The Struggles We Face: PTSD Triggers
“Daddy, play trains?” my three year old son Joshua asked playfully.
“What’s that little buddy?” I asked, encouraging him to talk more.
“Play trains, daddy!” he said again, this time getting a bit closer as if I would hear him better. I sat there for a second staring into his hazel eyes, thinking back to the day he was first born. Three years had passed and it seemed as if the time had flown before my eyes. Just three years ago, Melissa, my wife, and I didn’t even know if our son would make it through the night. During birth, Joshua had a stroke that was followed up by a couple of seizures once he was delivered. The diagnosis was bad. Fifty percent of the left side of his brain was affected by the stroke and the doctors had no idea what the overall outcome would be. Days went by and Joshua seemed to be fighting through it all. By the time we were allowed to leave the hospital with him in our arms, he was alert and moving around, albeit the right side of his body was a bit slower than the left. Three years of physical and speech therapy later and here he was, sitting in front of me, asking to play trains with me.
“Daddy! Daddy!” he shouted, trying to get my attention. I tried to break my train of thought but his eyes just kept me locked in, casting a spell over me that stopped me from moving or speaking.
“Daddy, play trains! Daddy! Daddy!” he repeated, over and over again.
“Grandpa! Grandpa!” a familiar voice yelled to me from behind.
I looked to where Joshua was standing and he had disappeared. The living room has transformed into and all too familiar environment. I quickly inhaled, noticing the humid, wet air of New Jersey was replaced with the dry, dusty air of Iraq. My shorts and tee shirt were swapped out with a heavy Kevlar vest, United States Marine Corps digital camouflage pants and shirt, and a rifle slung across my back.
“Grandpa! I got something you might like before you leave!” shouted the voice again. I turned in place to see a young, playful, energetic face staring back at me.
“Hey son,” I said “Whatchya got?”
Lance Corporal Scott Dougherty, a twenty-year-old southern boy from Florida, was smiling up at me with his baby face. I couldn’t help thinking back to when he first joined our company, the Delta Company Outlaws. He stood nervously at parade rest in front of me the first day I met him and looked like he may jump out of his boots. I would ask him a question and he would stutter his way through each answer. It took several days of me telling him to chill out and relax before he came to his senses. From the day he joined us, I couldn’t stop looking at him as a son of sorts, someone who I wanted to take under my wing so I could teach him the ropes. He must have seen me in the same way because he quickly accepted me as a mentor and started calling me “Grandpa.” It was either he saw me as a father figure or noticed I was going bald. I like to think it was the former.
“Some folks back home sent me some kool-aid powder for our water. I got a whole bag full of it if you want some.”
My platoon was about to take off on yet another patrol for the day and I didn’t have much time before we were to leave. But, knowing the day was only going to get hotter and I was getting sick and tired of drinking plain water, I decided to take him up on his offer.
“Sure, buddy,” I said, “but you gotta hurry up and bring it over to me before we take off.”
“No problem, Grandpa.” He quickly turned around and made a bee line for his tent. As I waited for him to come back, I jumped into the back of my vehicle and prepped my gear. Once I went through my mental checklist, I checked the gear for the rest of my team. Only a couple of minutes went by when I saw Dougherty come running back to me with a small zip lock of yellow powder in his hand. He reached out to me and handed me the bag with a grin on his face.
“It’s all I could spare for the time being,” he said, “but I’ll be sure to have my folks send me out some more. A bunch of the guys are asking for it and I’m nearly all out.”
“No problem, buddy. I really appreciate you giving me this as it is,” I said.
“Well, Grandpa, be safe out there and I’ll see you when ya get back.”
The vehicles in our platoon were given the command to start up and a loud rumbled emerged from the engines. Dougherty began walking back to his tent.
“You too, Son. Don’t forget, you guys are taking over for us when out patrol shift is up,” I yelled over the roar of the engines. With that, the word was given for our patrol to move out and begin our shift of patrols along one of the roads in all of Iraq. Our patrol was an eight hour long shift during the late afternoon into early morning. In the desert heat, we patrolled up and down the main road that connected Fallujah to Baghdad. From time to time, we would go off the standard route to investigate suspicious activities from the locals. However, this particular day didn’t prove to be as exciting as most days.
By the time night fell and we were ready to head back to Camp Baharia, we were worn out from the desert heat and ready to hit the sack. As our vehicles pulled into Camp Baharia, I could see the headlights from the vehicles of Second Platoon moving toward the camp gates. Second Platoon was heading out to pick up where we left off in the patrol. As I routinely did, I looked up to the stars and asked them to keep an eye out for my buddies.
Our vehicles made their way to the vehicle parking lot. When we parked, we unloaded our gear, cleaned out rifles, helped prep the vehicles for the next day’s patrol, and headed off to our tent to catch some much needed rest. As I lay my head down on my cot, I could feel my eyelids begin to get heavy. I lay there for a few minutes thinking about the day’s events and what the next day would hold in store for me. Before my eyelids completely gave in, I reached over to my makeshift nightstand and rubbed the belly of my lucky Buddha.
“Goodnight, brothers,” I whispered to myself, “be safe.” And with that, I passed out.
“Get up! Second Platoon’s been hit!” Sergeant Learn was yelling.
I looked over at my dusty clock to check the time. It was only four o’clock which means I had only slept two hours. My eyes would barely open at first and I was having a hard time comprehending what all the commotion was about.
“Everyone wake the fuck up!” Learn said, this time much more forcefully. “Second Platoon’s been hit and we need to get out there now. Grab your gear and let’s move.”
I slowly threw my legs over the side of my cot and pushed myself up into a sitting position. I looked over at my best friend Corporal Jason Sprenger.
“What the fuck is going on?” I asked, still trying to shake the cobwebs from my head.
“Something happened with Second Platoon. Not exactly sure what, though,” he said with a hint of despair in his voice. We both had good friends in Second Platoon and every time we heard of something like this happening, we always feared the worse. After gathering all my gear and ensuring all the Marines in my section we good to go, I exited the tent and quickly jogged over to my vehicle.
“Corporal Tanner, what’s going on?” one of my scouts, Lance Corporal Redd asked quizzically.
“Not too sure but I’m sure we’re about to find out.”
A few minutes passed as our platoon prepped out vehicles to head back out. Finally, First Lieutenant David Snipes, our platoon commander, could be seen headed in our direction. He made his way to his vehicle and called for everyone to meet up near him so he could give orders.
“Listen up gents,” Lieutenant Snipes said, “as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Second Platoon has been hit and they’ve been hit bad. One of their vehicles was
hit by an IED and was destroyed. Still not sure which one it is but it’s not looking good. We need to get out there now to relieve them so they can get back to base. Any questions?”
We all had so many questions but we knew that time was of the essence and we needed to get out there to help our fellow brothers.
“All right. If there’s no questions, let’s move out,” Lieutenant Snipes ordered. Everyone headed to their respective vehicles, double checked their gear and then mounted up. A couple of minutes later, the roar of the engines cut through the silence of the night as our vehicles made their way to the gates of the camp.
As we exited the camp on our way to Second Platoon’s location, I couldn’t stop thinking of all my friends. I was hoping that no one was hurt but I knew better. I ran through the names of the guys in Second in my head and thought about the last time I spoke with each one of them.
Twenty minutes later, with the sun just coming over the horizon, my eyes fell upon the devastation that had fell upon Second Platoon. The three vehicles that were unscathed were set up in a 360 degree defensive position circling the incident. As our vehicles approached the scene, Lieutenant Snipes had two of our vehicles take up the positions of Second Platoon’s vehicles.
My vehicle and Lieutenant Snipes vehicle drove over to where Second Platoon’s commander, First Lieutenant Kevin Knox Nunnally, had positioned his vehicle, only one hundred feet from the destroyed vehicle. As my vehicle came to a stop, I surveyed the carnage. The vehicle was nearly unrecognizable. The vehicle had been flipped upside down from the force of the explosion. The color of the vehicle had changed from a camouflage color to pitch black where the explosion and resulting flames scorched the exterior of the vehicle. The ground around the vehicle, about 50 feet in circumference, was scorched black. Gear from inside the vehicle was strewn about the ground. From time to time, a bullet lying on the ground would fire off because it was still cooking from the heat of the explosion. I dismounted the vehicle and headed toward one of the scouts in Second Platoon. I could see the pain in his face as I approached.
“What happened?” I asked as I neared him.
“It’s nuts,” he began, “we were patrolling along the main route and decided to cross over and check out the service roads on the side. My vehicle and Nunnally’s vehicle passed over the dirt path over there with no issues. Next thing you know, the third vehicle passed over and got hit.” His voice was beginning to break up. I could tell he was in pain knowing that so many good friends were hurt.
“Who all got hurt?” I asked, fearing the worst.
“Wakanabo and Santiago were shot out of the vehicle like a rocket. They’re banged up pretty bad but they should make it. They found Engel by the side of the canal. He was in really bad shape but alive. They medivac’d him out a little while ago.”
My heart dropped. Engel was a really close friend and the thought of him being hurt really took a toll on me.
“Hunt, Lawrence, Youmans, and Dougherty didn’t make it,” he said, he voice quivering and getting quieter each time he uttered a name.
“Fuck, man,” I said.
All four were good men but hearing Dougherty’s name really hurt. In my head, I started to recall our conversation only hours ago. My friend, the little guy with a bad stutter who I saw as a son and who called me Grandpa, was taken from this world. The outside world became a fog for me. Everything was a blur. The background noise was muted. Memories of my fallen brothers flashed before my eyes. Keep it together, Bob, I told myself. There’s a place and a time for mourning and now is not the time. I took a deep breath, thanked the Marine for the information and headed back to talk with my scouts. As I approached the vehicle, I could see my scouts had already received word as to what happened. I didn’t say a word, instead, nodding in their direction, indicating that not another word need to be spoken. We didn’t need to rehash it all over again.
Lieutenant Snipes came over to our vehicle and instructed me to have my scouts take up the defensive position of Second Platoon’s scouts so they could head back to base. After ordering my scouts into position, I headed over to a small dirt mound with one of my Marines, Lance Corporal Shearer. As we got into position behind the mound, I looked over at Shearer and could see his eyes were red. He was on the verge of tears but was holding it back. I didn’t say a word; instead, I gave him a quick pat on the back. I looked back at the overturned vehicle to survey the scene one more time. So much destruction had occurred and I thought how lucky the other three were to have survived the ordeal.
My eyes continued to scan the area when the stopped suddenly. On the left side of the overturned vehicle, I spotted something that looked like a body. The body was charred from the explosion but was propped up against the side of the vehicle. I studied the body thoroughly, trying to figure out who it was. From where I was sitting, it appeared as if the body was short in stature. I couldn’t really figure out much else due to nature of the damage done to the body. I ran through the names of the ones that I knew passed and started trying to match up what I recalled of them with the body. Dougherty was the only one that matched. Unconvinced, I ran through the names again and again hoping that I could think of some other characteristic that would tell me it wasn’t him.
“Grandpa, can you hear me?” a familiar voice called out.
My thoughts came to a halt. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I looked back to where the body was laying and the wind was knocked out of me. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. All I could do was stare in silence. The head on the body was tilted at an awkward angle looking at me. It’s charred lips opened again.
“Grandpa,” it repeated, “can you hear me?”
I was shaking and wanted to scream out but I couldn’t move.
“Grandpa, it’s alright.”
“Grandpa, Grandpa, Grandpa.” It was as if the voice was on repeat and it wouldn’t stop. I was trying with all my might to get up and run but I couldn’t move. The voice kept calling me over and over again.
“Grandpa, Grandpa, Grandpa!”
The voice was burning into my head. I tried screaming but my lips were sealed shut. I closed my eyes, hoping that the voice would stop.
“Daddy? Trains?” another familiar voice called out.
For a moment, I couldn’t believe I heard the voice. I slowly opened my eyes expecting to see the body sitting right next to me.
“Daddy, I play trains?”
Joshua was standing in front of me, just as he had before with a confused look on his face.
“Daddy, sit down. I play trains.” A smile slowly started creeping across his face.
I stared into his eyes one more time. His face was so young, he seemed so fragile, and nothing but love and happiness exuded from his aura. Seeing his precious smile made me relax. The feeling of fear I had experienced just a moment ago was replaced with the joy of having my loved ones close.
I began to make my way to where he wanted me to sit. As I sat down cross-legged, he let out a big “Yay!” and rushed to sit next to me with his trains.
“Come here, son” I said. I grabbed him and gave him a big hug. “I’ll never let anyone hurt you, I promise,” I whispered as I gave him a soft kiss on his head. “I love you so much.”
Joshua stopped playing with his trains for a second and looked up at me. “I love you too, daddy.”
Melissa came out from the kitchen with our one year old son, Gavin, in her arms. “Is everything okay?” she asked, a small look of concern on her face.
“Everything is perfect,” I said as I wrapped my arm around Joshua’s shoulder and hugged him one last time. “Everything is absolutely perfect.”