To tell the truth, it was because I was writing my stories and wanted unbiased feedback. My family would have told me how great my writing was while showing signs of empathy towards me. I didn’t want that. I wanted people to share their thoughts on Iraq with me so I could tell them that everything they had heard about veterans and the stigmas surrounding Post-Traumatic Stress wasn’t true. I stood in front of my fellow students to show that not all veterans are of a fragile mind after war. Some of us, if not most of us, have actually grown more resilient and ambitious because of our experiences.
When the period bell rang, my fellow students gave me the same look that I usually encountered when people found out I served in Iraq. It’s the look that says it all, a look ranging from genuine wonderment to morbid curiosity. It’s the look of wondering how my reaction would be when they asked about getting shot at or what was it like to fire your weapon. It’s the look of wondering if I would fly into a rage if they asked me about the war. It’s the look of not asking me anything because they believe what was being said about veterans as “a bomb waiting to explode” is the truth.
Today, I get that look more than I should. Post-Traumatic Stress and veterans is still being told as two halves of a dangerous cocktail that could be the next great medical crisis in America. Despite movies like American Sniper and veteran authors showing a more realistic, more emotional side to mental health, the narrative around veterans is not telling the real truth. The worst thing we can do as Americans is to believe that veterans with mental health challenges are victims and as a country, we need to be better than that.
If there is one thing I wanted those students to understand that day, it’s this: Post Traumatic Stress is not a complete burden. In fact, having Post-Traumatic Stress has given me a deeper, greater insight into who I am. I am more aware and focused on my well-being than ever before. I am more grateful for the things I have and strive for the things I want. There are times where it gets tough but nothing different than the average bad day we all have. And there are times where I wake up not feeling compelled to do anything but I know that I have to push through. It is a constant challenge but it’s one I am always willing to take head on.
I know there are people out there who do not want to believe my days are just like theirs. I know there are some that still see Post-Traumatic Stress as it was during the Vietnam era; misunderstood, mistreated and a burden to the country. Post-Traumatic Stress is something serious when left untreated. Rather than quickly labeling those who have Post-Traumatic Stress, we should make an effort to understand what it is. It doesn’t just stem from serving in combat. It can stem from horrific bouts of domestic abuse, car accidents, and even watching something terrifying.
Chances are that there is someone we work with, we love, and we call a friend who has Post-Traumatic Stress. At times, it’s hard to ask them to share their stories and experiences of living with Post-Traumatic Stress daily. But just like I did with my former peers in 2009, it is necessary for us to listen and understand those who live with it. It’s the only way that it can be destigmatized. It is my hope that the more we share, the more it will help us learn about those who live with mental health stigmas. Maybe one of them will be ready to stand up in front of a class of 30 others and tell their story.
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