TUCSON, Ariz. -- Tech. Sgt. Joshua Brooks landed at Balad Air Base, Iraq, for the first time in January 2010. An airman 1st class at the time, Brooks was eager to be on his first deployment for the Air Force.
“I was so excited about going. I was really blue early in my career--really blue,” Brooks said.
Brooks, a munitions troop, worked at night, building bombs, missiles, chaff and flare on a highly visible compound off the flightline, where he would deliver them directly to the jets.
“I was really good at it, and it was all new and exciting,” he said. “Until we get mortared.”
The attacks happened regularly, but for Brooks, a few close-calls left him with lingering memories.
One evening, Brooks drove out to the flightline, towing bombs and missiles in tandem. He reached the loaders and chalked his trailer before getting out to talk to the crew. Suddenly, he heard the base warning sirens. As he dropped to the ground, so did a mortar—30 yards from his trailer.
For days following, Brooks couldn’t shake the agonizing and persistent thought: “I want to go home.”
Home was in South Carolina, where Brooks’ first wife and two-year-old son were waiting on him with a second son on the way. In Iraq, home was a trailer with concrete walls and a thin aluminum ceiling that offered no protection.
“I’d just lay there and not sleep for months. I didn’t really anticipate it would bother me, but it did,” he said. “It was scary.”
In spite of his own anxieties, Brooks sought a volunteer opportunity at the theater hospital on base at the “Heroes Waiting” helicopter pad. He was tasked to help transport incoming casualties into the facility.
“The blood didn’t bother me. The screaming didn’t bother me. But there was an evening when it was just me, and I hadn’t received a call, so I thought I’d walk around,” he said.
Brooks called what he saw next the “big issue.”
“I started to hear this sound. It was a scream—not like one I’ve heard before.” Brooks followed the screaming until he reached the intensive care unit.
“I still remember walking down the walkway and looking to my left and seeing it. It’s just a glass wall and door, and there is a daughter, father, and mother, and on the bed is a baby,” he said.
To this day Brooks doesn’t know the age, gender or fate of the child, but he couldn’t forget what he saw.
“Apparently they had been hit by something, and now I’m looking at this little baby that’s been torn apart, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” he described.
Brooks felt powerless to do anything for the child, and days later his own son would celebrate a birthday in the safety of his home. Yet the sight of that child left him with a constant desperation to know that his own children were alright, even to this day.
“I don’t know what ended up happening to that child. It’s not like I could do anything about it, but I felt a lot of guilt, and I still feel a lot of guilt about it because there’s nothing I can do,” Brooks said. “I still hear it every day. And whenever I hear [my kids] scream, even if it’s happy, I see it. And it took me eight years to finally talk to somebody about it.”
Brooks went on to deploy two more times before joining the Arizona Air National Guard at the 162nd Wing in 2014. Yet, despite leaving behind the heavy deployment rotation, he still carried the emotional burden.
“I had a lot of problems with drinking and anger. I would drink to forget, but then just remember,” he said. “The more I thought about it, the worse it got, and not being able to talk to anybody about it made it significantly more damaging.”
Brooks considered he was experiencing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, but when he sought help the first few times, he didn’t find what he needed. Instead, friends and family would minimize his experiences or claim their problems were worse.
“Whenever you try to talk about your personal issues, people want to bring up their personal issues to try to offer a, ‘Hey I’ve been there.’ It doesn’t always help,” he said. “Because I needed someone to listen to me, but to listen not to reply.”
Ultimately, a lack of support and fear of reprisal kept Brooks from opening up again for years. And for years, Brooks struggled with anger, obsessive control and cleanliness of his home, and hyper-vigilance. For Brooks, a routine trip to the store resembled a security exercise more than it did a family outing.
“I am looking at everybody. I am making sure I know the people around me, where they’re going, what they’re doing, what they’re buying, if they looked at me, if they looked at my wife, if they looked at my children, if I think they look like a threat. It’s a whole lot of vigilance that’s unnecessary, and it just started to happen everywhere,” Brooks said. “I took my kids to the zoo, and I wouldn’t be paying attention to them, keeping them happy. I would be paying attention to keeping them safe. I can’t enjoy anything.”
Brooks could sometimes convince himself that his watchfulness was a useful attribute, but he endured another phenomenon that was more debilitating and even harder to explain or justify. He later learned that clinically what he was experiencing was “disassociation,” but only recently he and his therapist gave the experience a name as bizarre as the sensation, itself: Pickles.
“It’s this moment where I question reality. It’s kind of weird. It’s like if you were to take your consciousness and pull it back like a slingshot and hold it there, and everything around you seems like you’re in a tunnel. You start to question, ‘Where am I? Who is this? Why is all this happening? Is this real?’ And it scares you. It’s a lot like a panic attack,” he said. “Pickles is the worst thing about this. Pickles and anger.”
Brooks knew he was demonstrating PTSD symptoms, so he wasn’t in denial. He was just hiding it out of fear.
“I was just afraid. There’s this stigma that if you’re going to get help, then you’re out. I didn’t want to risk it. Not when I’ve got all these mouths to feed,” he said.
Brooks eventually reached a crossroad in February. Until that point, Brooks admitted he had lost and damaged a number of relationships, but now he found himself at risk of losing his current wife when his anger became too consuming.
“It’s like you’re in the back of your mind, and you’re watching yourself do all these things, and you’re screaming at yourself to stop, but you just go on autopilot,” Brooks said. “It was the last straw and I needed to talk to someone because it was crushing me.”
Brooks visited the wing Chaplain’s office, where he thought he would enroll in marriage counseling or anger management. Instead, he met Chaplain Michael Martinez, who recommended he meet Sarah Warner, the base’s Director of Psychological Health.
For the past five months, Brooks participated in talk therapy and has made progress. He managed to open up about issues from his deployment, but also suppressed trauma from his childhood. He loses his temper less often and is learning how to enjoy life more. He attributes his evolution to something Warner did for him that nobody else had done before.
“Someone listened,” he said. “It was easy to talk to her. It was really easy to talk to her. It was just comfortable, and everything just came out. Not all at once. It took several times. But now I’m seeing a therapist at the veteran’s center.”
Warner recognized that Brooks’ hesitation was common for service members, but she also credited Brooks for the success of his own treatment.
“PTSD isn’t uncommon, but what is common are the stigmas,” said Warner. “People think it’s a sign of weakness, or that they’ll lose their job or lose their clearance, but that is rarely true. The truth is that if you don’t get treatment, it gets worse over time, but you have to be ready to accept help. You have to be willing to learn how to cope.”
Brooks hasn’t yet confided in any other airmen who suffer from PTSD, but he’s not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 7 to 8 percent of the U.S. population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, however military service increases those odds. In fact, an estimated 11 to 20 percent of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom veterans experience symptoms of PTSD in a given year.
Brooks is continuing his therapy, and he is encouraged to challenge himself for the sake of his family. A theme park vacation was once out of the question given his public anxiety, but now that he has seen progress, it’s a bucket list item.
“Disneyland needs to happen. I want that to happen,” he said. “That’s one of my main goals is to cope with this and get my children a better childhood.”
Brooks says that he still has apprehension about opening up, but by sharing his story, he is hopeful to assure others suffering with PTSD that they don’t have to be alone.
“Help is out there; be open,” he said. “You’re going to be afraid, but there’s a difference between being afraid and staying afraid, and being afraid and getting help.”