Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Beginning...

In August of 2002 I joined the Army.  I was sent to my permanent duty station at Ft. Carson, CO in December of the same year.  I was assigned to Howitzer Battery 2/3 ACR, and quickly found out that we would be deploying to Iraq.  In March 2003 we were boots on ground, headed north to Fallujah.  We spent most of this deployment in Fallujah and Ramadi.  Within the first few weeks of being there, we found out just how dangerous life in Iraq would be.

I never really considered that I might have PTSD.  One night while staying with a girl friend, I had a flashback in the middle of the night.  She tried to shake me, thinking she was helping me, trying to get me back to reality.  I attacked her, and hurt her badly.  I woke up the next morning, and she was not there.  I called her, thinking she had left early for work, but she answered the phone in tears.  I asked her what was wrong, and she had told me what happened.  I had no memory of this, and was shocked.  She told me she didn't know what was wrong with me, but told me to go get some help.

I went to work that day and told my Chief what she had told me.  They sent me to the Squadron Chaplin that morning.  PTSD wasn't really on anyone's radar at this point and he referred me to the Family Readiness Group.  I met with the Chaplin there a few times, but training and news of the next deployment soon became much more important than going to see the Chaplin at the FRG.

We were deployed for the second time in March of 2005.  Originally we went to Baghdad, but were not there long.  We headed north to Tel Afaar, and spent the rest of the deployment there providing fire support, conducting raids, traffic control points, and escort missions.  By the middle of the deployment I was extremely stressed out and taking my anger out on my soldiers.

When we returned in February of 2006 it was quite clear that something was not right.  I began drinking much more heavily, was having frequent flashbacks, nightmares, I became very violent and experienced auditory hallucinations.  After a very unfortunate night in Boulder, CO where my friend thought that I was going to kill him and others around me, I felt empty.  I knew I couldn't go on like I was, and went to work the next Monday and talked to my Chief and First Sergeant about checking myself into the Army Substance Abuse Program.  PTSD was still not on my mind, even though it had become much more of an issue, and there was quite a bit more awarness concerning it.

While meeting with the various doctors and counselors in the ASAP, they diagnosed me with PTSD.  At this point, I had confined myself to my barracks room, and was unable to perform my job.  My weeks were spent filled with various appointments at the hospital on post, and I would only be able to tolerate being with the Battery for very short periods of time.  The psychiatrist that I was seeing suggested I go through a Medical Board and get out of the Army.  It wasn't long til my ETS, and I told him that I just wanted to finish my enlistment and get on with the rest of my life.

I was given the opportunity to go to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in San Diego, CA, and jumped at the chance.  While there I met a couple other soldiers that had PTSD, and we bonded quickly.  One afternoon, I threatened to kill a man and had a severe anxiety attack, and they sent me to Point Loma Naval Hospital for about 10 days.  It was an eye opening event for me.  The doctors that I met with really pushed me to go along with the Med Board.

I was unable to go through the ACAP process by myself, and relied heavily on Dennis McCormack, the Wounded Warrior advocate for Ft. Carson.  My parents had to come out and help me go to my appointments, I could only go to a couple a day before my anxiety reached the breaking point.

Since getting out of the military, I have had my ups and downs.  I stopped going to my recovery meetings, except for a meeting on Sunday.  I only leave my house 3 times a week to go to the Vet Center for individual and group counseling, and to my meeting on Sunday.  My anxiety has gotten to a point where I do not feel safe anywhere, around anyone.  I'm always waiting for the mortars to land, the IED to go off, the car bomb to explode.

I was hospitalized again in December of 2009, and it may have been the best thing that has ever happened to me.  My parents received a Wounded Warrior newsletter and on the cover was an article about a soldier who had a service dog to help with his PTSD.  My parents approached me while I was in the hospital to see if I was interested in getting one.

When I got out of the VA, we started doing some research and came across paws4vets.  My parents are incredible people, and my Mother has to do all of my paperwork, and spends countless hours on the phone advocating for me and initiated the contact with the folks at paws4vets.  We were all quickly blown away by the commitment of the paws4people staff.

The home visit was difficult for me.  I met Terry, Kyria, Kristen, and Jeff for the first time, I'm not even sure if I had spoken on the phone to any of them at this point.  We met downstairs, which is hard for me because I spend all of my time up in my room except to eat dinner with my parents.  I was VERY anxious, but was honest and upfront with them.  I told them what my life was like, why I wanted the dog, and how I thought the dog would help me.  We met for a little over 2 hours, and I was totally spent by the end of the meeting.

The next day I called Terry and told him that I wanted to pursue this, and that I would do whatever it took.  We talked about doing the bump at the beginning of March and I confirmed with him that I would go to Ft. Stewart on March 15 to meet with soldiers in the Wounded Warrior Battalion.  The wheels were turning.

We left for West Virginia on Tuesday and I drove the first tank of gas.  Driving has always been difficult for me, my heart was pounding, I thought I was going to crack.  I do not like cars approaching me from behind, or from the front, and being behind the wheel on a highway for 3 hours was pushing me to my limit.  But, I did it.  This was the longest I had been in a vehicle since driving back from Colorado with my Dad.

We got to the hotel, and Terry and Karen wanted to meet us for dinner.  I had not been to a restaurant for about 2 years, and was incredibly nervous.  My Dad asked if I wanted to stay at the hotel, but I told him that this was something that I needed to do.  We went to Applebee's and Terry and Karen were already sitting in a corner table with Sally, Buf's dog.  I was shaking, and my head was on a swivel.  We talked about the bump that would be happening on Wednesday, Terry and Karen told us more about the organization, and the training process.  This was one of the hardest things I have done, but I did it.

We met the next morning at another restaurant for breakfast.  Two restaurants in two days, not too bad.  We headed to the prison after we ate, and ended up in the gym with about 20 of the trainers and staff.  They were all sitting in a semi-circle around Terry, Karen, my parents, and myself.  We were in the middle of the gym, and I felt exposed.  I was very anxious, I was shaking, and one by one the trainers went around and introduced themselves, and told us what the program meant to them.  When they were done, my Mom spoke briefly, and I spoke.  I gave them a little background on my PTSD, and talked about what I wanted the dog to help me with.  I had to go to the bathroom after this to calm down, but I did it.

We went to do the bump, it was a room that they had separated with myself, Terry, and Karen on one side.  The trainers, dogs, my parents, and Allison were on the other side.  The three of us sat on the ground and the first dog came in.  It didn't want anything to do with me!  It cried the whole time!  I was really discouraged.  The possibility of all of the dogs behaving like this ran through my mind, and I thought what if I came all the way up here for nothing.  The first dog left, and the second came in.  Wow, what a difference.  This dog came to me, let me pet her, let me talk to her, she licked me, and even obeyed some of the commands I gave her.  Things were definitely turning up.  They brought the third dog in, and immediately he came to me and put one of his paws on my leg, but only for about 5 seconds.  He tucked his tail between his legs and backed away from me.  I called him, and he acted like he wanted to initiate contact, he sniffed me from a distance, but just wouldn't come very close to me.  They took him out and brought the second dog back in.  Again, it was great.  She even laid down in front of me, rolled over on her back, and let me rub her belly.  She totally relaxed around me, and I was really relieved.  They brought the third dog back in, and again he acted like he wanted come close, but was very wary of me.

They took the dog away, and I had brief conversation with Terry and Karen about how I thought it went.  We talked about what I wanted the dogs to be able to do for me.  Earlier when we did the introductions with the trainers, they had SALLY do "pay attention."  When someone approached her trainer SALLY would nudge her with her nose.  I thought this was awesome.  SALLY would also bark when someone reached out to touch her trainer, I loved that too.  I explained that I didn't want my dog to bark in public, but would love it if the dog would alert me by a nudge when someone was reaching out to me.  I have a lot of nightmares, but due to the medication I am currently on, I don't remember my dreams.  I often wake up wet with sweat, pillows all over the room, and sheets ripped up from the bed.  Terry suggested that I video tape myself while I sleep so they can observe me when I have a nightmare.  I already feel like people are watching me, and did not want the added anxiety of having a camera in my room.  Due to my history of violence, we discussed having the dog just move off of the bed when I was showing signs of having a nightmare.  Terry and Karen told me that they wanted to tag me with the second and third dog, and train them for me, and in 2-3 months do another bump to determine which one would be best for me.

After we finished the bump, the third dog (OLIVER) stayed behind with his trainer while everyone talked about what had gone on.  OLIVER seemed much more interested in me, he let me touch him, and even obeyed some commands that I gave him.  I think that the food I gave him might have helped, but regardless, it was a very positive interaction with him.  I was stretched to my limit at that time and started getting a migraine.  We left to go to our vehicles, and I had to give myself a shot before I left for my migraine, but I did it.

I had pushed myself further than I had in almost 2 1/2 years.  I have a very difficult time seeing the positives in anything that I do.  Terry, Karen, and Allison all told me that they really appreciated me for pushing through this.  I just looked at how hard it was, how stressed out I was, and didn't even consider the fact that I had gone above and beyond anything that I had done up to that point.

On the way home, we stopped at a Chik-Fil-A to eat.  I thought, great we can sit in the car and eat.  Nope, my parents wanted to stretch their legs and go inside.  The place was crawling with people, and kids!  I have a very difficult time being around children, and have avoided all family functions because of it.  I have an 18 month old cousin that I have never seen.  Kids were screaming and yelling, which is a HUGE trigger for me, and I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there.  I sat with my parents and we finished dinner, and as hard as it was, I did it.

When we got home that night, another migraine had started.  I took another shot and called my sponsor and told him everything that had happened.  He is a Vietnam vet who has had cancer caused by Agent Orange, and also suffers from PTSD.  We talked for a long time, and I finally started to relax.

Every Thursday for the last 12 weeks I have been attending a group at the Vet Center.  There are 2 other Iraq vets, and 6 or 7 Vietnam Vets.  I have been talking to them weekly about getting a dog, and told everyone about the last 2 days.  One of the Iraqi vets came to me after the group and told me that he wanted to get a service dog.  On the way home from group there was a van on the side of the highway that was on fire.  All I could think about was the car bomb in Tel Afaar.  It sucked.

On March 15, I go to Ft. Stewart.  It will be my first time on an Army post since Ft. Carson.  I am really anxious, nervous, and don't really want to go.  I am going to go though.  I am going to push myself, because I want this dog.  I can't begin to describe how amazing all of the people that I have met are.  Every single person in this organization goes so far above and beyond.  My journey with this has been brief, but it has been amazing.