I had been home just six months from the war zone, when a friend called me and asked if I was sitting down. When I said no, he told me to sit, so I did. He then said, "Danny killed himself". Danny was my best friend. Had I not been seated, I'm sure I'd have dropped to my knees. I was dumb struck and incredulous. It hurt me to the core of my being. I had lost friends in battle, but this, I did not see coming. There was no way to prepare for this. Danny was handsome and charismatic, even the scar on his face made him more interesting. And now, he was gone, gone forever. I agonized for days and weeks about what I could have done to prevent this but; I don't know how I could have helped him. Danny was his own man and I was as screwed up as he was.
War changes a person and I don't mean just psychologically, the body chemistry of a warrior changes. The changes are both physical and emotional and they are extremely uncomfortable. Adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine are the three major stress hormones. The body continuously releases these hormones when under duress, or in a war zone. The warrior becomes more alert or hyper-vigilant. These changes allow the warriors to dumb down any emotion that may hinder their performance in the field. The warrior creates a new awareness. One that is very different than being in the civilian world. Unfortunately, these long-lasting elevated hormone levels can lead to serious problems. This change, that has become so uncomfortable, is the real challenge our warriors face when coming home. This is the real sacrifice.
A warrior's peak performance relies on his/her ability to adapt. This adaptation, this change is the reason we warriors, develop post-traumatic stress. I leave out the "D" for disorder, because there is no disorder. We are acting perfectly normal, for having gone through a very abnormal situation. This adaptation for survival, served us well in the war zone, but not in the real world, not here at home.
As a young man coming home from the war, I was ill equipped to handle myself as a civilian. Instead of feeling elation of being home, I felt anxiety. My capacity to relax had been replaced with a warrior's ability to react. I knew I was different now, but I had no way of understanding why. PTS was already beginning to rear its ugly head and I couldn't stop the feelings of survivor's guilt. There was other more noticeable reactions also, rage, hyper-vigilance, insomnia, depression and then eventually, despair. I was showing all of the classic symptoms of having been in the war zone. In other words I was acting perfectly normal, for having gone through a very abnormal situation. This is the real sacrifice.
The war zone is so surreal and horrific, pretty much anything goes. Literally, anything goes. Things that you would never morally justify, you easily justify, because its war. When a warrior is in the war zone, it's all about manning up. You are proving your ability to man up and be fearless every day. Many times we go beyond our own comfort zone. Here's where the real injury begins to surface, the moral injury. These "anything goes, its war" justifications begin to haunt us, though they shouldn't, because in the heat of battle anything does go. But, it bothers us, even though we're warriors, we're also human. If the warrior doesn't seek help in trying to decipher what he/she is going through, it could be fatal. Even sometimes with help, the warrior can sink too deeply into his own morality.
I was fragile, I was thin-skinned, and I felt very different than everyone around me. My post-traumatic stress made my relationships with people that loved me very difficult. My best friend committed suicide when he was 22 years old. His girlfriend had broken up with him. There was much more to it than that, it was just one more thing and a good enough excuse I guess.
Post-traumatic stress doesn't have to be fatal. I struggled for years and eventually got into individual therapy and then group therapy, with fellow veterans. I began to understand why I acted the way I did, different, but normal for PTS. It's like being a diabetic; you do your best to control it. It is what it is, this is the real sacrifice.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.