On June 17, 2007, at the age of 20, I was shot in Iraq by a sniper while serving as a cavalry scout in the United States Army. The bullet shattered my femur, severed my femoral artery, and clipped my sciatic nerve. I lay in bed for three months while being rolled in and out of operating rooms. It took 17 surgeries before I was whole again ― at least physically.
I left pieces of myself in Iraq that day ― both literally and figuratively. Many combat veterans who deploy often leave pieces of themselves in combat zones. Some combat veterans deploy so many times that at some point, all that remains is a shell of a person who once exuded happiness and goodwill toward others.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, may affect an individual after a traumatic experience or event. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Fear, anxiety, anger, depression, and guilt [are all] common reactions to trauma.” Since the day I was injured, I’ve felt all five of these emotions.
I am fearful of getting shot by my sniper again. This particular scenario is personal to me, but I can guarantee you that there are thousands of other veterans who are going through the same thing. PTSD for veterans is more than being afraid of or triggered by loud noises, like fireworks or cars backfiring, which is a common trope in TV shows and movies. It’s the fear of reliving the most traumatic events of your life. Of course, PTSD is not exclusive to the veteran community, but the events that spark our trauma are.
A civilian may have PTSD after a traumatic event like a car wreck. For veterans, traumatic events can be improvised explosive devices blowing up Humvees, helicopters getting shot down, or in my case, getting shot by a sniper. These are not the kind of events that the average person can relate to, but they’re what veterans often relive for the rest of our lives.
That’s what leads to the next factor: anxiety. Many veterans avoid participating in events that remind them of combat. I have a friend who doesn’t leave his home because he is afraid to be in crowds of people. The social lives of many veterans are impacted in this way. As a result, relationships with friends and family suffer greatly.
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Husbands and wives have a hard time reconnecting with their spouses, fathers and mothers have a hard time building relationships with their children, and the veteran lives alone with their thoughts. A veteran’s anxiety can increase because they repeatedly think of their traumatic event and feel trapped inside their heads with their memories. Soon, we can become our own worst enemies. It’s frustrating for everyone ― the veteran, as well as the family and friends of the veteran. One day, one of my high school friends even asked: “Man, what happened to the old David I knew before the Army?”
After leaving a combat zone there is an adjustment period veterans may go through. It takes time to get used to being in a “normal” environment again. It takes time to become affectionate again with significant others, to show compassion and empathy toward others, to know that not everything is trying to hurt or kill you. Sometimes, for those dealing with severe PTSD, it’s hard to differentiate who wants to do you harm and who doesn’t. These individuals can become a danger to themselves and others.
Christopher R. Lee writes in his book, “The Eleventh Hour: Navigating Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Within a Veterans’ Community,” that an individual can “exhibit recurring symptoms of distress by reliving the event through images, thoughts, dreams, and acting out the event in a flashback.” These recurring symptoms seem to always happen at the most inconvenient times ― while watching a movie, while at the park with your family, as a civilian in the workplace. This is what makes it so difficult for some veterans to integrate back into the civilian world. Those who have not been in combat zones just don’t get it ― especially in the workplace. I’ve found that a company will be proud to say they are a veteran-friendly employer, but when a veteran is hired, the human resources department isn’t trained on how to deal with the unique challenges that veterans may have.
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Earlier, I mentioned that I am constantly afraid of being shot by a sniper again. In my mind, the reason my sniper didn’t kill me in Iraq is because he or she wanted me to recover and live a healthy, normal life. I believe that when I am the happiest, and everything is great in my life, they will shoot me again and this time they’ll finish the job.
How likely is this to be true? The odds are probably close 0%. However, every time I hear a loud crack in public, every time I feel someone standing behind me, and every time I find myself in a parking lot, I get the feeling my sniper is still there. Waiting.
In a therapy session, my therapist asked me: “Why parking lots?” I believe it’s the open space. When I’m in a parking lot, I can feel my sniper looking at me through the scope of their gun. My body gets hot and I begin to sweat. I actually feel phantom pains in my leg as if I was shot again, and I begin to imagine that I’m falling to the ground the same way I did on that day in Iraq. Suddenly I’m there again reliving it all.
Therapy has been incredibly beneficial for me, including a special kind called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). During my sessions, my therapist took me back to the situation where I was injured. He then helped me visualize taking out my sniper before they were able to shoot me. That helped me a lot. Now I go to weekly group therapy sessions with other veterans to talk about things in my life that bother me.
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I also take an antidepressant called sertraline. This helps me get through the day without feeling like crap. The key to living a good life after combat is to keep up with my meds and to surround myself with great people who also care about my mental health.
Many veterans self-medicate after combat. Before I started my antidepressant and was able to truly make therapy work for me, I developed alcohol abuse syndrome because I did not have the coping methods I needed to deal with my trauma. Drinking alcohol ruined my life. I was fired from my job, lost many friends, and gained a lot of weight. There are many veterans who abuse both opioids and alcohol to deal with the physical and emotional trauma from combat.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to survive our trauma also often feel survivors’ guilt. “It should have been me” is something that many veterans who lost friends on the battlefield tell themselves. The day after I was shot, my roommate at Colorado’s Fort Carson and in Iraq, who was also my best friend, was shot and killed in Iraq. His name was Eric Snell and on June 18, 2007 ― which has been dubbed “the bloodiest year of the war” and saw the loss of 899 soldiers ― he was killed by a sniper.
I sent a copy of a book I recently wrote to Eric’s son. He is currently serving in the Army and as I write this he is stationed in Iraq. The book is about my time in Iraq and includes my memories of serving with Eric. After reading the book, Eric’s son wrote me to thank me for sharing his father’s last moments with the world. He told me how important it was to read about his dad because he was killed in Iraq while he was still a kid. This moment ended my survivors’ guilt because I can see Eric Snell in his son, who is proudly serving his country just as his dad ― my best friend ― did.
As the troops who left Afghanistan begin to enter the civilian world again, they will face many challenges. I have dedicated my life to seeing that no veteran has to experience what I did after combat. I started my own professional speaking business in 2016 and I speak about mental health in both the veteran and civilian communities. I help tell the stories that many veterans do not know how to tell, as well as the stories that veterans who died in combat are no longer able to tell. Within my community, I serve as the vice president for the National Alliance on Mental Illness DeKalb. We provide mental health resources to the people of DeKalb County, Georgia, in the form of free mental health groups, as well as referrals to mental health professionals in the area. I am doing whatever I can to see that after combat, veterans in my community know they are supported by one of their own.
Nonprofit organizations have also been vital to veterans. The Department of Veteran Affairs is at maximum capacity and often can’t help veterans in a timely manner. These nonprofit organizations provide resources, such as individual therapy and group therapy sessions. These are free of charge, thanks to generous donors across the country. If you would like to support the veterans in your hometown, consider donating to a local nonprofit that provides aid for them.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there are 1.3 million active-duty military personnel ― less than half of 1% of the U.S. population. It’s easy for veterans to be forgotten because we are such a small part of this country. But we’ve had the biggest impact in keeping America safe and we need people to look out for us. I’m honored to do my part and I urge others to learn more about the veteran community and what you can do to support us.
David Kendrick, a native of Rochester, New York, joined the Army as a cavalry scout in 2006. After being shot by a sniper in 2007, he used that experience to start his professional speaking business. He speaks about mental health issues in both the military community as well as the civilian community, and published “Cavalry,” a book about his experiences.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.