Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 500 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. With June 27th being National PTSD Awareness Day, we are honored to bring you the story of Tillman Scholar and U.S. Army veteran Seth Kastle who after seven years, put his pride on the shelf and sought help for treatment of PTSD. A recent graduate of Baker University, earning his Doctorate in Leadership in Higher Education, Seth is constantly learning to balance his life outside of the military.
Tillman Tuesday Tidbits:
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO ENLIST IN THE MILITARY RATHER THAN ATTEND COLLEGE RIGHT OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL?
“When I was in high school I made a lot of bad decisions. Looking back, I wouldn’t say I was a bad kid, I was just a follower that was desperate to fit in. My mom always told me it was college or the military but I don’t think she was necessarily ready for what that choice may produce when I came home at the age of 17 and told her I was going to join the Army. She became one of my biggest supporters and I ended up joining the Army Reserves and left for basic training right after graduation. After basic I went to college and had served two years before September 11 and at that time I decided to put college on hold and deployed in 2002 to Qatar and then to Afghanistan for a total of eight months, also deploying for the initial invasion of Iraq in January 2003 for 15 months..”
WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE LIKE AS A DRILL SERGEANT?
“I went to Drill Sergeant School ten years into my career with two deployments under my belt, and was a senior Staff Sergeant so I had grown tremendously. I think being a drill sergeant is the greatest job in the Army. Granted it’s hard, there are long days and it will age you for sure but it’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. You get to take these people that are civilians and transform them into soldiers really fast. Though it was really hard, it was an extremely enjoyable time and something I look back on as a high point in my military career.”
HOW DID YOUR MILITARY CAREER END?
“In 2010 I suffered a sudden cardiac death as I was at a concert where there happened to be paramedics and an AED they used to shock me and keep me alive. Because of all of that I had a defibrillator implanted and went through the medical board process and was medically retired in 2014.”
HOW DID YOU ADJUST AND HANDLE THE END OF A CAREER IN THE MILITARY THAT YOU HAVE KNOWN AND BEEN ACCUSTOMED TO SINCE YOU WERE 17?
“It was really hard for me as I had my sights set on being a Sergeant Major, loved what I did and being a soldier was a large part of my personal identity. Being told I couldn’t do that anymore was really hard for me and I fought for about two and a half years to stay in. I look back on that experience now and see that it was actually a good thing that it all happened with all that I have been able to do. I took a really hard look at my life and it hit me how much I was gone for Army stuff and taking on more stuff at work, taking time away from my family. It’s taken a lot of time and reflection to see that not having the Army in my life has been good for me as a husband and a father.”
WHEN YOU RETURNED FROM YOUR DEPLOYMENT IN 2004, IT TOOK A LONG TIME (SEVEN YEARS) FOR YOU TO SEEK HELP FOR PTSD. WHAT WAS THE BREAKING POINT THAT MADE YOU FINALLY REACH OUT FOR HELP?
“I had struggled when I came home and was in denial for a long time. I came home during the early phases of the war where the military didn’t have the resources or education for soldiers that they do now – I didn’t even know what PTSD was when I came home in 2004. I look back at my time as a Drill Sergeant and the guys I worked with had tougher deployments than I did and I thought they were fine so I for sure was fine. I was in denial for a long time and in 2009 things started to get really bad and I just wasn’t handling them well and was unhappy in my civilian employment, was having financial problems and my ability to deal with all the layers – I was not in a good spot.
In 2011, my best friend was killed in Afghanistan and that was a pretty big tipping point for me when I started down a really bad path. The following year I was at a Halloween party where I ran into a guy who I looked to as a mentor throughout my military career. We were talking at a social event and he told me he went to start seeing a counselor after his third deployment. Having that conversation with a man I respected who swallowed his pride and went in and got help made it okay for me at that point – that’s what really enabled me to take those first, pride-swallowing steps, which were the hardest. Looking back, taking those first steps and swallowing my pride and asking for help are the only reasons I’m still married and get to be with my daughters today.”
HOW DID YOUR STRUGGLES WITH PTSD AND TAKING THOSE FIRST STEPS INSPIRE YOU TO WRITE YOUR BOOK, ‘WHY IS DAD SO MAD?’?
“Even after treatment starts, this doesn’t just go away. I deployed in 2002 and 2003 and my first daughter wasn’t born until 2009 and the second born in 2013. Who I was post war is all they know. I tried to look for a way to explain to them because I didn’t like who I was as a father and the side of me they would see sometimes. Having read a lot of children’s books, I realized there wasn’t a book about this and so began the idea of writing something on my own. I had a really bad day at work one day and came home, sat down and wrote the book in about 30 minutes sitting at my kitchen table and just filed it away on my computer. With the help of a friend, I actually later took steps to have the book published and funded it through a kick starter campaign. NBC Nightly News did a story on it and everything fell in to place after that.”
WHAT DO YOUR CHILDREN THINK OF THE BOOK?
“They like it and think it’s pretty cool that I wrote a book. The first time I read it to my daughter in 2015 she was six years old. In the book I reference PTSD being a fire that’s inside of me and she said, ‘I’m sorry you have a fire inside of you dad,’. Something like that will always stay with me.”
FROM AN ILLUSTRATION STANDPOINT WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO USE ANIMALS FOR THE FAMILY STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK?
“I didn’t want the book to be a family of a specific ethnicity as it’s a book for soldiers and soldiers come from every walk of life. I wanted something strong like eagles or something similar so the illustrator came up with the concept of a lion family.”
HAVING RECENTLY GRADUATED WITH YOUR DOCTORATE, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO BECOME A FIRST-GENERATION COLLEGE GRAD?
“There were several trials and tribulations before I made it to that point but finally getting to a point where I felt my parents were proud of me was a big deal because I probably didn’t give my mom many of those opportunities as I was growing up.”
AFTER YOUR MOM PUT THE OPTIONS BEFORE YOU, MILITARY OR COLLEGE, AND YOU SUCCEEDED AT BOTH, WHAT DID YOU THINK WHEN YOU WALKED ACROSS THAT STATE ON GRADUATION DAY?
“It was a special day. I lost my dad when I was really young so when I graduated she came up to me and told me how she wished he was there on that day – that’s what sticks out in my mind when I received my Doctorate.”
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY DOING NOW AND WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS FOR YOU?
“Learning to breathe again. It’s pretty strange not having college loom over me anymore so I’m trying not to go too overboard at work and put too much on my plate. I currently work at Fort Hays State University in Kansas and I’m working on a new Associate’s program for service members in addition to working on opening a veteran’s center here on campus.”
WHY DO YOU BELIEVE THAT VETERANS SHOULD TAKE CARE OF VETERANS?
“We’re responsible for our brothers and sisters. No one is going to understand the importance of taking care of one another more than we do and I think there’s a lot to be said for that and I’m very blessed to be in a position where I’m able to do that. I think that if you’re in a position to help others, you should.”
ON THE HEELS OF MANAGING PTSD AND YOUR HEART CONDITION AND EARNING YOUR DOCTORATE, HOW ARE YOU DOING NOW?
“I have my days just like everyone else. I have time now to coach my daughter’s tee ball team, my oldest daughter’s swim team, I’m on the school board and have more time to devote to other things…specifically my family. As far as my physical well-being, my heart is fine since the event that almost killed me – it’s not something I think about and the only difference is I have a box in my chest now. I’m working on balancing my life now, something I’m not that good at. No one teaches you to slow down.”
ASIDE FROM THE FINANCIAL SUPPORT, WHAT DOES THE ASSISTANCE FROM THE PAT TILLMAN FOUNDATION MEAN TO YOU AND PROVIDED THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO?
“Being able to engage with such an amazing group of people has been great. You might be doing a lot of good things in your life but then you go and meet people who are doing ten times more than you’re doing. It’s a good reminder that there are more steps to be taken and it’s that motivation and inspiration that’s really been of value to me. There’s always more that you can do.”
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF FIVE YEARS FROM NOW?
“I hope to see myself leading the veteran’s center I’m helping create right now as well as still be teaching part time. I also hope to have this new Associate’s degree program off the ground because I feel it can largely impact thousands of service members the opportunity to earn degrees in a different way than they have previously.”