PTSD and my mistake

09Dec12

Full disclaimer: I do not have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I don’t know why some others have it and I don’t. I have no doubt a great many men and women who are mentally tougher than me have PTSD from their wartime service. I think I may be partly responsible for one soldier I served with having PTSD. I’ll explain that later.

One incident in Afghanistan had the capacity to scar me for life. Late one night I received a report about an IED that Afghan police found in a village. I’ll call the village Loy Kalay. My job was to make sure everyone in the that area was warned about the danger. This was a routine occurrence, so I took the normal steps of notifying the Americans at the command post, then notifying the French, then sending written reports. I went to sleep that night unconcerned; as far as I knew, everyone who needed to know about the IED had been warned.

The next morning, just after I woke up, one of my soldiers walked into the tent and asked, “Did you hear the French got hit by an IED?”

I hadn’t heard. He told me, “It’s really bad. An armored vehicle was completely destroyed and burned. One French Marine was killed, some others are probably going to die, and a bunch of other guys were wounded.”

I asked him, “Where did it happen?”

“Loy Kalay.”

I froze. For one of the only times in my life, I was completely unable to speak. Oh my f**king god, I thought. I f**ked up. Who did I miss? Who didn’t I tell about the IED?

I finally managed to force out more questions. After about ten seconds of keeping me in near-panic, my soldier shook his head, blinked and said, “Oh yeah, it was Loy Alkay, not Loy Kalay. Sorry.”

Loy Alkay was hours from Loy Kalay. I hadn’t messed up. The French weren’t hit by an IED that I failed to warn them about. In that moment I should have felt nothing but concern for my French brothers who were lost and wounded, and I did. But I also felt selfish relief at the knowledge that it wasn’t my fault. To this day those ten seconds, when I thought I had gotten soldiers killed, haunt me.

This happened about a month after a firefight that produced what I hope is unreasonable guilt. The two incidents got me thinking, and I began to form an opinion. My perception is that nonveterans believe trauma comes from having people try to kill you. I don’t think that’s true. I think events that produce guilt are what cause most trauma and PTSD.

Getting shot at can be kinda fun. Getting hit isn’t; I was close enough to people who were hit to know I didn’t want any part of that. But just getting shot at could be funny, exhilarating, thought-provoking, good-naturedly embarrassing, any number of positive things. Having someone die, or get wounded, or almost get wounded because of your mistake, however, produces nothing but negative effects.

As I stated earlier, I think I’m partially at fault for someone else’s PTSD. This story and this soldier have been on my mind for years. I haven’t tried to get in contact with this soldier, which is something else I feel guilty about.

One afternoon my team left Camp Victory, Baghdad, with a convoy of supply trucks. We rolled out the gate, down a long dirt road, and turned onto Route Tampa, which at that time was one of the most dangerous roads in the country. As soon as we turned into Tampa, far in the distance I saw black smoke rising.

Another convoy team from my company was about a mile ahead of us. One of their vehicle commanders called the command post on the radio and asked, “Do you have a report of an accident on Tampa? We see a vehicle burning ahead.”

The command post had no reports. The convoy ahead of us moved closer to the smoke. We listened to their vehicle commanders talk back and forth, trying to figure out what was burning. I wasn’t too concerned. Iraqis were always burning something, and also had a reputation as bad drivers. If a vehicle was on fire, it was probably the result of a civilian accident.

The next radio call froze my blood. The lead vehicle commander screamed, “It’s a burning humvee! A patrol just got hit!”

What I experienced over the next few hours isn’t all that important. My convoy was ordered to stop about a mile from the downed humvee. We heard on the radio that a car bomb had rammed it and killed the gunner. The other convoy team stopped to assist, and waited until an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team arrived. Apache helicopters buzzed through the air overhead, searching vainly for a target. The only enemy involved had voluntarily killed himself.

Hours later, after dark, the highway was reopened. We drove past the still-burning humvee. It was almost totally destroyed. The doors were blown off, frame rails jutted into empty space where the engine had been. Debris lay scattered across the highway. I watched flames devour the remains as we passed, then turned forward. And I saw, just for a moment in the headlights, a shoe with bone and flesh protruding, sitting upright in the road.

I sat quietly for a few moments, wondering if I had seen what I had just seen. Then I turned to my driver and asked, “Was that –?”

He cut me off with, “Yeah, it was.”

A few minutes later, an IED exploded well ahead of us. Just after the blast, tracer fire sprayed into the air. We stopped again, and convoys stacked behind us. Looking back, it should have been obvious that the insurgents were just trying to stop us. About thirty minutes later, the convoy behind us took fire and engaged in a brief firefight. It was the first time I had heard a shot fired in anger.

Eventually we got back to our base. The next day we discovered the car bomb attack had wounded three soldiers in addition to killing the gunner. We also discovered that a staff sergeant from our company had pulled the dead gunner from the burning humvee.

The staff sergeant was about my age, and like me had been in the military for sixteen years. I think he had been in the same unit his entire time in the National Guard. I was an attachment from another unit, but he was close friends with almost everyone in the company. He and I were friendly but not friends. He wasn’t the most emotional or approachable guy in the world, but had a reputation as a good soldier. I found him the day after the incident and asked him about it.

He sat down on his steps of his trailer, shook his head and ran his hands over his face. His description of the attack’s aftermath was brutal.

“Man, that was awful. I just couldn’t do anything. We stopped and I ran to the humvee, and the gunner was inside burning, and I couldn’t get to him. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead, and every time I tried to get through the fire and grab him, ammo would explode in my face. I was finally able to grab him and drag him out, and he was laying there dead and on fire. It was bad, man.”

I listened, shook his hand and told him he did everything he could. We parted ways, and as far as I knew he got over the trauma and moved on. We ran across each other periodically during the rest of the deployment, and he always seemed to be fine.

Several months later, not long before we came home, the staff sergeant led a convoy toward a base in Anbar province. This was a route his team had been on before. At one point in the route, convoys had to skirt the edge of a hostile town. We knew not to enter that town, because we would likely be attacked.

The staff sergeant, for a reason I don’t know, stopped at an intersection and directed his team to turn straight into the town. The other soldiers in the team knew they shouldn’t have taken that route, but were confused by the staff sergeant’s directions and did it anyway. Friends of mine on that team told me they were on edge, expecting an ambush. They were right.

RPG and small arms fire exploded around the vehicles. Some of the civilian truck drivers were wounded, and the convoy stopped. Soldiers had to get out and run to the stopped trucks under fire, so they could scream at the drivers to move out. Eventually the convoy rolled through the kill zone and got out of the town. None of the soldiers were injured, and fortunately the civilian truck drivers didn’t suffer any serious wounds.

Word about the ambush spread quickly. Most of us thought it was funny, as dealing with mortal danger was more or less the norm by that time. We jokingly asked how a team that knew a route could have made that mistake. A few days later, I saw the staff sergeant on our base and approached him.

Keep in mind, we had a pretty twisted sense of humor. Once, when I found out a friend was going on an extremely dangerous mission, I asked him for his computer password so I could use it after he got killed. He understood the humor, and laughed about it. So when I saw this staff sergeant, I felt compelled to jack with him about his error.

I approached him with a smartass grin and said, “Hey man, I heard you made a little mistake on a convoy recently.”

This guy always had an even keel, but he blew up at my joke. “Oh yeah motherf****r, like you’ve never made a f***ing mistake!”

I was taken aback. I had never seen him express anything near that level of emotion. That probably should have been a signal for me to back off. But this was years before Afghanistan, years before I learned firsthand what guilt can do. So instead, I responded with a laugh, “Sure I’ve made mistakes, but I never made that one!”

If I recall correctly, he walked away cursing. I don’t think we had another conversation after that.

Our deployment ended, we came back to Texas and I went home. I’ve kept in touch with several of the guys I went to Iraq with. And from them I heard bad news about the staff sergeant.

With only two years until retirement, the staff sergeant got out of the military. He moved, changed his phone number and broke ties with the friends he had served with his entire adult life. Some of those friends tried to contact him, and he rebuffed those attempts. I’m no psychiatrist, but I think this is avoidance, a symptom of PTSD.

When I heard that, I had to wonder: was I partly at fault for any problems the staff sergeant might have? Did the first incident, with the gunner who had been killed, weaken his defenses? Maybe. After he made a mistake and led his team into an ambush, did I reinforce his belief that he almost got his friends killed? Probably.

Was I a total asshole who did everything wrong, and deserved a good buttkicking for not helping a fellow soldier through a tough time? Absolutely.

Today I found out the staff sergeant is back in touch with several of his old friends, although he apparently hasn’t gotten back into the Army. Hopefully the story I was told about him was exaggerated. Maybe he got out of the Army for some completely legitimate reason that had nothing to do with PTSD. Maybe what I had to say to him after the ambush meant nothing and he doesn’t remember it.

Either way, I handled it wrong. Either way, my words at least had the potential to make things worse. Either way, I justifiably feel guilty about it.

Staff Sergeant H, I hope you’re doing well. I hope you let my words roll off you that day. I hope you aren’t suffering for your simple, honest mistake that mission, because you don’t deserve to. I’ve learned a lot about life, war, trauma and leadership since then. Back then I didn’t know guilt produces stronger, more evil demons than fear. Now I know I said stupid things to you that may have made things worse.

I’m sorry, man.



13 Responses to “PTSD and my mistake”

  1. 1 Martina Halstead

    Wow what a great story! Thank you so much for sharing! When i think about it, i believe you are right… I also believe that events that produces guilt are what causes most traumas and PTSD. Or maybe there is some different “kind” or “sort” of PTSD that is caused or produced by Anger, Fear, Guilt or Depression. I don’t know and i don’t really think PTSD is a diagnosis that can be tested 100% (like a blood test) but i do believe PTSD is real. Either way….it is a great story! I enjoyed it!

    • Chris – You know I think your writing is excellent, but I must disagree with you on guilt being the cause of PTSD and the idea that you may have been the cause of another soldier having PTSD. The disease is defined by the Diagnostic Manual of Psychiatric Illnesses as one being brought on by repeated trauma the individual cannot process. The individual experiences events so outside the realm of what’s acceptable, the brain shuts down completely. It’s the only mechanism the body has of protecting the individual and allowing them to continue to function. Take a child that is abused repeatedly. They may either remember what happened to them as a child or they may repress the memories until years later and for some unknown reason, the memories start interfering with their daily lives. They may have led a successful life and then all of a sudden they are having frequent panic attacks, cannot go into crowds of people, avoid social situations, avoid work, and the list goes on. It’s different for everyone. That’s the reason it’s so difficult to treat. A perfect example among the veteran population is the Vietnam vet. The average age of a Vietnam vet is now 65. An additional 1 million are expected to turn 60 within the next 5 years. A lot of the veterans coped with the traumatic experiences of the Vietnam war by throwing themselves into workaholic lifestyles after they returned home. They didn’t deal with what they had experienced. When the soldiers returned home, they didn’t speak about what had happened to them in Vietnam. They weren’t welcomed home. They kept everything bottled up inside and stewed in silence over things that caused them stress. Now the Vietnam vets are retiring and they have more time to think about what happened way back then. There’s more time for stuff to bubble to the surface. Those of us that were/are workaholics were/are that way for a reason. I wasn’t a Vietnam Vet but that was my era. I understood exactly how ‘you were supposed to act.’ The phrase in my world of work, for I worked in a ‘man’s world’ within DoD was ‘Soldier On.’ I don’t care to remember how many times I said that to individuals that worked for me. Last year more than 476,000 Veterans received treatment for PTSD from VA hospitals and clinics but only half of those patients were from Iraq and Afghanistan. We have veterans documented from WWI with PTSD, we just didn’t call it that back then. Guess I should write my own blog on PTSD–instead of going on and on in your remarks. I just believe scientific evidence has been around for enough years to prove that guilt and PTSD are not related. Survival guilt can lead to depression but that’s an entirely different topic.

      • Sheri,

        I don’t think someone has to shut down completely in order to have PTSD. I’m no expert on the subject but the way I understand it, you have to have the trauma, then have a certain number of symptoms caused by the trauma, and the symptoms have to last a certin length of time. For example, a friend of mine was badly wounded in an IED attack that killed two of his friends. The other soldiers present didn’t even recognize my friend’s body laying under part of his destroyed humvee; he was covered in dust and wreckage, and they didn’t realize it was him until several minutes after the blast when they heard him struggling to breathe. My friend has memories of laying under the humvee roof, barely conscious, barely able to breathe, with friends standing around him but not realizing he was there. That experience didn’t make him shut down, but it did produce long-lasting effects that interfere with his life.

        My emphasis on guilt is because I and several other vets I’ve spoken to believe guilt is one of the biggest stressors contributing to PTSD. It’s not survivor’s guilt I’m referring to, but guilt caused by an individual’s mistake or decision that led to a loss. Let’s say a squad leader orders a subordinate to move from one position to another during a firefight. While the subordinate is moving he gets shot but not killed. The squad leader hears his soldier screaming in fear and pain, but is unable to recover him because of heavy enemy fire. Eventually the soldier is shot again and killed. The squad leader will most likely continue to function without shutting down in any way, but could later be so overwhelmed with guilt that he begins exhibiting enough symptoms (which last long enough) to diagnose him with PTSD.

        I admit that what I’ve written is based mainly on my own observations and experience, and again, I’m no expert. But from my experience and from many conversations with other soldiers who had much worse experiences than I have, I’ve come to the conclusion that we handle trauma pretty well, but not guilt.

        Chris

        • Hi, Chris – PTSD is different for all of us. A psychiatrist once explained it to me that he compares PTSD to someone being a Holocaust victim. Although we don’t have a number printed on our arm, we have other triggers that throw us back into the situation wherein the trauma initiated or if the trauma is repeated over and over – many different triggers form in our subconscious. I never knew why I didn’t like being around women, didn’t have girlfriends and always hung out with the guys, did extremely well in a male dominated career choice and never hired a female (other than to be my secretary or other clerk) in my 20 years of be a Director of a large operation. I also wouldn’t wear my seat belt, couldn’t go into narrow shops even when they were well-lit and on and on. The worst symptom of all was panic attacks. I’d break out in one without provocation – or at least none that I could identify. And, I was a workaholic – anything short of 80 hours a week was unacceptable and I pretty much had a rule that if you weren’t there on Sunday, you didn’t need to come in on Monday. I might never had know I had a condition that actually had a diagnosis if I hadn’t been shot in the back on a case I was working on in DC. I was in an underground parking garage going to my vehicle in my assigned parking space. Stupid – to have an assigned parking space when you’re the lead on a case. Bottom line – during my recovery from the wound – I couldn’t do much but lay around and think – three surgeries later – I’d had too much time to think. I also knew that I couldn’t go into an underground parking garage and still can’t without breaking into a cold sweat and still can’t and that was 18 years ago. During the time I was down with multiple surgeries – all the other stuff about woman came out – I didn’t want nurses (primarily nurses) around me but that’s pretty hard to do when you are in and out of hospitals for 6 months. Bit by bit pieces of my childhood started reappearing in flashes and over the years I’ve pieced together more than I ever wanted to know about females abusing young girls. Let’s just say the rest is history. My library is lengthy regarding PTSD and I don’t want to sound egotistical on the subject, but I consider myself as well informed on the subject as many therapist I’ve come into contact with.

          • Sheri,

            You are definitely well-informed on the subject, I’m sure much more well-informed than you ever wanted to be. I don’t doubt anything you’ve said and am not disagreeing with your definition of PTSD. However, what’s been explained to me by Army and civilian counselors, and a military chaplain with a degree in psychiatry, is that there is a specific criteria for PTSD. X trauma + X number of symptoms + X length of time = PTSD. The symptoms you’ve described above (avoidance, anxiety, triggering events, memory gaps), caused by the abuse you alluded to and lasting this many years after the fact, would certainly fit within that criteria of PTSD. Others who suffer from PTSD may have different symptoms, or the symptoms may not last as long, but they can also be diagnosed with PTSD if they fit within that criteria.

            I believe guilt would at the very least excacerbate certain symptoms, thereby worsening the aftereffects of the trauma.

            If I was smart I’d do some research, but to tell you the truth I think I’m learning more just listening to you and discussing what we already believe.

            By the way, thank you for your service. In two wars and almost twenty years of police work I’ve never been shot, and I doubt it’s a pleasant experience.

            Chris

    • Martina,

      The whole PTSD thing is still pretty confusing to me, since it affects people different ways and is caused by so many different things. A couple of guys I served with have been diagnosed with PTSD, and the reasons for why they were diagnosed don’t make much sense to me. I think doctors are overdiagnosing it in people who don’t have it, which makes it harder for guys who really have it to get the help they need.

  2. Chris, we all have said wrong, maybe stupid things to someone at a bad time. Personally, i think reaching out to him would make you both feel better. He will probably be very surprised and flattered that you’ve often thought about him and wondered if he was doing well.
    BUT, Anytime you feel like you could use a good old fashioned buttkicking, PLEASE call me.

    • Angela,

      I should contact him, although I don’t think men use words like “flattered”.

      “Hey staff sergeant, I just wanted to know how you’re doing. The war was rough, I said some dumb things after that ambush, and I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

      “You thought about me? I’m flattered.”

      (….Awkward silence….)

      Oh, and I would much rather take a buttkicking from you than him. He’s a pretty big guy.

      • 9 Dale

        No butt kicking required, we were all stressed over there. We all said and did stupid things. We all make mistakes and have to live with those. The trick is to not let them consume you. A whole lot easier to write that statement than to do it. Trust me! Your a great man, Chris, you were always considered a friend, even with harsh words that were said at the wrong time. I am sure that guy forgave you a long time ago. You I am sure weren’t the stressor. Those two events alone, scarred a lot more than a little ribbing. Take care brother!

        • Dale,

          Brother, it’s good to hear that you’re well, and I admit I’m selfish enough to feel relieved at your words. This is something that’s eaten at me for seven years now, and after Afghanistan I really realized what guilt can do to a person. We have grown a lot since then, and even though I was 34 at the time I still look back and feel like I was a little kid about some things. I’ll bump you on FB in the next couple of days, looking forward to talking to you again.

          Chris

  3. 11 Joani Hughes

    Thank you sincerely from Staff Sergeant H’s wife. He is doing much better and we have gone through VERY VERY much since then. No worries, though. You are not the cause of his hurt. He had several episodes that caused that. He holds no grudges against you or anyone else, except himself. Again, thank you from the bottom of my heart for this!

    • Joani,

      After Afghanistan a VA counselor told me he thought I was suffering from depression, and he was probably right. I had a hard adjustment period after that deployment, and wound up having to change my work assignment in addition to speaking to counselors for several months. If you really see the war up close, it leaves a mark. Whether that mark is just temporary redness or a disfiguring, permanent scar depends on many different factors. Like Dale, I’m lucky to have a supportive wife who helped me when I needed it.

      I hope Dale doesn’t blame himself for anything anymore. NOBODY was an expert at handling the situations he was in, we all just did our best. That’s something to be proud of.

      Thank you, and I hope to meet you in person someday. I (and my wife, who read your comment also) truly appreciate your words.

      Chris

      • 13 Joani Hughes

        Well, I would LOVE to meet yall! Russell and I are talking about getting together here someday (hopefully soon!) and eating, visiting and possibly playing some horseshoes or something! We are really doing well compared to where we were in ’06. He’s come a long way baby! I do my best to support him through whatever he needs and hopefully doing a good job at it. Being a veteran’s wife is never easy, but it is a rewarding job that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world because I love that man with every ounce of my soul and truly appreciate my heroes who support and defend their country so that we all have the freedoms most in other countries can only dream of! If you’d like, you or your wife can email me and we can begin making plans to get everyone together soon. It will be a blast! I really do thank you, too, for the kind words and your bravery and sincerity to write them!


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