Leaving the battlefield: Soldier shares story of PTSD
April 25, 2012
FORT BENNING, Ga. (April 25, 2012) -- My name is Huerta. I am an American Soldier and I have PTSD. I refused to admit it to myself even when the Army doctors told me I had it in 2004. I refused to talk to anyone about it even when Army health professionals told me I needed to in 2005. I was afraid how Army leadership would react if I had that on my record. I was a Soldier, I was tough, I just needed to rub the patch and drive on.
And drive on I did until one day in September 2010, five years after I last left the battlefield. I don't know what the trigger was. Maybe it was the young Soldier, a mother of two who was just redeployed, who I watched cut down after she hanged herself weeks after returning from battle earlier. Maybe it was the faces of the children I see on all the doors I knocked on to tell them their father or mother was not coming home. Maybe it was because it was the same time of year when my uniform was covered with the blood and brains of a 6-year-old Iraqi child who was caught in an IED during Ramadan.
I don't know what the trigger was, but it hit me hard. I went home one evening and all of sudden, I felt a tightness in my chest, it was hard to breathe, I felt closed in and panicky. I bolted out of bed thinking I was dying. I paced the room in the dark for hours before I exhausted myself. I almost went to the ER that night, but the Soldier in me said to stick it out.
The morning came and it hit again, a panic, a fear of being closed off, claustrophobia, and pains in the chest. I thought maybe I was having a heart attack and, if I was, I needed to see a doctor.
A heart attack was honorable, PTSD was not. I went to sick call and they ordered a battery of tests to exclude any heart condition. When my heart was cleared, the doctors recommended I see someone in CHMS. I thought to myself, "I wasn't crazy, why do I need to see them? If I see them, I know the 'big' Army will find out and tag me as 'broken.'"
I went home that night and the same thing happened. I knew I could not live like this so I talked, off the record, to someone in mental health. They looked at my records and after talking with me, said I had PTSD. They said there was probably some trigger that set it off. I did not want to believe it, but I knew that I needed something or I would face the same thing again that evening. I then "officially" saw them and was prescribed some psychotropic medication to help with the anxiety in order to help me function.
I thought when I got off the battlefield that I could heal and place the war behind me. As a chaplain, I soon realized that I could not. Within weeks of getting back in 2004, I was knocking on doors telling Families a husband, wife, a father or mother, a daughter or son was not coming home. In 2008, I knocked on a door to tell a Family that their husband, a father of three, was lost to them. To this day I can close my eyes and see the face of a teenage daughter who looked at me with hatred. She looked deep into my soul and said that she would never forget what I did to her and her Family that day and turned away, too destroyed to even cry.
Even though I was home, I never left the battlefield. I brought the war home and it took a toll on me, my Family, wife and children. I got to be good friends with Jim and Jack. You may know them as Mr. Beam and Mr. Daniels.
I did not want to get close to my new babies for fear I may get deployed again. A big piece of me wanted to go back to battle because the battlefield made sense; coming home to emails, memorandums and unit "politics" did not. I also knew that if I went back, a bigger piece of me did not want to come back home again.
The home I came back to was not the one I left. My Family was not the same, I was not the same. I felt that something important was stolen from me and there was nobody I could talk to about it. Nobody except the guys I was over there with. I would look for combat patches, look for buddies to talk to, look for the Soldiers who went through what I went through and felt the same way I did. There were many of us. Our experiences were very different but we had one thing in common. We felt different, but we were not crazy or have some defective genetic failing.
It just was hard for us to come to terms with all the death, destruction and pain we had participated in and witnessed. We were all reluctant about "officially" talking to someone. Even if we needed help, we would not go to it as we thought leadership would use that against us for assignments and promotions.
We felt we were alone. We were trapped in our own memories, sometimes trying to ignore them and often not being able to. We watched as our suicide numbers went up and are still going up.
The Army leadership has tried and is trying to change this trend and is having some success. I cannot say that a piece of me at one time did not wonder if the world, my Family, would have been off better without me.
For Soldiers with PTSD, we often felt the very act of seeking help from a mental health professional could be information that could be used against us, to target us, and make us feel we were burdens to the system. I felt that way and was afraid to get the help I needed. I now fear that the problem may be made worse with the so-called discovery of a PTSD gene. If this data is used wrong or misinterpreted, those of us with PTSD now could be considered genetically dysfunctional.
Instead of being a burden to the Army, I ended up being a burden to the most important people in my life, my wife and children. Fearing being minimized as a Soldier, I, like so many others, went underground. It seemed the very thing that leadership was using to try to help me actually worked against me.
When I close my eyes at night, sometimes I still see myself picking up the body parts of my Soldiers. I still see myself holding my Soldiers as they die in my arms on the battlefield. I still see the blood of Iraqi children spattered all over my uniform as they take their last breaths due to no fault of their own. In the quiet moments of the day, when I am with my Family, I see the faces of the all the wives, children, husbands, mothers and fathers whose lives I destroyed with the notifications I made.
My mind tells me that I did not cause their pain and grief, but my heart tells me otherwise. I know I can't change their pain, but I can change mine and the pain I inflicted on my Family due to war. Only a Soldier understands that physically being home doesn't mean coming home.
Coming home from battle seemed to be one of the easiest things to do. It seemed that you just get on a plane. After spending hours, weeks and months getting help and talking to someone about my wounds, I am only beginning to understand how to come home.
I am, in our Army culture, what some would identify as a broken or deadwood Soldier. I have no bullet holes to show my wounds. I will not get any medal that will recognize them. If I did, I would be afraid and ashamed to wear it in our present culture. As with so many of us, my wounds are the invisible kind, the type we bear in our souls. I am not ashamed of them. For me and others like me, they are just as real as one that bleeds.
I am getting help because I'm tired of not being home. I am tired of being on the battlefield I brought back with me. It is time for me to come home. It is time for all of us to come home. My name is Huerta and I am a wounded American Soldier, and I am not ashamed of my wounds and I have no genetic failing. I am proud of my service and I am going home. Let's go home together.