Many people who suffer from PTSD do not experience traumatic events directly, but the symptoms can be just as severe when those they are close to are eviscerated by experiences.
A year ago, Ben, 20, entered the military with the expectation of following his father’s example and serving honorably as a career military man. He completed basic training and was eager to begin his first deployment to Afghanistan.
A month and a half after arriving on-site, after a long day in the heat, Ben was exhausted. At his first opportunity, he crawled into his bunk and decided to relax a bit. As is often the case, combat soldiers find ways to relax and let off steam. Sometimes the stress release is self-induced physical pleasuring, or masturbating. At the time of the bomb explosion, Ben was doing just that: stress relief in the privacy of his bunk area.
His barracks shook when an insurgent threw a bomb over the mud wall. The explosive shock waves catapulted him from his bunk, slammed him facedown onto the floor, and when his erect penis “fractured,” he heard POP! At exactly the same time, a patrol of twelve infantrymen and their sergeant took a direct hit. One of those seriously injured was Ben’s best friend, Tyler.
Several minutes passed before Ben gathered his wits enough to feel for blood, as he was positive his member had snapped clean off. While he was relieved to find himself in one piece, the excruciating pain, swelling, and severe bruising indicated something was clearly wrong.
Even more painful than the injury was the overwhelming disappointment in himself for being otherwise occupied and unable to rush to help those injured in the bombing. The IED killed six, left five soldiers with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), mangled Tyler’s arm, and amputated the patrol sergeant’s right leg.
Prior to this experience, anytime Ben imagined a situation whereupon he would be needed to provide first aid and comfort to members of his platoon, he never doubted his ability to come through for them. When the first test of his fealty arrived, however, Ben was curled on his side on the floor of his barracks, frightened from the bomb blast and the awful condition of his genitals.
Realistic or not, Ben believed that he could have provided first aid to save Tyler’s arm, if he had not been injured while doing something that felt shameful. Let there be no doubt: it’s common knowledge that everyone masturbates, and members of the military understand the need for release. It’s just a fact of life. But it’s not a topic of conversation. The basic rule of thumb is that as long as “taking care of yourself” does not equal “dereliction of duty,” no one cares if soldiers jack off.
Ben convicted himself of dereliction of duty on the spot. He crawled to his bunk and remained there until he was able to stand, which coincided with the time the post-bombing chaos cleared. He made his way to the infirmary and was advised to have surgery within 72 hours or risk permanent damage. Transferred to a trauma hospital, he underwent the necessary repairs and returned to his unit five days later, pain pills in hand.
By the time Ben arrived back on base, everyone’s nerves were taut, and tempers were short. The dead were en route to the U.S. in flag-draped caskets, and the injured had been flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, next to the U.S. airbase at Ramstein, Germany. Ben didn’t get to see Tyler before he left, which only added to his guilt.
When Ben heard others discussing what they saw when they came upon the aftermath of the IED, he had nothing to contribute. What could he say? “Yeah, I wish I could have been there for you guys, but I broke my dick and I was still crying.”
When his buddies inquired about his disappearing act shortly after the incident, Ben mumbled, “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s personal.” His friends, who knew him as a quiet, intense person, did not press him.
But Gene, with whom Ben had butted heads since basic training, fixated on Ben’s refusal to discuss his whereabouts. Perhaps Gene was dealing with own trauma by focusing on Ben; at any rate, he interpreted Ben’s stoic mask as either a lack of care for the lost and wounded or as a signal that Ben couldn’t hack Afghanistan. He erroneously concluded that Ben had been granted R & R for mental health reasons and unfairly labeled him as unable to cope with what the rest of the platoon was dealing with heroically. Gene’s resentment was palpable: his best friend died in the bombing, and Gene got no time off. He considered himself stronger, more capable, and definitely more committed than Ben, and the idea of a loser receiving special treatment enraged him.
Ben tolerated Gene’s whisper campaign and outright harassment fairly well at first, but when others picked up the baton and the comments became outright accusations, he made up his mind to just do his time in the service, then figure out his next career step. It was the first time he’d ever considered a future without the military. He did not, however, foresee the ending the way it came: in the form of the name, BENEDICT, painted in red paint in awkward block letters, over his name on his footlocker.
Outraged when he saw it, Ben kicked the trunk. “Goddammit!”
“What’s the problem? You ashamed of being named after the most famous traitor of all time?”
Ben turned to see that Gene was the speaker. He stepped up close, fists clenched. “What are you talking about?”
Gene leaned forward and spoke slowly, as if Ben were an imbecile. “The first bomb goes off, and you’re out of here. What’d you do, pussy? How’d you get R & R while the rest of us were stuck cleaning up the blood and body parts?”
It’s hard to say what happened next; Ben certainly can’t remember it all, but he snapped back into awareness when his bunkmates pulled him off of Gene, whose face was bloodied beyond recognition.
Dishonorably discharged following a blur of hearings and negotiations that his father, a retired general, had a hand in making go smoothly, Ben was bound for the States. Once returned to the U.S., his very disappointed parents insisted that Ben complete intensive therapy for PTSD and anger issues, or he would not be allowed to live with them. Initially, Ben refused and moved in with a friend from high school.
It didn’t take long for Ben to wear out his welcome there: it was either live on the street or return to his parents’ home and go into treatment.