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A Veteran’s Story, told on Veteran’s Day before a large audience.

by Casey Stephens | December 17th, 2018

First and foremost, thank you for this opportunity. I am here today to tell you my story.

In early Spring of 2005, I was enrolled in college of the Redwoods in the automotive program. I was struggling with things personally in my life. My grandmother had just passed and I had been trying to cope with her death by drinking all the time. Had a girlfriend and a year earlier my first child was born. But my life was in shambles. I was in my early 20’s and had no real direction in my life at that time.

I remember going to class one day and reading the paper. On the front page was a report of what was happening overseas with the military and our fight with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Being utterly disgusted with what was happening to our country, I decided that I was going to make a change. I went down to the local recruiting station and talked to the Army recruiter. (Now, I’m sure you’re all thinking: why the Army? Well, in my family our Army lineage runs deep. In fact, it runs several generations back to the Revolutionary War.) So, I met with an Army recruiter at my local recruiting station. Now look at me; I’m a big guy. So, what do you think the first thing is that this ARMY recruiter told me? Yep, you’re right. He told me that I needed to drop weight. So, we came up with a weight loss plan and I began running and conditioning before my ship date of July 14, 2005. I also knew that I had to get my current girlfriend on board, as we did have a child together, and I wanted to make sure that my family could remain intact and with me throughout. That meant that we needed to get married. My recruiter once again came to my rescue and spoke with my girlfriend, and we agreed to marry so that she and my daughter could travel with me to my duty station when I was done with basic training and my MOS school. The week before my ship date, my girlfriend and I were married and I shipped to boot camp in South Carolina on July 14, 2005. As I climbed on the plane to Fresno, to Georgia, to South Carolina and was picked up from South Carolina airport by bus and taken to Fort Jackson Recruit Training Facility in South Carolina, I thought to myself, “I can do this!” I was excited about where my next step in life would take me, and I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be a lifer in the Army.

I was in boot camp for 9 weeks, when I graduated and moved on to my AIT school as an All Wheel Vehicle Mechanic (Fitting, right?). Upon completing my AIT school I was sent to 555th combat engineers in Fort Lewis, a joint base with Fort McCord in Tacoma, Washington, in late 2005. In late summer 2006 my unit was sent to the Wapakoneta Fires (the Army called this fire the Tripod Complex, the Tattoosh complex and Cedar Creek Fire). Our unit was deployed from August 10th, 2006 to September 3rd, 2006. During this time, I was utilized as a chainsaw operator in a firefighting group. Also at this time, I decided that I would re-enlist and pick up a new duty station. In December 2007, I was then transferred to 426 BSB First Brigade Combat Team, Fort Campbell Kentucky. For those of you that may not know, this is the home of the 101st Screaming Eagles Air Assault Team. I was now a Screaming Eagle.

When I arrived at Fort Campbell, I was given just enough time to get my family settled, get training, get a medical clearance, activate my overseas/combat pay, and within two weeks I was shipped with my air assault unit to Iraq. By this time I was a Sergeant in my unit—and away from my family. I worked in the motor pool for four months before my unit asked me to take on the NCOIC, which required me to travel outside of the wire as the lead wrecker operator in supply formation to different joint bases within our surrounding areas.

Before I left for Iraq my wife was expecting our second child. In March 2008, I was paid a visit from our command to inform me that my child had been born. It was another little girl. At this time my command was not allowing me to leave country to go home to see my newborn daughter. Days later our base was paid a visit from General Petraeus. My unit command spoke with General Petraeus, who then gave me four days to travel out of country to see my newborn daughter. Not nearly enough time. Within days I was back in country. August 2008 my unit was setting up for an operation outside of the wire. We were to take a supply run to a neighboring base. This convoy consisted of approximately 10-15 trucks. We were traveling on route Irish (code name for the main road). My wrecker was near the back of the convoy. All of a sudden our communications when went down and we were forced to navigate by good old map. I turned around in my seat to help Specialist Robertson look for the map of the area. This meant that there were not enough eyes on the road looking for IED’s or insurgents. Our wrecker driver hit an IED on the right side of our wrecker. I remember the driver screaming “oh, crap” and then white. My wrecker was tumbling through the air like a bouncy ball being kicked by a two-year-old. When our wrecker came to rest I remember hearing Specialist Robertson yelling “door all clear”. I quickly got to my feet dazed and unaware that I was injured at this time. We cleared the area and checked to make sure that everyone was out of the wrecker and medically evaluated the situation. After what we thought was an all-clear we tossed our incendiary grenade into our totaled wrecker and were picked up by our gun team. When we returned to our base, I was informed that I had taken shrapnel to the back lower side of my neck and face just below my helmet and to the right side of my lower jaw. I stayed in the casualty assessment center where the medical team patched me up as best they could and I was then medevacked to Bolide, where I was sent to shut off my combat pay and then air-lifted to Landstuhl, the Wounded Warrior Center in Germany.

Once in the medical hospital in Germany, the wounds to the back of my head and face where debrided and I was patched up again. Wounded Warrior program gave me a phone to call home and let my family know that I was ok, and a change of clothes. I was in Germany for about a week and a half where I had daily wound bandage changes. I had excruciating pain and weeping sores from my wounds. These wounds were then tested for infection. It was discovered that I had a very severe case of MERSA. It was then determined by my doctors in Germany that I needed to get stateside to get proper medical treatment. I was then flown stateside to Walter Reed Medical Center. There I was evaluated by dermatology so that I could be placed on an antibiotic medication regimen to help suppress the MERSA symptoms. We soon discovered that this treatment was not working, and I was sent back to my unit at Fort Campbell to see more doctors, who then placed me on a Vancomycin picc-line (for intravenous, continuous drip of the antibiotic). During this time of seeing doctor after doctor, I noticed that I was having some numbness, with excruciating and debilitating migraines in the back of my head. Dermatology at Fort Campbell then sent me to a nerve specialist to determine the extent of the damage to the back of my head. Not only was I seen by a military doctor but also by a civilian doctor. After extensive testing, it was determined that some neurons had been severed due to my being hit by shrapnel. The Army called these “complicated headaches.” These ‘headaches’ were usually triggered by putting heavy weighted objects like a Kevlar combat helmet on my head, which caused excruciating pressure. The Army determined that this made me unfit for combat duty. I begged my command to let me go back to Iraq. This unfortunately was not the view of the Army. The Army determined that because I was not fit for duty, I was to be medically retired at 30% as a Sergeant, and my world fell apart.

When I came back stateside, my wife had left me, had filed for divorce and had taken my children, and our house had been cleared out on base. The Army had medically retired me, and I could not keep a job to save my life. I was angry and mad at the whole world.

In mid-2010 I was working for Findley, Ohio schools as a janitor. My rage and anger were getting the best of me, although I tried so hard to hide it so that I could be what everyone else thought was normal. I was feeling hopeless about where my future was going to take me and was at the lowest point in my life.

Findley was a small town in Ohio, so to travel to the VA to get assistance was an all-day trip. I wanted to believe that I didn’t have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the service as a solider if you said that you thought you had PTSD or even claimed PTSD, it was considered a “cop-out”. I wasn’t a “cop-out”. I wanted more than anything to remain in the Army. To be a Lifer.

Well, my rage and anger did get the best of me. In mid-2010, I got into trouble for beating a man’s motorcycle with a bat. I was tazed and cuffed. Taken to the local hospital, treated for the injury, and released. I had to go to court, pay restitution for the damage done and was given 100 hours of community service. This is the time that I realized that I needed to get a grip on my life. I had no family in Ohio. I didn’t want to reach out to my mother as she might have seen me, her son as a failure, and none of my so-called friends were willing to hang out with me due to my anger and rage issues.

I drove myself to the main medical center in Dayton, Ohio and checked myself into a place known as ‘Seven South”, a locked mental health facility. There I was given just a book, my house robe and slippers. I spent the next seven days either reading in a corner or watching heavily medicated service members walk about. I was seen by a mental health provider and prescribed medication for my anger and rage. After seven days I was discharged and told to follow up with mental health in the closest VA Clinic. Most days these medications made me dazed and mentally confused to the point of complete blackout. I knew that I needed to get away from Findley, Ohio, so I drove to my dad’s house in Alexandria, Kentucky. I guess I thought that if one person could understand me it would be my father, who was also a military man himself.

Was my father understanding? Sure, to a point. My dad had served during Vietnam. No, he wasn’t a combat soldier, but again I thought that if there was one person that would understand, it would be him. My father’s solution for this? Help him work on his project cars. This got tiring after a while and my father thought that it was time that I get back to work. He found me a job at the local tire shop of one of his friends. At first, I enjoyed the tire shop work, but before I knew it, I was back to having those feelings of hopelessness, anger and rage. I thought to myself, “where do I go next, what do I do now?” I didn’t want to go back to “Seven South,” and the meds that the mental health doctors had given me were doing me no good. I was having lapses in memory and the migraines where getting even worse. I needed to get back to California, back home to where I knew people, where I could get more help.

In December of 2011, I reached out to an old junior high school friend. We talked on the phone for hours at a time and I began to feel comfortable about my decision to go back to California. Back home to Humboldt County. This friend of mine had also been in the service and had a great understanding of what I was going through.

In late January 2012 I made the decision to return to California. My friend had flown half way across the United States to help me pack my belongings from my dad’s house and in the dead of winter we drove cross country with what I had left of my belongings in a small U-haul trailer that I pulled behind my truck. We had made it cross country in a matter of a day and a half of driving. Finally, I was home. You all might be asking yourselves, “What does his story have to do with Families and PTSD?” Well, I’m about to tell you.

When I arrived home, I moved in with the person that I traveled cross country with. This person today is now my wife. We were married in 2014. I must tell you; our lives have not come without trials and tribulations from my PTSD. When I first came back home I made every effort once again to hold down a steady job. To no avail; I went from job to job to job over a 2-year period. This put a strain on our relationship and our family, to say the least. My wife encouraged me to seek mental health services at the local VA. I really wasn’t ready to face again what a mental health provider had to tell me about myself.

In early 2012 I was again not gainfully employed. I was home by myself all day while my wife would go to work. My wife and I had had a little spat one morning as many married couples do. I am not even sure what it was about. This little spat in my mind was huge. It sent me into a downward spiral, according to my wife—because I don’t remember any of this part. After the little spat, my wife called to check in on me. I did not answer my phone. So, concerned person that she was, she drove home to check in on me. I had left my companion animal at home, even though I never went anywhere without him; our apartment was left open, and my truck and keys were left as well. I had vanished. For four hours I was unreachable. Around 3:30 pm that day I wandered into my mother-in law’s office at the apartment building that she worked in—the same complex that we lived in. My mother-in-law immediately called my wife. According to my wife, I was shaking and drenched in sweat. I kept telling her that I needed to go back and get my unit. “I have to get them,’’ I told her. My mother-in-law told my wife that she needed to take me to Simple Viernes. To much of my mother-in-law’s surprise, my wife stated firmly, “That’s a place that he does not need to be right now.” My wife picked me up, shuffled me back home and began the process of rehydrating me and bringing my body temp down. I don’t remember much of that day, other than the fact that at one point I remember being over on the railroad track next to PG&E in Eureka. I lived clear in the middle of town. My body was so exhausted that I slept the rest of that day.

The next morning, with much encouragement from my loving and understanding wife, I reported to the newly opened Eureka VA Clinic. There I met a counselor many may know. Doug Rose-Noble. Doug encouraged me to reach for what was triggering these “episodes” that I was having. I underwent several months of intense therapy called “CBT” or Cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT focuses on challenging and changing unhelpful cognitive distortions (e.g. thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes) and behaviors, improving emotional regulation, and the development of personal coping strategies that target solving current problems. Originally, it was designed to treat depression, but its use has been expanded to include treatment of many mental health conditions, including anxiety. After many, many sessions once a week for nearly a year, Doug suggested that I try “EMDR”, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR focuses on addressing painful, frightening, or traumatic memories that might be the underlying cause of certain psychological issues and is most commonly used to help people who have PTSD. For my EMDR treatment I was then sent to the Eureka Vet Center where I then met a counselor by the name of Joe Ramsik Harris, who specialized in EMDR. This treatment was working for me in so many ways and I was having a positive response.

Now here is the crusher, two months into my intense treatment at the Vet Center my counselor left the area due to family medical issues. This had a very significant effect on me and once again caused me to have a lapse in my treatment. After searching out many ideas with my wife we had finally decided that we would try EMDR again. The VA hooked me up with a provider through the Veterans Choice Program. This is where I had met my current mental health provider Jennifer Brown.

Jennifer saw me and we decided on a treatment plan that was best suited for me. This meant that we would NOT be going back to EMDR but trying something called Neurotherapy. Neurotherapy, also called neurofeedback (NFB), EEG biofeedback, or brainwave training is a type of alternative therapy, more specifically a type of biofeedback that uses real-time displays of electroencephalography (EEG) to illustrate brain activity. States of neurophysiological over-arousal or under-arousal can contribute to why a client may be manifesting symptoms of anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit disorder (ADD), and a variety of other stressful conditions. Once initial information has been gathered, neurofeedback can be used to train the brain to operate more efficiently by providing visual and auditory feedback to the client as their brain wave patterns improve and self-regulation occurs. Now, I know what you all are thinking. This is some Men-In-Black stuff right? Well, you’re half right.

But here’s how I benefited from the training: Anger has reduced from being a problem in daily life to no longer being an issue. Migraines have reduced to less than five a month. Before it was 4-5 a week. Sleep has improved, and I can now fall asleep more easily. There are fewer nightmares, and anxiety has come down from a 10 to a 5 on a 0-10 scale. Relationships have dramatically improved within the family. I’m no longer treating my teenage daughter like a fellow soldier. I am now able to enjoy life with my wife and children. Before, all that was much more strained.

In the most recent years of my life, my wife and I have become foster parents and adoptive parents. I have become the husband and father that I want and need to be for my family. I work with Veteran Organizations and am a more productive participant in my health care and in my life. I can’t say that this doesn’t come without its challenges. Have I been questioned as a person? Yes! Do I still struggle with my symptoms of PTSD and anxiety? Yes! I still can’t drive over things in the road. I still can’t do large groups or even fireworks. Even now I sit with my back to the wall so that I can observe all points of exit and entrance. These are things that I am sure will come but know this, I would not be the man that I am today if I did not have the support and love of my wife and my children and family. It has been a struggle to understand what PTSD is and can do to a person.

I used to think to myself, “my wife and kids don’t need me, or they would be better off without me.” These were cries for help that I would not have been able to see or understand if it were not for my family.

You cannot cure someone you love of PTSD.

Maintaining a healthy marriage can be a challenge even on the good days. My wife trying to keep it together while her spouse is battling PTSD is an even greater challenge. Realizing that PTSD affects you, as well, and that your loved one needs your help to get through the recovery is a good first step, once you are committed to facing PTSD together.

I don’t want PTSD to be a stigma, and surely I don’t want to be a statistic either. I can’t compare what I have been through to the experience of others, but knowing what PTSD is and its effects are my reality.

As I contemplated giving this talk my wife asked me, “What do you want your legacy to be for our children?” I thought for a moment and said, “this is what I want my legacy to be for my children. I want them to know that when you give someone a title or a diagnosis, we should not let that define who they are as a person; and that helping others overcome their boundaries only makes them a better person.”

From the world wars of Europe to the jungles of the Far East, from the deserts of the Middle East to the African continent, and even here in our own hemisphere, our veterans have made the world a better place and America the great country we are today. Thank you for having me today.

Edited by Siegfried Othmer

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