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A Young Veteran Recounts His Two Tours in Afghanistan and the PTSD That Followed Him Home

A Young Veteran Recounts His Two Tours in Afghanistan and the PTSD That Followed Him Home

Interview: November of 2022
Served 2008-2012

Q: Hi! Thank you so much for volunteering to put your story out there as a veteran who struggles who would like to share the mental health consequences of being in active duty. Can you state your name, age, and where you’re from?

A: My name is Ryan, I’m 32 years old, and I’m from Waterbury, CT.

Q: What was your family structure growing up? Mom, dad, siblings, etc.

A: My parents divorced when I was 5 years old. In his younger years, my dad ran a bar and had drinking problem before I was born. Thankfully, I have never seen him drink. After the divorce they always had a good relationship – especially for the kids. My dad helped my mom financially which I’m grateful for. My mom had full custody and my dad had visitation, but eventually my sister (3 years older) and I got to choose to go wherever. Looking back, it was important that they got along so well. Our family status was mid to lower class. I was enrolled in catholic school from 1st grade through high school.

Q: Did any of your family members serve in the military? If so, what branch and what did they do specifically?

A: My dad was an F-18 mechanic in the Marine Corps. He served for 6 years between the ages of 17 and 23 and had me when he was 26.

Q: Is this what prompted you to enlist?

A: Originally, I was offered a scholarship to play college baseball, but I blew out my rotator cuff my senior year of high school. One day, when I was driving home from school, I had a random wild idea and stopped at a recruiter’s office for the Marines. I was still 17, so I needed my parents to sign off on it. My mom wouldn’t sign the papers for me, and she thought my dad had put me up to it, but he had no idea I was even thinking about enlisting. I had to wait until I was 18 to enlist since she didn’t want to sign.

Q: Why did you choose the Marines?

A: Because of my dad’s history. Also, my thought process was “whatever the hardest one is then that’s the one I’m doing”. They also have the sharpest uniforms have you seen those things?

Q: Was enlisting a difficult decision to make?

A: It didn’t really hit me until I was alone in a hotel room in Massachusetts and going to bootcamp the next day. I was nervous and scared. I knew that I was eventually going to go to war, but I had no idea what I was truly in for.

Q: What were the best and worst parts of your training?

A: The hardest part was how out of shape I was. Like REALLY out of shape. I lost about 40 lbs in 3 months while I was at boot camp. The best part of training was realizing that I was capable of more. I didn’t want to come home and face my dad and tell him I couldn’t do it. It felt good to be proud of being a part of something that not everyone else can say that they’ve been a part of.

Q: Was there any specialized training that you received?

A: Coordinates handling, loading bombs, and I was attached to a unit that went out and searched for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) for 10-12 hours at a time.

Q: What was your first assignment after training?

A: I was stationed at Camp Pendleton in Southern California as a heavy equipment operator in 2009.

Q: What was the most difficult thing to adapt to in the military lifestyle?

A: The authority figures. I had to listen to or respect people that I felt smarter than. Especially when I thought their rules were stupid. Some of their rules they made just to fuck with us and play games and that annoyed me. It was difficult to keep my mouth shut.

Q: Did you enjoy any specific parts of the lifestyle?

A: The comradery. I had been a part of things like team sports growing up, but this was on a different level. You’re relying on someone to keep you alive. I would think to myself “I’ve only known this guy a couple of months but I’m putting my life on the line for him”. I have always been big on loyalty, but this was different. It was super powerful.

Q: As far as active duty goes, where exactly did you serve and when?

A: I did 2 tours in Afghanistan – One was September 2009 to June 2010 and the other was November 2010 to July 2011.

Q: Do you remember much from that time?

A: My clearest memories in life are from those times. Those aren’t things that are easily forgotten. It dictates how you live the rest of your life.

Q: If you recall a specific situation or story that was a significant catalyst for the effects war had on your mental health, are you comfortable sharing it?

A: The first time I ever got shot at. That was when being in the military got real for me. I can close my eyes and be in that situation any time I want. I can even remember the smell sometimes. That’s how vivid that memory is.

Q: Did anything bad happen to you in combat?

A: Yes. I suffered a TBI (traumatic brain injury) when I was blown up by an IED.

Q: What exactly happened because of your TBI?

A: I had to have the back of my skull drilled to relieve pressure. What most people don’t know about getting blown up is a lot of times you die from the internal injury because of the body’s inability to relieve the pressure, not the fire from the explosion itself. So, the TBI was from the concussion. I still get ringing in my ears sometimes.

Q: Are you officially diagnosed with any mental health disorders?

A: I am diagnosed with PTSD but am not medicated for it. I am currently seeing a therapist once a week. It felt like a job at first, but now I can’t live without it. Pain takes you to the crossroads where you either get help or you don’t. Anyone who has been in combat breaks at some point. Vets struggle with problems that are unique to each person. Not one size fits all. I was so afraid to be diagnosed with PTSD because of the stigma attached to it. It was very humbling to accept that I had it. Pride and ego can kill a lot of people and that needs to be put aside to save yourself. Veteran PTSD isn’t a badge of honor. There’s nothing “cool” about it. Serving in the Marines was something I was very proud of, but it wasn’t something to glorify. For me at least. It was gnarly and it changed my whole view of who I was. There are things I’m not aware of until I talk about them. Or try different therapies. Things to try to figure out why I am the way I am such as EMDR.

Q: Did the EMDR help at all?

A: The first time I was too in my head to really focus on it, but the second time was intense. But I would recommend it. All the therapy is terrifying because you know in next 10-15 mins you know you’re going to have to re-live something horrible. Its crippling sometimes. It took me 4 years to seek that kind of therapy.

A (continued): The military falls short on transitioning people home properly. The VA healthcare system is trash. It was hard to get the care that I needed to when I first got out. I had to wait 87 days to see a psychiatrist after I inquired about getting an appointment in 2012. People die waiting. I’m lucky I was strong enough to wait that long. When you’re at war you’re not processing it while it’s happening. I didn’t even begin to process it until 3 months after I was back. War is designed to move quickly. You don’t have time to think. Things would be jeopardized if people were just sitting around being emotional about it because you know in your head the second you wake up until you go to bed that someone is trying to kill you. From day 3 people were shooting at us. There’s nothing cool about war.

Q: I know you’re also in recovery for substance abuse. How long do you have clean? What started your addiction in the first place?

A: Yes, I just took 6 years on November 5th of this year. After the explosion I was prescribed pain meds for my headaches. I was in the hospital for 2 weeks. They wanted to fly me to France because I was hurt, but I wanted to stay so they put me on light duty on base. Within a month I convinced a medical team to let me go back on missions and I got blown up again 2 weeks before the end of the tour. It was a big issue. They even investigated the doctors that let me go back on missions. I wrote answers on my hand to pass the test to get clearance. The high from the adrenaline of combat is just as euphoric as the high I got off narcotics. I fed off it. I had just been airlifted to a hospital and got my skull drilled and now I’m convincing doctors to let me go back out. I should’ve just gone to France and eaten some fuckin’ biscottis at the Eiffel tower or some shit. I could’ve chilled with Mona Lisa, but I chose to drink 100-degree milk at the sandbox instead. ***dear Ryan: biscottis are Italian***

Q: Do you have any specific triggers or things you wish you could cope with better? Do you judge yourself for how you cope?

A: Being startled. Unexpected loud noises are the most common trigger. My immediate reaction is anger. When you’re deployed, anger is a way to show other people that you’re bigger than them. Yelling or puffing your chest out. “I’m so scared that I must make you think I’m bigger”- that’s what keeps you alive. Fear isn’t always a bad thing. Its healthy and its human. It keeps you alive over there and you can’t let it consume you. My brain got wrapped up in that mentality. But now I find myself questioning the things I did or if decisions I made were right or wrong and that is a big factor in the PTSD. I’ll play same memory over and over to figure out if I had made a different decision how that would have turned out.

Q: Does your PTSD affect your loved ones? If so, are they understanding of it?

A: My mom had me arrested when I was home on leave 3 weeks after my first deployment. She dropped a pan on kitchen floor, and I got scared and got angry and flipped over the kitchen table. My own mother wouldn’t even allow me to come over with her alone in the house after that. That’s how afraid of me she was. That’s when I got the first onset of my depression. The person who cares about me the most in this world doesn’t want me there alone with her. At the time I didn’t understand why. She would wake me up with a broom and run out the door. It was so confusing to me why my mom didn’t want me around. I just did something so intense and risked my life to protect this country, and my mom is scared to be in the same room with me. One minute she’s hugging me before deployment, and the next not allowing me home alone with her when I get back. It didn’t click for me. I had the cocky everybody owed me something attitude. “You haven’t been through what I have so what are you going to tell me that’s going to teach me something”? Made me feel invincible what I did over there. I was 21 and thought I knew everything. I was a shitty person at that point in life. I was a loose cannon. I never understood how traumatizing it was for the people around me. I became a different person. I couldn’t take responsibility for my actions because they were so out of character for me that I couldn’t even process them. At the time I didn’t even think of that as abnormal- when your mom wakes you up and you have her pinned against the wall choking her.

Q: Are you comfortable with me sharing that answer with the public?

A: This stuff really happens it’s not just something you read in a book or see in a movie. This needs to be shared. I’m not embarrassed to share that because that’s my story. I’m not going to change my story, because I know someone out there needs to hear it and relate to it. I can still see her face when it happened and that’s real and that’s the truth and not talking about that is what made me spiral. I didn’t want to talk about it because people would think about it one way and that’s it. The only reason people don’t know this stuff about veterans is because they don’t want you to know. This is the “unspoken”.

Q: Is there any message you want to send to those who may not know much about the mental health struggles of a veteran post-war? Something you wish people understood and had more grace about?

A: I’m not saying this to put vets on a pedestal. For most of us, a simple thanks for your service is enough of an answer to why we do this, but people are killing themselves for people who will never even know what their name is. People should at least just act like they care. How can you come back and be a homeless vet? You served your country and now your country doesn’t serve you? The sense of being an American is slowly going away. When 9/11 happened there was all this unity. Soldiers have seen the best people they know lose their lives because they’re out there fighting for people that don’t give a shit about them and that’s what a lot of vets struggle with. The Marine Corps gets what they can out of you and when you’re done it’s basically a pat on the back and a thanks. You want to at least feel appreciated. Sometimes we just want someone to listen. Have a sense of humanity. Society has created an “I’m better than you” kind of world. Just be a human and realize everyone else has gone through something that has landed them at where they’re at. Have some respect and get out of self and do something for somebody else. Doing that is some of the best therapy anyone could ever get. That’s what worked for me…

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