Ten years after being discharged from the Army, Joey Blackmon says he still struggles every day with his combat-related post traumatic stress disorder.
Blackmon, an Iraq War veteran, is among hundreds of thousands who suffer from PTSD due to traumatic experiences in combat; they may have been shot at, seen friends injured or killed, or saw death in some way. It should be noted, however, that you don’t have to be in combat to develop PTSD, nor does everyone who goes through traumatic experiences develop the disorder.
People with PTSD deal with a wide range of symptoms, mostly tied to memory: they have flashbacks and nightmares, they avoid busy places and often times isolate themselves. They become more emotional in terms of angry outbursts or introspective and seem numb to outsiders. A certain smell or sound can easily take them back to their traumatic experience. Blackmon says this is just the start of a long list of challenges he faces with PTSD.
“It’s always gonna be there: the images, the people I’ve lost, the … that I’ve done,” he said. “It’s never ever gonna be gone. I can’t erase it from my mind.”
Despite this, Blackmon says he would gladly go back into the military and therefore back into combat. He would do it in a heartbeat.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Blackmon was in his home economics class at South Stanly High School in Norwood, N.C. He was about to leave for his weekly Army Explorers meeting, a military cadet program for teenagers.
“We were getting ready to leave and it come on the damn TV,” he said, “It kind of hit really hard like, ‘Oh … we may be going.’ I was definitely scared. I was nervous.”
A little over a month later, Blackmon signed his papers to join the Army. He says his decision to sign up had been made prior to 9/11. He had been already thinking of joining the military as a career.
For the rest of senior year, Blackmon continued in Army Explorers and started attending what he calls “pre-basic.” He trained on the obstacle courses with the National Guard at Ft. Bragg, he had weekly meetings with other Army Explorers, recruited other students and visited veterans homes. When graduation came he was ready to move on from high school and into basic training.
“My recruiter was there; he got one of the tickets,” said Blackmon. “As soon as I graduated he looked at my mom and said, ‘He’s no longer yours, he’s our property now.’”
Within two months, Blackmon was heading to Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training. He graduated in November 2002 and joined Alpha Company 105 th , a combat engineer unit, out of Rockingham, N.C. By the end of the year his unit was given orders to go to Iraq. After a series of training sessions at other bases, his unit deployed. They entered Iraq in February 2004.
Blackmon’s unit traveled at night through Kuwait and into Iraq to Forward Operating Base Cobra, near the Iran border.
“Whenever we finally made it to FOB Cobra it was quiet. I mean, I don’t even know what time of the morning it was,” he said. “We were on high alert because we had been told this is our final place and it’s still a hot zone, we don’t know who the … here. That night we got set up and had no problems. The next almost three months we got mortared every day.”
Blackmon said that within weeks he was used to the mortars; it had become just another part of everyday life.
“We would walk to the barriers, the T-barriers we would have to stand under to protect us,” he said. “We’d walk to them; it wouldn’t even faze us anymore.”
Blackmon was part of a route security clearance team for a unit of combat engineers working on infrastructure in the area. As a combat engineer, it was his job to help find hidden explosives along their route. On several occasions, he saw his comrades hit roadside bombs or get hit by other explosives. Eight months into his deployment he was in a convoy hit by an improvised explosive device.
“It’s just a … up way of living, but we lived it every single day,” he said. “You get used to it but you don’t get used to it. I’m not saying that we got complacent at all 'cuz if we did we would’ve died. And so to get complacent and normal in it, and we done that a few times, something would happen that would bring us back to reality: that we could lose another guy.”
Blackmon says it was especially stressful not knowing who the enemy was.
“One day you’d be sitting there talking to one of the kids, and then the next day you find them down the road already blown up from building an IED and … it up. It was … stupid.”
After 11 months, Blackmon’s first deployment wrapped up and he was heading back to the states. He was back less than three weeks before deploying with another unit.
“I never made it to our welcome home ceremony,” he said. “I never got none of my flags or anything. I didn’t get even get my combat action badge from my unit.”
A National Guard unit from Gastonia needed volunteers for its reconnaissance tactics Team (RAT Team); Blackmon would be going back to Iraq as a route security clearance combat engineer.
“I already knew how the life was there and I was used to it,” he said, “I was perfectly fine with it. I was like ‘I have nothing to lose, I have nothing here. I’m not married, I don’t have kids, I don’t have no attachments. All my friends are in the military, all my brothers and sisters are there,’ so I left again.”
Blackmon’s second deployment took him to Balad, about 50 miles from Baghdad.
Although Blackmon thinks he developed PTSD during his first deployment, it wasn’t until his second that he and others in his unit started noticing. He said that after “flipping out” on a sergeant six months into his deployment, he was sent to the battalion (aid) station. He was diagnosed with chronic PTSD and given him Klonopin, a prescription drug used to treat anxiety. After an accidental overdose, Blackmon was airlifted out of combat to Germany, and eventually back to Ft. Bragg for evaluation.
Fearing discharge for PTSD, Blackmon says, he lied to doctors and administrators, and tried to hide his symptoms.
“I lied and told them nothing was wrong with me, absolutely nothing. I was fine; I was ready to go back.”
After a few months back in Iraq, Blackmon was re-evaluated for PTSD but couldn’t keep hiding it. He was given an “administrative discharge” and his military career was over.
Life after service
Blackmon was discharged at Ft. Dix in New Jersey in 2006. After living with a girlfriend in New York, he moved back to his hometown of Albemarle, North Carolina.
Blackmon’s transition back to civilian life wasn’t smooth. He was homeless for almost five months; he hopped around from his friends’ houses, stayed with his aunt, or slept in his truck with his Doberman, Samara. He was taking drugs and drinking, getting in trouble with the law and couldn’t keep a job.
“I guess I didn’t have a reason or motivation to even try to fix it, I was just rottin’ away. Everything around me I was causing to fall apart. Those were the times I wanted to commit suicide. I didn’t care about living. I was at my lowest at that time,” he said.
Blackmon says it was at this point that his PTSD really caught up with him. When he was in the military and deployed, he thinks, he was too busy to really notice it. Symptoms of PTSD like always being on high alert were just a part of daily life when he was in Iraq.
“PSTD doesn’t play into effect until you have to actually stop in life,” he said, “When you’re in the military you’re always active, always going; you don’t have time to slow down and think about the … you’ve done. I feel normal in those types of situations. I don’t feel normal here. Once you get out or are forced out, you walk away and all this PTSD, all this trauma that you’ve been lying about this whole time just hits you.”
It was at this point that Blackmon met his wife, Erin. His buddies wanted him to go to Applebee’s for karaoke night. He wasn’t really in the mood, but when his friend offered to pay for him he decided to tag along.
“I was sitting at the bar and he walked in,” said Erin Blackmon. “He was bald-headed and tall and gorgeous and he sat beside me. We kind of went off from there.”
The couple moved in together within the week. It took a while, however, for Erin to see Joey’s struggles with PTSD. She had family in the military but the disorder wasn’t discussed at all. She still remembers the first time she noticed something was wrong. They were sitting in the car, and when Joey went to kiss her goodbye, she accidentally revved up the engine.
“The look on his face was just terror,” she said, “Like something was getting ready to happen. I didn’t understand it and as time went on things got more heated; he was angry all the time about everything. I started to notice the signs of PTSD and how he was coping with it the wrong way. It was always anger and outbursts and rage, at anything and everybody.”
Like many veterans, it took Blackmon a long time to reach out for help. It was almost two years after being discharged that he began going to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for its inpatient program.
Once Blackmon began sharing his experiences and talking to other veterans, things slowly began to turn around, but he still had his ups and downs.
“I come to find out that it was almost like being high,” he said. “I would sit there and talk to them (veterans) all day at the VA and when I’d come home I had a good day. Certain little things wouldn’t piss me off as much because I was balling all that … up inside and not dealing with it.”
To try to get a handle on Blackmon ’s anxiety, depression, mood swings and problems with sleep, the VA put him on a host of different medications. He said he’s been prescribed 13 different types at once. It didn’t work. Blackmon says he couldn’t function on the medication; he couldn’t hold a conversation, couldn’t even communicate to simply say that he was hungry or needed to go to the bathroom. He had no recollection what happened the previous days or even what happened that morning.
“It was unreal,” he said. “They were overmedicating me and not solving anything. I was losing everything: my health, my family, everything. I was just becoming numb. It wasn’t I guess that I was losing it because I really didn’t care what was happening.”
It wasn’t long before Erin took him back to the VA to readjust his medications and remove many from his prescription. Over the years he has weaned off the pills intended for mental issues, he now only takes medicine related to physical problems. He says pills were doing more harm than good.
One prescription that has been successful for Blackmon has been his PTSD service dog, a black German shepherd Chaos. He was at the VA for another round of the inpatient program when he stepped outside for a cigarette and saw veterans training with service dogs. He asked the instructor, Barbara Johnson, from Paws 4 Soldiers, about uses for a service dog and soon after began the process of obtaining one.
Chaos is tasked for a variety of behaviors to help Blackmon with his PTSD. First and foremost, she goes wherever he does. When she senses him getting worked up over something, she comes over and pushes up against him or licks his hand. She has jumped up on his chest to get in between him and whoever he is arguing with, and wakes him up when he is having nightmares.
“She’ll actually jump in front of me and pounce back on me and diverts my attention from whatever’s making me stressed," he said. "She actually forces me to pay attention to her.”
Although Chaos was a huge step forward for Blackmon in terms of recovery, he says his greatest source of therapy is helping other veterans with PTSD.
A reason for everything
Blackmon started Founding Patriots in 2014. He had started other groups in previous years, but Founding Patriots was the first to really take off. It began as a Facebook group where veterans and family members of veterans can reach out to get advice or vent regarding their struggles with PTSD. In the two years since it started, the group has gained almost 4,000 followers, developed an 11-person administrative team, became an official nonprofit organization, and expanded from being geared toward veterans to include first responders. They have helped people pay bills they can’t afford, guided them through the process of receiving disability from the VA, and even often talk people down from taking their own lives.
“If they call us directly it’s a stop what you’re doing, find out what’s going on, listening is the most important,” said Erin. “Most of them don’t actually call us directly. It’s somebody else saying ‘I need your help, this person’s not in a good way right now and they won’t talk to me because I’m a civilian.”
Erin recalls long nights where Blackmon has been on the phone with police dispatch searching for a person, another time they spent days searching for a veteran who went missing and intended suicide, another time recently Blackmon was going back and forth on the phone between two veterans in different states threatening suicide.
Although it is stressful at times, Blackmon says, helping other veterans is his biggest drive in life. Not only does he find it therapeutic, but also he draws on experiences when he was at that low point in his life and others have stopped and helped him.
One of those instances was in 2013. Blackmon was sitting on a bridge thinking about committing suicide. He says he sat there for two hours as cars whizzed past him. Finally, someone stopped.
“He goes, ‘I drove by here goin’ to Walmart, you’re still sittin’ here. Wanna talk about something? What’s going on with you? ... I’m hungry; hop in the truck and we’ll go get something to eat.’”
As Blackmon walked over to the passenger side of the truck, he noticed a Vietnam veteran hat by the windshield.
“I walked to the front of the truck and seen it; he was a Vietnam vet,” said Blackmon . “It tore me up inside on the spot, right away.”
Blackmon and the veteran went to a restaurant and talked for the next few hours. Blackmon told him what he was going through and the veteran shared his own experiences. After that, they went their separate ways.
“I know his name but I never got his number and I would love to find him one day … I want him to know that his words and what we discussed changed a lot of things in my life,” Blackmon said.
That was the last time he contemplated suicide.
Blackmon knows he has been that person for others, the one they can come to and talk in times of need.
“In the Bible it says that we’re all born with a gift, that we accept that gift and learn what it is and go with it,” he said. “This is my gift, I wholeheartedly believe that … That’s 100 percent my main focus in life that helps me cope and gives me my drive back that I lost when I got out of the military. It fills that hole of hopelessness.”
For now, Blackmon is in a good place. He has his family and a community of veterans and first responders that help him get through his day-to-day struggles. He will never be the same person he was prior to the military. He knows that he will always have PTSD, but he will also always be there to help other veterans. This is what gets him through tough times.
“I believe there’s a reason for everything," he said. "If I wouldn’t have took this path of lookin’ out for myself and getting rehabilitation, opening up to my brotherhood and starting this, I would’ve probably been dead. I didn’t kill myself the last two times I tried to commit suicide. There’s a reason for it, there just is. There are more options out there. Open up. Heal yourself first and open up to the possibility of livin’ into your gift.”