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Army veteran Isiah James "loved" being in the military. He says he enjoyed the kinship and camaraderie that the U.S. armed forces offered him.
But when the Army medically retired him at 27, “that’s when all the problems hit me,” he says.
“One day I was in the service and the next day — literally the next day — I was just a civilian out on my own,” he says.
Navy veteran Fidel GomezTorres had a similar experience. “I absolutely enjoyed my time deployed. I enjoyed my time in the Navy,” he says.
But once he was back in the hustle and bustle of New York City, his post-traumatic stress disorder started manifesting itself. He says he began to realize that he “carried a lot of anger” while trying to readjust to civilian life in the city.
Both James and GomezTorres are among the 11% to 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who experience PTSD in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
At one point after his third and final deployment, James considered suicide. That’s when he realized he needed to get help.
“This little voice inside my head just said, ‘You can't give up,’ " he says. "So that's when I started seeking help and it literally has saved my life.”
For GomezTorres, he says it took him nearly eight years to stop normalizing his PTSD symptoms and get evaluated.
“Deep inside, whenever I allowed myself to be honest, I would tell myself, ‘I keep on saying I'm OK, but I don't think that I am.’ I would really just kind of secretly deal with it, but I could tell that it was affecting those around me,” he says.
Now, GomezTorres is in treatment for PTSD.
“This is what I need to do in order to make it better,” he says.
On leaving the military and PTSD symptoms that followed
Isiah James: "I was deployed to Iraq two times and Afghanistan one time. My job in the Army was an 11 Bravo which is an infantryman. My first deployment was 15 months from October ‘06 to January ‘08. My second deployment was December ‘08 to December 2009. And my final deployment was June 2010 to May 2011. I was wounded in service. I loved being in the Army but not for the reasons you would think. I loved the kinship and the camaraderie and the brotherhood that it provided. And once I got hurt, I couldn't do it anymore. The Army medically retired me. So at 27 years old, I was literally a retiree.
“I didn't really deal with [PTSD] while I was in [the Army] because you're surrounded by ... like everybody is going through the same things. So you don't really want to manifest your problems on anybody else. But it's when you get outside the military, and the civilian world is a lot different, and you're on your own and you don't really have that support network there.”
Fidel GomezTorres: “I joined in 2008. I had one deployment to Afghanistan. I spent 10 months in Kandahar. The deployment included a leg before and after, so total deployment time was 15 months. I was a builder so I was attached to a construction battalion. Much of the work that we were doing in Kandahar was expanding the airfield, building some facilities [and] expanding the facilities there. And I came back in 2011. I absolutely enjoyed my time deployed. I enjoyed my time in the Navy.
"In terms of when my PTSD started manifesting itself, it took me a really long time to give it a name. And I think that for me, I was just having a hard time [adjusting] when I returned. I was living in New York City at the time. New York City can be a very overwhelming city. I felt overly stimulated by everything that was going on and I started to realize that I carried a lot of anger. It would really bother me when people would complain about how hot the subway was because I would always reference it back to where I just came from. So everything was always connected to where I had just came from. And in my head at that time, no one had any reason to complain about anything. But of course that's not the case. You know, sometimes we have bad days and people complain about it. So for me, I started noticing it in terms of my temperament, my anger. I was very quick to get upset and annoyed. It wasn't until last year when I actually started seeking treatment, so almost an eight-year journey to finally figuring out this is what it is. It's OK. This is what I need to do in order to make it better.”
On feeling overwhelmed while readjusting to civilian life
IJ: “I do have to remember that I am in the civilian world now because one thing, my wife, my lovely, lovely wife, we'll go outside and she’ll be like, ‘It's hot.’ And I can remember back to the days of my first deployment, literally it was 130 degrees outside and we were going on eight-hour foot patrols. I always call, you know, our problems ‘first world problems.’ But yes, New York City can be a very overstimulating place and I speak to the fact that I do my therapy at the VA near my house and it's helped me get over being in New York City a lot and spending time my wife is probably my main therapeutic thing.”
On PTSD and suicide
IJ: “Mine was really severe. Mine was really, really bad. I would snap on anybody for any little thing and I'm a big guy. I'm 6 feet, 8 inches. I'm 300 pounds so I'm a very large individual. I would literally sit at home at night and just sit up all night, staring into the darkness, waiting for somebody to come through a door that wasn't coming through a door. When I knew I needed help was when I was younger and I was sitting in my bathroom on the floor with a giant bottle of scotch and a bottle of sleeping pills and just crying uncontrollably, not wanting to be here anymore, not wanting to live with this anymore because I have seen so much pain and so much death and destruction throughout my deployments."
On seeking help and resources for PTSD
FGT: “After returning from my deployment, we were told that we should go to the VA, register with the VA, and get an evaluation. A lot of my friends were going and they were being diagnosed with PTSD and TBI [traumatic brain injury] and I felt fearful of going and getting diagnosed. I feel like there was such a stigma, and still is, around having PTSD. There is this idea of brokenness that you carry. And for me, I've always been high functioning. I've always been an overachiever. And the idea that something had changed fundamentally and that I could no longer be the person that I've always known myself and took pride in being made me very afraid. It made me feel that a diagnosis could redefine me and would redefine me. So I was very stubborn and I was very resistant. Nevertheless, I still saw the symptoms.
"At that time I was in a relationship. The relationship kind of just went down south. I was having a lot of trouble sleeping. I was having extreme nightmares. I was sleepwalking. I was having sleep paralysis because I wasn't getting sleep. I was walking around very temperamental and angry and exhausted and carrying just a lot of anxiety. And I kept then telling myself, ‘I'm OK. It's just today, I didn't sleep last night.’ I wasn't asking myself, 'Well, why didn't you sleep last night?' I knew that I didn't sleep and I knew that if I continued to ask myself questions I would end up going back to like, 'Well, you're not OK.' But I needed to be OK. So I needed to tell the people around me and I needed to believe it. So for the longest time I resisted. The symptoms just became something that I ended up normalizing until I realized that because I had not [sought] help and because I had not tried to heal, what I was afraid of in the diagnosis had already happened without it. And it was this idea that you're not the same person, something is broken and you keep on ignoring it. You're not going to get better and you're not ever going to be the person that you were unless you start fixing whatever is broken.”
IJ: “What I referenced before, it was that story I told you, that next day I went to my local VA and I walked in and now most VAs have a section that's for older veterans and for Operation Iraqi Freedom [and] Operation Enduring Freedom veterans. So I went to that section for the younger veterans. I was scared. I was like, I don't want to be seen as somebody who society might look down upon because I'm dealing with this mental issue. They were so welcoming and receptive and the stigma that I thought would be there wasn't there. The barriers that I thought would be there weren't there. And I started dealing with my caseworker and I started going to group therapy. At first they put me into group therapy with a lot of older veterans from the Vietnam and Korea era, but I didn't really connect with those veterans' stories and their experiences. I mean, the trauma of war is such that we all connect. But I needed to connect with younger veterans. So I started going to counseling with younger veterans who shared my same job in the military.
"I realized that I'm not alone in this fight, that people are dealing with this who, for all intents and purposes, look ‘normal’ but are dealing with these issues on the inside. And I was so relieved that I didn't have this albatross around my neck anymore weighing me down because as Fidel was saying, like not sleeping and the sleep paralysis, I know exactly what he's talking about because I still don't sleep to this day. I still, when I walk into my apartment, I have to check the bathroom and the closets to make sure nobody's in there. I know nobody's in there, but my mind won't turn off all completely from that hyper vigilance. So I'm still dealing with it, but it's not as bad as it used to be a few years ago."
On whether they are getting the help they need from the VA
IJ: "100% without equivocation, yes."
FGT: "I had a couple of hiccups. I think that the intentions are in the right place, but I also know that my VA has been limited and because of that, I had to play around with my treatment at first which made it difficult. You know, you want to go in there, you want consistency, you want something that feels good but is going to be lasting. And that wasn't the case for me. Initially, I was recommended acupuncture just kind of like trying to get my feet wet and it was supposed to be every two weeks, but there weren't enough acupuncturists available to see me every two weeks. So it wasn't a cadence that I could follow. I kept on hearing back from the VA saying your appointment has been canceled. We had to reschedule you. So it was a little difficult. Eventually they got it right, but I can definitely say that the resources are not always there."
On if they think Americans understand what veterans go through
FGT: "Oh absolutely not. Absolutely not.
"I think it's a difficult conversation to have with civilians. I think that unless you've experienced it, you really have no points of reference. So I can tell someone, this is what my experience was, and there is a distance and almost kind of like … I feel like sometimes people romanticize service and war stories in a way that makes it seem like, OK, this is great. You know it's great. Well you know, you went out when you served. I don't regret going out and serving. This is my country. But I don't think that people realize what happens when you go. And I don't think that people realize what happens when you come back. And I don't think that enough conversations — honest conversations — are had about the toll and the cost of war not just in lives that don't come back, but in lives that come back and are broken."
IJ: “Absolutely not. I don't really talk to people who haven't served about my experiences. I don't really let people know too often that I was even in the service. Like I said before, my lovely wife, I’ve opened up to her about some of my experiences. As Fidel said, there's no point of reference. I mean some of the things that I've seen and done, there's no point of reference that I could tell you about seeing people actually blown into pieces. There's no point of reference that I could tell people about having an 18-year-old to make a decision to take a human life or have your life be taken and be put in that position, have to do it day in and day out and day in and day out. It changes you so. There's no way I think I could get people who haven't served to actually understand. They may understand on the surface, like Fidel said, romanticize it, and think about service as this great thing, but they don't understand the human toll that it takes on you just being in war.”
On what veterans need from the U.S. government
FGT: "I don't think the military needs much. I think that we often take pride in having the best military or the greatest military, the mightiest military. We can't be mighty and also be insufficient. You have to pick one. I think that the greatest need is in how America treats its veterans when they come back. I walk down Newbury Street here in Boston and you see homeless people holding up signs saying that they served in this war and they served in that war. There should be no person that serves this country and puts their life on the line and is out holding a sign on cardboard. You know, in the streets without a home, without food. That should never be the case."
IJ: "I think that in a $20 trillion economy such as ours, I think it's my duty as a veteran to say that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Not only do veterans need more resources, but we can give those resources to all people in country in need. I would say that Congress needs to have an honest conversation about where we allocate those resources because right now, we're spending 10 times more on defense than we are education. So we're prioritizing war and war mongering more so than we're prioritizing educating the next generation. And I think Congress needs to have that honest conversation.
"We cannot be at war with the world. All great empires have fallen. The Romans, the Greeks, the Ottoman Empire, we're stretching ourselves too thin. And I see us going down a path that of which if we do not correct ourselves will have disastrous consequences. So I think we need to get our house in order [and] pull some of those funds back from an over bloated military budget and spend them on people at home."
On what they would say to veterans who have not taken the steps to get help
FGT: “I would say be honest with yourself. You know you don't have to be a hero. You don't have to project that you are OK if you're not. Be honest with yourself and stop being stubborn and refusing help. It's OK to need help. It's OK to get the help. It's amazing to heal. And I think that the moment that people start having honest conversations with what they can and cannot do, what they need, and you know, the help that they want, there will be one step closer to healing."
IJ: "I would say to all my brothers and sisters who have served, you're not in this fight alone. I know it may seem like it at times, but there are truly people out there who care and want to help you. There are people out there who have gone through the same experiences that you have.
"So please, we're losing too many of our brothers and sisters every day to suicide, get the help that you need. The resources are there. You might have to go through some bureaucratic red tape but do not choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem."
Resources for veterans with PTSD:
This segment aired on August 7, 2019.
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