we are all here, and even when we struggle, the journey is worth the fight.
Chances are most people know someone with PTSD and it's important to remember that veterans are not the only people who suffer from it. Anyone who suffers from a traumatic event can develop PTSD. Trauma is trauma. According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD can occur in anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, or who has been threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury. The National Center for PTSD lists these symptoms for those suffering from PTSD:
Reliving the event: this may include nightmares, feeling like you are going through the event again (flashbacks), experiencing triggers (sights, smells, sounds) that make you feel like you are in the event again.
Avoiding situations that remind you of the event: for example, I was once hit with an IED while in a convoy just North of Fallujah, Iraq. As such, I avoid driving next to the side of the road where trash looks like it could be an IED.
Negative changes in beliefs and feelings: this can take the form of a loss of loving or positive feelings towards other people, believing that the entire world is dangerous, lacking trust in anyone, and forgetting parts of the traumatic event.
Hyperarousal: this is feeling like you are always on edge. You behave as if at any moment, things can go from 0 to 100.
If you consider suicide, know that your life has value and even the darkest days are worth pushing through. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.