‘Facing Stigma’ with Geoffrey Q.

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“I’m first generation American, born and raised in Fresno, California. My parents immigrated from Mexico and started working in the fields before eventually working in the restaurant business. I worked at my uncle’s restaurant from eight years old all the way to high school, but I always knew I wanted to do something more. I wanted to go into the Army ever since my brother-in-law and sister started dating. My brother-in-law joined the Army and got deployed as part of the first wave to Fallujah in ‘04-‘05. It wasn’t easy for him to talk about, but he would tell me stories about being deployed and what it was like. That’s when I knew I wanted to join the Army and do something as courageous as him. I joined the Army as a Cavalry Scout and left for basic training in October 2010. I really didn’t even get to unpack my stuff from basic training because right as I was sent to my first duty station in April, I was deployed to Afghanistan a month later. They were giving us a run down right as I got there about everything happening and telling us about how many deaths there had been, injuries, etc. It was scary hearing that right out of the gate, but at least we knew what we were getting into. As soon as we got there, they were trying to figure out where to put everybody and I ended up volunteering to be a mine sweeper because I thought I would do a good job. They started taking us on missions and showing us the ropes so we knew what to look for; however, we ended up getting moved to southeast Kandahar where we literally had to build a base from scratch. Our orders were passed down that a village near by would be a good place to have a presence, but before we could get there, we had to pass by and clear a compound that they were using to build IEDs. We had been digging and clearing for six straight hours when my partner and I got to this one last alleyway. We got a hit on the mine hound and while he was probing, I was looking at the ground. That was the last thing I remembered because right as I looked down, that’s when the IED went off.

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I remember feeling very groggy and trying to get up and screaming for my partner and asking where he was. Before I lost complete consciousness, I remember him yelling back, “I’m right here, stay with me and stay alive.” I was in a coma for a week and woke up in Bethesda, Maryland. I had a hard time believing that we had been part of an explosion because we were so thorough at our jobs. I felt the stitches on my face and that’s when I started crying because it was setting in that my life would be flipped upside down. I was a double amputee with facial injuries at 20 years old, just four days after my birthday. My partner and I both were in the ICU at the time, but they wouldn’t let us see each other until we were able to heal more. Once my chest tube was out and my collapsed right lung had healed enough, they finally gave me an electric wheel chair and allowed me to go see him. He kept saying how sorry he was because he had been the one who apparently set off the IED, but I didn’t want him to feel like that or put that weight on himself. I wanted to let him know that we would get through this and at least we were both alive. I left the hospital just a few days before Christmas and they were able to move me to San Diego which was a lot closer to home. The surgeries over the course of the next few months took a toll physically, but feeling like I let my family down and the rest of the guys in my unit was tough emotionally. I was able to be strong during my recovery because I had my family and wife in my corner. I also had a goal to run and play soccer again. However, not everybody in my unit was as lucky. I lost a friend from basic training to suicide, as well as my partner who died by suicide in May 2017 just before my son’s first birthday. That one is still hard for me because we both survived and came out double amputees, but he decided to ultimately take a completely different route than me.

My wife and I got an apartment together and I was trying to be strong, but I started going through withdrawals from the medication I was taking for my various surgeries. It was really an emotional rollercoaster and there were a few years that were really hard. I finally started walking and running, but realized I didn’t know what to do with myself. All I ever wanted to be was a soldier and once that was ripped away from me, I had no clue what to do next. I got tired of acting like I had everything together, and realized that I needed to get it together for my wife and family. That’s when I started going to the Vet Center consistently and now I’ve been going for four or five years. I had to battle the voice inside of me that stigmatized reaching out for mental health treatment, but ultimately I knew it was best for me. I just finished my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology in May and I’ll be pursuing my Masters after this little break. I’m also a part of Tiger Team 7 now and doing some motivational speaking. I’ve always been proud of the fact that nobody ever got blown up or hurt while I was clearing and doing my job. All my guys came back alive and now that we’re all back, it’s my job to help as many veterans as possible stay alive once they return home.”

To provide mental health treatment to veterans like Geoffrey, please consider donating to the Headstrong Project at http://getheadstrong.org/donate/

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Healing the hidden wounds of war

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