How to survive painful anniversaries

The anniversary of traumatic events can cause LEOs to have disruptive thoughts and emotions

By Johanna Wender and Christopher Littrell

On September 7, 2009, Tech Sergeant Matt Young was celebrating his 30th birthday at Camp Striker, Baghdad International Airport, Iraq. His boss, Lieutenant Joseph Helton took him to get pizza. Neither of them realized how significant the next 24 hours were going to be in their lives.

Lt. Helton and TSgt Young’s Air Force Security Forces (Air Force cops) unit was assigned various force protection responsibilities in Iraq. Most recently, they were building relationships with the local police force to serve as liaisons. The next day, Matt and Lt. Helton planned to change seats; Lt. was going to take Matt’s role as squad leader so Matt could meet local police chiefs.

Find a way to commemorate the day: visit a memorial or grave, light a candle, pray, donate, and/or connect with others from this period of life.
Find a way to commemorate the day: visit a memorial or grave, light a candle, pray, donate, and/or connect with others from this period of life. (Pixabay)

Lieutenant Joseph Helton was an Air Force Academy graduate, young and ready to lead. He was surrounded by a leadership team (enlisted and officers) with decades of experience. Lt. Helton quickly proved himself to be hardworking, intelligent and humble. Lt. Helton would routinely engage his enlisted troops and would solicit feedback from his non-commissioned officers (NCOs) on how he could improve. He was a servant leader who soon earned the respect of his men and women.

On September 8, 2009, the plans changed. Overnight, Iraqi police officers were murdered. This caused a ripple effect on squad assignments and Matt found himself back with his squad. Lt. Helton rejoined the squad that was going to meet local chiefs of police.

At about 1015 hours, Matt’s squad rolled out of Camp Striker. Lt. Helton’s squad departed about 15 minutes later. At about 1045 hours, Matt received a radio call from the tactical operations center (TOC) to return to base. Matt’s squad was close to their objective and questioned the order. The TOC was clear – they needed to return to base immediately. As they drove the 30 minutes back to base, they eventually got within radio signal of Lt. Helton’s squad. Matt quickly realized that something was wrong, but he did not know what. Matt requested permission to respond to assist Lt. Helton’s squad. Matt’s Senior Master Sergeant got on the radio and told him no – he was again ordered to return to base.

Upon returning to base, Matt learned what happened. While en route to meet with the local police chiefs, an explosively formed projectile (EFP) penetrated Lt. Helton’s vehicle, killing him instantly. The other squad members inside the vehicle were also injured. Three days later, Matt and other NCOs went to recover critical equipment from Lt. Helton’s vehicle. The vehicle had not been cleaned out. The images inside the vehicle were burned into Matt’s mind. Matt was devastated. He struggled with survivor’s guilt. He was supposed to be in that seat, not Lt. He was supposed to die, Lt. Helton was supposed to be alive.

Matt and his unit served another four months in Iraq after Lt. Helton’s death. As they returned home, Matt did not fully understand the effect that this would have on his life. As Matt adjusted back to being in the States, he experienced anxiety and depression. He found himself in a state of hypervigilance, especially driving down the road, scanning the roadway for debris that could be a roadside bomb.

Eventually, these symptoms lessened but did not totally subside. As days turned into months, and months turned into years, Matt learned the power that his birthday was going to have on him. In the days and weeks leading up to September 7, Matt would begin to feel anxious, have sweats and feel worried. He experienced sleepless nights, anger and increased hypervigilance. These symptoms would intensify anytime he would be still. He began to fanaticize about his own death – something that would take away the guilt and anger.

Now, almost 12 years after Lt. Helton’s death, the symptoms have decreased. Matt credits this to Lt. Helton’s mother and father and to his wife, Rose. Shortly after returning from Iraq, Matt connected with Lt. Helton’s mother and father. They were gracious people who offered Matt support. Every year, they message Matt with words of encouragement, as the anniversary gets closer. Rose intentionally plans family trips around Matt’s birthday.

This is a common example of the power anniversaries of traumatic events can hold. When we experience traumatic events, our brains learn and memorize cues associated with these experiences to keep us safe in the future. This learning is crucial to our survival: when humans were living in hunter-gatherer societies and were chased by large animals, they learned to have their guards up around animals of similar size and stature in the future. This is why many combat vets will become agitated or fearful on the Fourth of July; the sounds of fireworks may be a reminder of firefights or explosions

Again, this association is adaptive: humans have endured because of our ability to differentiate safe from dangerous situations, and by applying information from near misses to future occurrences.

Similarly, the month, week, or specific date of a traumatic event or critical incident may serve as a painful reminder, and with it, bring up strong memories from around this time. You may notice that you are thinking more about the incident, having dreams about it, or even feel as if you are reliving it. You might be feeling more irritable, less patient, sad, anxious, or depressed. Insomnia, difficulty focusing and being “keyed up” are all common reactions and are usually temporary. So, what can LEOs and other first responders do when an anniversary comes?

  1. Expect it. Remember, your brain has encoded this time of year to keep you safe and to protect you from future danger. Your brain is doing what it is supposed to do.
  2. Acknowledge it. Although the thoughts and memories are painful, it’s important to pay attention to them. Many of us are given the advice to “suck it up” and “move on,” but it can be easier to move forward if you allow yourself some time to remember and identify your thoughts and feelings.
  3. Honor it. Find a way to commemorate the day: visit a memorial or grave, light a candle, pray, donate, and/or connect with others from this period of life. These rituals can often help with feeling connected to something larger than yourself.
  4. Externalize it. Don’t go at this alone. Talking about your reaction with your fellow officers, peer support, chaplains, family, or friends can lessen some of the sting. Even writing about your reaction to these memories can help to reduce the load you carry. While many LEOs shield their spouses or partners from stories that they fear may upset them, you may be surprised to find that they can handle more than you expect.
  5. Ask for help. If you notice that you’re having trouble shaking these reactions, that you seem to be stuck thinking about them constantly for several weeks at a time, that you are resorting to drugs or alcohol to get through your day, and/or are thinking about suicide, do not accept this as your new reality. You wouldn’t hesitate to call for backup on a dangerous call; reach out for emotional backup. Reach out to a mental health professional who specializes in trauma. There are evidence-based treatment options that really do work.

This article was co-authored with Johanna Wender, MA, LMHC, LPC, a mental health counselor and president of Bravura Counseling, a practice exclusively serving LEOs, first responders, service members and veterans. She is also the proud wife of a retired police sergeant. Johanna has extensive clinical experience working in a wide range of mental health service settings, and specializes in evidence-based treatment of PTSD and other related concerns. In addition to her clinical practice, Johanna provides training and consulting services to LE agencies and a wide range of other clients.


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