By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 28, 2009 - A Marine who returned home from his second deployment from Iraq knew that "something was definitely wrong" with him. "It really didn't start setting in on me until I was back three or four months," said Marine Corps Sgt. Josh Hopper, assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115 at Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station, N.C. "It probably took me about nine months after I returned from Iraq to get help, [which] is why I ended up being a chronic case of [post-traumatic stress disorder], because I let it go too long."
Hopper is part of the Defense Department's new "Real Warriors" campaign. The campaign highlights stories of warriors who admitted they needed help, and after receiving treatment, are pursuing their military careers. Hopper -- a Purple Heart recipient who's married and the father of two -- sought help, found help, and now is helping others.
The sergeant served a brief three-month tour in Djibouti, Africa, and two tours in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. He was awarded the Purple Heart Medal after a roadside-bomb strike in Iraq's Anbar province, and he participated in numerous firefights. The accumulated stresses of Hopper's time in Iraq led to PTSD.
"If you think something is wrong [when] you get home from deployment, [it] doesn't matter if it is a month or nine months later, like it was for myself," Hopper said. "A lot of people think if you get help for PTSD or any psychological issue, they think it is almost a weakness."
Hopper enlisted into the Marines on Nov. 2, 2003, and recalled his first injury in November 2006, when a double-stacked mine was detonated near his Humvee. Hopper's Humvee was the lead vehicle in a six-vehicle convoy. After the mine detonated, Hopper recalled, he slipped in and out of consciousnesses many times. He was taken to Balad, Iraq, for follow-on treatment.
"I stayed in Balad for almost two weeks," he said. "I finally got out and started walking around, and got my senses back. They flew me back to Habinea, where the rest of my company was. I stayed on [for] two weeks on mandatory light duty, and after the two weeks was up, I went right back out to mobile security patrols, and on my [first] day back we were hit by another IED."
Hopper recalled enduring the second blast and many more to follow. When was back home, he said, he noticed his short-term memory was gone. He couldn't remember phone numbers or birthdays. Afull nuero-psyche evaluation led to a diagniosis of traumatic brain injury.
Hopper said his TBI treatment included hand-eye coordination exercises to help him relearn some of the basic skills most of us take for granted. "It is almost like the effects from [the] IED blasts are gone," he said.
But when Hopper first returned from Iraq, he said, it took him several months to realize something was wrong. Nearly nine months after returning home, he realized that he was suffering from more than TBI. His PTSD not only was starting to affect his job, but also was causing problems at home.
While the causes and effects of PTSD may vary for each servicemember, Hopper said, he believes many events led to his PTSD from enduring countless IED blasts and losing close friends for the first time.
"You just see things, and do things and be around certain situations you only see in movies, and you don't think exist in life," said Hopper.
Back home, the surreal scenes were gone, he said, but that didn't mean everfything was OK. "I would find myself in situations that I didn't know how to deal with," he said. Many servicemembers who suffer from PTSD might not recognize it, he added.
While others wake up and put their clothes on in the morning, he explained, people with PTSD wake up and put a mask on. "We can fool everybody throughout the day, eight to 12 hours, however long we work," he said. "[And], you go home and you have to take it out on someone -- your wife, your kids, your mom or dad, those closest to you."
Hopper said family members usually are the first to notice something isn't quite right. His wife recognized the subtle differences, Hopper said, and his commander and sergeant major also noticed his range of emotions, temper and bad attitude.
Hopper said at first he would deny his commanding officer and sergeant major's questions about whether he thought he might be suffering from PTSD. It took him another two or three weeks to go back to his commander to seek help, he said, and when he did, his commander immediately called around to seek help for him.
"I had a hard time trying to go get help first," Hopper said. "I thought of every way I could go and get help and not let anyone know about it. But you really can't do that in the military these days.
"At first I was kind of hesitant," he continued, "and didn't want to be labeled. I wanted everyone to think I was good to go, nothing is wrong with me, but basically it got to the point I didn't have to say a word about it and my CO, my sergeant major was one of the first to notice it."
Hopper said that after recognizing that he needed help, he wouldn't let anything get in his way. He said people he knows chose to use destructive means, such as alcohol, to self-medicate their PTSD instead of seeking help. "If they get pulled over, it can be a career ender," he said.
With strong support from his command and family, Hopper participated in a three-month in-patient program at the Martinsburg, W.Va., Veterans Affairs hospital. Hopper said they "pushed me to get help." When he returned from the program, he said, he was a new man and wanted to thank his commanding officer for saving his life.
"I walked in my CO's office and shook his hand and thanked him," said Hopper, who asked his CO what he could do for him. His commanding officer replied, "You don't owe me a thing; the way you can repay me is by paying it forward. There will be a lot of people coming home from these wars in the same boots as you, and they will need help. If you see them, help them get the help they need."
Hopper said that he has taken an active role in "Real Warriors" to help other servicemembers who were like him.
"Well, we're human beings still, and [PTSD] will bother some of us," he said. "A lot of people think it makes you weak. I went and got help with PTSD. I can still run just as fast or faster, I can still lift, I can still climb rope, I picked up rank. ... I have done nothing but advance after I got help for PTSD."
(This is the ninth installment of the Wounded Warrior Diaries series. Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg serves in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate. Jim Garamone of AFPS contributed to this article.)