Laura Colbert shares an open story of her struggle with PTSD sixteen years after coming home from Iraq. You can listen to her story on the Women of the Military Podcast here.
The Hidden Many
By Laura Colbert
I am a combat Veteran. This statement is simple, yet it comes with so many complexities. At what point in an introduction is it necessary to bring up? Right away, never, or once I get to know someone better? Even though I returned from war 16 years ago, the simple fact is, being a veteran is a large piece of my identity. Those 16 years have flashed by. I once heard that we perceive half of our life by the time we’re 20. There’s merit in that sentiment when I consider how quickly my life has sped along the last few years. On the other hand, 16 years is a long time to hold onto an identity that only lasted a short 16 months of my life.
It’s not necessarily by choice that my combat experience is so intimately woven into my very existence. The moral injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have braided themselves into my neural pathways and clung tightly to my adrenal glands. It’s there, lingering, ready to pounce at an unassuming noise, smell, or image. I bring this up because we just celebrated the 4th of July. The very holiday that simultaneously celebrates our freedom, country, veterans, and everything our great nation has endured. Fireworks are almost as vital to the 4th as ink is to a pen, as water is to survive, as jelly is to peanut butter. What made this so? Who decided that loud booming makes an American celebration whole? For many of us Veterans, the 4th is a very scary time. VERY SCARY.
Let me tell you a story….
I was on the Chain O’Lakes in Waupaca. For those of you that think lakes are sludgy cesspools… let me introduce you to the crystal clear, spring-fed beauties of the Chain. You can see 20 feet down. The water is an oceanic blue/green and almost as clean as your neighbor’s pool. It’s simply stunning.
Ok, back to my story…
I was swimming in a deep, 40-foot lake on the chain when I heard the launch of a mortar and then the boom of the explosion. It’s one thing when I know what to expect. But when fireworks are unannounced and in a mortar form. I freeze, I cry, I cover my face and my ears. The only problem? I was treading water in a 40-foot deep lake. That’s not good. My face scrunched up, my body shook with fear, and I quickly swam to the boat to cling onto something tangible without knowing when the subsequent booms would occur.
That was this summer.
That was 16 years AFTER I returned from war. So let me ask you again, at what point do I tell people that I am a combat veteran? Is this when? Do I leave the very lake that I’m swimming in and uproot my extended family of 15 to move to another lake where the same thing might happen?
My caring twin brother, Andy, who is also an honorable Police Detective, swam across that very lake and kindly told them that there were two combat veterans (my older brother is one as well) on our boat and to please give us a warning whistle before shooting the mortars off again. They felt bad and told Andy, that they would wait until we were gone before they shot anymore off. And that, my friends, is how it usually goes. People don’t mean to scare the hidden veterans. They might not even know that some veterans don’t appreciate fireworks anymore. That is the very purpose of this blog and one of the many reasons for writing my book called Sirens: How to Pee Standing Up―to create awareness.
We’re hidden, dear readers. You never know where Veterans are. You especially don’t know how booming fireworks are going to affect us. Here’s a snippet from my book that shares other firework scenarios.
“Once my older brother got home, we had a welcome-home party for the both of us. My neighbor naively shot off fireworks to celebrate. I looked at my mom with dread in my face and shaking hands. “What is going on?” I pined, “How can they be shooting off fireworks and making those noises after I was at war for sixteen months. What the hell?” My voice quivered. My breathing shortened. I scratched at my flesh. Tears fell from my eyes. My face reddened and blotched as I tried to enjoy the show, but my mind was not present.
As my fingers are typing these keys, my body is returning to its state from 14 years ago. I’m raw. I’m weak. And I’m filled with trepidation. The fear is still real and present and powerful. Tears are running down my cheeks as I type. My vision is blurred, yet I persevere because this is part of my story. This is who I am. I will walk away from my computer tonight and lie down next to my loving husband and go to sleep and dream and wake up and continue on because that is my life. That is my fate. This is me. I am still suffering. But I am a survivor. I am strong. I. Will. Go. On.
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PTSD Doesn’t Look the same for everyone
A few years ago, my older brother—whose PTSD manifests itself in different ways than my own—shot off fireworks while my immediate family was visiting my parents. I asked, “Are they loud? Are they boomers?”
“Naw,” he responded, “They’re just ground fireworks. Nothing too loud.”
“You sure? Because if they’re loud, please don’t shoot them off. I’m not in a good place right now.”
“Laura, relax. They’re fine. You’ll be OK.”
He walked into the dark field, flicked his lighter, ignited the mortar, and continued to light more and more and more. I was not fine. And as I was staring into the dark sky, hearing the screeches before the blasts. I rocked in my chair and hugged myself. Then I covered my ears, praying for it to end. When it didn’t, I got up and walked away into my own darkness—away from the fireworks. Away from my family. My bare feet kept putting one foot in front of the other. I couldn’t stop until I reached only the chirping of crickets and the croaking of frogs. I could hear my mom calling my name. They’re looking for me. I have to go back.
I can’t go back. Joe betrayed me. He blatantly lied to me. He disregarded me. My own fellow veteran didn’t care. How am I supposed to return? My own parents allowed it to happen. My husband didn’t follow me. No one can understand my pain at this moment. I am alone.
I can’t do this alone. It’s too scary and sad and dismal. Should I keep walking?
Should I end it? This weight is so heavy sometimes. It would be so easy to quit this life. NO! I have children. I have a family. They love me. They really do. But They just don’t understand. It’ll be OK. I love them, I love my life. This is a fleeting moment.
My mom’s call was closer. It broke through my thoughts. In a slow and hesitant manner, I turned around and silently meandered the half-mile back home. My mom embraced me first. “I’m sorry, baby,” she said, “I’m sorry.”
I buried my face in her neck and shuddered in grief.
Damn my post-traumatic stress.
Damn the fireworks and my anxiety.
Finally, damn it all.
My husband, who was right behind her, enveloped us both. It will be OK. I will be OK.”
I am one veteran. One of millions.
There are at least a hundred more examples I could share with you like that one time I went to the 4th of July parade and the VFW troops who were in the parade shot off their rifles every three minutes and how I left with tears streamed down my face or that one time my husband was building a fence and the nail gun gave me intrusive thoughts of war.
Please know, we don’t hold it against anyone.
There are many veterans who love fireworks, who are the very people who are shooting them off, who yell, “‘Merica!,” anytime they hear and see a beautiful boomer. I, unfortunately, am not one of them. My neural circuitry has been re-written and even though I try to reassociate those noises with positive memories, the effects of war are stronger than I have been able to overcome.
As mentioned in my book, Sirens: How to Pee Standing Up, be cognizant of those around you. Be kind. Show compassion and empathy, even if you don’t know why. And most importantly, communicate with each other.
Ask questions, inquire to understand, and be open to others’ pain.
Laura served in the Army National Guard from March 2001-2009 as a military police officer. She was activated to active duty and deployed to Baghdad, Iraq from March 2003-July 2004. In 2019, Laura published her memoir, Sirens: How to Pee Standing Up, which is an alarming memoir of combat and coming back home.