When you can’t see PTSD

Before I retired from the Army Reserves, my last unit was a small detachment where we worked special projects.  So drill for us was spent behind a computer, researching and working on various work products. Although I was a newly promoted Sergeant First Class, I was selected as detachment NCO.  I wasn’t the senior NCO in the unit however. There was another SFC who had date of rank on me by several years.  However when he was asked to be the Detachment NCO, he turned it down flat.  Generally, that just isn’t done.  The senior person is supposed to be preparing, and willing to take over when personnel leave, but he was having none of it.  So when I was asked to assume those responsibilities (I accepted of course-although it was less of an ask and more a matter of being told) it wasn’t because I was just so great that the unit leadership thought I was a perfect choice, it was because the person who should have done it just flatly refused.

But being asked to take over as senior Non Commissioned Officer for the detachment was merely a formality.  The truth is he was supposed to take the job, and it was confounding to the unit leadership that he out and out refused.  I didn’t get it either, and I had asked him.  He just waved me off on that one; he didn’t seem to have a clear reason or couldn’t seem to articulate it. This wasn’t the first time that Sergeant Ed (that’s what I’ll call him) had troubles with the unit leadership.  Months prior he had gotten in a shouting match with a Major over…nothing.  He had just lost his temper for no reason.

That should have been a clue for me, but I totally missed it.

Sergeant Ed had been deployed to Iraq and had been back for about two years at that point.  He didn’t enjoy his deployment.  Not being sarcastic here but some guys do.  They like the adventure, the camaraderie, and the extra combat pay.  And the younger you are, the less cognizant of danger you are.  That’s why young guys traditionally make the best soldiers.  Sergeant Ed wasn’t a young guy when he was deployed though.  He was in his fifties; an unimaginably ancient age to be deployed in a combat zone for the active services, but strictly routine for Guard and Reserve.

What’s worse, he was deployed in an entirely different Military Occupational Specialty than the one he had been working in for the past couple years.  That wasn’t as uncommon as it should have been.  Something similar happened to me.  I was deployed in my original MOS, not the one I had been working in the previous decade.  At least in my case it was a field that was fairly close to the one I had been working in, so the transition for me wasn’t as extreme.

So he was supposed to be a supervisor (he had the rank) and be an expert in, a field he hadn’t worked in about 15 years.  In a combat zone, with people he hadn’t worked with before.

No pressure.

None the less, that was all in the past, and I didn’t connect it with his performance in the unit.  Until one day…

We were at work one day, each at our workstations working on our various aspects of our project, when he turned to me and asked what I thought was a really off the wall question.

“Say when you’re online, do you ever look at…”

Now here I was preparing myself for some description of some off the wall aspect of pornography.  I steeled myself for the description of some fetish that I really didn’t want to hear about.

“…car crash scenes?”

“Huh?  No.  What?”

That threw me.  I have seen car crash photos online.  Years ago there was a troll on a forum I used to go to that would either post or misidentify links to auto accidents.  But I sure wouldn’t go searching for them.  Who would?

He then proceeded to tell me how he would wake up in the middle of the night and search for gruesome car crashes online.  He couldn’t explain exactly why he did it, but he described it as a compulsion, a compulsion that had its roots in his deployment to Iraq.

And that’s when the story came out.

He had gone on sick call; something minor, and while sitting in the waiting room there was a large explosion outside on the street.  An bomb had gone off, killing several people.  That part sounds like just a news report, but he was in the waiting room of that medical detachment when the stretchers came into the facility.  These were stretchers full of body parts; arms, legs…other parts.  All the while he was helpless to do anything.

That morning became the defining moment of his deployment.  It was the trigger to his post traumatic stress disorder, and I had worked with the guy for two years and didn’t have a clue.

Oh I had sat through the Army briefings on PTSD, and thought I would be able to detect the symptoms in a fellow soldier, but I didn’t.  Instead, I judged him, just like the rest of my detachment command judged him.  We didn’t have a clue even though the clues in his behavior were sprinkled all around us.

But I think what really threw me was his age.  I just didn’t expect an adult in his fifties to be traumatized that way.  For some reason, it made more sense to me that a guy in his twenties would be more affected.  But when you are in your fifties?  It was nonsensical prejudice and maybe it’s one that isn’t emphasized enough.  But it was a difficult lesson to learn.

At least he was taken care of properly by the VA.  Although there are a million and one terrible VA stories, there are even more that were successful.  In this case, he got the help he needed. But my regret, is that I didn’t support him in the way that he needed, when he really needed it.

 

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5 thoughts on “When you can’t see PTSD

    • Well he’s dead.

      In fact, the day that I posted this was the 5 year anniversary of his death. I didn’t mention that in the post because that wasn’t really part of the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to talk about my failure to recognize those symptoms even though I should have. And also his death wasn’t related to PTSD, it was due to other medical complications, so it would have confused the story, and I didn’t want to have to explain, “no he didn’t commit suicide” or anything like that. But the date I posted it was my private (until now) way of honoring him.

      Long story on the A1C! I’ll have to follow up on that…

      Like

  1. Funny how I always thought you were Air Force like I was. Reckon it was the gravatar.

    That is a sad story. I’m glad you were able to finally figure it out and get him the help he needed at the time.

    Also, the VA has been good to me.

    Like

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