My parents had some very strong preconceived notions about military men, which they were not shy about sharing with me when I told them I was dating one. They were concerned that I had fallen into the company of a heavy drinker and partier who enjoyed physical violence and would expect me to stay home and have lots of babies. I don’t know where they got these ideas (TV, I’m guessing), but it was pretty hilarious to watch their reactions when they met SSGT James Gillooley—the opposite of their assumptions.
I enjoyed riding on my high horse until it occurred to me that I, too, had colored my thinking with anecdotes from my favorite shows. The more I got to know James, the more I realized how incomplete my understanding of the military experience was. We have been together for almost two years and it’s still not complete, but James patiently answers all of my (probably stupid) questions and explains the complex, confusing, and often bewildering military universe. We talked about the status of mental health in the military—what it means to be afraid, what resources are available, and what really happens to your mind when you spend a year in the Iraq desert getting shot at. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the experience was like; I do watch a lot of TV, after all. Turns out I was grossly misinformed.
Don’t ask if they’ve killed anybody.
Awkwardly enough, I’m pretty sure I asked James this question on our second or third date. For some reason he still agreed to go out with me again afterwards. I had never been in the vicinity of anyone who had pulled a trigger before and had a morbid fascination fueled by too many episodes of Law and Order. James told me that it was mainly people in his home state of Florida who asked him. None of his family ever did—“I think they knew better,” he explained. “I don’t think my mom would want to know the answer.”
Why not ask, though? Isn’t that reasonable to assume that a kid who was given a gun and trained how to use it might have to? Didn’t they know what they were getting into? It turns out that “killing someone is not a pleasant act for most people. People act like they might enjoy it, but it’s a very traumatizing event.” Maybe it’s just an unfortunate part of the job, like when a boss has to fire employees. Or maybe it’s an experience civilians can’t begin to understand.
I still wanted to understand, though. If I were going to be telling this man all my personal stories and character-building incidents (like the time I racked up $200 in charges from a psychic hotline when I was in 6th grade) I figured I deserved to know his. But when servicemen are asked if they have killed anyone, they know that “people can brand you a murderer or just brush it off.” After living through such a trauma, neither response puts a full stop to the anxiety hanging in the air when someone like James says “yes.”
Servicemen go through an extensive array of mental health assessments before they come home.
According to the internet, what happens when a serviceman comes home is that he meets his significant other at the airport and there are tears and hugging and falling to the ground with joy, sometimes there’s a baby he has never met before, sometimes there’s a dog who cannot contain his bladder due to excitement. We then assume that happy people go home and heroes are honored and we can feel good about looking at these pictures, and then we go look at something else on the internet.
It turns out that before they even leave the country to which they were deployed, servicemen go through a barrage of tests and see at least three different psychotherapists. They retake the cognitive function tests and baseline mental status assessments they completed before they left for deployment to see if there are any significant changes. They answer “a million” questions about “what you went through, how you felt about everything, what you thought of it—being there, being attacked, having to do that job.” Every answer, every word, is written down and put into a medical file that says “you’re good to go, you’re not crazy, you’re not suffering from PTSD.” Then, at the home station in the US, servicemen go through another evaluation with the same questions to gauge any longer-term after effects.
The process of coming home doesn’t end in the tearful pictures at the airport.
There are scarier things than being shot at.
Fear is an interesting subject for the military. I certainly describe James as “brave” and “courageous.” That’s ostensibly a good thing, but how can you admit to being afraid when everyone describes you as brave?
I asked James when he really felt fear when he was in Iraq, expecting it to be your usual special effects-laden scene with fireballs and bullets and high-speed chases, or even something involving camel spiders. (For those of you who have not seen a camel spider, this is a camel spider:)
Instead, James told me this story:
“We were driving through a small city just north of Baghdad. All the street lights and house lights were on. It was the middle of the night. As we were entering the main part of the city, all of a sudden all the lights went out. Some people were moving around outside. We just sped up and moved out of the city as fast as we could. That one instance of all light and then complete darkness just made your heart stop.
I was shot at and blown up, but when that happens you’ve got your adrenaline pumping and you know what’s happening and what’s coming at you. When it just goes completely dark, you’re left anticipating what could happen.”
What I thought were instances of fear and trauma were physical expositions, palpable and describable occurrences that were the dictionary definition of “scary.” Axe murderers wearing hockey masks, aliens with sharp probes, camel spiders. Defining bravery in the face of those things is pretty easy—punch the murderer, zap the aliens, squish the spider before it eats you and everyone you love. But how can you be brave when facing complete and consuming darkness?
The worst part of being deployed is not what you think.
Were you thinking camel spiders? So was I. (DID YOU SEE IT? IT’S LIKE A CARTOON VILLAIN). According to James, though, it was actually the never-ending days that made it hard to survive. “A normal day would last anywhere between 18 and 24 hours for us. We would start at noon on one day and not end until 3 in the afternoon the next day. One day right before we left Iraq I was up for 54 hours straight.”
We know what fatigue does to the human brain. Lack of sleep can cause impairment similar and just as dangerous as inebriation. But when there is a job to do, like delivering cargo on which lives depend, you are not allowed to be tired. You are not allowed to experience normal biological reactions to your surroundings in a combat zone, which I imagine is more difficult than ducking when a bullet flies by.
PTSD is as hard to gauge as any mental illness.
In Grey’s Anatomy, one of the characters comes back from war and has vivid nightmares of his experiences; he reacts violently toward his girlfriend and becomes a grave and serious man. I assumed this was the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, since the show is about medicine and they must check their facts. James worked with a man whose symptoms were just as terrifying but less predictable:
“Before he left I heard he was a pretty normal guy, maybe somewhat of a goof. Once he was deployed, he experienced something that messed him up somehow. When he came back he was even weirder than normal. He would black out, not remember driving somewhere or how he got somewhere.
One time, the office couldn’t get a hold of him. He had been assigned a bus and was supposed to take people downtown. Apparently he dropped them off and then blacked out. They found the bus in the middle of a bad part of town and he was passed out on the floor of the bus. Another time he was supposed to pick up a general but he never showed up. They found the car he had been assigned abandoned, doors open, keys in the ignition, and him nowhere to be found. A few hours later they found him sleeping on a park bench, in full uniform.
They never told us what was wrong with him, just that he was fine before he deployed and after he came back he had all these blackout spells. He actually got discharged because of it.”
It is sometimes pretty damn glamorous being on the arm of a veteran. For example, on our first Valentine’s Day together, James took me to Marcel’s, a French restaurant in downtown DC that always graces the Top Ten lists of dining in the area. He wore just a normal suit, along with his Air Force tie pin. We were seated and soon after engaged in googly-eyes at each other. A few minutes later the sommelier came to us and said “The couple at the table over there would like to buy you a bottle of wine to thank you for your service” and proceeded to deliver us a merlot that far surpassed the 2-buck Chuck I was used to. It was the coolest thing that had happened to me in a long time and I told every person I knew that story.
Other times, it is less glamorous. I dragged James to the National Mall to watch the fireworks on our first Fourth of July together—he had been out of the country for the past few Independence Days and I thought it was unacceptable for a veteran to not witness a celebration that was put on largely thanks to work like his. We spread our blanket out and laid back to look at the sky, and I clapped my hands and squealed as the explosions echoed off of the Washington Monument behind us. I turned to James to see how he was enjoying the show, and his eyes were squeezed shut. He was breathing heavily. He grabbed my hand and clutched it tightly.
It never occurred to me that the fireworks would bother him. When we talked about it later, he explained “It feels like there should be adrenaline running through my body, but there isn’t. I guess it’s some subconscious reaction to getting blown up. I don’t know how to explain it really.” When I asked how I didn’t know that he felt that way earlier, he told me that he puts effort into not letting his experience bother him much, and that he avoids situations that cause him to “freak out.” When I asked if he had flashbacks or dreams, he said “I don’t remember my dreams. If I did I’d probably wake up screaming.”
There are plenty of mental health resources available for servicemen. The problem is getting them to use them.
On deployment, the first line resources for struggling airmen were the chaplains. There was a clinic on most of the major bases that you could go to if you “really, really needed a doctor’s help.” Airmen were encouraged to talk to their leaders, and if the leadership saw something that indicated ongoing problems then they could force an airman to seek help.
At home, there is a lot of support. However, while the military is definitely putting in significant efforts to lessen the stigma behind seeking mental health support, there is still an underlying fear that asking for help could destroy your career. As James explains, “If you get command-directed [ordered by your leadership] to seek mental health support, it will go on your record. That could keep you from taking certain assignments, it could keep you from reenlisting or it could get you kicked out.” In an effort to combat that, a new entity has been created that allows airmen to speak with family counselors who don’t put the accounts of their meetings in the airman’s record and it will not impact an airman’s career.
James thinks that people are using the resources more now. The military is campaigning about talking to chaplains and leadership about issues before they become serious problems. They’re trying to make sure that people aren’t afraid to seek help. They’re increasing available resources outside the normal clinic. Recently, a new system of “decompression” has been put in place for airmen returning from deployment where, before returning to the US, the airmen spend three days in Germany going through classes on how to deal with life back home, doing relaxing things like sightseeing, and taking time to adjust before they’re actually back in the mix of family, friends, and all the responsibilities that resume.
At the same time, however, it can be difficult to utilize the resources available when you’re an airman working full-time. “It’s still hard because everything takes time out of your work day,” James says. “Even if you want to go to the counselor, people you work with are going to know where you’re going. It’s hard not to think your coworkers are going to assume that you can’t do your job or that you’re going to go crazy in the middle of work.” In addition, despite all the campaigns to assuage the stigma of mental illness, there is a persistent “macho” attitude that a strong man doesn’t need help.
You and your mind don’t belong to yourself—they belong to the military.
There are obvious stressors associated with military service—the physical danger, the long hours, the goddamn camel spiders. But even outside of a combat zone, you are still not quite allowed to be totally human. “Everything within your personal and professional life, every decision you make, every action you do, can have an impact on what you end up doing—or, rather, what they end up doing with you,” James tells me. Cheating on your wife can get you court-martialed and dishonorably discharged. Missing a credit card payment can go on your permanent record. Get a speeding ticket and you can get demoted.
“It’s scary,” James continues, “because you have to watch what you say, how you say it, on and off duty, whether you’re on or off base. If you have a flashback or get jumpy and go off in the middle of a bar while on vacation, that’s still going to come back and impact your career.”
We joke all the time about how James should skip work and come hang out with me instead. He playfully responds “Ok, but they’re going to send the cops after me.” And I shoot back “Well, they can take the issue up with me! You belong to me.” He teases me and says that that’s not entirely true.
James is proud of his service, and so am I. I have his official portrait, him in his dress blues and all his ribbons (he has a lot), framed on my night table. We go months without seeing each other but we Skype every day. I’m happy with him and he makes me feel secure. He’s healthy (except for the loss of hearing in his left ear, which is from driving armored cars in Iraq while grenades explode around him). He’s well-adjusted (except for the crushing anxiety from large crowds or brightly-colored displays of patriotism on the 4th of July). He’s free (except for his body, mind, and soul, which he has signed to the military until 2017).