JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas --
Sleep did not come easily in the wake of his first deployment, as the whistling of a mortar shell would often stir Tech. Sgt. Matthew Sigmon in the quietest hours of the night. It was a persistent trauma from an unfinished chapter in his life and a lingering, unseen scar that he bore both in his heart and mind. His heart carried the weight of a moral injury that conflicted with his sense of duty while his mind struggled with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Like many of his generation, Sigmon answered his country’s call after Sept. 11, 2001. Over his 19 years of service, he spent approximately 1,800 days, almost 5 years, away from home. For most of these deployments, Sigmon was a bomb technician who built more than 10,000 bombs over the course of his military career. It was in Afghanistan, where Sigmon would face the initial trauma of his PTSD and his moral injury, which is the psychological consequence for betraying one’s moral beliefs. Both of which he carries to this day.
Sigmon’s first deployment to Afghanistan came in 2009 when he served a year there as a munitions system craftsman. In 2010, three months after Sigmon’s arrival in Kandahar, the base came under attack by Taliban rockets and mortar fire. In the midst of the attack, Sigmon heard the thunder of the artillery in the distance as the shells shrieked in the sky above him. When he turned the corner to the dining facility, he took cover with one mortar landing so close to him; he could feel the tremor of its impact on the dining facility followed by the sound of screams of those inside. All told, the attack left several casualties and a number wounded both physically and mentally.
Even today, his invisible wounds keep him trapped in Afghanistan. “One of the issues with my PTSD is that I am always in Afghanistan. I am always thinking about being there. I can smell the smells, I can see the sights, I can hear the wind, I see the poppy plants – all that stuff – I still see it,” he says.
After serving in Afghanistan for a year, Sigmon returned stateside, where he and his wife noticed the early signs and symptoms of his PTSD. “My biggest symptom was isolationism. I hate being around a lot of people. It really bothers me. I don’t like shopping or going to restaurants, I really don’t like being around people I even know or trust… It affects my ability to trust people and trust humanity itself,” says Sigmon.
Sigmon was always on high alert, often checking his home for intruders before anyone entered or waking up in the middle of the night to ensure the doors are locked, the lights are programmed, and the security system is set. It had little to do with safety and had everything to do with regaining his sense of control in life. “Fireworks. I have to be the one who shoots them off and can’t let other people do it. It’s about me having control over that situation,” he says.
“I got back in 2010 and I wouldn’t talk to anyone about anything… but my wife knew I needed someone to talk to.” For Sigmon, his first support system came in the form of a Boston Terrier that his wife adopted for him. “Sometimes a companion is what’s needed and that’s when I started learning about PTSD dogs and why they are important.” Though his Boston Terrier did—and continues to do—her best, Sigmon knew he needed support from someone who could understand. Due to their confidentiality, Sigmon turned towards the Chaplain Corps for guidance on his invisible wounds in 2010. “I’ve been working with Chaplains for a decade on it and while some help is better than others, the Chaplains have always worked out in my favor,” he says.
A series of three other deployments to Afghanistan included a five-and-a-half-month station at Camp Leatherneck in 2011, where he served in aeromedical evacuation, as well as to an undisclosed location from 2015-2016 for six months and a brief stint at Bagram in 2017.
The nature of Sigmon’s role in the Air Force also brought up moral dilemmas as he continued to struggle with the symptoms of his PTSD. “I built probably 10,000 bombs in Afghanistan… I have to live with the fact knowing that my bombs were effective. Because of how efficient I was at my job, many people did not live,” he says. “People think that war is supposed to be one way and that it doesn’t affect an individual… I think knowing that, by my own hand, I have contributed to the death of people is a bad thing, but I believe it was for the good of the nation.”
For Sigmon, it is now a matter of faith in himself and his belief that he will be rightly judged for these questions by God alone. “To me, my faith is important, and some days are stronger than others and other days are worse than others. But, overall, I feel I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life and I think that God is going to be the one who judges me for those and I no longer have to worry about others judging me for it,” he says.
In 2018, another deployment to Afghanistan brought up concerns of his PTSD due to his previous time at Bagram in 2017. While his Chaplains displayed apprehension to him returning there due to his experiences in Bagram a year prior and the training required for his next position as an Air Advisor, Sigmon did not heed their advice as he felt he had unfinished business. “I felt like I really needed to close that chapter and I thought that I would close it with the last tour, but that is not what the problem is,” he says. “That’s not the problem at all. The problem is me.” For a war that felt unending, Sigmon knew he could not finish his story in Afghanistan. He knew that he needed to seek treatment in a more structured way.
By the time Sigmon returned from that 2018 deployment, 287 outside-the-wire missions and 15 months had passed. While overseas, he met a fellow Airmen who also struggled with PTSD and sought treatment. Knowing that Airman’s story and the progress they had made, he sought help from the Behavior Health Optimization Program (BHOP), now known as Primary Care Behavioral Health (PCBH). After a decade of symptoms and uncertainty about his mental state, Sigmon was formally diagnosed with PTSD. Reflecting on his treatment so far, Sigmon says, “The mental health folks are great; the counselor listens really well and is very receptive. She does not push me any further than I want to go.”
As he continues to serve, now as a Mission Set Manager at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Sigmon believes that the key to recovery and strong mental health is finding connection with others. “Be human, be humble, and don’t have all the answers. Sometimes it’s when you don’t have the answers that you find the right one,” he recommends to his fellow Airmen, and leaders especially. “It’s all about the interaction you have with people. Problems are solved at the dinner table and they’re not going to be solved with PowerPoint.”
Looking towards the future, Sigmon knows the process of recovery is ongoing. His faith and his treatment remain intertwined. Speaking about the road ahead, he says, “I still struggle. I still have my flaws. My faith has more than once saved my life, so in that respect, I get better every day but not perfect.” Though, in the end, perfection can sometimes mean having faith in oneself and the faith that waking up today can bring something better than the last.
Editor’s 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 is 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.