Good morning and Happy Veteran’s Day!
I am proud to be married to a Veteran, to be related to many Veterans and to live in a community with a strong tradition of service. It’s not an easy life for anyone, the Veteran or his/her family, and acknowledging and honoring the hardships seems as important as praising and appreciating the service itself.
I’ve read a lot about PTSD, both as it relates to soldiers and the civilian population. My overall interest in counseling is trauma based, and as I read through the literature and listen to the stories, I experience a range of emotion as I think about the aftermath of trauma and the lives so many must continue leading with the weight of the past clinging to their backs.
I love Humans of New York for many reasons, mostly because I love people’s stories, but I am also so grateful to this website for letting people who have experienced trauma tell their own stories, in their own words, in their own time. I think there is power in being able to tell our own stories. I once worked with a Veteran at the writing center in Arizona. He said to me, after we worked on a narrative essay about his military experience, “I never thought I could write well enough to tell my own story. Now I think I can.”
Here are a few stories from Humans of New York, about PTSD and trauma, in the words of the people who live these stories every day. I’ve made the first few words a link to the original post on Humans of New York’s website.
“Sometimes my anxiety would get so bad that I’d turn completely white. I’d shoot out of bed some nights, and my heart would be racing, and I’d start running around the room trying to find stuff. My wife would have to physically put me back to bed. Then one day I was taking a train out of Hoboken, and we were passing through these wetlands, and there were all these reeds, and it reminded me of Afghanistan. And I looked down at my phone and there was a Facebook post commemorating the anniversary of the death of a guy in my company. And I got dizzy and couldn’t talk. I thought I was having a heart attack. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get help. I went to the emergency room at the VA and was diagnosed with PTSD. Eventually I found my way to Headstrong Project. At first I dreaded going to therapy. I went through a treatment called EMDR.My therapist would take me back to every point of trauma and have me describe it in detail. It was like literally going back in time. I could touch the faces of all the guys I’d lost. I could talk to them. We could talk about what happened. And how we all knew the risks. And how sometimes people died. And it was nobody’s fault. And I could apologize to them. And when it was over I’d be completely exhausted. And I’d feel like a bitch because I’d just cried for an hour. But it worked. The symptoms started to go away. After a few sessions, I remember walking into my therapist’s office and saying: ‘This stuff actually works!’ And he said: ‘Yeah. It does.’”
"It took me getting into a lot of fights before I was diagnosed with PTSD. I have something called 'hypervigilance.' I get really nervous around people. Especially people from the Middle East."
"What were some traumatic things that happened to you?"
"I was in a vehicle when a mortar round exploded in front of us, and we fell into the crater and got trapped. There was a burning oil rig near us, so it was like being in a microwave. And we couldn't get out. And I also saw a lot of hanky shit. Mostly from our side. Everyone was really revved up from 9/11. We did a lot of bad things. I saw decapitations, and that was our guys doing it."
"We were supposed to bring POW's back to the base. But instead we gave them a cigarette to calm them down, and told them to get on their knees. One of our guys was 240 lbs, and he'd taken this shovel we'd been issued, and he'd sharpened one of the sides until it was like an axe, and he could take off somebody's head with two hits."
"How many times did you see that happen?"
“It’s the most embarrassing thing a grown man can experience. It’s like having a nightmare while awake. It happened not long after I’d moved to New York City. I’d been isolating myself a lot after I came back from Iraq. I was on edge all the time and I got nervous in crowds. So one day I decided that I was going to try to step outside my comfort zone and drive to the Queens Center Mall. And I was parking my car in the lot, and this traditionally dressed Muslim man starts walking behind me, and suddenly I was back in Iraq, and I started to get nervous. So I walked quickly into the mall and I start hearing the sound of 50-caliber machine guns all around me, and it’s getting louder and louder, and I know that nobody else is hearing it but I swear to fucking God it’s real. And the voices around me grew louder and suddenly I can’t remember where I am.And I walked outside and started hugging this aluminum lamppost, and I tried to call my girlfriend because I didn’t know how to get home, and it felt like the world was closing in on me and I wanted to die. I wanted to kill myself. It was the only way I knew how to end this. I had to get help. I lost a whole line of mentors to suicide and I didn’t want it to be me too. Maybe some guys can come home from war and go back to mowing their lawn or fixing their gutters.”
I don’t always know how to talk about PTSD, military life or even trauma in general sometimes. They’re heavy topics, not light dinner-party conversation (as my husband has to repeatedly remind me). I think maybe the best way to talk about it is to just listen to the stories themselves, from the people who lived them.
I appreciate the service of all Veterans, men and women, husbands, fathers, wives, aunts, sisters, uncles. I see them in my community every day, and I’m always grateful for their service, for the service of their families and especially for the sacrifice of their kids.
In the words of Anne Sexton, who wrote the poem I love to quote (Welcome Morning), I’ll say to all Veterans today:
so let me paint a thank you on my palm…..
Thank you, all, for your service.
Happy Veteran’s Day!