I stared blankly at Dr. R for a moment as she screamed at me. “YOU’VE GOT A FUCKING BRAIN INJURY SERGEANT JULIANO. NOW GET OUT OF MY OFFICE!”
She was a tiny woman from India. Fiercely beautiful, her almond shaped eyes highlighted with thin eyeliner gave way to a cute nose adorned with a golden nose ring. Despite her young age and small size it was evident she was used to being short and direct with big dudes like me. Evidently, I had finally pissed her off as her face glowed red amidst her light brown skin. Back then I argued a lot and only paid attention to Doctors when they told me something was “seriously wrong.” Trainwrecks, I have a lot of Doctor appointments, so I’m always being told there’s something going on.
Like every ineffective piece of military equipment – I’m outdated, inefficient, falling apart and I cost a lot to maintain. Back then I was still drinking every day, and I didn’t give a shit about much, but I paused before I completely made my way through her door and back to my self-pity.
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“What do you mean I have a brain injury? I’ve seen like a million Doctors and I’ve been telling them there is something wrong for as long as I can remember, it’s all in my records. Everyone has told me I have PTSD and I’m a narcotic addict and I need to “just get over it.” I’ve been told for years.” She looked up from whatever she was writing and her glare at me softened. “If you are willing to listen for a second and stop giving bullshit excuses for everything, I try to tell you, I can explain.” Reluctantly I turned and sat my overweight alcoholic body back down in her chair to let her give me a spiel I barely understood. Dr. R basically outlined she had been reviewing my records and believed information from my post deployment health assessments suggested an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury. She said there were notes indicating I was put on quarters shortly after a rocket attack Zack and I experienced. I began drooling uncontrollably, walking in circles and acting excitedly so my command element placed me on bedrest so I could get myself back together and get back out there. Another attack was coming, and everyone had to be ready.
I knew exactly what she was talking about. Ramadan of 2007 was the beginning of my end. Years ago, I swore I would never return to Iraq and then before I knew it, I found my ass right back in the fiery pits of Hell trying to figure other people out. I was a part of a new team of awesome dudes. This time we were securing a very large facility with thousands of pissed off Iraqis who hate us and each other (Sunni & Shia), near international borders and an unregulated commercial port. I mean this was like the best idea the military could ever come up with, right? I mean it’s not like we would inspire the terrorist uprising of ISIS right before our own eyes or anything right? The Takfiri pounded our compound with aerial bombs for 8 days straight. They mortared us in the mornings. They attacked us in the evenings. They blasted our convoys every chance they could get. Standards and morale were getting critically low. People were playing suicidal games with their guns. The chow hall began serving hot dogs for breakfast and whatever else they could find to eat. Human beings were fighting and fucking each other every chance they got. When we live in fear, we will attempt to find a way to escape. By the fourth day of being attacked the tension was insane and people chose interesting ways to cope with their fears of death. Ways I’m still trying to put into words. I’m not sure yet what to tell you all about the notes I took during day six and day seven under constant fear. I don’t know if I will be able to for a while. I kept my journal locked away for years because I am a coward.
“Okay,” I responded. “Let’s assume your analysis is correct and I am as screwed up as you say I am, what now?” “You’re not screwed up Sgt. Juliano.” “You’ve just never been properly diagnosed and treated. We are learning more and more about blast injuries like yours and the lasting effects every day.” It sucked to feel lied to, but I wasn’t surprised to be hearing this. After all, it wasn’t until years later I discovered my very first assignment involved my exposure to high levels of radioactive waste. We had full bird Colonels (and the city of Sacramento) telling us everything was safe and we had nothing to worry about. I recently learned almost all people from that assignment have developed permanent issues and a few have died from cancer. From what I know of that assignment I consider every day I have on this earth without a cancer diagnoses another blessing. Dr. R and I discussed my options, her thoughts on moving forward and how to help wean me off the pain meds. She worked hard to convince me I didn’t have to be miserable anymore. “We will begin treatment as soon as you are ready.” I looked at her with teary eyes and felt pounds of the weight on my shoulders slowly falling off. I’d been telling Doctors that something was wrong for years.
Upon my return from Camp Bucca, most of my team members were rattled. All were affected in one way or another. Almost no one from my team stayed in the military after that assignment. The few of us who did stay were deeply affected in ways we didn’t understand and then ostracized the moment we asked for help. “Suck it up and press on.” One of my closest friends fell into a depression that cost him his marriage as he disappeared in a world of video games and midnight shifts. Another Non-Comissioned Officer I served with marched his ass straight into the Commander’s office unexpectedly and through teary eyes told our superior he could not willingly be a part of this anymore. He resigned his badge and his beret on the spot. I stood next to Sgt. A as he poured his heart out to a Commander who oversaw combat troops but had never seen combat. Sgt. A was told to get lost and he would be replaced. After almost losing his life and watching his friend permanently injured Sgt. A was admonished because he completely lost his shit and people who rarely deployed and barely dealt with stress told him to just suck it up. Other members of my unit faded into depression and dependence. There was a lot of that going on in those years in the military.
Like the rest of my team members, I told the truth on our post health deployment assessments. We all had shitty experiences during that trip. Here’s the thing though. Those documents were being used to evaluate our performance and our retention. And that is exactly how we are discouraged from speaking about needing help. You see, if you fuck the unit and their deployment plans by being a human being and asking for help, and the command staff’s magical deployment numbers aren’t as high as they wished upon a star, they will fuck you. That’s how this works, plain and simple. Someone else gets to be a Rockstar now. My medical records were as thick as a dictionary at this point and I needed surgery before I would ever be world-wide capable again so I decided it was finally time to take care of me for a change. I stared at the paperwork for long minutes and then checked the boxes, realizing I was destroying my Rockstar career as I had seen others do by letting the Air Force know I wasn’t 100% combat ready. I threw chances of promotion out the window the moment my leadership understood I needed help. Why would our command promote and retain someone when they can’t use them and throw them away later? That was the high-ops tempo mentality.
The next few months ‘back in the present’ during 2017 entailed me attending therapy sessions, working on memory exercises, talking about my rage and the monster within. At times it was fucking torturous and I wanted to quit. After six months working with Psychiatrists my progress was astonishing. I was beginning to strengthen my memory. After cognitive and behavioral therapy, my intellectual thinking resumed. I can empathize with others once again. Once the drugs and the narcotics completely drained out of my system to nothing, I was given another battery of tests. My intelligence quotient was measured and revealed remarkable improvement. I worked with counselors to address my overeating. My binge drinking became less and less. I ran again even though my knee was fucking killing me. I worked myself up to four miles at a time. The more I embraced my pain without narcotic filters or the mask of alcohol, the more I re-connected with the real world once again.
Coming to grips that I’m not crazy (well not completely fucking crazy) and that I have taken some really hard hits to this body was not an easy task. It wasn’t easy to admit I felt lied to. That I felt forgotten about. While I was in the military I asked. I pleaded. I begged to be given a different alternative than I was given. Upon my arrival at Springfield, IL the first Psychologist I was assigned told me I was the subject of mind control coming from the radio tower across from the Airport in town. I cancelled future appointments and complained to the military provider. I was next sent to a shady location in the ghetto where I would meet a man with a wall of certifications and a shitty cocaine habit. He sometimes ended our sessions early because he double-booked clients. I was then sent to Decatur, Illinois about forty-five minutes away from my base. My beta-male commander would whine that my appointments took up most of the afternoon and I would just ignore him. I knew at some point I was being medically retired. Upon my arrival at Decatur, the Tricare-provided Psychiatrist would abruptly fall asleep. I stuck with that one for about two years. I knew it wasn’t a good situation, but Hell he gave me whatever narcotics I wanted without question.
Back then, those Doctors were different. Back then I was treated different. Today in 2017 I was finally talking to people who treated me like a person and not as a number. It made a world of difference in my life. I realize now I should have listened to my heart and to my wife. I should have been more vocal about my problems. I should have pushed harder to be evaluated for other things. I should have told my chain of command my health was more important than “THEIR” promotion requirements. I should have never taken no for an answer or allowed myself to be forgotten about when I was promised that would never happen. I should have done a lot of things. I realize that now.
In November of 2019 I met with Dr. R one last time before she moved on in her career and to her next assignment. I weighed 223 lbs. I was sober. My previously red and glossy eyes were again white and sharp. My liver is no longer shutting down because of my alcohol consumption. I spend very little money on alcohol now and have even less reason to get drunk (except for my 40th birthday I just celebrated, sorry I puked on your tire, Jeremy) When I wake in the morning I awaken to my gorgeous wife, amazing son and beautiful home. When I awaken in the morning, I look in the mirror and smile at the physically fit and mentally aware individual staring back at me. Although I do not see what you see in the mirror, I am happy with what I see now. I’m proud of what I see now. After my son catches the bus and my wife heads to our home office I hit the gym and deal with things I used to take medications for. When I work out in the morning, I diffuse my pain and my horror. Only the dead know the end of war.
People will never stop destroying one another. I understand that. I am forever changed, and I simply do not view human beings the same way most people do. Between my childhood, my time at war and what I have learned moving forward back at home I can honestly say I will never view people, relationships or human interaction the way 99% of people do anymore. This shattered mind of mine now exists in a world of curiosity. I have a brain injury. I have accepted it. The scarring evident in my MRIs, my cognitive difficulties at times, my limited short-term memory. I accept it now. I’m overcoming it now. I’ve learned not to argue, and I’ve learned to trust again. One of the most important things a Medically retired veteran can do is establish and maintain routines like we relied so heavily upon when we were in the military. Its what makes the most sense to us.
I am learning to cope with my limitations and to overcome them. If you are reading this, chances are you can overcome yours as well. You just have to try.
السبيل الوحيد للخروج هو من خلال
You’re Welcome. Internet.