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'I'm Still Dealing With It': How New York Veterans Are Learning To Cope With PTSD

Part II of our conversation will air Thursday, August 8. 

Army veteran Isiah James ‘loved’ being in the military. He says he enjoyed the kinship and camaraderie that the U.S. armed forces offered him.

But when the Army medically retired him at 27, “that’s when all the problems hit me,” he says.

“One day I was in the service and the next day — literally the next day — I was just a civilian out of my own,” he says.

Navy veteran Fidel GomezTorres had a similar experience. “I absolutely enjoyed my time deployed. I enjoyed my time in the Navy,” he says.

But once he was back in the hustle and bustle of New York City, his post-traumatic stress disorder start manifesting itself. He says he began to realize that he “carried a lot of anger” while trying to readjust to civilian life in the city.

Both James and GomezTorres are among the 11% to 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who experience PTSD in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

At one point after his third and final deployment, James considered suicide. That’s when he realized he needed to get help.

“This little voice inside my head just said, ‘You can’t give up.’ So that’s when I started seeking help and it literally has saved my life.”

For GomezTorres, he says it took him nearly eight years to stop normalizing his PTSD symptoms and get evaluated.

“Deep inside, whenever I allowed myself to be honest, I would tell myself, ‘I keep on saying I’m OK, but I don’t think that I am.’ I would really just kind of secretly deal with it, but I could tell that it was affecting those around me,” he says.

Now, GomezTorres is in treatment for PTSD.

“This is what I need to do in order to make it better,” he says.

Interview Highlights

On leaving the military and PTSD symptoms that followed

Isiah James: “I was deployed to Iraq two times and Afghanistan one time. My job in the Army was an 11 Bravo which is an infantryman. My first deployment was 15 months from October ‘06 to January ‘08. My second deployment was December ‘08 to December 2009. And my final deployment was June 2010 to May 2011. I was wounded in service. I loved being in the Army but not for the reasons you would think. I loved the kinship and the camaraderie and the brotherhood that it provided. And once I got hurt, I couldn’t do it anymore. The Army medically retired me. So at 27 years old, I was literally a retiree.

“I didn’t really deal with [PTSD] while I was in [the Army] because you’re surrounded by… like everybody is going through the same things. So you don’t really want to manifest your problems on anybody else. But it’s when you get outside the military, and the civilian world is a lot different, and you’re on your own and you don’t really have that support network there.”

Fidel GomezTorres: “I joined in 2008. I had one deployment to Afghanistan. I spent 10 months in Kandahar. The deployment included a leg before and after, so total deployment time was 15 months. I was a builder so I was attached to a construction battalion. Much of the work that we were doing in Kandahar was expanding the airfield, building some facilities [and] expanding the facilities there. And I came back in 2011. I absolutely enjoyed my time deployed. I enjoyed my time in the Navy.

“In terms of when my PTSD started manifesting itself, it took me a really long time to give it a name. And I think that for me, I was just having a hard time [adjusting] when I returned. I was living in New York City at the time. New York City can be a very overwhelming city. I felt overly stimulated by everything that was going on and I started to realize that I carried a lot of anger. It would really bother me when people would complain about how hot the subway was because I would always reference it back to where I just came from. So everything was always connected to where I had just came from. And in my head at that time, no one had any reason to complain about anything. But of course that’s not the case. You know, sometimes we have bad days and people complain about it. So for me, I started noticing it in terms of my temperament my anger. I was very quick to get upset and annoyed. It wasn’t until last year when I actually started seeking treatment, so almost an eight year journey to finally figuring out this is what it is. It’s OK. This is what I need to do in order to make it better.”

On feeling overwhelmed while readjusting to civilian life

IJ: “I do have to remember that I am in the civilian world now because one thing, my wife, my lovely, lovely wife, we’ll go outside and she’ll be like, ‘It’s hot.’ And I can remember back to the days of my first deployment, literally it was 130 degrees outside and we were going on 8 hour foot patrols. I always call, you know, our problems ‘first world problems.’ But yes, New York City can be a very overstimulating place and I speak to the fact that I do my therapy at the VA near my house and it’s helped me get over being in New York City a lot and spending time my wife is probably my main therapeutic thing.”

On PTSD and suicide

IJ: “Mine was really severe. Mine was really, really bad. I would snap on anybody for any little thing and I’m a big guy. I’m 6 feet, 8 inches. I’m 300 pounds so I’m a very large individual. I would literally sit at home at night and just sit up all night, staring into the darkness, waiting for somebody to come through a door that wasn’t coming through a door. When I knew I needed help was when I was younger and I was sitting in my bathroom on the floor with a giant bottle of scotch and a bottle of sleeping pills and just crying uncontrollably, not wanting to be here anymore, not wanting to live with this anymore because I have seen so much pain and so much death and destruction throughout my deployments.”

On seeking help and resources for PTSD

FGT: “After returning from my deployment, we were told that we should go to the VA, register with the VA, and get an evaluation. A lot of my friends were going and they were being diagnosed with PTSD and TBI [traumatic brain injury] and I felt fearful of going and getting diagnosed. I feel like there was such a stigma, and still is, around having PTSD. There is this idea of brokenness that you carry. And for me, I’ve always been high functioning. I’ve always been an overachiever. And the idea that something had changed fundamentally and that I could no longer be the person that I’ve always known myself and took pride in being made me very afraid. It made me feel that a diagnosis could redefine me and would redefine me. So I was very stubborn and I was very resistant. Nevertheless, I still saw the symptoms.

“At that time I was in a relationship. The relationship kind of just went down south. I was having a lot of trouble sleeping. I was having extreme nightmares. I was sleepwalking. I was having sleep paralysis because I wasn’t getting sleep. I was walking around very temperamental and angry and exhausted and carrying just a lot of anxiety. And I kept them telling myself, ‘I’m OK. It’s just today, I didn’t sleep last night.’ I wasn’t asking myself, well why didn’t you sleep last night? I knew that I didn’t sleep and I knew that if I continued to ask myself questions I would end up going back to like well you’re not OK. But I needed to be OK. So I needed to tell the people around me and I needed to believe it. So for the longest time I resisted. The symptoms just became something that I ended up normalizing until I realized that because I had not [sought] help and because I had not tried to heal, what I was afraid of in the diagnosis had already happened without it. And it was this idea that you’re not the same person, something is broken and you keep on ignoring it. You’re not going to get better and you’re not ever going to be the person that you were unless you start fixing whatever is broken.”

IJ: “What I referenced before, it was that story I told you, that next day I went to my local VA and I walked in and now most VAs have a section that’s for older veterans and for Operation Iraqi Freedom [and] Operation Enduring Freedom veterans. So I went to that section for the younger veterans. I was scared. I was like, I don’t want to be seen as somebody who society might look down upon because I’m dealing with this mental issue. They were so welcoming and receptive and the stigma that I thought would be there wasn’t there. The barriers that I thought would be there weren’t there. And I started dealing with my caseworker and I started going to group therapy. At first they put me into group therapy with a lot of older veterans from the Vietnam and Korea era, but I didn’t really connect with those veterans stories and their experiences. I mean, the trauma of war is such that we all connect. But I needed to connect with younger veterans. So I started going to counseling with younger veterans who shared my same job in the military.

“I realized that I’m not alone in this fight, that people are dealing with this who, for all intents and purposes, look ‘normal’ but are dealing with these issues on the inside. And I was so relieved that I didn’t have this albatross around my neck anymore weighing me down because as Fidel was saying, like not sleeping and the sleep paralysis, I know exactly what he’s talking about because I still don’t sleep to this day. I still, when I walk into my apartment, I have to check the bathroom and the closets to make sure nobody’s in there. I know nobody’s in there, but my mind won’t turn off all completely from that hyper vigilance. So I’m still dealing with it but it’s not as bad as it used to be a few years ago.”

Resources for veterans with PTSD:

Alex Ashlock produced this story and edited it for broadcast with  Kathleen McKenna.   Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.