I can’t say that I spent a lot of time thinking about PTSD or how it might affect my son after his two deployments to Afghanistan with the First Marines. I was more concerned about his daily safety and always grateful when we got emails in the evening when he could send them to confirm he was safe.
There were occasions when he would go “dark” and those were always nerve wracking as I knew he was out in the boonies or in a place where contact with family either wasn’t allowed or wasn’t available. During those times you could contact an officer charged with knowing of the wellbeing of your family member so at least you could be assured he was alive.
Looking back I probably should have noticed something on his return from his first tour. I asked some stupid questions about what it was like to be in combat. He froze and asked me never to ask those questions again. This was the first few minutes after I had picked him up at the airport to surprise his wife and 3 month old daughter who was born while he was deployed and I had already succeeded in dampening the enthusiasm and joy of his return.
We grew quiet and I realized I had touched a nerve. I apologized and he relaxed a bit. Then he only offered one small slice of insight. He said no matter how brave anyone thought they were there was nothing as terrifying as being in the middle of a mortar attack. Based on terrain you didn’t always know where they were coming from but as they dropped closer you began to feel fear like you had never felt before. That was it, just a couple of sentences. Nothing more was said during his stint home.
When he arrived home from his second tour I was there to meet him but I didn’t go near the subject of combat. Except for the loss of hearing in one ear he seemed to be okay physically and I didn’t notice anything but relief emotionally.
He discharged six months later and he and his young family moved back home to Phoenix. I knew nothing of any stress or trauma until after two months home his wife divorced him siting PTSD and her fear of his personality change as a primary reason. He and his dog immediately moved in with me and we went about dealing with a divorce which had caught him completely off guard.
It didn’t take long for me to see the signs of distress. At first I thought it was from his divorce proceedings. But when during the night the dogs barked at something we couldn’t even hear, he jumped to full alert and was ready to find a gun and investigate. I was stunned at his almost violent reaction. He was in some sort of trance I didn’t recognize, completely focused on a potential threat and I was only too happy there was no gun within reach. Dogs barking at night were bad news he told me and the only real reason most had them there was as warning bells since most of them treated dogs in ways the average American would never tolerate.
I began to notice he was short tempered, not the even keeled kid he was as a child. He hated crowds and at a friend’s house during a party he mostly stood against a wall keeping his eyes on the activity. It was almost spooky. When I asked him what was wrong he politely told me to leave him alone and that he just didn’t like being around a lot of people. I also quickly learned he didn’t like being in traffic. He would curse and was clearly agitated when traffic cramped his ability to get into open air. He would often rapidly turn his head from side to side looking for potential trouble. It got to the point where I wouldn’t ride with him as the driver anymore. He scared me with his outbursts and his almost manic need to change lanes to avoid getting “trapped.” Then he wouldn’t ride with me because I got too close to the cars in front of me. He pointed out that I had trapped myself and if the other driver had a gun I was a dead man. He encouraged me to leave a length or two between me and the car in front of me at a stop light. That way if anyone around me decided to kill, I could pull out and let someone else take the bullet. This was four years after the war and he was still checking out everything around him all of the time.
He sought relief from the VA but that seemed to be more of an experimentation with different drugs that only seemed to exacerbate his mood swings. While he had found work more than once he called me with desperation in his voice that something had set him off. Most employers seemed sympathetic and seemed to want to work with him but it appeared difficult for him to put up with the attitudes of others. The worst was one day when someone near him on the road had a blow out and he called me in a panic thinking there was an attack. He asked me to come get him but he couldn’t tell me where he was. I talked him off the ledge so to speak but at this point I was alarmed about his stability. He seemed to be one step away from spinning out of control
Then one day while I was watching golf he came to me with a very serious look on his face. He put his face very close to mine and at first I tried to dodge his face so I could see the television screen. He stopped that by putting a hand on each of my shoulders and looking me right in the eye. He asked where my pistol was. I wasn’t too sure what to say. He then told me to please hide it or remove it from my home as he feared he might use it on himself.
(Much later he would tell me more than once he thought about turning the car on in our closed garage and just letting himself slip away. The only thing that stopped him is he didn’t want me to come home to the sight of him dead in his car.)
I asked why he would do such a thing and leave his daughter fatherless. He poured everything out. His depression over his failed marriage and the custody fight he was losing because the judge feared his PTSD would be an issue and had severely restricted his rights to see his daughter. He finally told me of his experiences in Afghanistan. He told me of how he had experienced violent deaths, seen horrible cruelty to innocent people and learned not to trust even those he had trained only to see them desert for the Al Qaida since they paid better. But the comment that shook me the most was when he told me during a war a lot of bad things happen and he had done some bad things. Things he told me that wouldn’t make me so proud of him. These things that he saw and did were haunting him to the point of self-destruction.
I was face to face with a thing called PTSD that I had heard a lot about, never given much thought to, but was now an important part of my life as well. Now I understood why some friends who had returned from Vietnam and never wanted never to discuss it were never the same. Is that the fate that awaited my boy?
The answer at least in the short term was yes. I read all I could on the topic. I signed up with Helping Hands to be able to learn more from veterans and their families and give back at the same time. I met others whose sons had taken their own lives because of the trauma they could no longer control. I learned about the 22 Vets across all era’s that choose to end their own lives and began to understand why some struggled to keep a job, a marriage or their own lives on track. I understood I was in a fight for his life almost as much as he was.
He lived me for three years until we both felt he was ready to venture back more completely into civilian life. He had found a girlfriend who lived with us the last year he was at home and she seemed to stabilize him. She also had a great relationship with his daughter which seemed to ease his stress level as well.
They say time heals all wounds. I don’t believe that though I do think it helps put them to some extent in the backyard of the brain. He has been out almost five years. He won’t take any drug beyond medical marijuana (a godsend for most vets) and seems after a lot of work, to have put his life back together. He has remarried and has a great relationship with his daughter. He is gainfully employed.
But I can tell there is still an uneasy truce rattling around in his head. He doesn’t want counseling. He feels that is going back to a place he wants to avoid. He is hesitant to discuss his experiences with other veterans but admires those who have shown great courage in combat and listens intently to their advice and stories if they are willing to share. We are closer than we have ever been and sometimes he is the one providing me with perspective like the time when I complained about playing bad golf and getting old. He was disgusted and reminded me that I was playing at a country club with good friends and I should enjoy the time with them. He said, “I fought in a war and saw people die. I really don’t want to hear about your bad day on a golf course.”
Kind of put things right back in perspective.