Monday, August 2, 2010

PTSD: A soldier's story

Army Spc. Brandon Garrison looks fine. He pulls his wife, Lily, close. He gives her a quick kiss on the cheek and wraps his hand over her stomach, carrying their first child.

Inside, Garrison fights a rage that consumes most of his days sin ce returning from 17 months of combat in Afghanistan. It's a demon that shows no mercy and interrupts even simple routines like eating and sleeping. At any moment, halfway through a football game or in the middle of the night, he can lose himself to this evil.

This is his war now. A war that started on a battlefield a half a world away and has now embedded itself in his mind. Through nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and fear, he battles this beast each day.

Garrison is among thousands of troops experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as they return from Afghanistan or Iraq. The 21-year-old from northeastern Kansas is also part of a growing number of servicemembers whose well-being has been compromised in a system that's supposed to take care of them.

The most troubling challenges facing these troops include:

Psychological trauma and mental health care not always receiving the same priority as physical injuries.

Army claims of pre-existing personality disorders, which in many cases slash disability benefits and long-term mental health care for otherwise eligible combat veterans.

The enemy Garrison encountered daily in combat still haunts him. He sees the faces of his fallen brothers. He smells the dirty air, amid the blood. Screams of panic broken with hums of moaning pain lingers and the dust ensues yet another storm inside him.

That is until he finds his way back to Lily, and back to the life he knew before war.

"Without her, I seriously wouldn't be alive right now," Garrison said.

Garrison's platoon from the Army's 10th Mountain Division based in Fort Drum, N.Y., specializes in fighting in harsh conditions. In northeast Afghanistan they were stationed in Pech Valley Korengal Outpost, one the country's deadliest valleys.

Now that Garrison is home, he belongs to one of the Army's Warrior Transition Units, which provides command and control, primary care and case management for servicemembers receiving treatment for wounds suffered while fighting in the war on terror. The unit works to "promote their timely return to the force or transition to civilian life."

Here is his story.

Shortly after Garrison returned from Afghanistan last June, he headed home on a 30-day leave to Leavenworth, Kansas.

"That's when my nightmares began," he said. "I remember waking up in the middle of the night. I'd sit straight up in bed and it was just hard to breathe and I was panicking and I remember my wife Lily asking me if I was OK and I remember crying in her arms several times because of horrific visions that I had, and the memories and the mass casualties that we suffered."

Nothing in particular triggered the attacks. He would hear a song or a report about the war and before he knew it, he was reliving it.

Garrison started drinking almost daily. It was the only way he knew to escape.

In August, he left to regroup with his unit in Fort Drum. Lily stayed with his folks because Garrison was going to be reassigned to a new base, so it didn't make sense for her to go right then.

Garrison was OK when he was working. But the second he was alone, the flashbacks returned. It was terrifying and always zoomed back to one event. On this day in Afghanistan, Garrison was watching soldiers patrol a valley below him. It was almost time for them to return when the enemy launched rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire into their path.

Garrison and other soldiers helped the injured until medics arrived.

Blood was everywhere.

Garrison went to his friend, 24-year-old Spc. Christopher Wilson, and held a pressure dressing tightly against his stomach, but his young life was slipping away.

Wilson, whose greatest fear in this war was not coming home to his little girl, died a short while later.

"He was a very good soldier ... a good friend," Garrison said. "He was very brave through it all."

Garrison needed help. He and Lily fought to where they didn't know how much their marriage could take.

He was never much of a drinker before war. Lily wanted to understand, but she couldn't.

"To know I had pushed a woman so close to me that far away just because of the trauma I was experiencing … that really just made it worse," Garrison explained.

He started to hate himself.

"At the time I had been denying God and spirituality was always a big part of my life and I was actually cursing God himself and that's when I knew that my life was taking a big downfall," he said.

In September, Garrison went to the behavioral health clinic on base and met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He agreed to meet with Garrison every week or two and prescribed Trazodone and Ambien to help him sleep.

"I was calling out for help … but I was afraid to say 'suicide,'" Garrison recalled. "I was afraid to tell them what I was truly feeling because that puts a label on you and they patronize you."

He kept it far from his command.

But by mid-September, Garrison couldn't take it. He returned to doctors on base and told them he was feeling suicidal. They told him he had to see a regular doctor because they were booked.

The next day he found a doctor off base who prescribed Valium, which helped desensitize his reality. He heard a couple guys who committed suicide from their unit overdosed on Valium.

He was afraid to take it, but he was desperate.

It was football season. Garrison thought it would be good to get out, so he started going to the local bar to watch the games.

For weeks he did this. He was now mixing prescription drugs and alcohol. It seemed to help.

But on September 29 it all caught up.

That morning, he woke with the horrors of Afghanistan. He swallowed four Valium.

Later on he went to the bar. He took two more Valium and started drinking beer.

As he watched the game, he started getting excited. His adrenaline was pumping. Then he saw blood. Dirty air seeped in his senses and screams of horror quickly replaced the cheers.

It felt like iron weight settled in his chest. It was hard to breathe. His hands and feet throbbed. His heart was beating faster and faster and faster, like a hamster spinning a wheel.

Garrison rushed outside to his truck and blasted the air conditioning.

He could barely hold his cell phone as he struggled to dial 911. He blanked out off and on as the operator on the other end told him to keep breathing.

Within minutes ambulances and military police arrived. Paramedics strapped a plastic oxygen mask over his face and rushed him to the closest hospital in Watertown, N.Y.

He woke up several hours later with a man from the hospital's intensive mental health unit next to him. He asked Garrison if he was suicidal.

"I broke down and cried right there," Garrison said. "I told him I didn't want to live anymore."

The man said he served in Vietnam, and there was no shame in crying.

"I have a wife and a child on the way," Garrison said through sobs. "I love them very much. I don't want to be like this anymore, but I don't want to live when I have these attacks, when I blank out, when I have these flashbacks."

"I'm trying to be a good soldier. Please don't tell my chain of command," he pleaded.

Garrison was admitted into the psychiatric ward.

"That was the most traumatic part, but at the same time it was a relief because here I was in a place now where it was nothing but civilians," Garrison explained. "I was away from the uniforms."

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