Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD), is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which physical or emotional harm was threatened. People with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to. They may experience sleep problems, feel detached or numb or excessively angry, or be easily startled. It is not uncommon for people suffering from PTSD to self-medicate with alcohol.
What follows is a statement read by one of our clients at sentencing. Many of those in the court room were literally in tears, including me. In this country I believe that we don’t give enough thanks and gratitude to our fighting men and women, and the struggles they have as a result of keeping us all safe. I can’t fully express how proud I am of this client for having the ability and the insight necessary to write this statement (I didn’t change a word other than to remove identifying information) and then being able to read it to the judge at sentencing.
When my National Guard unit was sent to Iraq in 2004, I had already served 21 years of military service without seeing combat, and had been involved in public safety for over 10 years. My deployment to Iraq exposed me to things that I previously found difficult to imagine, and that I now have difficulty reconciling. I tell you this not for sympathy, but rather to give you some insight into my experiences so you have as much information as possible to make your decision regarding my sentencing.
My deployment began at Abu Ghraib prison where I was stationed for over 2 months and ended at Camp Liberty a few miles west of Baghdad. I was a Team Leader in a Long Range Surveillance Unit which was responsible for perimeter and convoy security as well as other duties. We were subject to daily mortar attacks which were usually meant to harass. One day in April of 2004, insurgents slammed 12 mortar rounds into a fenced-in area which housed hundreds of prisoners; killing over 20, and injuring 80 more, some of which would die later. I was one of the soldiers who responded to this horrible scene to provide first aid to these mangled men. The things I saw that day will be with me for the rest of my life. We applied tourniquets to severed limbs, and pressure dressings to arterial bleeding, dressed men’s spilled intestines, covered the dead, and later searched for smaller body parts.
One of our other duties entailed providing security for Iraqi civilians who performed work in and around the prison for pay. We would often find these men dead and mutilated on the side of the road, or displayed on propaganda videos with signs around their necks stating, “This pig worked for the Americans.” There were near misses with Improvised explosive devices, mortars and rockets. Chaotic firefights with cratered roads and burning oil tankers where we fired at muzzle flashes coming from the reeds. There were patrols where sleep was not an option for 2-3 days because our lives depended on staying alert. My team consisted of 6 men, and that which we could carry, no vehicles, no heavy weapons, no immediate support; our lives literally depended on each other.
And then, it was time to come home. I considered myself fortunate because my wife was so supportive and positive, that I had little to worry about at home. Many men did not have that advantage. We were so happy to be back with our loved-ones that we put these things behind us, with the hope that we’d never have to experience them again. My unit is one of the few that went to Iraq, executed hundreds of high-risk missions, and then returned with everybody alive. It was quite an achievement, one we were all proud of. I had the added personal satisfaction of knowing that I performed my duty in a manner that left me nothing to be ashamed of. So, we picked up our lives, re-learned our jobs, and reacquainted ourselves with our families, friends, and co-workers. Life soon became normal again. It was one of these normal days at work when my mother called me and asked if I could check on my youngest brother. When I arrived, I found him hanging in the attic, he’d committed suicide. After the initial shock, I called 911, and busied myself consoling my mother and in making funeral arrangements. This too, I had to put behind me. But later came the questions of whether I could have said something, or if I shouldn’t have said something else that might have prevented this tragedy.
In September of 2007 I responded as a paramedic to a shooting where a subject was fatally shot three times after attempting to run down a police officer. The subject was a bloody mess and barely alive when we arrived. We worked on the patient, and rushed him to the hospital where he soon died. He was a middle-eastern male I later realized, and soon after this incident my horrors from Iraq began to visit me. They came slowly at first, in the form of thoughts and comparisons. Comparing the shooting victim to those poor souls I’d seen in Iraq. Later came intrusive thoughts, keeping me awake at night, thinking through entire situations or missions, picking apart every detail. Still later came nightmares, and visions my brother, waking with screams, or with my heart pounding so hard I could feel it in my ears. Re-living my most horrible moments again, and again.
Within 6 months I found myself drinking more alcohol on nights when I was home, just to get quickly to sleep. I’ve since learned this is called self-medicating, and is common for those experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a Firefighter/Paramedic I’ve been on numerous accidents, involving alcohol, at least one of these involved the death of the driver’s minor daughter, I remember doing CPR on her all the way to the hospital. For this reason it’s been my policy to not drink and drive. A policy I fell short of last Veteran’s Day.
In June of last year, a friend of mine was killed by ambush after volunteering to instruct police officers in Afghanistan. He was a police officer and a fellow team leader who served with me in Iraq. I attended his funeral, and couldn’t help thinking that he was my unit’s first casualty. The city he worked in was holding a Veteran’s Day memorial service for this fallen soldier, and it was my intention to attend and honor his memory. I still do not fully understand why, but I did everything I could, to avoid being at that ceremony. When the time had passed, a feeling of guilt overcame me, and I uncharacteristically stopped at a bar. I had three bottles of beer, and as I was leaving I thanked a Vietnam Veteran for his service and wished him a happy Veteran’s Day. We talked a bit, as I stood there and he asked me to sit as he began pouring me a beer from his pitcher. Probably 3 beers later, I left, and was soon arrested.
I am both ashamed, and thankful for the events of November 11, 2008: Ashamed that I endangered the lives of so many after I’d been drinking and ashamed that I had not honored the sacrifice of my friend. I feel thankful that I did not hurt anyone with my irresponsible actions, and also thankful that this incident forced me to recognize that I have a serious problem. Through substance abuse and PTSD counseling I realize that this is the first step to resolution.
Immediately following my arrest, I went to see a Substance abuse/Addiction specialist who prescribed anti-craving medication, and referred me to a substance abuse and addiction center where I have been regularly attending counseling related to substance abuse, and PTSD. I have attended numerous AA meetings, and found them initially stimulating, but less helpful than the individual counseling. Because of the PTSD issue I soon contacted the VA, and have also been attending weekly “readjustment counseling” on an individual and group basis. This counseling focuses on recognizing stressors early, and then learning various ways to minimize, or eliminate either the stressor, or my reaction to it. I have been alcohol free since my arrest, and am much better equipped to recognize, minimize and control my stressors, rather than allowing them to control me.
Your Honor, up until last Veteran’s day I’ve lived a life to be proud of. I’ve proudly served both my country and my community since I’ve been 19 years old, and wish to continue doing so for as long as I am physically able. I am extremely motivated to ensure something like this does not reoccur because I love my job, and would surely lose it if I were to repeat my actions. The positive and firm support of my wife, family, friends, and employer are a grateful blessing, and a powerful asset toward my readjustment.
I sincerely hope these thoughts have helped give you insight into who I am, as well as the circumstances leading to my arrest on November 11, 2008.