JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Tex. --
An Airman’s journey to resilience
In 2012, during Operation Enduring Freedom, Maj. Gregory Harris, then a captain, deployed to Bagram Airfield with the 41 Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron, 455 Air Expeditionary Wing, as the mission crew commander of an EC-130H. Serving as the mission crew commander, he was responsible for ensuring the flight crew successfully (and safely) completed the mission: providing counter communication support to coalition forces. While deployed, Harris was part of a special operations raid supporting a mission that made an everlasting impression and continues to significantly impact his life.
Following this mission, and upon returning home from his deployment, Harris was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Through sharing his story, he is determined to show Airmen that one can receive successful ongoing treatment and continue to serve as a vital member of the Air Force.
“Shake off mistakes,” that is what we are told as aviators
While in-flight over the western stretches of the Hindu Kush, Harris and the crew noticed they were low on fuel and needed to refuel. The crew was redirected to a nearby KC-10 tanker but had to take an unfamiliar path across a treacherous mountain range.
In the middle of the diversion to the KC-10, alerts started blaring as the aircraft sensed it was close to the ground. The first signal advised the pilot to Pull Up! Pull Up! and then repeated Terrain, Terrain! Shortly thereafter, another signal saying Whoop! Whoop! Pull Up! repeated, warning the crew that danger was rapidly approaching, and impact was imminent. Harris and his crew had seven seconds. Seven seconds between them and the side of the mountain. “It was a close call,” shares Harris.
Fortunately, the crew avoided impact, shook off the close call, completed the mission, and were back in the air the next evening. Maj. Harris, who pinned on the rank of Captain around the time of the incident, was worried this near-death incident would forever define his career but learned his journey would lead him to become the resilient Wingman and Airman he is today.
As the mission crew commander, Maj. Harris did not control the aircraft, he was in the back of the EC-130H. But he was still responsible for mission execution and the crew. After the incident, Harris felt himself becoming hypervigilant – fixating on the crew’s every move and capturing every action that took place on a typical mission for no specific reason, which wore him down over time. He thought he was handling stress in a methodical way, trying to fix something that was not broken.
Mental health is like physical health; it requires consistent conditioning
After returning home in 2013, Maj. Harris began experiencing the direct effects of the incident that took place the year prior. He started to feel on edge and overwhelmed. He was approached by a member of leadership that noticed Harris was not himself. This leader, who was also a family friend, extended an open invitation to Harris, letting him know they were there to talk if he needed anything. It was that talk that ultimately pushed Harris to self-identify on a post-deployment health assessment that he was experiencing high stress since returning home six months prior.
“I did not realize the impact this incident had on me until I returned from deployment and was home for a few months,” said Harris. After completing his PDHA, Harris decided to seek treatment for the first time to address what he was feeling by seeing a provider in the mental health clinic. Upon his visit, he was redirected to the Behavior Health Optimization Program (BHOP), where he was afforded four visits to learn how to do tactical breathing.
In hindsight, he wishes he sought help earlier upon his return home from deployment.
Three years later, in 2016, Harris reached a pivotal turning point in his life and career. He recently completed aircraft training at his new duty station and was attempting to establish himself in his new role. At the same time, Harris’ property manager abruptly told he and his wife they would have to vacate their home and move into the city on their own dime. In addition to these significant events, he attended a doctor’s visit with his wife; who was, at the time, five months pregnant with their fourth child. During this appointment, the doctor voiced concern about health issues that may be affecting their unborn child.
The increased stress Harris was feeling reached a point he could no longer handle. There were times where he became light headed, was losing his balance while with his family, and having panic attacks. All of which prompted his desire to seek further mental health treatment.
“You can push yourself to do a lot of things, but I felt completely helpless for the first time,” says an emotional Harris.
Maj. Harris then set up an appointment with his flight doctor, and over the next few months, he went through several evaluations with medical specialists. Over time, for Harris, it started to feel as though each appointment triggered another potential diagnosis. It was not until checking every system in his body that he and his doctor considered the symptoms he was suffering from could be the results of an underlying mental health condition. It was then he was diagnosed with PTSD.
From that moment forward, Harris stopped focusing solely on his career and committed to becoming healthy. He concentrated on taking care of himself and his family.
“I was done trying to hide things, I was in a really nasty place. I thought my career was over, and I would never fly again,” said Harris.
Harris committed himself to identifying the root cause of the trauma and sought ways to handle the stress that invaded his life.
“I wish I knew prior to seeking treatment that the first time I walked into the mental health office that it would be okay”, he explained. “There were folks that had my back, and if I opened up they would support me no matter what.”
Today, Harris continues his road to recovery and serves as an assistant director of operations at the 42nd Electronic Combat Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona. He believes that due to his past (and continued) experiences, he is better prepared and aware of when he is experiencing stress, and when that stress is becoming too much.
“The moment you look at yourself and say, ‘I feel like I am suffering’, then it’s time to seek some sort of help,” says, Maj. Harris, encouraging fellow Airmen suffering from invisible wounds to seek help sooner.
Editor’s Note: Are you or someone you know suffering from an invisible wound? An invisible wound is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); traumatic brain injury (TBI); or other cognitive, emotional, or behavioral disorders associated with trauma experienced by an individual.
Visit the Invisible Wounds Initiative website or the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program for more information. Ultimately, Airmen taking care of Airmen is what this is all about. Finding strength in yourselves and others, to go the extra distance, seek help, and come back stronger. The Air Force is committed to ensuring you have the resources to do so. #InvestAndProtect #BeThere