War on Terrorism

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Warrior Games 2013: Retired Airman struggles with PTSD while in training

by Randy Roughton
Air Force News Service

5/8/2013 - COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AFNS) -- Second-year Warrior Games athlete George Stiltner recognized the look on retired Staff Sgt. Larry Franklin's face at the Air Force team's selection camp at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Stiltner had the same demeanor during his first year training for the Games. Now, he recognized a fellow former Airman struggling just as he was.

For more than three years, Franklin's struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder made coping with people, even family members, difficult. He was shot in the back of his head while on his third tour supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom on a quick response force mission at Kandahar Province, Afghanistan on March 21, 2007.

Because of a recent divorce, Franklin chose to return to duty in Kandahar after he recovered physically from his injury at Landstuhl Regional Medical Hospital in Germany instead of going home.

"It turned out not to be a good idea in the long run, but I convinced the doctors I could return to duty, and I returned to Kandahar for the remainder of my deployment," Franklin said.

When Franklin returned to his duty station at Joint Base Elmendorf -- Richardson, Alaska, he began to realize the symptoms were worse than he thought. He suffered frequent dizziness, massive headaches and coordination problems. So he decided to move back to Kentucky for a recruiting job and be near his family. But soon the crowds of high school students that were an important part of his job left him depressed and exhausted.

"The main concept of my job was to be a people person," he said. "But I'd go to high schools and just shut down. The kids would overwhelm me. I didn't have any crazy outbursts, but once I would leave, I'd take it home, and it really started to wear me down. That was definitely my worst time period.

"I tried to let my family be my best medicine, but I couldn't even be around them. They felt they didn't really understand what was going on with me, and I wasn't communicating with them what was going on."

But a fellow Warrior Games athlete saw almost instantly what Franklin was experiencing when he arrived at the Air Force team's selection camp to try out for swimming and wheelchair basketball. Even though Franklin didn't believe he was ready to confide in anyone at that point, Stiltner reached out to him, and they talked for about an hour in their first conversation.

"I think when a group gets together like this, you can kind of tell by a person's demeanor and how they carry themselves what they've got going on, especially if they have some of the same experiences you have," Stiltner said. "I just explained to him that when I came here, I felt like I didn't belong, and I believe that's the way he was feeling at the time. You don't really feel like you belong anywhere at the time. I told him how the Warrior Games helped me last year realize we each have our own demons. When you realize what some of those demons are, you can pick and choose to tackle one or a few at a time, and some of them will take care of themselves.

"You can see the physical difference in him now, compared to the first camp. I think he feels good about himself again."

Franklin, while still quite soft-spoken, also sees improvement in himself. Other than occupational therapy, counseling for his post-traumatic stress disorder and preventative medication, he considers himself basically independent. He is also interested in helping fellow wounded warriors who might experience the self-doubt he felt before he met a friend at his first Warrior Games selection camp.

"I think a lot of our wounded warrior community are isolated from the military because they've moved back home," he said. "Maybe they feel they don't want to be around the military because it's going to bring up something they don't want to deal with. All I can say to them is I was there. I felt the same way when I was in their shoes. In four months, it may not have fixed everything, but it's the relationships that have made a difference. You can't be here and not find someone or have someone reach out to you who you can relate to and will listen to your story."

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