Story & photos by Hannah Neumann
Ernesto Hernandez hears a pop. In an instant, he is posted back in Afghanistan and running through a minefield, risking his life to pull to safety an injured mine sweeper, who appears to have just lost both of his legs to an explosion. A minute later Hernandez finds himself sitting in a college classroom. This, for some, is life after war. This is life with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“PTSD is just a cloud following you everywhere you go,” Hernandez said. “Everywhere you go you don’t feel safe. There’s someone always looming in the background and some click or pop can just set you off. And if that happens you go into this dark, dark place that’s really hard to get out of.”
For Hernandez and others living with PTSD, hyperarousal is a constant, frightening and exhausting symptom. Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defines hyperarousal as “a state of increased psychological and physiological tension marked by such effects as reduced pain tolerance, anxiety, exaggeration of startle responses, insomnia, fatigue and accentuation of personality traits.” In other words, a constant state of fight or flight. Sounds, smells, sights and even feelings can send someone straight back to the exact moment they experienced a traumatic event, forcing them to re-live the pain.
As a U.S. Marine corpsman in Afghanistan, Hernandez vividly remembers the feelings associated with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
“You get this blast wave and it kind of pushes you over to one side,” Hernandez said. “So every time I hear a loud click or pop, I grab my head and kind of protect myself like something’s going to hit me. I want to make some kind of motion.”
DeLisa Russell, a licensed professional counselor and Director of Veterans One Stop in Waco said these reactions are common after war, but also that it’s important to get control of them.
“In Iraq, roadside bombs were put in bodies of dead animals or in trash cans by the road, so if you’re driving down Speight [Avenue] and you see a dead dog in the road, and back in Iraq you’d seen the truck in front of you get blown up by this, how do you think that is going to impact the situation?” She said. “In Iraq, that instinct allows you to survive, but driving down Speight you don’t want to cross oncoming lanes and swerve into traffic to avoid the animal.”
In 2010, as American combat troops began to take back Afghanistan, Hernandez deployed to serve as a corpsman, attached to the 5th Battalion Marines, after completing a medical course for advanced trauma. He was deployed to the most kinetic area of Afghanistan at the time, Helmand Province, where the most airstrikes and fighting were taking place. They were dropped in the same place the British were fleeing.
“We got dropped off in the middle of the minefield,” Hernandez said. “The first day we got hit and the second day was all firefights.”
On his first security patrol, Hernandez headed out with his squad, along with officers from the Afghan National Army, the ANA. In a split second, one of the ANA officers took a step, and an IED placed by the Taliban exploded under his feet, resulting in the immediate loss of both of his legs. Because his legs had been cauterized with the explosion, there was no active bleeding. Hernandez treated the officer, managed his pain, and sent him up to the helicopter. This was his first patrol in Afghanistan. It was just the beginning of a long, harrowing road as he fought to save the lives of men he now considered brothers.
At the beginning of his second week in Afghanistan, Hernandez was sent to an area called “Zone Black,” a name given after the British were ambushed in the spot.
“We knew we were going to get hit, but not knowing when was the scariest part,” Hernandez said. “Being in a minefield, you didn’t know if your next step was literally going to be where your legs got blown off. We had a minesweeper in the front and they would sweep and mark a path with chalk, and people would literally walk in each other’s footsteps so they wouldn’t get their legs blown off.”
Still, every day, a Marine would take one wrong step that would drastically change or even end their life. This is what happened that day in Zone Black, when the squad’s minesweeper entered an alleyway. Hernandez watched as one of his men lay, bleeding and broken in the center of an exploding alley. He felt helpless. He took off, running through the minefield, grabbed his man, pulled him out of the hole formed by the explosion, and dragged him to safety. He applied tourniquets, a compression device used to control serious bleeding, and performed his initial assessment.
“I see that he’s bleeding a lot and I just know he’s going to die,” Hernandez said. “I see him going into shock and I tried to put an IV in him. It’s not working. He doesn’t have any peripheral veins left. I just tried and tried and tried but i couldn’t get one, and he passed away right there.”
He told one of his Marines that there was nothing else that could be done.
“Keep working, doc,” the Marine replied.
Hernandez tried CPR, pressing on his chest until the helicopter came and took him away.
“He kept talking to me the entire time, until he went into shock, and he was saying ‘Doc, save me. Doc, save me. Today is my daughter’s birthday,’” Hernandez said. “That was the hardest part for me, you know? Because I tried.”
This memory haunts Hernandez. He was awarded a medal of valor for his sacrifice and bravery. Hernandez knew what he was running through and he was terrified, but he couldn’t just sit back and watch one of his men die without trying everything he could do to save him. After that day, Hernandez ran through minefield after minefield in desperate attempts to save his men, earning many awards for his courage.
“I’m a corpsman; he’s a Marine,” Hernandez said. “There’s a special bond between us, and I was just trying to do anything I could to save them.”
Hernandez was promoted shortly thereafter, sent to a prestigious position as an instructor, and trained thousands of men in combat trauma and tactics. Here, safe at home, his next battle began.
“This should be a very relaxed place, you just go in and teach, but my mood swings were insane. I was angry all the time. In my head I thought these guys were going to war even though we were pulling out of Afghanistan and I thought they were going to need that hard mentality. I was just super angry,” Hernandez said. “I went through ups and downs and at some point I just couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t go to work. I had to make up excuses.”
Hernandez said mental illness often isn’t seen as a valid excuse in comparison to physical injury and other ailments that prevent people from performing their daily duties.
“Having PTSD, and really any mental health issue, makes you vulnerable, and once you’re vulnerable and you expose that to someone else, people don’t want to necessarily know what’s going on in your mind. That scares them, then they retract,” Hernandez said. “Putting yourself out there, people just don’t want to deal with that. If you tell someone about your mental health the next response is, ‘Oh, do you need to go to the hospital?’ But sometimes people just need to talk.”
For those struggling with mental health issues, Hernandez said, taking to someone you can trust is the best medicine.
“When people think of mental illness, they often think of a person alone somewhere in a dark room wanting to kill themselves,” Hernandez said. “Some people are very active, out and about and still dealing with really huge problems on a daily basis and don’t show it. That was me for a long time. I used to not show it until it just built up and I couldn’t handle it anymore.”
Even the most basic and mundane experiences and interactions resulted in stress and fear.
“Being in public in general is hard. In the military you train to be very observant. You look at people and try to see if they’re dangerous… you assess every time you’re in public, and you always check where the door is and you always check what’s around you,” Hernandez said. “So it’s very hard just being in public. It’s also hard being in a relationship because you have to have someone who really knows and sees what you’re going through or they’ll just totally reject you.”
Another prominent symptom of PTSD is increased negative feelings and beliefs. Trauma shifts the way a person sees themselves, as well as the world around them.
“Sometimes when I get upset, I go into hysteria, blowing everything out of proportion and something so easy, where I could just do it and it should be simple, like studying for a test, I just keep thinking about the possibilities that could come out and it just triggers that stress mechanism and increases my heart rate,” Hernandez said. “I just take a step back and breathe and it does help.”
Hernandez knew he needed to find a way to move on from the cloud that was darkening his world. He wanted to live with his mind in the present, with hopes for the future, not buried in the horrors of the past. It was Hernandez’s boss, a doctor who experienced many of the same things as he did, that recommended he see a therapist.
“He actually reached out to me and talked to me and told me, ‘You should go see somebody. Even I had to go see someone after we got back.’ And he told me sometimes you have to do it because everyone is healing,” Hernandez said. “I took that to heart, because he has a very decorated military career and I really looked up to him, so I really appreciated that he gave me that advice.”
Hearing this empathy and compassion meant a lot to Hernandez, who said people often misunderstand and judge those who suffer from PTSD. For a long time, Hernandez suffered silently, for fear of rejection. Many of his friends didn’t develop PTSD, and to him, it seemed they moved on much more easily.
“That’s fine, everyone has their coping mechanism, but I was judged and shunned and I even lost my job and got moved to a different section, in a quiet area of the building where nobody went,” Hernandez said. “They secluded me and excluded me from a lot of things. They were afraid of suicide, because a lot of people in the military with PTSD that goes untreated often do commit suicide.”
Hernandez knows this first hand. A 2016 study published by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that 20 veterans commit suicide each day. Hernandez was determined to avoid becoming a part of that statistic. He was determined to live, and he was determined to change his life in order to keep it.
Hernandez spent time in a facility aimed at providing care and resources for those with PTSD. When he left, he turned his focus to a healthy lifestyle, regular counseling, and eventually a loving and understanding fiancée.
“I think it’s very important for somebody with PTSD to see a healthcare professional,” Hernandez said. “Medication is one way to deal with it, but talking about it really helps.”
As mental health has progressed through the years, Hernandez sees a light shining on PTSD and mental health issues in general, and believes there is a future in which mental health is given the attention and care it needs.
“PTSD doesn’t have to be your whole life,” Hernandez said. “It can be a part of it; you just have to fight past that part. Regular exercise and eating healthy was a big thing for me, and keeping to a schedule.”
Life with PTSD means that dark cloud is never far away, but for Hernandez, it no longer looms over his head. The battle continues, but the sun shines through.
Hernandez looks down at a bracelet on his right wrist. On it, the names of two friends who were killed in battle. He wears it each day. A reminder when he’s having a tough time, that he has a luxury not afforded to all who served — a future.
“When I’m having a rough time and I think I’m going through bull****, it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things,” Hernandez said. “I look down and think, ‘OK, this is the real thing.’”