As I started on my journey after retiring from the military, I spent a lot of time thinking about my VA claim. It’s a ridiculous process where, after 20+ years in the military and going to the doctor just enough to take care of the most painful things, you have to fight for everything that has been broken in your body and mind. Even if everything is laid out perfectly in your records (it won’t be) and you were diligent about your post-deployment health surveys (you will never be quite diligent enough), you have to fight for the compensation you are entitled to because they pushed you far past your limits.
As a healthy young buck, I made fun of the old timers that hurt and my peers who couldn’t march in formation in tech school because they were “hurt.” Somewhere near the beginning of my time, physical fitness became much more important and this new test came out. It was casual at first, but around the middle years of my career, it became a tool to remove people. After injuries and pregnancies and aging, everything in my body started to hurt. Doctors didn’t care and I had to fight for acceptable health care. It was extremely discouraging.
In my last two years, I started really going through my own records because I had figured out how to get access. There was blood work that revealed issues, urine testing with even more issues, and radiology results that revealed all kinds of issues. But either the doctors never reviewed the results or they determined that those weren’t big issues. Big ENOUGH issues. They thought I was faking the pain, even when they were looking at records that gave them reasons for the pain. They stood in front of me, demanding to know what I was trying to get out of. A deployment? Physical fitness testing? Like they expected I would just push through the pain and continue to break myself further.
Physical pain was easy compared to the mental pain, though. There’s so many aspects to PTSD. Who gets it, who can’t get rid of it, who internalizes what they see, etc. We don’t talk about that. We do these cursory briefings that talk about how to reintegrate with your family and the Family Readiness Center is always there to help you! Or a chaplain. And did you know that you have complete confidentiality with a chaplain? There’s also the Military and Family Life Counselors that you can see for 12 sessions, no records kept!! Also, you can call this hotline or that hotline, and then there’s mental health at the hospital and BHOP with family practice that you can be referred to! YAY! So many services. You know what? None of them work perfectly. Mental health…are you suicidal? No, oh, sorry we can’t help you. But we can refer you to BHOP. Or use the MFLC or this hotline. OH, you ARE suicidal? We will take your clearance, tell your commander you’re nuts, and give you zero opportunity to get better before we refuse to deploy you when you really want to go because last year you were suicidal and we can’t have that deployed. Then your supervisor and co-workers call you weak and a loser for even going to mental health.
That didn’t happen to me, but I know a kid it did happen to. It nearly killed her. And everyone around just made fun of her. There was a guy, a SSgt, who was great at the job. Really solid, good all-around guy. He deployed this one time and while he was gone, his wife cheated on him. He was heartbroken. She wanted to leave him. No wait, she wanted to work on things. Nevermind, she was gone again. Oh wait, she’s moving back in. This constant jerking around and her cheating drove him into a deep depression. I linked him up with an MFLC who was actually pretty effective. She helped him a lot and gave him the strength to tell his wife to piss off. But the depression lingered. Our commander commented to another person at this guy’s same rank that she was more of a man than he was. That wasn’t cool.
This commander was a complete asshole. He knows it. When I first met him before he was the commander, he told me that his previous base didn’t want him back because he was “hard to work with.” Yes, because you are not a good person. He drank all the time. His wife did too. There were tons of rumors about them and young Lts around the squadron. Not saying it’s true, but lots of people did meet up with him around town to drink in public. He made it known where he did his drinking and people lined up to kiss his ass and get ahead. I can’t play that game.
That commander did a lot of damage to me as well. He yelled in my face about something that wasn’t my fault, accused me of being worthless, and turned my friends against me. It was so bad eventually that I volunteered for the one year deployment just to get away from him. He was gone when I got back, but I found a really nasty letter he wrote about me to our wing leadership. He had no idea what kind of pressure I was under with my home life and work, and undiagnosed ADHD that made me non-functional. When we first met, I was working in an office with cubicles, but the walls were so low that you could see and hear everything around you. That’s way too much motion, noise, and stimulation for someone with ADHD. Some people listened to music at a low volume, but loud enough for me to hear that music was playing. So my brain had to listen very closely to figure out what song that was. Sometimes the commander was talking outside his office to his staff and I tried to listen to that from across the large room. There was a door into our area right by my desk and the wonderful person I shared the cubicle with was constantly forced to act as the help desk. If she wasn’t there, I would be distracted and asked those questions. And naturally that job was all paperwork and very little of the creative, active thinking I needed. It was tracking this type of training and that type of training for all 750 flyers in our group. It was the most boring job I’ve ever had.
At that point my oldest had been confirmed to have ADHD and we would find out right around then that my second also has it. I was reading about it constantly and realizing that I fit into much of that criteria. The more I read, the more that I knew I had it too. The diagnosis by itself wouldn’t be enough to get kicked out of the Air Force, but the medication I needed would take me out of flying. I needed to have a flying job because any other office job would be just as bad as that job was.
So that was my work environment, my 4 kids were needy as well. I was in a bad place all around. My parents had moved to be near us and they were constantly on me about parenting decisions, about how annoyed they were with my kids’ father, and how they didn’t get to see enough of me. I was also constantly preparing to deploy, deployed, or just getting back from a deployment. Because I wasn’t “special”, I was deploying more than most in my crew position because we were short on people.
And all of this broke me. I felt I deserved all the bad things that happened to me because I was a bad person. I felt like I was inconsiderate because I couldn’t be a good friend, coworker, or family member. So I deserved all that hatred too. I hated myself anyway and I was sinking deeper into a place where I was consumed by darkness and the thought that maybe I should end things. The only thing that stopped me was my oldest. He started having suicidal thoughts at 11, which is what brought on this phase of my life and when I realized I was chronically depressed. If I ended my life, he would end his. I knew I was the only person he felt he could count on. And so I pushed through. I’m grateful for him. He’s still worth living for. He’s doing better 8 years later and seems to not experience these thoughts so much.
I watched other people around me falling apart in similar and different ways. We all were broken by the deploying and reintegrating, the pace of operations when we were at home, and our families, who were frustrated with us never being home. We didn’t talk about it more than casually mentioning it, like the time a coworker found me wiping tears off my face and asked if I was ok. I simply said “coming home from deployment is too hard sometimes. We don’t talk about how it’s actually impossible to gel back with your family since you know you’re leaving again within the next year.” He said “Yup, been there myself. I hate it every time.” And then he walked away. Or the time I ran into a coworker who was a friend and he asked if we could hug or if I was “still in that weird, no touching place after a deployment.” I laughed when I said that because I knew exactly what he was talking about. It’s like you’re going months without hugging your family and you might hug a coworker now and then if they’re your friend, and when you come home and your family hangs all over you, it’s overstimulating. You don’t want to be touched at all. Those two moments helped me realize that I wasn’t alone, but we STILL don’t talk about it enough. The cursory briefings don’t help. The fake photos and scenarios don’t mirror reality at all. The military member is shown as the unstable one who just can’t fit into the family. Why is there no class for the family members on how to prepare for your service member to come home? Why does all the compromising and bending have to come from the person who was out there doing the job 24/7? I’ve seen so many divorces result from troubles after deployment. Spouses find their own circle, build their own life, and some don’t want their spouse back. I often didn’t want to come back. It was too hard after so much time apart. Blissful time when I could just live with the shit I’d seen in my head instead of living with that shit AND trying to be a functional member of society that gets kids ready for school and grocery shops.
I remember once I went to church two days after I got home and everyone was so joyful and happy. And I felt myself become enraged inside. How dare they parade around so happily, so clueless as to how terrible everything is during a war. How could they just sing like nothing was wrong thousands of miles away, where innocent people were being slaughtered by terrorists and our actions to combat those terrorists? How could they be so ignorant to the suffering of others? How could they take this life for granted when other people are being persecuted for their religious beliefs where I just came from? I wanted to leave, but I knew my parents wouldn’t understand since it was the first time I saw them after that deployment. I couldn’t explain the way I felt to anyone. I tried once, with a friend who wasn’t military and she couldn’t comprehend why people singing at church offended me so much. I gave up trying, but it did sound weird to me too. It sounds weird now, to even type it, but I still remember how much it hurt to see people in this country acting like their lives were so perfect.
I started my retirement journey with a quest to get healthy mentally and physically. Well, as much as possible. I started therapy with a real, in-person therapist. I got official diagnoses for ADHD and PTSD and started treatment for both. I saw a urologist to deal with the kidney and bladder issues the military ignored for years and never even told me about. And I went inside myself, to learn who I was without anyone else telling me who I was. I’ve watched documentaries, listened to podcasts, and I’ve learned that while my military past has broken me in a way that is different from those not in the military, I am also broken from childhood trauma and adult trauma unrelated to the military. I am broken from the trauma I have done to myself in denying my own value and what I was worth. I tolerated so much abuse at home and at work. I let other people define my worth. I let all of those external influences in to my soul. I let them tell me who I was instead of trusting myself to know who I was.
And that’s where I realize that I am not alone. So many of us let the outside world define us. We hide the beautiful quirks that make us who we are. We let the criticism in from people who don’t get a vote. We don’t trust ourselves at all. We let ourselves be diminished by others, even people that supposedly love us. Everything about us is beautiful. We are each so unique and awesome and no one should be shamed or mistreated to the point where they become broken. I love when I find someone with a quirky hobby like dressing up in vintage outfits, or devoted to a craft like cross-stitch or crocheting. Or someone who decides they’d like to paint because they DGAF what anyone thinks anymore. For years they felt the urge to paint but didn’t because they didn’t think they would be good. None of us should be wasting time on what other people think. Even if you aren’t good at something, do it because you love it and it makes you uniquely you.