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A PTSD Survivor's Story: A Soldier's Account

The following first-person account, is excerpted from '5 Survivors,' by Dr. Tracy Stecker.

In my work I regularly talk to soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although I trained as a clinician, I primarily conduct research developing and investigating ways to increase the seeking of mental health treatment by those who would benefit from it. This means that I frequently come in contact with individuals severely in need of help who do not receive it. As a researcher, I focus on data, not stories. Yet some of the stories I heard haunted me....

There are a couple of things you must understand before reading these stories of survival from trauma and traumatic experiences. These survivors shared their stories with me out of a desperate need to heal and to be helpful to others who have experienced trauma or who love someone who has experienced trauma. They were not paid, and talking about their lives was not easy. In my position, I am all too aware of how many of you out there silently suffer from traumatic experiences, and this book is for you. — The Author

The names in this real-life account have been changed. — The Editors

Joseph's Story

Easter Sunday that year fell on March 23, 2008. It was also my mom's birthday. It was a bad day in Iraq. We were stationed in southern Baghdad and had been getting shelled all day. We were sent out that morning to do cleaning missions. This means after you've been mortared a lot, you go out on four-hour missions to find out who had been doing the shellings....

We made a couple more stops and searched a vehicle, but nothing turned up. We told each other that we would see each other back at the command base. We had been spending a lot of time out at the FOB [forward operations base], which is a smaller base that doesn't have as much as the command base. Since we had been getting hit so hard, we weren't allowed back to the FOB. This was OK with us because we were ready to go back to the COP and its better accommodations, like stuffed pork chops.

The convoy back had three American vehicles and two Iraqi police vehicles. The lead and the trail vehicles were Bradley tanks. I was supposed to be on that lead Bradley but ended up on the trail Bradley.

When you go out on a mission, you get a trip ticket. The trip ticket will have every vehicle and all personnel on it. For this mission, Stoller and I were supposed to be on the lead Bradley, but Lodge and I talked before the return home and decided to switch. I kept Stoller with me, and we went to the trail Bradley...

We switched positions because we didn't want the two highest-ranking dudes on the mission to be on the same vehicle in case something happened. If they both had gone down, I would have had to leave Stoller to handle things on the ground in order to make communications with Battalion, Company, and Air Assets.

Stuffed pork chops were on our mind during the return. Stoller and I were listening to "Ten Rounds with José Cuervo" on Stoller's iPod. Outside, the front Bradley exploded. I didn't hear the explosion. The tank was hit with a fifteen-inch EFP [explosively formed projectile] detonated with an iPod. When you are inside the pocket, you can't hear the blast. Plus, you can't see s-- inside a Bradley. The song kept playing, Stoller and I tapping along. The Iraqis in the second car saw the explosion. They jumped out and started running. In the other direction. The Americans in the third car engaged. We could hear firing now. But the music still played......

The firing got our attention, and we jumped out of the Bradley to see what was going on. We ran forward to clear the vehicle. I saw the fire and thought we hit something and made it explode. I also saw someone running toward us on fire. It was weird because he spoke perfect English. I heard him say, "Stoller, put me out!" In the background of my mind, the song continued to play. The guy on fire spoke clear English, and I wasn't thinking about his accent. I still thought this was an Iraqi that we had hit.

Stoller said back to him, "Stop, drop, and roll! Stop, drop, and roll!"

He was naked. The clothes had burned off of him.

Most of the Iraqi police that were with us ran as soon as the firing started, but one guy stayed, and he was the guy that jumped on top of the man on fire to put him out.

Stoller looked at him and said to me, "That's [Larry] Oliver."

... That's when I looked up and saw the Bradley on fire.

We ran toward the Bradley and got hit from someone firing up in the windows. We were getting shot at and started to engage.

"Kill everything," I said, as I grabbed Stoller. In my mind, I was thinking we needed to get Larry off the street. Try and get in that building where they were shooting at us. I didn't want to see Larry lying in the street. Our radio wasn't working, the machine gun wasn't working, we couldn't get into the f-- building where they were shooting at us because they had chains on the doors and the windows were barred.

"F--. Need to get in there. Kill anyone in there."

We had nothing but peashooters, and we couldn't get in the building. We kept shooting and waiting for others to show up for backup. We only had two or three rounds left.

Suddenly the Bradley lunged forward, leaving Stoller and me without cover. So we ran over and hid behind this Iraqi car. One of the translators stayed with us. His name was James, and he was one of the few Iraqis that would hang in there when s-- started to happen. Stoller and I kept shooting to hold them off.

I was thinking, "My wife is going to be so pissed off when she hears about this. I hope I die before Stoller. I don't want to watch him die." I looked over at him and he was scanning for a moving target. I figured that I might as well kill as much as I could before I went down.

Larry was moaning in the background. I could hear him but was not looking at him. He kept saying, "Oh my God, I'm going to die." I said, "No you're not, bro. We got you."

Another target moved and I heard James scream, "F-- you" at him in English. It's funny to think of him saying that now.

I don't know how much I killed, but we shot out all of the windows in the building. And the rest of the platoon showed up. The squad started the process of cleaning up.

Stoller looked at me and said, "I thought we were going to get killed."

I said, "I did too. I was hoping to go before you. I didn't want to watch you die."

He looked at me and said, "That is exactly what I was thinking. I wanted to go before you."

We had a helicopter coming in. Colonels, the commander, and the platoon all came out...

Next: Joseph's Story, Part II: Aftermath

Excerpted from 5 Survivors: Personal Stories of Healing from PTSD and Traumatic Events by Tracy Stecker (Hazelden 2011).

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