FORT KNOX, Ky. — Post-traumatic stress disorder can be a tricky thing.
For 1st Lt. Lynn “Buck” Compton in the seventh episode of the TV miniseries Band of Brothers, almost nonstop aerial bombing on their position for several days near the end of the war led him to snap, losing it. Suffering from what was known then as war fatigue, he had to be removed from the battlefield and sent home.
His commanding officer at the time, Maj. Dick Winters, would later say that the constant stress of war had led to Compton’s and others’ breaking points. Some of the Soldiers of Easy Company would suffer from PTSD several years after.
For Fort Knox fire inspector Larry McGuire, PTSD crept up on him subtly beginning in 2003, a little over a year into his Air Force career as a firefighter.
“One of the first major calls I went on in the military was a 4-month-old baby listed as a [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome] case. My wife and I had been trying to start a family for about two weeks, when I got rung out for that call. It showed me how fragile life is,” said McGuire. “Being a firefighter, especially being new to it, I followed the older guys’ lead —“
A team of counselors had been called in to help the firefighters work through what they had witnessed.
“— All the older guys said, ‘I don’t need to talk to you guys. I’ll handle this myself. We don’t talk to you people,’” continued McGuire. “So I followed suit.”
Not only did McGuire not talk to the counselors about it that day, he didn’t talk to anybody about it, including his wife Melissa.
“I didn’t cope with it,” said McGuire. “I just stuck it into a little box in the back of my brain and didn’t deal with it. I remember thinking, ‘Hey, that worked pretty good.’ So everything I went through after, that’s how I dealt with it.
“Nobody tells you that Pandora’s Box will get full, and eventually it’ll open up.”
McGuire met Melissa two years before joining the military. Both had graduated high school at different schools within the same town when McGuire met her in a chance meeting as volunteer firefighters. She grinned and said she wasn’t that into him at first.
“There was no way I was going to marry him; no way,” said Melissa. “It wasn’t even close to a thought.”
She was attending college and wasn’t looking for a serious relationship.
When McGuire left for the military, he figured he would never see Melissa again. Basic training changed his mind and during a phone call April 5, 2001, he proposed to her. She accepted.
On Aug. 11 of that year, shortly after graduating technical school, the two got married. They arrived at their first duty station in Great Falls, Montana, at the end of the month.
Two weeks later, terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.
“I hadn’t even officially signed into the fire station yet,” said McGuire. “Talk about putting the bonds on you: when you don’t know anybody, you’re 19 hours away from your hometown, you’re on a nuclear base, and you get locked down—”
“—It was probably one of the scariest situations we had ever been in,” said Melissa. “We watched his military career change in the blink of an eye.”
Both of them acknowledged the fear that many Americans felt at that time was heightened among military families: deployments, entry security procedures, restricted freedom of movement outside the gates.
As McGuire stuffed down the memory of the 4-month-old child’s death in 2003, he got on with deployments overseas while Melissa managed daily home and family matters. They had three children between some of his three deployments and an additional year remote.
McGuire had arrived in Kuwait at his first deployment in 2004 and a week later was still in the process of getting used to the changes when he got a call to report to his first sergeant’s office.
“I got in there and he said, ‘Pack your bags, you’re going home.’ “Why?’ “Your mom had a heart attack, she’s in the hospital,’” said McGuire.
They had plans to send him home never to return, but McGuire said he requested to return to Kuwait after a two-week visit at home. The first sergeant allowed it.
After a deployment out of Hawaii in 2009, McGuire volunteered to take a third deployment out of California in 2011. He wasn’t supposed to go on that deployment but opted to go so that a coworker could stay behind for the birth of his son.
Melissa said that deployment, occurring over the holidays from 2011 to 2012, led to some of the most stressful traumatic events that would hit them both soon after.
The McGuires found out right before he deployed that Melissa’s mom had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Other stressors compounded the couple’s struggles during the deployment.
“The kids were sick constantly, I just couldn’t get them well. I got really sick. It was a really long deployment, and really hard, even with the great support system that I had,” said Melissa. “[My oldest son] didn’t like that Dad was gone; he didn’t like the change.”
McGuire returned home to Melissa and the children in April. In September, the family flew home to see Melissa’s mom one last time. By Sept. 28, her mom died.
At the end of December, the two learned that Melissa was pregnant with their third child.
“I had a really rough pregnancy. My body didn’t do well,” said Melissa. “Jesse was high maintenance from the get-go. We had him in August .” Post-partum depression set in.
In October, Melissa’s dad died.
“I sunk into a very deep depression. I wasn’t a good mom, wasn’t a good wife, that’s for sure,” said Melissa. “I couldn’t pull myself out of it, couldn’t figure out how to cope and deal, and process, all while still trying to take care of him and the boys.”
At the end of March 2014, McGuire’s mom died.
Pandora’s Box started busting open for McGuire.
Then a civilian airplane crashed at an airshow at Travis Air Force Base, California. McGuire was the first on the scene. The pilot perished in the crash.
Then a good family friend had a heart attack coming home from Lake Tahoe, crashed his vehicle and died.
Two more of McGuire’s friends died shortly after that— one by suicide; the other, suicide by cop.
All of this happened within three months.
“Larry and I were struggling together,” said Melissa. “But he and I were also struggling separately, trying to figure out how to deal with everything and process it all.”
Shortly afterward, doctors clinically diagnosed McGuire with PTSD.
“Neither one of us knew how to work through that either,” said Melissa. “That’s something the military just doesn’t teach you. The other thing is, they don’t bring the partners in when they start treating for PTSD.
“It’s not something he can fight alone because he’s in our home, and he’s doing all the things that a therapist or counselor don’t see because they’re not there; they see whatever he perceives when he goes to an appointment.”
April 28, 2016, after getting pregnant with twins, Melissa miscarried.
McGuire and Melissa agree that spouses should be involved in counseling for PTSD. Shortly after moving to Fort Knox, both began seeing a chaplain at the military post. Those sessions have led to two realizations for them.
The first realization was that Melissa was also suffering from PTSD.
“It’s interesting how his triggers are very different than mine,” said Melissa. “We only focused on his, so I didn’t know that some of the things that I was going through were even triggers. I get very exhausted. My body just kind of shuts down. He gets exhausted but it’s from the nightmares he has.”
McGuire said the nightmares are one of his reminders of Pandora’s Box.
“Nobody reacts to PTSD the same way,” said McGuire. “Usually, mine comes out and gets me in the middle of the night when I’m sleeping.”
He also struggles with anger at times and panic attacks at other times.
“I either get scared to death and I have to get out, or it’s go time,” said McGuire. “I never know from day-to-day which one it will be so I really have to be cognizant of where I’m at when I feel one coming on.”
One thing that has helped McGuire is riding around on his motorcycle.
“When you have to focus on everything around you, it stops you from focusing on the thousand things that’s running around in your head,” said McGuire. “It gives your mind a bit of a break from everything that’s going on.”
The second realization was that they both desire to help others through PTSD. They have started a non-profit organization, called Relentless Warriors Legacy, to do just that. For now, they work through the church they attend.
Fort Knox Garrison Commander Col. CJ King said he sees intrinsic value in what the McGuires are offering to the Fort Knox and surrounding communities.
“PTSD is an unfortunate reality for many service members and first responders. These folks sometimes see and experience horrible things that your average person can scarcely imagine, and those things stay with you for life,” said King. “People like Larry and Melissa provide opportunities for others to come together and face these types of challenges in a healthy and constructive manner.”
Melissa said providing a nonjudgmental environment in which to share each other’s burdens becomes a mutually beneficial opportunity for all those involved.
“PTSD is something that, the more open you are and not trying to hide it, the better off you are,” said Melissa. “It puts it out there and lets others know you’re not ashamed of it. There’s nothing to be ashamed about.
“It’s just the way your brain processes traumatic events.”