Breathe in. Breathe out. If you can.

At some point before I left Afghanistan in 2014 I started feeling like I was having breathing issues. I wasn’t concerned about it at the time, but it was noticeable. My bigger concerns were of other physical problems that I developed over there. And I wasn’t even slightly concerned with my mental health because I had been deployed before. I knew what to expect. But obviously, every deployment is different. And not everything about coming home is the same each time.

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My breathing continued to get worse after returning home. Sometimes it was accompanied by chest pains and lightheadedness. It had become difficult to do even moderately physical work. I wasn’t able to do the things that I used to do with ease and it didn’t seem to be getting better. I was driving to class one day a few months after getting home and the breathing was so bad I felt like I might pass out at the wheel. And my chest hurt. Instead of going to class I went to the emergency room at the local Navy hospital.

They hooked me up to all kinds of equipment, ran tests, did x-rays, and asked me a million questions. In the end, the doctor told me it was most likely anxiety and that I should seek mental health treatment. But before I even got home from there, he had called me and ask if I could come back for more tests and x-rays. They found something on my right lung and wanted to get more images from different angles. So I went back for them to poke and prod at me some more. The doctor confirmed a nodule in my right lung. He told me to follow up with my doctor and have further tests done. He wouldn’t speculate if it was serious or not, that a specialist would have to do that.

I waited a year before having it looked at again. I was in a downward spiral in my life at that time and didn’t really care about my health, physical or mental. That part of my life is documented in other previous blog posts. After my failed suicide attempt I decided that if I was going to live, I might as well have my lungs looked at. The doctor at the VA was a complete moron and should in no way be a doctor for veterans. He finally agreed to order tests for me after he realized that I already had some findings from the Navy hospital. During the phone consultation following the first test he informed me that the nodule was small and probably nothing to worry about, that there would be a follow up test in six months. He didn’t know that I already had a copy of the report. So I asked about the second finding in the report, COPD. And he asked, “Oh, are you having breathing problems?” I went off on him, I lost my temper right there. I reminded him that was the whole reason for my appointment before the tests. I couldn’t breathe. Moron!!

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He ordered more tests. Somehow those tests didn’t show any COPD. I guess my breathing problems are all in my head. However, I have documents showing how bad the air quality was in Kabul, where I was at for the majority of my time in Afghanistan. One document from 2009 states, “Kabul air has reached toxic levels….three to 7.5 times higher than WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines for acceptable level of exposure.” In a 2012 letter from Senator Ron Wyden to the Secretary of Defense he points out that “Kabul ranks near the top of worldwide rankings of hazardous airborne contaminants.” But maybe my breathing issues are in my head since the VA can’t find what’s there.

For those of you who have ever dealt with the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), you know it’s a broken system. Often times dealing with them is like getting slapped in the face, especially when the doctor I have is an ass and should not be dealing with veterans. Another slap in the face was when I recently filled out the paperwork for release of information from providers outside the VA to go along with my updated claim. I got a letter from them saying that even though I filled out the paperwork, it’s my responsibility to make sure they get the requested documents. Is that an ongoing problem? Do hospitals and doctors say no to the VA when requesting information? But I don’t have enough to worry about, so I’m glad the VA told me they aren’t responsible for receiving the documents I requested. Really, I was running out of shit to worry about. Morons.

This is a frustrating system to be drowning in. The bureaucracy involved is ludicrous. The lack of accountability is appalling. The number of veterans that die while waiting for care is growing. I vented to my psychologist about this and he asked me why I’m focused on fixing the VA instead of just getting done what I need to get done. He admits that the VA cannot be fixed. I don’t know about the other branches of the military, but in the Army we never leave a fallen comrade. I’ll get what’s due to me eventually. And I will continue to use my voice to help others lost in a broken system of ineptitude so as not leave someone else behind. But I can only make so much noise by myself.

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If you served in Kabul or Bagram and want a copy of the documents I have, let me know. If you have something helpful to share about this, let us all know.

This is frustrating to me. Why won’t they help? Why won’t they listen? Why won’t they look at the evidence that’s out there? It’s dealing with this kind of bullshit that doesn’t help my PTSD, anxiety, anger management, or hopefulness that I will get the treatment I need. This is where many veterans lose the will to fight the system. We can’t win, so what’s the use in spending time and energy on a losing cause? But I’d still go do it all again if asked. Even knowing what I know now.

Thanks for reading my rant. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Yard Work and Running

Yard work has never been my favorite thing to do. But the last few months I’ve been doing yard work 2 to 3 days a week, sometimes more. I have begun to look at yard work in a therapeutic way. I think of it in a way similar to my mandated daily outpatient sessions last year that I didn’t want to do, but I had to. If I were going to get better, I had to go to therapy sessions. Plus, it was a condition of my release from the hospital. I hate doing yard work, but if the yard is going to look better, I have to do it. And I need something to occupy my time the way running used to.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to run. That was always my preferred therapy for everything. If I had a bad day at work, I could come home and go for a run and feel better. If I had a good at work, I could come home and go for a run and feel great. Running was my alone time. Just me and my thoughts. No ear buds with music, rarely a running partner, no fancy GPS. Just me, my thoughts, and the road. I had routes that I knew the distances and my wrist watch to keep time.

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I would log my runs on a fitness website and track my pace and miles for the month and year. I set goals and tried to achieve them. I was only in competition with myself. Even most of the races I ran, I only competed against myself, whether it was a distance race, mud run, or triathlon. I liked the challenge of pushing myself and seeing what I was able to accomplish. I was never the fastest, but I was committed and could push myself for miles and miles. I loved exploring my limits. And I miss how running kept me in shape.

With yard work, there’s nothing to track. There’s nothing to compete against with myself. Does anyone care if I mowed the yard faster this time as opposed to last time? I don’t. And if you do, well, you might need some help. LOL. The only ones that notice my yard work are the guys that come by weekly with the truck to remove the yard waste I put by the curb. Most weeks there’s a good amount. I’m sure those guys hate me by now. Maybe they’re tracking it. Maybe they have a chart of houses where they pick up from and I’m at the top of the list for most yard waste. I’ll have to ask them next week.

My yard looks 10 times better than it did a few months ago. I’ve cut down 3 trees, trimmed others, mowed, raked, pulled weeds, clean some vines from some of the fences, transplanted grass in hopes it will grow in spots that grass is not growing. It’s a lot of work and I’m not sure I enjoy the yard work, but I am enjoying the progress I see in my yard. That helps motivate me to keep doing it. But no matter what, yard work will never fully take the place of running for me. But for now, it will have to suffice as a substitute, something to get me outside and active.

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I really need to get back to working on my book. I’ve put it on a back burner for too long for now. I need to get back to working on my blog more seriously and coming up with better topics. I haven’t run out of things to write, but I am selective in what I chose to share right now. If any of you that have been following me for a while, or even just recently found Story of My Life, and have a topic suggestion or question, let me know. I might find some inspiration in it. Until next week….

Thanks for reading. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Hostage Negotiator or Hostage Taker?

This week my twin girls participated in the local Sheriff’s Youth Week. It’s a program for middle school students that want to learn more about how the sheriff’s department operates and all the different jobs within the department. They learn about detective work, physical fitness, tools of the trade, and a host of other things. The week culminated Friday with a field day style event with all the parts of the sheriff’s department, the fire department, and EMS team, a helicopter, horses, and military representation from the local Air Force, Army, and Coast Guard bases. It was quite a show, a very impressive set up. My girls visited all the displays with their friends while I watched from the tables in the shaded area, occasionally talking to a fellow parent about the heat or the annoying noise of the sirens from the different police and military vehicles at the event.

On the drive home my girls told me how much fun they had. One of the twins was very excited about the hostage negotiation set up. They took turns being the negotiator and being the hostage taker. She went into detail about both parts and finished up by saying, “Dad, I was a lot better at being the hostage taker than the negotiator.” I don’t know if I should be pleased that she’s a badass or scared. Haha. She’s youngest of six (technically only by one minute to her twin, but still the youngest). At the bottom of that totem pole, I would imagine that negotiating doesn’t come near as easy as taking hostages would. My twins are some of the sweetest, kindest girls you could meet, but they are both competitive and into athletics. And apparently, they can flip the switch when needed.

The last couple of years I have felt like a hostage to my mind. I used to be more of a negotiator in life, being able to handle things and finding resolutions to conflicts. Now I negotiate with my mind by going to therapy, taking my medications, and writing. It’s a slow negotiation with some days making good progress, some days going in reverse, and some days not wanting to negotiate at all. But it’s a negotiation I have to stay in actively. It’s a negotiation I have to win. But I am both the hostage and the negotiator. I am on both sides, trying to figure out how win.

Part of my issue lately is the things I need to do well at, I’m getting better at. The things I need to change, I’m doing worse at. It’s like I’m going in opposite directions from myself. I’m doing better with taking care of myself and my kids. I’m doing worse with dealing with society, stupid people, and my anger. I’m trying to negotiate with myself to be better when I go out in the world, to be able to be better sociably. I’m not there yet. I’m still trying to figure out how to negotiate that. I want to be better, but I want to protect myself. If I negotiate with myself to something out of my comfort zone, I leave myself vulnerable. If I stay in my own little world, I won’t get better.

I am the negotiator and the hostage, stuck in my own mind. But unlike my daughter, I don’t much care for being either one right now. But I will continue to figure it out. A couple steps forward, a couple steps back. One day at a time.

Thanks for reading. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Memories and Afghanistan

My memory is horrible. It has been for a while. I missed my most recent appointment with my psychologist because I forgot what day it is. Forgetting what day it is happens to me frequently, but missing an appointment, or even being late, is absolutely not normal. It’s not just days, but also months and years. I sometimes have to confirm what year it is because I’m not sure. Not long ago I was at my kid’s school filling out a form for one of them. I filled it out, signed and dated it, and gave it back to the lady at the desk. She looked it over, handed it back, and asked that I correct the date before she put her notary stamp on it. I looked at the date I wrote and asked was it not the 21st? She said, “It’s the 21st. It’s just not September.” It was February. I had no idea why I thought it was September.

I’m not sure why, but I can remember things like numbers, movie lines, songs, years that something significant happened in history, baseball statistics, directions (most of the time), and a bunch of other trivial nonsense. I would make some money on the game show Jeopardy. But other things in my memories seem to escape my mental grasp. For some things it’s like a blank slate. It annoys me, but I’ve gotten used to it. It has become part of my new normal.

In the last meeting with my psychologist I remembered something that I had previously completely forgotten. The memory was triggered when we were discussing an event that happened between therapy sessions. An event that had me pissed off to the point that I almost got into a physical altercation with someone. I wanted to. I really wanted that guy to get out of his car and give me a real reason to get out of mine. I would have likely done permanent damage to the individual. I just needed him to start the physical aggression. He had already started the verbal attack. But I didn’t let myself get baited into it, even though I really wanted to. Short of the story was this guy was trying to exit a one lane, one-way, entrance only driveway to the school, as school was ending. Imagine the traffic piling up on the road behind me as I had no place to go. It was getting chaotic, especially in my head. Being trapped like that isn’t the best scenario for someone with PTSD.

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The memory that was brought on by this event was something that happened in Afghanistan. I was in Kabul, going from my base to one called Phoenix with the USFOR-A chaplain team (my unit eventually stopped letting me go on missions with them, but that’s a whole different story). I was in the front passenger seat of an up-armored NTV (non-tactical vehicle). It was only me and the driver in the lead vehicle and two others in the rear vehicle. The driver and I were having a normal conversation like we usually did. Probably talking about going to Green Beans or Pizza Hut. Our base didn’t have those kinds of things, so when we traveled we always talked about what we were going to treat ourselves to. Here’s how the conversation ended up going:

     Driver: “Shit, we took the wrong road.”

     Me: “Maybe this one comes back out where we can get back on the other one.”

     A few second go by as we come around a curve to a pickup truck in the road with 8-10 pissed-off-looking dudes in the back with AK-47s.

     Me: “Turn around, man. Turn the fuck around!”

     Driver: “I’m trying, there’s no spot.”

     Me: “Make one!”

     The men took notice of us, although they made no aggressive moves. We immediately made a place to turn around. They probably thought we looked stupid and laughed after we left the area.

     Driver: “I don’t think they’re going to bother us, they would already be coming after us by now.”

     Me: “You think they’ll give us directions?”

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I had completely forgotten about that event until my therapy session a couple weeks ago. I wonder what else is trapped in my head that I don’t remember. It was a weird feeling to have that memory come back like that. I clearly remember that day now, but for the last couple years it’s like it never existed. It’s not uncommon for most of the Afghans to have AK-47s. But to see a group of men in the back of a truck that looked like they were organizing for something and ready to go, on a road we weren’t supposed to be on was a bit unnerving at the time. It certainly can lend some explanation to me feeling uncomfortable in stand-still traffic. As long as we’re moving, I’m ok. But long stops with a lot of other vehicles around makes me nervous. That’s what happened with the jackass going the wrong way out the entrance, I felt trapped.

I have thoughts in my head that I’m not sure sometimes if they are part of a memory of an event or part of a dream I’ve had. Maybe both. But I know I miss my memory. Well, I think I do. I guess I don’t really know, do I? LOL. I make a lot of jokes about my memory not being so great anymore. I can’t remember shit sometimes, but at least I can laugh about it. I’ve rescheduled my appointment with the psychologist for next week. Don’t let me forget.

Thanks for reading. Good day, God bless.

Dave