Tag Archives: PTSD

A love story: Healing the wounded warrior

By Senior Airman Jette Carr
Air Force News Service

He was a young Air Force officer healing from a recent trauma, and she was a dedicated single mother of two. Whether it was friends or fate that first brought them together, neither would have suspected that their chance meeting in Florida would be the key to his recovery.

140925-F-PA987-005Their introduction to each other was unlikely – not due to the events of the day they met, but of one roughly six months earlier, when Capt. Mitch Kieffer lay in a hospital bed in Iraq waiting to be medically evacuated to the states. He was suffering from injuries sustained after an improvised explosive device passed through his lightly armored SUV and damaged not only his body but also his mind. Continue reading A love story: Healing the wounded warrior

‘You always get back up’

By Staff Sgt. David Salanitri
Airman Magazine

Retired Master Sgt. Tony Anderson spends time on the beach
Retired Master Sgt. Tony Anderson has taken part in the Navarre Beach Surf Warrior program for three years. Anderson, a wounded warrior, believes spending time on the water is the best therapy for him. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. David Salanitri)

As he sinks his toes into the white sand, the familiar saltwater air fills retired Master Sgt. Tony Anderson’s nose.

The former special operations Airman’s chest expands as he draws in a deep, deliberate breath, attempting to capture some sort of relaxation in the air. Exhaling, he releases his breath forcefully, pushing out any anxiety or inner demons.

The crashing Florida Gulf Coast waves echoing in his ear is a comforting sound he’s heard since childhood, growing up less than 12 miles away in Milton, Fla. They also serve as a reminder that his life hasn’t always been a calm, peaceful existence. Continue reading ‘You always get back up’

After the Battle: The return home

By Senior Airman Chris Willis
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth article in a six-part series about medical response capabilities for deployed service members from start to finish and the various milestones for care and transportation of combat-wounded troops throughout Afghanistan.

I have spent more than a year telling the story of our nation’s wounded warriors as I followed their transport from the mountains of Afghanistan to their medical care at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Unfortunately, concluding this series will never end what our troops have to endure in the face of war, but this last entry will give me a chance to finish a chapter in my life.

Continue reading After the Battle: The return home

Lessons in compassion

By Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro
51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

“Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.” – Quote from Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1954 film, Sansho the Bailiff

On Aug. 20, 2012, I woke up at 2:30 a.m. My bed, usually crowded with my wife, Cece, and two cats, Miki and Lulu, was empty. Down the hallway of the one-floor, three-bedroom house we rented in Cabot, Arkansas, I heard noise from the kitchen. When I went to see what the noise was, I found my 23-year-old wife on the floor and erratically painting on a canvas.

The painting was of an Airman Battle Uniform next to a bottle of prescribed depression medication. Streaks and spots of deep red paint blotched the canvas, which also had gashes and holes littered in it because Cece had been stabbing it with a kitchen knife.

“What the (obscenity) are you doing?” I asked.

She looked up at me, her body shaking, our two cats flanking her sides. I saw a hurt face and fear-riddled eyes, scorched red from sleep deprivation and sobbing. With our little family together in the kitchen that morning, “I’m sorry,” was all she could say.

Lessons in Compassion

Months earlier, Cece was sent to stay for a week at the Bridgeway, a mental health hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. Three weeks later, she went back for another week for what eventually became a diagnosis of severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

An Airman herself, recent military-related stress of deployments, family separation and being over worked, coupled with the loss of her uncle and past personal traumas, led to my wife’s sleeping problems. She lived in a constant state of fear. Unable to sleep at night, she’d only shake helplessly in the bed next to me. These mounting pressures for my wife led to a serious conflict in our relationship for the first time since we met in 2007. I was seeing a different landscape of what had always been a very happy woman.

Strife at work, a splintered relationship at home, being put on depression medication and sleeping pills, being taken from her home twice for treatment, being whispered about by co-workers, being unambiguously accused of faking her condition by her first sergeant and awaiting the upcoming staff sergeant promotion results sent Cece into a severe panic that morning.

After my wife apologized, I talked her into getting up. We picked up the canvas and painting supplies, but I kept thinking about the red streaks of paint all over the floor and that I’d have to clean it up later. I then made Cece lay in bed until it was time for her to get dressed for her 4 a.m. shift.

The rest of that day reverberates in my conscience. The memories echo in my mind like the lingering twang of a released guitar string.

I received a call from my wife’s co-worker at 6 a.m., telling me to get to their workplace immediately. I found Cece pale-faced, shaking and not wearing boots or belt. I remember taking her to mental health and being unable to sit in on the confidential session. Cece was discharged from mental health and sent back to work. Then, we found out she made staff sergeant, but we didn’t feel like celebrating like we did when I made it two years earlier. I remember a silent car ride home.

As soon as we got to the house, I tried to help Cece sleep, but I couldn’t quell her anxiety. We lay in bed, me holding her and telling her to go to sleep while she shook and whimpered in pain. I silently scorned her condition, constantly thinking about how much effort I had to make for her and how her problems were affecting my behavior. It was a sweet relief when Cece finally stopped shaking and slept. When I finally went to sleep that night, I was glad such an emotionally taxing day was over.

Afterward, things didn’t become easier for us. We kept having arguments, and I became increasingly agitated with my wife, who was still suffering, physically and emotionally. Our problems escalated until one night, after getting off a 4 a.m. – 1 p.m. shift, Cece hadn’t come home by 6:30 p.m., and we argued via text message. At one point I threatened to leave her and told her I couldn’t handle her condition anymore.

After she got home, Cece told me she was thinking about killing herself, and that she thought about intentionally crashing her car into a tree on one of Arkansas’ back roads. Talking to a person so heartlessly while they suffered still shames me. We once again lay on the bed, her unable to sleep or relax and me holding her. I remember vividly what she said to me, “I just need you to help me right now. You know I’ll help you when you need it.”

She was right. During our five years together there were times when I was, at best, difficult to get along with and at worst insufferable.

I’ve always had a confrontational and contentious nature. This makes it hard for me to connect with people, and in my early 20s I often felt lonely and alienated, which led to an unhappiness that I often projected onto other people. Yet, even in my worst moods, I remember my wife holding onto me, joking with me, making me smile or laugh. She may have never known, but her signature smile, a beaming, full teeth-baring grin, often elevated me from the depths of negativity. So when she pleaded with me so bluntly, I couldn’t feel anything but shame and compassion.

This proved a turning point for us, and after that night I tried to act with mercy or compassion toward her struggle. For all of us, life has summits and cellars. No one is exempt from adversity and at times we all need kindness. After that day, I was committed to being supportive before critical and being helpful before skeptical. Things started to improve for both of us.

That’s not to imply everything changed right away. Mental conditions don’t evaporate or disappear because of good intentions. It takes commitment and patience to persevere the brutalities of depression, anxiety and PTSD. My wife still has hard days and difficult moments like everyone else. Traumatic memories still haunt her, but our efforts to keep an open, honest, nonjudgmental and supportive dialogue about ourselves helps. Just a year later, I was confident enough in her recovery to volunteer for an unaccompanied tour to South Korea. Cece is now out of the Air Force and going to school full time, and we’re both happily pursuing our goals and supporting each other as much as we ever have.

So why should anyone care about this highly personal story? Because there are many people like my wife and many people like me. There are people suffering, scarred, afflicted, overburdened and unfairly judged — unsure if something is wrong with them or if they can even ask for help. There are also people in a position to help, but unsure of what to do.

For the last 65 years, May has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Month. For a lot of us these monthly observances, of which there are plenty, are easy to dismiss or blithely endorse. It usually takes a personal stake in the issue to really care about it. Not just my wife, but personal experiences with my family have left me an advocate for the accepting treatment of suffering people. That means not only encouraging those who need it to seek help, but also encouraging others to treat the suffering with patience and kindness, even if they can’t understand them.

I’ve seen the consequences when people don’t get support, and while there’s no catchall method to stop someone from hurting him or herself, treating all people with dignity and compassion is the right place to start. Sometimes we don’t understand the influence we cast on others, how a kind action or showing genuine concern can seriously alter somebody’s day for good and how meanness, cruelty or indifference can do the opposite. It’s possible that kindness is all it can take to convince somebody they can ask for help, or that they’re valuable enough to be cared about.

Cece tells me the hardest thing about asking for help is the inevitable stigma that comes with it. She used to be afraid to talk about her feelings and problems because it was embarrassing and perceived as weakness. Also, personal cases of depression are hard for others to understand.

Much effort has been made to promote the truth that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but this gives little comfort to people when they’re being ostracized at work or being treated different by friends and family. This is why all of us have a responsibility to value and care for the people around us. It’s important to treat those seeking help kindly, because despite progressive efforts, negative attitudes still exist.

However, I’m not writing this to ask you to change your mind about mental health. If you truly believe someone is faking a condition or if you think they’re too sensitive or weak for asking for help, chances are I’m not going to convince you otherwise.

Instead, compassion is my gospel. Treat those who are suffering, even if you’re skeptical, with mercy.

There’s no simple solution to the ailments of mental health. No acronyms, pills, PowerPoint slides, books, slogans or training can cure anxiety, depression or PTSD. There is, however, a universally good starting point, which is being respectful and compassionate to everyone, but especially to those who share their struggles and seek help.

If we do this, the worst thing we can do is be excessively nice. The best we can do may be to bring someone back from the abyss. Kindness, mercy and compassion are traits I value in people above all else. Her abundance of these is one of the reasons I fell in love with Cece when we were dating in 2008, and her enduring and helpful nature has inspired me and helped me be a better person ever since.

Celebrated poet John Donne poignantly wrote: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”

As human beings, Americans, service members and Airmen, we should not take the suffering of our own lightly or callously, but as a detriment to our family. Every single loss diminishes the whole, and every single person in the world is important.

In our living room, centered above our couch, we proudly display the painting Cece attacked with a knife. Its presence reminds me that we all have flaws and need support in our weakest moments. As individual human beings, the mistakes we make and scars we give and take can’t be undone any more than knife punctures can be erased from a canvas. We can never take back what we say and do. The wounds we endure never completely heal. However, as someone’s fellow human being, we have the chance to help by supporting each other. The most important thing in life isn’t what you did or what you’ll do, but what you’re willing to do now. There’s no nobler impulse in mankind than mercy, and there’s an abundance of people in the world who need it. Help them.

PHOTO: Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro and Cece Guadalupe Ortiz days before their wedding Jan. 3, 2011, in Dover, Del. They first met in December 2007, began dating June 1, 2008, and got married Jan. 8, 2011. (Courtesy photo by Cynthia Ticas)

Warrior Games 2013: Games make injured man feel like Airman again

Tech. Sgt. Alex Gaud-Torres and his wife, Alexandra, discuss his target at the Warrior Games training camp.
by Randy Roughton
Air Force News Service, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Surrounded by his Air Force Warrior Games teammates as he trains to represent his service in archery, rifle shooting and sitting volleyball, Tech. Sgt. Alex Gaud-Torres feels like an Airman again.

Since his childhood in Puerto Rico, Gaud-Torres wanted to join the U.S. Air Force, a dream he realized when he enlisted after college in 1995. He arrived at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., after space and missile maintenance training on his 21st birthday. But after he was injured by a car bomb while manning a checkpoint in Iraq in 2005, Gaud-Torres’ feelings changed. He didn’t feel he deserved to be an Airman anymore.

“A fire has always burned within me to be an American Airman, but when you get injured, you start feeling down on yourself because you’re not the same person you were,” he said. “That’s how you measure yourself.

“I used to be in the Honor Guard. I used to be able to stand up for hours on end with a rifle or holding a casket, and I was a maintainer on 18-hour shifts in the frozen tundra fixing security systems and electronic equipment. I used to be able to do long-distance running, and I could run forever. But I was thinking I didn’t deserve to be an Airman anymore. I’m not the person they need to represent the Air Force that I love so much.”

In 2005, then Staff Sgt. Gaud-Torres deployed from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to Joint Base Balad as a third country national escort to assist the Army with inspecting personnel and vehicles and staffing checkpoints. Earlier in his deployment, he was attacked by a group of Iraqi civilians, but was rescued by a U.S. Soldier. Then, in mid-April, he was among a group inspecting dump trucks for false compartments and weapons off base when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated. The attack left him with two fractured vertebrae, a bruised sternum and severe nerve damage on the right side of his body.

“All I remember was this rush of air on the back of my neck and then opening up my eyes and looking at the sky,” he said. “To this day, whenever I feel air on the back of my neck, it sends a chill down my spine.”

When the geospatial intelligence analyst went home a few weeks later, he began feeling pain in his right arm and shoulder, so much so that he was unable to render a salute to a lieutenant when he left his office building one afternoon. His arm wouldn’t move.

Surgeons found that two of his vertebrae were damaged, with a mass of recalciumification. They inserted a titanium plate, and he had to regain his fine motor skills. His wife, Alexandra, helped in the months after his surgery by having him help her with scrapbooking.

“I had my supplies out on the table, and I was aware of the problems he was having holding on to things, so I asked him if he wanted to sit and help me,” she said. “One day, I pulled out some pictures he emailed me from Iraq and asked if he wanted to tell his story of what he went through. He didn’t share his pain or any of his experiences. To this day, I don’t think I know everything.”

Gaud-Torres’ motor skills returned long before he confronted the emotional damage left by the attack, although his wife and their daughters Alexis, Alexandria and Alexia, were well aware something wasn’t right.

“What you are to your kids is you are a superhero, but they want to protect you, too,” Gaud-Torres said. “Unbeknowndest to me, I was molding them. If we went to a place where there were kids running around like a birthday party, or a kid with a balloon, they’d find a way to stop it or get rid of the balloon. You don’t notice, but kids learn so fast. They’re like sponges. I was transferring to them what I thought should happen. People shouldn’t be behind me. There shouldn’t be loud noises. The next thing I know, I was training them.”

When Gaud-Torres finally self-identified himself with PTSD through resiliency training in 2012, he insisted on counseling for not only himself, but for him and his wife and separate counseling for their daughters.

When his Wounded Warrior Program care manager told him about the Warrior Games, Gaud-Torres and his wife instantly knew it would be good for him.

“When I’m shooting, my coach says to empty everything that’s in my mind, to concentrate, aim and pull in the right direction, breathe and release,” Gaud-Torres said. “When I’m doing that, there’s nothing else in my head. It’s like I’m back before everything happened, before I even deployed. It’s so peaceful when I’m out there on the line. You don’t anticipate the shot. You just let it happen. It’s just me and the target and perfect peace and harmony.”

However, his individual events are almost incidental. What is most important is the feeling that he is an Airman again and has his Air Force family back, especially with his fellow wounded warriors.

“It’s the Airman concept,” Gaud-Torres said. “Not only is it on the battlefield that we need it, but also on the battlefield that’s in your mind. We’re fighting a battle, and we need to be there for each other.

“When you’re in the (area of responsibility), and something happens, you take care of each other, and you expect that. But these are my boys, my Airmen. This is what wingmanship really is. Even outside of the uniform, they still have blue in them.”

PHOTO: Alexandra Gaud and Tech. Sgt. Alex Gaud-Torres discuss his aim precision before taking down his target during the Warrior Games training camp held in Colorado Springs, Colo., Apr. 16, 2013. Gaud and Gaud-Torres are married and reside at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. (Photo by Desiree Palacios)