Before I joined the military in 2006, I had heard the war stories my father used to tell me, but they were mostly in one ear and out the other. I am sure most of you understand that when a veteran starts rattling off military jargon, it may be tough to follow.
Being a veteran is one of the biggest achievements of a person’s life, and there is no way to know what it means until you go through that life changing process.
Life will be split into two entirely different parts. You will have your military experiences, which differ for everyone, and then you will come home and start the second phase of your life.
The military is cut and dry — you are told what to do, where to be, what to wear, how to behave, and you have absolutely no privacy whatsoever. Some deploy to war zones, where they are shot at and have to pick up victims of terrorism off of the roadways. Explosions happen several times per day and chase gunfire on daily patrols.
27 months in a war torn country can change a man and the need for government assistance as our military men and women transition back into the lives they left before the war is largely what our Veteran’s Administration is responsible for. I believe they do a great job for a government entity but they are largely underfunded and are extremely late to the game in identifying problems such as PTSD.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is nothing new, which makes it hard to be a fan of the Veteran’s Adminstration since PTSD has plagued every veteran of every war throughout history. Only now are the soldiers who endured so much, for so long, so far from home, getting the help that they so deserve. But the battle has just begun for most soldiers who have come back from war
Imagine the jarring sensation of putting your life on the line several times per day. There are thousands of plain-clothed civilians trying to kill you, you witness the deaths of your best friends, images of unspeakable tragedy burn in the back of your mind, but that’s your job. So, you do your job and move on.
Then one day it all comes to an end.
The day I left Iraq was Jan. 15, 2008, after spending 15 months in a war zone. Baghdad was one of the worst I had seen, and when our plane landed every person was ecstatic to have their lives intact. We were more than ready to see our families again.
We flew in to Dallas International Airport, as two fire engines on the runway shot water cannons over our jet, a sign that a plane full of war veterans had just landed. We got off the plane and walked down the ramp toward the baggage area, and we were met by at least 1,000 people cheering, clapping and crying for us.
They could not fathom what we had just accomplished, and they made us feel as welcome as a group of 1,000 people possibly could. There were long hugs, stories told and gifts exchanged as we parted ways with our units and caught connecting flights home.
I flew into Oakland, and as I passed the security checkpoint, I noticed a news crew. It was Channel 2 News, but surely they were not there for me. Except they were absolutely there for me.
The reporter introduced himself and asked me if he could follow me through the events of the evening. I was in the dark, but I said yes, and as he turned on his camera and followed me down the aisle, I caught my first glimpse of approximately 30 men, 15 on each side, each bearing an American flag. As I approached them, they came to salute me.
At this point, tears were rolling down my face as my family came to meet me. It had been a long time since I had seen them, and there were many days when my mother thought she would probably never see me again.
The men holding the flags all had Harley Davidson Motorcycles, and there were two police cars following me with their lights on and about 30 motorcycles which escorted me home to Livermore.
I was greeted by about 100 people on the street in front of my house, cheering for me with banners welcoming me home. The fire department brought trucks. The police had numer- ous vehicles there. Channel 2 News captured every breathtaking moment.
It took several days for the high to wear off, and I could
begin a new life, a normal life, but almost immediately I felt different than I had ever felt before.
Nobody could understand what I had been through. I could not get the 23 soldiers that did not come home from Iraq out of my head. They were great men. Men that sat in the same seats as I did and did the same job that I had done, and yet I was here and their families were left with eternal grief.
Everything was different. It was a different life now. I had to figure out how to live in a place where everything was calm and there was no action.
It turned out to be a pitfall as I began to seek action in other ways. I felt so alone and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol seemed like child’s play, but it gave me moments of relief from the haunting months in a war-torn country in which every horror imaginable was witnessed every single day.
As the days turned into months, my life turned into a haze in which days would pass, and I would not remember what had happened, and I would spend days upon days laying in bed. I was completely lost.
The energy I once had naturally flowing through my body was gone. I was having nightmares of being bound and shot or stabbed.
I began collecting guns to protect myself from imaginary intruders. I counted the steps from my front door to the hall and then down the hall and made plans on how I would kill people who broke into my home.
I was depressed, I was hyper-vigilant, I was full of anxiety, I was self medicating — my whole life had changed, and I had no idea what was happening to me.
One day, after my fifth consecutive day in bed, my moth- er came into my bedroom and told me she was taking me to the emergency room at the VA (Veterans Administration). I agreed to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for 14 days because I was afraid of who I had become. I was scared of who I was and I was ready for a change.
This began my long road of recovery, and although I knew life would never be the same, I was ready to start taking the steps necessary to change things.
I was not forced to go get help. I went because I knew deep down there was something wrong with me. It was then that I first started hearing the letters P-T-S-D tossed around.
At first I did not believe that it even existed and it was all in the minds of those using the sys- tem to get a disability paycheck, and that certainly was not me. After 14 days, a spot opened up in a program for veterans that were suffering from the same things I was.
This was when I learned, I not only had PTSD but many other veterans did too. It was embarrassing and extremely tough to admit, but the symptoms of PTSD were the exact things that were happening to me.
The worst part of it was planning to take my own life. It started with razor blades and a hot bath, then I slowly but sure- ly began choking myself with a rope hung over the top of my bedroom door and I would hang until I would almost pass out. There were many attempts and I had decided that this would be the way I would go when I was ready. Sometimes I would have to leave the house with big red marks on my neck from my attempts to end this pain and suffering I was going through.
The first step was admitting I was struggling and help was available.
It was only around 2010 that the VA began to realize that PTSD was real and it was affecting veterans in record numbers.
For example, the VA had to come up with a way to explain how we had only lost around 7,800 veterans in both wars since 2001, approximately 6,500 veterans were committing suicide. That’s 20 veterans per day.
The number of suicides have surged 35 percent for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. We were losing exponentially more people to suicide than we were to all our warfare.
So who are our nation’s veterans?
They are the normal people just like you that signed up for a job that was deadly and life changing. They also signed up for a life long battle with stresses and feelings that normal people will probably never experience.
At a very special dinner that was cooked for me and other veterans at the VA, I was explaining some of my issues to the sweetest old lady, and she told me something that changed my outlook on life.
She said, “If a man can go to a war-torn country and get shot at and blown up and see his friends die and then come home nor- mal, there is something wrong with that guy, not you.”
That impacted me greatly, and she was right.
It is heartbreaking to realize that throughout the history of this country and the 14 major wars we have fought, as well as many minor conflicts, those men throughout history suffered from the same PTSD as those returning home from a modern Iraq and Afghanistan.
What did they do about it?
They resorted to drugs and alcohol, they became homeless.
Many brave men who saved people’s lives and did deeds so heroic they belong in a book, would come home and kill themselves because of the stress they were feeling.
Cliff Waugman, a good friend of mine, a Navy Corpsman who followed the Marines around for an 8 month tour in Iraq from February of 2006 to October of the same year, saw the worst of the worst.
He signed up in the Navy to be a dental technician because in his words, he wanted a job “that had the most women in it.”
Without being asked, he was made a Corpsman, a role which keeps guys alive on the battle- field when they have lost a leg or an arm or have shrapnel wounds through their bodies. Some hap- pened to make it back to the base and be saved. Most did not.
He was a dentist, and he found himself watching kids 19 and 20 years old asking him to tell their mothers that they love them because they were so badly torn to pieces. In eight months, he watched 17 kids die violent deaths, and I don’t know if there is anyone that can make it through that without some kind of help.
Cliff returned home to no fanfare. There was nobody wait- ing for him, and there was no party. He got to the airport, got a cab home and started drinking that night.
He began self medicating. He looked for any way that would ease the nightmares he was experiencing. He had panic attacks, sleep deprivation, hypervigilance, anxiety and flashbacks.
It was when he was visiting his brother in Denver, sitting on a rooftop with a drink in his hand and he came within inches of letting himself go over the rooftop and ending it all, when his child popped into his head, and he knew he needed help. We met in the Veteran’s Administration in Menlo Park, at a program designed for vets with PTSD.
Vietnam Veterans were treated terribly by our citi- zens and our government and have become some of our best advocates. They are bound and determined that what happened to them when they came home, would never happen to another generation of veterans.
It is this very reason that Vietnam Veterans of the Patriot Guard Riders lined both sides of the aisle as I walked down the ramp at the Oakland Airport. They were protecting me, they saw themselves in me, and they gave me the homecoming that they deserved, but never got.
I don’t believe any other country in the world is doing as much for its veterans as the United States is doing right now. Unfortunately, the veterans of today have it so good because we had to crawl on the backs of the veterans who came before us, that never got the care they needed.
As I look back, I begin to reflect on all the wonderful things that people did for me. Organizations that introduced themselves to me and made themselves available to me knowing that there would come a day when I might need their services.
In 2010, at Las Positas College I met Todd Stephan who works diligently and fervently to help veterans here on campus. I continue to struggle but as I grow stronger in myself, it becomes less about me and more about helping the other veterans sitting all alone with their thoughts as their lives descend into chaos.
Their eyes have seen things that thankfully we as Americans will never have to. Veteran’s Day is about remembering every Veteran, and perhaps being grateful for what they gave willingly, and what was forcefully taken from them.