How I fought PTSD by understanding it
I hope what I’ve written here can help another LEO one day overcome their own battle with PTSD
Pulse of Policing 2015: The State of Law Enforcement is an ongoing research venture aimed at examining the current state of policing in America from the individual, organizational, and industrial perspectives. The below article is a part of our first series focused on the individual – a series that will also examine issues such as the strain on morale for individual officers and heart health. Learn more about Pulse of Policing
By Chris Hynick
In 2003, I started my law enforcement career as a patrol deputy at the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department in Northern Maine. I was motivated and adapted to police work easily; I was very good at it and saw it as my life’s work.
Life happens. One day I got the call that my Army National Guard Unit was being activated: I was being summoned to deploy for active duty. In February 2004, I found myself aboard a C-130 with my fellow soldiers headed to what was left of the Baghdad International Airport.
It was the beginning of a yearlong deployment that changed my life, as my unit endured many experiences that would cause the majority to struggle with the return to our civilian lives.
A Sh*tstorm in the Sandbox
We were based outside the city of Baghdad at the now infamous Abu Ghraib. We could see apartment buildings looking down onto our base, and it gave me a sense of uneasiness knowing how easy it would be for the enemy to attack us from the outside.
Upon our arrival, we spoke with the outgoing soldiers. The guys we were replacing looked tired, worn out, and didn’t seem to care about anything. We didn’t realize that in a year’s time we would look exactly like them.
The Abu Ghraib base was the most mortared place in the Iraq war theater that year; we received over 308 mortar attacks. We were sitting ducks.
One of the most unforgettable attacks of our base happened on a calm, sunny day. I was sitting in a guard tower with another soldier monitoring a compound full of Iraq detainees when I was completely taken off guard by the ear-piercing sounds of mortar fire that came crashing down all around the compound. The mortars kept pounding at us for what seemed like a lifetime.
The sound of each one landing was so loud that it hurt my eardrums, the shock driving a painful vibration through my body. The firing never seemed to stop.
Eventually, my body gave out on me during the non-stop assault and I braced myself for impact. I had a constant fear that the next mortar was going to land on top of me — the most terrifying and hopeless feeling I’ve ever had. Finally, the firing stopped and a whole new awfulness started. The horrible cries and screams from the wounded could be heard everywhere. The aftermath was like a horror movie at which I had a front row seat. Time seemed freeze for a while.
Soldiers — my friends — responded with bravery and valor to aid the suffering. Some found themselves picking up body parts and loading up dead and dismembered bodies onto the back of a truck. More than 70 people, both soldiers and detainees, were wounded during the attack. Death and suffering seemed to be the norm in this place.
A few hours later, one of my favorite NCOs came up to the watch tower to check up on me and another soldier from my unit. I put my sunglasses on so they couldn’t see the tears in my eyes. I couldn’t stop shaking from the adrenaline that was passing through my body.
When I went back to my bunk that night, I relived the attack all over again in my sleep. It seemed so real. I found myself waking up in a cold sweat, and once I realized it was a dream, I broke down again.
This was likely the beginning of my PTSD.
Welcome Home, Soldier
I truly believe our small town National Guard unit was watched over by God — we came home with all of the men we had left with in February 2004.
Upon returning to my normal life, I found myself experiencing many feelings that were new to me. It was almost as if the life that I wanted so deeply to get back to was not real. I felt like I was living in a perpetual haze that I had a hard time seeing through.
My patience was thin — I would go from 0 to 100 on the anger scale in a split-second. Certain sounds — such as fireworks or a garbage truck slamming its rear gate — would make me want to jump out of my skin. Even the simple act of someone touching me would startle me. Everything felt weird. It was as if I didn’t belong at home anymore.
I never gave myself a chance to decompress — I went back out on patrol at the sheriff’s department almost immediately. I started classes full time at a local community college. I got a second job with the National Guard Honor Guard team. I felt a need to keep active.
Keeping busy helped me avoid acknowledging the problems that I was experiencing even though I carried these problems on my shoulders. Others could see the burden; my mother suggested I talk to the VA about what support they could offer, but I never went. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to a shrink about my problems.
Going to a psychologist had a bad stigma attached to it, especially for someone in law enforcement. The Army taught us that everyone should suck it up and drive on – perhaps a practical philosophy to keep guys from breaking down on the battlefield. Back home, I did what any other 24-year-old veteran would do: I ignored the advice to get help and just tried my hardest to be who I was before I left for war.
Drained, Beat Up, Broken
Working patrol again was what I wanted to do, but something had changed — something was missing. I wasn’t as excited about it as I was before I left.
I found that sometimes I had a hard time concentrating. This made for difficulties developing and writing case work.
I constantly felt drained and out of energy. I had a much harder time finding the drive to simply get out of bed in the morning. I felt constantly beat up and had to try my hardest to stay motivated.
I started encountering problems with the people I interacted with in the field or office. This was true of coworkers as well as criminals on the street. Anyone who I perceived as menacing was a threat, which put me constantly on the defensive with everyone. I attempted to solve these problems by avoiding or removing myself from situations that involved conflicts.
There were times when I simply could not avoid problems. For example, I was placed in an office with another officer who was not exactly the pro-military type. One day during a disagreement, he told me that I was “another piece of shit veteran, mooching off of the system. Nobody likes you! Nobody loves you! Nobody cares for you! You should go home tonight, pull out your service weapon, stick the barrel in your mouth and blow your head off.”
Obviously, this guy had issues himself. I handled the situation through professional channels, but the officer’s words left their mark.
Despite those bad feelings I did what any soldier would do, I pushed through it because I had to and I always maintained my composure. Sometimes all you can do is put one foot in front of the other to get through the toughest times.
Ignoring the Stigma and Seeking Assistance
Eventually, I reached the end of my rope and was ready to give up. It was then that I decided not to care about the stigma anymore. I didn’t care what my agency thought — I knew I needed a new beginning. So I sought help and eventually received a call from an OIF/OEF case manager, who would later become a protective angel.
I had a meeting with the case manager, and it was an easy diagnosis: I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I had the same signs as the rest of the combat veterans coming into the VA — bad dreams, lack of sleep, easily startled, anger, distant from others, not engaging in activities and much more.
I sought help through therapy in hopes it would automatically make things better. I quickly learned that good therapy takes time. I started counseling sessions, but due to my work schedule I wasn’t able to be as consistent with them as I should have been. I sometimes found it difficult to connect to the right person.
As I moved forward with the VA, I continued working at my job. Even with the new path I was on, work remained difficult. I underwent many different experiences — some of them negative, some just challenging. It seemed the more I tried to do better, the more I was being pushed back.
No matter how hard I tried to jump back into my old routines and be that previous version of me, it wasn’t going to happen. I tried hiding from it through alcohol, but that only numbs the body and mind momentarily — it is no cure.
Acceptance and Moving Forward
Included in my therapy sessions was a six-week PTSD clinic. There, I learned to accept who I am — not perfect, but neither is anyone else. I have problems, as everyone else does, and I have negative and positive past experiences from the war zone that I can finally acknowledge. I learned that they make me a stronger individual than I ever would be if I hadn’t gone. I can’t change the past, but I can enhance it by being thankful for the lessons learned.
I am no expert on PTSD — nor do I have this thing whipped yet — but I’ve come to accept the fact that I am suffering from PTSD and I will never be the old me. In order to move forward, I have to be comfortable with who I am now. Letting go and taking that first step forward was the hardest part.
I have been home for 10 years now, and it has not been an easy road. One of the biggest steps toward recovery was establishing a stable home environment that feels comfortable and safe. I was able to purchase a country home, where I don’t have the constant stress of people, noise, traffic and all of the environmental uncertainties around me. I am actually able to relax.
Soon after purchasing the home, I got married and had a child —a life-changing experience that I am so grateful for. Neither my wife nor child actually knows just how important they are to me — how in many ways they saved me from myself. I now have another mission in my life: to take care of the innocent life of my child.
I am currently in remission, learning and developing new ways to keep control of my PTSD. I hope that my story can help another LEO one day overcome their own battle with this disorder.