Battling a lifetime of trauma

  • Published
  • By Sgt. Shane Smith
  • 325th Fighter Wing

The month of June brings focus to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as recognizing men’s mental health awareness. There has been a shift in culture over the years to bring focus to these topics and paved the way for service members to get the help they need to better themselves and remain mentally healthy while serving in the military.

I have and continue to seek treatment through mental health.  I wanted to share my story and provide a voice for those struggling with mental health and let them know there are resources out there to help.  I have chosen to go with a pseudonym to tell my story but keep information private as I continue to progress in my mental health journey.  In 2019, I started getting treatment for Complex-PTSD and trauma-related Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

My trauma started when I was young. My childhood was extremely rough.  I won’t go into the details of my time before the military, but it is not a situation I would want anyone in.  I had no escape plan, but my grandfather ushered me to join the military and break away from the situation I was in.  I honestly owe the military, because it saved my life, though the journey has not been easy and experience in my early career contributed to the decline in mental health.

I started my career as Security Forces overseas, for my first tour, I dealt with suicides, deaths, child malnourishment and even received head trauma from combative suspects.  I then had a change of assignment to Dyess AFB. In 2005, I was in Gulfport, Mississippi visiting my family when Hurricane Katrina hit, trapping me for 3 weeks in a Disaster Zone.  I ended in a fight for my life, received head trauma when someone was trying to siphon and steal gas out of my truck.  Serving in Security Forces after 9/11, the pace and turnover on deployments was extremely high.  I did not even have time to unpack my bags because we were already bound for deployment. The leadership in the squadron were toxic, whom routinely threatened unit members whoever tried to seek medical help.   If a member was ever put on a medical profile, even for something minor and acute, the leadership would assume they were trying to get out of a deployment and would take direct action to negatively affect their careers. 

I pressed on and was sent to detainee operations training with the US Army in Texas.  During training, one of my coworkers contracted the Hantavirus and died.  We just kept going and lived in the same barracks where he contracted the virus.  We then arrived at Camp Bucca, Iraq, where we were responsible in securing over 20,000 Iraqi prisoners.  We routinely dealt with riots, violence, and death.  One time, I remember a detainee was attacked, stabbed through his windpipe, shanked all over is his body and beaten in the back of the head.  We tried to provide first aid until the medics arrived, but we realized his skull and skin flap was literally cracked open, where he bled all over me. I have never seen any like that before, even though he was an enemy POW, any loss of life is tragic. 

After returning home from deployment, I was already scheduled to deploy again.  During a medical appointment I was put on a precautionary profile while some skin cancer tests were being run.  Before I even made it back to the squadron after the appointment, my leadership knew and immediately pulled me into the office, called me a malingerer and made accusations that I was trying to get out of the deployment, which was not true. Couple months later, I arrived in Balad, Iraq (aka, mortaritaville), where we had to respond to 3-6 mortar attacks a day, by locating the munitions and wait till EOD disposes or destroys them.  After returning, I started to notice weird actions in myself.  Loud noises were an issue, I had a fear of being around other people, sleep issues, I lost 30lbs of weight, I had no idea what was wrong with me.  In 2008, I didn’t even know what PTSD was, all I knew was I couldn’t seek help, or I would have to face the wrath of my leadership.

A year later, I deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan working with OSI tasked with conducting counterinsurgency operations. We completed over 100 outside the wire missions, operating from Kabul to the northern Afghanistan, and towards Pakistan.  We removed numerous weapon caches, enemy insurgents from the Base Security Zone. On numerous occasions we were exposed to IEDs, during one point we found out about a targeted ambush waiting for us where an Army unit who we couldn’t communicate with, ended up being attacked first.  On 19 May 2010, we responded to a complex attack by ~30 insurgents, who penetrated the base perimeter.   After that deployment the OCD started, which at the time, I had no idea what that even was.  I would check and lock my doors repeatedly, I would flip light switches on & off a certain number of times whenever entering or leaving a room, I eventually started to wash my hands for 15-20 minutes anytime I felt contaminated, and I would count everything; it was a whole waste of my day.  I ended up divorced from my wife who I shared a son with. I battled with these symptoms alone for years because I was afraid to be put on a do-not-arm roster or being looked down on if I did seek help.  I kept it in, but it affected everything I did. I ended up meeting my current wife during this time and in 2019, she told me I needed to seek help.

I started talking to a psychiatrist and therapist, was put on medication, which helped me gain some control over my life.  Unfortunately, in 2022, while stationed in Germany, my son and I were involved in a bad sledding accident.  On the mountain’s downhill course, I lost complete visibility after wind and snow completely covered air in the area, we hit something and flipped in air.  When I came too, my son was lying face down in the snow, knocked out and not moving, I thought he was dead. I flipped him over, blood covered all over his face, he woke up and started screaming. I ran him down the mountain, over a mile to get medical help. Prior to the medivac, he said “Dad, I can’t see.” He was diagnosed with Indirect Optic Neuropathy, no light perception in the right eye.  From what the doctors have told us, he will be blind forever in his eye.

This was the most traumatic experience for me, the fact I got my son hurt.  I was progressing after seeking help, but all my symptoms started to come back.  I have continued to seek therapy.  The leadership now in Security Forces is very supportive, on all levels, not just for me, but even the younger Airmen coming in.  Getting help is no longer the stigma it was when I joined over 15 years ago.  We didn’t have the knowledge we had back then to be able to help people and recognize when things were wrong.  The culture has changed.

I’m still working through all the trauma I’ve experienced in my life.  The underlying C-PTSD brought on the OCD as I was not able to contain those emotions and my body took over to help me cope with it.  As I get a grasp on one, the impacts of the PTSD can become greater, so it’s a learning process and is not fixed by one single thing.  It’s a treatment plan and it takes time.

If you have symptoms, get help.  I bottled it up for a very long time and now I have more issues because of it. If you aren’t ready to see a psychologist, there are life coaches and chaplains on base who can help you get better. You don’t have to fight and hide it alone anymore, talk to someone. 

**Military members have access to mental health resources such as Military OneSource, counseling services, support groups, crisis hotlines and confidential therapy sessions. Service members can visit their local mental heath clinic, Military Family and Readiness Center or review the Mental Health Overview for clinical and non-clinical resources.**