This post is mainly for my family and friends who may not have been told the entire story. If you are a Vet or know a Vet who is having trouble, get help. PTSD is nothing to be ashamed of nor dealt with alone.
I hope this helps explain why I am who I am.
Everything started back in January 1985. I was in the Army and it was my first tour in Germany. There I was, 19 years old and in the land of my ancestors. The Cold War was in full swing, but it was officially Peace Time. My time in Germany started out alright. There was a lot of drinking, partying and the German women were lovely. The work was easy.
I was stationed on a remote site called Zabelstein. We worked on top of a mountain and provided communications support for the border radar systems. We lived in a village named Donnersdorf. We had a house right in the middle of the village. We were exposed. There was little to no security. Everyone knew who we were and where we were. It was Peace Time so we were not concerned. Life was good.
Then it began. At first it was little things. People investigating the the site. Nothing big. People walking around the perimeter of the site looking at the monkeys in the cage, us. We didn’t think too much about it. After a while it began to wear on us a bit. We would politely ask them to stay on the road and most would comply. Then the night time harassment started. On several occasions the fence was tested by outsiders. We were not on alert so no one was walking guard. We would find signs of an attempted entry in the mornings. We just figured it was kids screwing around. It was Peace Time.
April 12, 1985 Madrid, Spain: A bomb exploded in a restaurant where U.S. soldiers liked to eat. The explosion killed 18 Spaniard citizens and injured 82 other people. Only 15 of the Americans were injured, but none were killed. Well, that was in Spain. We figured it had nothing to do with us. June 14, 1985 TWA Flight 847 was hijacked. Again, this happened elsewhere, but things are starting to look a bit serious.
Then the shit hit the fan, Hardcore. Aug 8th, 1985, a bomb was set off behind the Headquarters of Rhein Main Air Base. The night before a guy in my unit, Edward Pimental, was killed for his ID Card. His ID Card was used to gain access to Rhein Main Air Base. 2 people were killed in the explosion. The Red Army Faction had stepped up their game. We knew they existed, but they had, for the most part, left us alone. Now it was Go Time.
Incidents of site harassment increased. We were on alert and walking guard. It was still officially Peace Time so we were walking guard without ammo for our weapons. No stress there. There was always someone watching us. There was nothing we could do about it other than report it. We began to grow our hair out a bit and would only shave every 3 days. This was in an attempt to blend in better. We were young and naive. They knew exactly who we were and where we were at all times.
Then it became personal. More than once we found ourselves under, what I can only call, attack. When you find yourself in a ditch on the side of the road with rocks being kicked up at you by a car that just tried to hit you, you tend to take that a bit personal.
Nov 24, 1985 is when my own personal Hell began. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I drove the site cook up to the Frankfurt Commissary/PX to get our food for the upcoming holiday. We were in a military VW van so we parked in the area reserved for military vehicles. We finished our shopping and was just about to leave when the whole friggin’ world exploded. There were cars flipping in the air. People screaming covered in blood. Part of a building was destroyed. Fire and shit was everywhere. Those of us who were not injured or only mildly injured set up two triage centers. One at the Commissary and one at the PX. None of us were armed, so the only thing we could do was to take care of the wounded and wait for emergency services to arrive. 34 people were wounded and luckily no one was killed. We initially thought it was the Red Army Faction again, but we found out about a week later that it was two Iraqis. When you find yourself carrying a badly injured child it tends to leave a mark.
Full Alert. We were finally issued ammo for our weapons. Each of us got a whole 5 rounds a piece. That is about 2 seconds worth of ammunition, if you are taking your time. Site harassment continued. We were constantly on guard, on and off duty. We never went anywhere alone. We were sitting ducks waiting to get picked off. For whatever reason our house in the village was never targeted. For that we were grateful. There were several more incidents of terrorist activity throughout the world for the next few months. Every time something went bang we jumped.
April 5, 1986 the La Belle Disco in Berlin was bombed. 2 American soldiers were killed there and many more were wounded. April 15, 1986 America bombed Lybia and all of a sudden the locals of our village were turning on us. They were throwing rocks and tomatoes at us and hurling all kinds of insults our way. April 26, 1986 Chernobyl exploded. Because we worked on top of a mountain, we were exposed to high levels of radioactive iodine that was being carried in the clouds. Radioactive Iodine is a thyroid seeker. Guess who was on cancer watch for the next decade. What a great way to spend your twenties.
July 11, 1986 I got the hell out of the Army. My time was up and I gladly left. Peace Time my ass. I spent the next two years in a drug and alcohol induced haze. I was self medicating. The Ohio VA was no help. I was thrown out of one of the clinics because I asked to be tested for radiation exposure. I was having flashbacks and nightmares. I was a mess and didn’t even know it.
Aug 1988 I went back in the Army because I found that I could not stand civilian life. I needed to get myself straightened back out. The drugs and alcohol were going to kill me. Where do you think they sent me? You guessed it. Right back to Germany. When I got my orders I sat on the floor and cried. My Platoon Sergeant assured me that “things were different” now. All the crazy shit was over. I trusted him. I went.
Dec 21, 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 or Lockerbie bombing. Mother F#cker! Here we go again.
For the rest of my tour in Germany I was drinking heavily. The Berlin Wall came down. I was pissed. The Cold War was officially over and the Russians were now our friends. The greatest war never fought. Bullshit! At that moment my job was effectively made null and void. That Autumn I blew out my left knee. This is just great. Not only has my existence in a foreign country been made useless, but now I’m hurt. The Army failed to take care of me until a year and a half later at Ft Bragg. During my time awaiting surgery, Desert Storm kicked off. I was a soldier who couldn’t fight because I was broken. I wasn’t gung ho to go to war, but it was my job. My Duty.
My time was up again. I was barred from reenlistment because of my knee. I was being forced out of the Army. I was being forced back into civilian life. This was all bad.
I drank a little. No drugs. But I found that the less I drank the more isolated I became. Over the next 19 years I had effectively cut myself off from any social interaction with anyone. I would go to work, then go home. That was it. I always had a viable reason as to why I couldn’t go out with my friends. If they came to see me, that was fine, but I rarely went anywhere. Over those 19 years I was angry all of the time. I didn’t trust anyone. I didn’t want to get close to anyone. After two failed marriages and way too many relationships, I had completely shut myself off emotionally from anyone. I wanted nothing to do with anyone.
I felt like a complete failure. Anything I touched turned to shit. Suicide was a definite option. I had a plan if the time arose. I was going to make as little mess as possible to make clean up easy. I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone.
Then things got worse.
May 2010. I was having constant anxiety attacks. My temper was seriously getting out of control. I hated my job. I hated my life. I hated everyone. I was done. Either I had to change something or people were going to die. Literally. This wasn’t the school yard “I’m going to kill him/her”, this was the “how can I kill all the people who need killing before the cops kill me”.
Then it dawned on me that this wasn’t “normal” thinking. Apparently, I had a moment of clarity and it scared the shit out of me. I called the only person I knew who could help. My brother in Montana. For years he had been telling me that I had PTSD. I always responded with “F you, I’m fine. My life just sucks”. For all those years he was also asking me to come to Montana because the VA out there actually cares and helps Vets in need. Unlike the Ohio VA who threatened to take away what little disability I was getting if I pursued a re-evaluation.
So, instead of shooting(repeatedly) one of my work associates in the face with my 9-mm, and countless others, I left Ohio and moved to Montana. That moment of clarity saved my life. It also saved the lives of those that I deemed in need of being killed. I was melting down and if I stayed it would have been very bad for a lot of people.
Present Day. I have been diagnosed with severe PTSD. They have prescribed “happy pills” for me. Whenever I experience a trigger I take a pill. Whenever I have to go into Missoula I take a pill. Unfortunately, I have to take the pills to sleep or I stay up all night until I finally drop from exhaustion. The nightmares are horrendous.
I’m better now. Thoughts of suicide don’t come around as often or as strong. Thoughts of homicide only occur when someone volunteers to join the list of those who need killing, by being stupid. I see a therapist every other week. He is a great man. A Viet Nam Vet who definitely saw some shit. Without him and my brother, I would not have been able to tell you about this long and painful journey from the brink of suicide to merely looking at it from across the valley. My isolation continues. I still distance myself from people(in general), but I’m willing to give some folks a shot at getting close. I have just begun this path to recovery. I may never fully recover nor be able to rejoin society as a “normal” person. But I’m going to give it a try.
PTSD: A normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
My estranged son did not get the help he needed: Obituary of Gary M. Underhill
Nor did others: Four Erie County Soldiers Commit Suicide