As I was running on the treadmill yesterday morning, listening to the band Five Finger Death Punch, my mind wandered back to the days of old when I was in the Army. The picture accompanying this post is of me in Iraq circa 2008. I was a Staff Sergeant, infantry squad leader, and on my third tour of duty in that particular country. The quality of life during that visit to Iraq was much higher than my previous trips to other parts of the country. We had clean water, secure base, relatively clean living conditions, and only one enemy contact (an improvised explosive devise that didn’t hit my platoon or squad). It was a quiet time in our area of responsibility in Iskandariyah and its surrounding area.
With each trudging stride on the treadmill, I remembered the long, grueling runs up and down the “Schoolhouse” route in Korea. This was a favorite route of many Team Leaders (including myself once I earned the position) for its steep inclines and seemingly disproportionately shallow declines that culminated in a beautiful school tucked away from modern civilization. I recalled my brief runs on the small airbase outside of Camp Fallujah in 2004 at the beginning of my first tour in Iraq. Back then I had dreams of Ranger School, Special Forces, and a life of hardship directed by the U.S. Army. My mind flashed forward to Fort Campbell and the near leisurely squad runs I oversaw each morning. I would run the squad in formation between 1 and 3 miles out then turn them around and let them free run back to the company area – requiring each member of the squad to get there before I did. More recently, in Kosovo I reminisced about the midnight run I did, alone, that consisted of, well, running. I simply put on shorts and a t-shirt with my running shoes and started running (very Forrest Gump style). That run lasted about 15 miles and a couple of hours; running up and down the dirt roads that circled Camp Bondsteel thinking about all the things in my life.
Running has almost always been an activity of calm for me despite the fact that I am an “ugly runner”. I don’t talk while running, I don’t engage, I simply run. Nowadays, I am running to lose weight, focus my mind, and (hopefully) prevent pure embarrassment as I tackle actual races throughout the year. I have never been the fastest runner nor the slowest, always existing somewhere in the middle. This is okay with me – I don’t think I ever dreamed of being a world-class athlete, let alone a gold medal winning marathoner. Running is my center and every time I stop running for extended periods of time, I find myself off balance which negatively impacts my life.
What does all this talk about running have to do with the title of this blog post?
Well, I also remembered the sprint I made from a courtyard in Ramadi, Iraq to the wall surrounding a mosque while under readily identifiable enemy fire. For those that don’t know what that means: bad guys were actively shooting bullets from AK-47 rifles in my, and my team’s direction, with the intent to kill one or all of us. The distance covered was about 100 meters and required a slight elbow-like turn halfway to the destination (the scariest part since it required the slightest decrease in forward momentum to avoid falling on our asses). We were completely exposed to the enemy and any step could have been followed by a bullet to a softer part of our bodies.
I recalled the building-to-building bounding (sprinting from one place to another) in a hostile marketplace in the rural outskirts of southwest Baghdad while a sniper and gunman took pot-shots at me and my soldiers. The sky was overcast and a light drizzle was falling down around us, everything appeared gray and downtrodden. At one point, in a surrealistic moment, I took cover behind a vandalized mural of Saddam Hussein in the middle of the open courtyard at the heart of the marketplace. The rain fell around me as I peaked around the edge to better identify where the enemy was firing from. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, my radio seemed quieter, and an odd calm took over the world. I was strangely at peace in the middle of chaos.
My mind brought to bear the memories of jumping out of a helicopter as it hovered a foot or so off the ground over a potato field outside an abandoned, half-built Russian power plant south of Baghdad. Once the bird (helicopter) dropped its babies it quickly rose into the air and peeled away into the jet-black night sky. I led my platoon (as point-man, not designated leader) out of the potato field, onto an asphalt road, across a bridge, and through the front gates of this abandoned complex. My squad cleared the main administrative building while the other squads peeled off to their designated clearance zones. Calling the building that reminded me of most small American schools “clear” (no enemy presence), my men and I moved to clearing the shanty town of plywood buildings that had been used for storage and living spaces that surrounded the admin building. All appeared clear of enemy presence. During this clearance, someone (I don’t remember who), found a “bongo” (snub-nose, typically flat bed truck popular in the Middle East) truck with a solid coating of blood on its bed. It was presumed this was the blood of the American soldiers we had been sent to look for after their abduction by enemy forces at a checkpoint a few miles from the power plant.
Many more of these memories found their way to my mind’s eye during my short run on the treadmill yesterday morning. I started thinking about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how it seems that the American public expects every veteran to suffer from this problem. It can be seen in movies and television all the time: Agent Booth in Bones was traumatized by the loss of his spotter, Vietnam Veterans have been portrayed as “broken” since the war was actively in progress, and newer movies about Iraq (Hurt Locker (puke), American Soldiers, and others) always contain a large portion of its cast reliving their memories from “the shit”. I know, first-hand, that PTSD is a very real thing and different people have different thresholds for dealing with it.
But what about those of us who don’t actively suffer from PTSD? Are we the exception or are we broken in other ways?
I don’t have nightmares. I don’t feel survivor’s guilt. I am not easily triggered into an “over-the-top” reaction to explosions, gun fire, or falling plywood. I don’t drive in the center of the road fearing there might be a bomb buried on the side of the road. I don’t drink heavily, trying to drown my memories and tears. Most importantly, I don’t relive my memories, I simply remember them and an appropriate emotional response occurs.
When I first left the Army, I did have issues with hyper-vigilance and over-the-top emotional responses (typically anger) to minor slights. However, this is more attributable to why I left the Army and the speed at which that happened than anything else (that’s a whole other long blog post). To help with this, I had three appointments with a psychologist at the VA in Tucson, Arizona. I think she found my telling of the stories (lack of emotion, more of a report than a story) more interesting than my reaction to them at that time. I was diagnosed with PTSD, but I didn’t seek any further treatment since I was (and am) fully capable of thriving in day-to-day life without pharmaceutical, therapeutic, or self-medicating treatment.
Despite these facts, it seems that non-veterans and veterans alike assume that since I was an infantryman who was in Iraq for 33 months during some of the worst fighting the country experienced that I should be broken, crying, and constantly talking about the medications I am on to keep me from being a danger to myself or others around me. It is despicable that people assume soldiers are broken simply because they served.
I guess what this overly long post is driving at is: Don’t assume I am broken and should be acting like that guy in that movie who drinks too much, can’t stop crying, and ultimately just needs a hug.
For those people who do suffer from PTSD, veteran or not, find someone to talk to, whether it is a professional or a friend or a family member or a dog, don’t let your experiences and memories run your life. Let it out and seek help sooner than later.
Any veterans out there with an opinion on this matter? Anyone know of some good resources for people to use if they suffer from PTSD? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!