In class Thursday, we began by discussing emotions and ended with a racing heart and my mind in fight or flight mode. I had a physical reaction to a discussion about benign topics.
The word “trauma” led to “Car wrecks” which led to “HMMWVs”, “Route 1”, and further word association. Before I knew it, I was staring at the ground, disassociating and visualizing men in salwar kameez, (traditional, middle-eastern attire), beards, turbans, and women in sky-blue flowing burkas walking along moon dust roads and old motorcycles. I thought about my dirty, uncomfortable uniforms, the M-4 at my side, knife attached to my belt, and my duty as a body guard to protect the Chaplain. I even thought through ways of taking someone down with hand-to-hand combat if I were disarmed, all from the semi-safety of Liberty’s extended campus.
Another blog entry about the Army? Really?
I did not want to write another blog about the military, but as I thumbed through my notes my pancreas gave my heart a jolt and my fight or flight response kicked in again. I am likely not alone in this fight against mental instability and I want you [the reader] to be aware of the fight I and many other soldiers go through daily and at random. I begin with my long story of my incident of trauma, the layman technicalities of how Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is developed in the brain, how Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) heals, and hopefully allow you to ponder your contribution to healing people with trauma.
The Story of How My PTSD Developed (This is your time to bail out and skip to the next section if you want to read how the topic relates to counseling. Otherwise, it’s story time!)
Date: July 20, 2006
Time: O’dark thirty
Location: A Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan
I woke up to the loud shutting of the wooden door to my B-hut. I woke briefly and decided to go back to sleep, concluding that the reason the door was slamming was because of other female soldiers leaving for guard-duty and not being mindful of other sleeping soldiers. Since forgiveness and grace were a part of my vocabulary then, I shrugged it off and went back to sleep.
“BANG!” The door opened and shut again, but this time I heard the preceding stomping footing on the ground. At this point, I was a little frustrated, thinking, “Why would these females leave so loudly? How rude!” I decided to wipe the sleepys from my eyes and ask questions. All of the sudden my B-hut shook with the loud BOOM that sounded very unlike outgoing fire (shooting of very large mortars to other places outside of camp). I figured out, once my adrenaline kicked in, that my base was being attacked. Our base was considered safer than many others, partially due to our good outlook location and partially due to our great relationship with the village nearby, so this was an unexpected wake-up call.
Before I made it out, I saw the rebound on the slam of the door, another LOUD BOOM hit and I saw the white light of a very large explosive object hitting ever so close. Apparently, I slept through several rocket hits inside the wire (perimeter) whereas others woke up promptly and scattered like mice.
I stood strait up, along with the hairs on my neck, and I searched for my required items to run to the bunker: Blanket, shoes, and weapon. CHECK! [My PPE (personal protective equipment) was elsewhere because I was working 12-17-hour days, 7 days a week, and statistically it was more likely that I’d die then than in the 7 hours I was not working. There’s another story here but due to time, space, and the ADD culture, it has been omitted from this blog.]
I ran to the bunker (a reinforced, explosive-resistant shelter also known as “cover”) faster than my toes could hit the ground and I was slowed by a female who reminded me of a turtle, for a moment. I was about to run over her but my prefrontal cortex kicked in and said that that would not be very nice of me.(She would have been the first one I tripped if we were attacked by zombies. I would have done her a favor.)
I made it to the bunker, cuddled in my locally-purchased mink blanket, and I prayed silently and fervently.
Progressively I bargained, “God. Please spare me of this mental torture and keep me safe!”
“If it is your will that I die, cool. I’ll be with you in a few minutes. If not, please, Lord. Don’t let this take long and please just take me.”
“Please Lord, just let this end. Take me already!”
“What’s taking so long?!”
As I was praying, it came over the FOB hand-held radio, “Rock 7 is down.” Rock 7 was the code name of one of our beloved First Sergeants (1SGs).
I thought, “(explicit used in calling someone's bluff). That can’t be him. I just talked to him a couple of days ago. I hugged him and I just got back from leave. He was fine then, and besides, I haven’t had enough time to talk to him about my adventures on leave in Italy! Please Lord, don’t let it be him.”
The FOB then heard over the radio, “Vitals?”
The answer, “No sign.”
Again, I thought, “(explicit used in calling someone's bluff).” I determined that these well-respected non-commissioned officers over the radio were mistaken and they just didn’t really know who 1SG Rafferty was. He is a legend, after all.
At this point, I was determined to keep praying and to stay alive or not become maimed. Either option would do for me. Reality set in once the attack ended and I heard a helicopter fly overhead. Helicopters don’t fly at 0400 (4am) unless they are called in. My heart sank and I wanted to get out of that bunker as quickly as I could in order to see if the inevitable was true.
As soon as we were released from accountability formation—to make sure no one was missing—I walked as quickly as I could to the location of Charlie company, the unit of men of which 1SG Rafferty belonged, following the trail of blood until I reached my destination. I walked in quietly as the interim Chaplain said with a somber glance at me, “Now let us commence First Sergeant Rafferty in the Lord’s arms.” My stomach turned and I shook with grief as I mechanically walked to the chapel—my office, trying not to bend over with sickness. I cried for a while and it was like an ocean shore of grief that ebbed and flooded.
With the help of my organic (this is an Army term that means “assigned”) Chaplain coming off of leave, I helped perform the Memorial Ceremony on that base a few days later, providing closure to hundreds of people. (Click here to see the memorial video.) I did not find closure, however, as I discovered almost four years later.
All was well until…
Fast forward to 2010, Lakewood, Colorado [the location of Colorado Christian University’s (CCU) main campus]. It was spring time in Colorado and I was participating in the Iona project headed up by Dr. Mitsch, a professor of psychology at CCU. There was a refreshing rainstorm that lingered that evening and I had enjoyed several lightning strikes and rumbles of thunder, but for an unknown reason I was finally triggered. My heart went racing, and I felt my pancreas work overtime to get me moving. I started looking around for a familiar danger (i.e. people with guns, men with beards, turbans, and aggressive faces, to name a few) and the meeting faded away. My face went flush, I saw red, and I was ready to kill, if needed. I saw no danger so I did some self-talk. I tried to “ground” (a counseling or self-calming technique used to get a person back to reality and functioning properly instead of overwhelmed with emotions) myself. Still no resolve.
I was scheduled to deploy in a few months and I did not want to be held back for mental health reasons, no matter the cause. It took me until the next day to feel normal again and I resolved to get professional help, with or without the help of the Army. I chose to get help without the help of the Army from a civilian counselor who was trained in PTSD and recommended to me by Dr. Mitsch. This is where you, the aspiring counselor, come in.
...then things went well.
This counselor was the only certified Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) counselor in the area as far as I could tell, but his special and unusual training did more than wonders for me. I don’t remember why he decided to get the training but I am grateful he did. There are other treatments for PTSD and not all of them work for everyone, but I had previously done literature research on EMDR and decided that it was going to be my treatment. How did I fare? Before the answer, an explanation.
What is PTSD? It’s all hip-hop to me…with a little bit of grey matter
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be diagnosed when symptoms appear or are persistent three to six months after the traumatic incident occurs (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Signs and symptoms include irritability, alienation or isolation, emotional outbursts, disturbing and re-experiencing the traumatic event (2000). There were several other incidents between my return from war and 2010 when I was triggered, pulled out a knife, and was ready to duke it out. It was obvious that I had PTSD stemming from that one event in Afghanistan, though there are several factors that led to it. (It must be noted that not all who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD.)
Dr. Corsini drew out (literally) the relationship between cognition, physiology, and social contexts and how they affect emotion. One affects the others as they all interact with different parts of the brain. When a person goes through a traumatic event, memories can be stored at random and in the wrong places. (The brain has other things to do in those perceived moments of life or death.) When something triggers that improperly stored memory, the body reacts, foregoing the slow-moving, rational prefrontal cortex. EMDR, through movement of the eyes, talking about the event, and re-experiencing the trauma in a safe place helps the memories become refiled properly. It took me 4-5 sessions total in order for me to be at a higher functioning level. It was a miracle, for me. There is a short but excellent video on YouTube explaining EMDR.
What does your story have to do with me, an aspiring counselor?
Well, a lot. I was caught off-guard by my reaction in Colorado. We counselors don’t know who is going to walk into our office and the “who” doesn’t know either. I sought after my therapist by name, though we had never met. Luke 12: 48 writes, “however, the one who did what deserves a beating, but didn’t know, will receive few lashes. From him who has been given much, much will be demanded — from someone to whom people entrust much, they ask still more.” I suggest that we as counselors realize the potential for good that we have and not be afraid to be accountable to God. In other words, “No Guts, No Glory” (from a song by Molly Hatchet in 1983). We should not be afraid to venture out, as my therapist did, and get training that maybe only a small population will benefit from. I don’t know if that therapist had ever worked with a war veteran before, but he put on his “let’s do this” attitude and we got to work quickly.
Am I completely healed as though the trauma never happened? No. I am working with what we call a “new normal”. A trauma survivor never goes back to the old normal, but a treated trauma survivor functions with a new view of life. I had a reaction in class last week, but it was a fraction of what I experienced in Colorado in 2010. It’s my new normal and it is quite safe to assume that many other soldiers are frustrated at their own reactions of their new normal. If working with soldiers is not your calling, I hope you take away information about the nature of trauma. Were the the students sitting around me in class aware of my reaction? Not likely. How many other people around us are suffering in silence due to traumatic injuries? Until we rhetorically put our ear to ground and listen, we can’t begin to fathom the numbers.
“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” Douglas McArthur
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical
manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.).
manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.).
MRI image from http://www.pandys.org/articles/invisibleepidemic.html