Living with PTSD constant battle for veteran

Ackley copes with battle scars while trying to be father, husband
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Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Chris Ackley, left, a U.S. Army veteran and Beaver Dam Fire Department captain, speaks with Clintonville Mayor Richard Beggs at the Clintonville High School auditorium after his May 30 presentation on PTSD. Ackley’s presentation was facilitated by Clintonville Ambulance Services.

Chris Ackley served in the U.S. Army and was deployed to Iraq from 2007-2008 and Afghanistan from 2011-2012, becoming a hardened warrior.

When he came home, though, there was no way for him to switch off that hardened warrior and become a firefighter, a husband and, eventually, a father.

Ackley, who is currently a captain with the Beaver Dam Fire Department, traveled to Clintonville on May 30 and told his story. He started out as a combat medic and became a soldier on hunt and kill missions, found himself injured on a couple of those missions and had to live with what he did overseas.

“I’m a person who has PTSD; I’m a person who still suffers from PTSD,” Ackley said to an audience of more than 100 in the Clintonville High School auditorium. “I’m a person that, when I go to work, I don’t know if the tones will go off, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m going to go through stressful situations that are going to compound. My bucket’s going to get fuller faster.”

Ackley said there are things that he has done during his service to his country that he can’t tell his wife. Despite the ups and downs, she has remained supportive, he said, but her support alone couldn’t stop his self-hatred.

“When I was overseas, I was a completely different person than the one who’s standing here today,” Ackley said as he showed a photo of himself in full combat gear. “I resented everything that guy stood for, because when I came home, I had to be a completely different person. Just like when you turn the lights off in the auditorium, I had to turn that off. I had to turn off this warrior.”

Ackley went into the military to serve as a civil affairs operator and a combat medic, but when he went to Iraq, the E-5 sergeant served in a position usually filled by a captain.

“I was not supposed to be on hunt and kill missions, but I was,” Ackley said.

While on leave to recover from a knee injury, he asked his wife to marry him and started the process of moving into a new house. Lingering in his mind during that time was that something was missing, and the depression set in without him realizing it.

Ackley found himself arguing with his wife more, nearly driving her away, and he would find himself getting increasingly irritable. He would also find himself in tears over the oddest things, recounting one afternoon when he decided to reorganize the kitchen, and his wife returned home to find him on the floor crying.

“We were sitting down at Christmas, and I cried to ‘Home Alone.’ Who cries at ‘Home Alone?’” Ackley said. “I cried at random things, just some stupid things.”

With anxiety, night sweats and night terrors mounting, Ackley finally tried to get some help from the Veterans Administration, and he was prescribed medication to deal with his PTSD. Once the Army found out, it tried to cashier him from the service, he said.

“I said I was having nightmares, and I was having flashbacks, having night sweats. I was on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds,” Ackley said. “They tried to kick me out, and I wouldn’t let that happen. I was trying to do the right thing by going to get help, and the Army wanted to kick me out.”

Ackley resented that he was being pushed out — not for drug or alcohol issues, but because he’d piled too much work upon himself in order to distract him from his Iraq deployment. He added the Army put him in a unit that was non-deployable, and he had to fight to get back into a position where he would be allowed to serve overseas again. Eventually, the Army sent him to Afghanistan in 2011.

During his time in Afghanistan, Ackley took shrapnel from a grenade attack and tested positive for a traumatic brain injury, but he still wanted to fight. Then he and two other soldiers were injured from an improvised explosive device placed beneath a car.

Ackley said he returned from his deployment in 2012, and all of the PTSD symptoms returned faster and stronger than before. He went back to the VA for help, but he was still dealing with a flurry of emotions he couldn’t control and a building desire to return overseas.

Ackley still deals with his PTSD every day as he goes to his job. He noted that he was always able to save soldiers when he was a combat medic overseas. But back home as a paramedic, he’s come across accident scenes where he’s been unable to save people, and the guilt is overwhelming at times. Triggers were everywhere.

“This car split apart on (state Highway) 151. The mom fell asleep at the wheel and split her car in half. There was a 4-year-old inside a car seat flung out; the seatbelt was broken,” Ackley said about one call. “The daughter has the same car seat my kids have. I didn’t see her kid; I saw my kid in the back of that car seat.”

Ackley still talks regularly with a psychiatrist, and he spent a lot of his time documenting his feelings. He kept a journal, and whenever he woke up with night sweats or had other feelings of anxiety, he would write down what made him feel that way.

It wasn’t until Ackley’s second child was born that he found the ability to turn the corner and strive for healing. Before then, he felt an intense urge to return overseas just to feel the thrill of combat. That changed once Ackley, who was in paramedic school at the time, was able to deliver his daughter and hold her in his arms.

“I still have my outbursts, and I still have my issues,” Ackley said. “This is when I said that I can’t let what affects me keep me from being the father and husband I wanted to be.”