HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. – When you meet an Air Force gunner, what’s the first thing you want to hear? “War” stories, right? You want to hear what missions he’s been on, what he’s seen, and where he’s been. You might sit in awe as you hear about when he was a first responder after the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He might even show you a picture of himself, all geared up in an MH-53 Pave Low, with Ground Zero smoldering below him, or of the inside of his helicopter, splattered with the blood of his battle buddy ... who almost didn’t make it and now suffers from severe traumatic brain injury.
But what he might not tell you when he tells those stories is how all that affected him. And you’d never bring it up, would you? You’d never stop him in the middle of a terrifying tale and ask, “So, are you doing okay now? How’s your family life? Do you ever think about suicide?”
Suicide: a word that brings the conversation to a screeching halt. But the reality is, many military members who have those “cool” stories to tell also struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, never seek help, and either contemplate or commit suicide.
Master Sgt. James Haskell, who is now stationed here, struggled with PTSD for years before he sought help. He was a gunner who responded after 9/11, and he has those photos. He spent most of his 21-year career in Air Force Special Operations Command, with more than 20 contingency deployments. Most of the things he saw or experienced didn’t really affect him until nearly 10 years later.
“The symptoms were very insidious,” the Haverhill, Mass., native said. “It’s not like one day I was fine and the next I wasn’t. I noticed things like my stress level building but not coming back down. I was unable to relax, I was becoming forgetful, I wasn’t sleeping well, and I was short-tempered. I started experiencing stress-related physical symptoms like chest pains, muscle soreness, weight gain, and feeling anxious all the time.”
As an E-7 in the military, Haskell had to put on his professional face for most of the day, and try his best to wear his happy face at home with his family. But those outward expressions were quite different from what he felt inside. They were masks.
He recognized that things weren’t right, so he went to a Military and Family Life Consultant and got some good tips on relieving stress and relaxing, but at that time he still didn’t suspect anything was seriously wrong.
“I had no idea it was PTSD,” he said.
In October 2012, he took his wife and two daughters on vacation. His body was at rest, but his mind was still “on.” Even sitting on a picturesque beach in Florida, he just couldn’t wind down. It wasn’t until he verbally snapped at his wife that he realized he had to do something more. That’s when he went to mental health and got testing that confirmed the counselor’s suspicions.
For Haskell, a PTSD diagnosis was a relief.
“At that point ... I realized it wasn’t something I had control over,” he said. “It was something external, something else controlling me. I wasn’t just screwing up and not working as well, there was something causing it. It was the beginning of a turning point - there was a lot ahead of me to do, and there still is, but at least at that point I wasn’t continuing to go downhill. I had a diagnosis, understood what I needed to do to be treated, and started turning it around.”
PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder, often associated with depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association. It can be triggered from a single event or grow as a result of years of exposure to physiological trauma.
“A lot of people think of PTSD as a single traumatic event that stays with you, but a large majority of people sufferer from PTSD as a result of multiple events over a longer span of time,” said Haskell, who admits he still has his good days and bad days, but is doing much better as a result of a combination of medication and counseling. “It wasn’t just because of the things I saw, it was also because of the things I experienced: the attacks on the bases, people getting hurt or maimed - I didn’t always see them, but they were constantly going on around me.”
Haskell now knows that PTSD is very common, especially among AFSOC members, and he has certain close friends he reaches out to frequently for support. He also uses a free smart phone application, developed by Defense Department, called “T2 Mood Tracker,” to help him identify certain triggers, times of day that are better or worse for him, and trends to avoid.
Thankfully, Haskell never seriously contemplated suicide. But one of his best friends did, and now Haskell and the rest of the AFSOC community have to constantly deal with the loss of a close friend and brother in arms.
“I’ve never given myself ‘that’ option,” he said. “I have a wife and two children who depend on me, and I do truly believe it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Every day is different, so why would I do something permanently when I could wake up tomorrow and feel just fine? But, at the same time, I can see how other people in a different or worse state of mind could consider it.”
Now, Haskell is telling his story so that he can help raise awareness. He wants people to know the good, the bad, and the ugly about this disorder and why they should get help.
Although he’s glad he got help, the reality is that his PTSD diagnosis took him off flight status.
“It is significant, but this is how you need to think about it: do you continue to make the money and do the job you’re doing, or do you look at your well-being for the rest of your life and decide survival after the Air Force, with your family, is more important to you? Your judgment under stress is impaired with PTSD. Being taken off flight status is not a punishment or meant to hurt you - they do it to protect you and the folks around you,” he said.
Another veteran of the career field and former U.S. Air Force NCO is Glenn “Flem” Fleming, a buddy of Haskell’s from “back in the day,” who now stars in the Discovery Channel show “Sons of Guns.” He has used his television platform to help raise awareness for PTSD. Fleming’s PTSD diagnosis ultimately cost him his Air Force career, but, like Haskell, he stands by his decision to get help.
“You have to weigh the reality of your well-being versus the possibility of your career coming to an early end,” said Fleming. “When I was removed from combat, after doing it for so long, I didn’t know how to cope with the non-excitement of regular life. After a while, things started to seem ‘cartoony’ to me - like things weren’t real. I was also suffering from an increased state of vigilance. I noticed everything going on around me, to the smallest detail. It was a trip, but you can only do that so long before it takes a toll. My breaking point was when I almost hit my wife. I could literally feel myself almost doing it - I didn’t, but that’s when I knew I needed help. I knew I would not get any better without help, and I needed to be able to continue to provide for my family when the time came to retire or be discharged. It truly is a life and death decision. If you continue with no help, it can lead to depression on top of everything else. Depression, anxiety and PTSD is not a good combo to deal with!”
The second message Haskell wants to spread is that there are people with PTSD who continue service.
“Seeking help is not always a showstopper - it depends on what your job is and what you can still do. It’s just like a medical condition - it depends on the severity of [your issue.] There are varying degrees of PTSD. Not everyone is violent or about to snap,” he said.
The bottom line is, it may feel as though there are a million reasons to not get help, but there are just as many to seek help when you need it, he said. PTSD doesn’t just affect the service member, it affects friends and family as well.
“Seeking help was the hardest decision I ever made,” said Haskell. “But getting help is also the most selfless thing you can do, because it also helps those closest to you ... For me, it came down to the fact that I was nearing the end of my career, and I wanted my family to be around after my retirement. If I had continued the way I was going, I was going to push my family away.”
For more information on PTSD, or to seek help, call the 49th Medical Group mental health flight at (575) 572-5676.
Other resources Haskell and Fleming recommend include: The Military and Family Life Consultant, which does not keep any records of counseling: 575-201-8559; Chaplains, who have 100 percent confidentiality: 575-572-7211; Financial aid from Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufE1Hpo-6FI); T2 Mood Tracker (www.t2health.org/apps/t2-mood-tracker), a DoD-endorsed Smartphone app for Apple and Droid and Facebook support groups: Battling Bare (www.facebook.com/BattlingBare) and A Spouse’s Story PTSD (www.facebook.com/ASpousesStoryPTSD).