‘Facing Stigma’ with Pete S.

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“I graduated in 2002 but couldn’t join the Army until 2006 because of a surgery. I ended up in the infantry and my first deployment was in 2008 to Kandahar, Afghanistan. That deployment was pretty quiet for the most part and a lot of our time consisted of patrolling villages and route clearing because there were so many IEDs We were pretty fortunate that we only had two days over there where we lost somebody. We got back in 2009 and I was stationed in Texas for about a year before getting deployed for a second time in 2011. That deployment was completely different in the sense that it was much more kinetic and we were engaged in small arms fire or we were getting mortared or hit with rocket attacks three or four times a week. Dealing with a lot of that indirect fire takes a toll on you mentally because you can’t really plan or prepare for it. With a small arms exchange you at least feel like you’re in control more than when they launch a mortar and it’s completely out of your hands. I was our training room NCO (Non Commissioned Officer) because I happened to be the best guy with a computer so there were a lot of times when I would be doing administration and not on patrols with everyone else. There was a part of me that had this imposter syndrome where I felt like I wasn’t contributing as much. I would stay up late just to make sure those guys were written up for awards because I wanted to at least feel like I was helping in some way. After that deployment I spent a year in Kentucky before doing my final year in South Korea. I really enjoyed my time there but it was odd being so close to the North Korean border. They had just sunk that South Korean boat off the coast of Seoul and had their first successful nuclear test so there was a lot of tension.

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I had gotten engaged right before I left for South Korea so after I left the military, I went straight to New York City to start a life with my wife. She was going to graduate school and I was in school at the time as well. School and doing stand-up comedy helped a lot because it gave me an outlet. My first taste of comedy as therapy happened on my first deployment. I would tell stories about being out that day and how I felt about it, but it resonated with other people. It felt good knowing that I was making people happy and we were relating to one another and laughing together. It made it so that we knew we weren’t alone in how we felt. It felt a bit like starting over when I got to New York because I had been passed at comedy clubs in Kentucky but when I came to New York, I had to start over with doing open mics and trying to get passed at clubs again. I started leaning into more comedic stories from the military and using it as a way to talk about PTSD and some of the things I was dealing with. I don’t know if I would have noticed it, but luckily my wife was a therapist and was bringing to my attention that I wasn’t eating or sleeping. The Army kind of conditions you to think that’s normal so I didn’t realize anything was off with me originally; luckily my wife did and that’s how I found Headstrong. I found it really helpful that Headstrong paired me with someone who extensively worked with veterans. It was really beneficial because they had worked with other people suffering from PTSD. Even though I might not have had the emotional intelligence at the time to understand myself and what I was feeling, it helped having someone who understood what I was going through. Now I’m able to give that same peace of mind to other veterans when I talk to them after my shows. By making myself vulnerable and talking about my struggles with mental health during the shows, it lets them know I‘m a safe person to talk to about their own issues and that Headstrong can help them too.”

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Healing the hidden wounds of war

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