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Memories of lost friends follow soldier through therapy

CAMP CASEY, South Korea — “John” didn’t really notice how much he had changed until five months after he watched his first friend die in Iraq.

On Dec. 26, 2005, John and others in the 5th Engineer Battalion were looking for roadside bombs near Baghdad when a rocket-propelled grenade caromed off a Humvee turret and ended Sgt. Dominic Coles’ life.

“I didn’t even know how to react to what I saw,” John said. “But I knew what to do. I stood up on the gun.”

John still sees Coles in his dreams. Sometimes he looks as healthy as when they played spades together in their barracks.

Other times, Coles and two other dead friends look as they did when they died; sometimes they slowly disintegrate in front of him. One dream was so bad John pushed himself off his bed and cracked his ribs on a chair.

The nightmares began in Iraq, before he arrived home in May 2006 for his mid-tour leave. At the airport, most welcomed him and other troops home. But one man began shouting at the servicemembers, calling them baby-killers.

“That didn’t make me feel too happy,” John said during a recent interview at Camp Casey.

John agreed to speak with Stars and Stripes about his condition after talking to his mental health therapist, but asked for anonymity because of the perceived stigma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

John’s PTSD hadn’t been diagnosed yet during his May leave, but he knew something was wrong when he met his friends and family. A self-described “life of the party,” he shunned social contact and avoided crowds. He cried for hours and ate little, except when he binged.

He wanted to return to war.

“I had friends over there. I wanted to watch their back,” John said. “That and I needed someone to watch my ass, make sure I didn’t do anything stupid.”

When he returned to Iraq from leave, he re-enlisted, figuring the Army was his best chance to get help.

He returned to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., following his tour and received guided sleep therapy. It helped him fall asleep but didn’t take away the nightmares.

When he came to Camp Casey earlier this year, he saw Area I support psychiatrist Dr. (Capt.) Christopher Perry once, but said he didn’t feel like following up at the time.

John talks to few people, limiting himself to his South Korean girlfriend and a couple of other soldiers who have both seen plenty of war. He stopped confiding in others when one soldier told others about his PTSD.

“They laughed at me,” John said. “Others offered false sympathy. It might’ve been true, don’t know.”

John still gets angry at little things, tries to avoid large formations and gets little sleep because of the nightmares.

His friends urged him to get help, and John recently saw Perry a second time. He received prescriptions to help with the sleeplessness and nightmares.

“I want help,” John said. “Right now, he’s my best bet. I’m not one for medicine, but if that’s what I have to do, I’ll do it. … You can’t be a soldier if you’re [expletive] up.”

John knows he has some common PTSD symptoms, but he says he would never consider suicide and knows that alcohol won’t help.

His road to recovery may not be simple, but John’s insight into his problem will serve him well, Perry said.

Staying away from alcohol is the most important thing he and other PTSD sufferers can do, the doctor said. Commitment to psychotherapy and taking his medication will determine the rest for John.

“Psychotherapy isn’t easy,” Perry said. “I tell soldiers it’s the process of taking open wounds and turning them into scars. We don’t make the scars go away, but it stops the bleeding and the constant pain.”


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