Quin has been on me to write this article now for months, and I now feel that the time is right to do so. Tom and I have done videos and podcasts up until this point. Funny thing is, I believe I am better at writing about things than I am speaking about them, so this is truly overdue and I am excited to get it all out on paper. I have no idea where this writing will go, and plan on just letting it fly, so if the material is in no certain order, it is by design.
This isn’t a topic that I have any desire to sugar coat, twist/turn or manipulate. It is one that must come from the heart and from my experience if it is to be worth anything at all. This will be written from my perspective and my experience and opinion only. In my opinion, I have limited combat experience in comparison to my peers, as it relates to time on the ground. I will never claim to have all the answers or have the experience that others have. My experience is real and it is mine alone, just as you have yours. It is not the amount of time on the ground, the number of buddies killed, the number of enemy killed, or any other “score card” that matters. What I am here to talk about is that if you experienced mortal combat on the field of battle, you are forever changed, just as I am. And no amount of score keeping can quantify individual effect on our mind body and soul. This issue is unique to each and every combat veteran and it is in relating to one another, not comparing, that we find common ground and share common solutions. I am not a decorated war hero and I am not anyone special. I am just someone who believes that if I share my story, it is possible that one more vet will seek out help rather than live in misery or take their life. That’s my disclaimer. Here we go…….
The world that I lived in and the man I was prior to 2005 will never be the world that I live in today. I was forever changed in 2005. That was the year that I had my first combat deployment. I spent the first 3 years of the war as an instructor at the Special Forces Qualification Course. I can remember that time well. I was pissed off that I was not in the fight with my brothers. I was pissed that these young kids I was training would get to go to combat while I stayed home and trained more of them. I can also recall the wise words of Pappy Jones. Pappy was an old crusty retired SF SGM that worked on the 18C committee with me. He had many tours in Vietnam as a Green Beret. Pappy’s words were simple “Be careful what you wish for boy”. I heard that old man’s words many times in combat, for I quickly found out what he meant.
I wanted nothing more than to get into the fight. I mean isn’t that what I had trained for my entire adult life ? You bet it was, and I was well prepared when I got there.
There is no explaining mortal combat to someone that has never experienced it, yet that is what so many civilians want explained to them. The only comparison that is remotely close would be like asking a woman to explain pregnancy and child birth to a man, in hopes of having him understand the reality of it all. Impossible is not even an appropriate word. There is no explaining it. So what happens when you leave the military and are no longer around other warriors that you count on to relate to the things that have forever changed you and your soul? Well that is a question that I can answer from my perspective only, and what will drive the rest of this article.
First I want to address what I call the “new normal”. People wanted me to “get things back to normal” when I got home from combat the first time. This was a great theory and a Pollyanna concept that they hoped for, and so did I. the problem is that there is no getting back to normal. Edward Tick wrote a book called War and The Soul. One of the many items I learned from this book was that post-WWII, they conducted a survey to find out who was affected (back then they called it shell shock) at a psychological level by mortal combat. Their findings were that 2% were unaffected. This 2% was made up of psychopaths. This means that to be affected, to have shell shock, soldiers heart or PTSD (call it what you will), is NORMAL. Exactly. It means that a change occurs that is supposed to occur in sane human beings. This change is what becomes the “new normal”. The problem we face starts immediately by our inability to admit that things have changed forever.
We all have unique stories, and different variables that affect our stories. I say this because I am going to bring up a variable in my story that I think makes my circumstances unique. I am a recovered alcoholic. In fact on 8 September 2013, I was able to celebrate 11 years of sobriety. Now that statement alone doesn’t lend itself to be an obvious differentiators in discussing the effects of PTSD on my life, so I’ll elaborate. Because of my alcoholism I was forced to make big changes in my life if I were to live sober. I had to first admit there was a problem, then take the necessary actions required to achieve sobriety. And I don’t mean just living without a drink – I mean living a fulfilled and happy life, and not needing to take a drink to deal with things that I couldn’t handle on an emotional level. This also meant that I had to gain and maintain a necessary level of spirituality and belief and faith in a power greater than myself. This means that I entered into the war in 2005 with a God of my understanding and a faith in the outcome of my experience. This also means that I could not use alcohol to dull the emotions that I had to deal with once I got back home. So in some ways, I found it to be a double-edged sword for there were many days that I wished I could take a few drinks like I watched other do in an effort to ease the stress and anxiety that I felt at my core. So why do I believe that this unique feature of my life is worth bringing up? Because I have come to the conclusion that coping and living with PTSD is no different than recovering from or living with any mental issue, which is all addiction is at its core. I will come back to this point for more clarity later in the article, and I feel certain I can help it make sense and bring about the relevance.
I made some pretty big decisions in 2009. I walked away from a military retirement with 17 years in the Army, and a month away from pinning on the rank of Sergeant major at 34 years old. I did this because I knew I had to leave. It was no longer a choice. I hated being where I was. It wasn’t combat that bothered me as life in combat was easier than life back at home. I am not talking about just ‘at home’ from a personal perspective, but also ‘at home’ in the Army. It is true that I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur and that is what I told everyone as a reason I was leaving the military, and it is what I made myself believe. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I could pinpoint whyI left. What I figured out is that I left for my sanity. Now, let me caveat this by saying, I am also of a belief system that all things happen for a reason. I have no regrets about leaving the military to become a business owner when I did. The point I am making here is that I finally understood why I had to leave when I left. It was not a choice, and I had to leave, yet I didn’t know this at the time.
In the end, I was miserable. I hated the idea of going to work. I had stomach issues that no one could explain. I had widespread chronic pain no one could explain. I had anxiety attacks that I did not know were anxiety attacks. I would often get lost driving back to my house at the end of a long day. I broke out in crying fits all alone in my truck, or when watching a sappy movie. I was short-tempered with the team leaders that served under me. I was in constant turmoil with my superiors. It was all coming to a head and I punched out.
I want to spend some time talking about my medical status, because I have a hunch I am not alone. I have to make the disclaimer that my medical “issues” never once kept me from deploying, training, leading etc. I learned how to medicate and deal with it so as not to let it affect my duties. I was tested for many chronic illnesses over the years. I was scoped from both ends, pricked with every needle, etc. The only answers I ever got were these: “Scot, you have chronic IBS, you have chronic prostititas, you have unknown joint and muscle pain all over your body and that’s all we know”. I took muscle relaxers, anti-inflamatories, sleeping pills, and a light dose of anti-depressants that seemed to help my stomach. That was a fluke as I was taking the anti-depressants to try to stop dipping and I figured out that it helped my stomach. The month before I actually separated form service, I ended up at a rheumatologist because the pain had gotten so bad. I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. I was put on a high dose of anti-anxiety medicine to block chronic pain channels – on top of every thing else I was taking. So when I walked away from the military, I was taking sleeping pills, muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medicine and had a resting pulse rate of about 9! I was a walking zombie, but at least the pain had gotten better! Ha. I was not tested for PTSD or TBI and I walked out with a long and drawn out VA disability claim and the hopes of making it out here in the real world. My VA claim was found to be 10% service connected for an item that they found wrong with me during the exit physical that didn’t even bother me, and 0% service connected for anything else that I have described above, which was all properly documented. Sound familiar?
So then, how did I even figure out that I had PTSD? Only through the passion of a great government employee that cared more about me than I did myself. I contacted a military organization that was stood up to take care of guys like me leaving the SOF community. Funny thing is that I did not even know they existed until after I got out, so the order in which this happened was a bit backwards. US SOCOM has what is called the Care Coalition. I bring this up in the hopes no one else will wait as long as I did to use them. One of the members asked what my PTSD and TBI test results were. I let him know that I had not been tested. This was 4 months or so after I separated from service. He set me up with a doctor and I was immediately tested. Now due to the nature of my job for many years, it was assumed that I would have TBI. This was a poor assumption as I tested negative for TBI, but was diagnosed with chronic and severe PTSD. Now what?
Well I would like to tell you that I immediately went looking for help and treatment. This was not the case. I hated this diagnosis. He told me that I needed help and that I should file for military retirement ASAP, and that I should go to treatment. I wanted none of this. I thanked him for the diagnosis and went about my business.
I did however resubmit a disability claim for PTSD. There is a funny/sad story that goes into the VA rating for this, so I have to tell it: Once I submitted my PTSD claim, I was asked to meet with a shrink from the VA to validate the claim. Please keep in mind that a civilian shrink gave me the tests, which took 5 different sessions, totaling over 15 hours of definitive and diagnostic testing that came back with chronic and severe PTSD. The VA shrink was not allowed to see these test results and had an hour with me to hear my side of the story. In this hour I was asked very in depth and detailed questions, like: “In combat Mr Spooner, did you ever fear for your life?” or “In combat Mr. Spooner, did you ever witness any traumatic events”. I laughed out loud at a lot of these and was told that it wasn’t meant to be funny and was a very serious matter. I proceeded to go into what I am certain was a ranting session of items that were traumatic and life “fearing”. I did this with great passion and enthusiasm to the point when she interrupted me to let me know I appeared to be getting upset! Ya think? I am certain that after my dissertation on these items, she needed treatment. She quickly wanted to discuss my childhood and any other item than combat. At the end of our hour together I thanked her for her time and informed her that I knew she didn’t make the rules, and that I requested that she pass on to her superiors that the system they had sucked, and walked out the door. The VA then downgraded my diagnosis to mild PTSD based on this one-hour talk, paying no attention to the previous clinical diagnosis.
Just to be transparent here, two years later the same man that made me go get tested, also convinced me to submit a request for full medical retirement on the basis that if I had been tested 4 months sooner, I would have been medically retired. I submitted this request last November and expect to have an answer this November (2013). So now to move on to how I have come to a different place with all of this “stuff”.
I received my first and only “formal” treatment for PTSD in August of 2012. It it known as ARTs. This stands for Accelerated Resolution Therapy. It has to do with using rapid eye movement to reprogram your brain and give it an alternate ending to traumatic events that you have experienced. It has been used in the private sector for years but had not been used in the VA system. I did it through The University Of South Florida in Tampa. We “processed” numerous memories over a 5 day period. I can say with confidence that the therapy was a success. Now I can also say that it wasn’t the silver bullet by any means, but it was very successful in dealing with specific memories. Now I’ll move into what I call the “other” treatments.
Prior to going down to Tampa, I started seeing an acupuncturist who was also very savvy with old school Chinese medicine. I had been to tons of “western” docs and had gotten no relief other than a fist full of pills 3 times a day, so I didn’t have much to lose. I continued to receive acupuncture treatments and stay on natural herbs and supplements. Within three months, I went from taking 12 – 15 pills a day down to 1/2 of 1 pill a day. I could write for days about my thoughts on why it works and the meridians throughout the body and the flow of energy… blah, blah, blah … but the fact is that it worked when nothing else did. I also ended up visiting a holistic doctor to have my adrenal system tested. Turns out that the human body is not meant to operate in fight or flight mode for the length of time that mine and yours did. The physiological effects of high risk training and combat are as equally devastating as the psychological effects. This explains and further hammers home the point that there is no silver bullet to attacking this issue. It is complex and has to be hit on every front. A war-caused problem requiring a war-like treatment? Yep! I needed a full blown battle plan that would require the proper use of many tools and tactics, just like a complex military operation. The difference here was the it was no longer about life and death, but about a fulfilled life or a miserable life.
I had to realize that there was a reason for every single symptom that I was experiencing and until each one of these symptoms was traced to the root and dealt with through appropriate ACTION, nothing was going to change. This bring up another point of discussion that will tie in my earlier correlation to how dealing with PTSD is very similar to dealing with addiction.
I knew I was an alcoholic at a very young age. In fact I would openly admit I was an alcoholic and then order another beer to support this admission. I was aware that I had a problem and was aware of the chaos that it was causing in my life, yet I continued to live in a manner that was self destructive to myself and those closest to me. I did the same thing when I got diagnosed with PTSD. And let’s face it, I knew I had “it” before I was diagnosed as well. The point is that I was aware of the issue, and did nothing about it. It’s called denial, and I was in it once again – in the past for alcoholism and now for PTSD.
Just like any other issue I have had in life, I will only take action when the pain level takes me to my knees. The scary part about this fact is that some take it to the extreme, which is why the veteran suicide rate is what it is. People believe that suicide is a coward’s way out, and I say to those who say that: “You have no idea, and should keep your short sighted opinion to yourself“. Those who have committed suicide due to their inability to learn how to live with the “new normal” were not and are not cowards. They are people that need relief. We are all creatures of comfort and will always seek comfort. Hell, that’s why we squirm around in a chair – to get comfortable. These individuals end up in a place in life that is so painful that the only way to achieve any level of sanity or comfort is to end it all. Unless you have ever been in so much pain that death looks like a good alternative to continuing to live in hell in this life, you have no right to judge a veteran that makes this sad yet too common choice. This is what we must strive to change!
Okay, getting back to the point — there are many people that show up to an AA meeting knowing they are a wreck, yet are unwilling to do the work required to recover. There are many vets I talk to that know they have PTSD and want to change, yet are unwilling to make the changes, do the work, and follow through in an effort to get better. I have seen this trend in AA, and I now see the same thing with vets with PTSD. We all want to feel better and want change, but very few want it bad enough to do the painful work required to get to the other side of the current hell we have grown to be live in comfortably. This is why I can so easily correlate dealing with PTSD to dealing with addiction. The process is the same for both in many ways. The answers are ones I didn’t want to hear, and the work required was what I didn’t want to do, yet the alternative was to go on living the way I was.
Awareness without proper action equals zero change. I had to be beaten down by the physical and mental affects of PTSD to the point of a willingness to do something about it. I had to take action in an effort to change the mental and physical state I lived in each day. I shared with you the bit about ARTs and acupuncture. But there is more, so I just figure I’ll write up a list and share with you what I did andor continue to do.
- Went to ART therapy to process traumatic memories.
- Read and studied a book titled War And The Soul , by Dr. Edward Tick.
- Researched the symptoms of PTSD in order to get some intel on the enemy.
- Went to and continue to go to acupuncture and take natural herbs and supplements to support my vital organs and critical systems.
- Do my best to stay on a solid PT regiment . I suck at this – that’s why I joined the Army so I could be made to work out!
- Find a therapist that I am comfortable with and make the appointments count every time. Being honest and taking advice.
- Telling my story to civilians in an effort to heal and to give them some of my burden.
- Getting involved with non-profit ventures to try and give back.
- Having the courage to admit my struggles with the world, especially when i didn’t want to (which is always).
- Writing a daily journal entry in order to get what is inside of me outside of me.
- Writing a daily gratitude list to remind myself of all that I have to be thankful.
- Writing a Daily Design and schedule.
- Mentoring other vets who are struggling.
- NOT spending time telling war stories with other warriors for the sake of feeling the “old rush” or a good laugh.
- Learning to be present wherever I am.
- Removing negative people from my life.
- Spending time with people that are living in the solution, not talking about the problem.
- Maintaining a relationship with a power greater than myself whom I choose to call God.
The list could continue on I feel certain, but those are the biggies that come to mind.
In closing, I am far from where it is I hope to be in life. I continue to deal with the symptoms of PTSD and I truly believe it will be the case for the rest of my life. This is not meant to sound defeatist or as a crutch. This is just a fact as far as I am concerned, and this opinion may change at some point. I have that right. I now am aware of what the “new normal” is, and I am ok with it. I accept all of it and all that it means. It means that I have to stay on top of things when it comes to dealing and coping with life on life’s terms. I have to listen to my therapist when she tells me that the tools and mindset that served me so well for so many years are not the tools that I need to make it now, and that I have to get new ones if my life is going to progress in the right direction moving forward. I have to inform those closest to me of what it is I deal with and how it may affect our relationship or how I deal with stress or emotional unrest in the relationship.
The great news for all of us is that we are beginning to bring an awareness to this issue, and we are beginning to talk about the things that were taboo for so many years. As a community of warriors, we are taking care of each other and doing that which has never been done before. We are taking responsibility for each other and living out our creed on a different front. This is our responsibility as a Nation of FREE Citizens. This pandemic is not the responsibility of the government and if we think that to be true, we are destined to continue down the current failed and suicide-ridden path.
My final thought is this: There are over 100 different types of cancer and as many or more treatments for cancer, and I believe that there are over a million different traumatic experiences that can induce PTSD. That being said, it is insane to think that the way a rape victim or victim of child abuse is treated for PTSD is the same way a combat veteran should be treated for their PTSD, yet that is the common technique. I encourage anyone suffering from Combat PTSD to seek out alternate treatments and keep in mind the muti-prong attack when attempting to address the complex “state of being” that the western medical world sums up in four simple letters.
PTSD is not simple, and neither is addressing it ….. Stay in the fight. -Scot Spooner