Monthly Archives: August 2011

If we stay inside the #Earthquake wins and #PTSD

My wife is a Cali kid.  Like most Californians, she scoffed at the earthquake that shook the East Coast yesterday.  Still, it was my first earthquake and I had some reflections long after the rumbling stopped.

First, I had never experienced one, so none of my “training” kicked in.  I didn’t run for a door jam or dive under my desk.  I just never did a drill other than an air raid drill (Cold War East coast kids know what I’m talking about).  So, the initial experience was one of taking in something new.

The subsequent actions I took and, more importantly, the thoughts that bounced around, were interesting.

Here are the things I worried about and how I handled them.  What is interesting to note is that as time went on I started to plan/ think about more remote low probability scenarios.  After feeling the shakes, and then getting a grip on my surroundings, my focus was on mentally keeping myself engaged with being logical and sound.

Tsunami: So, my kids were at the beach with my Mom and Sister, and since I did not know the initial epicenter I was concerned with where the quake originated and getting them back.  Once I found out they were well on their way home, my mind was at east.  I was texting with my wife, so I knew she was safe.

Power Lines, Gas Leaks and Cracks in the foundation: I went immediately to Twitter and followed my  feed and heeded the warnings about staying inside.  I was on the phone with a customer, but cell lines started to conk out and we were forced to reschedule.  So, after quick survey of my surroundings, I was able to feel comfortable with my house and my safety in it.

Aftershocks and Train derailment: I had a meeting in Manhattan and needed to take the train.  My inner risk mitigation considered cancelling and re-scheduling.  I didn’t want to let the earthquake win.  My son was crying as I left saying he didn’t want me to go and the thought crossed my mind that somehow he has some sixth sense and I was getting on a train of doom.  I thought about a derailed train and what I would do should the catastrophe ensue, but realized that I was going into a bad place needed to change azimuth.  Crisis management is not healthy for me, so I moved onto other thoughts about my meeting.

Big City, Big Piles of Rubble: As I got off the train I again thought of the aftershocks and the problems that can happen.  I saw flashes of a city wide 9/11 building collapse and  how I would get the hell out of the city.  But, again, those thoughts would not serve me any good and I flushed them from my mind.

So there you have it, the low probability taking its toll.  Between travel and people and the thoughts, I was up pretty late trying to wind down.  Still, I am pleased that I didn’t back away from my responsibilities, that I identified and took control of the harmful thoughts, and I did it all with style.

Russell Armstrong, #Suicide and #PTSD

Suicide is a rough subject.

When I was younger my father had a friend and co-worker take his life.  I had met the gentleman and he was a good soul.  He and my father would toil in the basement of our house working on side projects on weekends to earn extra money.   He was meticulous and thorough, exactly what my father needed as a helping hand in a greasy unforgiving machine shop.  The gentleman went through a rough patch and an ugly divorce.  At a certain point his daughter, the love of his life, disowned him and he decided to kill himself.

I remember my uncles coming over to spend time with my Dad after he had learned the news.  He was a wreck.  He blamed himself for not seeing the signs, for not asking.  When my Dad was just starting to recover he got hit with a bombshell.  His friend mailed him a letter thanking him for being such a good friend.  In the letter were the keys to all of his toolboxes.  He was meticulously organized to the end.  There were not many people at the funeral, and as years passed my father lost touch with the family.

Each time I hear of a suicide or wrongful death, my fathers’ friend is lurking in the back of my mind.  The memory of the visible emotional pain on my father’s face is a reminder to me of what happens after that person is gone by their own hand.

Those images, along with others and the support of my family have kept me from the edge in my struggles to return from combat and reintegrate.

Today the web was alight with the news of the death and apparent suicide of Russell Armstrong.  I don’t know the details and I won’t pursue them here.   The media takes deaths and suicides of celebrities to an obscene level.  It is tragic and to me, a complete turn off.  Occasionally a story will populate the news about a teen or someone who has taken the step to never return.  They are all sad.  That any person will feel they have nowhere else to turn and that suicide is the only option will always be sad.  I am the guy who cheers for the underdog. I want to hear the story of hitting bottom and then rising up in triumph.

A few days ago the Army released the suicide numbers for the month of July.  They were the highest reported in three years.  I didn’t see too much media coverage about it, but I am pretty sure Extra or Us Weekly didn’t pick up the story.

For me, the sensitivity about the Veteran suicide numbers takes on a deeper meaning.  I have stared into a pit of despair felt nothing but guilt and worthlessness.  The word fortunate or blessed or lucky doesn’t come close to describe me as my family stood by me and I pulled out of my depression.  Part of the reason for writing this blog is to let others know they are not alone in this struggle to help myself and whoever stumbles upon this blog to return to a new normal after combat.

I was lucky that I was financially stable enough to endure not having an income while I tried to start my business and get my head on straight.  I was fortunate that my wife put up with my shenanigans of early entrepreneurship and copious amounts of therapy.  And I was blessed that my family gave me more than time and space, they gave me shoulders to lean on.

The plague of Veteran suicides has me worried not just because the numbers are increasing, but also because it is just not getting a lot of attention.  I was twenty five and a leader of men in combat when I returned home from my first deployment.  I was twenty seven after my second trip.  I knew leadership, camaraderie, toughness, killing, and hardship.  I knew all those things in the context of working with my men and my unit.  Then, I exited the Army and they were gone, on to the next mission or deployment.   I look at others put in that same scenario and it is no wonder we have people turning to the final out.  Our Armed Forces are not equipped to prepare their Soldiers for a complete transition, especially in the Combat Arms branches, and equally in terms of physical and mental health follow ups.  There is too large of a disconnect between the VA and the Armed Forces and the process is too slow.

Combine the stresses of transition with a blighted economy and the road gets bumpier.  It has been a struggle to find work where people understand.  Why should they?  They have their own problems in this economy.  Lump that with my reintegration and paying bills and the frustrations of the VA and you have a recipe for trouble.  I needed years to get to where I am now, and I still, as my wife will tell you, have plenty of “moments”.

I hope that the title of this blog post, when pushed out onto the web, will drum up a little more attention.  I have stumbled through this process and I am willing to share ideas and lessons learned about keeping these returning Veterans connected and on the path to prosperity they have earned.  It is going to take effort to remain involved and attentive with the Veterans to keep any ideas or solutions trending in the right, and opposite, direction.

I’m sorry Mr. Armstrong could not turn another way.  I wish his family peace in this time of grief.

Bottling Tears, Venting and #PTSD

I’m a crier

As anyone in my family will tell you, I get chocked up pretty easy.   My increase in water works has been tied (surprise, surprise) to my deployments to Iraq.   I wouldn’t say I have always been a crier.  I think a primer to stronger feelings of grief in my life was September 11th.   That day, along with subsequent events have me more in touch with my feelings of grief.  However, the Army, and the Infantry, kept me from allowing that grief to be displayed in a public sense.  I often found myself going someplace alone and out of the public view.  In moments where I was able to let the tears run, I took advantage.

When my cousins perished in the World Trade Center, I bottled that up pretty good, and found quite moments by myself to let them go.

When I was in Ranger school and my Grandfather passed away, I found the time to grieve over my Red Cross message, again in private as I couldn’t make it back for the funeral.

In my first deployment to Iraq I learned that a Great Uncle, a WWII Veteran and POW, passed away.  I took my time one afternoon on a pile of ammo boxes to say my goodbye.   Tears were there that day.

On my second tour, with a private room and my wife’s shoulder to cry on, after some horrible missions where we lost Soldiers, or civilians or children, I would save my grief, and again, I would weep.

When the catharsis was over, I wiped them off and went back to trying to do my job.

I needed that vent.

I still do, even more so now.

Tough Guys

When I was a full tilt Infantryman, I used to try to be a tough guy.  I would choke tears back or avoid conversations all together.  That act grew tiring.  My style of dealing with emotion, and the expectations for being a role model in the Army did not effectively allow for me, in my opinion, to” be all I could be.”  I feel only certain emotions are allowed to be shown to be considered a warrior.  I needed them all.

Towards the end of my Army tenure, when I was really struggling in theatre, I’m sure I was pretty transparent though I was trying hard not to be.

The Strangest Cup of Coffee

I am much more likely to let’em fly now than I was, especially when I was in the Army.   I am much more comfortable letting myself go.  My therapy, especially behind the closed doors, is my way to work on allowing the tears to clear my mind and process the grief that comes with the tears.  Depending on my stress level, from all stressors, not just PTSD, I can get welled up pretty easy if I touch on topics related to grief.

Last week, I met a woman standing in line at a Starbucks.  As I stood waiting for my coffee, I showed her one of my tweets about “#caffeination.”  We got to talking about twitter (@mikeypiro in case you didn’t know) and the conversation led to sitting and talking about our respective professions.  We pulled up a set of chairs in a quiet corner of an outdoor café.  The conversation led down many paths but we talked about the Iraq deployment, job hunting as a new civilian, and my PTSD recovery path.

As I explored the loss of my Soldiers I broke down in the court yard in front of this total stranger.  She was extremely polite and shared a story of her own as I gained my composure.  The conversation for me was very exciting in that this total stranger out of the kindness of her heart was willing to listen.  I felt I could open up to her on a number of topics, so I did not let the previous anxiety of crying get in the way.  Talk about an In Vivo exposure!  Normally, medicine helps me keep those tears in check.  Alas, I was on the tail end of my cycle and I have found that holding tears back is more exhausting than just letting them go.

The conversation ended with a great tone and I walked away feeling good.  It was the strangest cup of coffee I have ever had.

Still have work to do

I still have more work to do with being able to talk about parts of my time in Iraq.  When I started my last round of therapy in Prolonged Exposure, one of my specific goals was to be able to talk about my time in Iraq with anyone.  I am still not at the level I desire.  But, keeping in mind the vents I have at my disposal (exercise, talking, crying) and not being worried about using them is a great tool in my arsenal.   To say I absolutely don’t care what people think of me is a farce.  I care about what some people think of me, but the majority of this world is not in that group.  Coming to grips with how I am best able to work through my grief, along with my desire to share has gotten me to the point I am now.  I still have work to do, but it is not the only thing to work on.

Cold Spaghetti, Hyper Vigilance and #PTSD

A Grunt's delight

Eat’em cold

I developed a keen palette for eating MRE’s cold in Ranger school.  Whoof down your food while you can because you may not get a chance to eat it later.  (“You can taste it later, Ranger.”, was a favorite RI catch phrase.) While I trained in Ranger school under the stressors to mimic combat, (little sleep, malnourishment, extreme physical exertion) the lessons and habits I picked up still stay with me to this day.  I eat my food, as my family would say, like a gavone, and I prefer my food cold.  There was little time to eat in Ranger school, so heating up the meals always seemed like a waste of time.

I also developed this boy scout preparedness mind set. Map? I go nuts without one (thanks you smart phones). Knife? In all my cars… Right next to the first aid kits and flashlights.  All of this preparation is to save the precious seconds when shit hits the fan.  Combat only reinforced what I learned in Ranger school.

In Iraq my crew and I kept a tight track.  Everything was organized and ready to spring at a moments notice.

Ammo, water, food.  Check, check, check.  Batteries, Commo fill, fuel. Affirmative.

The days that reinforced the preparation are sometimes the stuff of legend.

Cold Spaghetti, Hot barrel

Spaghetti.  Spaghetti with cheese and crackers mashed into one pouch.  Cold.  Cold spaghetti, cheese and crackers mashed, into one pouch.  It was easy, it was fast and it had this horrible constipating effect. In my mind it was the perfect grunt meal.

We were in the TOC listening to Red platoon move into the new Patrol Base.  They were in the north west part of our AO and had an Iraq Army attachment assisting with the move in.

“Hey Sir, how do you eat that shit?”  My driver asked.

“What?” I replied with a mouth full of crackered cheesy spaghetti goodness.

“That cold spaghetti, how can you possible eat it like that?” he clarified.

I was just about to shovel my last bite.  I paused and looked at him and his MRE.

“That’s yours right?” pointing to his bubbling sack of food.

“Yeah.”

“And I’m done eating right?” showing him my near empty pouch.

“Yeah, So?”

“Hot food is a luxury.”

“How do you figure?” he started to say.

BOOoOoOoOm. The walls shook.  It could only be Red in trouble.  I was getting reinforcement for my warped cold food rationale.

My wife was on station and the radios lit up with the her voice reporting the contact.

I ran in to get my kit.  My driver, without hesitation and leaving his warm food behind, left to get his.

Time runs in slow motion when sh-t hits the fan.  In seconds we were out the door and on my Bradley.  Seconds later we were rolling out the gate heading towards the plume of smoke still rising from Red platoon’s last check-in.  Training and adrenaline take over.

The Kiowa’s continued circling as we raced towards Red platoon.

God, if you are up there, I can use a hand down here.  I’ll trade something for them.  Just don’t let them be hurt.

Bang bang bang!

“Sir, are they shooting at us?”, my gunner asked. “I hear the pop of gunfire.”

“No,” I replied. “I’m shooting at them.“

I emptied one clip of my Berrta as warning shots. I was reloading it and firing my M4 at anyone or any vehicle attempting to intersect our path.  The message was clear.  It was not a time to mess with this track.  I was prepared. My adrenaline was spike.

Outlaw 26 (aka my wife) called in that Red one was on the roof and reporting the contact.  A Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device (car bomb or VBIED) detonated at the gate to the house Red occupied. They were assessing casualties.

Shit.  Come on Big Man, help me out here…

We pulled up to the house.  The garden walls of everything close by were knocked over.  Car?  Nothing but an engine block laying near the house.  The rest was strewn debris not bigger than the size of a Coke can.

As we pulled up Red One came out and climbed up on my track.  He had the wide eyed look of shock.  I wouldn’t doubt if he was at that point.

I remember asking him if he was ok.  He said he was, but he just needed a minute.  We just took it all in for a time.

“The explosion was so loud I though someone was dead.”  He said.

It turned out that the Iraqi Army Soldier with Red Platoon saw the car pull up.  As the car crept closer the Iraqi raised his weapon, then shot.  The car bomber detonated just hoping to take anyone with him.  He didn’t.  Besides some ringing ears and maybe a concussion, everyone was fine.  Even when you prepare, sometimes things just go wrong and sometimes its better to be lucky than good.

We stayed out there for hours helping the local population affected by the blast and refortifying the outpost.

Then, we traded out with a different platoon and headed back to our camp.

My driver, gunner and I entered the TOC.  They sat down and opened another MRE.  Their food from hours earlier was cold.  I wasn’t hungry.

We were lucky.  We had to be more vigilant.  Could my readiness be better?  “Always.”, I though.  But at least we were ready to go today.

The Price of Ready

I think part of the price of vigilance and preparedness is the inability to let things go or relax.  It takes a great amount of effort, and drugs, to get me to relax.  Even with the help of medicine and time, it is exhausting. (As one of my friends says, “It is a multifactorial problem.”)

That day my quirks were reinforced.  I feel part of human nature is to look for and hold on to things we agree with and avoid things we don’t.  Even unreasonable or illogical acts become habits because I look for the reinforcement and then use that experience as proof I am right.  In therapy I explored a number of ways where this type of mindset can be harmful and how to use reason to separate the illogical emotional evidence and set my mind right.  High probability v low probability, using “always” and “nevers” to justify my actions plagued my mind.

Then, traumatic events would be glued to guilt or remorse for a lack of preparedness or attention to detail.  In the end, it was a lot of hard work in therapy to let go of that which I cannot control, and even some of what I can, to find peace.

I still like cold food and I still have flashlights in my cars.  But, I don’t tie it to my survival anymore.

The Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, a Veteran and #PTSD

Struggles at a Game

So there I was, sitting with my Cousin and my Godfather struggling to get through an Islanders Game.  I was maybe back from Iraq for two years, and in the middle of heavy therapy.

Since I found a great atmosphere in the Northport VA and was not happy with my treatment in Colorado, my wife and I decided it would be better for me to head back to New York and get established in a solid outpatient program.   She still had time left in the Army and we did not have any children yet, though she was pregnant.  I left her to try and get right.  It was not an easy decision, but in hindsight we both feel it was the right one.

But, back to the game.  As I sat fidgeting around trying to stay calm I began examining the rafters of the Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum.  There are huge white banners commemorating a number of Islanders and Nassau Coliseum events.  The four Stanley Cups,  Al Arbor’s win total, and Billy Joel’s sold out concerts all adorn the ceiling with gigantic tributes to these milestones.  When I looked a little closer I saw another small flag tucked up amongst the giants.  It was a POW/MIA flag.  It was filthy and it pissed me off.

I remember pointing it out to my cousin and Uncle and then trying to find someone to talk to about the dirty flag.  This was the Nassau VETERANS Memorial Coliseum.  It was debatable that the flag should be bigger, it was a sin that the flag was dirty. Unacceptable.

I left the game miffed.  It would not end there.

Shawshank

Ever see Shawshank Redemption?  Remember the part where Andy finally gets the library after writing the letters every week?  I was inspired to take action.

I wrote a letter each week for months.  I outlined my disappointment with the flag and asked for the stadium to rectify the situation.

I am a romantic and a sap.  I was hoping for much more press or good will from the Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum.  I had imagined getting a call from someone to take me and some other Veterans into the rafters and see the bigger better flag.  (Their American Flag could probably use a cleaning too)

Instead, with little fanfare I got a letter back from the marketing manager letting me know they would fix the problem of the dirty flag.  It was disappointed in the missed opportunity.  They could have made a bigger deal about the flag.  They could have gotten a larger flag and brought me and other Veterans in to see it.  Instead I got a half page letter and nothing more.  But, at least that sacred flag would get the attention it deserved.

You Are Not Forgotten

I have a bunch of buddies that went through SERE C (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) school.  All of them upon graduation went and bought the POW/MIA flag.   They felt it was the least they could do having received a small sample of the torture many Vietnam Vets endured for years.  I also have a number of Vietnam Veteran friends.  They hold their flags with almost as much reverence as Old Glory.   I don’t think most American’s truly realize the sacrifice and hardship symbolized by POW/MIA flag.

I went back to the Coliseum last year for the Circus with my boys.  The flag looks better and I am happy that my small letter writing campaign got results.   Yesterday the residents of Nassau voted down the bid to rebuild the Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum.  I am saddened that the taxpayers of Nassau saw the vote as strictly a hike in their taxes.

Again, the romantic in me was hoping that they would see the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum as their responsibility and continue to pay tribute the Veterans of Long Island.  It’s not named Islanders arena, Wang arena or Optimum Online Arena.  It is the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum… but not for much longer.