In short, no. When I first got home in early 2004, the system hadn't seen many or any invisible wounds of war yet - it was too early into the conflict. Because the VA wasn't overwhelmed, my claims process was only two months long. I was assessed with a rating in short order. As more and more veterans have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA quickly became overwhelmed. Seven years later, I get to see a doctor every four months, if I am lucky. Here's the catch: So many people blame the VA for not caring. I don't think that this could be further from the truth. I know that all of the doctors and social workers that I have talked with are incredibly frustrated by the lack of staffing and funding the VA is getting to contend with this ever-growing issue. Granted, no system is perfect. The biggest issue I have is with the bureaucratic oversight. Just like every other government agency, there are a ton of superfluous jobs. It's incredibly difficult to fire someone from a Federal job, so people in unnecessary 'fluff' positions keep their jobs while the VA continues to be run into the ground. I think that government agencies should be run like businesses. Cost savings and improved efficiency in operations would equate to more jobs where they are needed and less waste. It's time to separate the wheat from the chaff or all of the veterans returning home are going to lose their trust for the government and country they swore to uphold and protect. What message is being sent to the youth in our country when they witness the general apathy that veterans get treated with upon returning home?
OK, I've said my piece. Down off the soap box and back to talking about other issues...
I wrote this paper in the fall of 2004 for a Short Stories class. I really struggled with this assignment. I had yet to reconnect with who I was. This was a particularly painful period for me and it shows in the writing. Warning: This is some very visceral and raw writing. If you are easily disturbed, please read when you are in the right frame of mind!!
The metallic tang of blood clouded the pavement like a thick fog. Rising bile is swallowed down as eyes are drawn inextricably to the red-black blood pooling under the wounded and dying. Glistening wetly in the moonlight it slowly flows in tiny rivulets away from them to collect in the dust on the sides of the road. An old man groans weakly reaching out for help, skeletal fingers arched in what can only be excruciating pain. His right leg is bent at an unnatural angle from the middle of the thigh down, held together by the smallest strips of skin. Hunks of muscle and chips of bone float in the blood squirting from his femoral artery. Strands of muscle twitch feebly contracting and relaxing, making the wounded leg pulse with a life of its own. Hands reach out to stuff a bandage in the wound and to apply pressure until the medic can get there to clamp the artery.
The medics relieved me and I looked wearily down at my hands and uniform. Bile rises up once more…I think I hear the choppers coming.
Bothered by memories I can’t shake, it has been hard to find something that I can write about. Everything I think about causes my mind to return to those horrible memories. Ever since we received this assignment, I have been searching in the archives of the KU library for some literary criticism that would spark my interest and divert my mind from less pleasant thoughts. After days of looking, I became ever more frustrated with the tired, old, boring criticisms available in the library. It was at this point that I decided to look online via other channels than the library mainframe. After two days of searching websites, I found the official Updike webpage. The website is a veritable gold mine of reader commentary written by the average, everyday people who have read his works. I had finally found something that I could relate to and delved deeper into the website. I found a very touching story that has changed my view of Updike’s writings. For the sake of expediency, I chose one reader commentary that really hit home with me. The commentary was written by Christopher R. Brochon.
I had the dreams again last night. Afraid to go to sleep, I decided to occupy my mind by reading and rereading the commentary by Brochon. I found myself compelled to go back and read A&P (Fiction: A Pocket Anthology, 3rd Ed. R. S. Gwynn. Penguin; New York, 2002 ed. pp. 297-303) all over again. It still seemed superficial and trite. I began to become frustrated that I couldn’t see what resonated so heavily with Brochon. I returned to the website and read his commentary again. This time, a few things jumped out at me and I concentrated on those things that Brochon had written. Here is what he wrote:
“My father died when I was nine and I closed myself off to most of my family as I tried to understand why he had been taken away from me. I began to question everything that I was raised to believe in, as I charged up the proverbial ladder of guilt to place the guilt in Gods lap. During the year of my life for 9 to about 18, I fully trusted only one man; Dick. He was a very close friend of my fathers, and he was the most intellectual person that I have ever known. It was he who, during those most troubled times I turned to for answers that made sense…Among the many works of classic literature and philosophy that I read during that time only of the few fiction authors was John Updike. The first book of his that I read was Couples. I was enamored by how on target he was about all things. The way people spoke. The way they tried to hide from commitment, not just to others but to themselves. But mostly I could always find a character that I could relate to, be it a book, or a short story.”
I think that these lines portray the deep, emotional impact that Updike had on Brochon. Concerned that I still couldn’t see what Brochon did in Updike’s writings, I took a break for a few days to let my brain cool down. I hoped that taking a step back would help provide me with a new perspective on what I had already read multiple times.
The old man has finally been stabilized enough to transport. The medevac grabs his feet. Hands dark with blood and grime reach out and slide underneath the old man’s shoulders.
The right hand is suddenly warm and wet, enveloped in the pulsing of a weak heart beat. Reflexively, the hand jerks back
Eyes jerk away from the old man to the hand. With a quick jerk, the bits of muscle and viscera clinging to the hand fly to the pavement with a wet splat.
Jerking awake, I scramble from my sweaty sheets. Sobbing, I run to the bathroom and scrub my hands under hot water until the blood is gone and that horrible metallic smell dissipates from my memory…
I think I have finally come to realize what has blocked me from gaining insight from Updike’s story: fear of making a personal connection with the characters in the story. Ever since I got home from Iraq, I have felt disconnected from everything and everyone in my life. After all that I had been through, I had cut myself off from the emotions that allow me to relate to others personally and truly experience the wonders of living. Determined, I read the story again replacing scenes depicted in the story with experiences from my own life. The story began to take on a whole new meaning for me.
Yesterday was cathartic and exhausting. I discovered many things in Updike’s story and I now understand why his writing resonated so profoundly with Brochon. I had forgotten how good it felt to feel that way. I remembered the first time I stood up for something that I believed in. Looking back, making that stand had an exceptional effect on how I acted from that point on. I had come to the conclusion that standing up for what I believed in had to be conscientiously pursued. I could not stand by as a spectator anymore and watch the world pass me by. It truly galvanized my will and determination. Every time I stood up for something I believed in, I felt liberated. I began to look around me and explore every source of knowledge that I could get my hands on to better understand what I believe and what ideals I represent.
For the longest time, I had been so caught up in all of the horrible memories of what happened to me in Iraq that I had completely forgotten how to live, how to feel. I had lost my identity in Iraq. I came back an empty husk of the man I was before. Needless to say, this scared me witless. How could I have been so blind? How could I have let myself forget everything that makes life worth living? Brochon lost his father and lost sight of himself for nine years. I do not want that to happen to me. I do not want the next few years of my life to be bereft of meaning. I am making myself this promise: Every day, I will remind myself that I am a part of the here and now. I will not forget what I have been through, but I will not lose sight of who I am or where I am going ever again.
Thank you, John Updike. Thank you for helping me see past the black and white photograph. I can see the simple, yet beautiful brush strokes of life that surround me every minute of every day for the first time in well over a year. I had forgotten how wonderful life can be.
Sorry about the short hiatus from writing on here. I have had a killer time the past few days. I ran into one of those situations that is really easy to brood over and I needed time to figure out what I was feeling and whether it was my PTSD talking or whether the feelings I was having were warranted. Here's the situation: I was feeling slighted and disrespected and I couldn't tell whether it was real or imagined. It took me a while to work through it, but I was able to ascertain after a number of days that it was not my imagination. I decided to confront the person responsible for this behavior. I went into it cool, calm and collected and came out the same way. The person I was confronting didn't like what I had to say, but I could honestly care less. When someone passive aggressively attacks you for months and you finally realize what they are doing, it REALLY gets under your skin. I used to respect this person. Here's the kicker. This person knew about my PTSD and used my uncertainty of my emotions to take out personal frustrations on me, like I was a whipping boy. Needless to say, that's over and done with. There will be no more of that happening again. It's the first time I have questioned whether restraining my emotions was a bad thing. I realized that one person taking advantage of my goodwill doesn't mean that everyone else should have to experience the volatility of my emotions and am staying on the track I have been on. To this nameless person (and you know who you are), you can't beat me down and you will never own me that way again!
I had a wonderful day today. I got up feeling rested, I spent a lot of time laughing with my daughter and I welcomed two new moderators to my Facebook Forum. Everything was going great until I went to pour some coffee late in the day and I spilled it on my right hand, scalding the crap out of it. It is really red and painful right now. The physical pain was soon joined by emotional as I flashed back to Iraq when my hand was also really red for different reasons. I could even smell the blood in the air. My wife could tell something was wrong and she asked me if I was ok. I told her that the last time I remember my hand being this red was when I was in Iraq. She instantly responded with, "No it's not. The last time your hand was that red is when you handed our daughter to me." I had mentioned before that the blood associated with my daughter's birth had helped by giving me a positive association for blood. And I was right. Thinking of Caley's birth started calming me down a little bit. The flashback became an intrusive recollection, which I find much easier to contend with. Yet another reason why support is so important - where would I have spiraled to if my wife wouldn't have been there to snap me out of it?
First, I want to thank Jennifer for sharing her story with me. She asked that I make a response to her comments in my blog. Jennifer went through some rough times before she was diagnosed. She got out of the military and ended up having to deliver a baby alone because her husband was overseas. She was having a lot of issues coping and the VA kept on telling her that her issues were not service-connected. She knew that this wasn't the right diagnosis and kept on searching until she found a private doctor who diagnosed her with PTSD and taught her how to keep the PTSD from controlling her life. She searched for validation - that she wasn't crazy and that something was actually wrong and she found it. She was not able to start healing until she got this validation. So my message to all family members out there - do your loved ones with PTSD a favor and validate what they are feeling and suffering through. Let them know that you may not understand what they are going through, but you recognize that it is real and will work with them to get them through it.
I have been really stressed out lately. With my anger issues and stress at work and stress at home, I have been continually wearing my body down for weeks. It caught up with me today. I got part of the way through my shift at work and I had to go home. They say that stress breaks down your immune system: It has to be true because it is the only time that I EVER get sick. I got home and slept for four hours. I was a mess. It has really motivated me to get a handle on things. I am going to be looking into therapy sessions with a non-VA doctor so that I can get more consistent treatment. I know that the folks at the VA are really overwhelmed right now. I have insurance. Most guys don't. It just makes sense that I do what I can to help myself and other vets by using my insurance to get the help I need.
A kid at work cut his finger...it was bleeding a lot like those types of cuts do. He had a look of terror on his face. That look hit me in the gut like a ton of bricks. I started having recollections of the faces of the Iraqis I interrogated in Iraq. I had to call my wife to bring my meds and I was not doing well for about an hour. I decided to call up a buddy of mine that I served with to gain some perspective and to get it off my chest. That was the best idea I had all night. He kept me grounded in the here and now and reminded me that I am not in Iraq anymore. I can't thank him enough for being there for me tonight.
I interview for a new position at work on Thursday. As usual, my nerves are getting the better of me. My PTSD causes me to go into catastrophic thinking mode and I obsess about the worst possible outcomes. I am aware of it, but it still makes it hard to stay focused on work. It has also made me really want a cigarette. All I have to do is get through the next few days. Just get through the next few days.
I stayed up really late. I think it's because I couldn't shut my brain down after work. I want to make sure that all of my ducks are in a row going into this job posting process I have just entered. It will be interesting to see where things go, but I really hope it doesn't interfere with my sleep again. I kept on thinking about all of the things that could go wrong and obsessing about how I could fix any problems.
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.