As a combat photographer in the U.S. Air Force, my missions ran the gamut. I saw people blown apart, and I had to take pictures of it. I can’t erase those pictures.
Before my first deployment, psychological health wasn’t something I thought about. I was focused on physical health; making sure that I was professionally prepared with my camera skills and physically prepared by running PT every day.
During my first deployment to Baghdad, I was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED). I injured my neck when my head impacted the driver’s seat in front of me. I didn’t know it at the time but I had a traumatic brain injury. I went through physical therapy, but the stress from the IED and other experiences kept me from sleeping at night.
I didn’t recognize what was happening. During a temporary duty assignment to Washington, D.C., a friend talked to me about some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) I was exhibiting and encouraged me to talk with someone. With his support, I sought help from my local Vet Center.
Eventually I went back to Iraq and I felt like I had adequate coping skills for PTSD. However, my deployment in 2007 was unlike anything I had ever seen in past combat deployments—everybody around me seemed to be dying—and it had a real impact on my psychological health.
Talking with counselors on base and now at the Department of Veterans Affairs has helped me rebuild my psychological strength and resilience, and it’s given me an opportunity to help my fellow service members. As part of my career now, I do a lot of outreach and mentoring in photography. I am also involved in many PTSD rehabilitation programs which involve using photography or horses; I use those tools to help others with PTSD.
It takes real strength to seek help, and I hope that by sharing my story, I am able to help others cope with their own experiences. It’s not necessarily about who we were, but it’s who we are now that matters. We must be able to learn from our experiences and get the help we need in order to move on with our lives.
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