‘Facing Stigma’ with Jen Burch

Image for post
Image for post

“I was born in D.C. and grew up in Maryland with my mom. I played the double bass in high school, and I always assumed I would go to Catholic University to play in their symphony. I didn’t end up getting the scholarship I needed to go to the school I wanted, so I quit music all together. I was really lost after I quit, and ended up leaving home to live out of my car for a few weeks. I was couch surfing with friends on and off but I knew I didn’t want to keep living like that. With my grandmother’s health declining, I decided to move to Colorado and help take care of her. She had a good friend that was a decorated Army Green Beret, and became ill around the same time as my grandmother. His son Rod, who also had retired from the Army, came down to take care of him around the same time. The four of us spent a lot of time together, and Rod quickly became the father figure I never had. I got really close with Rod, and actually ended up calling him dad because he really filled that void for me. The four of them got together and sat me down with the hopes they could persuade me to join the military. I eventually agreed and joined the military in 2007. Once I got to my first duty station I started going back to school, because I knew I wanted to switch over to being an officer in the medical field. I changed duty stations shortly after, and I was doing really well in school and then everything changed when I experienced a military sexual trauma.

Image for post
Image for post

I struggled to find the strength to tell people what happened. At that time I wanted to make a career of the military, and I was scared to do or say anything that would jeopardize that. However, I knew I had a deployment on the horizon and I couldn’t have been happier about it. I ended up getting deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan and settled in there. I found out that I could volunteer at the hospital, so I volunteered all of my free time to helping wounded veterans in there. I just wanted to be of service and feel like I was doing something beneficial, but with that came a lot trauma on my own end. I was working with a lot of mass casualties and soldiers who had been severely injured. I was doing everything a medic would do, because of all the training I received. I continued assisting with surgeries and helping out with amputations for the duration of my deployment. I was one of the few people outside of the hospital staff that had that deployment experience, and it wasn’t something I shared with a lot of people. I didn’t want to leave my deployment, and if they would have let me stay another six months I would have. I say that because I loved that I was making a difference at the hospital, but a lot of that had to do with me not wanting to go back home. Once I got back home to a new duty station, my life started falling apart. I was having major anxiety attacks, nightmares all the time, and a lot of pent up anger. I went to my supervisors office let her know that I was struggling, and thinking of hurting myself. I finally hit my threshold, and that night I went home and tried to commit suicide. The guy I was dating found me and rushed me to the hospital.

I was released a few days later and sent to an inpatient mental health clinic. After being released, I was mandated to go to mental health therapy and group therapy. I ended up getting submitted for a medical board shortly after, and I took their offer because I realized my military career was over. I was still struggling in a number of ways when I got out, because I didn’t know about the services that were out there for veterans. I met a few veterans at a photography event, and they told me about a retreat Project Sanctuary was offering. They were the first organization to really ask me about my story, and want to help. I learned more about these mental health organizations that could be of assistance, and would allow me to talk to someone. I realized what I had experienced in war was not normal. Some people can come back and they’re fine, but some of us just need a little extra help. I was able to access counseling through Project Sanctuary, and I saw an independent counselor every week for six months straight. I used to be ashamed to tell my story, until I realized that I have nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make me weak asking for help. If anything it shows strength, because I had that resiliency to want to get better. If I wouldn’t have gotten the mental healthcare I needed I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. After getting the help I needed last year, I’ve been able to pick myself back up. Now I’m running a veterans non-profit, and giving back to others.”

Image for post
Image for post

Healing the hidden wounds of war

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store