FORT POLK, La. — Most people have little idea the price Soldiers pay to keep citizens safe and free. The cost comes due when Soldiers return home from deployments and must learn to deal with new physical and mental scars. Between 11-20% of Soldiers who deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.The clinical definition of PTSD, according to the VA, is a mental health problem that may develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event like combat, a natural disaster, car accident or sexual assault.But to someone who personally lives with PTSD, it can mean something different.Buddy, a former Soldier with three deployments under his belt — two to Iraq and one to Afghanistan — said he personally defines PTSD as the rewiring of your brain to react in negative ways to external stimuli.Buddy will remain anonymous, but he has agreed to discuss his experiences dealing with PTSD, giving insight into his mental health journey.RewiringBuddy said his first deployment to Iraq (2004-2005) was casualty heavy and rewired his brain for survival. He admits that deployment was probably the primary starting point to his issues.“In 18 months, I don’t think there was a day when we didn’t get mortared, fired upon or hit with IEDs. People were stepping on land mines. There was this staggering magnitude of sustained pressure to be on guard. We were weary from constantly being on the move, attacked and on the attack,” he said.He quickly learned survival meant suppressing his emotions and dealing with them later, and that didn’t happen until he was back from deployment.“My young age, experiences down range and a lack of coping skills set me up for my dependence on alcohol and extreme PTSD,” he said.Buddy said being rewired that way meant he couldn’t go back to the life he had before deployment.“Those changes are permanently ingrained in me and have become my new normal,” he said. “For a long time, it was hard for me to wrestle with that reality in a way that didn’t overcome my life.”Buddy said he comes from a fighter’s background.“I’ve boxed my whole life. I think that lifestyle, along with my training as a Soldier, contributed heavily to how I react to threats — real or imagined. To engage with physical force is instinctive to me. After my brain was rewired, that is the only reaction I seemed to have,” he said.AlcoholBuddy said he coped with his emotions by drinking.“Alcohol exacerbated my issues. I thought I needed to suck it up and wait for it to get better,” he said. “I would drink and let my emotions come out. That wasn’t a healthy coping mechanism. It allowed me to feel, but in a dampened and altered state.”Buddy said he wasn’t the only person that felt that way.“Like myself, most Soldiers were in denial and trying to cope on their own. The thinking is, ‘If you aren’t able to your fix your issues, you’re weak.’ You experienced it, so you have to find a way to crawl out of the pit by yourself,” he said.Buddy said Soldiers don’t think of behavioral health or other mental health professionals as a battle buddy that’s going to help them get through their issues.“Instead, you are looking for help from your left and your right — from the guys who went through the same things that you did. At the same time, we don’t really break down and talk about it. We beat our chests and say ‘this too shall pass’ and ‘we’re going to get through this.’ We did that by drinking together,” he said.Sleep issuesBuddy developed sleepwalking and sleep-running issues due to his PTSD.He would wake up from night terrors; and when he was drinking, the alcohol made him perceive those dreams as reality.“When I woke up, my brain continued the dream. I would engage in the real world in a hostile manner because I was actively doing something combat-related in my head. I would often come back to reality with a handgun in my hand or no longer in my house,” he said.When Buddy was stationed at Fort Polk, he lived in Camellia Terrace and there were several times when he said he would come to his senses in his underwear at the Shopette with the military police in his face.“I would have no recollection of how I got there. I would try to talk to them and explain that I was trying to fill in the gaps of what had happened because, 10 seconds ago, they weren’t even there in my mind,” he said.TriggersWhen people hear gunshots, the initial reaction is to run in the opposite direction, but Soldiers are trained to run toward the action. Buddy said his body and mind reacts to loud noises and anger by throwing him into an alternate reality, especially when he’s caught off guard.“My brain would slip into another place, and it would take me hours to come to terms with what happened,” he said. “Loud noises are a big trigger for me, especially metal on metal sounds, gunshots, fireworks or things that emulate combat noises — the same sounds I would react to as a Soldier.”He said another trigger is people yelling violently.“If I’m in a grocery store and some guy gets excited and starts yelling about something — it doesn’t matter what — I’ll turn and feel like that’s someone I’m going to have to engage with physically,” he said. “Most of the time, it completely shatters my reality. Suddenly, I’m looking for threats, weapons and waiting to engage with maximum force and lethal intent. My body gets a tremendous dump of adrenaline, and I get the shakes.”Even devoid of a real threat, that release of hormones often came with engaging the person involved, regardless of the situation.“Often, I would come at them with violent intentions,” he said.Buddy said an example might be a truck dropping its back plate. That unexpected noise would trigger him and he’d find himself engaging with the driver in a hostile manner because the driver becomes the cause of his feelings.“In my mind, all those suppressed emotions, that I’m no longer able to contain, are coming out because of him. It might not make any sense; and when my head is clear, I know he isn’t to blame. But, in that moment, the driver (or anyone close to a triggering situation) is to blame, not only for what I’m feeling in that episode, but for all the pain and agony I had to go through,” he said.Buddy said he would provoke people in these situations by insulting them, physically touching them and instigating a fight so that he could feel justified in taking action.“I had multiple fights in bars, the barracks and at stores. Violence was my standard reaction,” he said.DenialBuddy said he was in PTSD denial. He related getting help to being vulnerable and weak and didn’t want to admit that he had a problem.“The key word is vulnerable. In combat arms, if you are vulnerable, you are exposed because somebody didn’t do what they were supposed to do. There’s a breakdown and the enemy is now exploiting a weakness. So, if you are left vulnerable, it’s because you or somebody else didn’t do their job,” he said. Vulnerability had negative connotations and denial was part of the survival instinct.“My inability to fully confess that I was struggling with PTSD came from a place inside me that said I was better than PTSD,” he said.After an episode ended and Buddy was back in his own head, he said he wouldn’t take responsibility for his actions because, from his perspective, it was everyone else’s fault.“They (the Army) made me react that way. I felt completely justified in all my actions because I did what any good Soldier would do. I would think, ‘you can’t blame me for doing this just because it isn’t what you thought was appropriate.’ I never felt guilty about any of these confrontations. I was always able to justify my reactions, and that enabled me to continue denying that I needed help,” he said. “Even when I was sleep-walking, I figured it was out of my control, so you can’t hold me accountable for what I did.”Turning pointThough Buddy had been to behavioral health and through four or five cycles of anger management, it never worked because he wasn’t ready to accept it.“I would smile and convince them that I was fine. I made them believe there were no problems, and I didn’t need to be there,” he said. “I was convinced that I was Dr. Jekyll, not Mr. Hyde.”Buddy finally came to the realization that he needed help.“I was so depressed that I didn’t want to live that way anymore. Suicide was right around the corner, and that scared me,” he said. “At that point I was already out of the military. I had suffered through nine years of triggers, episodes and waking and sleeping nightmares.”There is no single circumstance that is at the root of Buddy’s PTSD, instead, he said there are layers of continuously stressful (sometimes horrific) moments pieced together from each of his deployments that make up the whole of Buddy’s PTSD issues.“It was scary acknowledging that I have a problem,” he said. “I wasn’t OK anymore. I had to come to terms with the fact that I had PTSD and needed help. Until I admitted that I had an issue, I couldn’t begin to heal.”TherapyTherapy helped challenge his denial and difficulties.“I was able to begin minimizing my triggers in minutes instead of hours or days. Much of that progress came with sobriety and not being on opioids for injuries,” he said. “Even though I still have triggers, I have acquired an arsenal of tools, stowed in my mental tool box, that help me rationalize challenging thoughts and coax myself into getting back to my new baseline,” he said.When Buddy is triggered now, he said he is no longer violent or hysterical.“I’ve learned to deal with the adrenaline, challenge the reality of the situation and rationalize what’s happening in my environment to see it for what it is — to truly be in that moment. Then I breathe deep and try to relax back into reality,” he said.A therapist once told Buddy that his mind is a battleground, and he was losing the battle against PTSD.“That was a game changer for me. She put my situation in terms that, as a Soldier, I could understand,” he said. “Now I purposefully think of my mind as a battleground and my triggers and episodes as fights. I don’t like to lose; I won’t lose. That’s what the Army trained me not to do. My mind is a battleground, and it dictates how my body engages in this world. I have to win the battle in my mind, and I always fight to win — that’s my strongest tool.”Support systemOnce Buddy sought therapy and admitted to himself that he has PTSD, he also realized he had been struggling alone because he felt ashamed. Now he has a strong support system made up of his wife, children and parents.“It was hard to share what I had been through with the people I love. I felt like I couldn’t be open and honest with them before. Now, I openly talk to my family about what I went through, even my kids. I help them understand my issues in ways that they can understand and that are age appropriate.“I try to explain that when I yelled, it was because I was upset about things from deployments. My oldest daughter understands better than her younger siblings, and she said, ‘You did a lot for us, and I didn’t even know it. You are one of the strongest, bravest people I know.’ She builds me up and makes me feel like what I did as a Soldier isn’t shameful,” he said.Continuing battleBuddy said fighting PTSD is a constant, ever-evolving process that requires full attention and effort.“You will probably have to maintain that discipline throughout your life,” he said. “Though I haven’t needed therapy in years, if I did, I wouldn’t hesitate to reach out. For now, I have a mentor that I speak with regularly, my family, faith in God and prayer — my coping toolbox is full. Those things help keep me centered and on the right track.”Seek helpTo other Soldiers that haven’t sought help, Buddy said he wants to encourage them to get the support they need to fight their PTSD battles.“Don’t allow your depression and emotional status get to the point that suicide seems like the only answer. You’ve probably already waited far too long and need to seek help,” he said. “Find someone who is trained to allow you to be vulnerable, someone with whom you can be honest. Don’t downplay what you are experiencing or compare yourself to other people. There is nothing wrong with asking for help.”If you are looking for help call the National Suicide Prevention Line at (800) 273-8255 or Veterans Administration crisis line at (800) 273-8255, press 1.