PTSD: A Warrior’s Life Before & After
By Vesta M. Anderson
Matthew Barnes traces his problems back to his Iraqi deployment during the 2003 ground invasion. Less than six months after joining the Marines, Matthew—a brand new lance corporal attached to an infantry unit—was deployed as an infantry machine gunner and on patrol with his unit in Iraq. Back home, Matthew was an outgoing country boy who enjoyed going off-roading and mountain climbing, but on August 29, 2003, that all changed.
It happened without warning – a car bomb detonated outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, killing nearly 100 people and injuring more than 500, only blocks away from Matthew’s location. U.S. newswires called it the deadliest attack since the Iraq war ended. The blast would haunt Matthew for the rest of his military career, and would continue to snowball in his civilian life.
In combat situations, the mind reacts instinctively, collecting and sorting memories that can be excruciatingly difficult for the warrior to endure during the inevitable recall process. Therefore, the mind’s “filing system” and unintentional memory recall can elicit great harm to a combat veteran’s mental health and wellbeing. It has been referred to as many things. Today, it is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Matthew, unknowingly, was falling deep in its trenches.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD is a mental health condition that can happen to anyone who has suffered through a traumatic event, directly or indirectly. Veterans suffering from PTSD have recalling prompts, typically referred to as triggers, which are linked to situational or emotional experiences and memories from the combat zone. For instance, soldiers with PTSD may hear the sound of popcorn popping or fireworks exploding and recall an improvised explosive device attack, or a random experience of anger, sadness, or anxiety can trigger them to relive the experience and emotion of losing a friend in combat.
PTSD is an invisible wound of war that can dismantle a warrior’s life unless they are given the tools and treatment needed to succeed in recovery. Many warriors are concerned with the stigma associated with injuries that are not visible. They either never step up to receive the treatment they need, or they go anosther route to deal with their issues.
Matthew chose to self-medicate.
“I didn’t have to worry about having nightmares because I wasn’t sleeping,” said Matthew, who—within two years after the explosion—failed a drug screening and was forced out of the military.
Losing something that was so deeply imbedded in his life was the jolt Matthew needed to get clean. And while he has maintained that sobriety since 2015, Matthew’s struggle continued. From employment to relationships, PTSD had taken a firm hold of Matthew’s life.
“I didn’t like new people, and I didn’t like crowds,” said Matthew. “I began to live as a hermit when I wasn’t at work. I never went anywhere or did anything. Then my wife noticed my constant anger and frustration. She put the pieces together. I had been dealing with PTSD, but I didn’t even know it.”
After reaching out for medical help, Matthew was finally diagnosed with PTSD in April 2016.
That’s when Matthew discovered Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) partnered with four of the finest academic medical centers in the nation to create Warrior Care Network™ in 2015. It’s a world-class health network that ensures injured veterans dealing with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries receive the best mental health care regardless of their location. Thanks to the support of generous donors, the services are free to warriors. The brave service men and women deserve no less, having already paid their dues on the battlefield.
Shortly after registering, Matthew was enrolled in mental health services at Emory Healthcare and introduced to prolonged exposure (PE) therapy, administered daily by a professional therapist. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PE therapy has been shown to be one of the most effective treatments for PTSD as it repeatedly exposes the patient to his or her distressful thoughts, feelings, and situations directly related to the traumatic event. By confronting high-stress triggers linked to PTSD—instead of avoiding—patients are able to learn about their PTSD reactions, develop skills to manage distress, practice control techniques in real-world situations, and talk through the traumatic event to gain more control of the associated thoughts and feelings.
Recounting and discussing the circumstances around the 2003 Imam Ali Mosque bombing left Matthew in tears. “It was harder than going through boot camp,” said Matt, who during his PE therapy sessions relived his traumatic experience in detail – thoughts, emotions, sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and skin sensations. These were memories he previously avoided at all costs, but now, Matthew was allowing doctors to probe his memory daily, only to return to his room and listen to the recorded sessions on his own.
“You walk through the event; then you walk through it again – over and over,” Matthew said. “It’s like having a cluttered closet that you didn’t want to deal with. Prolonged exposure therapy removes everything from the closet, then—after taking a nice, hard look at each item—it identifies the correct place they belong. It’s an exhausting and stressful process, but Matthew said it started helping.
“The first night or two, my PTSD was reinforced, and I couldn’t sleep,” Matthew recalled. “It forced me to deal with my issues. But by the end of the third day, I started to get through the event without any anxiety.” It was a change he didn’t think was possible. Instead of learning to merely cope with his new normal, Matthew credits Warrior Care Network and Emory staff with helping him get closer to being the man he was prior to his deployment.
“I feel like my old self,” said Matthew. “I’m getting out of the house as much as possible and getting back into the hobbies I haven’t enjoyed in a very long time. My family and employer have noticed a significant change.”
Through Warrior Care Network, Wounded Warrior Project partners with Emory Healthcare Veterans Program, Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base, Rush University Medical Center Road Home, and UCLA Health Operation Mend to provide innovative mental health care on an intensive 2-3 week outpatient basis, giving warriors like Matthew a hopeful recovery.
“This program gave me my life back,” Matthew said.
About Wounded Warrior Project
The mission of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) is to honor and empower Wounded Warriors. The WWP purpose is to raise awareness and to enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members, to help injured servicemen and women aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet their needs. WWP is a national, nonpartisan organization headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. To learn more about WWP and Warrior Care Network™, visit woundedwarriorproject.org. (Photos courtesy WWP)