The stress of combat is real, I’ve lost friends in the Teams due to it.
I remember being in Iraq and looking at the tackle box (yes a tackle box) full of prescription medication a retired Army E-9 was in possession of. He laughed, and said the VA was trying to kill him. It was unbelievable to me that they would basically medicate this guy into darkness. It’s true, I experienced it years later myself. Chris Kyle’s killer was also medicated instead of being hospitalized (at the repeated request of his family). The VA needs new leadership but part two to that story will come soon.
PTSD can be overcome but it takes more than medication, it takes positive action, good mental health support (PHD level…accept no less) and support from a community. This is my opinion anyway. I’m pleased to share this short story and others coming soon with the Team Room. We’ve had a ton of veterans come forward, and share their experiences after our PTSD radio show with the Spooner brothers discussing their experiences candidly. Below is one that was shared, l>et us know what you think.
I don’t think PTSD ever goes away. It does however ebb and flow and 2010 had been a relatively good year for me. Working at a company comprised of mostly former Special Operations combat veterans had played a large role in the disappearance of my PTSD symptoms; they seemed to become less and less every day. I was around other veterans, and had a purpose. I was helping teach Special Operations personnel the skills that they would need to survive on the battlefield and to catch terrorists. I felt needed again. I felt the comradery again that I had been missing since my exit from the Army. I felt like my life had taken a turn for the better for the first time in about 7 years, until the accident.
In the spring of 2011 our instructional team travelled to Tampa, Florida for a month. We would be teaching in a small suburb of the city at a non-descript government location. I had decided to drive to Tampa from Richmond so I could take numerous books I needed for the online courses I taught, numerous books I was currently reading, and several other things like a blender, and a few bags of organic fruits and vegetables so i could maintain some semblance of a healthy diet; at least until I found a place in Tampa where I could buy similar items.
I left my house early on a Saturday morning and began the 11-hour journey. My Ipod, filled with music and three or four audio books that I was trying to finish, kept me entertained during the monotonous highway driving. Everything was going well; Virginia state line, North Carolina, South Carolina; the day progressed as any other and I was enjoying the audiobook version of What the Bleep Do We Know when I decided to pull off the highway to get gas and use the restroom in Dillon, South Carolina. The weather was beautiful; sparkling blue sky, the occasional wispy cloud, and a refreshing spring breeze that reminded me of the air in Iraq that preceded the terrible summer heat. I finished pumping my gas and ran to the rear of the building to take a piss. Either a smell or a sound reminded me of how long it had been since I had journeyed in the misty underworld of nightmares from Iraq. I felt clean now; almost like a person who had come through a bad addiction and was sober. I too was now sober: no more poison making its way through my mind.
I left the gas station that afternoon and got back onto 95S, heading towards Savannah. About 9 miles south of Dillon, I noticed a white van about 300 meters in front of me in the slow lane. I always tried to look as far ahead as possible when driving in order to react if something happened. For a split second, I thought I saw the van slightly veer left, then right. I thought it a bit strange but continued to listen to my book and watch the road. Moments later, the van appeared to strike the vehicle in front of it, crossed the center line into the left lane, and then disappear into the tree-infested center ditch that often separates major highways. I paused for a second and wondered why someone would pull off into the median after they had just run into the car in front of them. Then I felt that feeling; the adrenaline poured into me and sparked something indescribable. I finally realized that he hadn’t pulled over and driven into the median, he had lost control and driven off the highway into the swampy area of trees.
I switched lanes and began to slow my car as my breathing began to accelerate. I finally saw the van in a low swampy area, smashed in between several large trees, steam and smoke spewing from the front end. I slammed on my brakes, and put on my four-way flashers. As soon as I stopped, I ran to the trunk of my car and grabbed my emergency kit. I rushed down the embankment into the ankle deep water towards the crumpled front end of the van. One other witness also ran in my direction as I looked in the passenger window. The silence was eerie; the impact so violent that the vehicle had severed entire trees from their root systems and finally came to a halt after smashing into a massive pine.
The passenger door was locked in place by the collision and a tree also blocked it from being opened. I heard a woman’s scream and decided to move to the driver’s side of the vehicle in an attempt to extract the driver. The windshield had nearly imploded and looked like a collection of ice crystals, beautiful spider-web designs festooning its entire face. The van looked like a wounded animal, crushed, torn, ripped apart, its internal fluids slowly leaking into the murky ground water. I could smell gas and oil and feared a fire. The stench of radiator fluid seemed to descend on the area.
“Get a hammer!” I heard someone cry, “He’s trapped inside!”
As I rounded the front of the van a horrifying scene came into view…
“Quick! Quick! He’s dying!” a woman screamed, perched at the window, half in view.
Her shrills cries sparked a feeling in me that I had not experienced since Iraq. I tried to push past her shrieks and told someone to grab her and move her away so I and another guy that had shown up could get the injured man out. She was standing at the door rubbing the man’s face and screaming, over and over…”He’s dying! Ahhhhh……”
As soon as her body moved away, I could see the man and the side of the vehicle. The lower portion of the driver’s door had been ripped from its frame and twisted into an unrecognizable mass of crumpled metal, wires, and plastic.
“Sir! Sir!” I yelled, “Can you hear me?” as I checked for breathing and a pulse.
“Ahhhh….” he moaned in a whispered tone.
Small trickles of blood formed around his eyes, nose and mouth, his face a horrifying pale yellow. His chest was crushed and distorted, resembling a jagged mountain under his glass and debris-covered t-shirt. His pulse was faint, his breathing labored and gasping. I began to assess for other injuries and saw that his left, upper arm was now in the shape of an “S”, and his left leg appeared to be crushed under the dashboard. I stepped back from the driver to get a better look inside the vehicle through the opening in the lower part of the door.
What happened next probably set me back 2 years in my attempt to deal with my PTSD. Somehow, in my haste to assess the driver for pulse and breathing, perhaps distracted by the woman screaming over and over, I had missed the most gruesome sight I have seen since my initial deployment to Iraq in 2003. Disguised in the detritus of electrical wires, and the remains of the steel door frame, was the lower half of the man’s femur. His lower leg, sheared off cleanly from the force of the impact was nowhere to be seen. His thigh muscle, shredded and lazily hanging to one side only slightly obscured my view of the end of his thigh bone, the cartilage shining and glistening, his skin slowly oozing a strange mix of bodily fluids. My stomach turned amidst the chaos of more people now screaming in the background and the sight of a man’s freshly eviscerated thigh bone jutting out from the interior of the van like an angry limb seeking sunlight in a heavily shaded wood.
By now, a soldier from the 82nd Airborne Division on his way to Jumpmaster School had identified himself as a combat medic. I told him to go grab his bag and break out the IV kit. He rushed back to his truck as I turned again towards the mangled extremity that hung lifelessly from the door. As people continued to pull away branches and chop at the tree blocking the passenger side door, I opened my emergency bag and removed my tourniquet. The black nylon felt reassuring in my hands. I had no gloves but I didn’t even think about that as I carefully navigated the sharp metal and wires that surround his leg like a dense thornbush. As I attempted to place the tourniquet over the stump of his leg, something strange occurred to me. Where was all the blood? Why was his femoral artery not spurting bright red life from him? Unsure of what to think I tried three times to place the tourniquet on his leg but was unable to reach far enough into the twisted metal to place it on flesh. With his entire lower leg missing, I could see at least six inches of exposed femur.
“Here…here!!!” yelled the young soldier as he reappeared with his combat lifesaver bag. I told the woman that had been standing near me as I assessed the patient to stand and hold his head as still as possible.
The soldier and I ran around the front of the van to the passenger side. The other witnesses had by this time chopped down the tree that had been blocking the passenger side door and the door was now open. I jumped in next to the injured man checking again for vital signs of breathing and pulse. The sound of sirens was now audible in the background as I looked into each of his eyes…nothing. Absolutely, fucking nothing. I knew then that this man would die. His crumpled chest, the trickles of blood from his eyes and nose, the massive trauma sustained to his leg, and now, not even the slightest reaction in his unequal pupils, indicative of massive head trauma. I turned and saw firemen and medics running around the front of the van and behind me to the passenger side door. I exited the vehicle as the overweight EMT tried to fit inside the crumpled cabin of the van. I explained everything that I had seen and done so far and he sat there and tried over and over to set an IV line in the injured man’s forearm. I said nothing as I walked away.
I gave a statement to the police officer at the scene and thanked the two or three people that stood out in my mind as ones who had assisted in trying to save the man. I spoke with the young soldier and we exchanged phone numbers. Still in shock, I slowly walked up the embankment, back to my car. The five-finger running sandals I was wearing wear soaking wet and covered in oil and other nasty fluids. I changed into a pair of fresh socks and sneakers and got back on the road.
I have no recollection of the rest of my trip that day or how I got to a hotel. I vaguely remember exiting the highway and renting a room in Savannah, Georgia because I was unable to stop the movie reel in my mind’s eye from completely overtaking me as I drove. That evening the nightmares began again. I had not had a nightmare in months. Like clockwork, I woke up in a sweat-filled pool at 1200 and 0300 hours breathing heavily with chest pains like I had experienced so many times before. A SEAL buddy of mine had turned me on to a meditation course he had used when he left the teams and it had worked for me in the past so I fired it up on my Ipod and began doing pushups and squat thrusts in my hotel room at3am while trying to meditate.
Two things I know to be true: that shit worked for me that night and PTSD never goes away, it just grows a scab on it. Sometimes that scab gets picked at, and sometimes, it gets ripped the fuck off. My PTSD scab got ripped the fuck off that day…
Main photo: Courtesy of Palmer Lab