52 year old male army veteran:
Can you share a bit about your experience with PTSD and the event(s) that caused it?
It was the culmination of a number of events that were related to combat operations while I was in Afghanistan. the fact that we were in a combat zone and that people were actually trying to kill us was hard for us to understand in many ways. Most of us had participated in earlier peacekeeping operations so this change was hard to comprehend. Walking into hostile territory knowing full well that the Taliban was out there waiting for an opportunity to attack us was extremely stressful, and at times terrifying. While we were out patrolling we never knew if the person standing out in a poppy field was good or bad; as generally it was the same ones who were shooting at us. Imagine being at that level for seven months. It was very hard when we got back to Canada as Afghanistan had conditioned us to remain focused and diligent. The day to day issues of normal life often seemed very trivial. We did not have a period of time to wind down from that. Going from such a high to such a low was difficult, and I think for me that's when my trouble began.
Working in the extreme environment of Afghanistan was draining; the amount of energy required to get up and get going was hard. Living in very austere conditions, and always being on guard with very little sleep was exhausting and dehydration for us was a critical concern. Having to patrol, and conduct meetings with the village elders was difficult as we had an incredible amount of weight on us, from body armor, ammunition, grenades, etc. I also had the added task of carrying all of the emergency medical supplies.
Having to point loaded weapons at children and civilian vehicles was very hard. Seeing the fear that you have just inflicted on another human was devastating for me. we were told not to encourage or trust children to interact with us.The Taliban knew full well that soldiers love to hand out treats to children and had previously strapped a bomb onto a child and had exploded it in a market among patrolling soldiers.
Witnessing daily what the locals had to do in order to survive and the intense poverty and squalor that the locals lived in was shocking: the lack of basic education, the destruction of schools and homes, absolutely no respect for girls or women. For me having to deal with injured children was very hard. I was responsible for 200 plus Afghani soldiers, this in of itself posed significant problems because of the obvious language and cultural barriers. Thankfully I had a pretty decent interpreter. The worst was having to deal with critically injured soldiers with traumatic injuries. Trying to keep them alive while a medical helicopter was called in to bring them to the surgical hospital was a huge responsibility.
Noises. Routine and often unannounced air strikes to compounds near us (aerial bombing) always made you jump. Towards the end of the tour there were daily IED strikes out on the highway, so much so we stopped responding to them.
The armored vehicle that I was traveling in was blown up by a buried IED as we were driving in the desert. The chaos and fear associated with that, the darkness, the noise, the overpowering smell was insane. I also stepped on an IED while there which never went off. It was an Afghan soldier who noticed it, and ultimately saved me. Thankfully the person at the other end of the detonation wires had already been killed so he was not able to initiate the detonation.
Putting a friend who had been shot and killed into the back of a cargo plane to come home to his family in Canada still haunts me. Having a friend get killed in an IED attack on the last day before we were coming back to go home to Canada also remains high on my list of terrible events. Worrying about family back home was always a concern. Trying to remain upbeat was hard. Knowing that in total 18 soldiers that left Canada with us in February did not make it out alive. That will forever weigh heavily on me.
How long ago was this?
9 years ago.
What was your career at the time?
Military Medic (similar to a paramedic in the civilian world, but with a higher tactical trauma skill set.) I was at the time embedded with the Afghan National Army as part of a mentoring team.
Have there been people in your life that weren't able to support you, or more that were able to provide a good support system?
My wife was and still is amazing. I also have a tight group of military friends who went through the same experiences. We are our own support group and we all lookout for each other. Talking about our experiences is very helpful.
Have you seen a psychologist/ psychiatrist for this?
Initially I was assessed by a psychiatrist as I knew things were absolutely not right with me after I got home. My wife encouraged me to go, as well the military indirectly lead me to the mental health clinic. The military has a strong mental health component and many mental health awareness programs.
I was seeing the psychiatrist initially once a week for about a year. This eventually tapered off to one visit every three months or so, for about 2 years. Mainly this was to monitor medications, talk, and review how I was doing with regards to working through the signs of PTSD/depression/anxiety.
Has it gotten better over time?
Absolutely! To be honest there is not a day that goes by where I don’t think about what we did over there. PTSD never truly goes away, but with the right tools and using the proper coping strategies it will continue to get better.
Has it changed your perspective on everyday life?
Be happy with what you have. Do not take anything for granted. It doesn’t matter how strong you are. There really comes a time when if exposed to enough severe traumatic events that the human mind can no longer function properly.
If you could describe what living with PTSD is like to someone that doesn't have it, how would you describe it?
That is a very difficult question. At the beginning it was quite difficult, it consumed me. It was difficult trying to pretend nothing was wrong. On the outside things appeared normal however they weren't on the inside. I found myself hating being around large crowds and I would try my best to go out of the way to avoid these situations and would find myself hyperventilating. The sound of fireworks was terrible for me, sometimes even something as simple as a bass beat in a song would set my panic off. I found myself reliving memories, second guessing decisions that I had made. I would have intense nightmares that would be the repeated every night. I became depressed, experiencing survivor guilt in the worst way.
We can’t even begin to comprehend the things that he’s been through, but PTSD is a mental illness that affects many people, not just veterans. Trauma can be caused by car crashes, natural disasters, sexual assault, or other events that may lead someone to think that their life or the lives of others are endangered. There are many types of treatment available, so if you’re suffering, or you know someone who is, don’t suffer in silence. There is nothing to be ashamed of, as this is often the brain’s natural reaction to a traumatic event. Speak up if you need to, seek help if you need it.