After serving seven years in the US Army I was Honorably Discharged in 2013. Since then I have been struggling to function in the civilian world. For over a month now, I have written page after page of my experiences during training; when I arrived at my first duty station, my deployment to Iraq, leaving active duty, serving my last three years in the Reserves, and finally transitioning to life in the civilian world. I have been very hesitant to share my experiences for various reasons. But, too many veterans suffer in silence. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to lead by example and speak up, so no more hesitation.
There are pivotal moments in a Soldier’s life when “circumstances” force you to disconnect and turn all emotion off in order to mentally survive. I was in AIT ( Advanced Individual Training) when my “survival” instinct kicked in and my emotions turned off. At Ft. Leonard Wood MO, 3:30 AM, I was asleep in my bunk when suddenly I hear screaming from down the hall, and all of the lights are turned on. I got up to see if the Drill Sergeants were just fucking around ( they often would wake us up throughout the night like that especially if they were drunk) but this time it was ANOTHER girl who had tried to kill herself. She was laying in the shower in a pool of her own blood and she white as a ghost. One of the Drill Sergeants stood there in shock while girls were yelling “call 911!” That was what really sent me over the edge. I was FURIOUS, I had NO sympathy for her. My response was cold and heartless, “If she’s dead cover the fucking body! If she has a pulse stop the bleeding and shut the fuck up!” After that, I went back to bed (It breaks my heart to think about this today). Fortunately, that girl was not successful and recovered, but Soldiers were trying to commit suicide almost daily, and too many were successful.
While I am sickened and ashamed of the way I reacted to this poor girl who tried to take her own life I cannot stress enough how crucial it is to be able to turn off emotions if you’re going to survive in a fucking war zone. To this day ( besides occasionally talking about Iraq with soldiers I deployed with) I have never really talked about what it’s like to be there, or what I’ve seen.
Being deployed to Iraq during war time is like living the most horrific and morbid nightmare you can imagine ESPECIALLY if you are a female Soldier. We were bombed EVERY DAY. Female soldiers are not “allowed” to walk anywhere alone at night. There had been multiple cases of male Soldiers holding female Soldiers at gunpoint and raping them (Not to say “ALL” male soldiers did this because not all do). Then there’s the casualties that come into the hospital, and they are not just grown men and women...they are infants, toddlers, even a whole soccer team of kids that were victims of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) One infant will stay burned in my mind for the rest of my life. He was smaller than a loaf of bread, couldn’t have been more than a couple of weeks old, and he was dying. His little face looked like parts were melting off and his tiny hands were wrapped in bloody gos. Tubes were all over him and he lay’d motionless in a little incubator while a man and woman crying uncontrollably stood over him. At that moment I felt like there was no good left in the world.
The following day I was smoking outside of my Units Headquarters building with two of my battle buddies when an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) made its way inside the wire and exploded mid air about 50 meters from us. Both of my buddies (PVT Rudy and SPC Cowan) immediately ran behind the cement barricades and into the HQ building, but I didn’t. I walked toward the cloud left by the first explosion holding my M-16 and staring up into the sky, then I just stopped and stood there, out in the open, no body armor, no kevlar, and no rounds loaded. I wasn’t scared, sad, or suicidal. I was angry, I was delirious, and I was tired. Right before the 2nd RPG exploded (this one a little closer than the first, about 40 meters out) my mind began to FLOOD with images of my family, as if something was desperately trying to get me to run for cover. The 2nd explosion jolted me out of my daze and I could hear my First Sergeant yelling at me, “get back now!” and that’s when I turned around and ran for cover.
Now, that’s just 2 scenarios and examples of how the Army builds you up to function. They train you to kill, bury emotion and be “Army Strong.” “If you’re too emotional then you’re too weak!” “You wanna cry?!”, “Cry to your momma!!” “You’re a Soldier you don’t need help with shit!!”
Well it's been three years now since I’ve been out of the Military and let me just say, I know what I did took strength, bravery, and A LOT of sacrifice and I am proud to have served but I will no longer be too proud to seek the help I need right now because I don’t want to be one of the 22 veterans a day that loses the battle to PTSD. I don’t want any other Veteran to become one of the 22. So, if you are reading this and you’re a Veteran struggling with PTSD DON’T GIVE UP, reach out and get the help you fucking earned. If you know a veteran, please don’t give up on them. Everyday, they’re fighting battles that are invisible to you but very real for them.
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EDITORS NOTE: This is the first piece in an ongoing series by Elizabeth Torrence on the topic of PTSD, Depression, Anxiety, Isolation and her experiences in the war and in the civilian world. I feel many of us "civilians" can greatly benefit and can definitely relate to these topics. If there is something you'd like Elizabeth to talk more about, if you have questions, or if you'd like to share your stories and contribute to the conversation, please post in the comments below.