SGT Jacob Simpson

Simpson_memorial2It has been 8 years since SGT Jacob Simpson, my friend, former crew member and Soldier died in Tal’Afar Iraq.  My memory is not so good anymore.  There is a murky haze around the details, so when I jump around in this post or if you remember it different, please forgive me.

When I first came home I would have described what I was doing in the third person.  It would have a deluge of Army specific terms like “avenue of approach” or  BOLO (Be On the LOokout).  I would describe these events tactically and clinically.  It is easy to summarize events, even events that are horrific, when you avoid the emotions.  As time has passed those terms are mothballed, but the feelings remain fresh.   I write about my feelings a bunch but I have never verbalized this day eight years ago until today.  It is too hard.

Up and Down

I was patrolling blocks away when “CONTACT” burst over the radio.  That word, in that intonation, spikes your adrenaline.  If you are outside the wire, it means FIGHT.  If you are not near the fight, it means GO TO THE FIGHT.

It seemed like only moments before that high turned into a pit of despair.  The highs and lows always seem to still affect me.  This and other events linger as reasons.  The voice on the radio, alarmed and excited seconds before reported to us with the solemn words that dropped us all:

“He’s dead.  Simpson’s dead.”

F##################CK!!!!

Why?  Where? What?

The updates rolled in and my troop deflated.  The enemy disappeared back into the population.  The attack was so quick our response bore no gains.

We were providing security for Iraqi’s trying to receive treatment at the local hospital.  There were gruesome reports of mistreatment along sectarian lines.  Our presence stabilized a city resource and brought relative normalcy to a town where the mayor’s son was killed and booby trapped not months before.

None of that sh!t mattered now.

Memorial

The next few days are a blur.  I remember wanting to cry at the hero flight but being so Angry that I wouldn’t.  That rage fueled us all for a while, but these days, mine has given way more to sorrow.  A Bradley Fighting Vehicle brought his body back to camp. As the track plodded along slowly towards the tarmac the reality set in.  Our Troopers bravely escorted him into the plane painting an all too familiar picture of a Soldier draped in a flag en route to his final resting place.

My Commander and First Sergeant had the impossible task of eulogizing Jacob at the farewell ceremony.  They nailed it.   The images of boots, rifle, bayonet, Stetson and dog tags still give me pause.  We crossed in front of it, gave our last salute, gently touched the dog tags and walked away hoping that those ritualized acts could seal the wound.  They didn’t.

The day after the attack I remember talking with our Regimental Commander and telling him the good stories about Simpson.   There were only good stories about Simpson.

This is what I remember.

I met Specialist Jacob Simpson the first day I arrived at my troop.  I had a different Combat patch (4ID), a Combat Infantry Badge and a screaming high and tight haircut.  I didn’t look, smell or act like a scout and Jacob could see that so he started pinging me with questions.  He had the look of a squared away Soldier and was extremely attentive to my replies, so I immediately took note and liked him.

I had the further good fortune of getting Jacob on loan during gunnery before our deployment.  Even though he was not officially assigned, he took his job with a seriousness that impressed me.  It would have been easy to slack off or do the minimum.  He did the opposite.

We had jumped around but settled outside of the dry fire range one day.  We had all of our crap just strewn in the back and it was annoying him.  He wasn’t able to do his job as well, so he took out a wrench and started mounting straps on the outside of the track.  Then he hung our stuff out there.  He didn’t do it to win points, he did it so he was able to do his job better.  He took initiative and just did it.  Moreover, he did it with a smile.  A little rock n roll on the radio, a little sun on his face and this Specialist was happy to contribute in any way.

When it was our turn to shoot our Gunnery, he put us in a position to excel by counting rounds and keeping track of the firing scenarios.  We could come in second in our Troop in large part from the teamwork he helped foster.

When he earned his Stripes I saw the pride and determination enter his face.  Ready or not he displayed what all of our great NCO’s showed us before and during that deployment: the NCO corps is the backbone of the Army.  He was a professional and wanted to earn the respect of his peers, superiors and subordinates alike.  He had great tough NCO’s above him and while the learning curve was steep, he rose to the occasion.

When the Troop shuffled the roster and he received his team members he continued the excitement and initiative that I witnessed months earlier.  They followed him around and knew he was the big brother type the was going to show them the ropes.  He moved with urgency and when he got excited he would stand on his tip toes.

He wanted to go to Selection for the Special Forces.  I had a number of friends that completed selection and I had been through a few other schools, so if he ever caught me with down time he peppered me with questions.  I was happy to answer.  I knew with time and more experience he would be a fine SF Soldier.

He was taken this day eight years ago.   He was taken too soon.  He died in service to this nation defending the defenseless.

As my commander eloquently pointed out at his eulogy, he is a hero and we will always miss him.

Until we meet again my friend.

The Safe Story and PTSD

watermelonIf I am in a new group or environment and the topic of the Iraq war comes around I always keep my safe stories handy.  If you are a Veteran, you know the type: anecdotal humor and aimed at the lighter side of war.  Some have more meaningful undertones than others, but those few safe stories that can break the ice and divert the conversation to mundane questions are invaluable for a readjusting Vet. (For the record: Yes, it is hot in Iraq.  Yes, it is a dry heat.  Yes, it still sucks.)

I highly recommend them, unless they become a crutch.

My Duty as a Soldier

I usually tell this story in the summer with friends at a BBQ.  It is my safe story.

When I was a little more than half way through my second trip, my commander took mid-tour leave and I assumed command.

One of the more bizarre crises that developed arose from some Extra Soldiers who were shacking up on our camp and did not fully understand their environment.

We had an excellent perch atop a grain silo on the camp we controlled.  The line of site stretched well across the city and it was adjacent to a Shia enclave that appreciated our presence.  With thermal optics we could easily see a dog taking a crap a mile away.

The Shias in the town had been on the receiving end of some vicious attacks with car bombs and snipers.  As such, they formed a heavily armed militia and barricaded their part of town.

The Extra Soldiers utilizing our facility were in a Sniper nest way up on the grain silo.  I don’t know what their mindset was, or if they had been properly briefed.  I kind of just assumed by rank and experience they knew where who were the good guys and bad guys.  Bad assumption.

On a particularly hot afternoon, the Sniper team saw one of the militia raise a weapon seemingly aimed at a helicopter.  Using a suppressed weapon, they shot him dead.

It must have been terrifying for the other militia men with the boy because he received a number of rounds in rapid succession from what must have seemed like out of nowhere.  One minute screwing off on “guard duty”, the next minute full of bullets and dead.

I was on patrol at the time and not at the silo.  One of my Lieutenants called higher headquarters and briefed them on what happened.  The concerned Shia group came over and inquired if we had killed one of their militia.

My Lieutenant, obviously having a slight lapse in upholding the Army values, told them the enemy must have done it.  I wish I could have seen the instant he realized what a mistake that lie was.

As the words dribbled out of his mouth and through an interpreter, the Shia group immediately leapt into action.  Cell phones started ringing across their compound. Someone was going pay Death Squad style.  They were going to drive across town and f#ck some Sunni’s up.

My First Sergeant called me on the radio and requested I come back as an issue was brewing that required my attention.  He didn’t want to discuss it over the radio.

“Great.” I thought.  Radio discipline generally meant something messy.

I returned to camp and talked to my Lieutenant.  I don’t remember the exact conversation we had that well, but I am pretty sure “What the f#ck ever possessed you to think this was a good idea?” came out in some way shape or form.

The Sheik of the Shia group was a gnarly old leathery dude who looked like Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  He was a wily old man who knew how to play the US forces like a skilled musician.

The plan I scratched out in my mind was simple: I had to get to him fast, tell him the truth, and hope to avoid sectarian violence or blood revenge against US forces.  The heat of the day was passed, but it was still well over 100 degrees.

My crew and I mounted up mounted up.  In a single Bradley, I took our senior interpreter, my Bradley crew and a Radio Telephone Operator and drove into their compound.

The hive was busy getting weapons loaded into cars.   Men of all ages carrying RPGs, AK’s and bandoliers scurried about preparing for a fight.  Everyone looked serious and pissed off.

As the ramp lowered and our interpreter and I looked around, we knew this was not going to be easy.

Quick Aside

I am one of the apparently few Americans who despises Watermelon.  Taste, texture, and smell all make me nauseous. I wont even go near artificial shit. No lollipops for me.  No sir.  Please consider that while I finish this story out. 

Did I mention the heat earlier?  Oh yeah, the heat, a crammed stuffy room full of pissed off Iraqis, me and my interpreter.  One solitary fan twirled overhead that provided the equivalent effect of pissing on a 20 acre forest fire.

The Sheik’s lieutenants were all in the room with us.  They knew that if I was there under these circumstances it was strictly business.  I had to make them understand the gravity, so after a few minutes, I took off my armor and asked the Sheik to kick everyone out of the room.

He was a little surprised, but did as I asked.  I was trying to tread carefully to courtesies and customs.  I was delivering bad news, I did not want to make it worse.

Once everyone was out of the room, the Sheik decided it was time to eat.

You can see where this is going, right?

From another room a small boy with a large metal bowl walked into our meeting.  The contents of the bowl contained an obscene amount of the Iraqi equivalent of watermelon.

As boy placed the bowl in between the Sheik and I, the Sheik reached down with his gnarly hand into the warm bowl, picked up a slimy piece of the vile watermelon and held it out.

I looked at my interpreter and asked “What do I do?”  He knew the customs and he simply said, “You eat it.  You don’t want to offend him.”

I glared at the interpreter and said “You don’t understand, I can’t eat this.”

He just smiled.

So with that, I reached out, took the fruit and raised it to my mouth. I made an over exaggerated “Mmmmm” sound as I choked back vomit.

Then, I held that sweaty piece of melon and explained to the Sheik that we had actually killed his family member.  The Lieutenant was mistaken and we were to blame.  There was no need to go across town.  The Sunni’s were not responsible for this one.

He thanked me for being honest.  I thanked him for telling his men to stand down.  We worked out another meeting to discuss a reparation payment for his family member.

I left the smoldering watermelon on the seat.  We mounted back up and I went back to base swearing off watermelon for the rest of my days.

Unsafe Stories

I have told that story without crying for years.  It is safe. It doesn’t involve much death or gore or stress.  It is mildly comedic.  I used to tell it to avoid the deeper emotional scars of Iraq.

A few weeks ago I spoke with a man I consider a friend at length about my time in Iraq.  It has been years since I was there and yet when we talked the emotion of dealing with loss in Iraq it made me weep.  I could have told him the watermelon story cold, but that would be equivocal or dishonest.  He asked hard questions and I tried my best to answer.

In one instance he asked me about the first time I lost a Soldier.

Ironically, next week marks seven years since we lost SGT Jacob Simpson.  I still cannot talk about him or that day.  I still think of him.  I still mourn him.  I cried when I tried to tell my friend about the loss.

One of the many realizations I have had over the past few weeks is that this is my new normal.  I don’t think I will ever fully get over losing him.  He is woven into me and in some ways I carry on because of him.  I do not take for granted my gift of life.   Though some days are harder than others, I remind myself that a piece of him is with me and it is my duty to preserve and honor his memory.

I can rationalize all of this, yet I choke up when I try to articulate with the spoken word how he was a tremendous Soldier.   I cannot help but weep at the crater of loss he left.  I have dozens of more stories where the grief of loss ties me up.

These are my unsafe stories.  They stir emotion and are hard to get through.  I made it a goal a while back to cry less and talk more, especially when caught off guard.  It is a work in progress, and I have a feeling will be like that for a while.  But, the unsafe stories are where the real healing takes place.  If you don’t have an unsafe story, I recommend you find someone, and get started.

The Tide Raises All Boats: Awareness of Suicide Prevention and PTSD Treatment

IMG_0086Twelve years into combat and the feeling I get is that, worse than being judged, we are forgotten. We are killing ourselves at a rate faster than we died in combat and very few people stop to notice.

A few months ago, a college friend of mine took his own life. He served multiple tours overseas with distinction. He came home, settled down, and struggled to find normalcy outside of combat. His passing made me think long and hard about the state of care for Veterans, stigmas for treatment, and the thing that everyone knew about,but few talked about: Suicide.

I feel I have taken a head-on approach to my treatment and therapy. With deliberate thought, I reasoned I should do the same for tackling this stigma: Raise awareness, call out problems with stigmas and therapies and hopefully make enough of a difference to prevent more suicides.

My logic is simple: If we can look at the root causes of these suicides, dismantle the stigma for help, and make treatment easier to access we can interdict and stop them.

If we address, treat, and stop severe PTSD which can lead to suicide, other Veterans along the PTSD spectrum will be more willing to seek help. If more severe cases enter treatment earlier and often, then less severe cases exit earlier and more frequently.

Over our lifetime, that means healthier Veterans, healthier families of Veterans, and a stronger America. (f#ck yeah)…(yes, I went there.)

To come full circle with the title: the tide truly raises all boats in the harbor. Awareness and prevention of Veteran suicide will help everyone who suffers in silence to get healthier faster. A bonus will convince those who maybe doubt that they need any help, that maybe a little professional help is a good thing.

So, what are you waiting for? Join Team Survivor on our walk May 4th. Help us smash this stigma and raise awareness.  I set a personal goal of a team of 10.  We are three away from that goal.

Or, if you can’t walk and donate your time, you can always donate something else.  Thank you.

Look to the Vets: Bombs, emotions, and PTSD

I am sitting and watching the television as I try and work. The images streaming on the news channels are familiar. I see them and I am reminded of my other senses. Sulfur, burnt hair, melted plastic. The attacks that have just struck our society again are unfortunately more common in other parts of the world. Ironically, if you find a Veteran of the past ten years, there is a good chance they are more familiar with this scenario than most Americans.  Hell, most of my facebook friends are well versed in this drill…  I hope we can lead the country at large around the pitfalls of these types of attacks.

“Chaos” is a singularly accurate word to describe these scenes, but singular descriptions are inadequate. I have written about the aftermath before. We are firmly entrenched in a review of details as a nation.

We will watch video and listen to interviews, but I am now paying keen attention toward the emotions. The emotions that will pour out of the trauma that has now affected thousands of people will take a long while to unwind. Feelings of people who ran towards the blast, people who ran away, those who panicked, those who resolved to stay and help, anger, sadness and helplessness  will feed many nights of sleeplessness.

The images are now seared into the minds of the EMTs, the Police, the first responders, and civilians and through the television, the rest of America. Feelings of a lack of safety, hopelessness, but also hope and resolution all juxtaposition in a heap like the crowds immediately after the blast. They are battered, bloody and waiting for triage. And even without the help of the evening news, they will replay over in our minds. I feel confident about these statements because it is a glimpse into my minds eye after a few key events in my service overseas.

In my head

I am anxious, but not as I would have been three years ago. My wife came home to see me at my desk with the news on as I sifted through work emails.

“You know you shouldn’t watch that all night.” she gently told me.

“Yeah, I haven’t been watching long…” I lied.

I have lived through the aftermath of more than one car bomb. One of the most traumatic events I have ever lived through was dealing with triage for hours on end as a result of a massive car bomb in Tal’afar, Iraq.   The lines of amputees and severely burned stretched to our gates.

I am now neatly preparing my mind for the next few hours and days. I am eliminating the “stuck points” or in laymen’s terms, using “always” or “never” in my opinions or feelings. I am forcing myself to stare at the triggers. The pictures of blood stained concrete are all too familiar.  In staring at them I force myself to realize that these are low probability events. There were half a million people at the race today. Three killed and over a hundred wounded is not much more unsafe than driving and maybe safer than some parts of urban Detroit.

This is what terrorism tries to do. It tries to impact your emotions into forming unreasonable and illogical conclusions.  It plays on safety and fear and it is powerful.  I think that had we known more about the treatment of emotions I would not have been hastened back into conflict so quickly.  Today and here we do not have to rush anyone today back to work.

Stiffen and Strengthen

One more resolution is to stiffen against these attacks. I can feel the callouses return. I think this is in our nature.

F#ck me?

No.

F#ck You!

We can now replace the Brooklynese with Southie. I even looked at signing up for another marathon so I can qualify for the next Boston.

The details will unfold, but more important than the details of the day are how the details make you feel.  They will be much more telling about what is happening, and what is to come.  If you are waning or lost, and you know a Vet, look to them and reach out.  Both sides will benefit.

Triggers, The Nosedive and #PTSD

Nosedive“You dumbass.” I thought to myself as we rolled by the scene of the accident, “You had to look.”

Gently blowing in the wind was what should have been the yellow tarp that covered the body of the pedestrian hit by a truck.

The tarp did a crap job and the glance turned into just enough imagery of a misshapen pale body to set the propellers of my mind going. I rolled past further and the sun, not high in the sky, cast a long shadow on the lone sneaker in the middle of the closed highway.

“This is the Captain of your mind speaking. We are expecting some bumpy skies on our trip as we take you down out of these clear blue skies and plummet to God Only Knows Where.”

“We have plenty of fuel in the form of past engagements and anxiety, so sit back, space out and hold on tight.”

Hello Captain Saturday morning trigger. Thanks for the heads up. A$$hole.

An now, 4PM and hours later, I am sitting to try and work this out.

Evasive Maneuvers

When the triggers strike I have my in flight routine.

I immediately told my wife and let her know I was heading on my little joy ride.

I texted my best friend whom I unload this sh!t on frequently and I am extremely grateful he continually picks up the phone. He directed me back to this screen, to flush it out and take notes.

He and I talked about the particular engagement of which this poor kid reminded me. I think what connected the two was how the body was treated. I understand that there is a job to do when an accident like this happens, just as there was a job to do when we engaged insurgents in a building. But, I was mistakenly getting comfortable ignoring my past and the clean up jobs. I was(am) angry that these Police officers did not treat the victim with enough respect to cover his body adequately and spare the rest of us a potential trigger. Some people want to see it, and that is there prerogative. Nobody needs to see it. I sure as hell didn’t.

So after working through that I think I have at least some bumpy cruising altitude to spare. The descent is slower and I have a few tricks up my sleeve to finish the full pull back on the stick (my zoomie friends can correct me if that is not what it is referred to…)

Collateral Damage

Still, in my nosedive, I managed to bring down some family members. I was short and mean to my mother and I have been apologizing since it happened. I pissed off my wife by zombifying myself. And let me be clear, these are not excuses, this is what happened. I owe it to them to fix myself and this situation.

So, I huddled up the kids and released my wife for a few hours. She provides so much for my boys that it is the least I could do. I apologized to my mother. Profusely. But, I will have to pick it up a bit more before today gets away from me.

The last Trick up my sleeve

I have been exercising and getting physically right for some time now. I took yesterday off, and planned on taking today too, but I need to go and exhaust myself for a bit. Clear my mind. And I hope, that last little bit will get me back to flying straight.

Time will tell.

Hopefully the rest of today is uneventful. The sky is blue. I can hear a prop plane overhead. Time to exercise. Over and Out.

Valve, Release, 1 Each, #PTSD and #Suicide

ValveIn combat we were always provided something to release our emotions or frustrations. Missions and free time let us discharge not only our weapons, but our pent up frustrations. Yelling, shooting, driving, crying, walking and many other releases were all at our disposal.  They were standard issue. In the staccato of combat, a rhythm existed where we could gauge and guess when we needed to pull the release valve.

However, as a civilian, life is so unpredictable by comparison that we as Veterans have a hard time adapting to a continual set of challenges at irregular and less predictable intervals. We miss the neat bookends our tours provided us to bracket the ups and downs combat threw at us. At home the issues build up and we don’t have the markers set to know when to release.

Previously I have referenced the pressure that builds from within our core. I think I can describe it and it’s origin more. I think I know the sources of the outward pressure. (A pressure, mind you, that can at times seem infinitely more powerful than the raw strength of mother nature.)

I believe it lies with the emotions tied into what we witness and our participation in a war that leaves us feeling ambivalent towards our accomplishments. Our participation and witness, passively and actively, are forever in conflict. We know in our heart of hearts what is right: defending the defenseless, giving aid to the sick, serving justice. Yet in combat we see so much that is wrong or unacceptable collateral damage to our pursuit of justice. The conflicts mix together and become inseparable yet the pace of combat forces us to endure for the sake of survival.

I remember the first time I saw dead children. I remember it because I can still see it. Helpless feet dangling from bloody blankets whisked past me in a futile attempt to revive what was left. The stark splotches of thick red blood on the white canvas outlined a frail and small person.  It was winter time and cold.  Their bare feet were exposed because they had literally been blown from their shoes.  The image is always there and the emotional sorrow applies an outward pressure that is unstoppable. I cannot remove the image. I cannot stope bearing witness to those lives cut short. Looking through a narrow lens you may observe the deaths of children as merciful or sorrowful or the will of God or bad luck. But we did not fight in that narrow lens. All these years later the questions I refused to ask or logic I did not question still ring from the emotional pressures. Emotion echoes the same simple and brutal questions: why the f#ck were we there? Did we help? Did our presence here cause this? The unknowable answers feed more questions and half answers raise the emotions even further. In combat when we faced these horrors we quickly turned to an argument that was simple.

We clung to the honor bound argument that we were Soldiers and it was not our lot to question. We push the logic further that we stood and fought for our fellow Soldiers whom embody our values and reciprocate our solemn and vital duty.

Then one of them dies and the arguments erode.

From experience, I can still picture my comrade vividly. I see him mangled yet peacefully laid out beneath a flag for his final trip home. The cot he is serviced on brings together the immediate violence of death and the tranquility of his preparation for the trip to the thereafter. He is with me forever. The questions of purpose return with his imagery and the simple answers are unknowable. I, as a Veteran with PTSD, try and feel hope, but the simple fact is doubt remains. The logic of good and evil, of right and wrong, eats its way and lives at the center of the pressure. I cannot help but question, consciously or unconsciously, which side I lived on how I will be judged. So the pressure grows.

Once you have seen things so vividly and so often it is impossible to suppress the kernel of doubt that is tied to the emotion that bubbles out and into our daily lives. I live with fear and doubt and sadness and anger and I fight it with hope and optimism and determination.

How do I keep from exploding?

I don’t.

I just explode smaller and more frequently. ( Like the Hulk in the Avengers, I’m always Angry) I execute a controlled vent. To do that I take the hard look inside and I challenge myself to be true to my character and embrace what has happened.  I have found and use the new releases that I have cultivated in the years since completing therapy.  I write.  I work out.  I talk with my wife.  I space out.  Sometimes I yell.  Sometimes I yell at my dog.  Sometimes I yell at my kids.  But the negative outlets, like yelling at my kids, focus me to rethink and rework where my energy is going.  When I challenge and accept my emotions, I can release the pressure in positive ways. I can vent and I can carry on. Though too long away from addressing those emotions or simply choosing to ignore them is dangerous.  If I don’t pay attention the pressure can pile on exponentially and push me to a place that is very dark very quickly.

Insights into Suicide

I think those that choose suicide are looking for the release and are under such pressure they cannot see other ways to vent. Pressure builds in fits and starts. If you follow the news, you know that the VA, through gross ineptitude, requires us to wait for help upon our return. It requires us to endure more pressures from a society that looks very foreign to us.

I imagine that the clock runs out and the extreme pressure forces us to look at final options of survival, or an escape.

We can head these off. I am convinced. But to block this option for our returning men and women it will take a larger community, focus and effort.

Housekeeping

I am still beating this drum. Visit the page, sign up to walk, help those in need.  We are here on Facebook.

If you can spare the time to walk Team Survivor would love to have you.  If not, please consider a donation.

Thanks!

10 f_cking years, the toll so far and #PTSD

bush5

10 f_cking years.

The images floating through my news stream were surreal yesterday. It was full of dusty pics from disposable cameras depicting steely eyed killers ready to cross the berm in hulking tanks and personnel carriers. At that moment in time we did not know how simple life was, nor how complicated it was about to become, for us.

I remember wandering around Camp Casey still wondering what the future would bring. I joined OIF I in August as a replacement. Like a jackass, I reasoned if I didn’t get into this fight quick, it would be over before it began and <gasp> my fiancé would have a combat patch and I <gulp> would not have combat “experience”.

Some days I wish I could reach back through time and slap myself.

That idea, which was fairly common, is one that is worthy of 10 slaps.

Here I am today, still a jackass, but hopefully in the right ways. I am a little wiser, but more so, humbled by those experiences. At this point, I would not trade my experiences for anything. The perspective I now hold as a Veteran is invaluable. It grounds me from the rash decisions, yet stokes the fire to challenge my limits and live life more completely.

I have said this before, but not long ago I would have traded for ten minutes of reprieve from my thoughts and nightmares. It was on the fringe of being unbearable. But I had help. I had support. I still have the help and support.

Since I wrote my last post one hundred and ninety eight Veterans will have taken their life. Ten years on and we are killing ourselves at a faster rate than we died in combat.

198.

I stare at that number and it is staggering.

There are so many great organizations that are helping. IAVA is storming Capitol Hill. Team RWB is joining with Team Rubicon to raise awareness.

How are we not connecting these dots? How are we not stemming this tide?

Here is our multiplication table.

One Month: 270 – Two Infantry Companies
Three Months: 810 – A Battalion
Six Months: 1,620 – 1/10th the population of Babylon, New York
One Year: 3,240 – 50% more than the sum of the next four graduating classes of Linenhurst Senior High School.

I aim to fight this. The suicides have touched my life too much already. So my continued action, besides this blog, is to participate in a 5k walk to raise awareness.

Can you take a walk with me?

9 more tomorrow…

Join Here.

 

Thank you.

Avoidance, the S word, and #PTSD

I think it is a fair self assessment that I am facing my #PTSD head on. Except, you know, when I am not.  As life accelerates and periodically slows down, I get a chance to reflect and write.  I have a good groove going, but as the gruff RI’s would say “complacency is a killer.”

One is too many

In January my roommate from college, another Veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, committed suicide. When news broke that he passed away, and that he was not deployed, we feared that he had taken his own life. The fear was confirmed, and there we were, on a cold morning in Philadelphia, paying our respects to a brave Soldier who had survived multiple deployments overseas, but could not deal with the minefield of his own thoughts.  Tragic does not even begin to describe his early demise.  The murmurs in the crowd after the ceremony asked why, but as veteran who has faced PTSD the cold familiar answers stare you back in mirror: the anger got too high, the guilt too heavy, the depression too deep.

His death marked the third Veteran I personally knew to take his own life.

sgt-dwyer

I am not sure I have the words or the energy to recount how each suicide has impacted me.  I cannot articulate how a family feels.  If this post sucks it will probably be because I am going to tiptoe through these waters.  I know from my personal struggles how dark it can seem and I shudder at the thought of the depths of despair that lead a soul down that path.  The conversation about suicide seemingly only comes up after the fact.  Veterans are so good at masking the signs before a suicide.  60 Minutes did a segment on Clay Hunt, a founder of Team Rubicon who took his life in 2011.

Raise the volume

We have an epidemic in our country receiving little attention.  The VA estimates twenty two Veterans a day commit suicide.  As I mentioned earlier, I don’t want to go near it and I write about PTSD.

It is easier to talk about it in whispers or not at all.

It is hard to talk frankly about suicide.

It leaves such a mark and a stigma.  If you try to talk with someone casually about suicide, the topic is usually quickly changed.  If you are talking about suicide  it is usually one on one or with a small concerned group that has been deeply impacted. I’m sure people are getting queazy just reading the word over and over.

I ask myself questions all the time. Does talking about it create an onset? Does joking about it or avoiding the topic prevent it? I don’t know. I do know there is a link between PTSD and suicide in Veterans.

The national conversation about Veterans and suicide is too faint. We need to amplify the initiatives and raise the volume.

In that spirit I formed a team with the Suicide Prevention Initiative: Team Survivor (I know, unimaginative, but it works right?)

From the SPI website:

“Suicide Prevention Initiatives’ fifth annual Walk for Life in Riverside Park on Saturday, May 4th will support our progress in improving the care of veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and preventing suicide among those who are at risk.

SPI’s 5 K walk winds along the shore of the Hudson River. A light breakfast and conversation precedes the walk at the Boat Basin Café, a few blocks south of the starting point for the walk. Please join us to show your support for this and other high-impact SPI projects to prevent suicide.

We will meet at the Riverside’s Park Boat Basin Cafe at 9:00 AM for registration, light breakfast and some short remarks by our event’s chair, Jason Hansman, Senior Program Manager at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).”

The team is formed in honor of my Classmate Brian Collins, my Soldier Steven Knudson and Joe Dwyer.

And, in breaking my avoidance habits I am going to take one more step and ask that you sponsor or donate in honor of this cause.

I set a team size goal of 10 people and a stretch fundraising goal of $3,000. The barometer in the top right of the blog is my actual counter to track the team progress. So, as always, please share, and if you can, make a donation. Thank you!

 

 

PS. The SPI site is not very forgiving and a little old school, so please bear with the excessive clicks and navigation to wind your way through the system. If you search for my name (Mikey Piro), or “Team Survivor” you can eventually reach the prompts for making a donation. Thanks again.

Team Survivor  <—- Link Here

The Myths of #PTSD recovery: A survivors’ perspective

I decided that I need to speak out more about where I am and what perspective I can give from my perpetual dance with PTSD. As such, I am going to change the format of this blog and start writing about what I think works/worked. (I am also kicking around the idea of opening up a “Dear Mikey”, but more to follow on those columns.)

With that, I have a small preamble or disclaimer. I cannot be so brash as to say I know what anyone else is going through (though people who have known me for a while may get a chuckle out of that last part).

I suspect from feedback there is a lot of cross over of experiences. Over the past seven years I have been keeping pretty solid track of what worked and didn’t work for me. In my years of reintegration, I made some fairly drastic life decisions in an effort to combat this disorder. From the beginning, I have tried to hit this head on, but my experience does not mean it will or should work for others.

I just recently hit another snag after clipping along at a stable pace for a good while.

Rather than spiral, I will attempt to move forward, but based on the text messages I am trading with my wife, it is proving more difficult than I first thought.

So without further interruption here is my survivor myths of PTSD recovery list.

I can go this alone
I fell into this trap right way. Despite a loving wife and family, friends all over the place, I got it stuck in my thick head that I could work this out myself. It is absurd. If you stop to think about our time in combat, did we really do anything alone? I mean, we seriously let each other know we were going to take a shit in case a mortar attack rained in. Yet, a vast majority of us feel we can just get a dog, hole up somewhere for a while and work it out. (My wife bought me a dog almost immediately. I love the fart-ripping bastard, but it suffice to say he is a little short on tips to manage sleep or medicine side effects.). We got into this mess together, we need others to get us out.
Waiting to get help makes it easier (or I’m too busy)
I talk to Vietnam Vets. A lot. I tell them pretty frankly about what I am working through. The resounding response from the Vets of Vietnam I talk to is “Shit, I wish I took care of mine sooner. It is harder now.” Amen. We are so fortunate in this generation that the Vietnam Vets fought for all the benefits we are starting with. Heed their advice and start now.

There is a magic pill or therapy that will work quickly
Sorry, I searched high and low for the quick fix solution. I have tried many many different combinations of various therapies and drugs. As for therapy, if the VA sanctioned it, I tried it, and in a few cases had to restart it. There was no magic, just a lot of hard work. But, with that hard work, in conjunction with a number of other lifestyle changes, I am able to sustain longer periods of normal.

Recovery and management is a linear graph
You will notice I said longer periods of normal in the point above. I am generally accepting that, similar to the war I came from, this is going to be a long and protracted fight. Progress cannot be mapped on a graph. Weeks of steps forward sometimes suffered setbacks in hours, though with effort and support, I am trending in the right direction. Setbacks happen. Progress can happen too. But, unlike the board game of “Life” it is much harder to see where you stand at any given time with PTSD.

I am too far gone

It is the first lesson of a defense: continually improve your position.  Things may seem horrendous, it may feel like the world is crashing around you.  We are here to help.  I am here to help.  There are people who want to help.  Ask.  We will.

Getting help is a sign of weakness
To this I say the only person I have to live with is myself. I made the decision a few years ago that I would swallow my pride and ask for assistance in facing something I had never faced before and had no idea where to start piecing it back together. Today, if you were to ask my boys about their Dad, the would tell say “Dad is strong like the Hulk and good at Legos.” Works for me.

The war is winding down. The GP will forget. It is our solemn duty to never turn our back on this or any generation of Veterans. We can help ourselves. Dispelling these myths is a good start.