Two years ago, Cpl. Michael Egan stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device during his last foot patrol in Afghanistan before heading back to the United States. He lost both legs above the knee, sustained countless fractures to his pelvis, and lost sensation to 40% of the muscle mass in his left arm. Along with these injuries, Egan suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite his wounds, he keeps a positive outlook on life. “By coming so close to death,” Egan said, “I have learned that every time I fall in life, I have countless reasons to get back up.” This is his outlook on dealing with PTSD.
Whether you know it or not, if you’re in the military, you have one. It’s the frame of mind between when you are at work and when you aren’t. When you’re in the U.S., it’s much easier to manage — to turn the switch off and go home to your family, your wife, your kids, and be able to enjoy spending time with them and get joy in return. Whatever your work entails, flipping that switch back on to go to work is almost as routine as putting on your uniform.
Now you’re in Afghanistan. You’re surrounded by work wherever you go. You eat, you sleep and you breathe work. Work is 24/7, even in the down times of a deployment, and the switch is permanently on — even more so when you’re out in the shit, and you’re getting in firefights every day. You’re watching every step you make, like walking on eggshells, and you’re always on guard. You worry about the safety of the brothers to your left and your right, even more if you’re in a leadership position. It’s a heightened awareness that would drive any normal person crazy. The idea of normalcy is irrelevant in Afghanistan, and there’s no such thing as normal sleep patterns or consistent breaks.
Seven months of this switch being on and then you return to the U.S. You may have a few days of travel to unwind, but that doesn’t matter: You’re back home, in front of your family, your friends and your loved ones. As crazy as it sounds, it’s almost hard to accept love and to have someone embrace you as if they thought they would never see you again because in the back of their mind they didn’t know if they would.
It may be easy for some people to move forward and be able to carry on with their day-to-day routine, leaving the past behind them. But for others with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), like myself, that switch is still on.
When someone hears you say, “I have PTSD,” most people would automatically think you’re nuts. In reality, you’re just stuck in the mindset of war — that paranoia of being safe and keeping the people around you safe, the feeling of vulnerability because you don’t have an M4 or SAW across your chest and a few grenades on your belt.
We aren’t crazy, we aren’t losing touch with the reality of being back, we’re just lost. We’re unable to cope with the bits and pieces of war that is imbedded into our minds and cut deep in our souls. They shake you to the core of who you are, but you don’t have to let it define you. The flashbacks may come less frequently and become less severe, but they may never go away. We can learn to conquer our demons.
Hopefully in time, we can turn that switch off and rest easily, leaving what was in the past behind and looking forward to a brighter future.
// By Lance Cpl. Medina Ayala-Lo
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