In the Winter 2014 issue of IRM, I interviewed Rob Ziarnick about his experience with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rob was in the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines from 2002 to 2005, just “doing his job.” He started in the infantry as a regular grunt, but quickly rose to the rank of corporal by going to sniper school, where he graduated high shooter in his class. During Operation Iraqi Freedom One, he served two tours and developed PTSD. I am pleased to pick up our discussion where we left off.
Rob, as you know, problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs have been a big issue. What has your experience been with the VA?
Overall, my experience with the VA has not been great. They can be a hassle to deal with. Sometimes they’re really on the ball, and they get stuff done. At other times, they don’t seem to know which way they’re going.
They’re pretty good about the mental health stuff though, but I think they have been slipping on the physical health side. It really depends on who you are working with. I’ve had good experiences, too. Sometimes they’ve gotten me in for an appointment quickly, and the doctor was on the ball.
Do you have any suggestions for other veterans working with the VA?
I guess figuring it all out is the trick. They don’t do a good job of explaining what tools are available to us. It’s not as though there is anybody within the VA who can sit you down and help you get it done.
It is very difficult to get your benefits. If you do the paperwork yourself, you’re going to get turned down – you really just can’t do it on your own. You have to find someone from another organization to help you, like the American Legion or the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). Otherwise, it typically won’t get pushed through.
Of all the tools you use to live with your PTSD, which is the most helpful?
I think my most helpful tool is just talking about my situation. I’m not afraid to tell people what is going on. It helps to talk. It helps to reveal the demons you’re hiding without worrying that people are going to judge you.
You’ve got to tell someone what you’re going through, even if it’s just your friends or your family. Somebody has to know. If you don’t, it just stays in there, festers and eats at you. It’s like an acid that slowly corrodes away a little part of you each day.
What do you think about the use of PTSD service dogs?
Service dogs are great. Mine can sense if I am anxious or irritable. If I’m not having a good time, she will take my attention away from whatever is going on around me by getting in my face, licking me or lying on top of me. It makes such a difference.
Another thing I’ve heard some guys say is that they feel uncomfortable when their backs are turned – the paranoia thing. Trainers teach the dogs to face the opposite direction from their owners – to watch their backs. The dog will let the veteran know if there is something going on behind them, so the vet can turn around and check it out. Overall, it’s just a comforting feeling to know you have a companion with you.
You have already shared that you’ve tried to kill yourself several times. How have other veterans helped you deal with those impulses when you get them?
I’ve talked to Drew Dix a couple of times. He was a Green Beret during the Vietnam War and is a Medal of Honor recipient. He told me something that really struck a chord about PTSD and suicide. He said, “Think about suicide like this. You weren’t going to let the enemy kill you when you were overseas and fighting them; then why the hell would you let them kill you now?”
How has your understanding of PTSD evolved over the years?
During my early treatment in the Marines at a place called Warzone Reactions, I was in group therapy with other veterans. I couldn’t relate with anybody there. They were all a bunch of truck drivers and the like. I’m thinking, How the f– –k does this guy have PTSD? He just drove a truck. I was killing people.
I was the only one there who had any kind of specialized combat training at a completely different level. I had a difficult time relating with those guys because our experiences were so different. I didn’t understand PTSD then.
I now know I can relate to anyone with PTSD, whether it is from a car accident, sexual abuse or whatever. The symptoms are the same and what you’re going through is the same. It doesn’t matter what caused it. Maybe the combat stuff is different, but I now have some empathy and understanding that it’s not just combat veterans who go through this. A lot of people have it.
Rob, I want to thank you for your service to the US and for taking the time to share your story with me and our readers.
Bill W. brings his life experience to print in a series of articles dealing with the many aspects of recovery. In a sequence of personal reflections, interviews and round table discussions, he shares with the reader, peer to peer, his effective and helpful insights into the world of addiction and mental illness recovery.