None of my fellow Soldiers knew that when I would go to sleep I would dream about the people I had seen die.
None of them knew that the dark stain on my boot was the blood of the dead Soldier I had to carry off the battlefield, and that I couldn’t make myself throw those boots away.
None of them knew, because, like too many Soldiers, I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to seem weak. So I pushed my feelings aside until I found myself crying my eyes out in front of a U.S. Air Force psychiatrist, proclaiming, “I can’t do this stuff anymore.”
It had been a rough deployment. Not as bad as many, but, when your job is to report the Soldier’s story from the frontlines of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, you find yourself seeking out the most dangerous missions in the most dangerous places.
By the time I returned from leave, separated from my wife, I was teetering on an emotional breakdown. I should have sought help then, but I was a Soldier, and I was supposed to be able to hold it together. That’s when the anger started to take hold.
My friend Justin noticed I was different and would ask me, “Is everything okay? Do you need to talk to someone?”
But all I could do was shout at him to “mind his own damn business, and shut the hell up.”
Eventually I became so withdrawn, that talking to anyone seemed like a chore.
Then a remote mountain village, in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, called Barge Matal was overrun by more than 200 insurgents, and I found myself on the mission tasked to take it back.
The insurgents fled to the surrounding mountains and waited when they heard our helicopters landing. An hour before dusk they opened fire. I don’t know how many bullets and rocket propelled grenades barely missed me, and I really don’t want to. All I do know is that by the end of the day I was lifting the body of a U.S. Army Soldier into the MEDEVAC helicopter while six other injured U.S. and Afghan Soldiers bled behind me.
I had found my breaking point.
However, still it took me another sleepless month and a few more firefights to finally seek the help I knew I needed.
Two years ago there were only 350 active duty psychologists in the entire Department of Defense. Since then the U.S. military has dramatically increased the amount of money and personnel dedicated to treating servicemembers suffering from the effects of combat stress. The U.S. Army alone now has more than 2,500 behavioral health specialists, with more than 250 serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But despite the growing amount of resources available to them, many Soldiers in the field still view seeking mental health as a sign of weakness, including, at the time, myself.
For more than a half an hour I circled the Combat Stress building, trying to decide if I was going to enter, and praying no one was around to see me walk in.
It’s always been hard for me to admit that I need help in anything. My psychiatrist said later that being afraid to ask for help is a major reason many Soldiers go untreated for so long, if at all.
“In the military you’re trained to be self reliant,” he told me. “Many people feel like they have to throw that away when they walk through that door, but it’s not like that. It’s okay to let someone in every now and then.”
The weekly sessions with my “Doc” started off slow, and I was amazed at how inaccurate my preconceptions about therapy were.
“I’m not going to have you sit on a couch and ask you to tell me about your mother,” the psychiatrist joked, during our first session. “I’m just here to listen to you talk as much, or as little, as you want.”
So I talked. Only a little at first, but soon everything I worked so hard to bottle up inside me came out. The various deadly combat experiences, my failing marriage and my lack of motivation to accomplish even the most basic tasks.
At first he took notes, pausing every now and then to ask a question.
I was depressed, he diagnosed, but it wasn’t anything he hadn’t seen before, and it was easily treatable.
Once a week I found myself in the same office talking out my issues.
At the end of every session I felt exhausted, but better. The heavy weight I placed on my chest was beginning to lift more and more.
So much of therapy is just a person learning to vent and let things go.
Soon my friends noticed the change in me. I was no longer angry and withdrawn, and I told them about where I disappeared to every week. One actually thanked my therapist. “It’s nice to have the old Moeller back,” he said.
Now four months later, I’m getting ready to redeploy. Even though I will never be able to forget the things I have seen here, with my doctor’s help, I’ll be able to live with them.
It wasn’t easy admitting I needed help, and it wasn’t easy telling my friends there was a problem, but at least now I can sleep at night.
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