A Dad by Any Other Name

So here is a scary post for me to put on my dad blog. I’m scared to admit the fact that I’m a veteran with PTSD who is raising two sons right now. On my own. Most people would say that they support their troops and veterans. But how do you feel about a divorced dad, raising two boys by himself, with mental health issues? Does it feel awkward yet? Or is it cool? Should I be worried about admitting to this on the internet? I’m not entirely sure that this is a good thing to write about but, unfortunately, it is well past time for me to talk about it.

I get really profound panic attacks from time to time. I recently lost my job. Pretty unfairly I think, and it unfortunately brought up old issues from when I was in the Navy. This is hard for me to talk about, but I got kicked out of the Military. It all began when I disobeyed a direct order, and things kind of spiraled from there. I received an other than honorable (OTH) discharge back in 2006, and that’s hard for me to admit, you know. Even all these years later. Even though I served 4 years, I didn’t get my GI Bill. I mean shit, I can’t even get USAA insurance for my car. I feel like I did the right thing. I feel like I stood up for something important. I think what I did might have changed things for my shipmates. But, yeah, I got kicked out of the Navy. 

My command didn’t give me a dishonorable discharge, because they knew it wouldn’t stick, so they gave me an OTH, and I took it. A lot of people have tried to get me to change it over the years. There is a process where you can get it changed to an honorable (maybe) but to be honest, I’m proud of it. Not really. I don’t want to change it, though. I wish I could have my GI Bill and USAA car insurance. But, you know, that’s just the way it goes. I made my choice.

I joined the Navy shortly after 9/11 and right before the War on Terror. It was definitely well before the war in Iraq (you figure out which one), but I want to make the distinction that I didn’t join after they declared a War on Terror. I never heard of a war like that before. I didn’t know that the United States could declare war on a thing and not a country. I mean, you could do a war on drugs and drunk driving, but what does a war on terror mean? What country should we go to – to, you know – blow shit up? I was in boot camp when they just went ahead with that particular propaganda that soon became a real thing. I did not sign up for that bullshit, but I was already head shaved when they did it. We all just accept it now like this is normal.

When we finally invaded Iraq, I was learning Arabic at an Army base in California. The head of my teaching team was Iraqi, and he still had a sister as well as a niece and nephew,  still living in Iraq. Up until then, this teacher was the best dressed, most dapper Arab you had ever seen. As the days of the Iraq invasion passed, and my teacher binged watched CNN coverage of his homeland being destroyed, I was amazed at how dishevelled and worn he had let himself become. I remember he was willing to forgive the US for anything that happened with that invasion, but he never understood why their museums and artifacts were not protected. This is just one instance where I had an extremely different experience than most people during that war.

As far as my PTSD is concerned, I experienced a lot of trauma while working to help protect this country. Unfortunately, I had a Top Secret Clearance when I was in the Navy, and most of the trauma I would like to tell you about is classified. Just so you get where I’m coming from, I can’t even speak to a psychiatrist about any events that might have traumatized me unless that doctor has a Top Secret clearance. You can imagine with my OTH, that I wouldn’t have access to such help. But, come on, I didn’t have access to that kind of help when I was in the military. The last command I was at, 15 years ago, only had one psychiatrist with a clearance. One! For an entire command’s mental health. Our command always let us know that they were going to try to get more doctors to help with our stress and anxiety, but in the same breath they reminded us that we worked a type of job where you couldn’t go home at the end of the day – and talk to your wife or anyone who cares for you about your bad day. Details could get complicated, and you don’t want to tell your wife – when she asks why you are in such a bad mood at dinner with the kids – that if you told her you would have to kill her. All kidding aside, there really is no sharing about your day. It was an order.

I’ve had a hard time seeking help or even dealing with my PTSD since I was kicked out. Not just because there really isn’t any help available, but because I worry about giving up sensitive information. If you think I’m being dramatic, just know it’s actually a fact that the enemy can extrapolate troop deployments from toothpaste sales. If you don’t believe me, fine, but just know that I’m not going to talk about certain stuff. Even though I need to talk about it, I’m not going to. I’m still loyal, even though I shouldn’t be. If you are familiar with Edward Snowden and his story of leaking sensitive information, I can tell you that while I respect him and think what he did was probably necessary, I don’t have any problem with him facing punishment for leaking Top Secret files and talking about what he experienced in his work. Snowden was in a tough spot, but I don’t know if he went about it in the best way. Last thing I will say: is I think whatever punishment Edward Snowden should face, he’s already faced while in exile. Still doesn’t change the rules though.

In any case, I know I have PTSD, even though I’ve had to diagnose it on my own. I never got the help I needed. I’m still not getting the help I need, but I’m helping myself. I’m not sure if I’m giving myself the help that I’m needing but, you know, I’m taking one step at a time, and I have started counseling recently. The worst thing about having PTSD is you feel like such a whiner. I think the general consensus I feel from people who just don’t understand me, is “why can’t you just get over it?” Believe me, I’m trying, but I can’t get over it. And let the tiny violins play!

I didn’t have any combat experience. My PTSD happened in offices and the bellies of submarines. Back when people were so interested in whether Paris Hilton was going to jail, I was watching Al Jazeera, and unlike us, the Arab world is not afraid to show the grizzly horrors that come from the violence of war. The US is very noble in how we refuse to show the bodies of people we kill on TV. I would watch Arab TV regularly, in order to keep my language skills sharp, but I was prone to see dead Arab children from time to time. In various states of destruction.

It’s not like we wanted to kill children in that war on terror. We wanted to kill terrorists. If my department finds out that a certain terrorist is at a location, someone higher up might make the call to bomb said location. If the family living in the house next door gets blown up too, that’s just unfortunate. Our job was to get the bad guy. But then again, maybe that wasn’t my job. I was taught to lie. Not just to foreign operatives, but to family members and friends. I’m not going to tell you what I did back then, but does it matter? Do you need to know?

Most people think PTSD happens all at once, and it does to a lot of people. Most people will imagine someone in combat, getting injured and watching his fellow soldiers killed. What if I’m just writing reports in an office? If I mistranslate a word, will it get someone killed? It wasn’t as simple as that, but what I’m willing to say about my job back then, is that there were a few times that I actually had people’s lives in my hands. Other times, it was hard to tell if my work even supported any kind of operation.

If you think that I watched one Al Jazeera news show with one dead kid, and that was it for me. It wasn’t. I can remember one time on break, watching an Arab father shove the corpse of his dead son up to the camera. I knew he was saying “Look Bush, is this what you wanted?!” and I remember thinking – the way his son’s left arm was blown apart – made it look a lot like the spaghetti I was eating from my Tupperware bowl. However, just like any other day, I finished my spaghetti and went back to work. You might not believe me, but I have trouble remembering if that moment ever happened. If I went online and tried to find the footage (which I don’t want to do) would it be there? If I could find the footage, would the dead kid’s arm still look like spaghetti? Maybe I just made it up. I think I want it to be fake.

When I finally had my mental breakdown, I had to go to an Army doctor who didn’t have a clearance. From what I could tell the doctor about what was going on in my head, she gave me a form to give to my command, which said I was a danger to myself and to others. When I brought it back to my command, they just laughed at me and told me to go wait by myself in the conference room. I think I waited 45 minutes before I came to my senses, and realized that I had given my command a doctor’s diagnosis which said I should not be left alone, and I was alone. I quickly left the base and called friends and family to help me deal with the shit in my head. 

When I went back to base the next day, My command let me know that I should also expect a charge of ‘Unauthorized Absence’ to go along with my ‘disobeying a direct order’ at my upcoming Captain’s Mast (where a CO can still assign a sailor to only receive bread and water in the brig). One of the sailors in my division told me that when I disappeared the day before, he had asked the Ensign in charge if someone should go to my house (off base) and check on me. The Ensign replied that “the paperwork for a suicide was easier to fill out than the paperwork for a separation”. This was the way the military dealt with service members who had mental health problems when I was in.

I’m scared to talk about my PTSD, especially due to the fact that I’m a father. I don’t want anybody to doubt my ability to parent my kids. And that includes my ex. That includes my mom. That includes so many people in my life, and now by posting this on my website I’m inviting complete strangers to decide if a veteran with PTSD is allowed to be a single dad. I can tell you that being a dad is the perfect thing for someone with PTSD. In fact, since I lost my job, I got to become a stay at home dad again. My life feels like it did before my divorce (except the wife’s gone, which is kind of nice) and it’s been great. I wish more veterans with trauma can be given the chance to stay home and take care of children. Maybe there should be a program for that. Some people would probably say that trauma victims caring for children is an idea for a skit on Saturday Night Live. Could be disastrous, but it could also be beautiful.

I served our country and I helped keep it safe. Or at least that’s what everybody tells me. I have my own ghosts. I can remember when I got out of the Navy, I sold my truck and didn’t use a car because I didn’t want to use any gas from all my guilt. I feel the war was about oil, mostly. So many people died so we can have cheap gas. I rode a bike everywhere after my separation, because I felt bad for all the people that died and nobody knows what I’m talking about. I was lucky though. I married a beautiful woman who didn’t care that I only had a bike. We walked everywhere and she let me talk. When we moved in together she made me buy a car, and I’ve been burning gas like an asshole ever since. She gave me these two boys before she divorced me, so I shouldn’t say anything bad about her.

However small a grievance I might have for what happened to me while I served, one thing I can tell you: my separation was more traumatic than anything that came before it. I can remember at one point standing at attention in a room alone with my XO, he was screaming at me, saying he was “about to put me through that wall!” My God he was pissed, but I rationally laid out why I did what I did, and he agreed with me at the end. In fact, we were laughing together in the end, like two old friends who’ve just had a good argument. He was such a cocksucker though. He went forward with burning me at the stake later. Or Captain’s Mast, or whatever you want to call that arcane ritual they put me through. I can remember a Master Chief who stuck up for me at the mast and said he thought I was right. However, the Master Chief said I was just not right in how I went about it though.

What I’ve learned since then is you don’t want to list an other than honorable discharge on a job application. If an employer doesn’t ask for a DD-214 you’re lucky. If they do, just say you got another job offer and look somewhere else. I’ve been doing that for years. Listing my medals and service dates on job applications. Saying I had an honorable discharge. I can’t feed my family if I do otherwise. I’ve been doing the same thing with my PTSD. Saying that I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. I’m just a normal dad. But I’m not. But, I think my kids love that I’m someone who wants to get better. But they don’t even know. I make bag lunches and do the laundry. I find the Lego heads that fall into the vents in the floor, and remind them to eat good food. They just know that dad’s got that kind of stuff handled and they should go and have fun and learn. That’s what my days are filled with.

I’m not going to lie and say that there aren’t awkward things that my kids have to deal with. There might be times, while cooking spaghetti, where I shout “Go Away!” Okay, fine. It’s every time I make spaghetti. My kids would understandably run away, until I had to explain to my boys that I’m not talking to them, and it’s just that I have old memories that make me sad. And when I shout “Go Away!” it’s because the memories won’t go away. And they don’t give me a hard time about it. And to be honest, explaining why it happens to a couple of kids: having to put it in simpler terms. It makes things easier for me to understand what’s happening in my brain.

This is about all I can share right now. I try not to do things that cause me to have panic attacks, but I’m right on the edge of one, and I’ve got to pick up my son from school anyway. I don’t know what I really want to say about PTSD and parenting. But maybe we should talk about it? Just know that I have my email address listed in my contact section if anyone ever needs to talk. I would be more than happy to correspond with anyone, not just veterans or dads. Please reach out, if not to me, than to anyone if you have trauma. Even if it is hard to talk about, but you need to be able to tell someone, anyone, about it. If you don’t have someone to talk to and you’re having a crisis or breakdown, than hopefully you have a couple of kids, like I do, and you can just sit on the floor and play toys with them until you feel better. Trust me. It works.

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