Last of a series on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
FORT KNOX, KY. – Luke Abbott and some of his buddies spilled their guts over dinner the other night.
There was a lot to spill.
There were six at our table in a noisy Applebee’s restaurant near base. Four are veterans of combat in Iraq. They are still fighting battles most of us can only imagine. Janet Swanson, their therapist, drove down from Louisville for the occasion. Quiet, more than a little attractive and ballerina-petite, she struck a distinct contrast to the young men of war.
I was there with a tape recorder because Abbott – who earned two Purple Hearts in Mosul last summer – and his friends know that many soldiers suffer more than physical injuries. They’d like to get the word out to other walking wounded: Talking helps.
They have what today is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Other generations have called it battle fatigue or shell shock.
It ain’t pretty.
They don’t experience adrenaline the same way others do. They’ve had so much of it pumped through their veins and at such a high speed for so long that they have trouble coming back down to earth.
Those who suffer from it would be much happier if they didn’t have to fight so hard to hold back the flood all the time.
Their stories come squirting out like steam from a tea kettle, but herky jerky.
We’ve gleaned some of their remarks from our tape, in no particular order.
Chad: We had a family that lived next to this police station, and the insurgents shot a rocket (propelled grenade) at me, and it missed me and flew into the house and killed this family of five. I saw an infant that had rocks on top of it and blood everywhere and, you know – the little kids – I mean I am able to talk about this with you right now. When I come back here in the peace all of a sudden, it comes back to my forefront of thoughts all the time. And I’ll never – the father looked at me like ‘What in the f--- just happened to my family?’ All dead in a matter of seconds. Five girls and a baby were killed.
Sometimes I wished the rocket would have hit me so that family could still be alive. Like, we talk about guilt and you know it’s not my fault, but it still feels – those are the people I tried to help over there and they ended up getting killed.
Luke: I drove off the road at home. We were in a lightning storm. This lightning bolt hit, and there was this flash of light in front of me, and my wife was with me, and I was driving. And I let go of the wheel and took my feet off the gas and everything and just went like this (throwing his arms in front of his face). And we ended up in the ditch, and my dad had to come pull us out.
Mike: If I had to pay for my meds, it would be about $1,500 a month.
Jeff: I was his (a young lieutenant’s) teacher. I taught him everything he knew about tactics. Up until the day he got killed, his vehicle was always in front of mine so I could watch him and protect him. Then, April 4, 2003, he got pulled from our platoon. That morning we got into our heaviest fight of the war, and he got shot and killed.
The thing that gets me the most is that we had an argument, the two of us, about his position and where he should be. I told him he should be down inside the vehicle so we can communicate and let somebody else worry about shooting. He didn’t see it my way. I sort of felt like I wasn’t strong enough to make him see it my way.
(Now Jeff says it’s like he’s haunted. The dead lieutenant’s face shows almost anywhere there’s a crowd.)
Mike: I didn't even realize in the past two and one-half years since I have been back I was disconnected from my family emotionally. Janet helped me realize that and put everything back in place, and it’s working out pretty well.
Luke: I was getting my hair cut the other day and this lady, she moved my ear (most of which was reattached without anesthesia after being blown off by an insurgent bomb), this lady, she moved my ear, and my ear is real sensitive to movement, and I kind of budged and she was like, ‘Oh, are you all right?’ And I was, like ‘My ear kind of hurts.’ And she asked what happened and I was, like ‘It kind of got blown off.’ Eventually, after like nine questions, I was, like ‘I got blown up in Iraq.’ And she was like, ‘Oh! Did you kill anybody?’ I was like, ‘Can we please not talk about this?’
Chad: If it wasn’t for the group, I would be addicted to getting angry and beating people up, because I would have been addicted to that adrenaline rush. But they let me know that being addicted to that adrenaline was not good.
Jeff: Yesterday my supervisor called me and was kind of hinting around that he was going to mess with my promotion because of my weight and I snapped – threw my phone against the wall. I was in such a rage. I was getting ready to take a baseball bat and go downtown and just beat the s--- out of him. Then, after I threw my phone I said, ‘Let me just call Janet and see what she says.’ I called Janet and she arranged for me to see my doctor today and everything, and I took medication and I calmed down. But six months ago I probably would have done it.
Jeff: Right now, I feel like the group is my safety net. It makes me kind of scared what it’s going to be like when I have to leave.
Luke: After the second blast was when I started having issues. I was disconnected from everybody except for my roommate, because he helped me change my bandages and took care of me and stuff. I was disconnected from the world. It’s weird how your whole personality just flips, because I am a very outgoing, talk-to-anybody kind of person, and it just was like you are no longer Luke Abbott.
It’s like when an anxiety attack or when your adrenaline starts to pump and it’s, your breathing goes out of control and you get chest pains and you’re just ready to go, you know, and breathing is a definite cue to just like stop, breathe. Stretches help me a lot.
Jeff: Whenever somebody new comes in the group I tell them two things.
I tell them, one, if they don’t talk about what’s bothering them, they’re not going to get better. If they just sit there like a bump on a log and listen to everybody, yeah, they’re learning, but they’re not going to get any better because they are not expressing themselves.
And the other one is it gets worse before it gets better. The more you talk about it the more depressed, the more angry you get, stuff like that.
Mike: I haven’t been to work since the middle of October. I go to group and come home, that’s it.
Jeff: I’ve been known to put my holster on and carry my pistol around the house just for no reason whatsoever.
Chad: Right now, I'm focused on getting better because I went home on leave with my family in California and it was just, for me it was awful. It was not a vacation. It was stressful. Panic attacks all the time. I mean, I think I hid it pretty well from my family, but I knew that I was in trouble, because like I’m supposed to have fun on vacation. It wasn’t fun.
Janet: Luke, you’re going to have to pass the torch to somebody when you go because you are the one that goes out and like finds all the new people for our group. He really does. Luke has a way of talking to people in a very non-threatening way and just by kind of explaining what he has been through, he can relate to people well. He has actually convinced several people to try it out and to join our group.
Jeff: I can be anywhere, home, Wal-Mart, wherever, I can see somebody and all I see is him getting killed.
Luke: We need to praise her (Janet) because she has been a big part to saving our lives. Not that she is just good at her job, but she cares so much. Seriously, to talk about your issues and to just look up and see tears welled up in her eyes. And past people that have graduated from the group and have gone on back to regular civilian life, when they go, I have seen her weep when they leave, saying that she feels so blessed. We want to give her a copy of this article, just somewhere in there put that we really appreciate her, and we all have deep emotions for her.
Jeff: I don’t care what she says, she has got to take some of the credit.