From Soldier to Substance Abuse

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In late summer and fall of 2001, our nation was under attack in a manner unheard of to date. The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 is etched into the minds of Americans across this country. Terrorists wanting to demoralize our citizens and threaten our freedoms brought a holy war – a fanatical Jihad – to our soil. This is where my story begins . . .

After seeing the horrible devastation and feeling the sorrow and sadness as the news swept across our entire nation, I felt an immediate sense of, “How dare they attack my country!” I wanted to be part of not letting another group of lunatics harm another hair on another American head ever again. I wanted to retaliate and take the fight to them. So I enlisted in the Army as an infantryman.

After basic training and Army infantry school, my combined arms battalion was called up for a tour of duty in Iraq. Before we could go into Iraq, we flew into Kuwait as part of our acclimatization. The realization of being in a hostile country didn’t really hit me until we got on the Chinooks that were flying us to our forward observation base (FOB) about 15 miles south of Baghdad.

From Soldier to Substance Abuse

While in the Chinook, I looked around at the faces of my fellow brothers-in-arms. Some looked a little scared, some calm, while others had a look of determination. A good friend of mine, a Sergeant First Class (SFC), was sitting at the very back of the Chinook. He tapped me on the leg and motioned for me to look at the hull of the chopper, pointing to bullet holes a fraction of an inch away from the Chinook’s main hydraulic lines.

As I turned my head to look back at my friend, I glimpsed the Airman (Air Force crew member) looking at me. He moved the headset mic away from his mouth, smiled and motioned with his head to the bullet holes. Still smiling he said, “Lucky day.”

As we descended on the FOB landing pad, hoping to make contact with one of the chopper transports, I saw incoming enemy tracer rounds from small arms being sporadically fired into the air.

With sirens sounding, we bedded down for our first night in hostile territory. Soon after, the FOB got hit with the first of many enemy insurgent barrages of mortar-round attacks. This incident was the first of many traumatic stressors.

Less than a month after arriving in Iraq, our brigade began to have its first casualties. Three of our soldiers from the civil-military liaison team were killed by an insurgent wearing a SVIED – suicide vest improvised explosive device. There were also civilian casualties.
A little over a month later, my company suffered four more casualties. These four soldiers were killed when an IED, placed at the side of the road in the carcass of a dead animal, detonated just as their Humvee passed by.

The four men killed were all friends of mine. But the death of my close friend – the SFC who sat next to me on the Chinook as we arrived in Iraq – really tore me up. He was gone and I was never going to see him again. This plagued me for the rest of the time I was in Iraq.

The loss of my brothers-in-arms really hit after I returned home. Why was I allowed to live while they were not? This led me into sadness and depression mixed with grief and sorrow. I didn’t feel good about myself. I wanted to find something to make me feel good – good about the man I was, good about being a soldier who fought for his country.

People came up to me and said that I was a hero. I didn’t feel like a hero. To me the real heroes were the ones who didn’t come home. The fact that I came home and they didn’t gave me an emptiness and longing I needed to fill.

I chose to fill that void with drugs; they numbed my pain and made me forget, at least temporarily. I thought this was the only way to control my feelings and emotions. Unfortunately, this jeopardized my life, my health and my freedom.

This was my irrational thinking – if I avoided the feelings and emotions, they would go away. Boy, how wrong I was. When I wasn’t high, the feelings and emotions came upon me like a wildfire racing through dry brush.

I used drugs until I couldn’t see the world; so I could hide; so I could make everything appear as a fog. I became careless with my life. I started associating with the wrong people; my use of drugs eventually landed me in trouble with the law. I was arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, a class six felony; and I went to jail.

While I was in jail, my probation officer discovered that I was a veteran and asked why that was not brought up during my sentencing. I had no answer. I believed that even though I was a military combat veteran, I deserved to be locked up.

I thank God my probation officer did not agree with me. She contacted Veterans Affairs and had a representative come and talk to me while I was in jail. I told him that I was there because my life was unmanageable due to my addiction and that I wanted and needed help. Two weeks later, I entered the Tucson VA inpatient substance abuse treatment program.

I have been in the VA program for nine weeks and have learned an immense amount about the disease of addiction, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the underlying causal factors. Thanks to jail, my probation officer and the addiction therapists at the VA, I have been clean since January 10, 2014.

Today my recovery is what is important to me. I know my life is worth living. I can honor the memories of my brothers-in-arms and my dear friend without relapse and drug use.

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