When I was in my first years of college, I was always the one student who had no problem with a stimulating educational environment. Years later with two turbulent deployments behind me and some serious mental health misshappenings, I find myself struggling in the college environment.
I walk in the class, and there sitting in front of me is a room full of eager to learn adults. The only seat available is on the far side of the room. I huff and make my way to the seat. As the class starts, everything is OK. But all of a sudden, like being hit over the head, I find myself feeling suffocated, claustrophobic and distressed. Something in me tells me, “Get out now.” This is the same feeling that I often fought off while patrolling the unpredictable, small alleys of Iraq. The noises in the room, such as students rocking in their chairs, crumpling paper, sneezing, scribbling on their notepads, and the student next to me hitting my foot and then accidentally hitting her chair against my chair make my hands start to sweat and my thoughts race. I lean into my chair with my head down, and I try to focus on my professor. My heart seems to be racing. “What is going on?” I start writing on my pad of paper what I am feeling, but after a couple of seconds, all of the noises and irritations pick up. It is like someone is scratching his fingernails across the board.
In the past, every college class I have been in has had only a handful of people and they were spread out, making the educational environment conducive for me. I managed to suck it up and make it through that class, but only after writing 15 complete pages of thoughts. I went back and read the paper, because I don’t even really remember what I was writing at that moment. What I read made it clear that my demons definitely are surfacing more and more each day. I believe the reason for this is because I spend a lot of time with my psychologist bringing my deep issues to the table. I believe that when you rattle the cage and start getting the emotion out all these things triggers or disturbance rise to the surface.
I often receive e-mails from soldiers struggling with PTSD. Many of the stories they share with me are similar to the one above. One young man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is still in his unit and is scared his chain of command will see him as weak, said, “I just got back from deployment, and I feel like I don’t belong here. People don’t understand me, and when I act out they think I am being disrespectful. That’s not the case. I just can’t get these emotions under control. I hate how I am; I just can’t turn off that switch.”
Some of you may be wondering what that switch is while others, namely combat troopers, know that terminology rather well. For some, this switch can be the hardest thing to turn off, and for several others, by the point that switch is actually turned off they are on a plane being deployed back to a combat zone. The switch is what I call the survivability button.
A common phrase you hear in basic is “stay alert stay alive.” At the time, this phrase might mean nothing to a recruit, but when on the ground staying alert is how you keep not just yourself alive but also your comrades.
A month ago I received an e-mail from a soldier named Williams who expressed to me that he felt guilty as hell for not having been able to stop a disgruntled Iraqi from running by him and stabbing his best friend. He wrote: “David, after my best friend was stabbed something flipped in my head and I haven’t been able to turn off this aggressiveness, protective and sometimes this revenge feeling. S***, I go to the AM PM and when I look at those people, I just want to freaking act out. I know you talked about this switch in an online yahoo interview, and I just want to turn this switch off, before it is too late, how do you do it?”
Some men drive fast when they get home, because they are used to driving in their vehicles on the roads of Iraq. They know that there they are the law. Some men come home and find themselves in fights, thinking that since they made it back from Iraq they have somehow developed this invincibility. Some men will go out and buy so many guns you would think that they’re mobilizing their own army. Some of the biggest things some of us deal with are anger, disappoint and even betrayal. When men come home sometimes the relationships with those they have been to war with start to find a distance. The switch for survivability has many levels. Some are easy to identify; others often are misunderstood by those around.
As I go through school, I will have to learn to deal with these things and find proper resolution. I plan on asking the college: “How do you accommodate those with PTSD — especially with many of the classes being in small rooms with a lot of people, thus causing psychological anxiety?” As a reporter you are not to supposed to assume anything, but it is a good bet that they will recommend an online class. I will soon find out in this investigation if academia is ready to handle the men who come back with war issues.