Living with PTSD: 'I completely lose control'

May 31, 2013

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a three-part series exploring the benefits of service dogs for combat veterans. Reporter Samantha Wright began working on this series three years ago. The next two parts will run on Saturday and Sunday.

Dan Sperry sits in the backyard of his home in Meridian, Idaho, sipping lemonade. But he doesn’t sit very long; Sperry is constantly on the move. He fidgets. And he might suddenly spring up form his chair and disappear into the house.

“I just stay home. I avoid society all together, which now I’ve gotten to a point where I hardly even return phone calls. I don’t go out. I don’t go anywhere by myself,” he said.

'Just a certain thing, and it just takes me away’

Sperry, 44, wasn’t always like this. His wife of 25 years, Angie Sperry, says he was open and outgoing before he went to the Persian Gulf in 1990.

“I knew when Dan served and went to the Persian Gulf that he would physically come back, but I knew something in him would be injured,” she said. “I just didn’t know the physical and mental injuries that he would have.” 

Dan was serving in Germany when he was sent to the Gulf as part of Desert Shield. He was in an artillery unit that went to Saudi Arabia, and into Iraq and Kuwait.  Dan’s job during the war was, as Angie puts it, “to blow stuff up.”

He was in the Gulf until the spring of 1991 when he came home and decided to leave the Army. He got a job, first in construction, then as an emergency medical technician. But something was wrong. 

“All it takes is hearing a jet, loud noise, a certain, even diesel exhaust—just a certain thing, and it just takes me away. They call it flashbacks, I guess,” said Dan.

Dan started to have flashbacks of his time in the Gulf. Night terrors brought back the war in vivid detail. He had trouble relating with other people.

'I completely lose control’

“Some people just don’t know when to shut their month, and they ask some questions that I just can’t handle, and questions that are very inappropriate and they shouldn’t ask a combat veteran. And when that happens, I have a tendency to have a panic attack,” he said.  

Those questions Dan calls inappropriate involve pry into what’s wrong with him, or what happened at the Gulf. They lead to what he calls him “freaking out.”

“Panic attacks are horrible. I completely lose control, and it’s not safe for me and it’s not safe for other people,” said Dan. 

When it hits him, Dan says he can’t see and he doesn’t remember where he is or what he’s doing. And that’s when his combat training takes over.

“I got in so many fights when I first got out that and somebody always had to stop me. And one day I realized sometime there’s not going to be somebody there to stop me, and I’m going to kill somebody. And that’s the last thing that I wanted to do,” he said.  

To see him so helpless 'is heartbreaking’

Dan turned to the Veterans Administration for help. He began counseling, and soon learned he was suffering from PTSD. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports as many as 10 percent of Desert Storm Veterans suffer from PTSD, the symptoms of which include flashbacks, nightmares, angry outbursts, depression, and anxiety—symptoms that Dan was battling every day.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s the last thing (I want to do). I mean, I was a combat veteran. I would have given my life for anybody in the United States.” 

Dan also has horrible headaches that are often triggered by the adrenaline that accompanies stress or fear. He loses his balance; he has to walk with a cane. When a headache hits, he can’t see, can’t focus, can’t even stand up. He often finds himself in the emergency room.

“About a month and a half ago, I fell down, back into our shower and hit my head, and got a concussion,” said Dan. “And my wife was in the other room, and I couldn’t make enough noise for her to hear me. And I laid there for probably close to 45 minutes.”

“He had to lay there and holler long and loud enough for me to wake up clear in the other room and hear him, and get up, and help him,” said Angie. “To wake up from hearing someone scream for you that you know is helpless and in pain, is horrible. And to see him on the tile floor—Dan is a huge man, he’s incredibly powerful, but to be that helpless—is heartbreaking.” 

And Dan is hardly alone. As many as 20 percent of military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have come back with PTSD. And veterans from the first Gulf War have also suffered from this condition.