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From Feeling Fine to Triggered: Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Invisible Wounds

  • Published
  • By Courtesy article
  • IWI Program

In 2009, then Staff Sgt. Jessica Clayton, a civil engineer deployed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, would often see a C-17 or C-130 aircraft parked diagonally outside her work area at the air terminal. It meant that a fallen service member was heading home. “Sadly, it happened all the time,” recalls now Master Sgt. Clayton.

One day, Clayton learned that her friend and fellow Airman was the fallen hero returning home. Her heart gave out. “I had a really hard time watching his dignified transfer,” she recalls. That day developed into a deeply personal invisible wound for Clayton. She had difficulty coping with repeated reminders of her friend’s death as every diagonally parked plane revived the memory of watching him head home for the last time.

In 2010, Clayton returned home and everything seemed fine. Then she started noticing that loud noises and large crowds would trigger her. “The weekly tornado testing sirens were identical to the ones signaling a base attack and would make me roll out of bed, search for my weapon, and panic in fear that a suicide bomber was successful,” says Clayton.

A few weeks later, she experienced another major trigger that made her realize she needed support. While at the ice rink, the noises of kids bumping into the rink walls made her feel like she was back in Afghanistan. “I broke down and had to leave,” she recalls.  

Soon after this incident, Clayton went to the Mental Health Clinic and started therapy after being diagnosed with acute stress disorder. “It took about five months of therapy for me to reacquaint myself with my normal life,” says Clayton.

Her leadership fully supported Clayton as she went through treatment. At first, she was hesitant to talk to her leadership and fellow Airmen about her invisible wounds, worried about how they might perceive her and the impact on her career. But after sharing her treatment plan with her direct supervisor, his encouragement made her realize that her previous worries were just her misconceptions. “I had no negative repercussions on my career,” says Clayton.

Her leadership stood by her again eight years later. In 2018, Clayton severely injured her knee, resulting in complete ACL reconstruction surgery. As a result of her limited mobility, she became depressed and started having suicidal thoughts as the physical trauma and months of rehabilitation took an emotional toll. She again went to the Mental Health Clinic and was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Clayton was initially worried that the medication portion of her treatment, which also included regular therapy sessions, would cost her the job she loved, but that wasn’t the case. “My treatments haven’t impacted my career in any way,” she says.

Seeking treatment taught Clayton how to cope with her invisible wounds, be a better leader, and progress in her career. Since first seeking treatment in 2010, Clayton was promoted to master sergeant and recently returned from her third deployment in 2020 after completing her second treatment.

She encourages Airmen living with invisible wounds to reach out for help. “I couldn’t initially see the benefits of treatment,” says Clayton. “But treatment works, no matter how many times you have to go through it. It’s made me a better Airman.”

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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.