09/29/2015 01:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'I Don't Know If I'll Ever Forgive Myself': How One Army Veteran Is Living With the Effects of PTSD

Marcus Jones was in Iraq on his fifth deployment when the anxiety and panic attacks blindsided him. "I had lost my stomach for combat," he remembers. "I was tired of terrorizing people, and scaring the crap out of them, and killing them. I didn't want to do it anymore." Although the obligation he felt toward his family and fellow soldiers motivated him to re-enlist for another 10 years, symptoms from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would ultimately end his career and change his life forever.

Joining the Army

Marcus's childhood was littered with neglect and physical abuse. "My step-mom used to lock me in my room and tie a rope around the door handle so I couldn't come out when she would leave," he recalls. "I slept on a mattress on the floor, and I had to lift up my mattress to piss under it." Motivated by the opportunity to earn money for college and escape his abusive family, Marcus turned to the Army. After taking night classes and summer school, he graduated high school a year early and enlisted at the age of 17.

As an Army combat engineer, Marcus performed a variety of tasks involving construction, demolition, and explosives. He excelled at combat, and other soldiers often turned to Marcus for help and guidance. He admits that while he was great at helping others, he failed at taking care of his own needs. When the anxiety and panic attacks surfaced during his fifth and sixth deployments, he was able to cope and push forward by compartmentalizing his negative emotions.

A Breaking Point

In 2013, five years after the panic attacks started, Marcus finally reached his breaking point. He had been working for a few months in a high-stress job at Fort Carson, when one morning the anxiety became too much for him to bear: "I was dreadfully counting down the hours until I had to go back to work. I couldn't sleep. When I went into work, the closer I got to post, the more anxious I got." When he arrived at work he told his boss that he needed to go to Behavioral Health, where he broke down and cried for the next hour. All of the feelings of sadness, remorse, and regret he had pushed aside and ignored over the past 15 years suddenly rushed to the forefront.

Marcus took fifteen days of leave, but the time off didn't help. He was depressed and unable to sleep. On his first day back to work, he had another panic attack within the first hour.

For the next several months, Marcus tried to get his anxiety and depression under control. He saw a psychologist regularly and was diagnosed with PTSD. He started taking Xanax for his anxiety and Prazosin to help reduce his frequent nightmares. Although the medication dulled Marcus's dreams enough that he was unable to recall them, he often woke up feeling lonely and scared. He was also assigned to a different job with a more flexible work schedule. His new job allowed him to come to work when he was able and leave when his symptoms became unmanageable.

Just as Marcus thought he was getting a handle on his PTSD symptoms, headlines covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered his anxiety and panic attacks, and he began having nightmares again. "I started questioning if I could even go back to combat. And the thought of it made me want to throw up," he remembers. "I didn't believe in what we were doing over in all these deployments. I had a lot of feelings of betrayal. . . . My innocence had faded."

A Weight Was Lifted

In response to his worsening PTSD symptoms, Marcus's psychologist increased his medications and started to question his future with the Army. Since he had been in treatment for a year and had gotten worse, he no longer met the Army's retention requirements.

When Marcus heard that he was eligible for medical retirement, he felt relieved and liberated. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He was transferred to the Warrior Transition Battalion, where ill or injured Soldiers go to heal before returning to active duty or transitioning to civilian life. While there, Marcus was free to focus on getting better and taking care of himself emotionally.

A few months later however, Marcus hit rock bottom. After separating from his wife, he moved into the barracks and started drinking heavily. Being alone in his barracks room brought back memories of being locked in his bedroom as a child, so he went to a bar off-post where he could be around other people. One evening during an alcohol-induced blackout, Marcus got into a fight and was arrested for assault. As a result, he faced the possibility of getting kicked out of the Army without retirement or disability pay. Ultimately, his medical evaluation went on as planned, and Marcus retired as a master sergeant in April of 2015.

The Struggle Continues

Since retirement, Marcus continues to struggle with PTSD. He now takes Effexor for anxiety and depression but still experiences periods of depression, insomnia, and thoughts of suicide. He acknowledges that he'll likely be on medication the rest of his life, but the pills only mask the symptoms of PTSD. They do nothing to treat the underlying issues.

For Marcus, the hardest part has been dealing with the negative emotions - the shame, remorse, regret, and moral injury - associated with his time in combat. "There's a lot of avoidance. I don't do the things I used to enjoy," he admits. News stories, movies about war, violence, and conversations with people in the military are all triggers that set off his depression, panic attacks, and nightmares. Although Marcus is battling alcoholism, he continues to go to the bar because drinking helps him to "numb out."

With his psychologist, Marcus is trying to come to terms with his combat experiences as well as the abuse from his childhood. He feels that the more intimate he gets with his negative emotions, the less terrifying they become. The process has been slow, because Marcus finds it more dangerous and unhealthy to tap into painful memories during a period of heightened anxiety.

Trying to Heal

Today, Marcus goes to school and works part-time as a mentor for a convict on house arrest. He says he gets satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment by helping others and volunteering in the community. Even so, Marcus admits that he still feels lost. Referring back to his PTSD treatment, he says: "No matter how good that went, here I am still left feeling helpless. We're given tools. We're given medication. We're given a lot of things. It doesn't make it go away.

"I don't know if I'll ever forgive myself for the things I did. They can say we were just following orders and doing our job, but that's not good enough."

Marcus is unsure where his future will lead. No amount of military training could have prepared him for a life with PTSD. Even with all of the knowledge, resources, and support he has been given over the past 17 years, Marcus is still struggling to find his identity and heal emotional wounds that persist long after he left the battlefield.