I was an army careerist. I was in for the full twenty years, had a plan and a goal to retire out as at least a Sgt. Major. I was high speed, low drag, driven, and decorated.
Then came the injury. I came back from my third combat tour with lung damage, a bad back, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and no career. Worse, I also had no fallback position. I’d never planned to get out, so I’d never planned what to do if I did.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. It’s not as though I were left adrift with no recourse. I’ve heard the horror stories about the VA being terrible, but that wasn’t my personal experience. I was enrolled and evaluated in a decent amount of time. I started receiving disability payments to compensate me without too much of a delay. They were running tests and putting me through therapy to see if they could ease the difficulties and symptoms. I certainly wasn’t getting everything I needed to live comfortably, but I was definitely not abandoned or tossed aside, either.
The thing about PTSD, though, is that it is definitely on the depressive end of things. I was a classic case. I felt ashamed of my “not being tough enough” mentally. My job as an army aviation weapons repairer had left me with little useful skills for the civilian world, leaving me feeling like a bum who was dependent on charity. I hurt, I couldn’t sleep, and I was a completely withdrawn grouch. I’d gone from the top of the world to rock bottom.
I’m not going to lie. Recovering from this was not easy. It took a lot of effort and time. But recover I did, and I’m stronger for it.
The first step to my recovery was putting myself in a mindset that allowed me to accept help. I’d been raised in a society where a real man could bull his way through any problem if he just had the intestinal fortitude for it. The truth is, what I had was a recognizable medical issue. PTSD directly alters the structure of the brain. Just like I couldn’t think my way past cancer, I couldn’t simply think past PTSD.
Once I accepted this fact and made myself treat my PTSD as a medical illness and not as a weakness, I was able to turn things around and start down the path to renewed strength. I connected with healthcare professionals at the VA, engaged in a medication therapy management program, and began deliberately engaging in healthy mental and physical exercises. Thanks to these efforts I was able to put myself into the right mental state to move forward to success in the civilian world.
Mind of a Winner lesson: A winner accepts help when it’s needed.
Having put myself in a mental position of strength by accepting the help I needed, I was ready to start moving forward. I still had problems I was facing, but now I had the clarity and will power to start putting solutions in place. In order to do that, however, I first needed to understand what the problems were.
The primary concern was my employment status. I’d been looking for work with little success. Every time I was not hired I had bitterly assumed it was simply as a result of employers not knowing what a good deal I was.
Being back on an even keel I could now look at things objectively. Something was holding me back from employment, and a negative attitude was not helping overcome it. To get hired, I needed to evaluate what I actually had available to me in the job hunt, and what I evidently lacked. This required that I take a very frank look at my past successes and failures alike.
In the plus column I had a number of strengths. As an Army NCO with several combat tours under my belt I had proven that I was both a hard worker and a leader who could function under pressure. I had the chops to bring both drive and goal oriented management skills to any job that I had.
In the minus column was my lack of any professional training in civilian career fields. I’d spent a decade repairing weapons systems, targeting equipment, and complex munitions. Because I had been so dedicated to a career I had not expected to end I had failed to diversify my skill set in spite of ample opportunity to do so. I had created my own condition for failure by refusing to accept any outcome other than my original goal, and so left myself unequipped for the fight to come.
Through this blunt acceptance of my own failings, I now knew what I needed to correct in order to move forward to success.
Mind of a Winner lesson: A winner must be honest with himself.
The weakness I most needed to address in order to find a new career was clearly a matter of education. I had leadership skills from the army, but I didn’t have a civilian field of expertise I could apply those leadership skills to. If I wanted a good career in which I could be a success, I needed to get a good grounding in something the civilian world needed.
Thanks to my time in the service I had funding available to obtain an education. The GI Bill had been tailor made for veterans like myself. This meant that paying for an education was no obstacle. I could afford to obtain a degree.
It came down to a question of how to best utilize this opportunity. I was living in a small, very rural community far from any colleges, universities, or voc-tech schools. I was also in my thirties, a family man with a house and children. A traditional course of instruction would have presented significant difficulties as it would require relocation.
Knowing this I began looking at what non-traditional alternatives there were out there that would best suit my situation. Distance learning quickly rose to the top of my list of possibilities. It would allow me to attend classes from home in a way that fit into my schedule. I was concerned about diploma mills and scams, so I spent some time doing my homework.
I was fortunate enough to discover that a large number of traditional universities have made the jump into distance education. Schools like Ohio University, Portland State, or the University of Alabama have programs that can result in an accredited degree which can be obtained through online coursework. Eventually I was able to settle on a communication degree that would allow me a diverse number of career paths after graduation. Following that I continued on into post grad work, reveling in the challenges and opportunities advanced educational pursuits were able to provide me.
Mind of a Winner lesson: A winner isn’t just educated, but pursues right education.
Once I was armed with the education I needed to be able to not just lead, but to lead as an expert within a civilian career field, I dove back into the job search. With my PTSD symptoms being well regulated through my healthy understanding of it as a medical issue and my seizing the bull of my lack of education by the horns I had built a sense of confidence right alongside of a respectable resume.
I was quickly able to find good work with a start-up that recognized the skills I had deliberately crafted as being valuable for their needs. With my Army leadership skills and education I’ve been able to establish myself as a thought leader and innovator within the company, and grown right along with it. Now, rather than being a detriment, my PTSD is actually useful as a basis that allows me to approach problems from a different perspective than my peers in the office. This enables me to craft communications solutions for unique audiences and clients that have contributed to the company’s success as well as my own.
In the end, my progress from an army post to a post-traumatic and finally to a post grad allowed me to turn what had originally been a weakness and barrier into a strength. I had established a mindset that allowed me to build on what had seemed to be a crumbling foundation and made it into the circumstance that allows me to be successful. What had been my barrier simply became the stepping stone to a new career, a new chance to excel, and a new source of pride.
Final Mind of a Winner lesson: With the right mindset, your weaknesses are the opportunities that lead you to your greatest strengths.
James Hinton is a disabled army veteran who now works in Computer Mediated Communications. He splits his time between helping other disabled vets achieve success in their post-military lives and supervising his daughters as they do their chores on the farm. Read more of his articles here jamiemhinton.wordpress.com
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