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You Believe It

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Best of Voxpop: Real Life

By Eric Gunlefinger

I got off the train this morning and started walking towards my first class at Temple University, but something in one of the upper floors of a building caught my eye and my heart began racing. My mind plays tricks on me. Though I knew it to be completely absurd, my brain still said that there was a sniper up there, and that I should move to a safe place.
I didn't, and that's an improvement. A year ago I may have run to a street corner and ducked down behind it. If a car backfires I am liable to do the same thing. It's frustrating for me.

It's frustrating that something I worked so hard to be good at won't go away.

I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  I was diagnosed with it in July, 2008, three months before I was due to leave the U.S. Marine Corps. I had joined the corps in 2004, right after I graduated from Ridley High School. Later, as a Marine, I would be sent to the city of Fallujah, Iraq twice over the next three and a half years. I experienced combat in all its terrible varieties in Iraq.  My PTSD is a legacy of that experience.

In the Marines, we were trained to kill and trained to survive combat in all of its wondrous varieties. A sense of urgency and hyper-vigilance was drilled into our brains. We were never told how to turn it off, or if it's even possible to do so. I don't think it is possible and it scares me that I might be like this for the rest of my life.

This training, when coupled with experience, is superlative. My body learned just what to do when it heard and felt an explosion or when it heard gun fire. Someone is shooting at you? Get closer so you can kill him. An IED just went off? Keep moving forward in case there are more. A sniper took a shot? Throw a smoke grenade to hide from visibility and get the fuck out of Dodge. We did it over and over again, learned from it, refined it. After every patrol or mission we would say "What can we do different or better?" And we'd improve. These are not bad things when put into the context of a war. Quite the opposite, they are essential to survival and victory. But when removed from the combat, when sent home, they are, and can be, disturbing, detrimental, and dangerous.
I have, on two occasions, reacted to something in the civilian world as though I were in combat. I did not hurt anybody, thank God.

In Center City Philadelphia, somewhere near Market and 18th, a truck backed over an empty plastic two-liter bottle. The ensuing sound echoed off the buildings and sent my brain tumbling. The only reaction I knew was to throw a smoke grenade. I didn't actually have a grenade handy, but I did go though the motion and got out of there. There was no thought behind it. I sprinted over 50 feet to the street corner and ducked around the wall. I paused and popped my head out quickly to assess the situation. It wasn't until this point that I realized what was going on.

A couple of people and a police officer were staring at me. The officer approached me and asked: "Everything alright?" I nodded, explained briefly that I had been in Iraq only a month earlier and told him I was getting on a train and going home. The reaction felt natural to me. It wasn't until after my heart settled down that I realized the true severity of the situation; I could seriously hurt someone by doing this.

The other was at a bar in my hometown of Ridley Township. A phone call from a friend suffering suicidal thoughts as a result of his own PTSD made thoughts of being in Iraq storm my brain. I couldn't stop replaying every kinetic event through my head; images of friends being hit by grenades and of Rocket Propelled Grenades flying overhead flashed by my eyes. It became so overwhelming that eventually I went outside and ran about two miles to my house. I woke up in the morning dazed and confused.

I guess this can happen to a lot of us. We are told from day one of boot camp that we are killers, and we believe it. In infantry school, we pile on more basic skills and are once again told that we are the best at taking other people's lives. And we believe it.

In the infantry, this is your life. You enter the fleet and hone your skills. Day in and day out you learn new techniques or perfect old ones. We rehearse our immediate action drills. We rehearse our ambush skills. We fire our weapons with or without ammunition so our fingers will never fail. We are told that our company, whatever company it is, is the best in the Marine Corps and the best in the world and that in turn we are the baddest motherfucker's in the world. And we believe it.
Then you leave the Corps. Somebody says that you have PTSD. You believe it. They tell you that it's normal for people that go through what we go through to have PTSD. You believe it. They say that it is all a very normal reaction to a very abnormal situation. You believe it. They say that with treatment and time, you will be able to control these reactions.

This, you do not believe.

 

Eric Gunlefinger is a student at Temple University, majoring in political science.

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