Thursday, January 5, 2012

PTSD: The Silent Stalker

I went through a 15 month deployment. When I came home, there was not much different, except the usual reintegration types of things. I was just getting used to life again outside a combat zone and I didn’t think about the possibility of PTSD at all. After all, I was a 1SG in combat, and looking forward to my next assignment when I was selected to be a Drill Sergeant. So certainly, PTSD could not affect someone such as me! I was tough…been there and done that. I was a weightlifter in my spare time, benching 370 lbs, and working out like a mad man. I was physically tough with a strong mind and nothing could bother me.

I had the usual post deployment and PCS move things; trouble sleeping, and a bit of irritability. I was always tough on my Soldiers and may have been a little harsher post deployment. But hey, that was normal for someone with sleep problems and the rigors of combat fresh in their past. I was supposed to be tough and harsh. I was a Drill Sergeant. And then in all too quick of a time, I was moved over to be an AIT instructor. No biggie. That is where the Army needed me most and I continued to be hard on my troops. After all, 96R Ground Surveillance Systems Operators had to be tough to survive the rigors of battle. With dismounted missions and 18KM humps carrying an infantrymen’s load, and 120lbs on their back behind enemy lines to plant sensors, it was not a job for the weak mentally, or physically.

Something did seem off though, which is what led me to see Mental Health. I figured it was just a little depression. After all, I had been through a lot of personal issues over the past few months as well, starting with a divorce. But after a couple sessions, I was diagnosed with PTSD. It really didn’t bother me, as I didn’t believe them at the time. I was at a training post, and I was from the first set of deployments to Iraq, so what did they really know?

But as time wore on, I began to behave a little abnormal. Not that it seemed strange to me, but my then wife had pointed out to me some things that may be a little different. First was that I carried a hand gun. But I wrote that off to me always being a staunch supporter of our 2nd amendment rights, and I was living in AZ. Everyone carried there. I had a security system installed in my house. But then again, we lived close to the border, and in the area, illegals were very common, and would just come in and sit down on your couch and watch TV… THAT to me was weird, not my behavior.

By this time, it had been a couple years since deployment. So certainly PTSD was out of the question, right? I mean, it would have shown up when I got back. Although I had physical injuries from Iraq, I was still mentally strong. Then I got medically separated for those injuries, some of which I didn’t even realize I had. So my depression grew… But whose wouldn’t? I went from a very good career, which the plan was to go to retirement, to now being a civilian. Finding a good job was easy. I had very unique qualifications. So there was no stress and shortly found a job that I loved! I got to travel and work with Soldiers! Yet my depression got worse, and I began fighting with my wife constantly. But that was because of her, and me being gone. I mean that is a stress on any family, especially a new family that wasn’t used to the military way of life. 

As time wore on, maybe 4 years after combat, things still began to appear. I would wake up in the middle of the night to check the security of my property. But we had a newborn in the house. So that is common, right? My wife and I were getting worse, but this was certainly due to the usual post baby change in hormones, and the stress of me being gone with a newborn. Not to mention her developing a medical imbalance in hormones. Right?

Then one day at the local pet store, an illegal confronted my wife, and the situation turned bad. I immediately stepped in, and the next thing I knew, I had the much larger man on the ground in a choke hold while the pet shop employees called the police. I really don’t know what happened, but it was the right thing to do, and he got arrested for assault and for a warrant that was out for him. But I found it strange that I didn’t remember the incident. I also found that I couldn’t remember a lot that happened in Iraq.

Then the arguments grew at home. My wife would chase me around the house and corner me. All I ever wanted to do was get out, because I was feeling overwhelming anger. But she would never let me leave. Over the next year, the police were called numerous times, with nothing major happening; just a few “cooling off periods“. She was told by many Psychiatrists and counselors, to just let me go and cool off. Of course, that never did happen. Then one night, after an 8 hour fight, and trying to escape, she taunted me with the car keys. I thought I could grab them, so I went for it. She grabbed my arm, and I don’t remember what happened next. The next thing I knew, I was on top of her with my forearm across her throat. I immediately let her up once I realized what I was doing. Unfortunately, instead of running out the door, she decided to go get a gun from the bedroom. She came down the hall with it pointed directly at my head. And once again, my training kicked in. Once she began to talk, I took the gun away. Luckily, she held it how I trained her, and didn’t have her finger on the trigger, but on the rail. I called the police, and told them the whole story, as she was out, to get away from me. I handed over her weapon, and explained the entire situation. They asked me where to find her, as a call came over the radio of a bad accident in which a mustang lost control leaving a convenience store and rolled. I told them that they found her. Luckily, she was alive, and relatively unharmed. But the police suggested that I see someone in the VA, as they have seen a lot of strange things from returning vets, especially after they had been back a few years.

Reluctantly, I went. After all, none of it was my fault. I mean, yes, there were some things that I did that were a bit odd, but they were all explainable. And I did feel weird, especially in certain stores, and found myself always wanting a corner seat in a restaurant. And I guess my tastes in life change, as bars and clubs, and other normal activities were no longer appealing. And sex was non-existent, but we were a married couple with a child. So I still didn’t think much of it. The horrible incident with my wife was depressing me, as I have never laid hands on a woman, but after all, she grabbed me… But why couldn’t I remember what happened?

The Psychiatrist gave me this huge, long questionnaire, which was irritating, asking many of the same questions. I was getting visibly annoyed, as the hours past. This was ridiculous. I had been back for six years. If I had PTSD, I would have known a long time ago, right? Well, it didn’t take her long to confirm a diagnosis of PTSD. She knew before the testing was done. Of course, I asked for a second opinion, it must be that this lady just said that to everyone that came through her office.

So as I waited to be seen by another Psychiatrist, my mood became unstable. Well, I guess more so, as I noticed it now. The sleep was getting worse too. I only slept for a maximum of an hour and a half a night. I don’t remember dreams, but my wife told me I was acting funny when I was asleep, and even would slide out of bed and low crawl across the floor. And then one day, during an instance of very bad news, I sat on my bed, and wasn’t sure where I was! I knew I was in Arizona, but I was somehow seeing things and hearing things in Iraq. It was like being in two places at once, and they were fighting for which would be my reality!

During my second opinion, I talked and opened up a little more about what was happening, about all the explanations for everything, and that my marriage was falling apart (it did end shortly after), but that I didn’t understand what had happened. Was that a flashback? And why could I just about not enter one certain store without going into a full blown panic attack? What about me low crawling across the floor in my sleep? And so on. Well, it turns out I DO have PTSD. And my situation is not unusual, but more of normal. Luckily, because of my original diagnosis while still in the Army, the VA agreed to rate me for PTSD, even though this is not the case for everyone. This is all part of the reason I urge all vets to get checked out for PTSD, at least a couple times for the first couple years.

I titled this The Silent Stalker for a reason. Looking back, PTSD was silently stalking me for five years before it totally reared its ugly head. The symptoms weren’t all there at first. It was little things at first, barely noticeable, and easily explained. And then they got progressively worse, yet still silent. PTSD can stalk you for years before it strikes, and you never even know it is there.

So my point of this article is that if you experience anything abnormal, behavior wise. Please get checked, PTSD isn’t a sign of weakness. I was a big strong tough First Sergeant, Drill Sergeant and weightlifter; a “badass”. Combat tested and approved. And PTSD still crept in. It was silently stalking me for years. Grabbing a hold of me before I even knew it was there. Now, looking back, I wish I had sought help earlier. It is so much easier when you catch it early. After the five years of stalking me, I have spent years learning how to fight back, and learning to cope with PTSD. Once it has you, there is no cure. You can only learn how to cope with it so that you can have as normal of a life as possible.

There are people here to help. Family of a Vet was established to help the families of vets not only cope and educate themselves, but also to recognize the signs in their beloved vets. And veterans are always welcome as well. We are willing to help, or at least provide resources to direct you to people that are qualified to help. 

SFC (Ret) Anthony Patchell
Veterans Outreach Coordinator
Family Of a Vet, Inc


  1. Tony, I knew you when we were stationed in the 501st together in Germany. You were one of my best buddies. Glad to see you went on to have a good career, but sorry about the outcome and the PTSD. I'm glad you're working thru it now and helping others to work thru it. Take care.
    Shannon Ferreira (Arnold or Rempel when you knew me)

    1. Shannon, Thank you, and how could I possibly forget you!

    2. Shannon,
      Send me an email sometime...