Earlier this month, in a chilling reminder of our enemy's strength and capabilities, Taliban forces launched a coordinated assault on two remote outposts in Afghanistan's remote Nuristan Province along the Pakistani frontier. Eight American soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division were killed in action, and almost forty more were wounded in the hours-long defense of their firebase.
In 2004, I faced a determined and courageous enemy inside a large house during the Battle of Fallujah while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps. Some forty insurgents had come to the house to protect a meeting of local leaders. We stumbled across this gathering while searching for weapons and ammunition. The initial contact surprised both sides, and while we recovered quickly, part of my platoon was cut off and trapped on the second floor of the house. For almost four hours, we launched repeated assaults up the stairwell to try and rescue our fellow Marines. We faced grenades, machine gun and small arms fire every time we tried to push up onto the second floor. The battle only ended when our battalion executive officer ordered us to pull back and the house was destroyed by laser guided bombs.
Such desperate fighting has unseen consequences. Our battle in the house, just like the sharp and intense clash the 4th Infantry Division just endured in Afghanistan, can be so traumatic that the human brain suffers long-term consequences. I did not realize that until I came home in early 2005. I had anger issues and a short-fuse, though before Fallujah I had been easy going and relaxed. I couldn't sleep, and when I did, the same nightmare invaded my dreams. I would be back on the stairwell, but this time unarmed as insurgents chased me. Every morning, I'd wake up in a cold sweat, shaking from the experience.
I began to self-medicate. My professional life fell apart, as did my marriage. Finally, after suffering a flashback at Parris Island, where I served as a Drill Instructor, I was sent to a doctor who diagnosed me with acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I learned the hard way that the war doesn't stop when our boots touch home soil again, it just changes form.
Fighting my way free of PTSD's crippling effects on my family and me took every reserve of strength I possessed. I could not have done it alone. Yet, as I traveled around the country, first with the Corps' command sergeant major then later with Vets for Freedom, I met countless combat veterans who have never reached out, never sought the help they needed to cope with the trauma their brains experienced. We're tough guys, and tough guys don't need help. For generations, that's been the ethos in the military. And sure, we can survive and endure any manner of physical test--we're trained to do that. But none of us received any training on how to cope with the physiological changes acute trauma can cause in a human being.
I teamed up with John Bruning to write Shadow of the Sword which chronicles my experiences in Fallujah as well as my struggle to conquer Post Traumatic Stress. The truth is, none of us who suffer from PTSD will ever be totally free of its symptoms. We have to learn to manage them, learn to recognize how it affects us and develop coping skills to mitigate their effects. It is not an easy battle, but it is one that almost half of all soldiers and Marines face as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the fluid nature of the fighting overseas right now, one expert has called the Global War on Terror the perfect incubator for PTSD.
I wrote the book as a beacon to those who suffer behind closed doors as a way to let them know they are not the only ones going through this ordeal. They need to reach out and get help, because no man or woman can conquer this alone. Each soldier and marine we lose to suicide here in the states is a combat casualty, sure as anyone else who died in theater. My goal with the book is to de-stigmatize PTSD and show our readership that courage and heroism on the battlefield comes with a heavy price. We are proud warriors and patriots, but here at home, we need more than just parades and yellow ribbon magnets. We need support, help and understanding.
In a few months, when the 4th Infantry Division's deployment ends in Afghanistan and the troops return, let's make sure these brave warriors have all the support and access to the tools and treatment they need to win the new fight they will face here at home. No more suicides. No more broken lives. We will fight on together, shoulder to shoulder as we did when the bullets once flew our way.
Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Workman received the Navy Cross, the second highest award for valor in combat, for the house fight in Fallujah. His book Shadow of the Sword was released by Presidio Press in September.