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How Leaders Helped Maj. Harmer Find the Support to Overcome His Invisible Wounds

Maj Chris Harmer, wife Shelley, and children

Maj Chris Harmer, wife Shelley, and children. (Courtesy photo)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Tex. --

In 2004, Maj Chris Harmer left an abusive childhood home and joined the Air Force to be part of something larger than himself. He quickly found a home in the AF Medical Community and flourished both at work and at home over the next decade. “All felt right in life,” recalls Harmer, along with his wife of 16 years, Shelley.

Then the symptoms began.

In 2013, a busy father and a new Flight Commander, he started having nightmares about childhood trauma and experiencing anxiety. “Simple situations like doors slamming or raised voices startled me and became stressful triggers,” recalls Harmer.

Soon, his family life and work began to suffer. Harmer became detached and felt inadequate and guilty for not being present for his family. At work, small disappointments became significant events that stayed with him. A flare-up of an old back injury only worsened his downward spiral, preventing him from running to blow off steam and taking an emotional toll as he adjusted to daily pain and limited physical mobility.

With no way to understand or cope with the increased stress, Harmer became isolated and buried himself in work and alcohol.

“I didn’t recognize the person he was becoming,” says Shelley. As a military spouse, she was used to the usual ups and downs of deployments, but they had always been a team. This was different. “Nothing I said or did seemed to help him, but I know now that recovery doesn’t work that way.”

Growing up in a physically and emotionally abusive environment had caught up with Harmer. Yet he hid the truth. He felt embarrassed that while fellow Airmen had sustained PTSD from deployments, he was dealing with PTSD from childhood trauma.

Friends and family convinced Harmer to attempt professional counseling in 2015, but it was only a half-hearted effort. “I never shared the whole truth, never talked about my childhood,” says Harmer.

By 2018, he saw no way out. Having not felt hope in a long time, Harmer decided everyone in his life would be better off without him.  

Then he found a leader he could trust. “When things came to a breaking point, I felt comfortable reaching out because I had witnessed the way the leader had handled prior situations and dealt with challenges,” recalls Harmer.

The leaders within his organization stepped up to engage and support him. They encouraged him to seek treatment and went above and beyond for his family. “They would call Shelley and check in,” recounts Harmer.

Having his leaders behind him, Harmer finally opened up about his childhood trauma and found a trusted support system—Wingmen, family, faith leaders, and friends. While he still occasionally experiences triggers, he has built sustainable practices focusing on mindfulness, health activities, and scripture study, and uses the tools he learned in therapy to cope with his invisible wounds.

“Find your trusted advocates, whether that’s Airmen, family, leaders, or friends, and tell your story,” Harmer reminds Airmen. “You have to be willing to ask for help and willing to take a hard look at your own behaviors.”

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Editor Note: Invisible wounds are as real and severe as physical wounds. If left untreated invisible wounds can have negative impacts on an Airman’s personal and professional life. It’s important for Airmen to recognize signs and symptoms of invisible wounds in themselves and in their peers, to ensure a mentally strong, resilient, and lethal Total Force. The Air Force is committed to supporting Airmen living with invisible wounds by providing a wide range of resources to support their recovery journey. To share your own stories of invisible wounds and/or learn about available resources visit www.ReadyAirmen.com.

 

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