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

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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

Milestones and Reflections

This past week, my blog surpassed 400 followers from all over the world. Granted, that’s not a huge number, but it’s still an amazing milestone to me, considering I write for my own pleasure and therapy. I didn’t set out to create any kind of following for this site, only a place for me to put some thoughts somewhere, like a way to journal. Originally, Story of My Life was a place for me to do some writing during my deployment to Afghanistan and share a few things with my family and friends. After returning from war, I took a two-year break from posting here. I then started using Story of My Life again in February 2016, as an outlet for self-therapy and recovery. Based on the number of followers, comments and likes on the posts, it seems like a lot of people can relate to what I’m putting out there.

As I celebrate a very modest milestone, I also want reflect on Story of My Life and share with some of you that might not know the progression this blog has taken the last couple of years and why I post (almost) every week. I say progression of this blog, but in reality, it’s my progression. These are my thoughts, feelings, experiences that I share here. Some entries are comical or silly. Some are dark and painful. Some are rants, usually complaining about dealing with the VA. I’ve posted poetry and short fiction stories, but mostly, real-life stories of me surviving my life.

While my first blog post to Story of My Life was 5 years ago, it’s only been in the last two years that I started a new journey of using weekly writing as therapy and sharing my story with the world. The beginning of this new journey started with me opening up about a failed suicide attempt, being taken to the psych ward at the hospital in hand cuffs by the police, and being diagnosed with PTSD and major depression. From there, I shared what I saw as obvious irony in the fact that I attempted suicide, being that I was the lead trainer in suicide prevention training in most of my army reserve units. Ironic, in a twisted way, I know.

I’ve shared stories from my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, stories about my kids, and I’ve written some entertaining fictional stories. I’ve touched a little on the end of my marriage and I’ve exposed some of the flaws with the VA that veterans have to deal with. I’ve written about the struggles I have from time to time with depression and suicidal thoughts. I’ve also written about some of the victories I’ve had the last two years, which include sharing a couple excerpts and progress from the novel I’m writing (yes, still working on that). I’ve written about the weather, traffic, youth sports, investing, the Mississippi River, and I’ve shared some about my civilian job in a few posts. I cover most everything that pops into my head in any given week. We can all see the pros and cons in that. But I do it anyway.

I write every week and post it here because it helps me. I am able to sort my thoughts and put them in some kind of order that makes sense to me. It’s a way to track my progress as well as my low points. Each post gives me a record of what I was doing or thinking and I can go back any time and see what was on my mind. I know, I can do the same thing without putting it on a blog, but I feel that making some of these stories public forces me to put more thought and effort into this project. And I know that my story helps other people, too, which is a bonus for my motivation to keep writing and sharing. Knowing there are people out there that can relate to my issues and mental illness is helpful to me as well. I appreciate all the likes and comments of support on my posts each week.

I do this for me. But I also do it for everyone else that hasn’t found their voice yet in speaking up comfortably about their own mental illness. I share it with the world so that someone that might be in the dark places of the mind, like I have been, know they aren’t alone. If you need help, reach out. If you know someone that needs help, help them find help. You don’t have to be a professional to help someone that is thinking about suicide. You only have to get them to someone that is (hospital, police, fire station, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255). Helping is easier than you think.

For those of you that might be new to Story of My Life and want to get a bigger picture of my story, below are some links to previous posts that will highlight my journey the last two years.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/02/06/battlefield/  (the beginning of my new journey)

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/07/16/depressed-ptsd/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/11/26/suicidal-anonymous/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2017/03/18/ptsd-moments/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2017/07/15/my-worst-war-memory/

Thank you all for your support, I hope that I am returning the favor in some small way here. And thank you for stopping by this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

10 Days to Hell

As I’ve mentioned before, my psychiatrist at the VA changed how I can get my medications. I don’t like it. It doesn’t make any sense to have get them through the mail when I can go to the local military base, or even to the local VA clinic. But for some reason, my doctor says I can only get them through the mail-order system provided by the VA.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2017/06/10/my-new-va-psychiatrist/

I called the automated system to reorder my prescriptions on November 8th when I had about 5 doses left. It usually takes a week. It’s not a big deal if I have to miss one or two nights of medication. But the one I need has yet to show up. On about the fifth day after running out, I called the automated system. The voice said the meds were sent out on the 10th, to give it ten days to show up. Liars.

On or around the sixth day without my medication, I was noticeably becoming unwell. My focus and thoughts were not good. I was more irritable than normal, more blunt than usual, and becoming severely depressed. By day 8, my anxiety of not having my medication coupled with everything else I just mentioned was overwhelming. I could feel it physically in my body, mostly in my head and neck. My head felt like it was being crushed by pressure. The headaches were incredible and nothing helped.

By day 9, I was overly emotional. Everything set me off. I felt hungover. I felt like I had not slept in days. My entire body was uncomfortable and shaky. The pressure behind my eyes caused vision problems. It was like blurry tunnel vision. I know much of the physical manifestations were anxiety that came from not having my medication and wondering if were coming at all. I was beginning to become dysfunctional.

Day 10. I hated my life. I hated people, even more than normal. I hated my job. I hated everything. At work that day, one of my co-workers asked if I were ok. She said I looked like I wanted to kill someone. I was in a very bad place in my mind. I was scared for myself. It only took ten days to get to hell from where I started. That seems like a very fast fall to me. Ten days is not a very long time.

During the ten days I would call the automated system for updates. Each time the voice on the other end of the line told me the same thing. The medication was mailed out on the 10th and to allow 10 days for delivery. On the 21st I found a way to call the after-hours emergency nurse at a VA call center. She made notes of our call that would be sent to my local VA clinic to my primary care doctor and the psychiatrist. The next morning, the primary care nurse called to tell me I could pick up a supply of my medication.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/10/08/the-va-is-killing-me/

I eventually spoke with the mental health nurse, days later, after the emergency had passed. I found out the medication was still in “pre-ship” on their tracking system and has yet to be sent. All the while I was holding out hope that it would show up in the mail each day, being told by the automated computer voice that it had been sent out more than a week ago, trying to keep my head above water and survive the darkness of my mind and the horrible thoughts that were taunting me. But I was being lied to.

The Department of Veterans affairs is broken system. And the face of that system for me is Dr. Elaine Ramos at the Eglin VA clinic. Dr. Ramos, you are failing at your job. You are failing me. Those little diplomas on the wall in your office are worthless if you don’t care about your patients and what is best for them. Do your job, doctor.

Dr. Ramos can kiss my ass. I hope the rest of you have a wonderful week. Thanks for stopping by. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Wired Differently

Way back in high school, what seems like a thousand years ago now, I was on the wrestling team. I enjoyed it and I was pretty good at it. Two-time regional champion in my weight class. In the largest tournament I ever wrestled in, with over sixty schools represented, I took third. Not too shabby. And my senior year at the state tournament, I lost by one point in overtime to the guy that would go on to win the state title in my weight class.

At the beginning of one wrestling season, one of the football coaches made some of the football players go out for the wrestling team. I think officially, it was strongly encouraged to those players, but they knew they had to go to wrestling practice if the coach told them to. About a week later, they were all gone except for one or two guys. Most of them couldn’t do it. Coach Downey ran a grueling wrestling practice, mostly on the mats in the cafeteria, but sometimes running stairs in our three-story main building on campus. If someone puked while running, he kept going, and the rest of us simply ran around it, lap after lap. Up three flights, down the long hallway, down three flights, and back. And again. For a couple hours. I guess this is my proof that wrestlers are tougher than football players.

Although… I went out for football in junior high school (yeah, I know it’s called middle school now, and whatever, I don’t understand why they changed it). I lasted one practice when I decided it wasn’t for me. Not having become very athletic by that time, my young body was in shock at what it was having to do. I lacked the talent, desire, and commitment it would have taken to be on the football team. So, maybe football players are tougher.

OR, perhaps, we are all just wired differently. Conditioned differently. Have different goals and strengths. Different talents. Some of those guys that couldn’t make it on the wrestling team were a force to be reckoned with on the football field. Brute strength and hard hits. And while I would have likely gotten run over by them on their field, they were no match for me on the wrestling mat. I had balance, technique, and leverage. That’s what I brought to the table that they could not compete with.

The hardest thing I’m working on in my life right now is realizing that we are different from each other, in more than just our physical abilities. Mentally, we have different strengths and weaknesses. We each react to situations differently. I know that some people can’t relate to what I go through, especially when the depression gets ahold of me or my PTSD symptoms show themselves. And, on the same token, I don’t understand some of the things other people go through. I have to catch myself once in a while so I don’t say out loud, “Get over it,” or “Why do you let that bother you?” or “It’s not that hard.” And I know people think that about me as well. And I understand.

We’re not just different from each other, we, ourselves, also become different. Age, trauma, and stress transform us on a daily basis. Even though I try very hard to not show it, I am my own worst critic about the person I have become. I ask myself all the time, “Why does this bother you?” I reminisce about all the things I used to be able to do physically, long hours of physical labor or running a half marathon. Or even passing an army physical fitness test. None of that used to be hard. I tell myself to get over it, but it’s not that easy. That’s usually when the depression flares up.

I’m not wired like I used to be. And I’m not able to recondition myself to be the old me. Not physically, not mentally. I’ve said before that the physical issues I brought back from Afghanistan contributed to my mental collapse. And to be honest, if I could just get the army to take responsibility for those issues, that would be a huge weight off my back. And what absolutely kills me is that at one time in the life I used to live, again what feels like a thousand years ago, much of what makes me “crazy” now barely phased me back then.

I am struggling quite a bit lately with self-criticization (and yes, that’s a word, I just looked it up to make sure, consider it your word of the day). I am depressed more often than usual and it’s becoming harder and harder to work through. As a high school athlete, I looked forward to getting pushed to my limits. I wanted to know what I could handle and how I measured up to others. It made me better. I don’t enjoying being pushed to my limits anymore. Especially mentally. And I reach my physical limits after just a few hours on my feet at work. And I hate it. But I’ll bet if Coach Downey barked at me to run stairs, I probably would, until it killed me. You know, since wrestlers are tougher than football players I would have to. LOL.  🙂

Thanks for stopping by this week. I hope you got something from this. Good day, God bless.

Dave