BATTLE CREEK, Mich. –
According to the American Psychiatric Association, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury. An estimated 1 in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. The following commentary reflects a personal opinion only and is in no way representative of an official position of the Defense Logistics Agency regarding PTSD or mental health treatment.
“PTSD is real.”
Rob Delong should know. As he drove a Ford Ranger to breakfast one June morning in 2015 with his friend Krissie Davis, he heard the “unforgettable” sound of an automated anti-projectile weapons system activating in response to incoming enemy fire. Moments later, a damaged but still deadly rocket fell from the sky over Bagram Air Base and slammed into the truck’s front passenger-side wheel, tossing it 20 feet through the air, and peppering him with shrapnel.
“It was chaos,” Delong said. “It rang my bell.”
The pair was just a month into their Afghanistan deployment for Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services – Delong’s first time downrange – and as he tried to gather his wits and take stock of his injuries, he asked Davis through the steam and smoke: “Are you OK?”
She looked at him and said, simply, “No.”
They tried to keep a conversation going as they waited for help and during a shared ambulance ride. When they reached the military treatment facility, medics hustled them toward separate rooms, and Delong assumed Davis would fully recover.
She died shortly after.
“I really expected Krissie to live,” Delong said. “I expected to see her again. It didn’t seem real.”
Bagram doctors repeatedly told a concussed Delong he needed to call his wife Sandra to tell her what happened, or they would have to do it for him. He waited nearly a full day and doesn’t remember making the call. Sandra said she and their daughter shared long hugs and many a tear when he told them what happened, but ultimately, she left the decision of whether to continue the deployment in his hands. Delong had survived previous auto wrecks and even flatlined after a stent insertion following a mild heart attack, so he just assumed things would turn out all right.
“If I leave, they win,” Delong recalled thinking. “They already took Krissie. You can’t be afraid of what it did to you. I wanted to face it.”
Delong stayed. He convalesced at the base hospital for one week, attended one mandatory counseling session, then returned to the property disposal yard to finish out five more months of deployment.
But all was not well.
“I was a wreck, physically and emotionally, many times, for a long time,” Delong said. He needed physical therapy. Memory loss ensued. He acquired tinnitus – a ringing in his ear that will never dissipate. And when he came home late that year, Sandra said Rob wasn’t the same husband of nearly 30 years who had left in the spring.
“He came home angry,” she said. “Mad as hell. Mad about small things, insignificant things, like what kind of ice cream was in the freezer.”
Not long after his return, they were watching a Hunger Games film when an on-screen explosion produced an extreme reaction in Rob, who began trembling and shaking. It took some prodding, but Sandra said she finally convinced him to seek out mental health care.
Much of Delong’s ensuing four years of ultimately successful psychiatric therapy dealt with processing survivor’s guilt - the nagging and persistent feeling, like a splinter in the psyche, that tragic outcomes are somehow the responsibility of those who survived.
“You always wonder what you could have changed about it,” Delong said he determined while working through the process. “But you can’t change anything. It happened. You have to deal with it. It sucks. It’s always going to be there. It’s never going to go away. And it’s not supposed to.”
So why do people – men primarily, and those in the military perhaps even more so – have such a hard time seeking out or accepting mental health care? If we suffered blood loss, we’d bind the gash. If we broke a leg, we’d splint it. Why do we avoid attending to our mental wounds?
My younger brother knew he wanted to be an Army infantryman from the time he was six or seven. He followed me around the Wyoming woods and prairies as a kid, first lugging a lunchbox full of G.I. Joes and later moving on to hunting critters with a .22 long rifle. When he turned 17, he went straight to the recruiting station and, after a year patrolling the DMZ in South Korea, made his way to Iraq.
During his first tour in Mosul, he had plenty of opportunity to experience the firefights he had long pined for. He loved the Army, and he loved engaging his country’s enemies in close combat, despite the immediate threat to his life and his vocation’s slow destruction of his hearing.
On his second deployment, as a sergeant in Baghdad, he became a squad leader. He led a small infantry group through neighborhoods, sometimes for days at a time, rooting out bombmakers and hostile fighters hoarding weapons caches. On one night raid, a soldier he had responsibility for peeled off from the main group and went to the front door as the rest of the squad prepared to enter a residence through the back. By the time the group made it inside, the soldier was already dead, his blood covering the entire kitchen floor.
The first I heard about the incident was a year later, on the anniversary of the soldier’s death. My brother called me in the middle of the night. He had obviously been drinking and was extremely distraught. I listened for hours as the pent-up anger and guilt he had carried around came spilling out of him. “If only I …,” “If only he …” Countless variations on the what-ifs and what could have beens, just repeating his grievances over and over. He had seen a lot in two combat deployments, but this event seemed to carry a greater, unhealthy weight that he couldn’t shake, and the anniversary triggered his emotional outburst.
The next year, a similar call on the same anniversary night. Just as much booze, slightly less guilt, a bit more anger. The following year, mostly anger. After a few years, he managed to work most of the way through the guilt but held tight to the rage he felt at the soldier who defied his directions, paid the price, and left a widow behind.
Does he have PTSD? There are other tell-tale signs that he displays, but ultimately, I don’t know. An expert would need to diagnose that. What I can attest to is the tremendous impact the event had on his mind – how it seared itself deep into his memory, to haunt and torture him. And like rehabbing a physical wound, I’m confident that talking it out with someone more qualified than me would have helped him tremendously. He would have healed more quickly and more wholly, perhaps without the residual anger that he still carries.
Rob Delong was lucky enough to have a wife of 30 years who could help compel him to seek assistance. There are plenty who have no one they can or will confide in. We’re close, but I don’t have the kind of sway with my brother that would get him to seek help. Tough to imagine him ever visiting a counselor. Heck, he was declared partially disabled because of hearing loss, but won’t take time off work to go get his free hearing aids from the Veteran’s Administration. Little chance he’ll agree to the work required for meaningful mental rehab.
So again, why do some of us avoid treating the kind of mental wounds that traumatic events create?
I don’t think we avoid mental health care because we want to APPEAR tough. I think we avoid it because we want to actually BE tough. Admitting that something shook us involves admitting to ourselves that our armor isn’t as thick as we imagined it was. How can you blame us? Sergeant Slaughter doesn’t seek counseling because Cobra Commander took out part of his team. He gets revenge. Rambo doesn’t lie down on the couch in the headshrinker’s office after narrowly avoiding death and extinguishing hundreds of human lives. He goes back for more, repeatedly.
Many of us were raised to value and practice stoicism. We finish the deployment. We carry on. We bury any pain or hurt and hope it only slips out one night a year, but preferably not at all.
“I’ve wrecked motorcycles pretty badly,” Delong said. “And I’ve gotten out of the hospital and got back on the motorcycle and I kind of figured it was the same thing as this. That old cliché – ‘You have to get back up on the horse.’ I didn’t want to be fearful.”
We don’t want to be fearful. We avoid constructively dealing with mental trauma and post-traumatic stress because we don’t want to confront the related visceral feelings, whether those are fear, guilt, or anger. We don’t want to admit that our armor has weak points. But some of us are brave enough to address those things anyway, and like Rob Delong, they want to encourage others to do the same.
“PTSD is absolutely real. Everybody knows now,” Delong said. “You don’t have to be in war to suffer from it. You could be in an abusive relationship or something like that and suffer. Mental health is such a huge thing. I hope that, in the future, people don’t feel like they have to hide it. Everyone who needs them should use the services provided.”
For DLA employees, the Employee Assistance Program offers a variety of personal services to include confidential counseling and referral services that can help, free of charge. Counselors can also provide referrals to community resources based on client needs, health insurance coverage and financial resources. EAP can be reached 24/7 at 1-866-580-9046. Additionally, there are many resources to include webinars, articles, videos available on their website related to mental health and other topics, found here.