It began with an Army veteran’s exasperated affirmation and a purposely casual question, just 22 keystrokes.
Then, a gush of feelings, dammed up for years by the attached stigma, cascaded from Rob Ulrey’s mind through his fingers to his computer screen; 770 words, a personal purge, a plea for understanding: “I am tormented in my dreams ... I am functional in society ... I am medicated ... I am always on the lookout for danger ... I have no regrets ... I am just as normal as you."
His opening line: “I have PTSD ... So what?”
Last February, that post on Ulrey’s military website — penned partly to set “the media” straight, partly as an online life buoy for men and women like him — resonated with hundreds of current and former service members who posted comments to echo and empathize with the former Army gunner’s frustrations and fears. The reactions haven’t stopped coming: “I am living this with you,” wrote Mike R. on Aug. 27, and “Thanks for these words,” typed Greg H., also on Aug. 27. Talk of the column has spread far and wide among American military ranks.
"The comments it got, and that it's getting, are really kind of inspiring. It seemed like it touched a lot of people. A lot of it was guys and girls who just seemed real lonely out there, real isolated," Ulrey told NBC News. "And they just seemed real relieved there was somebody out there like them."
Ulrey now looks at his essay as — if not the first embers of a true movement — maybe the early moments of a fundamental shift in the public discourse on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a series of anxiety-based symptoms afflicting up to an estimated 500,000 U.S. troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wrote the article, he said, at roughly the same time he finally sought treatment, 15 years after an IED in Bosnia shattered his wrist, blew out his eardrums and began chronically haunting his slumber.
“It just came out of me, just kind of flowed from the heart,” Ulrey told NBC News. “I guess my higher calling is to make sure other veterans get this message, get the help they need. But If I can make people understand we’re not the big, evil demons that some people make us out to be, so much the better.”
Indeed, the piece was meant to be aimed largely at "mainstream" media outlets, Ulrey said. Amid a litany of news reports in recent years about young veterans committing violence or suicide, he winced at how often journalists swiftly linked the acts to PTSD.
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"I, along with my cohorts, have been classified as a potential powder keg just waiting on that spark to set us off into a murderous explosion of ire. This is not the case," Ulrey wrote in his post.
That sort of breathless PTSD coverage has painted the diagnosis, and perhaps all combat veterans, with a social stain, Ulrey said. PTSD evokes concerned whispers from family members, worried glances from co-workers, and dead-ends at job interviews.
"The stigma is so negative. I’ve heard time and time again from veterans: 'I’m not getting the looks (from companies) that I should be getting. I’m not getting that second interview.' I know some guys who are leaving stuff off their resumes or downplaying what they did during their time in the service so that it doesn’t trigger those kinds of questions (about mental health).
"You’re automatically tainted just because of your service, even if you don’t have PTSD at all," Ulrey said.
But it's not just corporate America that, in Ulrey's view, misunderstands PTSD. Even inside the military, the disorder, and certainlythe act of service members seeking help for it, is often viewed as a personal flaw, or as a lack of mental muscle, he added.
"They’ve been suffering with it and they’ve been afraid to say anything about it, because they were afraid of the ramifications," Ulrey said. "In the military, if you need to go to mental health, then you’re weak. And we don’t have weak in the military. We’re warriors, we’re not supposed to feel this way. But it will take out the baddest dude or the littlest, wimpiest dude. It doesn’t discriminate."
At the top of the U.S. military pyramid, however, leaders say they are toiling to change that old thinking.
"Seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness," said Cynthia O. Smith, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department. "No, military careers aren't at risk for seeking help."
As proof, Smith e-mailed NBC News a memo, signed May 10 by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, that read: "Leaders throughout the chain of command must actively promote a constructive command climate that ... encourages individuals to reach out for help when needed."
And on the topic of Ulrey's matter-of-fact pitch for America to stop demonizing PTSD and those diagnosed with it, Smith said: "Mental health disorders, like most medical conditions, are treatable. Many service members with symptoms of PTSD recover with appropriate medication and/or psychotherapy within a few months."
Ulrey's medication includes prescribed blood-pressure drugs that prevent the flashback nightmares he once suffered. Those dreams used to wake him with a jolt four to five times a night and caused him to sweat so profusely that his sheets often were drenched by dawn.
"I have never physically assaulted anyone out of anger or rage," he typed last February. "I have never committed violence in the workplace, just like the vast majority of those who suffer with me. My co-workers know I spent time in the military but they do not know of my daily struggles, and they won’t."
But like any good writer, Ulrey has picked up on the irony in his larger quest to convince the world to simply see soldiers and veterans as regular folks who are dealing with battlefield stress on their own terms. In his current job as a law enforcement officer — he asked to keep his city of residence out of this article to protect his family — Ulrey earlier this month faced a pointed question from his boss.
"He saw the article and asked me: 'Do I need to know anything about this? Do I need to be worried?’ I said, ‘No not at all.'
"It had been bugging him and, I guess, bugging the other supervisors I work with for a couple of months. That was the whole purpose of the article. So that people don’t get that question from co-workers or supervisors," Ulrey said. "Even if we have PTSD, we’re OK. I am not going to freak out on you."
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