I enlisted in the Navy on January 3, 2005 at 39 years old, thinking that I could finally fulfill a lifelong desire to serve my country. Nearly 2 years later, I was deployed to Iraq. I hold a civilian paralegal certification and was supposed to go there to do “Rule of Law” and help reestablish the legal system. As we arrived in February 2007, the attacks and fighting were intensifying and setting up the courts was the least of the Iraqi’s concerns. Instead of working with judges, I was reassigned to be the lead convoy driver for our Battalion. This job put me literally at the head of the line to be the first one facing the invisible threats hidden along the roadways. We covered the entire eastern third of Iraq and I worked with amazing people; both U.S. and Coalition forces. Though the 350 missions I ran destroyed my hands. I crushed the Basil joints in both hands. Somewhere along the way, I also contracted a lung disease called Constrictive Bronchiolitis. I now know that I was heavily exposed to Dioxin, (Agent Orange ingredient) as well. In addition to the nearly constant IDF (indirect fire) attacks, I was pinned down under one particularly heavy rocket attack that left 14 locals dead. The first rocket landed 25 meters away, blasting the “duck and cover” with gravel and shrapnel. I was trapped in there with my First Sergeant, 2 Ugandan soldiers and a civilian; for 45 minutes.
By the time I got home in April 2008, I was sick and couldn’t tie my own boots. I couldn’t sleep more than an hour or so at a time. But like a “good Sailor”; I kept up appearances. I still pulled “EP” (Exceptional Performance) on my evaluations and my leadership wrote me up for multiple awards and even recommendations for the Officer Academy. All the while, I was literally and figuratively dying. It took about a year for my lungs to be diagnosed and to finish the 4 surgeries (each) on my hands and wrists. It became rapidly apparent that I was going to be medically boarded out of the Navy. I was emotionally crushed. My “dream” had turned into a nightmare and it wasn’t ending.
What is now a mandatory program was being piloted at the time at my base (CENTCOM). The Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) is the process whereby you file your VA claim while still on active duty. The THEORY is that your VA claim will be done when you get out and it will be a seamless transition to VA care and benefits. Even today, NOTHING could be further from the truth. You have to simultaneously go through a Line of Duty investigation, a Medical Board and the VA compensation and pension evaluation (even though Title 38 states that ALL injuries / illnesses incurred or aggravated by military service are to service connected – and this program was designed to assure that the evaluation process was strictly a review of your military record).
My first VA primary care doctor was horrific. They had assigned me to a female doctor who had never served and genuinely seemed to hate the military. She repeatedly questioned my military service, stating that she didn’t think women were allowed in combat. She chastised me repeatedly for using “military jargon” because she didn’t understand it and refused to discuss anything military. After a few weeks of this, I requested a new doctor. At my first appointment with him, I went straight from work – in uniform. The receptionist kept demanding an “insurance” card and flatly refused my CAC card. I blew up at her and told her that being active duty, my CAC card WAS my insurance card. When I got in to see the doctor, he told me he would not even look at my records until I had been evaluated by the Mental Health team for “anger management” problems. He put in an immediate referral. It took 3 more months before that department even called me for an “Orientation” appointment.
When I finally got through their hoops, I was evaluated by a psychiatrist. She ordered 14 different drugs for me…all to help with each “symptom” of PTSD; including Seroquel for sleep. I later discovered that Seroquel has black-label warnings about suicidal ideation symptoms if given to someone who is depressed or has other “depressive symptoms”. I was immediately put on a schedule of a weekly visit with a psychologist. The psychologist put me into the Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). This “therapy”, combined with this cocktail of drugs I was on; made my nightmares and flashbacks more frequent and far more severe. I told her this, but was assured that this was the “process”. After several weeks of CPT and no improvement, she put me into the Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy. I went from bad to worse. I began hallucinating and became increasingly paranoid. I couldn’t sleep at all because the nightmares had evolved into night terrors. She assured me repeatedly that this was “normal”.
About a year into this “treatment”, I nearly wrecked my truck on the way to work because I had such a realistic flashback that I nearly did a combat move called a “Crazy Ivan” (zig-zagging across all lanes of traffic to avoid fire) on the expressway. That night at about 2am, after crying and hallucinating for hours; I put my .357 Smith and Wesson in my mouth. I couldn’t take all the insanity anymore. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and saw a flash of what my son’s would find and have to deal with if I was successful in stopping this tornado going on in my head. I put my gun down and went and flushed every single pill of the 14 prescriptions, down the toilet. Afterward, I actually fell asleep on the bathroom floor, feeling like for the first time in over a year; I was back in control of my brain. During the entire time I was in the VA mental health system, I was NEVER reevaluated or even monitored for these drugs. No blood tests, nothing to see if anything was wrong.
The next 30 days or so was pure HELL. I went through physical and mental withdrawals from the drugs. My therapist left my facility and I was assigned to an all male (combat veterans) group – where I was the oldest person there. Once again, I was accused of lying about being in combat and bullied to “tell the truth” by the male therapist. I requested a “one-on-one” therapist was told there weren’t any available, I would have to go on a waiting list. I gladly accepted it, rather than return to group. That was in 2009. I never did receive a call back or letter about getting a new therapist. In October 2016, I called the same clinic, trying to get an “emergency” appointment with Mental Health. The man who answered refused to put me through, claiming I had to get a referral from my primary care doctor AND I had to go to orientation to be a mental health patient (BOTH of which are incorrect and direct violations of VA policy). After 30 minutes of arguing with him, he finally put me into a voicemail without a name or department ID. As of today, I’ve still never heard back.
Because of my lung condition, I have to take several drugs a day. I learned that a simple over the counter medication (in MODERATION) helps me sleep. It took years, but I discovered that the best “treatment” for me personally is solitude. Don’t misunderstand. It is not about “being alone”. It’s about the peace and serenity I find in my garden, growing vegetables or just flowers. I am rarely alone. My health is too poor for that luxury. My husband (and fellow combat veteran with 21 years of active duty) is my full-time (and then some) caregiver. But it is about accepting my “normal” and living within the confines of my “normal”. It means I can spend my “Zen time” as hubs calls it; just pulling weeds, designing new gardens or making some funky sculpture from recycled junk. I keep connected to the world and the community by advocating and lobbying Congress – to achieve a full overhaul and house-cleaning of the VA. It provides me with the balance of involvement and comradery that my military service had.