The war on terror is over. Like with many things in this country…out of sight, out of mind. The last time people cared about the war was when we pulled out of Afghanistan and President Biden was on the #1 Person to hate list because of its botched execution (no, this isn't a political blog). This is about the heroic men and women that fought the war. The heroic men and women that fought the war and came out with injuries. The heroic men and women that fought the war and came home with physical and mental injuries. The heroic men and women that fought the war, came home with physical and mental injuries and saw suicide or substance abuse as the only way to escape the pain.
Not all injuries are built the same. There are some service members that are injured in combat, come home, and are able to either live a normal civilian life or reclass and do something else in the military. There are others that have injuries that leave them permanently disabled, and physically and mentally scarred for the rest of their lives. For soldiers like myself, those injuries came very early in our military careers and will stick around with us for the rest of our lives. And ladies and gentlemen that's what this blog is about.
I joined the Army as a Cavalry Scout in 2005 at the age of 17 years old. I was in Iraq with my unit, 3-61 Cav in 2006 at the age of 19 years old. Halfway through my deployment (2007), I was shot in my left leg by a sniper at 20 years old. The bullet shattered my femur, severed my femoral artery, and clipped my sciatic nerve which caused severe nerve damage in my left leg and foot. After every surgery, I would lay in the hospital bed and wonder about my quality of life. How would this injury affect my life as I get older? I'm writing this post at 35 years old and the answer to that question is: it hasn't been great.
The brutal winters (like the record-breaking one in Buffalo) wreaked havoc on my orthopedic injuries. This was the beginning of a downward spiral for me. For a brief time, I was prescribed Vicodin for my pain. The medication did what I needed to do to handle the pain, but there were other factors that made taking the medication problematic. The colder it got outside the more pain I was in. Which meant taking more pills to deal with the pain. When the pills didn't handle the pain adequately, I started to mix them with Vodka.
It's an uncommon way to develop a substance abuse problem, but it is common for many veterans dealing with injuries from combat. To be honest, during this time in my life, I didn't care about coping strategies or pain management. I was self-medicating and I found a group of veterans who were in the same situation as myself. Veterans like to share war stories with each other, and that's what we were doing while abusing our prescriptions and drinking at bars. We all talked about getting blown up by IEDs, the different places on our bodies where we were shot or reminiscing about our battle buddies we lost while deployed. I didn't realize how deep I was into my downward spiral because I had other veterans who were there with me. So I didn't feel alone in my pain.
I moved to Atlanta in 2012. Big city, with bright lights, and tons of opportunities. However, one thing remained the same: The Pain. The nerve damage from my sciatic nerve getting clipped by the bullet grew worse over time. Eventually, I wasn't even able to wear shoes on my left foot. There were no more snow storms, but not even the hot Georgia sun could make my pain go away. The nerve damage that I have feels like fireworks that randomly explode up and down my left leg. Even with the medication that I was prescribed to deal with the pain, my quality of life still was declining.
In Atlanta, my professional speaking career began to take off. I would speak about my pain to veteran audiences and afterward, people in the audience would talk to me about the veteran in their life. About the injuries their veteran suffered in combat, and how they are watching the mental health of their veteran slowly decline. The hardest conversations to have are with military wives that say they are slowing their husband's physical and mental health slowly decline. These are some of the first generations of service members that deployed around 2002/2003 and were now well into their 30s and 40s.
Professional speaking has provided me with the opportunity to have life-saving conversations with my fellow veterans. Now that the war is over, there isn't as much of a spotlight on veteran issues as we had in the past. To make matters even worse, some injuries aren't visible so some people don't take your pain into consideration. I have Purple Heart Tags on my car, and I have a handicapped sticker, but when people see me park in a handicapped spot they still look at me sideways. People walk up to me and say "you look just fine". It can be infuriating for any veteran that has been injured in combat to hear someone say that.
For veterans, not all pain is created equal. There are many veterans that have lost limbs after being involved in IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attacks. Even though the limp isn't there, some veterans experience phantom pain, described by the National Library of Medicine as the perception of pain or discomfort in a limb that is no longer there. I've talked with veterans that told me that is the worst type of pain to experience because the limp isn't even there but it still hurts.
Pain is a contributing factor to PTSD and suicide in the veteran community. As we advanced our technology and weaponry on the battlefield, so did the guys on the other side. Defense.gov shows that over 50,000 soldiers were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Veterans Affairs is showing that the number of veteran suicides per day is slowly declining. Veterans are living for decades in pain and there may not be an end in sight. So the next time you say "thank you for your service", I hope this post reminds you of the sacrifice we all made to the country.