Over ten years ago, I pinned on the rank of Second Lieutenant and experienced my first deployment in the United States Army. If you’ve ever been to Arizona in the summertime, you know how it feels to land in Iraq. It was 124 degrees in the shade, and the only other place I can compare it to is hell. From all the stories the Bible tells us about hell, it is exactly like that. Little did I know that the comparison to hell would be realized in other ways.
One night while enjoying a little down time playing card games and singing karaoke, we suffered more casualties than we did throughout the remaining four months of deployment. My job as the Medical Evacuation Platoon Leader was to ensure medics were available to render aid and that the wounded made it out of Iraq to receive further care.
That night I made peace with dying in Iraq.
Bombs flew overhead while soldiers fell to the left and right of me. I encountered so much death in such a short period of time that no amount of karaoke or video games could convince me that my number wasn’t going to be called soon. The effects of war manifests differently in each of us. The effects of war on a soldier who is trained to save lives is nonexistent, until it isn’t.
When I finally returned back to the United States, I fell to my knees and kissed the ground. I was shocked that I made it back home safely and struggled to understand why I was one of the lucky ones, when so many didn’t make it home. I didn’t sleep much, most nights I had to drink just to fall asleep. This is what “survivor’s guilt” looks like, and now I can say that I didn’t have healthy coping skills.
I felt explosive, but mostly sad.
One month after returning home, while celebrating my birthday, I learned that my former Platoon Sergeant and partner in leadership had committed suicide. It was crippling, I drank myself to oblivion and shifted between anger and immense sadness.
Her name was Staff Sergeant Lonideirdre Angulo, and during the memorial her family chose “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole to play as we waited for all the guests to arrive. For a long time I couldn’t hear that song without crying. Shortly after the third suicide rocked my unit, my commander told us he was going to be gone for a while. He said he needed to handle his own emotional health. We had a meeting as the leaders of the Medical Company to figure out how to run the company without him, and that was the last time I saw him. He literally disappeared. The message from command later became clear, if you need to take time away from the mission to focus on mental and emotional well-being, you don’t come back.
I later sought out my old commander on social media and got the story from him. Someone had indeed decided he wasn’t fit for command, so he didn’t command anymore. He eventually left the Army and never looked back. I served under him for over a year and had been excited for his return, but never had that opportunity again. My takeaway from that first deployment, and from all the events that later transpired, is that you cannot let your leadership know that you are struggling mentally or emotionally. If you do, you will be relieved from command and eventually lose your career.
In 2013, I decided that I no longer wanted to be an active duty soldier. I hated my unit, I hated my job, I didn’t trust my leadership. I was done. Most of my days were spent bitter and angry, but because I wanted to become a mother and start a family with my spouse, I went to therapy. By learning from other’s encounters with behavioral health, I began to see a private therapist and never told my unit.
I’ve been in and out of therapy for the last seven years and have kept it a secret for the majority of that time. In 2013, I entered the Army Reserves and became pregnant with my beautiful child. I struggled, and still struggle, as a parent and military spouse to a special operations soldier. Last year, my husband had a terrible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) episode that almost took him from us. Since then, I have dissected PTSD and identified with it more than ever.
PTSD is a mental health condition that may occur in those who experience or witness a traumatic event that later causes them to become triggered. Less than a year ago I was diagnosed with PTSD, but my current therapist believes my diagnosis should have been updated a long while ago. And only this year did I update my military records to reflect this diagnosis.
A therapist told me once that he believes I operate under the lens of post-traumatic growth (PTG). PTG relates to a benefit found in some survivors as a positive psychological change they experience as a result of adversity and other challenges, to rise to a higher level of functioning. These circumstances represent significant challenges to the adaptive resources of the individual and pose significant challenges to their way of understanding the world and their place in it. PTG involves “life-changing” psychological shifts in thinking and relating to the world that contribute to a personal process of change that is deeply meaningful.
Today, I undergo neurofeedback twice a week, and my current therapist believes it would be great for me to work with an additional therapist for my anxiety and trauma responses alongside it. I’m better at recognizing my triggers, I no longer abuse alcohol, and continue to work on my sleep patterns with a new routine that ensures about 6–8 hours every night.
My journey is far from over, but I am in the healthiest place I’ve ever been.
Thank God for therapy, I only wish I had had access to an application like Therapeasy years ago. Now that I have been working on my mental health by trial and error for years, I am able to determine which resources are a true help. And this service is one I highly recommend to anyone who is ready to begin their own process of becoming their best self.
Nilaja (Knee-lah-jah) is currently an Account Manager at Oracle by day and an Author by night. She served almost ten years in the United States Army and Reserves. She is currently writing a book entitled, “Breathing Under Water”. It is a book dedicated to her military service and journey to mental health. She has a beautiful spouse and child. She also serves on several boards and committees to include the Oracle Alliance of Black Leaders for Excellence Affinity Group, Theta Nu Xi Multicultural Sorority, Inc, and she dances with Latisha Hardy Dance and Company with the Lady Boss Dance Team. She is passionate about Diversity and Culture and most of all Mental and Emotional Health.