First responders and veterans are similar in being willing to face danger in order to protect and save others. While they give their all, they are often wracked with feelings of guilt and powerlessness.
This is often because they demand themselves to be 100% successful 100% of the time, even when they cannot control 100% of the situation. You may have problems that stem from this kind of internal pressure as well. If you are a first responder, a veteran or the family member or friend of one, this section may have special meaning for you. If you are not in any of those categories, then this case may help you have a better understanding of — and compassion for — what our first responders and combat veterans are going through. In addition, if you have any of the symptoms listed here, it can help you learn something more about yourself.
Trauma can cause many physical disturbances and once it takes root, it usually doesn’t clear up on Its own. For people who have PTSD because they have chosen to serve their country in combat or as frontline responders, life can be especially hard, because they often develop feelings of failure. Most often, their symptoms aren’t being caused by fear for themselves, but because of the people they might have hurt — or who they couldn’t save. While the experiences that occur in war could be enough to have a negative impact on anyone, there can be additional reasons for breaching the emotional defenses of even the strongest warrior. The following example can give you an idea of how much suffering our combat veterans are experiencing — and how intricately woven our memory networks can be.
Hal Walters is a 37-year-old married, combat-decorated Marine Corps Staff Sergeant (SSCT E-6) with more than 11 years of active-duty service. His military primary care physician referred him for treatment due to postdeployment PTSD and major depression disorder symptoms. SSCT Walters related that within a week of returning home from his second and most recent combat tour in Iraq two years ago, he began to experience progressively worsening problems, along with daily intrusive recollections of combat-related events triggered by a wide range of common stimuli — such as the sight of older women, children, and crowded places.
His symptoms included insomnia, anxiety-related nightmares, intermittent crying jags, irritable and depressive moods, stomach problems, chronic fatigue, problems with concentration and memory, feeling socially disconnected, frequent headaches, periods of emotional numbing alternating with intense anger outbursts or seemingly unprovoked crying spells, hypervigilance (feeling tense and on guard), exaggerated startle (jumping at sudden noises), loss of appetite, feelings of exhaustion and profound guilt in relation to multiple war-related memories. All of these are symptoms — alone or in combination — that affect thousands of our warriors. Millions have been affected dating back to earliest recorded time.
Hal had a number of memories that needed to be processed, but one had extra special significance. He was on guard duty and his platoon was forced to open fire when a car barreled down on them. The disabled, smoke-filled, bullet-riddled car rolled to a stop. A few occupants slowly attempted to open the passenger doors. Exiting the rear door was an elderly Iraqi woman, who was mortally wounded and bleeding profusely. She cried out in obvious anguish and pain, as he and his men watched her collapse in spasms. As he told his therapist, other vehicle occupants were all badly shot-up and lay either dead or quietly dying. However, regulations did not permit the soldiers to approach until the explosive and ordnance disposal people had had a chance to inspect the car and ensure it was not a suicide bomb. The elderly Iraqi woman writhed on the ground and moaned loudly for what he reported seemed like hours, but lasted possibly only minutes until she eventually bled to death.
Hal’s facial and emotional expression changed dramatically while retelling the horrific incident. He lowered and shook his head in his trembling hands, as he tearfully recollected the ordeal that he reported reliving several times a day (and at night). Although he denied active suicidal thoughts, intense shame and guilt led him to question why he should continue to live. He frequently made references to the elderly nature of the female victim, so his therapist asked him whether she reminded him of anyone else he knew before. He appeared to carefully consider the question and initially answered “No.”
Then he quickly changed his mind, stating, “Come to think of it, she reminded me of my grandmother.” When asked how so, he replied, “My grandmother was from Nigeria, but lived with us for a few years when I was around eight.”
He paused and then continued. “But she and my mom constantly argued, I mean really argued. Then I remember one day my grandma told me she couldn’t live here anymore and was going to return to Africa.”