Coming Back

I recently transitioned back home from my time at American Lakes PTSD program.  My time there was everything that I needed.  I was able to begin to peel the onion layers of  trauma and the ways I was (and wasn’t) dealing with them.  I certainly have a long way to go, but I do feel like I am finally on a pathway to a new normal, a new balance.  The road will not be easy, that I have no doubt of.  But, I feel as if I have finally steadied my pack and have the tools necessary to shoot an azimuth that will be sustainable in my life.  It reminds me of this one time in Marine Infantry school when I just couldn’t seem to get my pack to set correctly on my back.  Drove me crazy!  We were on our Monday morning forced hump, and I just could not get comfortable.  I know, on a long hump you never are comfortable, but this pack was just killing me.  I couldn’t get it to sit on top of my LBV and the shoulder straps just kept cutting into the outside part of my shoulders.  This ended up putting all the weight right on the shoulder socket and not on the top of the shoulders.  I remember at every stop we made, fidgeting with that pack and trying, in vain, to get it to just set on my back correctly.  I ended up having to hold my rifle with one hand and alternate grabbing a shoulder strap and pulling it towards my sternum to alleviate pressure on my shoulders.  This only worked 50% of the time because I could only do one shoulder at a time.  And changing the positions, moving around, all of this made me even more grumpy and sore and tired than I should have felt.  It was exhausting, and it was painful.  I felt like my shoulder was going to come out of socket.  I was all sorts of messed up.  The answer was a simple one, and one that I took care after the hump.  I purchased a cheap sternum strap for my Alice Pack…never bothered me again.  See, most of the time the answers, or the solutions, to our problems are pretty easy to identify.  But, I know I am rather hard-headed and like to try to do things by myself.  Thinking back now, I could’ve easily asked someone for help and perhaps some suggestions.  A really quick fix on the go would have been a short bit of para-cord.  But that’s what happens when we try to do everything by ourselves and just “suck it up.”  We struggle with pain and discomfort needlessly.  For years, I have been trying to deal with trauma alone.  To not reach out for help, to not truly focus on what is really wrong with my situation.  Well, I’m a stubborn mule…  Thankfully, I have recently learned that I can’t do it.  That I can’t go it alone.  That I need help from outside myself.  I had breakfast this morning with a dear friend that I had been avoiding.  He told me this morning about the prophet Elijah.  And how when he was dealing with depression, anxiety, and feeling completely alone and overwhelmed that God did several things for him.  First, He fed him.  Actual food, dealing with his immediate physical needs.  Next, He had him sleep.  Boy, do I know the difference of sleeping and not.  Finally, God talked to him where he was and about what he was doing.  In that conversation he let Elijah express his feelings and then gently, yet sternly, confronted him on his misconceptions.  Sometimes, the truth hurts to admit and to be confronted with.  But the telling, the actual truth, it’s like getting that crud out of a wound.  It hurts to clean it out, but at the same time, you can feel that it’s actually doing something beneficial.  That the hurt is worth feeling, because you know you’re getting better.  That’s how I feel now.  The treatment that I went through hurt at times.  The feelings that I now feel are not comfortable, and are in fact, scary.  But it’s the kind of feeling that I can tell is beneficial, that it’s doing something for me.  I’m no way treatment complete, but I do feel that I’m finally on the road to finding a livable balance between what happened to me, what I did and did not do, with who I can and want to be in the future.  And I can’t do it alone.  I need my family, friends, and support around me.  And, yes, you too Layla!  (My faithful companion needed a little love…)

Today, I feel.  And that’s a change.  I’m still working on my expression of feeling, but I feel like one of the skeleton’s in Elijah’s valley…I’m coming back.

Blessings,

Qmo

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Vulnerability = Courage

It has been quite awhile.  And by that I mean more than just the frequency of this blog.  I have been housed at American Lakes intensive PTSD program since mid-September.  The program consists of lots of intense groups, individual sessions, and homework.  One of the things that the staff here said early on has stuck with me, challenged me, and helped begin transformation in me:  vulnerability = courage.  What is courage?  For many years I have struggled with my self-identity.  I have believed that I must always project a certain controlled and competent demeanor, even when I felt far from it.  I have practiced hiding what I feel so well that I have hidden them from myself as well.  For years I have felt that vulnerability is something to fight against, to run from, and to gird up against.  Well, we can all agree to where my assumptions have led…  I write here now that I am beginning to understand my hurt and my pain and how the events of my life have shaped and molded me into who I am and who I can still become.  By spending so many years denying vital aspects of myself, I was actually helping to cause the harm that I had been trying to run away from.  I believed that crying was a demonstration of a lack of strength.  That admitting my fear, my sadness, and my struggles would only lead to bad things.  What this did was store up those necessary and vital emotions into a reservoir that I had no hope in controlling.  I reached the point to where any emotion terrified me, whether it be mine or others.  I had reached the point where I could not share empathy with anyone because I had none for myself.  I had reached the point where vulnerability was such anathema that I ran from it by running from everything.  I hid in my basement, never left my house, and finally even pushed my own family away.  All because I could not stand being vulnerable.  Funny that the more I tried to run from it, the more I actually succumbed to it.  But again as I have stated before, I am hard-headed and stupid man.  I was hurt in my military service – terrified and abandoned.  I held the trauma and hurt of so many others that it overwhelmed me.  I struggled with how to demonstrate courage when I felt none.  I liked to project the image of competency and courage, but in reality I felt scared and outmatched.  Vulnerability = Courage.  I’ve had to trust people here – staff and veterans alike.  I’ve had to share my pain and my shortcomings in places and circumstances that terrify me.  I’ve had to look deep into my memories and into my presumptions.  C.S. Lewis wrote that “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What? You too?  Thought I was the only one.'”  Being vulnerable to others and especially to yourself takes more courage than running from it.  Feeling emotion, allowing empathy and compassion into my soul again, and (gulp) trusting others is the only way that I can be healed.  And I have learned that is courageous.  I have a long way to go, but I feel like I am reentering my own life.  It will be scary, difficult, and treacherous.  I may get hurt.  But for the first time in a long time, I’m okay with that.

Vulnerably Yours,

Qmo

What To Do When You Don’t Have A Clue

I have no idea what I should do.  I have been feeling overwhelmed; angry; sad; frustrated; confused; forgetful; forgotten; unappreciated; & unappreciative.  The past month and a half have been difficult to manage, in fact, I have been absent from work for the past two weeks.  I am currently awaiting the VA to decide whether or not they will help me with an inpatient stay at a PTSD program.  The hold up in this process is likely the fact that according to their examinations of me that I do not have PTSD, only Adjustment Disorder with anxiety due to combat.  My service connection for mental health has not been finalized yet as I am in the (middle, beginning, end?) of an appeal.  They did graciously add to my service connection that they would cover and treat any mental health issues per Chapter 17.  Funny that their treatment plan for me was exactly the same as what it would be for someone who has PTSD…but far be it from me to suggest that the VA simply is looking for ways to not diagnose people with PTSD for monetary reasons.  Anyway, I digress.  There is a program near JBLM that helps with people who are struggling with the symptoms of PTSD and I have been referred to it by my therapist – someone outside the VA channels that I used the Choice Act to access.  What I really want is to go there and start to work on finding ways to heal and live with who I am now.  Over the past 6 months, every time I go to an appointment with the VA or with Choice Act providers their practitioners have sent someone out to talk with me to see “if I was okay.”  Just based on my presentation most times, other times by my truthful answers to their check in document surveys.  You know the one – “How many times this past week have you felt…”  Well, damn.  My answers must show something concerning for all the fuss.  Even at work (where I thought I was keeping up a pretty good poker face) my co-workers finally started to ask that familiar question, “Are you okay?”  That, I admit, was a difficult dose of reality for me to accept.  When I talked with my wife later she told me “See, everyone sees it.”  At my place of employment I have to deal with people in crisis that need someone strong and stable to support them getting the help that they need.  Daily.  Multiple times.  I also am one of the supervisors that the staff go to to get help in maintaining their caseloads and when they need help processing problems and direction.  Me.  In my current capacity, I am the last person that should be dealing with any of that.  And so, when my current therapist (for the second time) suggested that I think about inpatient treatment, I was finally ready to accept that I did need help.  I informed work and family that I was taking some time away for me to get some help.  Little did I know that the VA would prove to be glacial in its pace to assist a veteran who actually needed something more than an ibuprofen or hand surgery.  No kidding.  I have yet to have anyone in the VA system even admit to getting the referral from my therapist after two weeks.  Contrast that with the time when I saw my VA primary care physician about my extremely painful thumb – I had a referral to a hand surgeon within a week and they freaking cut my thumb in two before a month was done!  But mental health issues?  Veterans who don’t know if they might get angry enough to drive their van through a building or lose their employment because they get confused and feel threatened?  Or worse, a veteran who is so burned out that when a client comes to him seeking help that he misses the signs and that person kills themselves.   No, that situation requires the VA professionals time to “seek clarification on the recommendations of your Choice Act therapist and the mental health team at VAPORHS.”  And cynical as it may sound, I understand exactly what the VA is doing.  They are banking that veterans will just get so frustrated that they give up, that they walk away from the process.  In my case, they will be quick to point their fingers outside of their system, saying “this person didn’t contact us or fax required documentation.”  But what they don’t know is that I have already seen from both sides that they did in fact receive documentation – it’s all just stalling tactics.  But even if any of that was true, there is the fact that during the two weeks I have been waiting for the VA system to do something, I have only received ONE phone call from anyone in the VA mental health team and it wasn’t to talk to me about my current situation or my well-being.  No, it was a single phone call to see if I could sign a release of information.  The impetus of the VA clinicians to maintain a professional detachment and the overwhelming dictate to not do anything to step outside of service-connection has turned the practice of likely ordinarily helpful people into bureaucratic linemen, stalling any who dare attempt to break through into services that they may need but don’t rate.  And though I feel like screaming at the VA personnel every single time I see any of them, I sit and quietly smile, because every veteran knows that if you act out in anger in a VA facility you get banned from services.  So, I sit here without a clue, awaiting help from a system that is trying its damnedest to not do anything at all.  I wish I could sit here today and connect all this to some grand lesson or anecdote that shows forward progression on the path of life; but I promised that this would be an honest journey and that I would strive to tell the truth, even if it was painful.  What am I supposed to do when I don’t have a clue of what to do?  I haven’t a clue…

Qmo

What’s in a name?

You may be wondering why I sign off each time with the moniker Qmo.  Well, this is the simplified form of the nickname that I was bestowed by my platoon in Infantry school, and because I liked it, it stuck.  Qmo is short for Quasimodo, the famous bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral in France.  It became what my team called me in the Marines and followed me all the way through my deployment with I MEF.  And like all good nicknames, this one comes with a story…

My platoon was in the middle of learning urban fighting techniques, and at the time I was a fire team leader.  I was at the West coast School of Infantry in Camp Pendleton, California during the month of August.  This meant that it was very warm out.  Our training schedule had us in the field for over a week straight, and this being the phase after the initial range runs, we were in decent physical shape.  During this phase, we were learning building breaching techniques, specifically room clearing through an elevated window.  The trick to this maneuver was that our fire team would stack and then rush to the window.  The first Marine would lean and crouch against the wall and be in position to help heave the next Marines through with their hands giving a boost up.  We had run through “Barney-style” multiple times and had been practicing the drill over and over again.  My platoon was not meeting the instructors desired levels of proficiency, and as the day wore on and the heat increased, our enthusiasm waned.  It just happened that after a particularly blase performance by a fire team that my team was next in the queue.  The instructors very demonstratively informed the platoon that if they even thought we weren’t giving it our all that we would “take a walk that night and look for our motivation.”  Not wanting to hump all night, and also not wanting to be the reason that we had to miss out on a few hours of rest, I resolved to show them my war face.  I slapped my team on the shoulders emphatically to get us moving.  I was the second Marine meaning that I would be the first through the window.  The way it is supposed to work is that the team clears quadrants of the room.  “1 set! Mouse hole right! 1 clear!!” is what I was supposed to scream out to my team as I swept my quadrant, as my team then fluidly cleared their quadrants and the room was declared “ALL CLEAR!”  That’s how it was supposed to be.  In my case, however, I came running toward the window with my loudest war-cry and upon getting boosted through the window, my Kevlar helmeted head solidly struck the header and I did a complete flip and landed unconscious on the room floor.  The instructors in the room told me that they rushed to my side to “see how badly I’d messed myself up.” *an extremely cleaned up version of their actual phrasing… and after a few moments of being motionless I suddenly jumped up and cleared my quadrant properly.  They told me this story later that night because I had fuzzy memories regarding that event.  But, with smiles and laughter they christened me “Quasimodo, the bell ringer!”

Shortened through time to Qmo, it has been a moniker that I cherish.  A reminder of a time when I had gone through some of the hardest training in my life, and had succeeded.  A reminder of a time when I had bonded with people I would have willingly taken on anyone with and died alongside happily.  As mementos go, Qmo’s not a shabby one at all.

Semper Fi,

Qmo

But I always carried my knife

When I deployed to Iraq in 2003 with the Marines, I had a KABAR that I carried with me always.  A bunch of the Marines in my platoon did the same.  None of us had been to combat (back then we only had a few in our Battalion that had deployed to Desert Storm and only 1 who had actually had Vietnam service) and so we all had our own thoughts and ideas about what invading Iraq was going to be like.  We had been given our desert combat uniforms (DCU) which blended well into the Iraqi desert.  But then as typical of the Marine Corps getting hand-me downs, ALL of our chemical suits and ballistic vests were in the dark green forest camouflage pattern.  “So much for concealment…” I supposed at the time.  Better yet, the Interceptor Body Armor (IBA) that we were given had no SAPI plates which meant that our ballistic vests were really there just as a nice warm sweater – in the Iraqi desert.   Really, the tag reads “protection from fragmentation and 9mm submachine gun or lesser threats.  This vest does not protect against knives or sharp objects.”  What were the main arms of the Iraqi army?  AK-47’s, which fire a 7.62 round, a might bigger than 9mm.  My platoon in particular was lese majeste in regards to our fitting out.  When our chemical suits (also forest camouflage) started to acquire rips and tears due to our having to actually wear them and work in them at the same time, the NBC (nuke, bio, chem) officer told us to just use duct tape on them.  While I’m sure that it would work it didn’t inspire us with confidence of actually surviving a chem attack.  The best news ever, however, especially for a former grunt, came when we were given our ammunition.  31 rounds.  That’s 2 magazines of 15 with one in the chamber.  We were told in our platoon to spread load them across magazines to make it appear to be more if we were engaged.  Now, I get it.  We were support and the majority of ammo was rightfully allocated for the infantry elements in front of us.  But we’re the frickin United States of America.  Every service-member should have had a full combat load.  On our convoys, our 246G’s had 15 rounds.  Just enough for the belt to flop into the canister and look like it was full.  Doctrine at the time was different.  They still were the under the impression that only front line troops were really going to need the stuff.  But, remember that story about Pvt. Jessica Lynch?  Yeah, that was a maintenance company convoy that happened to be only a few miles from where we were operating at the same time.  So, yeah, me and my platoon always wore our KABAR’s on our legs like a stupid SEAL wannabe.  But it wasn’t just because it looked cool.  We knew that if we actually came into contact with the enemy that after 31 rounds, we were going to be utilizing our knives very quickly.  What a different time that was…we call it the “wild, wild west” now because of how just free and open the operational doctrine was.  There were many times that my maintenance fire team would jump into a soft sides Hummer, with no radio, and just drive looking for American vehicles and equipment we could repair, strip, or…ahem…”acquire.”   The stark difference in convoy experience is shown in the two pictures at the end.  In one, I have full kit in a MRAP rolling in a convoy that is tracked via radio, satellite, and hours of pre-mission planning.  In the other, is me and a buddy sitting in the open air in a lone vehicle just taking a cruise through the Iraqi countryside.  No radio, no blueforce tracker, no hours of planning and rehearsing.  And check it out…just me in the sweater and 31 rounds.  But I always carried my knife.

Thankful that I only needed use it for my machismo and MRE’s,

Qmo

Castles in the sand

One of my favorite memories from the invasion of Iraq takes place when my company was on the plains of Ur, near An-Nasiriyah.  We had moved out from the Kuwaiti border 24 hours after our infantry units crossed Breach Point West.  We left in the middle of the night, in a fantastic sand storm.  We had no idea what that sand would do to our trip and our weapons, but I suppose that the command figured that moving in cover was the safest bet.  I guess so, because we made it to where we going to build our Logistics Support Area (LSA).  I remember that those first few days were hot, dirty, and long.  We literally built our base from nothing in the middle of a hot, barren, wind-swept plain.  The first time that I was able to walk around and take stock of the landscape I realized that I could not see anything…no mountains, no cities, no trees.  The curvature of the horizon was occasionally able to be glimpsed, when the mirage effect was not distorting the vantage.  Not that we spent much time looking around.  We were THE maintenance and supply hub for the invasion.  If we weren’t working on vehicles, we were building facilities, and when we weren’t doing that we were on watch or sleeping.  My MOS during this time was Heavy Equipment mechanic and my job was Corporal of the Guard.  This meant that I had to set and relieve the watch every 2 hours, while doing my maintenance duties.  To make finding me easier, I was given permission to move my tent from the tent cluster to the area near the maintenance shop entrance.  This way, the constant coming and going by other Marines doing their watch duties would not interfere with the rest needed by everyone else.  In making this “guard shack” I was able to build my own berms and salvaged enough materials to completely cover my tent and the common area with camouflage netting.  My favorite memory came a few weeks after my little castle was complete.  In the midst of this hot, and barren sand pile, a little bird made a nest under the rain fly of my tent.  I was able to hear the little guy chirp all night long, and during the day it would flit about under the netting catching flies out of the air.  The bird, which I think is a common chiffchaff, had some yellow coloring within the sandy brown.  I took some photos of that little bird, but they didn’t make it through the deployment.  All I have now is the memories of my little friend.  It did such a good job of keeping the flies away that I often welcomed guests with “you scare my bird away and I’ll kill you.”  I don’t know what happened to that little bird, but I imagine that it moved along as soon as we began the tear-down and move out farther up into Iraq…but the weeks that it spent with me will always be a fond memory in a time of not very fond remembrances.

common-chiffchaff-6

Qmo

Flip a switch

Several weeks ago I began a therapy called EMDR.  I don’t know much about it other than it has something to do with retraining the way that the brain processes emotions and memories.  What I can say for it is that I already feel the benefit far more than I ever did with medications.  I’m not saying that I don’t have a long way to go, but I do get the sense that I have rounded a corner.  A switch in my brain feels like it has been flipped into a new direction.  Over the past weeks I have felt more calm and happier than I have in quite awhile.  My wife says that she has noticed a difference and her comments started about the same time I began EMDR, so it feels like a connection.  It might not seem like a big thing but I went to church with my family today.  We went for a morning drive afterward and just have had more real family moments where I have felt present.  I bought the kids a vintage Battleship game and just enjoyed watching them play it, I even played a little myself with my youngest.  I know that I have a ways to go yet, but it feels nice to be among the living again – with a hope that there can be a real lasting change in how and why I feel what I do.

I don’t know if anyone out there will be swayed by the recommendation of a former Marine grunt/Army Soldier, but if nothing else is working, give EMDR a chance.

Peace out,

Qmo