Young veteran broaches taboo mental health topics
Published 11:43 am, Friday, June 21, 2013
When Army veteran Andrew O'Brien spoke to an Austin reporter about his experiences in Iraq, his post-traumatic stress disorder and his subsequent suicide attempt, he was surprised by what happened next.
"An online commenter called me 'weak,' " O'Brien says. "He said what I saw in Iraq was nothing worse than a highway car crash."
A few years ago, O'Brien might have reacted to the insult by pounding his fists into a wall or drowning his sorrows in booze. Today, as he kicks off a three-month, national bus tour to talk about PTSD and the rising incidence of soldier suicide, he is ready with a healthier, more constructive response.
"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."
In fact, they were life-changing.
O'Brien, who launched his 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."
The nightmares begin
O'Brien, 25, grew up in Dallas in a family he describes as dysfunctional. "I have a brother, Lee, who is two years older. He's the one who really raised me."
When Lee joined the Army, O'Brien followed close behind. He was 19 when he enlisted, in search of an extended family and a meaningful way to serve his country, and 20 when he deployed to Iraq.
Early on, O'Brien worked as a truck driver who delivered supplies all over the country. In time he became lead gunner. In both jobs, he was constantly on the lookout for IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.
One day, O'Brien and his group were heading out on a delivery as a another team was heading back to base. It was that second team that was slaughtered by an explosive device, part of which lodged in the gunner's head. The dead man was only 19 and had a wife and a son.
O'Brien wasn't supposed to check on the bodies; in fact, he was explicitly told to stay away.
But he was drawn to the scene.
"I thought if I saw what happened, I'd pay more attention. I'd keep it from happening to my guys."
That was the beginning of the nightmares, paranoia and heavy drinking, which continued when O'Brien finished his Iraq tour and returned to an Army base in Hawaii. After six months on American soil, he went to see a staff counselor, who diagnosed his PTSD and gave him permission to stay off the firing ranges.
When O'Brien showed that paperwork to his sergeant, she called him a string of expletives. Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs has met its latest goal of hiring 1,600 new mental health professionals, including 33 at Houston's Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. At the time, however, O'Brien had to make do with his sergeant and his counselor, who also stopped believing that he had PTSD.
By November 2010, O'Brien says his head felt like a shaken soda can, ready to explode. After an argument with a close Army buddy, he went home and tried to think of a painless way to kill himself.
In the kitchen were four bottles of pills. He swallowed them all. Then he banged holes in the walls with his fists and drank a beer, hoping to speed up his passing.
Instead, he called 911, then passed out.
Out of the fog
O'Brien said he woke up a different person, happy to be alive. In time, he also believed he had information to share with others.
In 2012, there were 349 suicides in the U.S. military - an all-time high. There also were record numbers of veterans, more than 256,000 who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, seeking treatment for PTSD between 2002 and 2012.
O'Brien ticks off the messages he delivers to anxious family members:
A It's great to familiarize yourselves with PTSD, but don't try to understand what your soldiers have endured. You'll never be able to put yourself in their shoes.
A Don't push or nag. "They come back kind of like rebellious teens. If you push them in one direction, they'll do the opposite."
A 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.
A 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."
To active-duty soldiers and vets, O'Brien offers this advice:
A Don't apologize for the way you reacted to the sights and sounds of war. "We're all wired differently, and everybody's reaction is justified."
The bus tour, sponsored by mcharitylife.com, launched June 7 in Houston. Helping O'Brien manage travel details is veteran Timothy Fraser, 26.
"Andrew has started a national conversation about PTSD and suicide," says Fraser, who has PTSD. "A lot of times, doctors or therapists will try to solve the problems by pushing medication. That has its place, but it's even better to get people to come out who wouldn't normally share their feelings. It gets them thinking in a more positive manner."