Blood, ink: JBER pararescueman finds solace from PTSD
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- The aftermath of war is ugly. Buildings are ravaged, fields are razed, and people die. Structures are rebuilt and fields and forests are restored, but the survivors are marked permanently.
For Master Sgt. Roger Sparks, this was evident as he sat on his couch with his two sons leaning against him watching "Forrest Gump" together.
When the firefight scene in Vietnam flickered on, Sparks' subconscious took over.
"I was suddenly overwhelmed with grief," he said. "I went out into the garage to get a hold of myself. That's when I knew I had a problem."
According to the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, between 11 and 20 percent of military members who have been a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom have experienced, or continue to experience, some form of PTSD.
Sparks, a pararescueman assigned to the Alaska Air National Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron, became aware he had PTSD after a particularly intense combat scenario wherein he earned a Silver Star for valor.
"I really think the cost of combat is grief," Sparks said. "Grief is cumulative; the more we are exposed to mortal situations, the more it builds up. Some guys can go their whole career without meeting their threshold. Some guys can do one deployment and get a whole bellyful.
"I've knowingly killed people face-to-face," said the former Force Reconnaissance Marine. "I've had buddies who were with me killed and haven't had trouble with emotional trauma before. As you grow older, you change. Your sense of mortality changes. The feeling of youthful invincibility fades, he said; resolve and beliefs change.
"We've been doing [combat] for so long, we've just normalized it," Sparks continued. "I come back from combat where a guy died in my arms just days ago, gripping at me, clawing at me, and bleeding all over me, to sit next to a lady who's ticked off, because I'm on her armrest."
In the past, there was an extended boat voyage between home and war, but now combat is only a short plane ride away. Sparks said this makes it difficult for service members to mentally separate the carnage of combat from the happiness of home.
He believes in World War II the journey helped service members separate combat from normal life in their minds, but now it has become a part of "normal" life.
If you never truly leave home, then you can never really come home, he said.
"I think there's a cost to that, and each one of these guys feels it," Sparks said. "With as long as we've been in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are young infantrymen who have made a complete career out of warfare. We've given our entire adult life to combat. These are the kind of men I rub shoulders with."
"These service members have survived a battle with one of the greatest enemies we face," said Capt. Chad Killpack, a clinical psychologist with the 673rd Medical Operations Squadron.
Killpack said the variety of evidence-based programs available at the mental health clinic can, with early intervention, have very positive results in battling PTSD.
Sparks used one such approach, called cognitive behavioral therapy, for more than a year and was later sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he was cleared to return to operational duty after consideration of his extensive personal efforts toward recovery.
During this time, Sparks was also encouraged to get in touch with Annie Okerlin, a Tampa, Fla., yoga instructor who provides a mind-body approach to alleviating PTSD through therapeutic yoga.
Okerlin began sending materials and advice to Sparks. The pararescueman said he found her program incredibly healing and still uses the relaxation techniques.
Cleared for duty and having finished the bulk of the clinical treatment, Sparks continued to pursue a healthier mentality -- and found it in an unexpected place.
On the forward operating base, just minutes after the life-changing 2010 battle which earned him a Silver Star, Sparks said three men approached him. One was a cameraman, another a filmmaker, and the third was Scott Campbell, a well-known tattoo artist from New York City.
They were interested in making a documentary showing the effects tattooing can have on combat-exposed service members. Sparks, exhausted and shaken from the most intense firefight of his life, nearly dismissed them. Campbell looked at him and recognized what Sparks had just been through.
"Let's leave, this is wrong," Sparks recalled Campbell saying.
That's when Sparks, looking to kill time, agreed to their proposal.
"They stayed with us for three days, tattooing us," Sparks said. "That distracted us, because we knew we were about to go right back [into the fight]."
Sparks described the experience as profoundly healing. Since then, he has continued tattooing as a way of expressing himself in ways he otherwise would not be able.
"I really think PTSD is the lack of desire to, or inability to express your grief to others." Sparks said. "With tattoos, it's like a hidden language. I can express that grief in a very tangible way."
Sparks designed a Cheshire Cat tattoo he and his fellow pararescuemen have adopted as a kind of mascot.
"The Cheshire Cat is elusive, appearing and disappearing at will," Sparks said. "He always appears in a time of need and disappears, only leaving his smile."
Many of the men in the 212th RQS wear the tattoo as a mark of pride, a sobering reminder of the gravity of their job. Like the effects of war, the mark may fade but never be erased.
"I really enjoy reading literature; it's been a very cathartic thing for me to read old war literature and realize all these feelings I have are just a human experience," Sparks explained. "It's just a human reaction to these things we are exposed to. Nobody is special because they've experienced this; we're just human beings trying to react to the things we've been forced to deal with."
Sparks explained he is particularly interested in the Hagakure, a compilation of discussions on maintaining a military mindset in peacetime, written for samurai in the 18th century.
"A big problem with PTSD is you feel isolated," Sparks said. "You don't think people will understand how you feel because of the things you've experienced. It's a very healing experience to know there were people feeling the same things we experience now, in the 18th century."
Writing free-verse poetry also provides an outlet for the emotional struggles he experiences.
"It doesn't matter how many pushups you can do," Sparks said. "When it comes to combat grief, you can be this physical specimen, but if you aren't equipped to handle things emotionally, that's where you will eventually break."
Much has been written about dealing with the stressors of war and finding the right way is an intensely personal process, Sparks and his compatriots said.
"We're exposed to so many different stressful situations that you develop your own way of dealing with it," said Theodore "Ted" Sierocinski, also a pararescueman assigned to the 212th RQS.
The marks of battle may or may not fade with time, but the smile of the Cheshire Cat remains.