This past Saturday, I waded into the deep end and attended my sister-in-law's engagement party - lots of people I don't know and lots of people I wasn't sure I would feel comfortable around. I've explained it before but I will explain it again. When I am around people I don't know the hyper-vigilance kicks in and it forces me to examine the actions of every person around me for threats.
Surprisingly, it went fairly well. I felt the compulsion to give in and watch everyone. Somehow, and I really don't know how, I was able to keep the hyper-vigilance at bay. Fighting the urge was exhausting, though. I fell asleep three times while I was at the party and it was out of sheer emotional exhaustion.
I thought about that as my wife was driving us home. Are these my two options? Giving in or exhausting myself fighting the urge? It really bothered me on Sunday and Monday when I was at work. I kept on thinking that there had to be another option - another way of dealing with the hyper-vigilance and anxiety.
Then something unexpected happened. I was waiting on an elderly couple at the store and the old man was very grateful for my help and proffered his hand. When I shook his hand, I saw the tattoo on the forearm of his other arm. Numbers. He was a Holocaust survivor.
I got goosebumps.
He saw me notice and he grew concerned at the look on my face. He asked if he was the first survivor I had ever met and I told him, to my knowledge he was. He nodded slowly. He was very astute. He asked me if I had been in war. I told him that I was in Iraq.
What he said next was a gut shot:
"You have the look of the American soldiers who freed us from Dachau. Your memories live with you every day. I can see it in your face."
I didn't know what to say. I just nodded my head.
"So do mine. I am comforted by my faith. In our faith, God cherishes those who are just and righteous. Only a righteous man is haunted by war."
With those simple words he patted me on the shoulder and walked back to his wife who was picking out bagels.
Talk about food for thought. Having the memories as bedfellows means I am a righteous man? Is this the price of righteousness? So where's the upside of being righteous?
This is what I have been struggling with since Monday. Needless to say, these are not the kinds of questions that don't have easy answers. So...I keep on looking for them.
Well, that was an unexpected turn. A few days after the horrible nightmare I had last week, I suddenly found myself motivated to examine how I had been living my life. It wasn't pretty. I wasn't doing everything I know I am able to be. I wasn't being a partner to my wife, I wasn't pulling my weight at home. I was anxiety eating myself into diabetic shock, slowly gaining weight, pound by pound.
It hit me that I now have a consistent work schedule where I am home for dinner almost every night. I could actually go to the gym regularly as well. I actually sat down and made a commitment to my wife to be a better man and husband. For the first time in a long time and I am feeling a little more like 'myself'.
It didn't hit me until a few days ago that I was feeling this motivation, this change in outlook because of that horrible nightmare. I'm not sure how or why this is true, I just know it is. It's like there's one less shackle weighing down my soul.
All of the things I accomplished this week just added intensity to the brightness of the light in my heart. The 501(c)3 formation documents are officially submitted to the IRS. One logo is done, one done soon, and one in the works. I was asked to be the keynote speaker at Veterans' Day events in my home town. I confirmed my speaking engagement at St. Francis University. Combat Vets' Google Plus Page was listed as one of the "99 Google Plus Accounts Military Service-Members Should Follow".
Despite all of this, I am deeply anxious that the other shoe is going to drop. It tempers my happiness and dulls my optimism. At least this time, it
It happened Sunday night into Monday morning. Since then, I have been struggling to describe how terrifying these last nightmares were. I am not going to rehash the details again - the nightmare was about the friendly fire incident. Combine that incident with nightmare groundhog day and you get the picture. I experienced that recollection over and over and over...
The truly terrifying part: I knew I was dreaming. After the first 'playthrough', I tried to wake myself up, but I couldn't. After a few more replays, I started to get scared. Why couldn't I wake up? I thought maybe I had to do something, change something. But I couldn't, I was only along for the ride. All I could do was spectate.
Screams and death moans.
The smell and taste of blood in the air.
I got to feel everything - especially the helplessness. On top of that I experienced the helplessness of not being able to wake up, even though I was lucid. It was like being trapped inside myself with no way out.
I started to scream in my head, screaming to be let out. I started to feel like I was losing myself.
The alarm jolted me awake. Terrified and disoriented, it took me a second to come back to the present. I was exhausted. All of my muscles ached like I had been clenching all of them. My heart was beating so hard it actually hurt.
And then came the relief. It was over. I didn't have to experience that scene again. I was back in control. I was still pretty messed up, though. I was only able to make it through half of my shift on Monday before my need to be alone and process what had just happened overwhelmed me and forced me to go home. I am still processing it. I don't think I have ever been so terrified in my whole life.
What the hell was the meaning of that nightmare? Was there a message in it? I don't know and I have a feeling I won't know for a long time. All I know is that somehow, my perspective on work and life has changed. The differences are subtle. Maybe one day I will figure out why.
My therapist proposed a change in venue for this week's meeting. I was circumspect at first but when I arrived at the entrance to the park and we started walking, I felt a sense of urgency and took off up the path, looking at everything around me. My mind let go and I was able to just focus on the trail and all of the intentionally undisturbed nature surrounding me. When we got to the boulder outcropping, I felt a desire to take pictures. It was beautiful out there and I very quickly grew angry at the pothead scum who had defaced the outcropping with their stoner messages. When I climbed to the top of the boulders, the anger melted away. The light was playing on the ground in the most calming and mesmerizing fashion. I just stood there for a while. On our way back, I stopped and took more photos of nature. It felt almost compulsive.
Something happened out there and it was a really good thing. I felt spiritually alive. I had forgotten how much nature heals. The life around me resonated with my shattered soul and finally felt at peace.
Needless to say, I will be going back there - often.
During this whole session, my therapist and I didn't talk about anything. I think she sensed that I needed this moment of peace undisturbed - especially after the ten year anniversary that just passed. Thank you Soldiers Project for finding such amazing volunteer therapists!
TRIGGER WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
I have to work tomorrow. Tomorrow, of all days, is the last day I want to be around anyone. It's the 'anniversary' of the incident that changed everything for me. I don't normally write about the actual event that was a major contributing factor to my PTSD, but this anniversary is different.
It still feels like yesterday, but tomorrow makes ten years to the day that 1LT Leif Nott died in a friendly fire incident in Balad Ruz, Iraq. I still struggle with what happened every day. I remember the sounds, the smells, the feel, everything.
This is the first time that I have mentioned the incident specifically. I don't know why I feel compelled to share it now. I just couldn't let another year go by without honoring those that were injured and those that died that day.
I can't bring myself to recount all that happened, but you can read about that night and the cover up HERE.
I tried to 'suck it up' but I landed myself in the Combat Stress Control Clinic at Balad Air Field a week later. Everyone back at the unit I had been attached to was acting like nothing had happened. I felt compelled to make sure the truth was known - so I contact JAG and CID and reported the friendly fire incident and violations of the rules of engagement. I also reported my suspicion of attempts to sweep the whole thing under the rug.
A week later, I was released back to duty by the clinic. My reporting the incident should have remained confidential. Somehow, it made its way back to the commanding officer of the unit I was supporting and I instantly became persona non grata.
Things went downhill fast from there. I was denied R&R and mid-tour leave because I was a 'mission critical asset' - yet the rest of my team and all of the other attached special operations teams we worked with got to rotate home for two weeks. I isolated and shunned by all but my colleagues. The sectarian violence ratcheted up soon after and the trauma continued to build.
Six months later, I found myself being sent home, a danger to myself and others.
The greatest travesty: The unsung heroes that never received the recognition they deserved for jumping into action.
When it became clear that we had shot up our own, the direct support Psy-Ops team, two young medics and myself ran out to conduct triage. It became evident that we needed another vehicle so I ran back to the TOC and ordered some privates to clear out the Psy-ops turtleback so that we could use it as an ambulance. The next few minutes were a blur. I remember SGT Anderson being carried into the medic bay. Same with SPC Devers. I remember returning to the scene to continue to help and things become disturbingly clear in my mind.
I remember the old man, blood and bone chips flowing away from the mangled mess of his leg to pool in the dust on the side of the road. Somehow we managed to stabilize him. When the medevac birds arrived I positioned myself to lift the old man's upper half into the stretcher and discovered that he had a gaping wound on his back. I had put my arm, almost up to the elbow into his chest cavity. I cannot adequately describe the sensation of feeling someone's heart beating from inside their body. Those sensations and smells will stay with me until the day I die.
To this day, I still don't know if those two young medics or the Psy-Ops team were ever recognized for their actions. I know, like me, they ran out there in untied boots, brown t-shirts, no protective gear, and M-16's on their backs. We didn't think, we reacted. And it is with the utmost humility that I need to express my admiration for their actions that day.
I just wish, on tomorrow of all days, that I could remember the medics' names, Or the Psy-Ops teams' names. Maybe this blog will reach them somehow.
Most importantly, I need to express my most sincere condolences to the family of 1LT Leif Nott. Until this year, I couldn't muster up the courage to even do that. The memories were too much to handle. Honestly, they still are, but it's been ten years.
I couldn't be silent, reticent anymore.
Requiescat in pace, Lief. It is in honor of your service and sacrifice that I have finally mustered up the courage to share this. May you and your family find the comfort and peace you deserve.
It's strange for me. I am looking for spiritual fulfillment and I am still not able to find something that will work for me. When I sat down with my therapist to continue our discussion, I told her that I have had no success in finding anything that I think I can incorporate into my daily life that will provide me with the spiritual fulfillment that I need. I told her that I was talking to a buddy I served with in Iraq that had offered to take me scuba diving. I plan on taking him up on the offer. The problem is that I can't go scuba diving every day.
It's giving me fits.
So I am putting the call out there. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
I have been driving myself nuts looking on the internet for any type of spiritual practice that I think could help me find peace. I decided to back off the search for a while. I think that I have been looking too hard and people say that when you stop looking, you find what you are looking for. Time to sit back and relax and just enjoy the coming week.
It's all about focus. I am going to put my efforts into the non-profit and find some fulfillment there. It will help short-term AND it will put my plans for the non-profit into sharp focus. It's not like I don't have anything to do. Logos. Business plans. Newsletters. Board meeting. Business meetings. Continued tweaking of the websites. It's a lot to do but I love doing it.
My therapist expressed concern that I may be over-extending myself. I thought about it but I just can't see it. If running the non-profit is the only thing that gives you at least some semblance of spiritual peace, wouldn't you work on it a lot?
Gerry Kissell and Kurt Yeager are the minds behind an amazing Kickstarter Project: A Comic Book Series called ‘Vindicated, Inc.’ The protagonist in the series is an amputee war vet. Gerry and Kurt have successfully raised over $10,000 - their goal was $8000. The idea really intrigued me, so I reached out to the creators and asked if they would mind answering some questions.
First off, for those readers who may not know who you are, can you tell us a little about yourselves?
(Gerry) Well, I have been drawing pretty much all my life. I served for a brief period, in the early 90’s, as a combat medic in the U.S. Army. Having served in the military had a huge effect on me, and, after seeing our men and women going to war in 2001, made me take a look at where my art career had gone and where I wanted it to go. I wanted to focus all my energies on serving those who served. Which is why so much of what I have done is military themed. But, it all lead to this book, Vindicated Inc., which is my love song to every soldier who has left a piece of themselves on the battlefield.
(Kurt) I’m a full time actor, writer and BMX stunt rider. Some of my favorite work has been on Sons of Anarchy as “Greg the Peg” and I’m looking forward to a new pilot I’m shooting for Cinemax/HBO called Quarry.
What motivated you to pursue this project?
(Gerry) Well, I was inspired by wounded vets, and had wanted to do something special for them for a long time. But, the inspiration for this story came to me last year, while on my way to drop of rent to my landlord. I drove the three blocks from his office to my apartment so I could write down the story concept. I then contacted my friend Jeff Sear4cy, who used to be with Wounded Warrior Project, and told the story idea to him, and after his reaction, I knew I had done it; come up with the perfect tribute to wounded vets.
(Kurt) I work with a lot of veteran and active service military groups. These guys and gals are the heart of our country and should be given far more than they are. I hear about the problems they face when they come home and it’s a big problem for some of our service members. These stories need to be told, and what better way than to tell it through the eyes of one of those who struggles from both physical and mental issues.
What’s do you hope to achieve with your work?
(Gerry) First and foremost, I hope to shed more light on PTSD and other veteran issues. I also hope the book is successful, because we cannot achieve anything if people don’t read it.
(Kurt) Firstly, I’d love to portray the PTSD and physical disability as authentically as possible. Everyone deals with PTSD in their own way, so it won’t reflect everyone’s experiences but it must be authentic. This isn’t a trivial matter and we won’t treat it with anything less than the respect it deserves.
Secondly, I want to make one hell of a graphic novel and film. I want this project to be an action thriller that twists and turns in ways that are anti-cliché. Who wants to make a movie that is like the rest? Not me. I want this to honor those who have served and make those service members cheer when the film ends.
Many veterans are coming home with some degree of PTSD and are experiencing major difficulties transitioning upon returning home. Do you have any intention of addressing this issue?
(Gerry) PTSD is a major theme within the story. Our main character, which Kurt will be playing in both the comic and in the live action film, has to learn to deal with his PTSD in order to survive. It drives him to do every action he takes.
(Kurt) Absolutely. This is a major theme of our project and needs to be expressed in the film with all the care and accuracy we can afford. I feel this is something that isn’t talked about because of fear, or “looking weak” or shame. It should be the opposite. It’s like a fist fight; you don’t hide your bloody knuckles after you pummeled some jerk-off. You show them off, tell the story, and wear the scars with a little pride for the rest of your life. This is no different. PTSD is not a good thing, it’s scary, painful and debilitating, but it should not be looked upon as a weakness or a failure of spirit. No; this is a result of being in a horribly dangerous, stressful position for a prolonged period of time. You’ve seen things you don’t want to remember, let alone talk about and this is a natural result. The only way to beat something back, like a bully, is to admit it, face it and deal with the reality of the situation. Is it easy, hell no. Is it necessary, yes. We hope to portray that.
Suicide is another very real danger facing many veterans when they come home - what are your thoughts on this issue? Will they be incorporated into the storyline?
(Gerry) I have planned to do at least three graphic novels, and suicide plays heavily in all of them, though more so in the planned Vindicated Inc: Book Two. In Book One and the film, Our main character lives in a veteran housing facility, and some of the residents, over time, take their own lives and our main characters have to come to grips with it.
What’s the tentative timeline for release?
(Gerry)Not totally sure yet. We are going back to the drawing board, so to speak, in writing the script. Kurt, Shane, Josh, Ernie, Mac and I all have given so much to the writing of my story, but in the end, it’s my baby and I need to make sure that no matter what, the final script stays true to my original vision of a character; a guy who starts out looking like an antihero, but as time reveals, he is as much a hero in the streets of Seattle, fighting crime, as he was as a soldier fighting terrorists. I suggest just visiting our sites to find out more on when to expect it to be released.
Where can my readers go to stay up to date on the progress of this project?
(Gerry) They can visit our website at:
as well as my site, http://gerrykissell.com
or even our facebook page http://www.facebook.com/Vindicated.Inc
Needless to say, I am very excited to see how this project moves forward. Any project that depicts disabled veterans leading lives of honor and integrity while learning to cope with their disabilities is a vital step in the right direction.
Thank you, Gerry and Kurt, for taking the time to answer these questions for my readers. I look forward to seeing what comes from your project in the coming months.
In the future, you will see blogs entries from guest bloggers who have a message or mission that I think is relevant and worth supporting. First Up: Natalie Cramer of the Blue Star Family Platoon!
Max, thank you so much for offering me this great opportunity to guest blog for you today! I'm much appreciative for the chance to share my project with your readers and followers and friends.
With me going through the mess I went through over the past month, I hadn't seen my individual therapist for a while. We caught up on all that had happened and she was relieved that I was relieved. She was concerned with how quickly my ability to manage my PTSD deteriorated during this trial. We got to talking about it and about my support networks and it became abundantly clear that the only support network I don't have is the spiritual one. It took a lot of explaining to fully articulate what I find spiritual. I don't believe in God, at least not an anthropomorphic one. Attributing humanity to a being beyond our comprehension smacks of hubris and I just don't buy into it. That was the easy part to explain. The hard part to explain was what I DO find spiritual - connection with nature. Connection with the natural world around me - especially water. It is one of the major reasons that Native American beliefs resonate so strongly with me. On the flip side, I am not interested in visiting a 'retreat'. I would want to learn the culture so entwined with the beliefs. The reality is that Native Americans are reticent to share what is sacred to them with outsiders - if you weren't born into it, you wouldn't understand is a common sentiment I have found online.
She asked me to think back and describe to her the last I felt truly at peace - spiritually whole. I thought about it for a while and I told her it happened on my honeymoon to St. Croix. I was out in the ocean with my snorkel and fins on while my wife was taking a nap. I just closed my eyes and let the current take me for a while. The weightlessness of my body, the fell, smell, and taste of the ocean, and being surrounded by teeming sealife. I felt at home in a way that I hadn't felt since before I went to Iraq. It was a glimpse of 'wholeness' that I haven't felt since. I had to explain that it's not that it paradise - it's that there is no pressure to be anything other than who you are. No masks, no responsibilities, no obligation to others. I have always found the life on St. Croix to be healing in a way I can't describe. I used to visit my grandparents down there almost every summer as a kid. So, what to do? The reality of just picking up and moving to paradise is slim to none. How to I recreate the essentials of that spirituality that heals me so completely? I feel spirit yearning to be whole and the source of my healing is far removed from the world I inhabit.
Well, at least I have something to think about now.
Here's the thing: with all of changes that I have to make in my life to put my sleep back in balance, life is presenting a lot of new challenges...and lots of uncertainty. What if work will not accommodate my need for a set schedule? Why can't I seem to get to bed at a reasonable time? Why is it still so hard for me to get up and get active?
What if? Why? How?
I asked myself these questions a lot yesterday and tried to come to terms with all of the things that are going to need to change in order for my life to center itself. I got up, went about getting new sneakers and then went running in the afternoon heat. It felt amazing. Things fell apart as the day wore on. I ate dinner and had planned to sit down and work on making some changes to one of the websites. Well, that didn't happen and as the evening wore on, I lost track of time and that I intended to go to sleep at 10PM. 1230AM rolled around and I felt like an idiot. Talk about being frustrated with myself. If I can't get to bed at a reasonable hour, then I can't regulate my sleep and catch up on the huge deficit I already have.
So, just like the old challenges, I pick myself up today, dust myself off, and try again. Today, I am going to work on the website and blog entries in the morning, clean the apartment and go for a run in the afternoon, and take some free time in the evening. That's the goal. Now I just need to push forward and make sure that I meet those goals.
So, yeah. The challenges are new but the approach to overcoming them is the same. Grit and determination. Intestinal fortitude. Finding ways to keep myself motivated. All of these things are not new to me - just the problem to overcome. The important thing for me to remember is that I have never given up in the past and I won't now. I have past successes and failures to teach me what I need to do to move forward.
Because Every Day is a New Day.
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.