“Facing Stigma” with Dennis R.

“I moved around a lot as a kid because I was an Army brat. I knew I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps of service so I joined the active duty Army once I got the chance. I did my four years and then decided to transition into the reserves from ‘93 to ‘98. I ended up going back on active duty in ‘98 and finished out my 20 years. I was at Ft. Drum when 9/11 happened and I can remember waking up right before the second plane hit. I couldn’t believe what I was watching, but I knew we’d be going to war. I was deployed for the first time to Afghanistan in 2006 as a dog handler. It was my first time being in a combat zone with a dog and as a military police officer, our day-to-day consisted of searching vehicles for explosives. That first deployment wasn’t that exciting, but when I went back in 2008 things really got more kinetic. I was sent to Forward Operating Base Salerno which was known as “rocket city” because of the frequency with which we were getting mortared. I was doing a lot of missions outside the wire with the infantry and artillery and whoever else needed us. I saw a lot and did some things that really stuck with me and started a lot of the PTS I would go on to experience. While you’re deployed, you’re forced to suppress a lot of the stuff you experience; especially being a dog handler because a lot of people are depending on you. It’s a lot of pressure because you’re hoping the dog doesn’t miss anything and then somebody gets killed or injured. Actually two weeks before we were supposed to go home, we were attacked by a guy wearing a suicide vest and luckily we got him before he got us. However, the hardest part to deal with was taking a life and that’s something that I struggled with for a long time. To this day I still hide some of the stuff I did and my experiences from my family.

After that deployment I knew something was off. My dad was a Vietnam vet who had PTS so I grew up around it, and when I came back I figured I’d have to do my best to deal with it. I ended up having a nurse ask me if I’d ever taken a test to see if I had PTS. I wasn’t very honest during the test but she still came back and diagnosed me with minor PTS. They sent me to see a therapist, but I ended up getting deployed for a third time to Iraq. By the time I got back from that deployment I knew I wasn’t right. If my kids even dropped a spoon on the floor I would flip out, so I knew I needed to get help. I bounced around from therapist to therapist and to be honest, I didn’t really put a lot of effort into it. Then in 2018 I was talking to another veteran and he just flat out  said, “I can tell you’re just treading water; you need to get some help.” I still get choked up about it because he’s the one who told me about Boulder Crest and brought me to the organization. They gave me a really strong foundation and I was motivated to continue getting better; eventually I found Headstrong online. I got connected to my therapist, Diana, and after working with her for a while, I stopped thinking about that big incident. She’s been amazing to work with and helped give me coping mechanisms to deal with my past experiences. Now when I feel the depression or anxiety coming on, I have the tools to deal with those feelings. My experiences made me different in some ways, but I learned to accept that and live with what happened. I’m able to talk to my wife more openly now and have even paid it forward to help others who are struggling. I’m proud of myself because with the help of Headstrong and Diana, I’m a new person.”