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How sharing my PTSD struggles helped others—and me

Army Sgt. Jon Harmon lost both legs after stepping on an improvised explosive device while on a 2012 Afghanistan mission. Today he speaks to commands and veterans about his personal struggle with mental health and how he works to overcome it. (Photo by Kevin Fleming, U.S. Army Sustainment Command) Army Sgt. Jon Harmon lost both legs after stepping on an improvised explosive device while on a mission in Afghanistan in 2012 . Today he speaks to commands and veterans about his personal struggle with mental health and how he works to overcome it. (U.S. Army photo by Kevin Fleming)

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During my deployment to Afghanistan in 2012, my team was providing security and fire support for a key leader engagement with the local village elders. The mission was uneventful … until it wasn’t. The next thing I remember, I felt a massive displacement of heat and overpressure. I had stepped on an improvised explosive device and had lost my right leg. My left leg suffered severe, irreparable damage. In the immediate response, two more IEDs were detonated, which caused 12 of my fellow paratroopers to sustain severe injuries, and killed one.

All I had ever wanted to be was a paratrooper. But now, I had to adapt to my new normal: being a double amputee. I focused on the life-changing physical injuries I sustained, and learned to walk again. Eventually I progressed enough to return to duty. But my recovery wasn’t over. Years later, I fell into a dark place, struggling with survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. I had never dealt with my invisible injuries. I discovered that PTSD can creep up on you and get worse over time. For me, it involved flashbacks and emotional numbness.

It was around the time of my divorce that I had an emotional breakdown and contemplated taking my own life. But I thought about the guys I served with in the 82nd Airborne Division and said to myself, “How could I be so selfish?” My brothers died on the battlefield, and I lived. I owed it to them to get help.

After that, I started seeing a therapist who specialized in treating PTSD – that treatment continues today. Therapy helps me to process some of what I had compartmentalized and pushed aside, and it gives me a clean slate to process everything.

It was hard to say “I need help,” especially because I was an NCO. But I realized that as a leader, I should be setting the example. It was my opportunity to show others that reaching out is all right.

It’s important for people to know they’re not alone, especially when they find their own dark place. Relying on your support network can be lifesaving. Whether talking to groups or another veteran, I have discovered that sharing my personal struggles with mental health not only helps others, it also helps me.

I’ve also found the buddy system to be incredibly helpful. Every Friday I call one of my combat veteran buddies to see how they’re doing. I can usually tell on the phone if they’re okay or not, and just having someone to talk to is crucial. Everyone deals with their personal struggles in their own way, and even though some prefer no contact, it’s important to keep trying.

I know I’ve come a long way, but just like everyone who has experienced the chaos of war, I will always bear the scars. When I feel overwhelmed, I know to call a friend and say, “I need help.” When I experience flashbacks, I use a tactic my therapist refers to as “grounding.” For me, this means concentrating on something, such as the look and feel of everyday objects around me. That concentration helps bring me back to reality.

Today, I’m working on my inner peace. I attend group PTSD sessions with other combat veterans to learn how to cope with my symptoms. I also attend yoga classes to help me with relaxation methods. Yes, even paratroopers can do yoga – and like it.

A friend came to visit the other day. He lost 28 guys in Vietnam. I asked him when the last time was that he visited Vietnam, and he replied, “2 a.m.” That hit me really hard. He said the key to living a happy life is to learn to deal with emotions and to process them in a healthy way. Otherwise the trauma of losing your friends in combat will destroy everything you love. For me, this means letting out emotions that will otherwise haunt me.

I believe the reason I’m still able to serve in uniform – and perhaps the reason I’m alive – is that I asked for help and I got it. It wasn’t a one-time thing. I continue to get help and seek healthy ways to deal with my own PTSD. We all have our own paths and methods to cope with struggles. I hope that by sharing my story of recovery, someone will choose to ask for help instead of letting their struggles destroy them.

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