Fighting the War at Home

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I didn’t realize how bad I was until one hot summer afternoon almost three years ago. I was driving to work on I-880 when traffic slowed to a crawl. “Damn,” I thought, “another long day at work ahead of me and I’m stuck in traffic.” As I moved forward, I could see a car, then a motorcycle on its side. About 200 feet away was a body covered by a yellow California Highway Patrol rain jacket. In the next lane was the motorcyclist’s bloody helmet.

At that moment, I felt something different. I felt emotion for the first time in years. My eyes began to swell up, and tears streamed down my face. At first, I wondered what was wrong with me. But it felt good. It felt like I was breaking free from my turmoil, free from my private war.

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Photo: Antonio Edward/Flickr/cc-by-nc-sa-2.0

Suddenly, there was clarity. I was able to step back and see what my family had seen for so long. I needed some help.

At my Vet Center, the staff told me what benefits I was eligible for and walked me through enrollment. They helped me with my job hunt. They gave me their personal phone numbers and told me to call if I needed anything.

And they got me the help I needed. A Vet Center counselor had me tested for traumatic brain injury and PTSD, and got me into group and individual therapy. It’s still a struggle, but I’m taking back control of my life and my feelings. Each day I’m one step closer.

It took me a long time to learn that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but an act of courage. Post-traumatic stress doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It’s a natural reaction to trauma. With help, you learn to understand it and how to cope with it.

Over the years, I have wondered about the thousands of other combat veterans who are fighting their own private wars. Do they understand what’s going on? Do they know what services are available to them? Do they know how to win their wars?

And I’ve wondered, does American society understand what these veterans bring home with them? Sometimes I’ve wondered how much society cares. I’ve heard the jokes. I’ve heard co-workers whisper about another vet, “he’s crazy.” This guy put his life on the line for his country. Where is the respect?

Thousands of U.S. military personnel suffer from PTSD. They live in our cities, in our towns, in our homes. It’s our duty to pick up our brothers and sisters and help them through these hard times. As a nation, we sent them to war. Now we have to help them find peace at home.

The author deployed to Afghanistan from January to September 2002 and to Iraq from March 2003 to March 2004. He is now studying sociology at a college in Northern California, and plans to pursue a career assisting fellow vets.

(Published February 21, 2010, on New America Media)