By Debbie Gregory.
Andrew O’Brien was heading out on an Iraqi road when an IED struck a team in another truck. O’Brien couldn’t turn away from the scene. He thought if he examined the scene to determine what happened, he could keep his men safe from an IED.
Instead, he began suffering from nightmares, PTSD and paranoia, which led to heavy drinking. Six months after his deployment, when the nightmares persisted, a counselor diagnosed his condition and ordered him to stay away from training on firing ranges. His sergeant’s reaction was to call him a string of expletives. At the time, there was little help for veterans dealing with the aftermath of war. Eventually, his counselor also stopped believing he had PTSD, and O’Brien was left alone.
His symptoms persisted, and became worse. Eventually, O’Brien was driven to suicide after an argument with a friend. He swallowed four bottles of pills and drank a beer. Then he called 911 and passed out. When he woke up, he was different. He was happy to be alive, and he soon felt he had a purpose – to share his journey with others.
O’Brien is the founder of the Welcome Your Soldier Home project, and is working to help others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His book, “Welcoming Your Soldier Home” is available at wyshproject.org.
O’Brien is on a cross-country bus tour this summer to promote the book, and also to create a documentary film about the people he meets on his tour. Some of those people have surprised him. In Austin, an online commenter called him “weak.” O’Brien said, “He said what I saw in Iraq was nothing worse than a highway car crash.”
In the past, the comment might have sent O’Brien spiraling into a violent rage or a drinking binge. Today, since he has received counseling to manage his PTSD, his reaction is healthier.
“Don’t judge our returning vets – that’s the very mentality I’m trying to break,” O’Brien says. “And don’t act like we shouldn’t be affected by our tours or that they weren’t that big a deal.”
O’Brien, who launched his book tour in Houston, speaks heart to heart with soldiers, vets and their families about these once taboo subjects.
“They think that we’ll come back from war, be different for a few months and then go back to normal,” he says. “But we all come back different people. We’ll still have pieces of the person we were before, but no one will ever be the same.”
O’Brien’s advice for family members of soldiers who suffer from PTSD:
– It’s great to familiarize yourselves with PTSD, but don’t try to understand what your soldier has endured. You’ll never be able to put yourself in his/her shoes.
– Don’t push or nag. If you push them in one direction, they’ll do the opposite.
– Try to understand their anxiety and paranoia. In a tight, crowded space, for example, they’re going to be on guard, waiting for an attack.
– Offer your unconditional support. “We need a strong person to stand behind us, no matter how crazy we get,” O’Brien says. “And please don’t give up, or we will give up on ourselves.”