Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stories Series Episode #1: At War With Myself.

Andrew Turner
25 March, 2014

I came home from Iraq and put my medic aid bag in a closet.  It stayed there, practically untouched for the next eight years.  Last weekend I got it out and opened it up.  Everything was still right where I left it.  Even after all those years I could have grabbed anything I needed without much thought, including the bags of IV fluid that expired back in 2006.  It gave me goosebumps.  I didn't know if I felt good or bad.  I just felt weird.  I messaged my roommate from Iraq and let him know.  He told me he had left his packed until about a year ago.  It was harder to unpack it than he thought it would be, he said.  I don't think I can unpack mine yet.  I just found out how not ready I really am.

Every Friday I sat in an informal “Lesson’s Learned” class at the Battalion Aid Station.  A doctor from the base hospital would come talk about the injuries they were seeing, the latest treatments that were working, and the treatments that weren’t.  He told us once of a medic that reacted just as he was trained, and saved a life that otherwise could easily have been lost.  Eight or nine months into our deployment he asked us to raise our hands if we had treated an American soldier outside the wire.  I looked around the room and everyone, all 15+ medics, had a hand raised.  All except me.

I was the one guy in the group that had managed to escape any real danger or serious incident.  Even though I was the medic out on mission when our unit was hit with the first IED, everyone other than the gunner was fine.  He took a small ball bearing in his upper arm and barely even noticed.  He didn’t require any attention from me that merited us hanging out at the site.  Instead we just got out of the area and let the medics back on base double check him.  He was back on the road a day or two later.  The rest of my time in Iraq was smooth sailing for me, relatively speaking.  My roommate on the other hand treated two soldiers who died as a result of small arms fire.  My section sergeant treated two soldiers that had to be medevac’d out of the country after a suicide car bomb exploded into their convoy.  Every other medic had been on ground for serious injury or death within our battalion.  Any person in their right mind would consider me the lucky one in the group, but  I didn’t feel that way.  Instead, as I realized every other person had a hand raised, I sunk back in my seat, embarrassed, hoping nobody would notice.  I felt like a fraud.

Nearly ten years later it’s hard to shake the feeling I got that day.  It almost makes me sick to think back on it.  I realize what being embarrassed that day means.  It means that for me to validate my part in the war, I needed to be on ground for the death or serious injury of a fellow soldier.  I don’t really have words to express how fucked up that feels in my head.  Did I really just admit that I needed, or worse yet wanted, one of my guys to go down so I could play my medic role and proudly raise my hand with the rest of the medics??  Go ahead and admit a more fucked up thought you’ve ever had.  I’ll wait.

Of course when I think about it rationally, I obviously never wanted anything like that to happen.  But some traitorous part of my brain creeps up now and again and makes me think, “Did you really just think that, you sick fuck?  Is that what it would take to make you feel like a ‘real’ medic, or ‘real’ soldier?”  I really do feel fortunate that all the guys in my platoon came home in one piece.  I feel fortunate that I don’t have to live with the memory of pretending to talk to a soldier I knew was dead, because it would help keep everyone else as calm as possible.  I know friends who carry that burden and I don’t know how they do it.  I know my platoon well, and I know they were glad I was their medic, just as I was glad they were my platoon.  But despite feeling like a fraud for not having done my job, I was scared as shit that one day, I would have to.  I went outside the wire with my guys more than 250 times.  How many times can you expect to be lucky?  More than anything I was scared that sooner or later my luck would run out and I wouldn’t get the job done.  If I was a fraud for not doing my job, how much more would I have been for failing at it?

When I came home I started developing some kind of mental funk.  I didn’t know what it was.  I told people it was vertigo because that’s a word that would make sense to them.  They would understand why I was unable to drive at times because my head was spinning so badly.  They would understand why I needed time off work.  They would understand why I was unable to choose food for my own plate at holiday dinners, because the variety of choices were overwhelming.  And most importantly, they wouldn’t ask too many questions.  But once a year or so, I would be in my “funk” for an entire month. For six weeks. No driving, no working, no eating, no TV or radio on while I laid on the couch all day, head buried in the cushions.  And once a year I would hold on with everything I had until that month passed and I woke up one day, back to normal.  One instance when it was at its worst, I had to drive to Grand Rapids to participate in a memorial service for former First Lady Betty Ford.  For two hours I gripped the wheel, forced myself to focus on the car in front of me, and fought thoughts of just closing my eyes, letting go of the wheel, and…who knows what next.  I didn’t want to kill myself.  But, I didn’t care what happened to me.  I just needed my brain to function right.  I can’t describe the frustration I felt in thinking that my mind was not doing what I knew it was supposed to do.  It wouldn’t allow me to make quick decisions.  It wouldn’t allow me to focus.  It wouldn’t allow me to operate at the level I’m accustomed to.  It was betraying me. 

When I got to Grand Rapids I was told that the ceremony had been delayed and to come back the next day.  The sigh of relief I breathed for having finally made it in the first place was replaced by the realization that, though I was not even sure how I made it as far as I had, now I had to turn around and do it all over again.  I don’t remember much of the drive.  I do remember driving past construction zones I had obviously driven through on the way to GR and thinking, “Where the hell did that come from?  Why don’t I remember driving through that?”

I didn’t go back to Grand Rapids the next day.  Instead I had Jamie take me to the VA Hospital in Ann Arbor.  It was probably the fourth or fifth time I had gone over the years since I returned home, and though I was desperate for an answer, I was pretty sure I would leave disappointed like every other time.  I don’t know what was different that day, but by some stroke of luck or fate, I found somebody who helped me.  Over the course of the next 6 months I worked with “Ashley” to develop a treatment plan to combat my issue that included an "in case of emergency" plan should I feel it happening again. For now, every morning I take a pill.  Every night I take a pill.  After talking with my doctor, I expect I’ll be taking that pill every morning and every night indefinitely.  And my mental health is always at the forefront of my mind and my wife’s mind.  I know what I need to do if I feel myself slipping back into the funk.  My wife worries more about it than I do.  Probably because she’s the one who has had to take care of me for the extended periods of my life that have vanished. 

I’ve maintained my normalcy for nearly two years now.  I feel pretty confident that my month-long sabbaticals from life are a thing of the past.  I still have normal ups and downs, but my wife is hyperaware of them, always concerned that I’m not being completely honest with how I feel during the downs.  I’m more aware too.  Aware of when I’m getting close to that edge and what I need to do to back away from it.  I feel like I have as good of a handle on it as I can expect.  But I also realize that if I’m not careful, I could wake up tomorrow with the prospects of a long painful month, thinking to myself, “Not again…” This is my new normal. This is what we don't really talk about. This is the war with myself. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

11th Anniversary of the Start of Operation Iraqi Freedom - A Mother's Perspective

Today marks the 11th anniversary of the beginning of the War in Iraq. Today, we would like to share the powerful words of Alesia Harris Jimenez Swartz , whose son was Killed in Action in support of Operation Iraq Freedom-2004. We are truly grateful for Alesia for giving Veteran's Refuge Network the opportunity to share her words.

May we never forget our Service Men and Women and our Gold Star families who have made incredible sacrifices on behalf of our great nation. “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." –President Lincoln

From Alesia Harris Jimenez Swartz: In Memory of RJ- RIP 

"March 19, 2014 – On the 11th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, no matter your opinion, we must never lose sight of the tremendous sacrifices our brave men and women in uniform made during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. Every one of the more than one million service members that deployed to Iraq, often for multiple tours of duty, deserves our highest praise and deepest debt of gratitude.
We will always honor the sacrifice of U.S. service members who died in Iraq, and those who came home wounded. Every man and woman who served in Iraq carries with them the scars of war. As we remember these quiet heroes this week we are also reminded of their families and their sacrifices, as we also honor and thank them."                                                                                 - Alesia Harris Jimenez Swartz

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Our Vision for Veteran's Refuge Network

Our Vision
By Andrew Turner
2, March 2014

This past Friday night we met with a small group of people to share with them our vision of Veteran’s Refuge Network.  One of the first comments we heard was, “Ok, so you guys are going really big here.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.”  We are going big.  Bigger than anything any of us have ever attempted before.  Up till now we have focused on short-term goals through our social media campaign (promoting PTSD and veteran suicide awareness, developing a community of veterans and supporters, and helping veterans find available resources) and will continue that focus, but on this night, we unveiled our long-term goal for the first time.  We’ve been asked multiple times what our vision is; we haven’t given a solid answer because we haven’t been able to properly articulate it to this point, and because it has been too raw to share.  Our goal for our Friday night meeting was to get face-to-face with other like-minded, passionate people who care for the well-being of veterans as much as we do, and to collectively build our vision and the plan to make it a reality. 

OUR VISION: To build and maintain Michigan’s first Veteran’s Refuge Center, a quiet place to go to heal from the internal and external scars of war. With a focus on PTSD, the center would offer professional counseling and other various forms of therapy geared toward the total healing of mind, body, and soul.

OUR DREAM: The ideal facility includes a central campus with space for individual and group counseling rooms, large family-style dining facilities, open kitchen with space for healthy eating classes, spacious gathering room, full gym, art studio, plus staff and security offices. The veteran’s residence quarters features private rooms, shared bathroom facilities, recreation room with entertainment equipment, and full kitchen. Surrounding grounds would be spacious enough to accommodate canine and horse therapy, swimming, fishing, hiking, trails for biking, and other additional outdoor recreation.

We have done our research and we don’t believe there is any facility in Michigan that does what we will do.  There are a lot of great resources for veterans throughout the state, but none that will offer the variety of treatments and continuity of care that the Veteran’s Refuge Center will. We believe that by building our unique center, we can partner with existing resources to give veterans the care they deserve; the care that many are currently unable to get.

Sharing pizza around a conference table in a room we were allowed free use of, Laura, Jamie and I shared our vision and asked for feedback.  Rob and Cheryl Stewart asked us the tough questions we had not thought through completely, or had not thought at all.  Tim and Lisa Potter offered enthusiastic support, sharing the purpose and passion that has driven them since their son, and our friend, Zack, took his own life as a result of his battle with PTSD. Deb Hoskins gave us emotional support while writing down notes and ideas as fast as they spilled out of us.  

We discussed the strengths of our plan, the passion we share, the unique vision we have, and the understanding of the great need we have.  We acknowledged our weaknesses and inexperience, and the lack of financial resources.  And most importantly, we talked about the opportunity we have.  The opportunity to save lives.  The opportunity to reach the 120,000+ veterans in the Metro Detroit area alone. And the chance to learn from other organizations across the country that are starting similar veteran centers. They are experiencing success and we will too.

OUR NEED: The need is great, but our passion to serve is greater. Our dream is attainable, but we recognize we can’t do it alone. We believe that by joining with like-minded people who each offer a unique perspective, Veteran’s Refuge will be made all the stronger. We are extremely excited to share our vision with you and we are looking forward to the journey we are embarking on.   We are sincerely grateful for the help and support anyone is willing and able to offer.  This is not about us. We will not be successful if it becomes only about us.  But together we can make a lasting and impactful change on the lives of the veterans who have already given so much. 

Thank you for taking the time to read our vision, and please consider partnering with us in this journey. If you are interested in contributing, the Potter family has generously started a campaign for our cause, the link can be found at

-Andrew, Laura, and Jamie