Not Broken

Vets Speak Up

Last week a coworker from my old squadron gave me the opportunity to take part in a photo project that he is working on to raise awareness on mental and physical health issues that veterans have a problem addressing. This is something that is very close to my heart and, even though it was tough to expose myself that much, I’m very glad that I did it.

My Mask

For me it would be about my struggle to finally talk to a medical professional, or anybody else for that matter, about the post-deployment mental health issues that I had been trying to avoid. It was a story of “taking off the mask” of pretending to be fine while feeling like I was falling apart.

For about three years, starting in 2012, I silently pushed through and tried to self-analyze: a constant stream of thoughts and reactions, feelings of being on incessant high-alert, and memories and dreams that were less than pleasant.The farthest back that I can clearly remember is after my now-wife and I moved in together. I don’t know if it was because of having people depend on me or just the idea of having my own loved ones close to me, but my mind shifted. What was once a man who was ready to positively react to situations and tasks had turned into one that was negatively obsessed with “unseen dangers” and “karma” that owed me and those around me some sort of violence from the conflict that I had been a part of. I remember waking up many times in a cold sweat which would usually wake up my then-girlfriend. Of course I would try to brush it away and tell her that I was fine. I just had a bad dream…which was quite the understatement. Fast forward after we got married(Dec 2012) to 2013. I attended a year-long course in California. While there I started getting jumpy. Noises set me on edge, movement set me on edge, and people who felt “out of place” set me on an extreme edge. I felt like those around me weren’t safe. I felt like I couldn’t keep them safe.

Sledge Hammer to My Crumbling Brick Wall

One day that I remember all too well is 27 Apr 2013. This is the day that a close friend of mine that I went through basic training with, continued training with, got stationed with, hung out with, and even deployed with to Iraq in 2009, died. His aircraft had gone down in Afghanistan during a mission that we had both done literally hundreds of times before.

That evening I remember seeing a quick report that a small aircraft had crashed in Afghanistan and that four were confirmed dead. I don’t know why, but I instantly fell into a state of panic. I just knew that I had known the person, even had a strong feeling that it had been one of the Airmen that I had personally sent down range at one point.

I wasn’t wrong, as I had to deploy him in 2011 while I was the deployment manager. That deployment caused him to miss the birth of his daughter. Even though I had a torn achilles tendon at the time and unable to fly/deploy, I was angry at myself for not being able to take his place out there.

Back to that day. After worrying for a couple hours about the safety of my friends or Airmen, other close friends started changing their Facebook profile pictures to them with him. I freaked out. I texted one of my wingmen, “Please tell me that it is a coincidence that everyone is changing their profile picture to them and [him].” He replied that he was sorry, but it wasn’t a coincidence. I remember reading that while in my garage. I started shaking and crying. My wife saw me and came up to see what had happened. I stopped enough to tell her. That moment it felt like, in my mind, a wall that had already been crumbling, that I had worked SO HARD to keep intact, was hit on the other side with a sledge hammer. I later drank myself to sleep in my office with a bottle of Maker’s Mark.

This man was a goofball. He was upbeat. He was laid back. He didn’t deserve that. While we were deployed, he didn’t take the mission to heart like I felt I did. In my mind then, and for a long time, I wanted nothing more than to be able to replace him. I owed him that and deserved it so much more than he did. I didn’t necessarily want to kill myself, I wanted to already be dead, if that makes any sense.

I continued my class in California for another nine months. My small group of classmates knew that I had known him, but I constantly fought everything in me to not let them see the anger and grief that I had eating away at my insides. I often got angry in that class, often argued with my teaching team, but I always tried to make it seem like that was just the kind of person I was. If I could make people think that I was just an ass hole, they wouldn’t pry into anything.

“I got this”

At the end of that year, when I returned to my squadron, I started having friends and coworkers pull me aside. They would often ask me how I was handling everything. I told most of them that I was fine and that, “I got this”. It wasn’t until my best man from my wedding and I were chilling out in his truck out in the Base Exchange parking lot that actually told somebody how I was feeling. I didn’t tell him everything, but more than I had told anybody else. I lovingly describe this man as an ass hole. Abrasive is another huge understatement of a description, but he was one of my best friends. It was in that truck that he urged me to talk to somebody. He more or less told me that he’d “drag my ass to mental health if he had to”. A few months later I finally did.

“I’m not fucking broken”

Those were the first words that I ever said to my therapist. I told him that I just needed to talk to somebody about my buddy and the guilt that I held. Once a week for a year we peeled back at the onion that was my mind and I realized the extent of what was really going on. I guess I really just started to entertain the idea of what was really going on.

Fast Forward to Today

I’ll save the details along the way for now, but I’m now medically retired and working toward helping others “take off their mask”. I Have a great opportunity to use my experiences to help others and, in doing so, help myself.

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