My Worst War Memory

WARNING  This content may be upsetting or triggering to some.  WARNING

This week, while on orders at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, I ran into a long-time army buddy. It was good to catch up with him while having dinner and a couple of beers. We reminisced and talked about the people we served with together, shared stories of what’s going on in our careers now, and had a couple good laughs. Most of my army memories are good. Most of my deployment memories are good, even if only because I try to remember the good ones. Most of the not-so-good memories can still be made into an amusing, funny story. But not all of them.

Not long ago I did some online forums where people could ask me questions about a topic I would post. One reader asked me what was my worst memory was from war. For a moment, I wasn’t sure. I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the worst memories, so I had to think about it. And as discussed in a previous blog, I have memories that are hidden. One of which, not my worst, was discovered during a therapy session with my psychiatrist. And once I remembered it, it was back. My mind had hidden it for two years until my therapist walked me through it.

But my worst memory from being deployed happened while I was in Iraq (2008-09). I went a number of years with that memory tucked away, hidden from my consciousness. And I didn’t even know it. It surfaced a few years ago, hung around for a while, then was gone again. I think it’s been more than three years since I thought about it. Now it’s back. This is something I’ve only shared with very few, and even then, I generally only tell the main part of the story.

I was at Camp Bucca, Iraq. My chaplain and I were responsible for about a thousand Soldiers that fell under our battalion. The two of us went to the hospital to visit a Soldier that had been seriously injured in a motor pool accident. The Soldier was soon to be transported to Germany, then back to the States, I think to San Antonio to get specialized treatment and start rehabilitation. I never made it to the room with the chaplain to visit the wounded Soldier.

The bay-style room we walked through that would lead to a private room with the motor pool Soldier had three beds in it. In each of those beds was a child. Each child had been severely burned over their whole body. The chaplain and I both paused and inquired about the children. Their ages were approximately between four and nine years old. It was the most unexpected thing I’ve seen. I got the story from the medical staff that had accepted the children into the hospital due to the severity of their injuries.

Their father was dead. He was trying to steal fuel, propane I think, according to my memory of the story I was told, and the whole tank somehow exploded. Why he had his three little girls with him to steal fuel, I will never know. But the explosion killed him and engulfed the children in flames. They were brought to our hospital for treatment. They were almost completely wrapped in gauze, only parts of their faces showing. Only the oldest spoke while the other two whined and cried. I think the oldest was trying to comfort the other two. They couldn’t see each other, only hear the sounds of pain and anguish that filled that small part of the room.

After a couple of minutes with the staff, the chaplain was ready to move on to the injured motor pool Soldier. I couldn’t do it. I had to leave. I told the chaplain I would be out back, that he could come get me when he was done with the Soldier. I found my way to an exit, then I sat on the steps and cried. The reality and gravity of three children laying there, burned, crying, scared, barely alive– it got to me. It got to me in a way nothing else previously had in life. That includes losing a child one day after birth.

I could see that memory every time I closed my eyes, from that night on, for about two years. Then, it was gone. I forgot about it. It would reappear every 2-3 years, depress me, horrify me in my sleep, then hide again. Well, it’s back. This is probably the most details I have ever shared about this memory. I’m hoping that sharing it this way will help. I don’t remember ever talking to any psychiatrist or counselor about it. It must have been pretty well hidden since my psychiatrist last year was able to get the memory of a wrong turn in Kabul, Afghanistan to resurface, but the burned children never came up.

In preparation for this post, I reached out to a friend of mine that I served with in Iraq, Joseph Galvan. He told me that the event of the three burned children was one of his worst three memories he has of war. Being a medic, he was regularly exposed to more pain and suffering than most. He was on staff at our hospital on Camp Bucca during the time the children were there. I asked him if he would give a quote for this week’s blog about his experience there during that time. Just as I remember him during deployment, he didn’t fail to produce when called upon now. Here is what he had to say:

“As horrible as having three severely burned children was, the worst was after. The MRO (Medical Regulating Organization), who was the theater medical operations hub, ordered that we no longer accept any critically injured local national patients. The girls were in our ICU for about four months and we only had 5 ICU beds.

“’Try and imagine what that must have been like for our medics. Locals bringing their severely ill and injured to us, having heard that the Americans took care of children that were near death, only to be turned away. The begging, pleading, and crying they had to witness.”

 

 

My friend and hero, Joseph Galvan.

Galvan went on to say, “I can still hear them scream from their wounds being cleaned; there’s only so much morphine you can give a child and it’s not enough. That’s why I’d always bring my guitar to work. I knew the schedule for their wound care and I’d play for the kids after, while the nurses washed their hair. It got to be a routine. I’d even do it on my days off. The smell of burning hair and children crying or screaming in legitimate pain fucks with me pretty hard. And the burn patient smell…that sickly sweet, but acrid smell…I can’t do it.”

Maybe his sharing this with me will help him in some way. He told me earlier this week, “I just realized that I’ve never told anyone about that. The folks that were there (in the ward, on shift) knew, but I’ve never talked about it.” Joseph Galvan is a hero. His heart for those children makes him a hero to me.

This is why it’s harder to come home from war than it is to go. The memories never leave. Never. They may hide for a while, but they always come back.

Thank you for reading this week. Good day, God bless. And a special God bless to our military medics.

Dave

The 4th of July

Happy Birthday America! This week we celebrated 241 years of Independence. A lot has changed in America since we told the British to bugger off and leave us alone. The Founding Fathers of this great nation had the courage to stand up and fight for the freedoms we still enjoy today. I for one am grateful. I’m not sure I could pull off the British accent, so it’s a good thing that 241 years ago we became our own sovereign nation. LOL.

With the celebration of our Independence comes many festivities, including fireworks. And with that comes social media posts about veterans dealing with PTSD and the yard signs that some put in their yards asking people not to do fireworks around their home. That seems to be a topic of debate from what I saw on a couple of Facebook posts. I have PTSD. I served in Iraq, then later in Afghanistan. I avoid being outside during fireworks, it only for my own sanity. I don’t have flashbacks or lose my mind, but my anxiety skyrockets and some of the memories of the fear I experienced resurfaces. So, I simply stay indoors.

Here’s the debate, as far as I can tell. The post I saw states that some veterans are milking the benefits of being labeled with PTSD, which in turn is stigmatizing all veterans, also that they are looking for attention and disability ratings with the VA, and that many who post the signs never heard a shot fired at war and that the rocket impacts they heard were miles away. I think there is some validity to some of those arguments. Many years ago, I thought most people claiming PTSD were overreacting. But I don’t speculate on that anymore. It’s not for me to judge. I can’t speak for any other veteran, but I can tell you what I have experienced.

One thing I experienced were rockets landing on a base I was at. Multiple times, multiple locations throughout Afghanistan. Building-shaking, loud booms. While I handled it well at the time, I never took the time to process it all until I got home. By then it was overwhelming. I was trying to process everything all at once while trying to adjust to being home. And I wasn’t doing it properly. I wasn’t talking to anyone about my mental problems or getting the counseling that I knew I needed. I was trying to avoid the stigma that I had created in my mind of being labeled with PTSD. And I desperately wanted to avoid that label. In 2011, I talked the VA out of diagnosing me with PTSD more than a year after I got back from Iraq. I toughed it out and Soldiered on, which in retrospect was a bad idea. In 2015, there was no way to avoid it. I had reached rock bottom and was forced to get help.

During one rocket attack, I remember feeling the building shake from the first explosion. Then the second blast- it was much closer, shaking the building in a way I had not experienced before, all while grabbing my gear and getting to cover. As I sat alone in the bunker, the third blast felt like it was almost on top of me. It was loud, it was close, it was the only real time I thought I might die over there. On only two instances do I remember having that kind of fear while in Afghanistan, that attack was the worst one of them. I could hear each boom getting closer and closer to the bunker where I was taking cover. In my mind at the time, if there had been a fourth one, it would have been right on top of me, based on how each blast was clearly closer than the last. Fireworks elicit those feelings and memories in me.

Even so, I don’t want anyone to not celebrate with fireworks. This is America and that’s how we celebrate, we blow up stuff. I can stay inside and be just fine, for the most part. The noise and booms will still get to me a little, especially when there is a long pause followed by a firework that is obviously too large to be discharged in a neighborhood. As I write this, neighbors are firing off an impressive amount of pyrotechnics at almost 11pm on July 4. My anxiety is through the roof. But I don’t want them to stop. Keep celebrating. It is America’s birthday after all. I can handle it.

During each of my two deployments, I never had to fire any of my weapons. But for the more than two dozen missions I went on in Afghanistan, I was locked and loaded, ready to go every time. And on the handful of missions that I needed both my rifle and my pistol, they were both locked and loaded. For those of you unfamiliar with that term, ‘locked and loaded’ means there is a magazine in the weapon, and a round (bullet) in the chamber. I would only need to flip the switch from safe mode and pull the trigger. I was always ready. And I wonder if being ‘ready’ that many times and never getting to use my skills and training had some kind of adverse effect on me.

I’ve wondered for a while if sitting in a bunker through all those rocket attacks and never actually engaging the enemy contributed to some of the symptoms of my PTSD. Maybe because of all the adrenaline spikes without being able to release that energy right then and there. I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a study on that somewhere, I’ll just have to do some research and find it. How, or would, I be different today if I had in fact fired my weapon and directly engaged the enemy? Would I have handled post-deployment better? I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know and accept that I have PTSD. But I can’t let that stop me anymore. I work. I live. I function. But there are moments where I can’t deny that it has some power over me, but not as much as it used to.

With all that I shared here, none of it even comes close to my most traumatic memory of war. Tune in next week when I will share a story that I rarely talk about. It’s a memory that resurfaced uninvited recently and maybe writing about it in detail will help.  Thanks for reading this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Related posts:

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/04/23/ptsd-is-contagious/

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

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/08/20/the-storm/

 

Subpoenaed for Deposition

I was subpoenaed for deposition this week as a witness to a wreck I watched happen. A wreck that happened in 2012, 4 ½ ago. The attorneys wanted to question me as to what I remembered from that day. From 4 ½ years ago. Sometimes I have trouble remembering why I went into the kitchen and they want to know details about an event from 4 ½  years ago. Let’s see how that went.

I clearly remember the wreck. It was the kind you don’t forget. I watched it from my work truck, traveling on Highway 98. It was right in front of me. A Jeep swerved into the median, then came back across the travel lane, nailing a pickup truck. The Jeep then continued at full speed off the road, became airborne, and landed hard in a ditch. I thought for sure there would be serious injuries to the driver of the Jeep.

I stopped. I went to the Jeep and opened the driver’s door. The woman in the driver’s seat asked me to help her move her Jeep. I think she was asking me to help find her keys. She was drunk. She appeared to be uninjured, but was most definitely inebriated. The passengers in the truck seemed to be unharmed as well. When the State Trooper arrived, he ordered me to wait in my truck until he could get a statement from me. It’s from that point on that my memory is less clear. The adrenaline rush of the wreck made the immediate details clear and lasting in my mind.

The Attorney for the Plaintiff asked relatively easy questions. Basic stuff. Mostly questions about the actual wreck, where I was in relation to it as it played out, why I stopped. Things I had some answers for. He asked about 20 minutes worth of questions. The defense attorney, however, asked a bunch of different questions. He would ask, then rephrase the question, seemingly trying to get me to change my answer. I know how it works. He’s the defense attorney, he’s supposed to try to discredit any witness that can make his client look guilty. He even asked me if I could tell him what kind of shoes his client was wearing that day. Seriously? When I got to the Jeep, I expected to see someone in dire need of medical attention. I wasn’t looking at shoes.

After the defense attorney finished with his questions, I thought I was done. I was hoping to be done. The deposition had already gone 30 minutes longer than I was told it would and I was now running later for work than I had told my boss I would. But then, there was a third attorney, a gentleman sitting at the table that I thought was just there observing.  He turned out to be the attorney for the ex-husband of the defendant. The ex was the actual owner of the Jeep at the time of the wreck. The attorney for the ex-husband only asked one question and then I was free to go.

I have chronicled my memory issues in previous blogs. Some of the things I remember are detailed and vivid because of the circumstances. During my travels in Afghanistan, there were many times we found ourselves under attack from the enemy. I can probably remember certain details of every time we came under attack. I can’t remember much of anything after an attack ended. But the particulars of where I was at the time, who was with me, what base we were at, what I was thinking, time of day, how close or far away the explosions were…. I can remember all that stuff.

It’s ‘funny’ how the memory works. And I have no idea why mine remembers certain things clearly, but other things, I’m clueless. In the link here, https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/04/memories-and-afghanistan/, I mention a memory from Afghanistan that for two years I had completely blocked out or forgot until one of my appointments with my psychologist. And it all came back. The memory was similar to the dangers of the attacks I mentioned, so why did my mind suppress it? Why did it take a session with my psychologist to pull it out?

I kept a log of all the missions I went on while in Afghanistan. And between my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan I took over 8000 pictures. Both of those things help me with my memory. I don’t look at the mission log much, but I do occasionally browse my pictures. And every time I do, I find pictures that remind of things I seem to have forgotten. I would really like to know what memories are hiding in my head that I didn’t get pictures of or put in the mission log.

I don’t know how much help I was in the deposition. Maybe I should have taken pictures of it all or wrote it down. But it didn’t seem that complicated at the time. To me, it was cut and dry. A drunk driver caused an accident. I don’t what they can be doing to drag this on for 4 ½ years. But I’m sure the lawyers are getting paid no matter who wins.

Thank you for reading Story of My Life this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

P.S. Join over 500 others that have RSVP’d to my next AMA that will be on Wednesday evening, June 7. Check it out and ask me a question. Follow the link if you are interested. Hope to see you there.

https://militaryama.com/hi-im-dave-as-a-disabled-veteran-much-of-my-health-and-psychiatric-care-157850/

The Frustration of Stress

Stress is the difference between expectations and my view of reality.” ~Chuck Waryk.

That resonated with me when Chuck put those words in that order on the phone a couple of weeks ago. I think I knew that already, but I don’t think I fully understood what that could mean until I heard it phrased that way. He and I served in Afghanistan together. He and I both know the stresses of serving in a war zone, where we were most certainly under stress. But when I think back to that time, I don’t remember being overly stressed with the situations in which I found myself. Here’s why. I didn’t find it as stressful as life now because in Afghanistan I anticipated the enemy to launch and fire at us. It was reality. It was expected. And every time I traveled from my home base to somewhere else, there was at least one attack per trip. Often more than once a day, and occasionally for consecutive days.  https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/03/19/the-fear-in-the-eyes/

I think the first part of stress after war is expecting everything to go back to normal after returning home. I know that’s not possible, maybe it was more wishful thinking on my part, but I think I expected it to be so. I expect the VA to take care of the mental and physical injuries I sustained over there. I expect my Army Reserve Unit to do the things they need to do to either find a way to keep me in or put me out. I expect my body and mind to function as it did before I deployed.

I have a lot of expectation. Or, I should say, I HAD a lot of expectations. The reality of some of the above-mentioned issues make it painfully obvious that my expectations were lofty and unrealistic. Or, at the very least that my time-frame for those expectations are out of sync with reality. Things are moving forward with the VA and the Army Reserves for me, but much slower than I want it to. But it doesn’t stress me like it used to, because I have a new view of what the reality of those issues are. Although, the VA giving me a 30-day supply of medication, but making my next appointment almost 50 days away is stressful. Just so everyone knows, I’ll only be on my medications every other day until the end of the month so as not to run out and have to miss a longer, consecutive block of time taking them.

The thing that bothers me the most is that my mind and body will never be what they once were. That leads to frustration. Stress is the result of external circumstances that can have mental and physical effects. Frustration comes from the inability to change or achieve something. I can’t change it and that frustrates me. But I don’t feel the stress of it like I used to. I have accepted that I cannot change certain things. At my civilian job, I have told everyone I work with that my mind doesn’t work like it used to and to bear with me if my words don’t always make sense or if I have to stop and think for a moment to finish a task. And especially if I forget what you just told me because I’m actively engaged in a task and I have trouble concentrating on multiple things. I have found that being open and honest with my mental issues has greatly reduced my frustration with myself.  https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/04/memories-and-afghanistan/

While I’m doing better with accepting that the VA is a mess, that the Army Reserves is slow and sometimes incapable of taking care of Soldiers, and that my mind and body are well-worn, I still have work to do in other areas. People still get on my nerves. Lazy people who don’t do their jobs, people who don’t put the shopping cart back and just leave it next to their car, or people in the next hotel room over who are keeping me awake at 4 in the morning because they’re arguing and threatening to kill each other. I have no use for any of these people in my life. Their laziness and lack of respect for other human beings is frustrating to me. Yes, I just equated leaving the shopping cart in the parking lot to the drunken rage of a guy threatening to kill someone causing me to lose already illusive sleep. But that’s my life and view on things. I’m being open and honest. And it feels good.

All in all, I’m continuing to find ways to cope with stress, which in turn reduces my level of frustration. And I think taking a realistic view of reality is a huge help. Thank you, Chuck, for the wise, inspiring words. It made me think about how I view the world around me and adjust fire.  https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/05/21/im-ok-i-promise/

Thank you all for reading Story of My Life this week. Feel free to leave feedback and let me know you were here. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Lessons Learned

When I was a young teenager, probably 13 or 14 years old, I had a dog that was a master at climbing the fence and escaping the back yard to roam the neighborhood. Eventually, my dad installed an electric fence kit to the top of the back-yard fence in hopes of curbing the dog’s desire to be free and explore. It should have only taken one jolt from the fence, maybe two, for the dog to no longer try to escape. That beagle sure could climb a fence. I’ve seen dogs that could jump a fence, but that was the only dog I ever saw that could climb one that way.

I was curious about the electric fence. I tapped it with my finger. Nothing. I touched it for a second. Still nothing. I decided to grab hold of it. Not the brightest thing I ever did in my life, but still not even close the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I was “shocked” to learn that the fence worked when I grasped it fully in my hand. It was slightly painful, but a life lesson that I still remember to this day. I won’t be testing anymore electric fences. No need, I satisfied my curiosity and fully understand how they work.

Most of the things we learn in life are directly related to the decisions we make, whether those be good decisions or bad ones. Ever since my children were little, I liked letting them make their own decisions about things when they could. When my two oldest were in pre-school, I would let them choose what to wear each day. Living in Florida, they usually chose shorts and short-sleeve shirts. One morning I told them a cold front was coming through and they should take a jacket. Neither wanted to take a jacket, so I took them to school with only what they had picked out to wear.

By noon that day, the temperature had dropped to a “frigid” 40 degrees. When I picked them up from pre-school, I heard one teacher comment that I should check the weather and dress them accordingly because my children were cold. Really? They weren’t going to die from hypothermia in 40-degree weather on the walk from the classroom to my car. I promise. And they both learned a valuable lesson that day, that sometimes, dad knows what he’s talking about. On the flip-side, on a trip to Colorado in January years ago with the kids, I made sure they had more than enough warm clothes. The trick is to know when to let them decide and when to plan for them. I don’t care what that one teacher thought, I was teaching my young children by giving them all the information available and letting them make the final decision. I think using that philosophy has more than paid off with them.

But what about the times when a decision is made without any idea of what all could possibly happen? And what if a decision is made with the best of intentions, but it turns out to be a disaster? That’s a great ethical question that has been debated for centuries. I don’t have the answer to it, in case you were wondering. During an army reserve weekend years ago, a fellow Service Member found a puppy. There was no collar with identification on the dog. And after asking around, he believed it to be a stray or an abandoned pet. He went to the store and bought a dog bowl, some dog food, and a leash. He was going to give the puppy a home. Since it was a couple hours before quitting time, he put the puppy in the bed of his truck with food and water, and put a collar and leash on the dog and tied it to the inside of the bed of his truck. The puppy climbed up on the wheel well and hanged himself trying to get out of the truck. The man’s intentions were pure gold, but the outcome was tragic.

In 2007, I decided to go back in to military service in the army reserves. I wanted to serve my country again and take care of Soldiers as a chaplain assistant. Although my life does not reflect it now, it was a matter I prayed about and truly believed it was something God wanted me to do, so, I rejoined. I still believe that. I volunteered to go Iraq in 2007. Then, I volunteered to go Afghanistan in 2013. My intentions were admirable, but the outcome of my decision cost me my mental health, my physical health, my marriage, relationships, a business, my favorite job I ever had, and who knows what else. I basically lost Me, the Me I used to know, the Me I used to be. I lost my identity. I had even lost my will to live at one point.

There have been times when I would figuratively touch the electric fence just to see what would happened. There were times when I learned from my decisions like my young children did from theirs, in learning that sometimes we should heed the advice or warnings of others. And there was a time when I was like the puppy, trying to escape, even though I didn’t know it would kill me.

All the decisions I’ve made in my life make me who I am today. Same goes for you, too, by the way. I’m grateful and lucky that to have survived some of my decisions. And even knowing what I know today, I would still rejoin the military and serve again. There are definitely some things I would do differently, but I know for certain I made the right decision to rejoin the army reserves. I don’t understand some of the consequences I’ve had to endure since I believe that decision was made with the best of intentions. And I don’t care to debate it or dig into the philosophical principles of whether or not it was the right decision based on the outcome. I’m moving forward with life.

Thank you for reading Story of My Life this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Other related posts you might like:

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/02/13/the-irony-of-life/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/08/06/suicide-intervention/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/08/20/the-storm/