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Robert Gil couldn’t stop his hands from shaking.
In every other respect, he was the tough sergeant in his platoon everyone turned to for strength. “Shake it off,” he told soldiers who came to him for help for combat stress. “You’re going to be alright. It’s not that serious.” But toward the end of his second deployment to Iraq his body began to betray him. It started with hands that trembled so much he accidently ignited a flare inside a Humvee and set the vehicle on fire.
“Take the day off. Get some rest,” his superior advised.
But time-off couldn’t fix this.
For months Robert had played the role of macho soldier. When a suicide bomber’s disembodied hand struck his face, he laughed it off. When the bullets and bombs began flying (a daily occurrence in 2006), Robert was the first to fire back so his soldiers wouldn’t carry the burden of killing someone. At night, when they weren’t under mortar attack, soldiers in his platoon would scream and cry in their sleep. Not Robert.
“I knew something inside me had changed. I felt very cold inside,” he says.
When the tremors subsided, he experienced temporary paralysis. Hallucinations of flames crawling up his tent followed, then intense nausea. Robert gritted his teeth and dragged himself back out, determined to lead his men. He refused to seek help.
When his deployment and Army service ended, Robert was dropped off at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, with a one-way ticket home to New York. No ceremony, no guidance, no referral for help. As he stood in line to board the plane, Robert began to think about his options back home. After back-to-back deployments, he wasn’t ready to face his family.
Robert left the line and wound up in the airport bathroom weeping uncontrollably. Instead of heading home, Robert took the cheapest flight he could find: Athens, Greece. The next 18 months in Europe were a blur. The emotions he had buried would surface without warning.
“The smell of breakfast in the morning, just a hot meal, not an MRE, would make me cry hysterically,” Robert says. “I didn’t want anyone to know me like that. I was trying to wake up in a different life.”
In the summer of 2008, he met an old high school friend who was studying medicine in Romania. She convinced him to return home and they eventually married. But Robert’s journey was far from over. He had joined the Army right out of high school, and didn’t have an “after-Army” life-plan. Not only that, he was still struggling emotionally.
“In civilian life, there is no manual to tell you what to do,” Robert says.
In early 2009, Robert turned to the VA hospital in Brooklyn for help in putting his life back on track. But no one had ever talked to him about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Robert wasn’t able to describe what he was experiencing.
“You have to be ready to be helped and know what’s going on with you,” Robert says. “I didn’t know how to say what was going on, so they just brushed me off.”
Robert decided the VA couldn’t help him, and resolved to help himself. The G.I. Bill seemed like a good place to start. He enrolled in classes at New York’s Hunter College. But Robert’s PTSD wasn’t under control yet, and it sank his first attempt at going to school. He felt nervous in crowds on campus. Sitting in class he would suddenly hear gunfire and superiors’ barked orders. There was also the chance he would start crying again and the lack of control over his emotions made him angry.
Robert went to the VA again for help and walked away with dozens of documents to complete. During the PTSD evaluation process, he had VA appointments he had to keep or risk losing his benefits. Often it was hard to schedule those appointments around school. “Why can’t the VA be open on a Saturday?” Robert wondered. PTSD doesn’t take the weekend off.
“My symptoms are going to be here forever,” he thought.
His racing thoughts kept him awake at night, and the lack of sleep weakened his immune system. Between exhaustion and sickness, he couldn’t focus on classwork.
“I was so tired I couldn’t see letters, just white pages. It looked like a different language,” Robert says.
He failed his second and third semesters. It cost him $16,000. Brooding on the financial burden, the stress it created, and a growing sense of personal failure, he attempted suicide in 2010. The turning point came when he reached out to Wounded Warrior Project ® for help. He got an education in PTSD and how to cope with his symptoms. With a new sense of empowerment, Robert has returned to college, and is making progress on his life goals. He’s started a veteran support group on campus that allows former service members to relax and encourage each other.
Robert understands now that PTSD will likely always be with him. He draws strength from the examples of military legends like Audie Murphy, who publicly struggled with PTSD after their service. But he doesn’t let PTSD define his character.
“You are always going to be ‘you,’” Robert says.
As for the soldiers he dismissed as weak in Iraq, Robert got a chance to redeem himself in 2011. The fiancée of one of his battle buddies tracked him down in New York and asked Robert to visit Derrick in Texas.
Derrick was one of the soldiers in Iraq who was so plagued by nightmares he would volunteer often for guard duty at night so he wouldn’t have to sleep. Robert and others had taunted him for his frequent crying spells. After separating from the Army, Derrick had lived both with PTSD and the impression that he was somehow less of a man. Robert spent a week sitting on his couch, counseling him and assuring him that was far from the truth.
“I helped him work through his demons and give him closure. I told him he wasn’t weak and that I also felt the scars,” Robert says.
After helping Derrick, Robert reached out to the other men in his unit.
“They don’t talk, they just cry,” Robert says.
But now he understands why.
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