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Joseph's Story, Part II: Aftermath

I was angry at Arab Muslims. I hated them. I knew it was stupid, but my buddies were being murdered in this cowardly way. And it was only March, which means I was still going to be there for a long time. No time to think about it right then because I needed to take care of my other soldiers. I thought I should try and keep my mood light for the guys.

Survivor's Guilt and PTSD

Survivor’s guilt was first recognized among survivors of the Holocaust. It is not an unusual response to surviving combat or a natural disaster when others did not survive. Survivor’s guilt is a form of anxiety associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Treatment for survivor’s guilt often involves treatments associated both with the trauma and with the grief associated with the trauma. Individuals experiencing survivor’s guilt work toward closure as part of their healing. Closure is a necessary component of many relationships and events we endure throughout our lives, but is most commonly associated with grief surrounding death.

Closure in Joseph’s case was complicated by the fact that closure, or saying good-bye, felt dishonorable. Joseph wants these men remembered. By dedicating his time to telling his story, he was able to pay tribute to his friends and the brutal way they were murdered without dishonoring their memory. He told the story the way he experienced it.

It is my hope that in sharing his story, Joseph experienced some closure. Our purpose in telling his story was solely to pay tribute, and we never discussed the idea that he might benefit or be harmed by talking about his experiences. Yet in describing his fellow soldiers and what they went through together, he may have created an opportunity to begin to forgive himself for surviving. He may begin to feel free to make the next move toward his own life and freedom.

— Tracy Stecker

But I was feeling anything but light.

Our squad was down from nine to four. We had some logistics to figure out. First thing we had to do was get the guys' stuff ready to be shipped back to their families. Get stuff off their computers. Pack up all their stuff.

It was really strange to have their areas cleaned up and gone. Seemed like at any moment one of them might come around the corner and show up. Hard to appreciate the fact that I would never see them pop through a door again, hear them around a corner, talk to them about what happened.

That was maybe the hardest part. I couldn't talk to them about what happened. Couldn't tell them what I saw and did. Couldn't ask them how it felt. Couldn't tell them what happened next. Couldn't even say good-bye.

Everything was different right away. It felt like everyone was looking at Stoller and me differently. We'd been involved in the firefight on a different level than the rest of the guys.

Everything had changed.

Re-experiencing

I had a nightmare two nights ago. It's one that I have often. In the dream, my squad is in Baghdad. On patrol. It is dark and hot out, and suicide bombers keep coming. Firing. Every time they fire, an explosion happens about two feet away from me. The explosions are basically right on top of me. I feel the heat. I know I am supposed to be dead, but every time the explosion happens, I keep on walking. I am OK. But anyone next to me is dead. I can't stop anyone from dying and I can't make myself die. Nothing I do matters. It doesn't matter if I hold on to someone or if I try and cover that person up; they die, and I walk away unscathed.

My nightmares were so horrible at first. I had one that actually made me piss my bed. I wasn't eating, wasn't sleeping. Just walking around in a haze. They made me talk to a counselor over there, who prescribed Ambien for sleep, and an antidepressant.

I thought, "Are you f--ing kidding me?" I lost faith in the help of mental health if all they were going to do was give me medicine. What the f-- kind of help is that? I threw all the medicine away.

Stoller and I talked often about that night. What we would've done differently. If we had used the bazooka? Nothing would've mattered, though. They would have died anyway.

Remembrance

So I went down to mental health and got scheduled for treatment for PTSD, and had two nightmare-resolution classes.

Nightmare-resolution classes are interesting. You change your dreams. One class is spent with everyone talking about his nightmares, and the next one is figuring out how to have a new outcome. My nightmares always focus on how everyone around me dies. I survive, and I can't protect them from dying. No matter what I do.

The first nightmare-resolution class had about six guys in it. We went around and each of us talked about our nightmares. I was the only guy that showed for the second nightmare class. But that's OK, because I got to work through a new outcome for my dreams. Instead of working so hard to save the guys from death, now I'm trying to say good-bye. It is important to say good-bye.

I thought going for treatment for PTSD would be hard, but it was actually a relief to be officially diagnosed. I've done my part. I'm ready to move on.

I was asked to come down to an elementary school and talk to the kids during an assembly for Veterans Day. I thought it sounded like a cool thing to do until I actually got in front of the kids. Standing in front of the kids, I asked if any of them had any questions for me. And it was precisely at that moment that I realized there are certain questions you should never ask a veteran. My guess was the kids at this school assembly wouldn't know that, though.

It ended up being cool. No one asked me the wrong kind of question. One kid asked me if I was afraid over there. I answered, "All the time." Another asked me what made me most afraid. I answered that one dishonestly. I said, "That I wouldn't see my family again. I missed my family when I was over there."

Technically, that is an honest answer. I did worry about not seeing my family again, but it wasn't what made me most afraid. I couldn't tell the kids what made me most afraid. Sometimes, it's harder to be the one that lives.

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

 
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