Winning medals and battling PTSD
November 30, 2010
<i>"I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills."</i>
TORMENTED by nightmares from a convoy attack during his first deployment to Iraq and driven to compensate with muscles for his shorter stature, Spc. Filipe Hill took this section of the Warrior Ethos a little too far. To help cope with his flashbacks and anger, he worked out up to three times a day, six days a week, during his second tour in Iraq. He always believed pain truly was weakness leaving the body, so he ignored his body's protests when he bench-pressed 315 pounds and squatted 450, until, that is, the day he could no longer hold a dumbbell with his left arm.
Doctors in Iraq medevaced him to Germany, where he was diagnosed with nerve damage and four herniated disks. After surgery in February 2009, and extensive physical and occupational therapy, Hill still doesn't have the full-strength back in his left hand-he can barely hold 35 pounds today-and still has muscle spasms. According to doctors, the 29-year-old Soldier has the neck of a 50-year-old man.
And when his new wife, who is also an Army specialist, insisted he get help for his nightmares, he was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but he didn't let any of that-nor a painful pulled hamstring-stop him from competing in the first Warrior Games, a unique sporting event designed for wounded servicemembers and cosponsored by the U.S. Paralympics, in Colorado Springs, Colo., last spring.
When his squad leader at the Fort Meade, Md., warrior transition unit announced the games, Hill, a former high school track-and-field runner, eagerly submitted his packet for events like the 50-meter dash, 100-meter dash and the relay race. He also agreed to try the 50-meter freestyle swim (later withdrawing due to injury) and wheelchair basketball. He thought it was regular basketball at first, but ended up loving it, although he was disappointed when the Army lost to the Marines in a fierce battle. The Army team walked, or rather, rolled away with the silver medal.
Wheelchair basketball "is the funnest sport," he said. "I think it's more fun than real basketball, just for the simple fact that it's more challenging. Basketball, you can run, dive for the ball. Wheelchair basketball takes a lot of discipline and finesse not to crash your wheelchair into your opponent's wheelchair, to be able to sit down and shoot the basket with regular rims, the regular-size rim. They did not lower it for us. That was my first time shooting sitting down. It was very interesting. It was a lot of fun."
His focus was on running, however, and while to the typical observer, he runs like the wind, he believes his average time of 11.3 seconds for the 100-meter dash is far too slow: "I cannot get faster than 11. Eleven seconds seems like it's my kill point," he said. He was especially frustrated with his final time of 13.12 at the games. It was enough to earn him the bronze, but was still slower than his practice time, thanks to the high altitude; cold weather; wet, slippery track; and the hamstring he pulled during practice and reinjured during the competition.
"I blame the Marines," who won both gold and silver medals, Hill joked. (He spent four years in the Marine Corps.) "Man, them dudes-man, (are) they fast. I was trying to keep up with them. I heard the gunshot. I looked up. All I seen was red in front of me. I'm like man, OK, I've got to catch them. I've got to catch them. That's all I was thinking about.... I didn't care who was next to me. I saw them in front of me. My goal was to catch them, try to beat them. I didn't do it, but I placed third. I'm happy with third."
But win, lose or bronze, having the Warrior Games to focus on, especially as his medical retirement from the Army nears, has helped Hill. The son and nephew of Vietnam and Desert Storm veterans, he doesn't want to get out, but wants to spend the remainder of his career behind a desk even less. That's not why he enlisted.
"It's taken my mind off of (things). I actually haven't had a nightmare since I've been training. That's another thing I like about the Warrior Games. Having the Warrior Games to focus on takes your mind off a lot of your stressors," said Hill of the games. He has survivor's guilt from walking away from an explosively formed projectile attack on his convoy during his first deployment to Iraq with 1st Battalion, 182nd Field Artillery, Michigan National Guard.
"The vehicle in front of me was hit with an EFP," he remembered. "The driver sustained major shrapnel damage to the left side of his body. The gunner sustained injuries as well.... I don't really like going into detail about it too much.... I hold a lot of guilt.... He was on the right side and I was on the left side and I asked him to switch...because I was getting kind of sleepy and I wanted to stay alert. No sooner after we switched over, that's when the bomb went off."
Talking about his experiences is hard, he said, because it opens the floodgates and he'll think about his battle buddies the rest of the day. Like many Soldiers, he was initially reluctant to ask for help, until his wife forced him to confront his demons.
"I've went to therapists before, but I never opened up, never talked about it and just kept it bottled in," Hill explained. "(My wife) noticed that I was having trouble sleeping. She noticed that I was always irritable. She noticed something was wrong and when I go to sleep at night, I was acting out my dreams. She woke me and was like, 'Babe, I really need you to get help. Find you somebody you can trust. Open up, because if you keep holding it in, it's going to manifest uglier and uglier.'
"Definitely, definitely get help," he told Soldiers. "If not behavioral health, they have chaplains. If you don't want to go to them and you go to church, go see your pastor. It's always good to talk to somebody who has dealt with other patients who are going through the same things, so they can...relate, so they're not just giving you advice that doesn't make any sense.
"You have to trust your therapist," he said to Soldiers, but added that he understood the hesitation to do so.
Like other Soldiers, Hill was at first fearful about sharing his feelings. His first thought before meeting with a therapist was: "If I tell them how I really feel, if I tell them what I'm thinking about, tell them what I'm dreaming about, the nightmares that I'm having, they're going to stick me in a psychiatric ward," but his therapist put his mind at ease.
"When I told (my doctor) my fears and worries, she was like, 'If everybody got stuck in a psychiatric ward because of their thoughts or their feelings, then there would be nobody left to work because everybody gets angry.'"
Keeping busy helps, and outside of sports, Hill has taken a few classes and started to consider a career in guidance counseling after the Army. He's gotten nothing but support from his squad leader at the WTU, who understands when Hill oversleeps, thanks to his medication, and is late to formation.
Army doctors prescribed sleeping medication and other medication to suppress his nightmares, which Hill said Soldiers shouldn't be afraid to take, because they've been prescribed for a reason. Self-medicating with alcohol, on the other hand, is a huge mistake and will only make problems worse, he said, explaining that one of his friends got to the point where he couldn't function without a drink, and would call him, drunk, at 3 a.m. Partially at Hill's urging, his friend finally went to an in-patient treatment program.
In addition, Hill's doctors have given him techniques to better manage his grief and anger: "They asked me what are some of the things I enjoyed doing before I joined the military' I told them, 'writing poetry, being in the park in the summertime, driving around with the windows down, just me and my daughter.' They told me to envision these things whenever I find myself getting anxious, irritable or angry. And it works. It's very calming when I think about my daughter. It relaxes me when I think about how much my daughter loves me and looks up to me."
He didn't, however, tell his daughter, who is seven, about the Warrior Games. He couldn't take the pressure: "My daughter is very competitive...worse than my squad leader. She will call me: 'Hey Daddy, you training today' Daddy, how are you doing' You're going to bring home the gold right''"
He may have just missed the gold, and was initially disappointed, but when he limped to the medal ceremony on his injured hamstring to accept his bronze for the 100-meter dash, wearing his silver from wheelchair basketball, he was simply proud.
"I told my squad leader I was getting a medal and I did that," he said. "I'm happy. If I get a medal period, that to me is an accomplishment, because this is the inaugural Warrior Games. I want to set a tone for everyone else who comes: passion wins."