One of side effects of PTSD that frustrated me as a combat veteran is the rage that is always bubbling just below the surface. Like the improvised explosive devices that we dealt with in Iraq and Afghanistan on a daily basis, I feel like I am ready to explode at any moment. It is not a rage in which I am going to kill someone. No, that old myth that veterans cannot have weapons because we might lose all control is tiresome. Nonetheless, it is a rage that is always there, even when I am enjoying myself and having a “good” day. If something does not go according to plan, my response is to become extremely angry. It is as if a switch goes off inside my brain. This has had heartbreaking consequences for my family as they are around me most. They have to witness, up close and personal, how I transform from a fun loving husband/father to an angry asshole who yells for no apparent reason. Hopefully, they will never have to learn why we act like we do, and by this I mean they will never have to experience what we experienced. I will say that it is important to explain what is going on. Explain it in an age appropriate manner so that they understand they are not the problem. That is extremely important.
We get this way because we know too many truths. We remember joking in our vehicles with each other, discussing who was hotter (Megan Fox or Jennifer Lawrence) when the vehicle in front of us disappeared in a cloud of smoke, our teeth rattling from the percussion of a 200 pound IED. Immediately, we would become gravely serious as we get out of the relative safety of our vehicles. With bits of Earth, vehicle, and sometimes our brothers still raining down all around us we ran to help in any way we can. We always fear what we would find in that short sprint to the destroyed vehicle. Are my brothers, at least, alive? Will anyone be torn apart? Who was in that vehicle? Was it my best friend? Did I check their medical pouches for tourniquets lately? Am I doing the right thing right now? Did I miss that wire? In half a second, these questions and a dozen more race through your mind. When you get to the scene, sometimes you are lucky and see a bunch of concussed guys with blown eardrums. Even though their brains are rattled, they are otherwise alright. This Is the best case scenario. Other times you may be confronted by a scene too horrible to put into words because you don’t want to describe what your buddy’s chest cavity looks like. Regardless, these are the images that will haunt you at every moment of the day. It is why you turn to anger in a split second when one of your children are not listening. If a soldier did not listen it means they or others could be injured or end up dead. You know truths of the real world as it was since Cain killed Abel. You know that one wrong move, even with innocent intentions, can result in carnage on a level that is incomprehensible to most.
So you harness all of that emotion and turn it to pure anger for numerous reasons. One, it is really the only socially acceptable emotion that you can display in professions like the infantry. Another is that it is an emotion that you can use with success. Crying in front of your men does not exactly instill confidence. Neither does showing fear. While both of these are perfectly normal emotions, good luck leading men as a crying, sobbing NCO. Humor is another way that we hide our emotions. In the infantry you will see both anger and humor- dark humor mostly. Laughing about a man you just killed whose body exploded and was on fire five feet in the air is not exactly normal. Neither is stacking bodies of dead Afghans who were killed by an Apache. One was so young he had not yet grown hair underneath his arms. His head was shot clean off, and you could see down the jagged hole straight to his heart. I’ll always remember seeing the tufts of black hair from the torn and burnt bottom of the scalp, slightly upturned as if reaching for the rest of his head. We never found it. At the time, I laughed as I dragged his limp, lifeless body and threw it on the pile of others. Now, it is all I think about it when I see my sons, both around his age. The curse of the infantrymen, what you bottled during these times because you had no other choice to, will rise to the surface eventually. For me, it has gotten worse over the years.
PTSD takes many forms. It is different for some, but it will mainly appear as anger. That is the emotion we become used to. All the close calls you laughed about will resurface. Remember cringing ever so slightly, yet smiling still as the mortars came in? WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! Closer they came and all you could do was huddle next to your bed and hope that they do not get lucky. You will never feel so powerless as you do during your first mortar attack. All of this will later manifest itself as something else. That something else is a version of your old combat self. Kids or spouse did not put the toilet paper exactly in the spot they should have? Guy bumped into you at the bar by accident? Someone cut you off driving to work? Your boss said something you took as a snide remark? All of these will be reasons, or triggers, that make you become unreasonably angry. You feel it coming and there is little you think you can do to control it. It is that switch I mentioned earlier. You start yelling and screaming. You punch something, breaking it or your hand. Sometimes you’ll use alcohol as a crutch because it calms you down. In reality, it will make your anger harder to control. You may feel calmer, or you may simply not remember exactly how nasty you were to your wife the night before. You wake up the next morning and know it was a bad night by the way your wife looks at you. You ask yourself, why don’t they understand? Don’t they get that you are just trying to help them? Later, after you calm down, you feel bad because you overreacted. It is a vicious cycle. At the time, you could sense that to be the case, but that was a different you. It was another version of you from a different time and place. Though this old version has raised from the dead, you still feel as you once did when you were angry, frustrated, and terrified that you were pinned down and your friend was shot. During these times, you have no control of your emotions. Your body is in flight or fight mode, just as it was in that firefight, and you have no way of getting out of it.
The good news is that you can learn to redirect your emotions into something other than anger. I am still working on it with varying degrees of success. I have discussed shooting in recent blogs. Did you know that regular exercise really cuts down on anger. There is nothing like a good workout to get the anger out. Try Body by Waterman, but really put your energy into it like you used to when you wanted to prove yourself to your leadership. It will, in least, get you a nice dopamine high, as well as get you thinking clearly. I highly recommend buying a punching bag and learning some basic boxing techniques. What is interesting is you’ll notice you are fighting yourself when you go round after round with the heavy bag. You’ll feel great after. If you are working or out in a place where you are unable to start doing air squats then simply walk away. Remember that veterans are protected and have rights. If you feel you are being discriminated against, contact your H.R. department right away. You can do it because you almost died for your country. Never be afraid to tell people the truth. Vets are always so humble and that is great, but be proud of your accomplishments. Know what you identify as and let the world know. Knowing who you are will help reduce many PTSD symptoms. Most importantly, call a friend who you served with and talk to them. Tell them why you are angry. Ask if it is something that they struggle with as well. Most likely, you’ll both laugh at each other when you realize how trivial it really is, especially as you both remember when things were really tough.