SOFREP is proud to present its guest author, Zachary Mayne, veteran of 3rd Ranger Battalion. Welcome, Zachary!
Five weeks after being wounded by a burst of high-explosive rounds in combat, I was hooking up my static line for a daylight, Hollywood jump over Fryar DZ. My wounds had healed quickly, it seemed. The sight had returned to my right eye within hours of being blinded, and the shrapnel lodged in my cornea was easily removed. The pinholes that dotted my right leg hadn’t caused compartment syndrome and my limp was gone within a few weeks. But as I patted the Ranger in front of me and shouted, “Okay!” over the roar of the C-130’s engines, I realized that everything was not “okay.”
My heart was beating against the inside of my ribs like it wanted to break free. My skin was clammy, my hands were shaking, and my breath was shallow and hoarse. In perhaps the calmest and lowest-risk conditions of any jump in my career, I felt certain that I was about to die. After muscle memory carried me out the door and my canopy deployed, I vomited into the – empty, thankfully – air beneath me. It was the first of many panic attacks that I would experience during the following training cycle, though I didn’t know to call them that at the time.
It was evident that something was very wrong, but I was convinced that my experiences of overwhelming fear would soon equalize. They had the first time, after all. On my first deployment, as a nineteen-year-old rifleman, I witnessed my platoon being torn apart by several pressure-plate and suicide vest improvised explosive devices. Four were left dead, several severely wounded, and the remainder, myself included, with at least a Purple Heart for mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI). I was on another mission two weeks later. My nightmares subsided within a month or two. Falling asleep and staying asleep became effortless within that time frame as well. So, I was left to wonder why, this time, after a mission on which no one had been killed, my symptoms of stress were so much worse. I was left to wonder why, this time, they were only worsening with time.
The next six months became a juggling act. Perform at the expected level of a senior fire team leader during training events. Go to regular appointments at the Martin Army Community Hospital’s TBI Clinic. Hide the episodes of inner panic, debilitating ocular migraines and tension headaches, and inability to get restful sleep. My two greatest sources of fear seemed perfectly at odds with one another: return to combat, or reveal the truth of my condition to my leaders, peers, and subordinates. It appeared that I would be forced to choose one or the other, and neither was acceptable. I was trapped between them. Suffocated.
In the end, an ocular migraine that hit me during a platoon live-fire exercise made the decision on my behalf. I was taken off the line by the medics, and shortly thereafter I had begun the process of a medical evaluation board. Within six months from that date, I was medically retired for mTBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The former of those diagnoses brought along no extraneous baggage, in my mind. A brain injury was just that: an injury. The latter, however, brought with it a potent degree of emotional toxicity. I felt guilt and shame for receiving the diagnosis and for letting it defeat me. For letting it end my career on unfavorable terms. I felt that my service in the Regiment had been invalidated. I felt that it was unacceptable to let anyone beyond my fiancée and my medical providers know that I had received the diagnosis.
Now, I’m writing about it openly. It’s far from easy to do so, and the feeling of shame is ever-present, but the ability to speak about my diagnosis is merely one of several marked reductions in my symptoms that I have experienced since getting the proper treatment. I have been undergoing Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy at the Denver VAMC’s PTSD clinic; weekly sessions with a clinical psychologist, bridged by “homework” assignments relevant to the in-person sessions. It’s some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. It is a deeply uncomfortable feeling to recount these experiences in vivid detail, out loud, repeatedly, and listen to the recordings daily. But this process has taught me that the symptoms of PTSD only worsen with time and neglect. Time doesn’t heal an infection; the infection spreads. Similarly, while the debridement of the corrupted tissue may be painful and terrifying, it may also be life-saving. PE is my debridement. Speaking openly about my diagnosis for the first time is my debridement.
I hope that somewhere at the end of this road lies forgiveness. I want that for myself. I owe that to myself. I hope that I can feel peaceful and equanimous about what happened and the way it affected me, and that I can find a fitting place to put the guilt I feel for failing my platoon. Maybe someday. For now, I can only begin walking in that direction. I also hope that my story may help someone, even one person, who is in a similar situation. If this story resonates with you, I hope that you reach out. Ask for help. Talk about it. The road to healing is not an easy or enjoyable one to walk, but when you need it, it’s the only road worth walking.
– Zach Mayne
Images provided by the author.