There’s nothing normal about fighting in a war. "That says it all," says John Boehm (5343), an Iraq combat veteran.
"My first experience with an IED (improvised explosive device), I thought I was watching a movie," he says. "Until the truth hits you, it’s real, but it’s not."
One percent of Americans serve in the military. About half of them are sent into battle. "It’s a very unique subset of people who actually experience combat," says John Bailon (5627), also an Iraq veteran. "It’s impossible to explain what it’s like to someone who hasn’t been there. People who are familiar with those feelings in different stages of their lives should talk to each other."
Jason Shelton (2998), a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, says no one comes out of combat unchanged. "It’s part of who you are," he says. "You can’t erase it but you can minimize the impact it has on your life."
Boehm, Bailon, and Jason are in Sandia’s Wounded Warrior Career Development Program, which opens specific jobs at the Labs to military veterans injured in combat. They’re working with the Labs’ Military Support Committee (MSC) to establish the Veteran Combat Stress Support Group to give Sandia veterans and the surrounding Department of Defense community a friendly, non-judgmental place where emotions, feelings, and stories can be discussed.
"When the MSC was established a few years ago, one thing we wanted to do was address issues the military service members in our workforce might be faced with," says committee member Jody Thomas (2995).
One issue was combat stress. The MSC held an awareness day featuring a panel of Sandia veterans, staff from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and community resource representatives. "We had some very emotional testimony. It was heart wrenching. That gave us the first clue," Jody says. "The need is there for a support group on Kirtland Air Force Base."
Earn veterans’ trust
Jason, Bailon, and Boehm helped launch the idea with support from city of Albuquerque veterans’ liaison Roger Newell and Tim Hale of the New Mexico Department of Veteran Services. "They’ve been running with it ever since," Jody says.
Jason says the group wants to earn the trust of the veteran community. "This is a different type of support group. It’s peer driven," he says. "There are no psychologists or doctors, no reporting, no attendance lists, no public knowledge, or emails. The meetings are in a neutral place. We make it as laid-back as possible. When people show up, if they want to talk, they can talk. If they want to sit and listen, they can do that, too."
Steve Becker (2144), a veteran of two combat tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, attended a meeting and had a long conversation with Jason. He hadn’t talked to anyone about his combat experiences in a year. "I’d forgotten the common things we shared," says Steve, who spent 30 years in the military. "Sometimes you feel you’re on your own and need to deal with it alone. I felt so much better when Jason and I talked, knowing there are others with the same perspective and feelings. Afterward, I was emotionally and physically drained — in a good way."
The group did not want to be branded with the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) label. PTSD applies to a multitude of situations, Jason says. "Those four letters carry huge baggage. There is a stigma assigned to anybody who identifies as having PTSD," he says. "It doesn’t matter what you say or do. People will look at you and wonder if you’re going to freak out. It’s not right. That’s not me. PTSD can come from any number of upsetting situations, from a car accident to falling off a horse."
Combat stress is specific to the experiences of military personnel who fight in wars. It affects different people different ways, Boehm says. "Some react right away. Some don’t realize they have it until later on," he says. "Everybody is different. Some go to groups. Some find their own way through. Some need activities to keep their mind off it."
Switching on and off
Jason says many soldiers face the demands of combat by pushing reality away. "It’s almost like you don’t feel anything — fear, horror, anger — right then because you have to do a job," he says. "If you get emotional and start thinking about what’s really going on, that can put you in worse trouble. It’s a stereotype, but you go into a mode of doing what you are trained to do. Switch emotions off and do what you need to do to keep our people safe and stop the bad guys."
Difficulties arise when the switch turns back on, he says. "I didn’t have an issue with combat stress until I got out of the military," he says. "I went back to a normal life, and all the stuff I had pushed to the back of my mind started catching up with me."
Boehm says combat is counterintuitive in every way. "The phrase I use is ‘crazy, insane, stupid.’ Any normal person would look at what you do in combat and say, ‘Are you nuts? You’re running into that? Why aren’t you running the other way?’" he says. "You lose objectivity. It has to be done, and you do it. When the adrenaline wears off, it sinks in."
Steve describes the experience as "pushing things to the back of the brain, storing it in drawers and file cabinets.
"While it’s happening you can’t deal with it right then and there. The brain protects you. But when there’s time outside of combat, the mind has to digest all those experiences."
Emotions that surface range from deep sadness at the loss of friends to revulsion to terror, all triggered by images, sounds, and smells. "Weird things will trigger a memory, something as innocent as going to a fireworks show," Jason says. "Those are the things you work on as you return to a civilian life, minimize the impact of those triggers in your life."
Jason, Boehm, and Bailon hope the Combat Stress Support Group will help. They set up a website and presence on Facebook and Twitter, and plan two meetings a month, the first and third Tuesdays at the Kirtland Air Force Base chapel, one featuring a theme and speaker to spur discussion.
Bailon says he got involved to keep a promise he made to the Marine Corps. "The Corps’ values are honor, courage, and commitment. Commitment doesn’t end after four years," Bailon says. "Seeing guys in action, doing really brave things, if I can help them in some way I’m continuing my commitment."
Steve says he also fulfilled a promise when he stepped forward. "I do this publicly because, at a bad point in my life, I made a commitment to God that if I could get back to normal, I would do what I could to help others," he says.
Boehm says his activism stems from the fact that many combat veterans commit suicide. "Live another day," he says. "That’s enough for me."