Say it

The author in Afghanistan, early spring of 2003, at a special forces camp near the Pakistan border.

The author in Afghanistan, early spring of 2003, at a special forces camp near the Pakistan border.

I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I used to be afraid to say that out loud. I was afraid to admit I needed help. I feared telling anyone or even seeking treatment; I was afraid I would be mocked and ridiculed by the soldiers with whom I served. I was afraid I’d lose my security clearance and my job if I sought treatment.

The first time I said it, I was a field-grade officer in an airborne unit. I was serving in Afghanistan, leading more than 100 other soldiers. The dead had come to talk with me in my sleep. Then, the images came to me during the day; my mind’s eye was filled with images of the dead, the dishonored, and the mutilated. My hands shook. I trembled. I cried.

I tried to hide it for a while. When I could no longer hide the symptoms, my anxiety over trying to lead soldiers—while in that condition—overtook my worries about the job and my self-esteem. I sought help and got treatment. I recovered.

Then, I redeployed, and things got even worse. A few years later, I wound up alone in a pickup truck with a pistol and a couple of beers, in the middle of an African desert and ready to kill myself. And I almost succeeded. I had the pistol in my hand and a round in the chamber when my phone rang. It was my wife calling from Washington, D.C. Seeing that number flash on the screen was enough to pull me back from the brink. I turned the weapon in, came clean to the doctors, and went home for treatment.

Capps teaching a Veterans Writing Project seminar in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2011.

Capps teaching a Veterans Writing Project seminar in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2011.

I took medications, and I went to therapy. When that wasn’t working well enough for me, I started writing. I wrote about the people I had encountered in Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur. The dead from Račak (Kosovo):  45 of them, most shot in the back or the head, and left to die in a ditch on a frozen January morning. The nun from Bunia (Democratic Republic of the Congo):  raped and beaten by soldiers from her own nation. The Afghan taxi driver, guilty of no crime, who died in U.S. custody. The dead who had come to me in my dreams.

The writing helped. I kept at it. I decided to go public, to say it out loud:  I have PTSD. I wrote an essay about my service, my suicide attempt, and my subsequent treatment and recovery. It was published in July 2010. I kept saying it in print and in public.

I wrote about my struggle for Time magazine, Foreign Policy and The American Interest. I spoke publicly at The Carter Center, on National Public Radio, and to pretty much anyone who would listen. I came out of the mental health closet, so to speak. I wrote a book about it called Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years. The book is the story of how I got to the point where I was sitting in the desert with a pistol ready to kill myself, and how I found a road home. It was published May 1, the first day of Mental Health Month in the U.S.

aboutface_rightcolumnI was embarrassed the first time I asked for help. I felt humiliated going to the psychiatrist. I felt that way, because in America we think of mental health care as being something different than health care. It’s not. If you have a problem with your knee, you go to the doctor, right? It’s the same if you have a problem with your mind; you go to the doctor. But, there’s this stigma because we view these differently. Get over it, America.

It’s important that we all fight the stigma of asking for help. If you think someone is struggling, ask them. Offer to help. It’s hard, but you might be saving a life.

To anyone who is struggling with PTSD:  You’re not alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s just health care.

I said it:  I have PTSD. I asked for help. I survived. Don’t be afraid; just say it.

cappsbwfrRon Capps is the founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project and the author of Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years. He served in the Army and Army Reserve from 1983 to 2008.

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23 Comments to “Say it”

  1. Jason says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Ron. It’s an important story, and I hope more that need help will be as courageous to seek it as a result of your powerful words.

  2. U know when u have a doctor that was taking care of veterans doing a damn good job. Then retires then u get these nurses and but their meds from them and. Dont even think about the withdraws . then put u on some antidepressant drug u try 5 yrs ago and did not work then and it will not work on a burn and suffer non stop pain until 3am it been 3 so were fairness for those vetersn dealing with pain and get no were with the nurse months nonstop pain. So I talk ever one to the top at the va sorry can’t help uuu .

    • GHall says:

      Patrick don’t give up. I don’t know where you live, but if you are about 100 miles away from a clinic, you can ask the VA for a voucher to get your own psychologist near you.
      Call the best hospital in your area, ask them who is the very best PTSD doctor. There are some very good PTSD doctors out there, usually not in the VA. They can help you and the VA should be paying for it.

  3. Sandy says:

    We’ve been trying to connect with the Veteran’s Writing Project for quite a while but can never get a return email. Who can help provide more information about finding or starting a group in the Cincinnati area?

  4. Burt says:

    Let me hear comments on Non-Combat related PTSD. I am a Vietnam Era Veteran, and never did any combat but I feel that I have symptoms of PTSD that have bothered me since I got out of the Nave in 1977. I just need to hear what is thought of my dilemma. the VA Health Care system has recently recognized that it is possible to have PTSD and not have served in combat.
    Please let me hear from you, to give me your thoughts on how I should deal with this.

    • CK Dias says:

      I am a Vietnam vet who did not participate in any combat situation but am currently being followed by VA hospital staff for PTSD. Trauma in the military can be psychological as well as physical. Don’t be afraid ever to ask for help. I am glad I did…every day.

  5. GHall says:

    Writing helps, but better VA doctors could and should help the men and women with PTSD and TBI. You do know that majority of the VA doctors are foreign, don’t understand our culture and are not certified by the United States American Medical Association. Next time you are being treated by the VA doctors, check out their certificates or ask. If your VA hospital/clinic is located next to a major hospital like in Maryland, the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC, the doctors from the Washington Hospital Center do help with the VA veterans from time to time, not always. All you veterans should have the very best doctors, just like the Congress and the President have. You gave your all so you deserve the very best in medical care and services.
    I have noticed that the VA prefers medication, they prefer to have you doped up and unresponsive. Their VA psychologists are not well adapted in helping verbally…they really don’t understand the problems that the veteran and his/her family go through. Maybe that’s why so many combat veterans have so many problems adjusting to life after they come home to the USA. God bless all you veterans.

    • I’m Sgt. Steven Dotson, Jr. (Ret.)

      Thank you for understand what we all veterans are going through. Here in Syracuse, NY. WE Veterans are having a bit of lot of problems with getting the right amount of health care, and yes it’s true that most of the health care provider do look the same kind of people that we’re shooting at over sea’s. As for timely care, there only so much one can do now.

      Thanks Again

      Steven Dotson, Jr. ( Sgt. Ret. )

  6. Troy says:

    I think the department of veterans affirs as well as President Obama,who is suppose to be the commander in chief of the armed forces,but he waited three weeks before he finally opend his mouth with the on going once again scandal of the veterans affairs,
    As far as I am can concern the one reason he does not no what it is like for all of us military personnel is that he never wore the uniform for this nation,and that makes a big difference.Two men would be good for the position of VA secretary General Colin Powell,General Mchrystal,both hands on men who would put foot in butts.as well as fire eho ever needed firing for under perforamce,or trying to screw over us veterans again because I am sick of it myself.

    • Danny says:

      Troy I have one major thing to say to you:
      AMEN TO THAT BROTHER! !!
      how can anyone be commander in chief of our armed services when they have never worn a uniform? They have an age requirement but it is not a requirement that you served in the US Armed Services! One of our more recent president shall we say Bill C. Was actually a draft dodger. Maybe we should all right our elected officials and try to get this changed you should have to have served in the military in order to kill our brothers and sisters what to do!

      • Danny says:

        that was a misprint! It should have said in order to TELL our brothers and sisters what to do.

  7. Jerry Hoover says:

    I would not have opened my mouth, but for signs posted at the VA Hospital. The suggestion on the signs; “It takes the strength and courage of a warrior to ask for help”. I asked for help back in the 70′s and was told there was no help available. Thirty seven years later, I asked for help again. This was the biggest mistake of my life for now I am labeled, stigmatized, and discriminated against because of a mental illness. I detect this stigma with anyone who learns of my condition. Encounters go normal until they learn I have a mental condition. Prejudice and stigmas attached to mental illness are the same as they’ve always been, that is, if you have a mental illness you must have done something wrong or you are weak. It is shameful but people hunt for anything, mostly mental conditions, to hold over another’s character.

    • Danny says:

      hey Jerry talk to VA about getting a service dog. I’m serious I have a 14 pound Shih Tzu that is my service dog my PTSD service dog and she loves me no matter how sick I am! You are my brother and I would never lie to you check it out dude its the best decision I ever made in my life. God bless you don’t let people get to you and get yourself a dog!

  8. What happened to the medical records of servicemen between 1950 and 1955? I was told they were destroyed in a St. Louis fire, therefore, buddy you’re SOL. Irwin

  9. Jacqueline S. says:

    I am NOT a Veteran; but the Love of my Life / SOUL MATE was K.I.A. in Vietnam [the TET Offensive --- January 1968].

    I received a letter from him; after he had already been buried in Arlington. In it, he told me to ALWAYS WEAR the charms he gave me for my Birthday(December 1967); and to remember, that HE would ALWAYS do his BEST to protect me – AS: MY GUARDIAN ANGEL!!

    FAMILY, being what it is, ‘FORCED’ ME, INTO A BAD MARRIAGE.

    I knew I ‘needed out’ after the 3rd year; BUT for SAFETY REASONS; I was TRAPPED for ~ 15 years of HE**.

    One can have Combat-Related PTSD; without ever deploying; let alone seeing combat.

  10. Vhall says:

    They need to change how can get information own a veterans . I have been try
    to get information own my uncle and grandfather for there ribbons and because
    I am not his sister or daughter I can not get the information I need to own my
    family in my home . I feel this needs to change I am the last of my family and
    if I don’t owner my family who is going to they have past away it is like never
    faught for this country . My uncle gave 34 years of his life for this country and
    I feel that he should be owned . Please help.

    • Yvonne Levardi says:

      Hello – to get your family member’s information, you should contact the National Archives as they keep all of the personnel files, not VA.

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  13. New NAMI Homefront Veteran Program

    NAMI will offer a six-week program called
    “NAMI Homefront” for families of veterans affected by PTSD
    and other mental illnesses. Tailored to veterans family needs,
    this is an educational course for family, caregivers and
    friends of individuals living with mental illness.

    HOMEFRONT http://www.nami.org/homefront

  14. Danny says:

    I I am a non combat 100% disabled service connected veteran with ptsd.my whole four year tour in Germany was extremely traumatic. the day I got to germany they blew up the USAFE headquarters,I was chased through the woods by terrorists, my son school was almost blown up 3 times in the same week …I think you get the point! What I’m trying to say is we all go through a lot.don’t get me wrong I highly respect our men and now our women that are going through combat but I hold my head high even though I was in during peacetime I did my part to serve my country! Every veteran should hold their head high and be proud. I just wish the young people off today wood no the importance of serving their country. It is my belief that in order to maintain our country’s freedom we are going to have to bring the draft back into existence.

  15. Danny says:

    I have nothing else to say but this thing would not let me get out of this section. I hope somebody can edit this out if not please excuse me. But I will say this god Bless America and God bless our troops and our veterans

  16. Danny says:

    what I have to say has nothing to do with PTSD except that I have PTSD. Did you hear about the doctor in Oklahoma City that received his patient list on the first day of his new job. His patient list included a number of veterans that we’re already dead! They were padding the list so they could get more money! Why are our brothers and sisters being denied care and dying waiting to receive care? So the high management and directors can receive higher bonuses! it’s time to clear out the higher echelons of VA. It’s time for those of us who have served this country to demand we get treated right and in a timely manner. Enough of our brothers and sisters have died while waiting for care and it is time that we get the treatment that we deserve! And it is time that those that take care of us get paid a decent wage and not the fat cat that sit up on the desk and do very little!