Fighting the Military’s Inadvertent Psychological War
By Elana Duffy
Did I ever tell you the story about how the Army almost killed me?
I’m not talking about the IED that really did almost kill me on my second deployment. That wasn’t the Army, that was the rat bastard who detonated the thing. I’m also not talking about some existential, Captain Yossarian Catch-22 type of killing, where because they are shooting at everyone they are out to kill me.
No, I’m talking about the system, particularly the “Rub Dirt On It and Drive On” Camp. That almost killed me, literally and figuratively, over the course of 7 years. And then how the VA has picked up where they left off in an effort to apparently finish the job.
I was knocked out by the concussive blast of an IED in 2005, suffering a brain apoplexy that luckily didn’t kill me that lovely October day in Central Iraq. And no one knew, so we continued mission.
I had a month in country, and somewhere around 20 missions, left. I had no idea what was wrong with me, why I knew no one’s name or where I was. But the blood in my ears, the confusion and headaches, I rubbed dirt on it and drove on.
I thought I was going crazy, but to say that in 2005 meant PTSD which was the kiss of death for Intel: we could lose our clearance. My partner told my team leader I was acting strange, and after a few days she sent me to Combat Stress. Funny thing about sending HUMINT folks to psych: we know exactly what to say to get the results we need. Like hell was I going to tell this guy anything and get sent home. I smiled and nodded and got my Fit For Duty.
When I got home in November I mentioned sleep trouble and headaches and maybe something about my vision fading since the blast. Doctors dismissed me and sent me back to mental health. I only went once.
I made a PCS move. I hid the headaches as best I could, plowing through over the counter medication though it didn’t touch the pain. My vision was shadowed, doubling if I moved too far or too fast. I had no idea what was wrong, but every time I went to a doctor I was handed Motrin and sent to psych, who I gave half-truths to get out of there. I stopped going to the doctor. They didn’t help anyway; I didn’t need any more dirt to rub on things.
Two years after returning from Iraq, a PA cornered me for a command-mandated Post Deployment Health Reassessment, something I’d successfully avoided with my PCS. I reluctantly listed my symptoms and waited for the “It’s nothing”. Instead, he sent me halfway across the country to a neurologist studying concussive blasts and this weird TBI thing no one was really paying attention to yet. And I had every symptom in the textbook. Neurology sent me for an MRI. Within a month, I was rushed to emergency neurosurgery at Walter Reed.
It was over two and a half years since that sunny day in Central Iraq. Had I hit my head significantly hard during those years, I’d be dead. Rubbing dirt on my symptoms had almost killed me.
I needed years of rehabilitation, and only regained an estimated 60% mental capacity of where I was before joining the Army. I’d started with multiple engineering degrees and not only couldn’t remember calculus, but I couldn’t remember who had lived in my apartment or my childhood best friend’s full name. I recognized strangers and didn’t know friends. The headaches persisted. But I rubbed dirt on it. It was the military way. Don’t be a pussy, drive on.
It took another three years after the surgery for the Army to fully acknowledge the injury. I had to fight for everyone but the neurologist, the surgeon, and a handful of specialists to call it a TBI. By the time I was finally awarded the Purple Heart, I was a senior NCO, assessed into a highly selective unit, and about to transition with a medical retirement after a regulation determined I couldn’t deploy any longer, which I’d volunteered to do. I’d driven on, finding new ways to overcome my health issues to ensure I was an asset to my team and to my unit. Promoted ahead of schedule, challenged and awarded leadership positions. The dirt I’d rubbed on everything at least progressed my career.
But in terms of my injury, I still had to fight. Medical teams misclassified me. An officer from my old unit decided to say there was no way I could have gotten injured (he’d have to admit an error on the command’s part) and turned back the Purple Heart and the Combat Action packets without comment other than “Rejected.” For years, I and a few supportive command elements fought for my TBI to be recognized.
Even when they retired me, it was for “Headaches” and side effects. I was angry and depressed. My case worker said to just take it, that to acknowledge the TBI as a whole wasn’t something they could do without declaring me as a statistic for a female combat injury. And hey, they could only treat the symptoms anyway. I left the military, just relieved I’d survived.
But three years later, it’s still a battle. VA diagnosed PTSD, which is an easier treatment option for them than the host of symptoms that come with a complex TBI, and re-evaluated other ratings. One doctor determined that my headaches could now be attributed to stress instead, reducing the rating. One said the cognition symptoms of PTSD and those of TBI were unable to be separated, and therefore my cognitive loss rating was eliminated in favor of a PTSD rating. My Army medical records, which declared severe TBI, were not merely being challenged but outright ignored. My injury was grouped into a collection of symptoms, listed by some arbitrary system of what they felt to be most impactful, some not listed at all. I had to start over in a place where walking in with my baby face and smile to the security guards already got me a “visitors should check in over there” reception. My service felt negated, and for the second time I felt I had to prove I was even injured.
I felt alone. The day I received the new rating, the day VA negated me, I slid into a deep depression at the renewed fight ahead. It compounded with PTSD and I became apathetic to not just my fight, but life. I became borderline suicidal. It was as though the Army had almost killed me outright, now VA was taking a turn.
I reached out to others in the Veteran community, because I wasn’t alone. I now have an advocate handling my appeal, a friend with a psychology doctorate writing a letter on my behalf, and re-evaluations. I’m using every resource I have and more to fight.
But I can’t help to wonder what happens to others in the same battles. When does take a knee and drive on become what kills us when the IED fails? When did the system built to take care of us become the enemy?
I don’t know the answers, and I don’t know how to fix the problem. Would options to expand the outside health care system for specialists help? Would a personal call with a detailed appeal process outlined instead of a mailed letter negating my worth have stopped the spiral? No idea.
But I’m done rubbing dirt on things. I’m acting instead. I can help others, and that helps me. I’m sharing resources I’ve tried out via www.pathfinder.vet to give guidance to thousands of vets and families. I’m talking to those who have been there before. I’m encouraging everyone I can not to give up the fight. Because it took me a little bit of time to realize that even though it’s a battle, I’m not fighting alone. There are millions of us, and we are there for each other even if we don’t know each other.
The IED should have killed me, then the Army, and then VA. But I made it through on the backs of my community, and now I’m paying it forward so I can drive on.