It’s Not What Happened (It’s What Didn’t)
An Explanation of Combat-Related Emotional Trauma
**Please note that this is an opinion piece based off experience and not off medical expertise.***
I was deployed twice. Once with the 82nd Airborne Division to the region of Ramadi, Iraq, and once to the Panj’wai province of Afghanistan. I served as an infantry officer in both areas, and I spent a very long time believing that I carried no lasting scars from my experiences. Scars. I hate that word. Even still I hate that word. Makes me feel weak, makes me feel incapacitated, and I am anything but. It makes me feel like one of those goons we used to make jokes of — the wire warriors — the fobbits — I’ll just phrase it as ‘lasting imprints.’ I’m not one of those bitches who moans about scars from deployment. Many of my brothers and sisters had it much worse, experienced much worse, endured worse. I’ll gaslight the fuck out of myself. My feelings aren’t fucking warranted. Then again, maybe that’s the problem……..
Something happened this past year. I’m not sure I can explain it because I seemed to be doing well. I was moving forward in life, making business moves, owned a condo, had a decent bank account, good job, and was driven to do more. I had books in the works, plans, visions, hopes, dreams, and a reasonable network of supportive people. But I was drinking more, then I was drinking a lot, then my drinking started becoming less discernible from the periods of not drinking. Then the drugs. And then came the anger — or should I say the expression of it. I started having blowouts. That explosion on my dear friend, followed by the apologies and tears and hugs; that explosion at the hotel when I unleashed on the bellboy and went into an inferno and broke my hand on a sign outside the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee; that time I woke up from my sleep in my bed and started crying without realizing why…..
Then I realized why. The didn’t dos… The should haves… The whys… The questions… The I don’t deserve to feel anything because other service brothers and sisters went through so much mores….. It wasn’t anything I’d seen or experienced that had fucked me up. It was everything that hadn’t happened. It was the guilt I carried. I should have done more. I should have volunteered to go to 101st instead of 82nd. I’d have been in Korengal getting fucked up like many of my classmates. It shouldn’t have been Rob who died in 2009. It shouldn’t have been Larkin who lost three limbs, it shouldn’t have been Harpilani who lost a leg, it shouldn’t have been Andrew who died in 2016. It shouldn’t have been any of the 300 plus casualties our brigade saw in Panj’wai in 2012. It should have been me, I should have volunteered to go to a different place, I should have known things, I’m not a good enough person to still be here when they aren’t, I should have been fucking taken and not them — not the men who were better, not the men with families — sons and daughters and wives and babies they hadn’t seen. It shouldn’t have been them. You see, it’s not what happened. It’s what didn’t happen.
It is my humble and medically non-credentialed opinion that there is a vast misunderstanding surrounding combat-related PTSD in the U.S. There is a misperception that this form of PTSD is characterized by involuntary reactions to stimuli (explosions, traffic, crowds, etc.) and that is a form of it. But the far more common trauma is the feeling of guilt that service people carry, and it is a vastly difficult burden to accurately express to someone who hasn’t served. It’s not because we’re better. It’s nothing like that; it’s just that the service bond is so remarkable, so tried and true, and it’s been tested by some of the worst things imaginable. A year. No time off. No breaks. No reprieves. No going home to a family at night. No getting to vent. No breaking away. And God bless our law enforcement officers right here in the CONUS who see terrible things, but it’s different, and the not being able to get away from it is a large reason why.
Being relentlessly exposed to an environment like that for an entire year changes you. Even at its most innocuous, it changes you. It makes you colder, shapes your thinking, makes you more rigid and solitary. You become internal.
Then when you return, it can be the most isolating experience and suddenly this vast resentment and anger begins to swell up. It’s almost involuntary. It just seems to happen. You don’t want to be mad at anyone, but you are. You hate everyone. You hate everyone for not understanding, for not seeming to care, for leading such fucking insulated lives, for not paying attention, for complaining about shit you deem to be meaningless. And somewhere inside you know that you are being an asshole, but you don’t know how to root it out so you begin to hate yourself for being isolated and not being able to get back to who you were and for taking out your anger on people and family and old friends and loved ones.
And then, after all that, you are carrying these deep questions, a visceral abscess that just keeps oozing. Why am I here? Why aren’t they? And you punish yourself and you hate yourself more and you cry and you pretend you’re OK, and you pretend that you don’t need help and you pretend that life is just like it was.
And sometimes you get so good at pretending that it’s not until you wake up one day with a broken hand and the shakes because you need alcohol that you start to think, maybe something really is different. Maybe, just maybe, something’s wrong.
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