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.

 

My Connections

My son took advantage of some family connections and recently procured a fairly decent full time job.  Since full time work is going the way of the dodo that was considered a minor coup and the job is one requiring proficiency in a sophisticated software suite, in which the demand was high enough that they were willing to train.  The job is at my wife’s place of employment.  She heard about the position, knew the requirements for the job, and was able to give our son some useful guidance in putting together a resume and in interviewing for this particular position.  Of course, succeeding at the job is all on him, but he more than likely would never have heard of it, let alone known how to successfully apply for it if it hadn’t been for a family connection.

That’s not an uncommon story.  Lots of people get their jobs with help from family.  At my current job I telecommute so I’m rather cut off from office goings on, but when I worked at an office it was not uncommon to see siblings or parent/child combos working at the office.  Usually the kids heard about the job from their parents and if the parents were well respected at work, they were an informal reference for the new applicant.

Among my son’s peers many of them work for the same companies based on feedback they had gotten from their friends.  If a place is hiring and the salary, and benefits are better than what their friends are making at say, in the fast food industry, they’ll get the hook-up to put in an application, and give them details enough about the job so they have a much better idea of what the job is then the average applicant reading the brief description from an online job searching site or even more quaint, your daily newspaper. A couple of good connections are worth more than a thousand emailed resumes in today’s job hunt.

Growing up, I even took advantage of connections to get a job.  My father worked for a major national airline, and one summer when the airline was hiring temporary help to work the ramp, my father told my brother and me about it to see if we were interested.  Indeed we were, since the job paid double the minimum wage in those days, and it certainly beat washing dishes. The interview was barely that since I had met most of the people who had worked there before.  So by the standards of that time and place, that was an excellent paying job for a couple of guys in community college.  And it’s a job I would have never heard of if it hadn’t been for a family connection.

Needless to say, the military is rife with family connections.  My first visit to the Army Recruiter was a good example.  Upon entering, the office, hopped up on the movie Stripes and Reagan’s America, I stood patiently waiting while the recruiter was filling out paperwork; he barely raised his eyes to look at me and returned to his paperwork.  But of course, I had the hook up.

“Ahem,” I said, clearing my throat, “But I’m a legacy…”  This time he looked up in earnest, a big smile on his face.

“Well why didn’t you say so?  Please follow me!”  We retired to the military recruiter’s wood paneled study, and over brandy and cigars, discussed my future military career, and my father’s draftee inflicted one.  Of course, even as a legacy, one has to be careful to take the recruiter’s promises at face value.  Apparently, many of the things he had promised me turned out to be flights of fancy.  Based on the MOS I had selected, I was promised that I would never need to handle a weapon again after basic training, and I would work in an office building in civilian clothes.  Much to my surprise, this turned out to be not quite accurate, although in what would have probably have been a surprise to my recruiter, many years later I did in fact have an assignment in which I worked in an office in civilian clothes, but that was well beyond the influence of my recruiter, my legacy status, and depended more on dumb luck and being at the right place at the right time.

It wasn’t much of a surprise that most (although not all) of the people I met in the military usually had a family member, most likely a father, who had also been in the military.  That sort of personal family knowledge makes the idea of joining the military conceivable; in a way that someone without such intimate family knowledge might regard it as a totally off the wall due to their lack of familiarity to the idea of the military.

And that applies to almost the entire job market.  The labor market isn’t a pure, well functioning machine. It has a lot of bumps to it, making it difficult to get the idea of the full opportunity for jobs that are available in a particular geographic area.  Think how many buildings you drive by in a day that are staffed by hundreds of people working for companies you have no idea about doing jobs you’ve never heard of.

So taking advantage of the network of friends and family for finding when doing a job search is probably far more cost and time effective than virtually anything else you will do when you job hunt.  It’s far more useful than emailing hundreds of resumes to unwatched email boxes.

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