Atonement and Course Correction

This is my first Veterans Day as a veteran. This is also the first Veterans Day that I haven’t thought of as “Survivors Awareness Day”. When my buddy died in Afghanistan 27Apr13 I let myself spiral into a bit of survivor’s guilt and, ultimately, spiral into a life of trying to work myself to death. At that time I felt like should have died. I felt like since I should have been the one to die that I owed the world, by making up for the work that he and the others couldn’t do anymore. Since then, it has taken a while to relearn how to live life instead of just survive, to allow myself to enjoy things instead of “never failing”.

Here are some of the pieces of my path in a somewhat scatterbrained format.

TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read):

– success has no set definition

– find a mentor, be a mentor

– don’t be an asshole to yourself

– help can come from unexpected places, you just need to be willing to find it

– enjoy every moment that you can

I wanted to be “successful”.

Here’s your Saturday morning, “The More You Know” sentence. Mentors can make a difference.

I’ve always found mentors. Before I joined the military, they were friends, family, coaches, coworkers, and employers. A lot of them were positive, some not so much. Through their actions and interactions, they all taught me ideas and habits. They taught me “who I need to be”, by showing me who they wanted me to be.

As I’ve gotten a little older and gained a little bit more experience in life I’ve learned to understand the difference between the positive and negative, the helpful and the harmful. I would love to take full credit for reaching these realizations on my own, and fought my own mind so hard to get there by myself, but I wouldn’t even be in this part of my time of transition if it were not for mentors.

After joining the military I started to find new mentors; training instructors, NCOs, and overachievers. All of these people were “successful”. I wanted to be “successful”. This is in quotes because what I saw in them was their ability to do their job very well and to be respected by their peers. Their ability to seem fine no matter the environment and challenge. What I never thought about, never even slightly considered, was how these people succeeded in their personal/private lives or how they were able to be resilient in the face of failure. I’ve learned that that is a big part of real “success”.

Near the end of my service, I started to find new kinds of mentors. Before the long separation process even started, I began to pick the brains of people who didn’t quite seem like they were constantly running with their engines at full speed, people who seemed to not be completely “perfect”, but they were okay with that. Some of these mentors ended up being people that I would eventually open up to a great deal. In doing so, I learned about a lot of their own struggles from post-deployment stress and anxiety. I even learned a lot about their depression and how they cope. Of course I didn’t think I needed those lessons because I was dead set against the idea of having any form of depression. Depression is something that happens to other people. You know, crazy or lazy people, or people who have gone through more than I could ever imagine, but not this guy. …right?

I am truly thankful for the three Master Sergeants that guided my stubborn ass to my transition point. Unless they are reading this, of course, then…get back to work!

“Ultimate” Air Force Injury

My only “physical” injury wasn’t in either war zone, it wasn’t during any of the 200+ combat missions where so many people were injured or killed, it wasn’t even in any of the storms that tossed our little bird around the sky like a poorly constructed paper airplane. Nope, my injury was one in true “Air Force style”. I partially tore my Achilles and slightly jacked up the joints in my ankle during a game of…ultimate frisbee. Yup, yup…

Since I was already unable to deploy again for a while and I had already spent time down range as an in-country instructor and then training manager, I was hand-picked to be the next deployment manager. This meant that I would schedule, track, and manage all logistics and requirements for hundreds of my fellow Airmen and wingmen in order to get them out the door. This was a bit of a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the people I had to send knew that I wasn’t sending them somewhere that I wouldn’t be willing to go myself, because I already had. On the other, I had to put them in harms way while I stayed in the safety of the U.S. That was tougher than I had initially thought. To add on to the frustration, after my Achilles was healed up and ready to go, I got DNIF’ed (Duties Not To Include Flying) again for “unexplained tachycardia”.

During one of my annual physicals the docs found that my resting heart rate had been continually rising for a while and would now stay at a fairly constant 120 BPM. This meant nothing to me at the time, but apparently it isn’t normal. Over the next few years I would see 4 different cardiologists, go through a battery of checkups and tests, but no “source” could be found. My heart had no clear reason to be freaking the heck out all the time. I cut out coffee. I quit smoking. I tried to address sleeping issues. The only thing that helped were meds that forced my heart rate down, and these would only keep it just below 100 BPM.

Anyway, while I was still stateside I ended up deploying coworkers/friends out of my own deployment office, because we literally had NOBODY else. I wanted so bad to take one of those spots. I wanted to be back there with my friends. After leaving the office, it really shook stuff up when one of my close friends who I had asked to deploy before, who I had been deployed with before, who I went through basic training with, died while deployed and doing OUR mission. That kicked the whole, “must succeed” mentality into high gear.

“My brain is an asshole.”

Like I’ve mentioned before, Dickson’s death was more of the final piece of my issues and not really the core of the problems. I still had many other issues, negative core values, and beliefs that I needed to address.

After I finally got my head out of my butt and started seeking help with ALL of my mental health issues, my resting heart rate started being lower at times and many other disturbing problems would be less extreme. It would be that way more and more often as my treatment went along. Eventually, it became clear to me, my family, my doctors, and my command that my days in the Air Force needed to be numbered, because it was, very literally, not good for my health.

We all collectively decided to submit for a Medical Evaluation Board. This collective push was important to me because otherwise it might have felt like my career was being taken away forcefully. Instead, what I did was finally admit my struggles and put the ball in the Air Force’s court. I can’t thank them all enough for letting me decide whether or not to finally push the button on that package. Without being able to deploy anymore due to the heart concerns, my only other real option, which was always in the back of my mind, was to just run out my clock and separate, not seeking any further support. That part of the brain that kept thinking that I didn’t need help was “the asshole part” of my brain. That’s how I referred to it. It was the part that kept me from initially seeking help, the part that led me to suicidal thoughts, the part that told me that I was a failure and a monster, and the part that told me I wasn’t supposed to be around to deserve loved ones. That part of my brain is a complete and utter asshole and I am working on not letting him drive the train anymore.

Unlikely Mentors

Like I said before, mentors are important. The problem that I was afraid of, however, was that I wouldn’t be able work around civilians, let alone talk to them about the “Asshole Jones” side. Thankfully, I have been so very wrong. My therapist team are mentors, my Air Force Wounded Warrior team are mentors, and unexpectedly, some people that I volunteer with are mentors.

If you were to ask me two years ago if I would ever tell a civilian any parts of my story, I would have completely denied that I had any problems and made up reasons why I needed to go be busy.

If you had asked a year ago, I’d tell you that my best friends and my wife know a little bit and that was all that I needed to tell. Now go away.

If you had asked me six months ago, I’d say something like, “maybe one day” or “probably other vets”. I never would have expected that I would be able to hold the kinds of conversations that I do with some people.

I won’t go into anybody’s personal details, but I had one of those heart-to-heart talks with a civilian friend this morning. She told me how she has struggled for over 20 years now with her own issues and has a lot of her own demons. Demons that I knew civilians could have, but you would never guess they would impact her. Ones that she still wants to “atone for (*gasp* it’s in the name of the article). Her form of atonement is by living life as much as possible and to enjoy something about every day. She reminded me that mental health issues come in so many forms and for so many reasons, they aren’t only military-related.

Before anybody goes all, “civilians can’t understand a veterans mental health struggles”. I’m sorry but you’re pretty wrong. Sure, they won’t entirely understand, but I won’t entirely understand theirs, or the person next to me and their problems. NOBODY will fully understand the mind of another. The cool part that I’m finding out is that they don’t need to. All they need to do is be willing to support, maybe listen, and try to help you when you need it. It really is that simple. There are people (even civilians haha) that are willing to share the experience they have gained along their journey to help those behind them. That’s pretty cool.

Short side note story:

A SOLDIER WITH PTSD FELL IN A HOLE and couldn’t get out.

A Senior NCO went by and the Soldier with PTSD called out for help. The Senior NCO yelled at, told him to suck it up dig deep & drive on, then threw him a shovel. But the Soldier with PTSD could not suck it up and drive on so he dug the hole deeper.

A Senior Officer went by and the Soldier with PTSD called out for help. The Senior Officer told him to use the tools your Senior NCO has given you then threw him a bucket. But the Soldier with PTSD was using the tools his Senior NCO gave him so he dug the hole deeper and filled the bucket.

A psychiatrist walked by. The Soldier with PTSD said, “Help! I can’t get out!” The psychiatrist gave him some drugs and said, “Take this. It will relieve the pain.” The Soldier with PTSD said thanks, but when the pills ran out, he was still in the hole.

A well-known psychologist rode by and heard the Soldier with PTSD cries for help. He stopped and asked, ” How did you get there? Were you born there? Did your parents put you there? Tell me about yourself, it will alleviate your sense of loneliness.” So the Soldier with PTSD talked with him for an hour, then the psychologist had to leave, but he said he’d be back next week. The Soldier with PTSD thanked him, but he was still in the hole.

A priest came by. The Soldier with PTSD called for help. The priest gave him a Bible and said, “I’ll say a prayer for you.” He got down on his knees and prayed for the Soldier with PTSD, then he left. The Soldier with PTSD was very grateful, he read the Bible, but he was still stuck in the hole.

A recovering Soldier with PTSD happened to be passing by. The Soldier with PTSD cried out, “Hey, help me. I’m stuck in this hole!” Right away the recovering Soldier with PTSD jumped down in the hole with him. The Soldier with PTSD said, “What are you doing? Now we’re both stuck here!!” But the recovering Soldier with PTSD said, “Calm down. It’s okay. I’ve been here before. I know how to get out.

~Author Unknown

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