My heart was racing. I felt the sweat starting to make its way down my face as I attempted to disguise my anxiety about reading the first time I encountered an IED from my tours in Iraq. I stood at the podium, with the eyes of the class and a professor locked in on my position. I felt as if I was alone on a big stage with nothing but a spotlight shining on me. Line by line, I told them about the moment of silence that came before the explosion on a fall night in the northern part of the Al-Anbar province. During a night convoy, we were headed back to Al Asad Air base when our convoy had split due to one of the trucks making a wrong turn. I couldn't radio ahead to the convoy commander due to the radio not working.
Just when my truck and four others passed through a village, a deafening silence came over me followed by an IED that brightened the night sky. I went on to tell about the multiple explosions afterward, followed by sporadic green and red traces and how I stepped on the gas as hard as I could hoping to push through to our rendezvous point a couple kilometers outside of the village. I told what happened when I jumped out of my truck at the rendezvous point, filled with tears of pain throwing my helmet against the wheels hoping it would shatter while shouting a mass amount of obscenities to God above.
After I finished reading, I looked at my classmates who had looks ranging from shock to blank. It looked like they were trying to process how a 26-year-old Iraq War veteran had somehow disguised himself as part of the student body. There was a period of silence, similar to the one I experienced the night before the IED, only this time an IED wasn't waiting. Rather, it was the news that I had revealed I had been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress. I tried to hold back the tears that wanted to run down my face while I stood up in front of the class but I couldn't. It was too much to hold back a secret I had been so uncomfortable sharing.
In the school's student body, I was one of only five veterans that had served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I'm pretty positive I was the only one to talk about my experiences and 100 percent sure I was the only one to reveal my mental health diagnosis. Why I chose to share it with 30 people that day is something I often think about. What made a class of 18-, 19-year-old kids more special or any different than those who had known me my whole life?
To tell the truth, it was because I was writing my stories and wanted unbiased feedback. My family would have told me how great my writing was while showing signs of empathy towards me. I didn't want that. I wanted people to share their thoughts on Iraq with me so I could tell them that everything they had heard about veterans and the stigmas surrounding Post-Traumatic Stress wasn't true. I stood in front of my fellow students to show that not all veterans are of a fragile mind after war. Some of us, if not most of us, have actually grown more resilient and ambitious because of our experiences.
When the period bell rang, my fellow students gave me the same look that I usually encountered when people found out I served in Iraq. It's the look that says it all, a look ranging from genuine wonderment to morbid curiosity. It's the look of wondering how my reaction would be when they asked about getting shot at or what was it like to fire your weapon. It's the look of wondering if I would fly into a rage if they asked me about the war. It's the look of not asking me anything because they believe what was being said about veterans as "a bomb waiting to explode" is the truth.
Today, I get that look more than I should. Post-Traumatic Stress and veterans is still being told as two halves of a dangerous cocktail that could be the next great medical crisis in America. Despite movies like American Sniper and veteran authors showing a more realistic, more emotional side to mental health, the narrative around veterans is not telling the real truth. The worst thing we can do as Americans is to believe that veterans with mental health challenges are victims and as a country, we need to be better than that.
If there is one thing I wanted those students to understand that day, it's this: Post Traumatic Stress is not a complete burden. In fact, having Post-Traumatic Stress has given me a deeper, greater insight into who I am. I am more aware and focused on my well-being than ever before. I am more grateful for the things I have and strive for the things I want. There are times where it gets tough but nothing different than the average bad day we all have. And there are times where I wake up not feeling compelled to do anything but I know that I have to push through. It is a constant challenge but it's one I am always willing to take head on.
I know there are people out there who do not want to believe my days are just like theirs. I know there are some that still see Post-Traumatic Stress as it was during the Vietnam era; misunderstood, mistreated and a burden to the country. Post-Traumatic Stress is something serious when left untreated. Rather than quickly labeling those who have Post-Traumatic Stress, we should make an effort to understand what it is. It doesn't just stem from serving in combat. It can stem from horrific bouts of domestic abuse, car accidents, and even watching something terrifying.
Chances are that there is someone we work with, we love, and we call a friend who has Post-Traumatic Stress. At times, it's hard to ask them to share their stories and experiences of living with Post-Traumatic Stress daily. But just like I did with my former peers in 2009, it is necessary for us to listen and understand those who live with it. It's the only way that it can be destigmatized. It is my hope that the more we share, the more it will help us learn about those who live with mental health stigmas. Maybe one of them will be ready to stand up in front of a class of 30 others and tell their story.