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Everything is fine… till it isn’t.The impact of prolonging care and "Operator Syndrome".

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

From an early age boys are taught two things, don’t cry and don’t demonstrate weakness. For me, these two statements were doctrine, principles drilled into the forefront of my mind. If you cry, you will receive more punishment and if you’re in pain, never and I mean never, demonstrate it under any circumstance. With these “truths” embedded into the very fabric of my being, I now realize why getting help and asking for help seemed so impossible.

Anyone that has served in the Military and seen combat has more than likely suffered at least, one service-connected injury and that’s a very conservative assessment. For guys like me, however, we tend to think that we are an anomaly. We neglect the obvious signs. If a certain exercise aggravates an injury, we simply write it off and never do it. If we have a limited range of motion in certain joints we pretend like it’s not even a necessary movement. Seriously, before receiving emergency neck surgery, I refused to turn my head to the left! I would swivel around on my chair like some knock-off version of Frankenstein’s monster. But even after undergoing emergency surgery to fuse my neck, I didn’t stop and prioritize my health. I wish that I would have, I wish that the story ended here, but it doesn’t.

In my particular line of work, taking time off, rehabilitation, and self-care are not things that we celebrate. It’s the quickest way off a Team. Even if you don’t get removed from your team, you’re still not participating in training or the normal tasks of being a Green Beret. In fact, this was one of the first things I experienced first-hand as a “New Guy”. I remember seeing Green Berets with simple injuries sent off to Battalion to work in the dreaded S3 Shop for months before they got shuffled again, never to be seen again. I made a decision right then and there, that would never happen to me. Luckily for me, that didn’t happen, but eventually, everything catches up to us.

After years of neglect, I felt like everything was falling apart. I used to laugh at the older Team Sergeants and Warrants that complained about back pain, migraines, nightmares, and a myriad of other health issues. I watched as they struggled to straighten themselves out after doing PT or suffer through chronic pain. I never thought to myself that I was looking at my future. The exact physical issues that my mentors and senior Green Berets were dealing with right in front of my eyes are the very same things that I am struggling with today.

If only I would have treated my injuries when they were minor issues or had gotten serious about reaching out for mental health at the first signs of trouble. I could have avoided the avalanche of health issues that was about to hit me. Looking back the signs were very obvious. I needed help, but I was stubborn and the culture in my line of work does not place value in being vulnerable or honest about how we truly feel. So like everyone else I held it all together with various medications and yeah, I even used duct tape to stabilize my constantly unstable right ankle during a hectic and challenging Combat deployment. When I finally got home, everything fell apart.

Suddenly everything that I had pushed away, lied about, and ignored made its way to the surface… I mean EVERYTHING. I was in constant physical pain and the cognitive and mental issues were worse. I couldn’t stand or walk without pain, my feet would curl up and be constantly inflamed, I couldn’t bear weight on my heels. My left knee would give out and bending it while trying to sit and stand was excruciatingly painful. Bending forward would take my breath away, bending down was no longer something I could do without first mentally preparing myself for it. Things that I always took for granted like consistent sleep and feeling rested, seemed like the most impossible things in my life. I had no energy, no drive, and felt weak. My left eye wouldn’t focus and my migraines were becoming more and more consistent. All of these things are serious and life altering, but what really sent me into a downward spiral were all the issues I was battling inside.

I projected a calm and composed professional image, I never wanted my team or organization to lose faith in my abilities or question my absolute dedication to my boys or the mission, but inside I was a fragment of my former self. I had crippling anxiety, from the moment I walked into my Team room, I felt like an imposter. I felt like at any moment someone would walk in and strip me of everything that I had earned. Cognitively, I was working 10 times harder to achieve normal tasks. I couldn’t find anything after putting things down for just a few seconds, I forgot my address, I couldn’t remember my wife’s age, birth year, or how simple everyday tasks such as lock doors and feed our animals. Not being able to keep up and perform at the level that I was used to, fed my anxiety and my depression. To everyone at work I seemed normal and who could blame them, I was hiding everything I was struggling with. The only person that was able to see through my elaborate act was my wife. I was able to hide my rapidly declining health and mental struggles from everyone at work. At home, my wife could see the real me and just how bad I was struggling to keep it together. I was having panic attacks while walking our dogs, full mental breakdowns in our bedroom because I couldn’t remember basic things around our house. I felt like my entire body and mind where being overloaded with pain and crippling stress, I had no clue that what I was experiencing had a name.

Operator Syndrome may sound like a cool new video game or the name of some cool New Age band, but it’s none of those things. Operator Syndrome is a relatively new term and it’s specifically designed to address the multiple chronic issues that Special Operations Soldiers are facing. The list of disorders and issues that make up Operator Syndrome sounds like a “Rogues’ Gallery” of some of the worst issues one could imagine, Endocrine imbalance, insomnia, sleep apnea, constant fatigue, chronic pain, orthopedic impairments, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, suicide, anger, hypervigilance, constant worrying, stress, marital problems, Sexual dysfunction, Cognitive impairments, Vision impairments, existential concerns, and problems transitioning into Civilian life.

I was suffering from all of these things, but I had no clue that it was all part of the same diagnosis. When I finally found enough strength to ask for help, I was in very bad shape. I had neglected all aspects of my health to excel at my Profession. Which is the same attitude that many of my peers have. Ultimately I had to walk away from my team. I went to an inpatient treatment center and finally took the time to address all of the chronic health issues. I started this journey after my last Combat tour and I am still undergoing treatment today. If you’re struggling with any of the issues that I described, go get help. If you need help finding resources ask! Don’t put things off or neglect them thinking that if you seek help you’ll be forced out of your job or position. The truth is, NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING is more important than your health.

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