Our military veterans serve bravely overseas, and often return with severe wounds. Some of them are visible, but some are not. One United States Army veteran struggled with his own Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when he returned from Iraq, and he’s dedicated much of his career to helping his brothers in arms contend with PTSD.
Jerry Haffey Jr. is the president of business development at Ambrosia Treatment Center, which helps patients who are struggling with addiction. Before the his tenure at Ambrosia, Haffey Jr. served in Iraq as part of the U.S. Army’s 5th Cavalry.
From June 2005 to June 2006, he served in northern Baghdad, Iraq as part of a 57-man unit. During his time there, Haffey Jr. went on over 150 patrols and over 35 raids. He was also there during the first democratic vote, which was a particularly volatile time in the country.
The daily routine of combat coupled with several traumatic experiences would leave indelible wounds in his mind.
While in Iraq, Haffey Jr. experienced intense combat and was hit with six roadside bombs in his Humvee and hit twice outside of his vehicle. A particularly harrowing event involved him and his unit responding to a bus full of women and children that had been blown up.
Fortunately, he still has all his limbs. However, it wasn’t just the horror that he saw that was traumatic. Surviving eight total bombings and taking fire certainly took its toll as well.
“Your pre-mindset before you go on a mission is mentally exhausting and traumatic because you don’t know if you’re going to come back from that mission, and that happens every single time,” Haffey Jr. told The Epoch Times.
The repetitive nature of this mentality became a lifestyle, and caused severe mental strain. He would prepare for a mission, execute it, come back and have an adrenaline crash. Then he would wake up and do it all over again throughout his deployment. His trauma experiences combined with with his mental state would ultimately manifest as PTSD when he returned home.
After visiting his hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Haffey Jr. moved to Florida looking for a fresh start. He took a job working at a gym, and tried to acclimate to civilian life. It wasn’t until after his move that he started to experience the side effects of PTSD. He would become uncomfortable in large crowds, he didn’t like loud noises like fireworks, and his palms would become sweaty.
“I could not sit at a red light because I was afraid that the cars and the buses, especially the buses or the trucks, were going to blow up next to me,” Haffey Jr. said.
Haffey Jr. would sit at red lights with his palms sweating and his heart racing. He would also drive in the middle lane because he had been taught in Iraq that driving on the left or the right would further expose him to roadside bombs. With roads with just two lanes he would speed up ahead, and drive in between the lanes. Not only did Haffey Jr. have to contend with PTSD while he was awake, he would have dreams of the desert and the heat and would wake up sweating. He also experienced survivor’s guilt, and struggled to find purpose as being one of the soldiers who made it home. The frustration of contending with these kinds of symptoms festered, and led Haffey Jr. to become angry and lash out.
Once his anger started to get out of control, he realized something was seriously wrong, and needed to figure out what it was. He went to the West Palm Veteran’s Affairs hospital and spoke with a social worker. She asked him about six to eight questions, and fairly quickly informed him that he had PTSD. At the time, Haffey Jr. didn’t know what that information meant.
“That was the moment where my life changed,” Haffey Jr. said.
The VA referred him to an outpatient facility that treats veterans with PTSD, and he worked with a therapist. He met with her every week for six months, and then every other week for the next six months. In addition to talk therapy, he participated in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, in which he would follow a light or a hand motion with his eyes from left to right as the therapist asked him questions about a traumatic experience and he answered them.
As he spoke about his experience while moving his eyes, the dormant brain cells associated with that specific trauma were spread across the mind. The purpose of this therapy is to prevent these dormant brain cells from being localized in one place, which allows these thoughts to spread out instead of being internalized deeper and deeper in the mind. EMDR therapy allowed him to think less and less about his trauma over time.
Haffey Jr. still participates in talk therapy, but now on a monthly or bimonthly basis to discuss how he’s doing in general. However, every once in a while he’ll still need to talk about a specific traumatic event with his therapist.
Veterans Helping Veterans
About three or four months after Haffey Jr.’s father opened Ambrosia Treatment Center he joined the team there, and he’s been there for the last 11 years. While it’s a addiction treatment center, many of their patients are veterans contending with addiction, PTSD, and other trauma. While Haffey Jr. didn’t experience addiction himself, he is able to relate to the veterans who come through the door. He is willing to help not just any veteran who comes through the door at Ambrosia, but any veteran who reaches out to him, period.
This year, Haffey Jr. and another veteran who was his mentor at Ambrosia are starting a second chapter of a non-profit called Operation New Uniform to help veterans find a career. There is already a chapter in Jacksonville Florida, and they hope to align with them.
“Because I was fortunate enough to be blessed to go from victim to superhero I think I can give everybody that opportunity. They’ve got to want it themselves, but I feel like I can help a lot of people get there. Not everybody, but I do,” said Haffey Jr.