CHICAGO, Ill. -- “I remember coming home from a combat deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, and I just knew I was bringing back more baggage than I originally left with. There are things you experience that, simply put, change you forever. I have never been the man I once was after experiencing what I did overseas.”
Posttraumatic stress disorder can be a potentially debilitating condition which sometimes occurs in people who have experienced or witnessed a disaster, accident, terrorist-related event, death, war, violent act or other life-threatening events, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. While many people who experience these types of events can learn coping techniques and recover, many others will be plagued by the remnants of PTSD for years following the circumstances.
The personal struggle with PTSD was only compounded for Air Force veteran Rob Scoggins, a former combat rescue helicopter pilot from Manitou Springs, Colo., who upon redeployment in 2010, was told his son faced a battle with leukemia.
“This is not entirely uncommon,” Scoggins said. “Not necessarily the family medical struggle, but often, people who face combat-related PTSD will often be confronted with a number of additional obstacles or struggles that amplify the effects of stress.
“So many of the rescue missions I faced while deployed involved children, and that hit home for me – that made what I dealt with overseas and what I was confronted with at home incredibly difficult to handle.”
Scoggins faced tremendous issues with anger, which he claimed was intensified and targeted at people he loved and cared for most. He became increasingly emotional, avoidant toward situations he once enjoyed and numb in areas he would have preferred not to be.
“You do not even realize that you are after suffering from these invisible wounds, because you are technically the same person you were before you left, only you really are not,” he said. “All I knew for certain was a feeling; and what I was feeling, toward everything, was anger.”
As his irritably and aggressive behaviors increased, so did his reckless and self-destructive ones. Scoggins, who has a self-proclaimed addictive personality, began occupying his time with toxic activities that only hastened his downward spiral.
“I started drinking heavily, was taking any legal drugs I could get my hands on, and developed a number of other unhealthy habits that were sabotaging any hope I had of doing what I needed to most – facing my inner demons,” Scoggins stated. “I felt as though nothing was my fault; I projected everything I was facing onto my family – it was easier than facing my truth.”
The young pilot avoided these truths because there was another fear looming on the horizon, which for him, worried him just as much – the fear of losing a career he loved.
“What military leaders need to understand is that a culture did not exist, and it still may not, where people are encouraged to raise their hands openly and with tremendous support who are suffering from invisible wounds like PTSD,” Scoggins said. “Airmen, especially pilots, are not going to see their boss and say “sir, I have mental problems’, and that is a huge problem and social stigma facing our Air Force.
“You do something even remotely like that, and you risk being told to fill out mountains of paperwork, having medical clearances revoked and losing flight or qualification status; the price you pay for asking to get help is a career you have sworn your life to and raised your right hand for.”
The former officer also referred to several “red flags” he claims went unnoticed by leadership, which might have made a difference in his life and career had he been encouraged to seek help sooner.
“I was out spending money all the time, my credit had declined dramatically, I had separated from my ex-wife and was facing legal issues… no one ever seemed to see all I had buried beneath the surface,” Scoggins said.
He went on to say that often the pride Airmen feel toward their military careers and determination to continue service often dwarfs an individual willingness to seek medical assistance to properly cope with things like PTSD. The fear and perception that career advancement will instantly halt for those suffering from this is all too real for some service members.
“Instead of looking inward toward the Air Force for mental health assistance, I sought outside help, which was not ideal for any reason other than not having anything officially documented against me because I did not trust the Air Force would not try to get rid of me,” Scoggins said. “I went to several appointments before being told there was no way I could have experienced anything overseas I was recounting with the counselors, and I was told I should just busy myself with other things to not think about any of what I had brought up during my sessions.”
In his experience, the counselors had no idea how to speak with him regarding what he had faced. The advice he received to keep busy led to another self-destructive hobby. In 2011, he totaled his motorcycle after colliding with another vehicle and sustained a traumatic brain injury.
“The awful part of that aftermath, aside from having my body and face mangled, was that I was so far down the hole with my PTSD struggles, that I did not even begin to confront my TBI issues until after I was medically retired,” Scoggins said. “And it was not because I just wanted to ignore it, but more so that a TBI waiver for a flyer is much more difficult to obtain – all I wanted to do was continue flying.”
An official PTSD rating would come in 2012, but the uphill struggle only persisted for Scoggins.
“I was cleared for deployment following a PTSD waiver approval, which I pushed hard for, but was then picked up for reclassification into an RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] unit in 2014,” Scoggins said. “It was easier for the Air Force to send me to another platform, over investing time for my requalification after all of my medical circumstances.
“I understand that mental health has no say in how reclassifications are done and that unit leadership was only so in-the-know regarding my personal health, but I will never understand how someone facing what I was with combat-related trauma would be transferred to an aircraft like that and be expected to perform those missions successfully – I felt it was a counterproductive fit for me.”
Much like Scoggins cannot disclose specifics about the missions that unit was tasking him to perform because of their sensitive nature, he also felt he could not disclose personal contempt toward how those same missions were aggravating his ongoing condition to superiors up his chain of command.
“My experience just proved to me that if the military paid more time and attention to people when it truly mattered, it could retain the talent it has invested so much time, money and resources into – people like myself who want nothing more than to serve our country,” said Scoggins.
Unfortunately for then Maj. Scoggins, his Air Force career would come to an end in 2016; still, it was not until several weeks after retirement that he would receive a formal invitation to attend a care event hosted by the Air Force Wounded Warrior program.
“I had never even heard of it until after I was out, but this is the part of my story that I really want to foot-stomp… how despite the ways I might have felt let down over the final years of my service, it was the AFW2 program and the amazing staff who were able to jump start my life again when nothing else could,” Scoggins said. “The care after duty is very one-on-one, cognitive-based and aims at helping you move on with your life when you may not want to."
Scoggins credits the AFW2 adaptive sports program with encouraging him to reclaim a social attitude by teaching him healthy way to feel again. While he once felt numb to emotions, sports forced him into situations covering an emotional gamut, but in a positive environment.
“Art, music and comedy therapy provided taught me healthy ways to deal with my emotions and to learn how to interact with my wife and children again,” Scoggins stated. “My house is filled with paintings we have all done together, I practice music almost daily as a healthy way to set my emotions for the day and use music to adjust my attitude or relax in public without needing to isolate myself, and comedy gives me a healthy way to examine intrusive memories and find ways to alter my perception of them.”
To Scoggins, the AFW2 staff in an amazing team of dedicated individuals who refuse to quit and who have helped not only him, but his family, overcome obstacles and better prepare them to face challenges ahead.
“I had no idea how to do that, but the program showed me other ways to thrive. This team brought out strengths in me I had completely forgotten about and reminded me of why I live my life – to serve others. This helped me regain a deeper connection with my family, find humor in ordinary situations and find joy in life again; I have a better life now because of this program. AFW2 changed my life in every respect and I will be forever grateful to them; had this been available to me from the beginning of my struggle, I would still be an Airman… I believe that much in the power of this program – in its power and its people to save lives.”