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PTSD: A Tyndall Airman's Story

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Anabel Del Valle
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

This article may contain content that readers may find uncomfortable.

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- “It was one thing to know that something was up with me but it was another to hear a diagnosis,” said Tech. Sgt. Clayton Lenhardt, as he recounts his experience navigating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “Before that moment, I had always thought PTSD only dealt with combat survivors.”

Lenhardt, 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs noncommissioned officer in charge of media operations at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, had never experienced combat but his job as a military photographer and journalist tasked him with documenting several fatal incidents within his 14 years of service.

The first incident, a suicide in the dormitories on base, left then 20-year-old Airman First Class Lenhardt with a different perspective on life. Things that were once normal, like an uneven ceiling fan thumping against the ceiling, turned into emotional triggers.

“Being at the scene was never the issue, it was dealing with it afterwards,” Lenhardt explained. “It was 2011 and the world wasn’t talking about [mental health]. My NCOIC pulled me aside afterwards and said, ‘You’ll remember every detail of your first death scene.’ More than 11 years later, I hate that she was correct.”

A little over a year had passed when Lenhardt got a call that a Humvee had flipped on base, landing on a security forces Airman, and he was needed for photo documentation.  

“[After I finished the shoot] I decided to go to a festival celebrating children with a couple of coworkers for a change of scenery,” Lenhardt recalled. “As we sat there, watching these families have the time of their life, we got the call that the Airman had died on the way to the hospital.”

That day would later be called his “impact trauma” in therapy. Happy events with children and families morphed into a trigger for gruesome memories and the feeling of survivor’s guilt. With no one to understand exactly what he was going through, he turned to excessive amounts of alcohol for comfort while telling himself he was just “taking the edge off.” As photography requests to document deaths continued, so did his drinking habits.

After moving to a new duty station, Lenhardt found himself sleeping on his dad’s couch for months, relying on his brother to remind him to eat and do laundry. He was suffering from short-term memory loss and operating off of less than five hours of sleep a night.

“I would wake up sweating or crying from nightmares,” Lenhardt said. “On the 45-minute drive to work I would think of driving into traffic. I wasn’t thinking about the future because I thought I would be dead soon.”

After a friend notified Lenhardt’s leadership about his nightmares, he was encouraged to visit mental health. When he began showing a fixation on committing suicide, he was referred to an out-of-state clinic for treatment. Six years after his initial death scene, he was finally receiving the help he needed.

During his treatment he journaled about memories he suppressed for years. Group sessions allowed him to see new perspectives and realize he wasn’t alone in his fight to get better.

“It was inspiring to see all of these really good people in really rough spots, knowing they were strong enough to ask for help,” Lenhardt reminisced. “I gained emotional intelligence. I realized that I had no clue what other people could have gone through in life.”

Lenhardt says there are many obstacles that could stop someone from seeking help such as pride or embarrassment, but no matter what reason there is to avoid help, potentially saving their life is more important.

“I remember being a Staff Sgt and I was not expecting to be alive within the next three months,” said Lenhardt. “I never thought I would deploy again because I thought I would be dead.”

Since treatment, Lenhardt has deployed twice, changed duty locations once, and promoted. In his recent support for Operation Allies Welcome, he was able to spend time playing games with children refugees from Afghanistan. He credits them for helping him work through one of his triggers.

“It doesn’t get better overnight,” Lenhardt explained. “I’m good. I’m still getting better. As dreadful as it was in the moment, I am glad I got help.”