By Karen Abeyasekere, 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 30, 2017
RAF MILDENHALL, England -- “I was deployed back in 2005 to Iraq and was in a few firefights, explosions and improvised explosive device incidents.”
It was during an explosion that Staff Sgt. Clifton Flint was thrown about 30 feet from where he was standing. He was knocked unconscious for more than 30 minutes and his resulting injuries included traumatic brain injury.
“I don’t remember anything that happened but when I came to, I was being worked on – I had a cut on my head and someone was patching me up,” Flint said, formerly a base defense operations center controller at RAF Lakenheath. “When I asked what happened, they told me I’d got blown up. I just said, ‘meh, okay’ and went back to finishing the mission.”
June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month. Flint has lived with PTSD since the incident and has been temporarily retired since July 2016, while his medical evaluation board is underway.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. Someone with PTSD often relives the traumatic event through flashbacks or nightmares, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.
“Based on my experience of being deployed with cops and other career fields, if you can continue the mission, you continue – unless of course you have to be medevac’d out. So when people have issues, they often still have that same mindset of ‘I should still continue, I should just press on and not get help,’” said Beau Jones, Air Force Wounded Warrior Program recovery care coordinator and retired senior master sergeant.
“The after-effects start to come out later in the form of hyper-sensitivity, anger issues, anxiety and depression. Certain sounds or smells can take you straight back to those places without any warning,” Jones said.
The explosion that led to Flint being diagnosed with PTSD happened early in his deployment, but he finished the deployment before heading back to his base in Korea.
He and the rest of his team just pressed on after the explosion, Flint said.
“We didn’t seek help from mental health because we were told back then, if you did, your career was done,” he remarked. “It wasn’t until 2009, when my wife told me that I either had to go to mental health or we were through, that I finally did something about it.”
Flint described how he self-medicated with alcohol.
“I was drinking any time I got a chance – I was literally a walking alcoholic,” he recalled. “When I got back from Iraq I started drinking, but it wasn’t until about 2010 that I realized I had an alcohol problem. When I woke up one day, I realized my room was full of almost nothing but beer cans and empty bottles – I just thought to myself, ‘what am I doing?’ There were still full bottles of alcohol in my room so I got up and threw the contents straight down the sink. Immediately after that I went cold-turkey and I haven’t touched it since.”
Flint said his wife was a huge support the entire time. While he was stationed at Travis Air Force Base, his wife, a British citizen, was still living and working in England.
“Any time I felt the urge to drink I’d either text her or go and grab some water,” he said.
It wasn’t until his wife gave him the ultimatum that Flint finally sought help, although initially it was for his alcoholism rather than PTSD.
“When I started talking to the mental health professional, the person I spoke to told me she thought I had PTSD, but I was in denial,” he said. “She made me take tests, and from my answers to certain questions, she was then positive that I was suffering from it, even though I still kept denying it.
“It took me a while to come to the realization that I actually had it. I finally made another appointment, after putting it off for so long. Once I realized I needed help, I finally started going to mental health. It had gotten to the point where I didn’t care what my leadership said – I knew I needed help. But (everything at mental health) was confidential and my career didn’t end. So, I talked with my supervisor – he was very understanding, and it didn’t go any further.”
Jones explained that although many people think or assume their military career will be over if they seek assistance from mental health, that’s a misconception.
“Most of the Airmen who seek mental health have no career impact whatsoever,” he said.
The security forces defender said he’d never told his wife everything that happened in Iraq, because of how traumatic it was for him.
“She knew I drank, but she wasn’t aware just how excessive it was,” he remarked. “Then I started changing how I coped with stuff – I went to the gym a lot more, but even though it was just for an hour or two, I just blocked everything out and felt free.”
Flint began working out seven days a week as he found it the only way to put the issues he was dealing with out of his mind. But the good feeling he got from working out didn’t last. He described how his good mood would only last 30 minutes to an hour, after which he just felt nothing.
“But then I started listening to a musician, who calls himself ‘Soldier Hard,’ and listen to what he went through and how he copes with his PTSD, and I could relate a lot to what he was saying,” Flint said.
“Soldier Hard” is a former Soldier and Iraq war veteran named Jeff Barillo who served for more than 10 years. He found his coping mechanism in music, and his rap lyrics tell of what he went through while in combat. The rapper writes songs as a way of helping him through the trauma he suffered, while at the same time supporting other Soldiers and veterans.
“After listening to his music, I started realizing I wasn’t alone, even though I knew I wasn’t because of all the stuff that happened – not just because of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also Vietnam veterans and others like them. I knew that they saw stuff and suffered mental health problems, but just hearing what Soldier Hard would say in his lyrics, it was like, ‘Yeah, I go through that – I can relate to what he’s saying,” Flint explained.
“There were times I wouldn’t understand what he was talking about so I messaged him to ask, and he would reply back with an explanation, because he’s there for the veterans,” he said.
Flint admitted that his PTSD has also affected his family, including his 14-year-old son.
“When he was younger it was really hard on him,” he said. “There were times I’d fall asleep and he’d come up and shake me to wake me up; I’d jump up and it would scare him. I asked him not to shake me, and he asked why – I couldn’t talk to him about it back then, and he was okay with that. He’s been around it long enough now and doesn’t push me for answers, but I’ll tell him some stuff about my time in Iraq when I feel I can talk about it. He copes with it extremely well as far as I can tell.
“But he also helps me by making jokes about it in a way that isn’t going to make me angry,” Flint said. “When I feel down sometimes, he’ll say to me, ‘Dad, you’re just having one of your episodes – get out of it! You’re grumpy again!’ It’s his way of dealing with it. Sometimes, if I see something on television which takes me back and I have to walk out of the room, my son will come up to me and ask me if I’m okay, give me a hug and just sit with me. If I need space, he gives me space.”
Flint was introduced to the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program by Jones and started out by becoming part of the Recovering Airmen’s Mentor Program, helping others with their medical evaluation board.
Since then, he’s taken part in the Air Force games, winning three medals in discus, shot put and 4 x 100 mixed relay, and is now studying sports science at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.
“It gives me another purpose and something else to focus on as a goal for the future,” Flint said. “I’ve realized I’ll have PTSD for the rest of my life – I can go four or five years and be okay, then something happens and I’m right back there. If I’m in crowds or start feeling stressed, my wife will grab my hand and tell me she’s right there and I’ll be okay.”
Flint said he encourages anyone having similar issues to seek help earlier than he did.
“A lot of people believe their career is over if they go to mental health – but it’s not! At the end of the day, you have to look out for yourself. I was sent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, for eight weeks, for an in-patient PTSD course. During the course I met other sufferers – we’re all still in touch with each other and offer a vital support system.
“For anyone suffering from PTSD, you’re not alone – there are people out there who are willing to help you – you just have to ask,” Flint said.
Helping agencies include mental health, chaplains, military and family life counselors, and the Air Force Wounded Warrior program.