The following guest post was penned by Army Captain Wolf-Ekkehard Hindrichs. A field artillery battery commander, husband, and father; he is a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He has a passion for restoring antique militaria, and started an amateur museum focused on the acquisition, restoration, and preservation of field artillery antiques as well as antiques that tie to his German heritage. He is a distant relative of Baron von Steuben and is related to Hessians who fought against George Washington at the Battle of Trenton. The views expressed in this post are his and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense
I am not a hero. I’ve never been shot, and I still have all of my limbs. I haven’t been in any major battles you would have read about in the news. No one has died in my arms. I’ve seen the horror in the world that is war, rape, murder and torture across several deployments, but I’m still above ground. I’ve decided to put my thoughts to paper, because of some Soldier suicides that have hit too close to home. There still exists an underlying current of fear and negative implications associated with seeking help for mental health in our Army. While we as an Army can preach that there is no stigma associated with asking for help, it is only when Soldiers see leaders opening up about their own personal experiences that we will truly affect change and change perception.
Following a deployment to Afghanistan, I left my Soldiers abruptly in 2012 to attend the career course. I was married, but I felt alone. I had abandoned my other family. As career courses across the Army underwent a period of transition from branch-specific material to a common core, my class was forgotten about in the middle. Instructors often didn’t show up or were hours late. We weren’t even worth teaching in the first half of the course — at least, it felt that way. To make matters worse, our battery leadership was numb and uncaring. Treated with less courtesy than I afford to privates in my command, I felt a loss of purpose
For years I had thought of myself only in terms of what worth I was to the Army — of what effects I could have on Soldiers. There was nothing else, and without Soldiers, I was nothing. My wife was pregnant. I was scared. Scared of whether anything I was exposed to would affect the baby, scared of whether the baby would come out whole, and scared of being a dad. I didn’t even think I was a good husband, so how could I possibly be the father this child would need? I had decided that we were going to buy a house, because other people were telling me it was the right thing to do — a good investment for the future — it only added to my fears.
I was forgetting things — rather, I was being told that I was forgetting things. I didn’t know. I was used to being able to read through a book quickly and retain a lot of information. But now, after nearly ten concussions, I had to reread pages — whole sections of books. My wife was constantly reminding me that I had said or committed to something, and I didn’t remember it. I thought she was crazy. Ultimately, it just became too much to bear.
That’s when the nightmares started coming back. In the past, I had turned to a drink to settle my nerves before sleeping, but my stomach couldn’t handle alcohol anymore. I stopped sleeping, and I dropped from 223 pounds to less than 180 as I couldn’t keep food down. Failure and guilt plagued my thoughts, and invaded my waking hours. My wife went to visit her parents, and I took to lying in bed with my pistol. One night I got spooked and almost shot through my bedroom door. I felt ashamed, guilty, and weak. How could I bring this into my home — a home where my wife and child might be? I questioned my value as a man, and I briefly wondered if I was worth more to my wife and unborn child as a fresh start and $500,000 dollars. I wasn’t suicidal, but I’d be lying if I said the thought never danced across my mind.
I did my best to hide my feelings from everyone, but my wife saw through it. Not fully understanding it, she confronted me. Still unable to keep down any food and vomiting blood, she insisted I go to the Emergency Room. Of course I refused, but she wouldn’t stop insisting. It made me feel terrible, and as I drove to class I realized I couldn’t face my peers. I thought about how easy it would be to let the wheel slip and let my jeep play chicken with a tree. I had to pull over to the side of the road. I broke down in tears. I was scaring myself. I just couldn’t face the world.
I summoned my courage and called my small group instructor — telling him I wasn’t coming in, and that I needed help. He convinced me to come and ended up talking me into getting tested for traumatic brain injury. He supported my decision to seek counseling, but in my mind, this was the end. Coming out of school, it was more than an unstated understanding that going to a counselor was enough to end your career. In fact, officers I trusted and respected had made it clear that admitting a need for counseling was a surefire way to be shown the door. I watched them advise others to go off post to avoid being documented by the Army. This isn’t an isolated sentiment — it permeates the Army to this day. In going into behavioral health, I understood that this was, more likely than not, my unwanted goodbye.
I had finally opened up, and it felt good for a brief moment. I checked in at the mental health clinic, and after only an hour wait, was able to speak to a counselor. After all the talk about how seeking help for deployment related issues wouldn’t affect my career, the counselor let me know that she wanted to put me on profile so that my chain of command would know that I was seeking counseling. I immediately recoiled in disbelief, unable to accept the fact that a self-referral could derail my PCS and career path. I refused to accept the profile, stated that I was fine, and left.
Eventually, I got to see a counselor without going on profile, but I guarded what I said, and it helped a little on the surface. The counselor evaluated me and diagnosed me with post-traumatic-stress disorder and anxiety amplified by the PTSD. I immediately freaked out. PTSD — that was what crazy people had — that was what the news called it when Soldiers started killing innocent people. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t going to hurt anyone. I was just having trouble adjusting to being away from my Soldiers.
Needless to say, this affected me deeply, negatively. I couldn’t enjoy anything — not food, not sex, and certainly not my day-to-day life. But was it really PTSD? That was a made up thing for people who were too weak to cope with the real world. Three of my classmates picked up on what was going on and spent a lot of time at my house sharing their stories with me and getting me to open up. I credit my getting through the course to them, my small group instructor, and a friendship I developed through a new hobby I lost myself in — restoring military antiques.
About that same time, several of my friends’ wives were coming to me for help — with the understanding that I wouldn’t run to their husbands to let them know they asked. They were concerned, because they needed their husbands to seek help. They were having problems adjusting after their deployments, too — problems connecting, problems with anger management, problems sleeping, and problems drinking. And that’s really when it started to hit home that I wasn’t an island unto myself.
Many more of my peers were not seeking the assistance they needed. Soldiers started writing me — not one or two, but a lot. They called me, they sent me Facebook messages. One Officer I served with even drove out to Oklahoma and stayed with me while he talked at length about his personal wrestling match with suicide. While I listened to all of their problems, I began to realize that dealing with other people’s problems is oftentimes easier than dealing with your own problems. A lot of the Soldiers admitted that they wanted to ask for help, but were afraid to do so because they wanted to stay in the Army, and seeking help would end their careers. I hadn’t opened up to the world. It was just fortunate timing for most of them to contact me. I wasn’t ready to share my own story with them, but I talked to them for hours, and a lot of them got the help they needed.
After graduating on the commandant’s list (or whatever it is called from the career course), I moved on to my new duty station — I only mention that because the support I got from my peers and instructor was enough to make me successful. I wrestled with telling my chain of command how I was feeling, and in the end decided to partially admit that I was struggling with some issues and that I was in counseling. Much to my surprise, my new boss was incredibly supportive. I met with a counselor off post, but the experience was not helpful. After two more failed connections with counselors and a host of techniques that didn’t work, I finally linked up with an eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) specialist. I don’t know why — I don’t care why — but I began to feel a lot better.
Soldiers continued to check in with me, and I was continually surprised by their willingness to share their issues with me. Others reached out, but didn’t open up about their problems. In July of 2014, one of my former NCOs took his own life, leaving behind a wife and young son. It hit me without warning. Over the next few weeks, I did my best to stay close to his family, and did the same with all my former Soldiers. They were still having problems, and this made it worse. It was emotionally draining, but it took the suicide to bring the rest of the unit back together again, and for some of the Soldiers to start opening up about their problems. They banded together, and demonstrated the strength of family that was the unit — the family that I missed. Again, it was easier to deal with everyone else’s problems than it was to deal with my own. But here is where I started sharing the story of my personal struggles, and where I did my best to let them know that seeking help was a sign of strength, not weakness.
It’s time. It’s time for leaders to open up, to seek help and do so openly — to talk about their fears, their problems, and to serve as an example to others to do the same. Hiding these issues only serves to keep the stigma alive. It’s time to mean it when we tell Soldiers that seeking help won’t hurt their careers instead of just putting it on command philosophies, policy letters, and counseling. It’s time to revisit the policies that serve as roadblocks to seeking help. It’s time to show Soldiers that you can be successful, that leaders who have asked for help are successful, and that knowing when to ask for help is a true sign of strength.
If I had opened up earlier about my own battles, could I have helped save a life? That’s a question I can’t answer. But it’s also a reminder of how much I can do as a leader to prevent it from happening again.