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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2023 - Vol. 20, Issue 1

"PTSD: The Forever Pain"

written by

David Staffa

As soldiers, we put ourselves in harm’s way deliberately. Some of us volunteered to go to War in Afghanistan or Iraq. Others agreed to go wherever they were needed.

Shortly after my return from Afghanistan, I looked into the mirror and saw myself staring back at me. I had to tell the essence of truth. My responsibility was to tell the truth. I watched as I stared into the abyss. It was me, yet I felt it was not me staring back. How long had it been since I phased out--or zoned out--as some people liked to state to me.

20 seconds, 20 minutes, 20 hours or 20 months?

I hid parts of myself to adapt to my environments. I had to. What else could I have done? I know it was a personal defense mechanism, but it was also the only way to cope.

People are remarkably adaptable and resilient. If I was scared to do something, then it was probably the right thing to do. And, yes, I was scared, but it was time to put myself into that uncomfortable stage. That’s right, I took myself right out of that comfort zone and began to sweat. I knew it was the right thing to do.

I had to speak with someone. I called it the monkey on my back and it was digging its paws deep into my mind and soul. I tried to deal with this on my own terms – I thought I could cure myself, but that was foolish. I needed help. Professional help to help me validate my feelings. Validation is what I sought and validation is what I needed to survive. I wanted someone to believe me. Someone other than me.

My monkey had a 4 letter name: PTSD. A frightening name. One that I thought I could avoid being deployed. Losing a limb was something I thought I could deal with. But never did I consider ‘catching’ PTSD.

Therapy only helped so much and I am not into drugging myself into happiness. The rest was up to me and here is what pushed me into a better mind space.

We have bodies and minds, but sometimes they go wrong. The pain of PTSD has an ambiguous beginning, and no end in sight. It is always there in some form. It elevates under stress and contracts while at peace.

Since leaving the Afghanistan combat theater in 2011, I have had nightmares, been hyper-vigilant and aware of my surroundings and suspicious of people in general. My PTSD nightmares or dreams is my brain trying to make a narrative and/or sense of everything. When those nightmares hit, my body shifts into that REM sleep disorder, whereby my limbs, unlike most dreamers during sleep, are not paralyzed. During my nightmares, my arms or legs may fly out to strike someone. The nightmares are always in color from the middle-aged henna-dyed bearded Afghan firing an automatic weapon with a specific killing intent in his wild eyes to more tranquil nightmares, if you can call nightmares tranquil. I am extremely frustrated over events that I could not control in war. The shift of nightmares is as unpredictable as catching a deadly disease.

As I age with PTSD, I try to become a better leader by not acting impulsively or hastily. I look to consider the circumstances that surround my mind, reason it out, and when I speak or act, I speak or act carefully without emotion. Forgive me if I just don’t get it right every time. I am trying.

Coupled with the above, I now have a razor-sharp understanding and consciousness of my emotional state, and I try to regulate those emotions to avoid undesired words or actions.

Lastly, I can easily identify how someone else is feeling and I adjust my thinking and behavior for that situation. Simply put, I am more empathetic.

Once you have PTSD, your whole perspective on life changes forever. The important issue for veterans is to receive validation for their PTSD. That is what I sought from the VA. After several years, I received the validation I needed. I felt a tremendous emotional relief, as in “finally, they believe me.” Validation is so important.

I know we are never cured, but we learn to manage it.

As a soldier, and now a disabled veteran that has served in the military for 32 years, David is also a decorated Green Beret and a veteran of the Afghanistan War. A decorated soldier, he served as a Special Forces soldier and Combat Engineer in Afghanistan from 2010-2011. With this in mind, he can write from his personal experiences.  Some of his short stories, ‘And Then Came Noah’ and ‘PTSD and Me’ have won 1st Place in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festivals of 2017 and 2018. The Veterans has published his essay entitled ‘Thank you America.” In 2020, he received first Place in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival for his stories, “The Genesis of PTSD” and “I See Things Differently.” His local hometown newspaper showcased his article, “What We Felt” in the edition of 11/12/2021. Since retiring, his greatest contribution is writing about his combat experiences to help other veterans heal.

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