Sunday, September 19, 2010

The continuing war at home


ON JULY 19, 2004, I didn’t die.

I can talk now about what happened that day, but it’s enough to know that I lost friends in a mortar attack in Baghdad. Pfc. Charles Persing, who had pushed me away and took the brunt of the blast, and Sgt. Dale Lloyd, my team leader who had run to help, both died that day. Two other friends, Sgt. Mike Ramirez and Spc. James O’Leary, and my team leader, Staff Sgt. Keith Adams, were injured.

Physically, I was unhurt, but I was living with the loss of my friends, recurring nightmares of the events of the day, and an overwhelming guilt for being alive. I’m not even really sure you could call it living. I felt worthless; although I was newly married with a daughter, I thought about suicide.

I didn’t know what to call it then, but I was suffering from survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. The only people I could listen to were those who had been there with me. Hearing from them that they cared for me and that I could be proud of myself and my service meant so much more somehow than hearing it from my family, who love you in spite of a turmoil they don’t understand.

I had to get better not only to care for my family but to honor the friends we had lost by living a full life.

I underwent treatment at the VA, which involved group therapy sessions and meeting with counselors. But the thing that broke through more than any session was talking one-on-one with veterans of the Vietnam War. Those guys put me on a personal mission. “Don’t let your generation become like ours,” they told me. “Make your buddies aware, make the public aware.”

I could tell them things — one guy in particular. With all the doctors and social workers and other vets there, this big, tough Vietnam vet chose me to share a story that, although half a world and four decades apart, was a lot like mine. As he helped me, I was helping him, too.

This offered me a starting point. I didn’t have to open up completely then, but I could start, little by little, to unload the weight of my emotions and experiences.

If this set me on an upward slope, I reached a peak at a combat-stress retreat run through the Wounded Warrior Project. I didn’t say as much as I could have, and I can’t really explain what that week meant to me. I learned to look at things a different way and to process my feelings differently.

I won’t say that I was cured that week. There is no cure for post-traumatic stress or survivor guilt, just as there is no way to bring Lloyd or Persing back.

But I have fewer, less-intense nightmares. When I have a flashback, I know how to ground myself back into my surrounding reality. I have learned to control my symptoms rather than letting them control me.

A lot of combat veterans believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness. I will admit that I once felt the same, but reaching out saved my life. The help doesn’t need to come from a doctor. It can be another vet, or just someone you can trust. It can be hard to talk. But just take one thing out at a time, something small. You don’t have to dump it all out; just lighten your load, bit by bit, and you’ll get there.

PTSD is a wound. Like any other wound, it will fester and spread if you don’t treat it. Just like you would with a wound to your arm or leg, you treat it, you stop the infection. It may not work quite as it did before, and you may have a scar, but you will start to heal and find strength and ability to do things you didn’t before.

I am pursuing my education now through the TRACK program, working out and loving my wife and daughter. I won’t waste the life that was spared on July 19, 2004, and I will honor the friends I lost by living a better life.

Andrew Coughlan, a Michigan resident, served in the war in Iraq. He is participating in the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project’s TRACK program, which provides education and transition service to wounded vets in Jacksonville, Fla.

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