Finally!!!!

I’ve written many times over the years about my struggles with the Department of Veterans Affairs.  Finally, one of my ongoing battles with the VA is coming to an end.  I’ve waited more than six years to get my foot fixed and it was operated on yesterday.  Better late than never I suppose.  But that was more than six years of extra pain to deal with.  Fighting with the VA about what you’ve earned and deserve can, and usually is, an exhausting undertaking. 

In 2013, I was in the belly of a plane loading bags for our trip to Ft Hood for pre-deployment training prior to heading to Afghanistan.  We were tossing bags to each other as they come up the conveyor ramp.  Toss, catch, turn, toss, turn, catch repeat.  As I went to catch one of the duffle bags, it hit my chest, slipped through my arms, and slammed my foot.  The Kevlar helmet that was packed in the top of the bag crushed my toe.  Turns out it wasn’t broken, but it was definitely not well.  It’s been swollen ever since.

After arriving at Ft Hood, “Doc” sent me to get it looked at.  X-rays showed it was not broken, but had in fact exacerbated an issue that I didn’t even know I had.  My foot had good days and bad days after the injury.  Sometimes it was bearable and sometimes it was excruciating.  And without a doubt, having to favor that foot created other issues.  Like when I injured my hip getting out of a helicopter and rocky ground. Now I was having to favor my right foot and left hip.  It was bad enough that the doctor at my little base wanted to send me to Germany for treatment then home.  I declined.  I wanted to finish what I started with my fellow Soldiers that we began the previous year.  But if I had taken the doctor’s advice, I wouldn’t have had to wait six years to get my foot fixed.  But I don’t regret my decision.

The hardest part in this battle with the VA had been getting them to acknowledge that my injury was service-connected.  Even with medical documents from the hospital at Ft Hood, the VA was denying that my injury was service-connected.  It wasn’t until 2018 that the VA sent me a letter saying (and I’m paraphrasing) “Oops, my bad, your foot is our problem.”  That’s what I’ve been telling you for years!  With the documentation I had, it really should have been an open and shut case.  But, being a reservist, sometimes we get swept under the rug.  And the Army didn’t do me any favors.  As we were out-processed at Ft Hood after coming back from Afghanistan, we were told that unless it’s a life-threatening injury we would be passed on to the VA.  I was examined before leaving Ft Hood and the doctor told me what needed to be done. He wrote it down.  It was in my records.  But the Army didn’t want to do it and the VA denied that it was their problem to fix.

Eventually I wasn’t able to get around like I used to.  Couldn’t run.  Couldn’t pass the Army physical fitness test.  I was eventually medically retired, which turned out to be a good thing.  But all the physical issues and poor self-image I developed from my physical decline only added to the downward spiral I was going through in life.  That led to a failed suicide attempt and being diagnosed with PTSD, major depression, and all the wonderful things that go along with that.  The deterioration of my body played a big role in my mental health.  The Army not fixing me and VA denying me made it feel like an insufferable weight.  I hit rock bottom.  Thankfully I failed and am still here today.

Yesterday, the doctor cut open my big toe, shaved some bone, took some bone out, sewed me back up.  Not only is my foot fixed and on its way to recovery to where I can hopefully fully function again, the VA hooked me up with a civilian doctor.  Turns out the Covid problem shut down all non-life-threatening surgeries being done by the VA when I started this process.  My VA pediatrist asked me if I would like them to see if a civilian doctor would do it.  For those of you that have dealt with military or VA doctors I don’t need to tell you how fast I jumped at that option.  I know I painted that last sentence with a wide brush, but there are more bad doctors than good ones at the VA so it’s easy to lump them all in the same group of being subpar. 

I’m off for at least the next three weeks from work.  I’ve been saving my vacation and sick leave for this.  I can’t drive until after my second follow-up appointment when the doctor will remove my stitches.  I’ll just be sitting on the couch eating snacks if you need me.  I have 150 channels or so on cable, a couple streaming sources, and more DVDs than anyone should own in 2020.  Who wants to bet I can’t find anything to watch?  LOL.  I’m getting around well on my crutches.  Last time I was on crutches they were made of wood.  I guess I’m old now.  The surgery shoe is not comfortable, but I have to leave it on until the stitches come out.  I’ll be sleeping on the couch because I don’t want to climb the stairs to the bedrooms for a few days. 

I want to thank my daughter for babysitting me yesterday, getting me to and from surgery, picking up my meds, making me lunch.  My girlfriend is also taking care of me and spoiling me.  I’ll be back to doing a few easy things around the house in a few days.  But I’m taking advantage of this downtime for the time being.  I will rest my body and let it heal.

Healing is important.  And it’s all tied together, both physical and mental.  I had to learn that a few years ago the hard way.  And I do much better now in my understanding that you must take care of both.  Each has its own time table which can be frustrating because physical and mental injuries can’t always heal at the same pace but they can have a huge impact on each other.  Take care of yourselves.  Take time to let yourself heal when needed.  And go easy on yourself when it seems overwhelming.

Thanks for stopping by today.  Good day, God Bless.

Dave

I Miss the Old Me

It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted to my blog. Almost a year and a half now. I’m not sure where the time went. I know that when I paused my writing, it was only supposed to be a short pause. The first month or two was just to take a break from writing. Maybe a time to refresh my mind, think of new topics, or expand my creativity. By the third month of not writing my brain was nagging me about it. Friends that followed my blog were asking if I were still writing and if I were ok. Then somewhere around six months without posting, it simply became easy to ignore it and not write. I miss writing.

But missing writing isn’t what this post is about. First, let me catch you up on the last 17 months. The divorce went final. The army medically retired me. The Department of Veterans Affairs finally acknowledged some of my claims they had been declining even though I had documentation. I tried to be in a relationship again. That didn’t work. I got a “new” truck. Bought it used, but it’s pretty nice. I’m still at the job I started just before I stopped posting here. That is going very well. My New Orleans Saints were blatantly robbed of going to the Super Bowl a year ago. But on a more recent and triumphant note, my LSU Tigers are now the undisputed heavy weight champions of the college football world. Geaux Tigers.

Back to the reason for this post. I miss the old me. There were things I did back then that I can’t do as well now. There was a confidence from the core of my soul that seemed to faded over time. I had unlimited potential until I hit rock bottom. I feared nothing. I could convey my thoughts easily and not struggle to put the words in the right order like I do sometimes now. My memory was intact for the most part, now it’s hit and miss with everyday things. And I don’t ever remember having anxiety or serious bouts of depression years ago. While the debilitating moments of depression rarely visit now, anxiety is still a daily battle, but not bad.

I started sharing my thoughts and stories here in 2016, of war, suicide, PTSD, and all the things that go with those side effects of my life. It was a form of self-care and personal therapy, a way to get it all out and explore what was going on in my head. It turned into more than I ever imagined it would. And it was good for me. I wrote almost every week. Sometimes it would be a couple weeks in between posts, but for the most part I stuck to it. It was my outlet. I needed it; it became part of me. And I miss that.

Is missing the old me bad? I’ll never be the person I was before. I’ve lost some things, both physically and mentally. I will never get back some parts of the me that have vanished over time. Some of it is from going to war, some it is from getting older. The toll war took on my body and mind certainly amplify the effects of getting older. But I think much of what I deal with and have dealt with the last 6 years is from going to war. I refuse to accept that everything I am going though is from getting older, but I know that plays into it. And of course, growing up is not an option. I don’t plan on doing that.

Ultimately, I accept that I am different and will never be the same man I was before my life changed; changes coming from going to war and other changes attributed to the pains of getting older. But you want to know something cool? I embrace it. Accepting it is one thing, but I embrace it. This has been a new challenge in life that I look forward to each day. And that took a while, years actually. But I now embrace that I am not who I was. And I love the new me. I am learning things about myself that otherwise I never would have known. I’ve never been a fan a change, but if I fight it, it will only be harder on me. That, my friends, is from personal experience and I believe in some cases you just have to roll with it and accept change. Not gonna lie, it was scary, and still is.

I miss the old me. But I also love the new me. I wish I could do some of the things I used to be able to do. But I have new challenges each day and opportunities to learn about myself, to explore my new limits, to continue the journey of me. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I feel like I conquer the world. But I’m at peace with the past and with what the future holds, even if I don’t remember all of the past and have no idea what’s coming. I miss the old me, I love the new me. Life is good.

Thanks for stopping by Story of My Life. Good day, God bless.

Dave

I’ll Do My Best

I finish many of my conversations by saying “I’ll do my best.” Usually when someone tells me to have a good day, sleep well, have fun, or some other well-wishing suggestion, I respond with, “I’ll do my best.” And I mean it. It is a misnomer of sorts, in that I can’t always achieve my best, but I try and that’s the point. Sometimes my best is pretty good and sometimes it falls way short. I think “my best” can be characterized as an ultraviolet light wave. It goes up and down; and depending on where I’m at in the wave cycle depends on what “my best” will be at any given time or circumstance. And, like the ultraviolet light waves, it’s invisible to the naked eye. Sometimes I don’t even know what “my best” will be until it’s time to find out.

Doing my best isn’t always easy. And sometimes I fake it, or I realize during an event that I need to not lose my cool and adjust to a situation. That happened a couple of times last month. First, I was rear-ended on the job. I stopped at a red light, the young lady behind me did not stop in time. It was very minor, barely worth mentioning, but since I was in a city truck for work, a police report had to be made. I watched in the rearview mirror as smoke rose from the road because she locked up her brakes and the tires screeched. I prepared for impact. It ended up being just enough of a jolt to shake my truck. I was momentarily enraged. I’ve written many times here that traffic and driving are a trigger for my PTSD. But by the time we pulled off the road I calmed myself and handled the situation well.

More recently, as I had laid down one night to go to bed, I heard a commotion outside in the parking lot of the condo complex I live at. After about five minutes of listening to the yelling, I decided to go outside and see what was going on. I wasn’t happy about this. When I got outside I saw a young man holding a baseball bat and two young ladies walking away from him. At that point I went from being not happy to thinking I might have to take the bat from that guy and beat him with it. And in my mind as I saw him, I had already disabled the threat. I walked straight up to the guy staring at him the whole time. Two steps away from him, he dropped the bat and put his hands up by his shoulders. He continued to yell until the cops arrived despite my suggestions that he shut up and go back to his condo. Right before the cops showed up he bent down to pick up the bat. I was very calm and clear, but firm and direct in both tone and language, when I told him what the consequences would be if he picked it back up. Fortunately, especially for him, it didn’t come to that.

In both of those instances I did my best. I had to work on it very hard in a very short amount of time. I had only a few seconds each time to realize where my mindset was going and change course. I did good for the most part. But here’s the side effects of doing my best sometimes when I’m not ready to. After the minor wreck and all the waiting and paperwork was over, I had a splitting headache the rest of the day. Forcing myself to calm down in that situation created a lot of stress and anxiety that I carried the rest of the day. I handled the event well, but the rest of my day was horrible. As far as the baseball bat incident goes, I kept my cool enough to not harm that guy even when he bent over to pick up the bat again. After the cops interviewed me about what I saw, I filled out a police report as requested, and was free to go back to bed. The problem was I couldn’t fall asleep. My adrenaline was still going until 1 a.m. I kept replaying it all in my mind, even the part about pulverizing the guy which never even happened. I only got about four hours of sleep before I had to be back at work.

I understand why I dealt with those two events the way I did and had “side effects” afterwards. That’s how I, and many others, dealt with things at war. Focus, get the job done, keep your cool, don’t go crazy, know your surroundings, know all the rules of engagement. But when an incident or attack happens we end up with loads of energy and adrenaline spikes coupled with not knowing the outcome of a situation as it’s happening or having to be prepared to fight at any given time, whether we’re needed or not. It’s stressful. Unlike the two things that happened last month where I could process the events shortly after they happened, I waited until coming home from Afghanistan to process it all. That was dangerous, but I hardly had a choice. And the side effects of waiting until I got back from war were catastrophic. Failed suicide attempt, diagnosed with PTSD, depression, anxiety, unsociable, jumpy, anger issues. The list could go on and on.

Some days are harder than others, but I’m getting there. And I’ll end here as I do many of my conversations, I’ll do my best. Thanks for stopping by. Good day, God bless.

Dave

You Don’t See Me

I had a conversation with the new Command Sergeant Major at my army reserve battalion. It was a little one-sided. Those of you who have served in the military know what I’m talking about. I’m coming up on the end of my military career in the reserves, an ending that is not as much my choice as it is the army’s. With that said, I’m a little less likely to hold my tongue than I might have before. I’m still respectful, I just don’t pull my punches anymore, I leave no doubt as to what I’m thinking. I don’t remember exactly what I said that started, “With all due respect Sergeant Major.” But I know it was the truth. Then the Sergeant Major spoke. And what he said was also the truth. I had hoped to talk with him more that weekend, but with a busy training schedule it wasn’t to happen. So, I thought I’d write out what I would have liked to say to him.

The Sergeant Major doesn’t see me, the soldier. He only sees what’s left of me, the soldier. He sees the old guy whose best days are behind him. He doesn’t see that I came back into service at 36 years old after a 14-year break, because the army needed people to do a job. They needed people really bad at the time, and I answered the call. And I would do it again.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/03/26/the-cost-2/ (click here for more).

The Sergeant Major sees a soldier that can’t pass the army physical fitness test. But he doesn’t see that until my deployment to Afghanistan (2013-14), I was passing the PT test at the standards of an 18-year old (the standards get easier as the soldier gets older). Yeah, I was in my early 40’s passing it with the numbers an 18-year old would have to do to pass. He sees an older, slower soldier. But he doesn’t see that the last two months of my deployment to Afghanistan I was injured. I sucked it up and completed my mission. He doesn’t know the doctor at my little base over there suggested I go to Germany for treatment, then home. He doesn’t know I decided to stay, despite the pain I was in.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/18/yard-work-and-running/ (click here for more).

The Sergeant Major sees a soldier that moves slowly. He doesn’t see that on my two deployments, I brought my chaplains back safe and sound. And that on my last deployment, we traveled Afghanistan extensively. He doesn’t see that in the narrative of my Bronze Star award it tells how I performed my duties under hostile enemy attacks. He doesn’t see that while I was serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were soldiers that had been hiding in the instructor unit (my current unit) for a decade or longer.

Left:  Kabul, Afghanistan 2103.  Right:  Umm Qasr, Iraq 2008.

The Sergeant Major sees a soldier that lacks motivation. He doesn’t see my ribbon rack on my dress uniform. He doesn’t see that if I were to update my rack, I’d have 15 different awards on my chest. He doesn’t see all the times I volunteered for different things. He doesn’t see that at a previous unit, I had used up all my allowed time for the fiscal year but still drove 50 miles to give a brief for free (retirement points only). He doesn’t see that I coordinated the suicide intervention training for a CACOM I was in, and that my CACOM was the only command in USACAPOC that met standards by the deadline. Yeah, I got an award from the USACAPOC Command Chaplain for that.

The Sergeant Major sees a somewhat disgruntled soldier. He doesn’t see that I’ve been stuck in a broken system that hasn’t fully addressed my physical and mental injuries. He doesn’t see that I never chose to be a substandard soldier, that in fact, at one time, I was a damn good soldier. He doesn’t see that the circumstances and stresses of all that I’ve gone through have made me what I am now. He doesn’t see that the weight I bear from the physical and mental issues of not being able to perform like I used to was a contributing factor in my suicide attempt in 2015. That, among other things. He doesn’t see how much this kills me inside, only how it currently affects my attitude, something I know I need to work on.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/25/breathe-in-breath-out-if-you-can/ (click here for more).

The Sergeant Major doesn’t see me. He only sees what’s left of me. That’s not fair to either one of us. He probably doesn’t see that I’m my own worst critic and that I absolutely hate that I’m not able to do the things I used to do or handle situations and stress like I have in the past. He has no idea how valuable an asset I can be in the right environment. I could see it in his eyes that he plans on creating the right environment. I could hear it in his voice when he spoke to me. It’s a big job he’s taking on, and I don’t think the odds are in his favor, only because the problems he wants to fix have been there for so long. But I truly hope he pulls it off. It’s probably too late for me to experience the right environment again, but perhaps it will be there for future soldiers in that unit. When my time in the army reserves is over, I will leave satisfied that I made my area a better place overall. I might limp across the finish line, or even fall short of it altogether, but I did my job and did it well. And no one can ever take that from me, no matter what’s left of me at this point.

Thanks for stopping by Story of My Life this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Listen

Listen. That’s all. Not, “Listen to me” or “Listen to this.” Just listen. Sometimes the best way to help someone is to simply to listen. You don’t even need to have a solution to their problems, you just have to listen. It could make a world of difference. Aside from the mandatory, “check the box,” training we get in the army about suicide awareness and prevention, I have had plenty of in-depth training with respect to actually intervening during a serious suicidal ideation. I’m comfortable with that role. And I have done that more times than I want to remember. Not to mention, I have my own personal experience in failing at an attempt. I might not be able to relate to a person’s specific reason, but I certainly can relate to the feelings someone is going through when they are contemplating suicide. But most importantly, I listen.

Years ago, a friend of mine was going through a rough time. Not only that, he was also being moved to a different unit which contributed to his downward mental spiral. Knowing he would be leaving soon, I pulled him aside and thanked him for his impact in my army life. He was a role model to me in many ways. I was a better Soldier for having been under his leadership, and I wanted him to know that. Then, unexpectedly, he started talking. He opened up to me. He talked for about 45 minutes or so. I mostly just listened. Everything he told me is confidential because, as a chaplain assistant in the army, it stays confidential. That’s the rules. And even more so, in my mind, since he was coming to me as a friend. I didn’t think much more of it until later.

I emailed him after he left, to check on him, to see how things were going. That’s when I realized how important it was that I took the time to listen to him when I did. He made it very clear that my taking that time altered his life. Actually, saved it. In his email reply he said, “I appreciate you man because your words really gave me the chance to live another day. All jokes aside, you can really say that you saved a life man.” Funny thing is, I don’t remember talking very much. That’s because I mostly listened. Sometime later, in a Facebook message, after my failed suicide attempt, he gave me encouragement and also details about the day I stopped to talk (listen) to him. He stated, “My roommate was gone. I had all my ammo and my rifle. And I planned on doing it…I was headed to the room and you stopped me and said I love you brother… Man, I went back and loaded the weapon and cried to myself because I knew people loved me…You saved me and I am always here.” That day, the day I just wanted to let him know that I appreciated his leadership, the day that I listened to him, that unknowingly important day. I had no idea he was even considering suicide. No clue.

There are a couple of reasons this story came to mind this week. First, the son of a friend of mine took his own life recently. I’ve been messaging almost daily with that friend. And it’s been hard. I have no idea what to say. I understand the emotions my friend is going through, and it breaks my heart. But I can relate to the son that got to the point of taking his own life because I’ve been there. I tried. Without giving any details, I told another friend about messaging with the first friend, that I didn’t know what to say, that my training was in suicide prevention, and that I’m at somewhat of a loss in talking with a surviving family member after the fact. That’s when friend 2 told me I’m a good man, because I listen when people needed. That hardly makes me a good man, but I am always glad to listen when needed. That’s when I remembered my friend who says I saved his life, and I didn’t even know it at that time, all because I listened to him. That’s how this story came back to me this week. I listened. And, at the time, I had no idea how important that was. All I did was listen. That didn’t cost me anything. But it could have cost my friend his life had I not made time for him. Dear God, thank you.

Sometimes all you have to do is listen to make a difference in someone’s life. Thank you for listening to me this week. Good day, God Bless.

Dave