Monday, May 17, 2010

PTSD Vol. 1: Coming Home

I'm somehow finding it difficult to narrow down my reflections to write this post. I've mentally prepared myself to deal with, or at least, educate myself on PTSD issues since Brian enlisted.

In the past couple of years, I've received anguished letters and email from families of struggling soldiers about what their loved ones are going through. To these families, I've offered my sympathy and prayers, and thanked them for their words, even when they are angry and accusatory. My military Mom tales come off as a little too rosy for some. To these families, I can only declare that others' pain, though I know it exists, and care so deeply that it hurts me also, isn't always mine to share.

Even if it is my son's.

Brian had little access to telephones or internet during his first tour, and his reports home were short and sweet: "Bombs, no one hurt, things are fine." He regaled us with "cat & mouse" stories when he came home on leave. One man, for example, set a bomb in the road in front of his own house every day. Every day, Brian & Co. de-bombed the bomb, or whatever they do to it, but again the next day it would be there. Finally fed up with the bomb du jour, they moved it into the man's yard, and detonated it, blowing out the windows in his car, and killing his chickens. The message: "Don't mess with us, or we'll kill your chickens."

Funny chicken stories. Those are the ones you tell your Mom.

Coming Home

When your soldier comes home from the a war zone, they prepare you with literature containing rules and information about what to expect from them. "Avoid alcohol" is number 1 on the list. Oh, hilarious; when we got those boys back to the barracks after landing, they were 2 steps out of the car before icy bottles of rum were passed around.

At the end of that day, I wrote,
I'll admit to telling Clint that I felt like I'd been tossed into a pool of Testosterone. 12 hours with of 3 soldiers fresh out of a war. 3 soldiers happy to see girls again (there are no women in their company), and making no bones about it! 12 hours of rum and beer, ribald language, hair-raising war stories, and one mere expression of a desire to hit a certain jackass on the sidelines.
Written somewhat in jest, it was also the absolute truth. The barracks were a rowdy place to be, and not entirely what I'd expected. A parent's presence didn't bring about the manners that it did at bootcamp graduation. Beer bottles were tossed from building tops, parking lots covered in glass and garbage and war-whooping was prevalent.

It was a riotous good time to be home.

What I observed over the next 6 months, with my kid and his friends, was that the riots didn't stop. Transition back into a civilized society after being hopped up on adrenaline and fear and anger for 18 months takes more than a 3-week leave with the family. All of the training to react instantly or lose your life doesn't just disappear. Your choices are to check yourself and feel completely leashed up in such a slow environment, or release it and find that adrenaline high. I watched and listened and talked as mine (mine being all those that I knew coming home) wrecked their motorcycles, drank themselves into oblivion, beat the shit out of one another, got arrested, stripped of their ranks, cut their pay, or got kicked out of the Army entirely.

My son was no exception. He was extremely restless, upon returning to routine, seemingly meaningless chores on base. He was home barely 8 weeks before he informed me that he was requesting early redeployment. Good or bad, I advised him to ride out the instinct to get back to the adrenaline rush. Give it a few more months, see if you calm down.

There was more than one conversation in which he tried to convince me why fighting that guy across the bar was absolutely necessary: He needed to be taught a lesson. He'd think twice before heckling a soldier again, wouldn't he? I would exasperatedly try to convince my kid that he was letting worthless people control his emotions, and that you can't beat sense into a dumbass anyway. Knock it off, before someone gets seriously injured or ends up in jail, which is pretty highly likely. In the book Down Range, to Iraq and Back by Bridget Cantrell & Chuck Dean, Dean refers to this behavior as "Driving Fast in the Slow Lane" and being unable to control erratic behaviors.
"I have visited many of America's ex-servicemen who have been incarcerated in state and federal institutions over the years. Most are wonderful people, and it breaks my heart to see these men pay the price for poor judgment. They survived the grueling months of combat only to come home and go straight to jail for the rest of their lives."
The idea of this happening to any of them made me sick. Still, it got to the point where I pictured the Fort Benning barracks more violent with gang warfare than any inner-city.

It's difficult to "advise" without blame. Tread lightly. It's easy to get fed up and pissed off with what seems like juvenile behavior. What we have to remember is that this is all par for the course.

More importantly, what we have to remember is that we have no idea what they've been through. The worst of the tales may take years to come out, if ever. My policy, when listening to my soldier babies, was usually to just give straightforward, common sense reminders. "Take a deep breath, think about yourself; don't jeopardize your future." Admittedly, I've probably, lovingly threatened to slap the shit of them if they keep up the deconstructive behavior. I might also have thrown in a "what in the hell were you thinking?"

More often than not, it's best just to keep your trap shut and your opinions to yourself, and to engage in "Listen. Hug." therapy.

With time, my kid settled down, as did the rest of them, back into people I could recognize. Instead of rising to the challenge, MPs were called at the onset of a probable ambush. Education and training for further endeavors began to take priority over road rage, and unfortunately, structured days turned back to training to redeploy. (boo)

So, that was the coming home, and the year or so after. I reflect now, and worry that in the midst of this, there were times I said the wrong thing. Or I didn't say the right thing. Or I didn't recognize something for what it was. Honestly, I'm not even clear on whether these issues are symptoms of PTSD, or if they fall more under the category of normal acclimating to a peaceful society.

Hey! There's a lot I don't know! And no matter how much I read, or how much I listen to friends, soldiers, their families and spouses, and how much I learn from them, I also know this:

I will never know.

We will never know, and that is the soldier's gift to us. It their service to this country that protects us from ever knowing, ever having to understand.

Don't forget to thank them for that; it never gets old.

 * * * * *

Volume II to come. Reference to my son and others in these posts has been posted with permission by those that shared with me. If you'd like to contribute, vent, or educate me further in understanding, you are hereby granted my attention and my discretion. E-mail me at

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Foreseen Subject: My Soldier Babies and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Prologue Post

If you're weary, it may not be from what you're doing. Your weariness could be caused by what you continue to put off doing. Having an uncompleted task hanging over you, day after day, week after week, wears on you constantly. To free yourself from that burden, go ahead and get it finished.

Wise words posted by my friend Lynellen have motivated me to free myself from a burden. Or at least, to start talking about a subject that weighs heavily on me.

You know I knew it was coming. Being a worrying Mother, I've steeled myself to deal with this issue probably since the day Brian enlisted, when I was still selfishly, naively hoping that he'd end up with some pencil-pushing job in a closet-sized office somewhere out in the sticks (on U.S. soil, of course).

Some news reports about these wars are unbearable to me at times, and I'll admit to not being able to handle it and turning the television off for my own sanity. It is always with a deep sense of guilt, as I know that there's a family out there that is living with, or dying with, what I can shut out.

Still, I watch and read the articles, stories, and documentaries on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the issues that our men and women have to deal with when they come home. I think that most of us have probably dealt with some avenue of  post-stress. I think about times in my own life when I've reacted to an event well after the fact.

  • I have shaken like a leaf a week after my son was in a life-threatening accident, falling 2 stories to large landscaping rocks beneath the waterslide.
  • Amusing now, but two years after my divorce, I got stuck, home alone, in my attic, and dealt with it by having a screaming tantrum directed at my ex-husband. After all, if we'd worked things out, I wouldn't have been stuck in the damned attic hole with a giant piece of plywood lodged between me and the ladder, would I? It was all his fault, and I couldn't have been more surprised to find that out!
  • While sis and Mom fell apart at Dad's death, I held it together to take care of all of the business and legal aspects of his life, his death and finances, and rental properties and tenants. 6 months after it was all settled, I crashed, becoming so numb and sleepy that it took walking into a moving car to alert me to the fact that I needed to see a doctor.

I know that these are everyday events, that happen, eventually, to almost everyone. There are accidents, and deaths, and disappointments and crises in everyone's life, as natural order. My reflections on my own minor-serious post-dealings only serve to put into perspective the magnitude of what our soldiers are coming home with.

Three years into starting an organization that rotates around happy little plush toys, I am beginning to talk to and meet more and more soldiers that are sharing stories about their PTSD issues, and about their deployments. I have corresponded with injured soldiers, some briefly and some at-length. I've passed names on to others that want to help, and have lost contact with a few still important to me. I am, for the first time, hearing their stories, stories they are telling, also, for the first time.

It has taken me months to start writing about this, I simply have not been able to find the words, or the mood.

I have, at the recommendation of one, been reading a book that is issued to many soldiers upon coming home, to prepare them for future issues, Down Range: To Iraq and Back, by Bridget Cantrell and Chuck Dean. It's taking me too long to get through the 150-page book, because I can only read a few paragraphs before I hyperventilate.

It's taking me months to write about something that has never happened to me.

I can very well understand how it takes them months or years to deal with, discuss, acknowledge what they've been through. I can also understand why some never do.

And I still know very little, but I'm going to write it. Because it wears on me. It wears on me that I have friends dealing with horrific issues, and it wears on me that my son is in a war zone, and experiencing issues from his first tour. And it wears on me that people are afraid to get help.

Mostly it wears on me that I haven't been one more voice, however small, on one more issue that needs to be screamed from the rooftops.

It's a burden I need to unload. Stay tuned.