Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has baffled my mind since first getting diagnosed with it. Although I didn’t want to admit that I had a “disorder” and I fought the notion that I did, it was validating to learn that what I was experiencing had a name. Unlike a lot of veterans, I didn’t have the typical combat PTSD associated with military service, I had PTSD as a result of multiple military sexual assault incidents and retaliation after reporting the crimes. Every time that I was assaulted, I was in uniform at the workplace. The first assault I experienced I was in civilian attire but I was attending what I considered to be an official military function. The last assault I experienced I was again in civilian attire at an official military function. My injuries were a direct result of military service and I was retired due to PTSD after almost fifteen years of service. What saddens me is that most of this could have been prevented if people were held accountable for their actions but you have to get assaulted or raped before leadership will take any meaningful action against the person(s) who targeted you.
My PTSD was made worse by reporting the incidents to my Commander because it was impossible to keep the investigations confidential and it polarized the squadron. My unrestricted reports resulted in an internal investigation that triggered two of the four people that I reported to be held somewhat accountable for their actions. One was forced to retire; the other was forced to transfer to another State. The Commander did not have jurisdiction over the other two. One was active duty Air Force; the other one jumped state after learning he was being reported. Although I did see some justice, it didn’t last long when I returned to the squadron after the cases were resolved. (I left the squadron during the investigation because I no longer felt safe.) Upon my return, I experienced a sustained campaign of retaliation mostly from the leadership in my Chain of Command. I was isolated, demoted from previous leadership positions, denied necessary training opportunities needed for promotion, held to double standards, and treated differently then I was before I reported the crimes. This response had a direct impact on my career progression, promotions, and mental health. It was a new form of abuse that compounded the two years of abuse that I had already sustained.
I reported four individuals to my Commander after staying silent the first two years of my career as a new recruit. I attempted to handle the situations on my own because I was afraid of how the incidents would reflect on me and my military career. I learned early in my career at Keesler Air Force Base after witnessing others report inappropriate incidents that the military had zero tolerance for reporting such incidents. And if you dared to report the incidents, you quickly found yourself ostracized and drummed out of the military after a prolonged witch hunt which in and of itself was abusive. If I didn’t have signs of PTSD after a sexual assault, I would surely get PTSD from the response by leadership and fellow peers after reporting it. I was assaulted at Keesler too by one of my instructors but it happened two weeks before graduation and I jumped town to get off that base because the attacker was there. There was no way I was going to report the assault and risk being held at Keesler Air Force Base to go through any sort of investigation. I would have been cleaning toilets and doing weeds and seeds while dodging sightings of the very man I never wanted to see again.
The first assault I experienced occurred in 1996. The last assault occurred in 1998. I reported in the fall of 1998 and shortly thereafter was physically assaulted by one of the alleged perpetrator’s friends. This person was arrested but not charged. The Commander claimed he could do nothing because the crime occurred off base. The sexual assault investigation was concluded in 1999 in my favor. I returned to the squadron only to face a group of people that I used to consider family now treat me as if I was no longer welcome. I learned my father had terminal cancer during this time. I fled this squadron and transferred to a new squadron four hours away to escape the retaliation in the spring of 2001. September 11th happened and my unit was activated to report to base. I found out my father died unexpectedly while at base that weekend. And the deployments kicked into full swing. Stop loss for my Satellite Communications technician position was initiated and even if you wanted to get out of the military you couldn’t. I was placed on non-deployable status while I worked through the loss of my father. Meanwhile I reported for full-time duty at the National Guard base to fill the positions of those who were deployed, train the new recruits who trickled in to bring us to full strength, and help this combat communications squadron prepare for and recover from the multiple deployments, exercises, and inspections they endured in the next five years. After 9/11, mission before self became status quo and this high ops tempo made it easier and easier to bury the traumas of the past and step up where we were needed.
The events between the assaults and when I finally left the second combat communications squadron in 2005 were all unforeseen events but looking back on it, I can see why I not only became stuck in fight or flight but it was made worse over the years because of the unfortunate set of circumstances surrounding my case, my dad, and 9/11. Nobody talked about Post Traumatic Stress from combat let alone PTS from a sexual assault perpetrated by someone you were ordered to trust. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. The loss of my father and the high ops tempo overshadowed the assaults and it got buried right where I wanted it to be, never to be spoken of again. I wanted to achieve my goals (and I did) not be judged for those experiences. I did everything I could to get back on a deployable status including ending treatment early because my security clearance was threatened if I stayed in grief counseling for too long. My squadron was four hours away from home so it made it nearly impossible to get the proper treatment from my local civilian providers (I stayed in the barracks). I paid out of pocket for services because I didn’t have health insurance in temporary technician status or on active duty orders. I could go to the Coast Guard medical clinic on base while on active duty orders but they did not provide mental health services. I met with the military Chaplains regularly.
The sexual assaults that occurred within the first two years of my life had a direct impact on the series of events that would unfold in my career. It followed me from squadron to squadron and became something inescapable. It was a cancer I couldn’t cure. I was a troublemaker now. And trying to prove myself and fighting back against the stigmas along the way became too tiring and was making me sicker. It helped cement the original traumatic events by compounding them with shaming. I was guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and reporting those crimes. I agree that PTSD should be renamed to Post Traumatic Stress because it isn’t a mental illness that can be easily treated with medication management. PTS is a physiological response that develops within the brain and body’s nervous system as a result of psychological shock (trauma) and manifests itself mostly in the form of depression, anxiety, and mood swings but there are other symptoms as well like an exaggerated fear response and hyper-vigilance. All these symptoms effect our mental and emotional well-being. When I am not activated, my brain feels like mush because activation floods the brain with fear, adrenaline and panic with no warning. It’s exhausting.
I often reflect on how two years of prolonged abuse in the early stages of my career could have such lasting impacts on my mental health. I have a severe form of compounded or complex Post Traumatic Stress and I spend most of my days managing the symptoms so that I can have as normal life as possible. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around how this could have happened and I often wonder if I could have prevented it or mitigated its impact on me. The only thing I could have done to prevent these acts from happening was go Absent Without Leave, which is not a good option if you want to have a future. I no longer fight that I have PTSD, instead I regularly evaluate how the diagnosis manifests itself in my body and how it negatively impacts my life so I can find workarounds. I have come to realize that due to the unexpected series of events that occurred while serving in the military, it was an overall set of circumstances that lead to a life long struggle with what feels like riding an emotional rollercoaster they call a disability. I have concluded that my body was stuck in fight or flight for too long and caused significant damage.
It’s important to note that if you experience trauma during your lifetime, professionals recommend that you get help immediately to help you make sense of the event and learn new coping mechanisms. It is the best course of action if you want to prevent PTSD symptoms from becoming a lifelong disabling condition. Although when you are serving in the military getting treatment is not always accessible or good for the future of your career. I learned this lesson the hard way when I finally broke down and sought treatment for PTSD at the Department of Veteran Affairs roughly ten years after the first assault occurred. Getting help for the symptoms of PTSD first impacted my full-time military employment, then my deployability status, then my security clearance (PTSD from military sexual assault was not exempt), and like I was afraid of, finally ended my career. We have heard time and time again from other military members and veterans that they did not seek help for fear of the same. Some of us wanted to protect a valued career and wage; others wanted to protect their families financial security too. We’ve also heard soldiers feel stigmatized by leadership and peers after seeking help while serving. The latest military reports claim that roughly one active duty soldier commits suicide per day. (For updated information about security clearances, please read Changes to Security Clearance Mental Health Question.)
Question 21 on the Security Clearance:
In the last 7 years, have you consulted with a health care professional regarding an emotional or mental health condition or were you hospitalized for such a condition?
Answer “No” if the counseling was for any of the following reasons and was not court-ordered:
1) strictly marital, family, grief not related to violence by you; or
2) strictly related to adjustments from service in a military combat environment.
Once you develop complex PTS, it doesn’t take much to activate that fear response after your body has been stuck in a state of fight or flight for a long period of time. Hence the reason it is important to get treatment early so that you can learn coping mechanisms to mitigate the intensity of the fear response. Treatment can rewire your brain to see things differently. It might feel like you can’t control it but once you recognize what is happening with your body, you can accept it, and use varying healing modalities to manage it and its impact on your life. Mindfulness and regular self-assessment are key to managing PTS. But the best cure for PTS is to prevent the traumatic event from occurring in the first place (like in the case of crime) and treat it immediately to prevent a lifelong disabling condition. If I had a choice to quit my job after I realized what was happening, I would have done that. But I shouldn’t have to leave a career I love; those who break the law should. Three of the four people I reported had a history of assaulting others yet were never held accountable. There was nothing I could do to prevent the crimes and the Post Traumatic Stress because all I did was show up to work.
PTSD Basics: Understanding PTSD
My Body was Stuck in Fight or Flight
PTSD and the Brain
Mental Health Stigma in the Military
In Defense of the Security Clearance
Changes to the Security Clearance Mental Health Question
Active-Duty Suicides Up; Reserve Suicides Down in 2014
Supporting Readiness: Ensuring Excellent PTSD and Depression Care for Service Members