Down the streets of San Francisco, a Diesel truck passes across a man’s gaze. With the distinct smell of the diesel fuel and the way the sun reflects off his eyes, within moments, he is back.
He is back in Afghanistan.
He can smell, taste, and feel his past, as if it’s right here in front of him as if he’s living it all over again, completely incoherent of his actual surroundings. A 6-block walk to the gym transforms into a battlefield.
Like countless others, Steven Schwenka, is a fighter of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This experience is not unique, and he is not the only one.
Since October 2001, approximately 1.64 million U.S. troops have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and at least 20 percent of them have PTSD and/or depression. However, 50 percent of those with PTSD do not seek treatment, says RAND, a center for military health and policy research.
The “mission over everything” mentality breeds the mindset of ignoring symptoms and being unwilling to get help, says Schwenka, currently a Psychology major at College of San Mateo.
This branches from the “macho-man” dynamic taught in the military. The military is male-dominated and stands on the motto, -suck it up and move on- explains Schwenka.
There is one way to do things and that is how it goes, it’s a controlling environment, says Schwenka, a rifleman who served in the infantry and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.
This technique of control is good training, but leads to a hesitancy to get help, says Schwenka.
“When you get out and have these traumatic experiences and you are still operating through that lens of control, says Schwenka. “It does not treat the problem, it numbs it.”
This outlook towards being unwilling to acquire help does not differ with gender, explains Heather Rojaśeverett, currently a Computer Science major at Skyline College.
She looked back on a proverb the soldiers survived by, “…you can’t smoke a rock.”
“It’s a huge deal for soldiers, because you are trained to be so mentally strong, that for you to think that you have a weakness, such as PTSD, you don’t want to claim it, let alone acknowledge you have it,” says Rojaśeverett, a United States Army Signal Corps Veteran served in Germany 1999 to 2002.
This view was shared by Luis Padilla, a Skyline Alumni currently a Program Services Coordinator at the Veterans Center at College of San Mateo.
“You are being told you are warriors, so to accept PTSD is like accepting defeat, to accept that something is wrong with you,” says Padilla, a Marine Corps airborne parachutist.
PTSD stems from moral injury, which results from making choices against one’s own morals, explains Padilla who was deployed to Iraq in 2008.
As part of the marine corps rifle squad, Schwenka shed his own light on by giving his perspective from a combat veteran standpoint.
Pulling that trigger, and having to think about those kinds of actions is from where PTSD symptoms cultivate. Most people haven’t been in a situation where the only option is to kill or get killed, he says.
“What is really hard to grapple with, for a lot of combat veterans, is coming to grips with who they’ve harmed,” says Schwenka, a 6-year Marine Corps veteran.
As a survival mechanism, the brain flash freezes a memory to let the person know that something is not good. It’s the brain’s way of evolving and letting you know not to do it again, he explains, “You are always going to have it these triggers, it’s just about how you manage them.”
The Marine Corps veteran also stated that the everyday tasks can be difficult to go through due to PTSD.
“It’s about how you can mediate those peaks and valleys, because there are going to be days, like walking to the gym and when you think you are fine and everything is good, and all of a sudden you are back,” says Schwenka.
Transition to civilian life is not incentivized by the military, as it is not high on their priorities explains Schwenka. Their attention is focused on optimization of resources rather than the well-being or long-term health of the people who are being put back into society.
“All the onus is on the veteran to get themselves help and there is no oversight in pushing these people in the right way to get treatment,” he says.
Which is why society plays a key role in their journey, explains Schwenka.
PTSD is a lifelong journey and not a short phase, Rojaśeverett relates. She says the process is much similar to of losing a loved one.
“I feel like the biggest, strongest thing is to be there for them,” says Rojaśeverett. “You can’t take the pain away right away, you have to give them the time.”
She says, “With each day, they get one step further from what hurt them and one step closer to hopefully getting better.”