JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas -- Recent statistics published by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimate that roughly 7.7 million Americans age 18 and older suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Combine that with the fact that women are twice as likely to develop this over men and that those who have experienced traumatic events are at an increased risk, it stands to reason that female service members run a significant chance of struggling with PTSD over the course of their military careers.
Senior Airman Paula Pareja is all too familiar with this daily struggle.
“A tremendous struggle for me was facing what I was internalizing, while battling the misconceptions people had about my illness; and the disparity of support that comes or does not come with each reassignment.
“You almost see it in people’s eyes… like they are just waiting for it to grab hold of you and break you down… like you are too fragile to be useful,” she said.
After facing a Medical Evaluation Board, Pareja is now on the Temporary Disability Retired List (TDRL) and currently works with a wildland firefighting crew based out of Flagstaff, Arizona. The former Air Force medic spent several years working in multiple clinics from the intensive care unit and emergency room, to pediatrics and ambulatory services.
“I was absolutely in love with the work I was doing as a medic, but like we tell patients, everyone’s 10 is a 10. Whether you are that woman who sustained injury under fire or a man who was a victim of sexual assault… how you get there is irrelevant, we all end up at the same place with our version of the same scars – it just so happens you cannot see ours,” Pareja said.
“And there are days when you simply cannot get out of bed; you may not understand how someone could compare it to losing a leg, but it truly is because PTSD takes from you essential pieces of who you are and what you need to be that you every day. It may not be a physical limb, but it manifests as your drive, purpose, motivation – your sense of self.”
Another significant challenge Pareja and other sufferers of PTSD face is empathy; being able to open up and explain in such a way that it allows others to truly understand and share their feelings.
“People who are not afflicted by this have a very hard time understanding how a smell, sound or even sensation can trigger an episode for us, which takes a tremendous toll in your day-to-day as well,” Pareja said. “But your mind can only handle so much, and when it is stretched beyond its breaking point, we as military members are forces to put on a smile and disassociate that pain and suffering – that weight eventually becomes too much to handle.”
Part of the struggle Pareja faced on active duty was being over-exposed to traumatic circumstances, with little downtime or counsel between emergency circumstances not uncommon to medical workers. When she was finally treated, she remained under in-patient care for six weeks following her PTSD diagnosis.
“I think somewhere between treatment and being faced with my med board, I hit a point where I just lost all faith in my leadership and unit,” Pareja said.
Fortunately, Pareja decided to give the Air Force another chance by attending her first Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) Program Warrior CARE Event. Here, she hopes to develop her new sense of normalcy and gain some positive coping tools.
“This family is incredible; they are providing me with unique opportunities and methods of regaining strength and expanding my horizons,” she said. “I am not about networking, I prefer to make friends; I do not accept the concept of engaging someone to get something from them. And here, it truly is about building meaningful connections. We are only a few days into this event, but already I would not trade this experience for anything.”
For more information about the AFW2 program, visit their official website. Additionally, be sure to like their Facebook page for program updates, upcoming events and the latest news.
Editor’s note: The next CARE event (following JBLM) will be held at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, this November.