One of the great misconceptions about PTSD among Veterans is that it only affects those who saw combat.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As the name implies – post-traumatic stress disorder – the condition can result from any traumatic event in a person’s life. And former U.S. Marine Brooke Milbocker knows that all-too well.
She didn’t see combat, but she experienced something equally horrific – sexual assault, by a superior officer.
The assault took place during a Memorial Day party in 2012, Milbocker said, noting that she wasn’t the only woman to accuse the man of assault. Three others also sought charges.
The trial lasted a year, Milbocker said, and resulted in an eight-year sentence for the perpetrator.
But the assault and trial took their toll on Milbocker.
“No one was severely hurt, but it did destroy my career,” she said. “It created a lot of controversy and a lot of issues.
“People talk about PTSD among war Veterans, but there is a whole other category of PTSD that’s not getting the attention that is needed.”
And that’s why Milbocker is speaking out.
Milbocker, now 28, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2011, two years after graduating from high school.
She had been attending college, but joined the Marines as a way to help pay for her education. Plus, she said she believed in what the Marines stood for.
“There were those who wanted it swept under the rug. The first woman who came forward was not believed, and they did nothing about it.”
After boot camp, Milbocker enrolled in aviation school and became a drone pilot, commanding a 14-foot drone from the back of a Humvee while out in the field with other Marines.
The assault took place while she was still in aviation school.
“I got dropped from aviation school because I missed too many days because of the trial,” she said.
While the case dragged on, Milbocker found herself victimized in another way – by those who didn’t believe her and the other women.
“There were those who wanted it swept under the rug,” she said. “The first woman who came forward was not believed, and they did nothing about it.
Not long after the assault, Milbocker experienced another traumatic event: Her 14-year-old brother committed suicide. It was the second suicide in her family, coming only a few years after her grandfather took his own life, she said.
Struggling with grief and the fallout from the assault, Milbocker turned to alcohol in an attempt to drown out the pain.
“I was drinking and depressed, telling my mom I wish I would die,” she said. “It was the beginning of the downward spiral.”
Milbocker was able to complete aviation school and soon found herself stationed in California. But being so far from home only exacerbated her PTSD.
“The symptoms got worse; the drinking got worse,” she said. “I had a lot of issues adjusting to military life.”
In 2014, she was discharged from the Marines because of the PTSD, but she continued to live in California.
“It was a really sad time. I eventually hit rock bottom. I was doing a lot of drugs and a lot of drinking, and I wasn’t eating. I realized I needed help.”
Instead of seeking treatment, Milbocker said she continued to drink and soon turned to drugs, going from marijuana to cocaine and other drugs.
“It was a really sad time – I eventually hit rock bottom,” she said.
She called her mother, and she helped her move back home to Wisconsin. Soon after that, she began getting treatment at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, taking full advantage of the numerous programs available to her.
“I went to inpatient treatment for two months, started individual counseling, group therapy, AA meetings and lots of other stuff,” she said.
“With VA’s help, I was able to get back on my feet,” she said.
Milbocker has been clean from drugs for four years and continues to work on her sobriety along with addressing her PTSD.
“I still have a lot of work to do,” she said, listing the numerous groups and programs in which she participates. “It requires daily effort.
“PTSD changes your brain. You have to work hard to deal with this condition. It’s just like if you were a war Veteran: Your brain has been damaged and changed.”
The road hasn’t been smooth; she admitted having a margarita with dinner about two months ago, ending 9.5 months of sobriety.
“Sometimes in recovery, you can get down on yourself and you want to give up,” she said. “But these blips are bound to happen. The key is to get right back on track.”
Another bump in the road has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the Milwaukee VA to suspend all of its in-person groups and programs and deliver those services virtually.
“That messed up my routine, but you have to stay plugged into the support and the groups,” she said. “That’s how you get better.”
Besides the help she receives at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, Milbocker has used VA benefits to go back to school and purchase a home.
She is currently in graduate school, studying human services. Along with her master’s degree, she plans to get a certificate in counseling with an emphasis on addictions studies.
“I want to help other Veterans like me,” she said, saying she would love to work for VA someday.
“Before, I didn’t know about the treatment available. I was naïve. But I’ve realized there are resources out there to help you.
“I don’t want people to get discouraged. I’m working on my recovery every day. It’s a lifelong process; it’s a journey. The programs at VA have helped me.”