Daniel Fahey has his hands clasped together in front of him as he talks about his time previously serving as a Fleet Marine Force hospital corpsman during an interview at Coffee on the Corner in Staunton on Friday. Fahley served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. / Mike Tripp/The News Leader
STAUNTON — It was during his initial combat tour in Iraq in 2003 that Daniel Fahey first heard the term "corpsman up!" yelled in earnest.
The cry, issued when a Marine is fallen, came after four Marines on cots had a fuel tanker collapse on top of them. Fahey, a Fleet Marine Force hospital corpsman with the U.S Navy, rushed to the scene to provide aid. The first body he spotted was face down, half-exposed and crushed by the tanker.
"His liver was lying in the sand, to his right," said Fahey in a thick Boston accent.
It would be Fahey's first combat experience dealing with death. But as a medic, also known as a "Doc," it certainly wouldn't be his last.
Fahey, now 43, would do two tours in Iraq, the second in 2005, and a third tour in 2009 in Afghanistan. He saw death, he saw combat, and then he saw his life as a civilian crumble around him.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental health condition not uncommon in soldiers, was to blame.
Fahey, who spent two months at a Florida facility to deal with his PTSD, along with outpatient treatment, is now an advocate for those suffering from the disorder.
But before that, years of denial prevented Fahey, who now lives in Staunton, from seeking help.
"I'm fine," is a common refrain of those dealing with PTSD, he said. "That kind of transcends to every facet of life."
An avid runner with bulging biceps, it's not hard to imagine Fahey was once a medic who wouldn't think twice about his safety to help a fallen Marine. He's not shy about the subject of PTSD — ask him a question and he'll answer it. Some of the signs are still there. He regularly picks the skin off his ragged fingers, and at times stares at the floor while speaking. Most nights he still only gets three or four hours of sleep. Many nights it's less.
Life these days, though, is better.
Fahey said it took him about eight years to come to the realization that he was suffering from PTSD. In between there was heavy drinking, a failed marriage and suicidal thoughts. Many suicidal thoughts.
"A bullet, or taking a bottle of Ambien to stop the thoughts and stop the pain," is how he puts it. There also was the fantasy of drifting his car into an oncoming tractor-trailer and ending it all.
His third tour in Afghanistan, one for which Fahey volunteered, was an escape route, he now says, getting away from the mental anguish as a civilian and doing what he knew best — doing battle for his country.
"Sometimes it's easier being away," said Fahey, who spent 14 years in the military.
In 2011, Fahey finally sought the help he needed. "The armor slowly falls apart, step-by-step, year-by-year," he said.
Recently, Fahey spoke about PTSD at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. Afterward, he met the mother of a soldier who for months now has cut off communications with his family and remains holed up in his residence.
Troops, however, can be a stubborn breed.
"It's hard, sometimes," Fahey said. "There's pride; there's anger." Later, he added, "There has to be that willingness. You can't take the bottle out of someone's hand if they're not willing to let go of it."
PTSD isn't confined to the U.S. border. In Afghanistan, Fahey said he was there one week when a Marine shot himself. But stateside, PTSD and suicide are a continuing problem that go hand-in-hand.
"There's more suicide here than (combat deaths) in the theater," he said. "It's a pervasive issue that's causing a great deal of issues for every service."
There are four different types of symptoms of PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: reliving the event(s); avoiding situations that remind a person of the event(s); numbed emotions; and feeling keyed up, also known as hyper arousal. Treatments include cognitive therapy, exposure therapy, medication and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which can help change the way a person reacts to trauma memories.
According to the V.A., nearly 30 percent of the troops that served in Vietnam suffered for PTSD.
Brain Shaw, 32, a former Marine sergeant who did five combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, three as a Marine and two as an embedded journalist, is now a veteran peer specialist with the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program. He said those returning from combat undoubtedly will show some signs of anxiety.
"Pretty much all of us ... we're going to be jumpy," Shaw said.
If the symptoms continue after a few weeks, Shaw said treatment might be needed. Because of the drawdown of troops in Iraq and the expected drawdown in Afghanistan, Shaw said cases of PTSD will probably increase.
"Ultimately, it's an anxiety disorder," he said.
"You just have to take that first step," Fahey said for those who are contemplating or need treatment. "Tell somebody you're feeling a certain way."