On Independence Day, take a moment to remember the veterans who paid a terrible price for our freedoms.
Many of them are like I was. When I left Afghanistan and the war, I found that Afghanistan and the war hadn’t quite left me. I had PTSD-like symptoms.
There are thousands of veterans stuck in this place—on edge. They lash out at their spouses. They are ready to beat up the next guy at the bar. They break bottles, break dishes, break up their families. They look for an excuse to explode. They want to scream. The military trained them to fight, and that’s what they want to do.
They can’t just turn this off with the flip of a switch. They have the mentality of killers, but they have to act as gentle fathers and loving husbands. Upon departure from the military, they have to be amicable citizens and agreeable coworkers.
But they can’t. They bring home the fire of war with them.
This doesn’t require a “certifiable” diagnosis of PTSD. It’s my conviction that almost every combat veteran suffers from this mentality one way or another. They bring the cold and lethal mentality of a killer into their homes and communities and then do their best to pretend they are fine.
Many are not. Twenty commit suicide every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
‘I was afraid of what I might do’
Upon returning home from war, I started experiencing what I call “black rage.” This is where you black out from anger. This is similar to blacking out on an alcohol bender, except that it is brought on by sheer uncontrolled anger.
After a black rage, I would often wake up to see everything around me destroyed. If I remembered anything, it seemed like a dream or something that had happened to someone else. Other times, I had no recollection at all. There was just a blank interval between starting to get upset and waking up to see my living room torn to pieces.
This happened on several occasions. Lamps had been hurled across the room. Dishes were shattered against the kitchen floor. Fans and electronics were ripped from the wall sockets. It looked like a tornado had blown through the room. These rages became more frequent and intense.
By the time I came back from Afghanistan, I was a danger to myself and a menace to others. My wife would sometimes lock herself in the bedroom when this happened. She knew there was no stopping one of these fits. She just had to wait it out from a safe distance.
This terrified me.
It was one thing to be self-destructive; it was another thing to put your loved ones in danger. I was afraid of what I might do.
‘My life had become unmanageable’
PTSD doesn’t just destroy veterans—it destroys whole families and communities.
When you are suffering this much, everyone around you suffers, too. I was tearing my life apart, which affected my wife tremendously. I was miserable, and that meant everyone who was close to me was miserable, too.
As a father, as a husband, as a man, I was on the brink of self-destruction. I was teetering at the edge of the precipice, ready to tumble down the ravine. My inner demons tortured me day and night. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t stay calm.
The only place I could function was out on a mission. At home or on base, my soul felt battered and bruised. As they say in twelve-step programs, my life had become “unmanageable.” Everything was crumbling around me: my marriage, my career, my support network, my health, my very will to live.
Something had to change—and it was me.
But I didn’t even know how to change.
I was plagued by shame and guilt and resented my past and all the choices I had made. New choices were in order, but it was beyond me what they should be. My problems seemed insurmountable. My will to live was wavering. Death seemed less objectionable than my life.
I was losing hope that anything would ever change. Everything was broken—above all, me—and I couldn’t fix any of it.
This was when I spoke to God, surrendering myself to him.
He spoke back.
‘Just pursue him’
His message was simple: you are focusing on the wrong things.
I was focusing on my own life when I should have been focused on my relationship with him. God told me to stop trying to fix myself and just pursue him. He invited me to walk with him and talk with him. He wanted me to learn more about who he is.
Talking with him would hold a mirror up to myself and reveal my sins and how to repent, atone, and do better. Through my relationship with God, and only through him, would the truths about myself be revealed.
In a spiritual sense, I had been putting the cart before the horse. I stopped trying to understand myself and fix my problems. Instead, I worked to better understand God. He was changing me, healing me.
My heart and soul had been black. I was tainted and broken, but God reached into my chest and gave me a new heart. My soul felt renewed, my mind clearer. The demons in my head were vanquished. God had hit the reset button and rewired my brain.
It was as if the Lord had released a yoke from around my neck and a great weight was lifted. God wiped the slate clean for me. I felt free. I no longer felt consumed by lust and greed. I felt released from the need to numb myself with alcohol.
I wanted to feel more. I wanted to feel him more and forever. My failures and disappointments no longer mattered. All that mattered was God’s love. He loved me just the way I was—how he had made me—and that was all there was and all I needed. I was his. My imperfections were mine, but he would help me with them. I had a purpose, which, someday, over time, would be revealed, if I would only walk with him.
In time, God filled me and empowered me. I was touched by the Spirit and changed and able to live a better life in line with virtue and guided by truth.
My change was gradual . . . until it wasn’t.
On that day, God empowered me and made me the man that I am today.
Dr. Damon Friedman served as a leader in special operations and is an Iraq and Afghanistan combat-decorated veteran. He is the founder of SOF Missions, a non-profit organization aimed at helping veterans. He is the executive producer of the award-winning film, Surrender Only To One, which is now available on Amazon and iTunes.
(The information and photograph herein do not imply official endorsement by the DoD or its components and is solely the expression of the author.)