Today is PTSD Awareness Day. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an issue that deeply affects veterans and military families, yet only in recent years has society begun to acknowledge and raise awareness. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ National Center for PTSD estimates that there are currently 8 million Americans with PTSD and notes that many don’t get help. As we reflect on PTSD and work to grow awareness and end the stigma around PTSD, we had the privilege of hearing from 2013 Tillman Scholar Chris Stanfield.
Chris was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army after serving two tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since then, he earned his B.A. in political science and committed his career to serving the veteran community. Chris is now a military services coordinator at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Chris shares with us his ongoing journey with PTSD with hopes of furthering the destigmatization of discussing mental health in the veteran community.
“My PTSD journey began where I think most of them do, in denial. I served in the Army as an infantry soldier with two deployments to Iraq. I saw some combat and was on the receiving end of several improvised explosive devices, but the truth is it wasn’t Normandy, or the Chosin Reservoir, or the Battle of la Drang. The need to rationalize and compare my experience with trauma to others is a fallacy that started on day one of my deployment.
“I was a replacement for a young PFC killed just a few weeks before I left Alaska for the Middle East. As soon as I got to my platoon, two things were evident: the danger was real and I would never know what the older guys had been through.
“Through the course of that first deployment, I was shot at, blown up, saw a team leader injured by enemy fire, and witnessed civilian casualties often. In my mind, however, I didn’t experience the worst day of that deployment, so I didn’t really experience anything traumatic.
“As my enlistment continued, another deployment came and went, and then one November day I went to bed a soldier and woke up a veteran. Coming home feels great, like you are hitting a reset button and will fall right back into your old life. But ask the family you reunited with; in my case it didn’t feel great to them. They felt trepidation. What should we say? They felt ill-equipped. How can we help him? Eventually they felt fear. Fear that one night I would be a veteran and the next morning, I just wouldn’t be.
“Those first few years back were rough. At the urging of my family, I would go to the VA. Like many before me, my first experience with VA was less than ideal. A failure to diagnose my PTSD by their providers and an eagerness on my part to use their failures as a scapegoat, meant a decade of kicking the can down the road.
“With the encouragement of my wife and in an undertaking to be a better father, in July 2021 I went to the Intensive Clinical Program at Home Base, in Boston. I found providers that took me seriously, a cohort of veterans who understood what the world looked like from my eyes, and a Labrador Retriever and his handler who walked me through how a service dog could help.
“The things I learned in Boston were lessons I needed in 2009. I learned that my trauma does not have to be greater or lesser than anyone else’s — it’s mine. I learned it’s ok to let people know that I am not always ok. I learned that the more you run from PTSD, or hide from the diagnosis, that the longer you don’t seek help, the more damage it inflicts. I learned ‘a therapist is like a pair of shoes; you have to keep trying them on until you find the right fit.’
“I still have to work at it every day and I probably won’t win a popularity contest anytime soon. But with the support of an amazing wife and daughter, the generosity of friends, and the help of a service dog of my own, I am not the same person one year later. My PTSD story is still going and I think it probably won’t end. It’s part of me now, an extension of myself, but now I can live with that.”