Scars of Survival


Most days are difficult. I mean, it’s better now that it was at some points in the past, but I know that I go through peaks and valleys. Not every day is a particularly good day. And when days get stacked together full of work and stress, and I can’t stop for a while and let every thought leave my head, those are the worst days. The days where I switch to autopilot except for the really important tasks at work or in class. But things are better now than they were in the distant past. 

Muted Emotions

Growing up, I often allowed myself to be ruled by my emotions. I allowed myself to wallow in whatever I was going through. I didn’t have a lot of restraint, and my grandmother would go out of her way to tell me I needed to control my emotions. As I went through high school, troublemaking and depression led me to a place of muted emotional contact. I was never an extrovert, but by the time I was in college, I was a full-blown introvert—and my emotions were in a similar state: largely bottled up and kept inside.

Then I met a girl and got married. In 2002, we experienced two major life changes: we got pregnant, and I joined the Army. I spent four and a half months in Oklahoma in basic training. Being older than the average recruit, I realized a few things: the human body can only take so much punishment, but the mind and emotions can be beaten and beaten and beaten. Those of us who figured this out quickly began to harden our wills and shore up our emotions. I was one of those who came to this realization very early during basic training. By the time I graduated, I was a different person. I had become a harder person—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Things changed again shortly after I got to my first duty station. I was sent to Fort Carson, and in early 2003 my unit received deployment orders to Iraq. By this time, the Army had instilled in me a high level of discipline to match my already high work ethic. But with the discipline came another layer of bricks stacked between me and my emotions. I was often detached and not present mentally or emotionally when I was home with my very pregnant wife. But I was also oblivious to these changes. They happened quickly during basic training as a defense mechanism, but they evolved very slowly over time. It was that slow evolution that helped hide the phenomenon. I didn’t even know what had happened, and if you had called me out on it then, I would have told you that you were crazy.


The Wild West

My marriage suffered, and I was oblivious to that. Just one month after my daughter was born, I boarded a plane and flew to Kuwait. I spent nearly a month there, and by the time we moved north to Iraq, the invasion was underway, and we were sent out into an area that was nicknamed “The Wild West” by our embedded reporter from Maxim magazine.

From the moment I had received my deployment orders, a sense of dread descended on me. It was more than a feeling, it was an almost palpable knowledge that I was not coming back from this deployment. I don’t remember feeling sad about it, just resigned to the reality that everything I was doing was for the last time. For whatever reason, this caused me to withdraw from those around me even more. I didn’t talk about this feeling with the guys in my section, not directly. There were conversations about the generality of not coming home, but I never admitted that I knew I was going to die.

Instead of every day being something special, every day was draining. Unless I was on guard or on a mission, I had too much time to analyze and think about this specter hanging over me. I wasn’t scared or mad, but I’d sit for long hours and contemplate what it meant. Ultimately, it began to just boil down to ticking off the time until the event occurred. I’d ramp myself up prior to a mission thinking about all the possibilities. Then we’d go on the mission, and I’d be completely involved in both making sure we were as safe as possible and executing my job. We’d get back to the base, and I’d relax, and the reality that I survived was suddenly there. It brought with it mixed feelings of relief and trepidation.

This went on for some time, and ultimately it caused another shift in how I connected with my emotions. These highs of being so hyper-focused during missions, followed by lows when we got back would take their toll on me. I went from feeling despair and depression to intense and overwhelming anger. Every other emotion was either gone or so muted I barely recognized that I felt them. I rarely laughed, and when I did, it was usually at some twisted joke and sounded completely hollow. Finally, around the halfway point of my deployment, I was shifting mostly between rage and sadness, driven by determination during missions, and by a frightened resignation during every other waking moment.

Wounded and Dying

This cycle went on and on, and then in October 2003, I was wounded from mortar fire during a mission. The wounds were mostly superficial shrapnel wounds, but I spent a week at the forward hospital, limped for a month afterwards, and had psychological and physical scars. But what stuck with me more than anything, was the fact that somehow I had survived and I didn’t know why. I was angry about surviving. I’d come to a place where I was so certain I was going to die, that survival of an event like that made me rage inside. That rage and disbelief stuck with me. The rage specifically grew and grew. 

The last four months of my tour went by in a slow daze. I’d been moved to a noncombat role in my unit’s operations center, and no longer went on missions. Instead, I manned the radios when the rest of my unit went on missions. So I heard when they were under fire. And when many of them were injured. The unease and anger grew within me, and while I was very good at my job, I was emotionally dead inside.  

Soon enough, we were flying home. Nearly twelve months had gone by, and I had survived. Physically I was fine, but mentally and emotionally I was terribly wounded and dying. 

During the subsequent years, I deployed to Iraq two more times. On my second tour, that same feeling that I was going to die came back, somehow stronger than it had been before. I was medicated for a portion of my second tour, but Prozac took away all my emotions and made me a near automaton. I lost the ability to care about anything, and I had a self-awareness that I was a danger—not just to myself, but also to my entire unit. Three months after starting Prozac, I threw my entire year’s worth of prescription into the burn pit and didn’t take another pill. But in the absence of the medications, I began to feel fear and loneliness and a selfishness that I’d not felt in quite some time. Those feelings grew as time went on, and though I still felt like I wasn’t going to make it through the deployment, nothing physical happened to me—although I racked up a laundry list of psychological scars. And in early 2006, I flew back home from Iraq for the second time.

Waking Up

My marriage was in shambles. The only reason it hadn’t completely fallen apart was that we’d been apart for so long. I had no means of connecting with my young daughter, and I made up for it by lavishing her with toys she didn’t need or want. I rarely communicated with my wife or daughter in more than a few sentences. When I was home, I watched television or played video games, or often simply drifted into a place where I wasn’t thinking or feeling anything. 

Sometime in 2007, just before my third tour to Iraq, the feeling I was going to die while deployed simply vanished. I’d recently been promoted to Sergeant, although I’d been a noncommissioned officer for quite some time. During a training rotation in California, I went through a drastic change when the Staff Sergeant in charge of my section ordered me to carry out punishment of two of our soldiers for minor mistakes. This order went against everything I knew was right. As a leader, it went against the Code to punish them in this way. But he’d ordered it done, and over the space of several hours I handed out remedial physical punishment in the form of different exercises, while drilling into them the words of our section chief. But inside, I began to wake up a bit and feel things other than anger. I felt shamed and vowed that I would never act in this type of petty fashion again.

I came back from the training exercise, and for the next few months I began to be able to relate a bit more with my wife and daughter. I valued being with them. And though I still didn’t know how to relate, I was at least more emotionally and physically present. Between my desire to be a better leader, my renewed connection with new emotions, and the realization that I wasn’t going to die, something in me changed.

Vulnerable and Frustrated

I survived another tour to Iraq, this time fifteen months long. While I was safe, I lost friends. One of my soldiers was terribly injured when he took shrapnel that severed a nerve cluster in his leg, forcing him out of the Army on a medical discharge. I worked fourteen- to sixteen-hour days, and was so exhausted that my days were literally spent shuffling from bed, to work, and back to bed with little in the form of relaxation. But through it all, I began to feel a deep level of sadness start to flow out of me. I tried to bundle it up, but it was always just below the surface.

I’ve been separated from the Army since late 2009. After my last tour I began multiple treatment methods for post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorder. And while I began to feel better about myself, the part of me that was meant to feel things was still broken. When I finally did separate from the Army, I stopped doing most of my treatment, except the breathing exercises and mental exercises that I could do on my own. I don’t know how to connect with that part of me in a healthy manner. When I do have emotions, they come in great bursts that are mostly overwhelming, uncomfortable, and surprising.

I’ll get taken by surprise when a video of a kid with Down Syndrome connecting with a hockey team pops up on my Facebook feed, and I’ll be overwhelmed with a sense of sadness and joy so much that the tears start to well up. I’ll steel myself and watch all the way through, and by the end of the video I’m more happy than sad, but there’s still that lump burning in my throat. It happens more and more often with a variety of different situations. I don’t enjoy the feeling of vulnerability it brings. It’s also very confusing, because the emotions are so varied that they begin to confuse me, and often I’m left more frustrated than anything else.

Trying and Hoping

I know that I’m healthier when I can connect to my emotions, and that both my wife and daughter need me to be more emotionally present. I know there is a side of me that they need, and no matter how much I want to engage that way, I can’t just flip the switch, because the switch is no longer there. I connect emotionally when I write. Journaling and poetry put me in a place where I’m calm and clear enough that my feelings come out in ways even I don’t understand. I’ll often write something, stop, read it, and connect with it only after I read it—because I was in a place where I was unaware of what I was writing as it was flowing onto the page. It’s not where I want to be; it’s frustrating. But it’s better than I was several years ago. And I’m actively trying to feel things again.

The reality is that I know if I hadn’t started shutting my emotions down in some misplaced effort to defend myself, I’d be able to process emotions better. I’m not sure if that would make me a better emotional communicator. I’ve never been good at that. But at least I’d be more well-rounded and probably better equipped to be the husband and father my family needs me to be. 

So most days are difficult. Most days are full of random points in time in which I’m assaulted by feelings of sadness and anger and joy and shame, all in the space of a few minutes. Most days I succeed and get a little better than I was before. The days full of stress are fewer and farther between, and I have a larger family, with the addition of two dogs, to help me stay grounded. But I know that my days on autopilot hurt my wife and daughter. And I know that I have to find a way to communicate all of my feelings with them. And more than anything, that’s probably the hardest and most terrifying part right now. Because I’m still supposed to be the tough, hardened, combat veteran who survived getting blown up in Iraq, while at the same time being comfortable enough to be vulnerable too. But I’m trying, and hoping, that I’ll get better at the end of every day. 

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