Name: MSG C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Milblog: A Soldier's Perspective
In 2009, I had the opportunity to interview then-Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli. We talked at length about his efforts to reduce or remove the stigma associated with a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During that conversation, I made a conscious effort to challenge his assertion and began my journey to healing.
To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, “PTSD is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things.” Failing to seek help by those that are afflicted, and mocking those have it by those that don’t, are worse.
Seeking help was a difficult choice for me. I was a First Sergeant at the time on a glide path to earning Sergeant Major rank. I was one of the fastest promoted Master Sergeants in my field and I didn’t want to ruin it. But I believed that this was just the old-school thought process. General Chiarelli assured me the Army was changing the way it looked at PTSD.
So, with a heavy heart, I gathered my troops around and tearfully explained to them that I was stepping down as First Sergeant.
“If I’m going to stand up here and tell you it’s okay to get help,” I told them. “I have to be willing to get help myself.”
I’m forever grateful to my commander at the time, who understood and supported what I was doing. And my wife couldn’t have been more supportive.
It had been six years since I was attached to 3/7 Cavalry in the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) for the main assault into Iraq on the evening of March 19, 2003. Our task was to perform a hook maneuver and scout ahead of the division. We raced northwest to Al Salman, then made the sharp right turn towards As Samawah. Salman was a hilly, peaceful place. It was apparent the Iraq military never thought we’d head that way. We had a few small skirmishes, but no damage or injuries were sustained. The biggest problem we had was getting our vehicles through the rugged terrain.
Samawah would be the first time I had to fire a weapon at another human. It wasn’t pretty either. The mujahidin were infesting Samawah. We had outpaced most of the Division, so the fighting largely rested with us. They played dirty, using human shields as they fired their AK47s on full auto while resting the weapons on the shoulders of women who were bleeding from their ears from the sound. It’s hard enough to kill a human enemy; it’s even harder having to kill an innocent person in order to do so.
At one point, we were stuck on a raised roadway on highway 28 to the southwest of the city. In the distance, I heard loud booms -- incoming! The rounds fell well short of our position, but forward observers were walking them in on us. The tanks and infantry fighting vehicles had no problem turning 180 degrees around to retreat, but we didn’t have that luxury. Our unarmored HMMWVs with trailers needed to perform very difficult, multi-point turns without tumbling down the high embankment.
BOOM! BOOM! One vehicle took a near direct hit near the canal. We were working hard to haul ass out of the kill zone. Then, I spotted a problem.
Just down the embankment, we had set up a hasty enemy prisoner of war (EPW) pit where my two interrogators were busy deciphering the defenses ahead of us and within the town. Geneva Conventions require us to protect EPWs to the best of our ability, but we didn’t have the space to take them with us. We couldn’t just leave them there to be blown to bits, no matter how much we wanted to. The guys we captured had surrendered without a fight because they were taken from their farmlands and forced into service by Saddam Hussein.
As I ran towards the cage, a round landed near me and blew me off the road. When I landed at the bottom of the embankment I felt a sharp pain in my back. Miraculously, there was no blood and didn’t appear to be any shrapnel. Through the stabbing pain, one of my interrogators and I gave the prisoners strict instructions to run south and surrender to the next unit they saw, or they would be killed.
Once we were out of artillery range, we began tending to the casualties. I was checked out by the medic who saw what happened and noticed I was limping. He asked for my casualty feeder, but I refused to give it to him.
“We need that to submit for your Purple Heart,” he explained.
I looked around at the other troops who were injured, some badly.
“It doesn’t seem right. I’m able to walk and I’m not bleeding,” I replied. There was no more conversation. He issued me some ibuprofen for pain and I went back to my truck.
For the next several weeks we followed the Euphrates River northward. The fighting was steady, at times intense, and at times barely worth the bullets.
On March 25th, we had to actually dig foxholes because the armor was needed to head off a column of Iraqi tanks headed our direction from Karbala. Every Soldier in the unit was needed to create a defensive perimeter to protect the TOC from small arms fighters while the M1 Abrams Tanks and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles positioned themselves for the battle. Visibility was barely a few feet as a major sandstorm had blown in that turned the sky dark and eerily orange. Bullets whizzed by, mortars landed all around us, and an RPG missed our windshield by inches. We were shooting towards the gunfire, but couldn’t see our targets. After reinforcing our position and laying claymores along the woodline, we settled into our foxhole, trying to keep warm in the frigid temperatures throughout the night.
I wrote in detail about what happened to us thereafter, and during the rest of our deployment, on my military blog, A Soldier’s Perspective.
When I finally got to come home in late 2003 after fighting into Baghdad with 1-64 Armor and then over to Fallujah with 3-15 Infantry, something didn’t feel right. I first noticed it a few days after I returned when I went to a Subway restaurant to get a quick lunch just outside Fort Stewart, GA.
The man in front of me ordered his sandwich and asked the young kid making the sandwich to cut it into thirds. He ended up cutting it into quarters and the man started berating the Subway employee.
Was this guy really complaining about how his sandwich was cut, making a scene in the process? If that was the worst of my problems, I’d have been overjoyed! I had made it home by surviving brutal combat in which I had made my peace and accepted my death on three distinct occasions, only to come home to a society whose biggest problems in life were how their sandwiches were cut. I pushed on and tried to ignore the fact that I just didn’t fit in with society.
As time went on, I became more and more angry. I pushed people out of my life because I didn’t want to get close to anyone. Friends die. If I don’t have friends, I don’t have to worry about losing them. I questioned how God could allow such misery, pain, suffering and loss of life. Why was I allowed to live and people like SPC George Mitchell and SSG Stevon Booker allowed to die? I continued to “suck it up and drive on," pushing through the constant battle in my head over my self worth, and a constant stream of violent imagery that plagued me all night and when I least expected it during the day. I needed help, but I didn’t dare ask for it.
Since 2009, I’ve made great strides. I’ve learned to let go of the survivor’s guilt and found ways to deal with the sights, sounds, and smells that are triggers for my anxiety. I largely self-medicated through my writing and blogging. Thankfully, I never turned to drinking or drugs, though I thought often of just wanting to down a bottle of the cheapest liquor I could find to let go for awhile.
The problem with being honest and writing about PTSD successes and failures is that people who either don’t understand it or have an axe to grind will use it against you. Both types of people are dangerous to efforts made in helping troops overcome their demons of war.
Last year, I was accepted into the Warrior Combat Stress Reset Program here on Fort Hood. Reset is a three-week, outpatient program for qualified active duty troops suffering from extreme PTSD. The therapy combines both individual and group therapy with complimentary alternative medicine (CAM), like reflexology, deep tissue massage, yoga, Reiki, and more.
That three weeks did more to help me successfully deal with the complications associated with PTSD than the previous four years of counseling alone did. Not only did the program address the mental pain associated with combat and living in a combat environment, but it also addressed the physical pain I have suffered since that day I was blown off the embankment. For the first time in over ten years, I got up off that bed feeling like I was floating. I felt virtually no pain at a time when my “normal” pain level was about a five on a scale of one to ten.
Unfortunately, because of the time and space requirements, each three-week program can only accommodate 10-12 troops. The groups are broken down into seniors and juniors, keeping senior NCOs and officers together and junior enlisted troops together to foster openness and trust.
For the first time in ten years, I no longer feel like a leper in society, constantly on guard seeking a hidden enemy in the bushes or the median of a highway. I can better control my anger, depression, and guilt. I’ve also accepted that I’ll never be able to forget the evils and perils of combat, but I can learn to live peacefully with them. In other words, I feel human again.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank The Sandbox for all the hard work it has done to tell the story of our military through our eyes. Encapsulated within the confines of this site is more honesty and reality than we will ever see in the media. For many years, The Sandbox has told the stories that simply weren’t being told. It will be missed and its presence was appreciated.
C.J. Grisham's numerous Sandbox posts include Huggy Lady, Kaf-Tastic Killer Bunnies, How To Keep Your Soul, SSG Brian Cowdrey, Infinite Progress, SFC Zeke, A Second Knock at the Door. and An Unwelcome Christmas.