PTSD Myths, Part 1: Habits vs. Symptoms

Family and loved ones often notice that the young man or woman who returns from a combat deployment now acts differently.  When they go to a restaurant they will pick a table that allows them to observe the room, especially the entrance.  In a crowd of any size they might hug the walls and seek out a corner near an exit.  Sometimes they are obsessed with taking different routes to and from work.  When driving down the road they like to own the center and dodge trash or debris.

This behavior is sometimes interpreted as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It is not.  It is simply the result of good training and surviving a dangerous world.

On my cushiest deployment to the Middle East I spent about six months at Eskan Village in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  We lived and worked in a walled compound of condominiums situated on the western edge of the city.  Since the buildings were constructed by French and German contractors the place felt almost European, except for the scorpions on the rock lawn and the calls to prayer echoing from the capital.

The setting seems almost picturesque until you put a few things in context.  This deployment occurred in the fall of 1997.  In November 1995 a car bomb exploded at OPM-SANG (Office of Program Management-Saudi Arabian National Guard) in Riyadh, killing five Americans.  In June 1996 a truck bomb exploded at Khobar Towers in northeast Saudi Arabia, killing 19 of my fellow Airmen.  I had friends at both attacks, which made them very real and very personal.

The second attack forced the United States to move all land-based flight operations for Southern Watch to the remote Prince Sultan Air Base, about 90 minutes south of Riyadh.  When we got off the airplane there we donned body armor before being ushered to armored SUVs for our ride to Eskan.  During our stay we frequently observed military aged males watching us with binoculars from surrounding buildings.  There were constantly reports of terrorists organizations plotting some sort of attack against our site, which was the combined air operation center that enforced United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

There is not much you can do to protect yourself against a foe who stays concealed.  During our frequent trips into the city for meetings with our host nation counterparts we still wore body armor and drove armored SUVs.  We shed our uniforms and tried to blend in as best we could.  We varied our routes and times of travel and made erratic turns to see if we were being followed. Before getting back in our vehicles we always walked around and looked for any wire clippings or other tell-tale signs of tampering.

Our security expanded the perimeter as far as they were allowed.  Any large vehicle that tried to enter was searched by bomb dogs.  Almost nightly a loudspeaker would announce, “A 500-foot cordon has been established at Golf Three.”  We knew that either meant that another bomber was trying to enter our little outpost or that one of the dogs had just sat down in the hopes his handler would cough up a Scooby Snack.  Strangely, I don’t think any of us knew where Golf Three was exactly.

For six months we lived in a constant state of justified paranoia.  I came home in one piece and no one could convince me that my defensive driving had not saved my life.  There were people who wanted me dead, but I eluded them.  Logically, I cannot prove this to be true, but neither can you prove that a random right turn was not a life-saving precaution.

Other deployments lead to other peculiar habits.  Stay on paved surfaces whenever possible because you are less likely to find a landmine there.  When in a crowd, watch everyone’s hands.  Always plan an escape route, whether on foot or in a vehicle.  Watch for any car with squatted tires, because the explanation for the additional weight might go boom.

These habits brought your Veteran home to you.  Asking them to stop is not only irrational, it is borderline impolite.  Doing so belittles the realities they have experienced.

Worse yet, pointing out these things as possible signs that your Veteran might have Post-Traumatic Stress is akin to someone pointing at you and calling you crazy for adjusting your mirrors and putting on your seatbelt before leaving the driveway.

Hypervigilance is a symptom of PTSD, but hypervigilance is more about feeling in danger than it is about always sitting with your back to the wall.  Don’t make the mistake of alienating an otherwise healthy Veteran by making an amateur diagnosis.  If you do suspect PTSD, ask questions about how your Veteran feels rather than make an accusation.

If your combat Veteran does feel in danger, then encourage them to seek professional help.  They can contact the Bangor Vet Center at 947-3391 or call 1-877-927-8387.  Remind them that asking for help is a sign of strength.

Clifford M. Gray

About Clifford M. Gray

I grew up in Enfield and moved to the Bangor area in junior high. I enlisted in the US Air Force Immediately after graduating from Hampden Academy. During my 20-year career I served in intelligence, command & control, and the Air Force's history and museum program. Following my retirement I completed my undergraduate at California State University, Chico, with a BA in History and Social Science. I returned to Maine last year to attend graduate school. I currently work as a veteran advocate in the area of peer support.