April 21, 2013

Seconds Away From Suicide: Readily Will I Display...

On the 5th of April, I burned my wrist pretty badly while making some home-brew. My wife had the car at the time, but, before I would even call for help, I had to clean the wort off the floor (wort is beer before yeast is added). I saved all of the wort so I could finish that batch. The Ranger creed may seem like a silly mechanism to discuss suicide, but the Ranger creed is what saved my life when I had loaded gun in my hand. This example of me cleaning up my mess before even calling someone in order to go to the emergency room illustrates just how the sixth stanza of the Ranger is webbed into fabric of my being. It is what prevented me from taking my own life.

Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on the the Ranger objective and complete my mission, though I be the lone survivor. Rangers lead the way.

After I came home from the Surge, I could no longer conceal the problems I had for years. In crowds, I got so overwhelmed that I would almost pass out. I had to stop driving because I almost ran off the road twice, when I thought there were IEDS. Panic attacks almost made me lose consciousness. The mTBI symptoms were worse then, limited spatial awareness and vertigo characterized my life. When my neurologist recommended an inpatient program, my battalion executive officer told the personnel officer that he did "not have time to deal with a Captain with PTSD and mTBI," while I sat outside his office. I was the most battle tested officer in that battalion, and I felt like Boxer from Animal Farm: once I was used up, my battalion was happy to ship me off to the glue factory. My doctor stuck to his guns and I went to an inpatient program in Richmond, Virginia, and then in Salisbury, North Carolina. During my hospitalization my ex-wife decided that her chemistry professor was a better choice.

Needless to say, life was not going well and I was leaving the Army just days after getting out of a hospital. I was packing up my home to put it on the market when I looked at a Beretta pistol. Why not end it all right now? The unit I fought in for years thought I was a piece of shit, my family had not even seen me after I came home, and my wife was shopping around for a replacement. I still had the hospital bracelet on and now I was about to be on the street alone. No pay, no purpose, no family, no support at all. Just alone in my thoughts. I cocked the gun, but before I could lift it up my Ranger brain took to action.

The flood of the, stress chemical, cortisol, was something I had become accustomed to using in combat. In most cases you use the surge of cortisol to fight or fly, but as an officer I employed it to think through outcomes. When I held that gun in my hand I thought through what would happen. The Army would do nothing... I would just be another number. Maybe friends might find out, and be more sensitive when they had soldiers struggling with PTSD.  Probably not though, they always had their soldiers' best interests at mind. My mother would be devastated, but my father would just write my suicide into his latest narrative of war making me a sinner, and turning me against God.

Serendipitously, my boots from Ranger school were in my eye-line and reminded me of what I was capable of handling. Sure I wanted all of that to end, but I felt that way in Ranger school too. I used to say to myself, "I don't want to quit, I just want this to end." When you're walking in the middle of a swamp no one is coming in with a jungle penetrator to take you home. I would just make it to the next rest halt. This was the same, but what was the point? What was my purpose anymore? I left the Army because I wanted to make a difference with my pen. All of my "disabilities" were going to make that nearly impossible. So you're saying there is a chance. I was never a smart Ranger anyway, I was always a tough one. Everyday I was at sick call getting something drained, taking crazy low distribution antibiotics, getting all the skin taken of the bottom of my foot, yet everyday I would smile while humming the Ranger school hymn, "I'll Fly Away."

I knew how to find my way in misery; without thought I dropped the magazine, removed all the rounds and threw them into the woods. At the time I had no idea of what my mission was, but I was damn sure going to fight onto that objective. The whole world seemed to have turned on me, but, so what, just hum that hymn, drive on and somewhere in the process I will figure out how to get better, or learn how to enjoy the suck. I kept one Ranger school boot on my desk and one on my dresser so I would always be able to remember what I was capable of overcoming.

I can't tell you why things got so bad for me, but what I do know is that I did nothing to cause it or deserve it. I certainly am not weaker than I was before. If anything I am tougher mentally than my body is physically, and I should take it easier when my body is giving me queues like "Hey stupid, your wrist has second degree burns on it... someone else can clean the floor later on."  More importantly, when you have stepped up to save your own life, every milestone gets a little sweeter. My relentless mission focus is, more often, an annoying characteristic that pushes me way too  hard, but it also brought me through the most difficult time in my life. A time when I had no support at all. Now when I hold my wife, play with my dog, drink with my friends, and work with my colleagues, I am so grateful for the man that pushed on when there was no indication that I could never make a positive impact on the lives of others again.

You can see my burn and Darby's awesomeness
When we were kids we never think that, "seconds away from suicide," would end up on our bucket list, but I am so happy that I had the courage to live on unashamed. I have been lucky enough to put more on my bucket list after that day than I would have had the courage to dream of as a child. I hated Ranger school, but, like in combat, its ideals have never let me down when the world becomes dangerous or chaotic. It is often said that the Army never trained us for coming home, and that is generally correct, but it did teach us values. Learning to translate core values into a life out of uniform saved my life, and I would be lost without things like the Army Values, Warrior Ethos, and the Ranger creed. The road home is not easy and it sucks more often than not, but that doesn't mean that its is not something you can't enjoy or find fulfilling. It certainly beats Ranger School.

April 15, 2013

Remembering The Boston Marathon Attack: There Were More Heroes than Villains Today

A Veteran from TRWB using his shirt as a bandage
It is often assumed that the memory of an event is solely based on what actually happened, rather than a process that occurs overtime and through a purposeful process. Like many other veterans, this day was harder for me because all the images of carnage conjured up memories of similar tragedies. I have been watching the images and has sent me back to the aftermaths of suicide bomber attacks on civilians. That is my weight to bear and is less important than trying to make sense of days like today. All of the television footage of the explosions do not hold a candle to what was actually experienced.

With the shock-wave of high explosives sensations of heat and concussion hit you before your brain can process the image. So the television cameras are less of  an expression of the actual experience, instead, they provide an illusion of clarity. When you see people still running forward its because their brains haven't even put two and two together yet. It is worse for the injured because they are physically affected by the injuries prior to even full rationalization of what is happening.

When you come to a location after a bombing, people have almost no understanding of their injuries. The adrenaline of the attack will cover up the pain, but there is still such a look of terror. I was just standing here and there was this loud noise, heat, pain, and I am now on the ground. The emotional shock of the event almost overpowers the physical aspects until the chemical groups that manage adrenaline fade away. Medical professionals call this the golden hour. Shell Shock was the moniker of the First World War because it speaks to the confusion and chaos that goes on in the brain in the wake of explosions like today's. These chemicals often damage memory and will always make these memories difficult without the tragic nature of their content.

Watching the images of people on the ground just looking around aimlessly illustrates how the events are much more chaotic for people present. The capturing of multiple still images does very little to capture it. Just think of the smell of it. You never forget those smells and anything that reminds me of the smell of burning flesh make me sick for weeks.

Despite the horror and misery that these poor runners and bystanders absorbed today, no justice for the terrorist(s) who did this will make it right. The important part of the narrative that will diminish over time is the human capacity for compassion illustrated by this tragedy. It is important that we remember the good that was demonstrated today. Watch the video. One person or a small group of people did this, but before the smoke cleared people were running to help. You could see some bleeding themselves and doing all they could to save others.

That doesn't make everything better, but when things like this happen it is important to note that when one or maybe ten people conspire to do something this terrible, hundreds of people will rush into that danger to help others. There is no divorcing today's attack from the tragic impact it has made on the lives of the injured, but it is another reminder that their will always be many more people rushing to help. Some people have no problem doing terrible things to innocent people, but more people will fight to help the injured. In senseless tragedies we see the worst of a few people, but the best of so many more. It doesn't make the suffering from today's events any less acute, but it does speak to the human spirit and how we can stand in the face of tragedy. In the coming weeks we are going to be bombarded with what went wrong today, and I am sure there may be some finite oversights that could have prevented this. However, there were many more good people stepping up as heroes than there were terrorists using the misery of the innocent to draw attention to their cause. We would be wise not to forget this hard earned fact, that many more first responders and bystanders did all they could to save lives today.