OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --
Disclaimer: This story contains a graphic description of military combat
As the sun rose over Bagram Airfield on Sept. 6, 2006, Master Sergeant Michael Myers did not realize yet how that day would forever alter the course of his life. The events of that day initiated his long battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and his journey to find a new normal. As he reflects on the past decade of his recovery, Myers believes that he found resiliency through personal vulnerability and dedicating his life to helping others overcome their invisible wounds.
Serving as a security force member on one of the reconstruction teams that were helping to rebuild the infrastructure and governance of Afghanistan, Myers and his convoy ventured outside the wire on that fateful day in 2006 to check out a local well and assist the Afghan National Police. Upon returning to Bagram Airfield, the convoy was ambushed at a cut in the mountain, where Myers encountered a barrage of RPG and AK-47 fire. It began with Myers’s gunner shouting, “Contact left!” and sounds akin to fireworks. His adrenaline spiked as he witnessed an RPG fly over their convoy and a 50-cal gunner open fire. After evading further hostility, the convoy drove through a local village market that had been abandoned to regroup. “It was almost like an old western,” recalls Myers. “But we knew it was the safest spot since the market was where the Taliban made their money.” For the convoy, their focus now was to get back home safely. They set out for Bagram once more, only to reengage enemy fire within 500 yards outside of the village. “All I heard was a wisp and then I was out,” Myers remembers. “Sometimes when you are knocked out, your subconscious feels like someone is talking to you and in my head that voice asked me, ‘Are you dead?”
When he regained consciousness, Myers realized that an RPG had exploded the front windshield of the Humvee he was driving. He spat out the windshield’s glass and reoriented himself to the situation. The steering wheel was completely turned 180 degrees and the suspension of the vehicle’s right-side had been blown out by RPK fire. At that moment, training became instinctive and Myers slammed his foot against the gas pedal as another RPG exploded directly behind him. He and the rest of his convoy managed to evade further enemy fire without any casualties.
Back at Bagram, Myers pulled shrapnel from his vest, noticed scratches on his eye protection, and saw the imprint of his body on the driver seat from the concussive force of the RPG blast. At the time, he believed that was the extent of the impact. “I continued on with the rest of my deployment. We continued to do outside the wire missions and carried on. I thought everything was fine,” he recalls.
However, the signs of his PTSD were noticeable immediately upon returning home in April 2007. He began to have trouble sleeping, was more irritable, and experienced headaches and memory lapses. Despite all the pain he was beginning to feel internally, Myers wouldn’t let his vulnerability show. “I would smile, I would crack jokes, and I would come to the office and let everybody think I was fine on the outside, but I was actually dying on the inside,” he says.
The effects of his PTSD hit his family the hardest. “When I got home, I was always on edge. I would feel rage and snap when too many stressors were going on at once—I didn’t feel normal. The only place I felt normal was when I was training, when I was deployed, or when I was at work.” It was his wife that eventually encouraged him to seek treatment so he could get back to normal.
For eight years, Myers fought a quiet war within himself, chasing action to suppress those private moments where it was only him and his thoughts. For Myers, he was focused on his mission and never on himself. Over that entire time, the stigma of invisible wounds and its repercussions on his long-term career kept Myers from seeking treatment. Even during deployments in Iraq in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2012, Myers kept an appearance that veiled his true struggles. In 2015, after his wife fought and won her battle against stage-three cancer, she convinced him that it was time for him to fight his battle. As an instructor at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, he felt as though the timing finally afforded him the opportunity to be vulnerable and receive the help that he needed.
Myers’s first step was visiting the Behavior Health Optimization Program. They referred him to a traumatic brain injury center where the doctor diagnosed him with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and PTSD. Treatment for his memory lapses and stuttering, as well as regular consultation with a therapist and a prescription for an antidepressant allowed Myers to shut “Pandora’s box.” Myers later discontinued his treatment and believed that his PTSD was gone; he believed that he was back to normal.
His fifth and final deployment came in July 2018. A month before shipping out for a less hostile deployment in the United Arab Emirates, Myers received word that 10 members of his unit were being deployed to Afghanistan. Instinct told him to go with his brothers in arms. So, he returned to Afghanistan—the place where his invisible wounds began.
On day one of his 2018 deployment Myers was immediately reminded of the trauma from his past as he drove by a hospital. That view triggered flashbacks and anxiety as he thought of one of his previously injured friends. He proceeded to operate in a fog for the rest of his deployment. After returning home in April 2019, Myers remembers just how affected he was. “I was worse than I had been before,” he recalls. It was at this point that he began to experience suicidal thoughts.
“I can’t operate in society so I might as well not be in society. I might as well end my life,” Myers said as he described how his invisible wounds led to darker thoughts. This time, however, he knew that he had to put his mission and career aside and focus on himself. He went to his Primary Care Manager (PCM) first and resumed taking an antidepressant and speaking with a psychologist.
Never Done and 6-3-9
Despite his concerns that seeking help may impact his career, Myers received the full support of his leadership and believes that humility and open communication about his mental state set him up for long-term success. Today, Myers still holds his security clearance and believes he made the right decision because he is still serving, and he was able to get the necessary tools to continue a successful career. “The stigma still remains today in a lot of career fields though and what people need to know is that you need to just reach out and ask for help,” he says. He continues, “Allow yourself to put your pride aside to get the care you need and the tools necessary for the short-term so that you can continue on with the mission for the long-term.”
Myers now works as the Superintendent of the Office of the Warrior Advocate (OWA) at Offutt Air Force Base and is an ambassador for the Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) program. AFW2 provides concentrated non-medical care and support for combat wounded, ill and injured Airmen, and their families as they recover and transition back to duty or into civilian life. Regarding his current post, he says, “When someone goes through trauma, whatever that trauma is, something that makes it better is helping others.” As the superintendent of OWA, Myers now helps Airmen with their invisible wounds, saying, “Our motto here is 6-3-9. You focus on what is right in front of you. Focus on your 12 o’clock and let us focus on your 6-3-9 to get you where you need to go.” During his recovery, the support from AFW2 allowed Sergeant Myers to hear stories of other individuals who experienced invisible wounds during their care events. These stories made him feel accepted; they made him feel normal.
Myers is planning to retire in 2021 after serving 21 years in the Air Force and receiving a Purple Heart for his injuries. Looking back on his journey, Myers encourages his fellow Airmen to reach out and try to understand one another. “We’ve lost touch with our people over the last 18 years of war. Somewhere along the way, we focused so much on the mission, we forgot that the mission is our people.”
By sharing his story, Myers hopes that those living with invisible wounds know they are not alone in their battle. Based on his experience of waiting too long to seek help, Myers encourages Airmen to seek treatment early on so they can prevent their invisible wounds from negatively impacting their lives and careers. He hopes that his story motivates Airmen, leaders, and caregivers to shift their focus to understanding one another and recognizing the signs and symptoms of TBI and PTSD so they can urge others to seek the help they need and deserve.
“Sometimes our normal gets shifted, and when it gets shifted, we have to figure out what our new normal is—just like COVID-19. Your trauma is your trauma, and it is no less important than my trauma from combat.” Finding a new normal takes time but, for MSgt. Michael Myers, seeking treatment for his invisible wounds made all the difference.
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.