Self-Imposed Guilt and a Solvable Problem
Sperwan Ghar, Afghanistan. At night, when everyone comes back from foot patrols, five of us build a small fire in the corner of the outpost. We light scraps of wood inside half of a rusty metal drum and line rickety benches around the braids of fire. Sometimes we talk about missions, smoke cigars, and laugh with each other to the point of tears. Other times we’re quiet, each man consumed in his thoughts, hoping the fire never goes out. In these times, thoughts of violence chill my bones to the core, and I think of the men who aren’t there.
It was late 2012 and I was commanding an infantry company of roughly 135 men. Over the course of nine months, we fought in 200 battles. We lost five men and more than 20 were wounded. One day, while I was leading a foot patrol, a series of IEDs detonated, wounding several of my men. Torn limbs, bloody faces, and unspeakable guilt followed me out of that village – I carried all of it home.
Following the deployment, I entered a graduate program. Even as I collected my diploma, my self-imposed guilt wore on me as I relived the most difficult parts of the operation over and over again. I told myself I was too resilient to ever need help, but at some level, I knew I wasn’t the same.
Last year, when a doctor diagnosed me with PTSD, it made sense. What’s more, it drove home the reality that while so much has been done to raise awareness about PTSD, many thousands of active service members still try to hide it. And I was one of them.
The immense stigma still attached to PTSD grows partially out of well intentioned but exaggerated portrayals of just what the disease entails. In movies and on television, service members with PTSD are sketchy, drug-addicted characters on the verge of committing some random act of violence. These mainstream portrayals anchor society’s beliefs about what someone with PTSD should look like, and tend to exacerbate the problem.
Accordingly, active troops are often apprehensive about revealing their condition for fear of missing out on key promotions or being viewed as fragile or dangerous. The drive to avoid these perceptions is particularly pronounced within combat units. Soldiers with PTSD often fear that they will be labeled as quitters who can’t hold their lives together.
Military policy has focused extraordinary effort on removing this stigma and has attempted to make it easier for service members to seek help for PTSD. Veterans and journalists speak and write extensively on the condition and its particular effects in the military. While their contributions are absolutely vital, they are only half the story. What’s missing is the voice of active duty members.
The voices that can inspire the greatest change are largely silent. It’s tough to find slick productions highlighting sharp young sergeants or captains who themselves are recovering from PTSD and who encourage their subordinates to get help while continuing service.
So we remain quiet because it’s good to be hard and professional, cloaked in the comfort of our own delusion. In combat, we burn our pain afresh each night, trying to banish the dark thoughts so we can take the battlefield with clear minds. Yet when we come home and ignore war’s smoldering ashes, we give life to a dangerous conflagration that belongs a world away.
PTSD is largely a solvable problem, and troops seeking rehabilitation are proving it - 80% of those diagnosed with PTSD remain on active duty. But that number only represents troops who voluntarily seek help. It doesn’t account for the many thousands who simply deal with issues on their own, who try to assign their own meaning to the twisted bodies and chaos of war.
Our active men and women should be the true leaders in this discussion. They are the mainstay of the military and will continue to shoulder our greatest responsibilities around the globe. Our troops command the greatest respect through their professionalism and leadership in combat – their stories matter most.
We can transform perceptions of mental health, but it won’t happen with top-down policy. We will rid the ranks of stigma only when change is ignited at the grassroots level, and by framing our active leaders’ experiences with PTSD treatment in a positive light.
I plan to serve in the Army for the rest of my career. I finished an exceptional PTSD treatment program in Boston and it’s the best thing I’ve done for my service, my family and myself.
I still sit by the fire. It’s much warmer now.