Every now then, a song will pop up on my playlist that fills me with emotion and motivation to write something. Before I begin, watch this video by Blue October.
I’ve written extensively about my battle with PTSD and depression here. I recognize that any time I talk about this internal battle, I run the risk of having it used against me by my critics and haters. Screw ’em. I’m stronger than they are and I’d have to care what they think to be bothered by it. For those who are new to reading this blog, I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2009. I was in combat with the 3rd Infantry Division for the main assault into Iraq in March 2003, which is what led to it.
Due to my mission, I was always attached to whichever unit was on the front line of the effort. I crossed the border with 3/7 Cavalry, then moved to 4-64 Armor after the battle at As Samawah (where I was injured). I was pushed to 1-64 Armor for the assault into Baghdad, including the two Thunder Runs. Once Baghdad fell and Fallujah became difficult to pacify, I was moved to 3-15 Infantry to take back the city. It was weeks of direct combat, which was exhilarating, but taxing.
My team was responsible for battlefield interrogations and intelligence gathering. After each battle, it was my job to search the dead, living, and captured for intelligence. Depending on how long it took to clear the battlefield of enemy threats, some of those bodies lay where they died for days. Some of them were nearly unrecognizable because they were torn apart by a Bradley or crew-served weapon. Some of them were so decomposed in the 100+ degree heat that I literally had to oxygenate my blood with quick breaths then hold my breath as long as possible to avoid the smell of the corpse as I searched it. One guy in Baghdad was so bloated that I couldn’t even get his wallet out of his pocket because of how tight it was. I ended up having to cut off the pocket, but as I did so it slightly shook his body. This caused his right ear to fall onto his shoulder, exposing maggots that were crawling all through his neck and ear canal. I was barely able to keep from vomiting all over the place seeing his skin literally crawl.
In another instance, I had to help a family retrieve a love one from a vehicle that tried to blow through a checkpoint. It was taken out by a Bradley and caught on fire. The body was charred beyond recognition. I’m not going to go into too much detail since I wrote about it on this blog post. You can read it here.
I share this just to give you an idea of what ultimately led to my ongoing nightmares (I take medications that largely suppress these now). I consider myself a very religious man with a strong belief in the precious nature of all life and when I got home everything that I did in Iraq began to haunt me. That doesn’t mean I’m a pacifist or conscientious objector, by the way. I began seeing the faces of the people I shot in combat shortly after I redeployed back home. I didn’t feel guilty about it or even regret anything I did. My job was to defeat the enemy and stay alive and I accomplished that. But, it didn’t escape me that these men were fathers, brothers, uncles, sons, etc. Many of them were forced into combat having never picked up a rifle in their lives and told to shoot at us or be shot by their own. From a Christian standpoint, this weighed heavily on my mind. What about their kids? Their wives?
This conflict was in my head and the constant stream of images, smells, and sounds began tearing me apart. I was promoted to Sergeant First Class in Fallujah and senior NCOs didn’t go to mental health. We sucked it up and drove on! For five years, I tried to self-medicate. I began this blog in 2005 as a way to “talk to someone without really talking to anyone.” It was comforting and helped me work through my demons, but really all it did was cover up the pain.
In 2009, Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli launched a war on the stigma of troops seeking help for PTSD. I had an opportunity to interview General Chiarelli on a radio show I co-hosted called “You Served.” You can listen to that interview here. I was a First Sergeant at the time stationed in Huntville, Alabama. During the interview, I felt compelled to admit for the first time that I needed help and vowed to test his initiative that seeking help wouldn’t hurt one’s career. How could I counsel my troops to get help if I was hiding my own problems and resisting it? I pulled my troops together after meeting with my commander and explained that I needed to step down to get help and focus on myself for the first time in my career.
Unfortunately, around the same time I was dealing with a battle with my kids’ school district, which only added more stress and made recovery that much more difficult, but that’s another story that you can also read on these pages. Since I had already completed my 1SG time and more, I worked out a deal to move to Ft. Hood for a fresh start.
Over the past eight years, my battle with PTSD has been a roller coaster. While it can be treated, it never really goes away. Through intensive counseling and support, it just becomes more manageable. It’s always lurking in the background whispering to you every now and then that you’re worthless or unworthy of living.
I equate it to what it’s like to be an alcoholic. Even when alcoholics stop drinking, they still consider themselves alcoholics. That temptation for just one drink is always there. I remember those days when I was a teenager in Japan and would have probably been considered an alcoholic as much as I drank. The depression and amger became like a drug; something I kept going back to. I couldn’t shake it.
Every now and then, something will empower those demons in my head to get the upper hand and sending me into another depression. In 2013, it was the stressful and traumatic false arrest heard round the world and subsequent railroading by the corrupt justice system that triggered the worst episode ever. Again, another story well documented on this site that I don’t need to go into detail on. That arrest and the subsequent notoriety it brought me sent me into a major self-destructive episode. Not many people realized what was going on with me because I was really good at hiding it. I almost destroyed my family and treated my wife, Emily, absolutely despicably.
Despite my unforgivable actions throughout 2013 and 2014, Emily stuck with me no matter what. No matter how hard I tried to push her away, she refused to give up on me. I actually tried to commit suicide later that year and, no, I didn’t use a gun. I wasn’t only destroying myself, I was destroying us. She probably suffered more than I was by trying to keep me alive and get me back on track.
The reason I share this song is because when I hear it, I always think about her persistent refusal to give up on me even when she had every right to. She stuck by my side when people I once thought were friends turned their backs on me. I made and lost a lot of friends during that time, but few knew what I was truly dealing with. I learned who my true friends were and the best among them was Emily. The lyrics are practically written about us.
I’ve fallen a lot in the past 14 years since Iraq. The video is also a great metaphor for what I was going through. I’ve never done drugs, but my drug was my depression and my PTSD. I would literally not be here today had my wife given up on me. My thinking at the time was that if I just made her hate me enough it wouldn’t be so hard to accept when I ended my life. I think she recognized this and that is probably why she held on and kept fighting for me. She stood by me when I wanted nothing to do with her – or anyone. I was a completely different person in public than in my private life because I had become this person looked up for inspiration. Meanwhile, there was nothing inspiring about my life.
I simply don’t deserve her. I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to earn her love and convince her she didn’t make the wrong choice in sticking it out. I made a lot of mistakes I’m not proud of. I will forever hate what I’ve done and continue to seek ways to forgive myself, but I will never take for granted the chance at life in general and a life with her.
So, I wanted to dedicate this song to her and tell the world I’m the luckiest man alive. I hit the jackpot when I found her. Unfortunately, she got the short end of the stick. I can only hope that one day I can look at myself the way she looks at me.