Curtis Schmitt: My long struggle with PTSD and life
Approximately ten years ago I left Active Duty status for the United States Army. I was excited, anxious, and ready to be back in Milwaukee, a place I had called home for most of my life.
The next step for me was to go to college. My consummate passion in life was medicine and I couldn’t wait to begin my path towards becoming a physician assistant. After all, I saw what PAs did for so many soldiers that they served in the Army and their service was powerful and life changing. It appeared to be exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I also knew that I wanted to continue serving so I joined the Army Reserve and was looking forward to meeting my new battle buddies.
But then something happened, I was in school, and I had difficulty focusing and settling back into “civilian” life. I struggled with relationships, both personal and, surprisingly, with relationships I had in the military as well. But, most folks around me, couldn’t understand me, or even imagine what I was going through. They didn’t know that I was a combat Veteran but even if they had known, they still didn’t know what I’d seen, felt, smelt, and the pain I had witnessed, caused by both the enemy and my unit. The wide gap between me and the average civilian friend, family-member and new associations was larger than I anticipated.
I have seen my battle buddies in pieces, and life slipping from their grip as they lay in peace. I have seen children with wounds caused from playing with their father’s set of explosives that accidentally blew up on them. These explosives were intended for us. I have seen vehicles in peril from IEDs and I have seen gun shots wounds that look like nothing out of the movies. My life had forever changed, but life back here seemed to have stood still.
My high school friends moved on. Some graduated college, and others did not. Some were married and had children, and others were single with children. They were full of life or at least presented themselves to be. I didn’t have much in common with them anymore. I had a lifetime’s worth of horrible experiences shoved densely into only a few years and my vision of the world was wide-open, less protected and less naïve. I just couldn’t relate with their respective civilian bubbles. But harder for me to experience was that people, consequently, weren’t relating to me either.
Shortly after leaving active duty I began college. My first class was Cultural Diversity. Are you kidding me? I have treated patients in multiple countries and now I need to learn about cultural diversity? I could teach this class with a massive set of stories of cultural engagement abroad. My second class was Anatomy and Physiology. Wow! I have treated soldiers with injuries that most physicians will never see. What could I possibly learn here? (Later in life, I realized the extent of being over-confident in my knowledge)
Needless to say, I wasn’t happy with my circumstances or the classes that I had to take to get to a position I felt I was already experienced for and closely aligned to already. I struggled terribly, and after having multiple conversations with a counselor who knew nothing about what my transition may have looked like or what I have seen, I had a hit personal limit. I dropped out. My goals took a serious tumble and I failed academically. My PTSD was at an all-time high and I needed change.
Not willing to give in to failure. I picked myself back up and I went to work! I found an opportunity in sales. I was great at talking with folks, and customer service skills came naturally to me. After all, when you have a 250lbs infantryman screaming at you because he can’t see out of his eye and he wants to find the “asshole” that did this to him, you are in an unenviable place of having to calm him down. Consequently, most customer oriented tasks seem to come easy. I excelled because I was persistent and driven. I excelled because I had no other choice.
Folks around me saw my adjustments and my success, but still had no clue who I truly was nor my true abilities and insights. After grinding for years, working my way from a part-time sales rep to a Regional Sales Manager, leading over 15 stores, hundreds of people, I was shocked that I still didn’t feel a sense of purpose. I was climbing the heights of civilian professional life and still didn’t feel like I was truly serving. So, in a soul-searching, turn of events, I transitioned again.
In 2011, after making a few bad choices, the firm I would come to work for, decided to transition a bad story into a story of doing the right thing. They founded the Veteran Jobs Mission, and set out on a journey of learning what it meant to employ Veterans who recently left the service and combat zones, as well as seasoned Veterans who simply wanted another chance to lead and help others. The mission was daunting. The mission was impactful. It was the right thing to do.
I too decided that I needed to get back to my roots of doing the right thing and seeking out a true sense of fulfillment. With no experience in the financial services industry, I took a leap, and a firm took a leap of faith on me. I became a Personal Banker, but I didn’t work for just any bank, I began to work for the best in the world. I couldn’t believe the immediate impact I was having. I opened a savings account for a local news anchor’s new baby daughter, Savannah. I opened up a high school account for Jack, who was beginning his first job at a drug store in the community, and I introduced a couple to a Financial Advisor who was able to help them retire early so they could travel with their grandson as he played club baseball. My sense of pride and fulfillment was extremely high. My fight was PTSD was at an all-time high as well.
I remember nights out with my girlfriend, now my wife, where I would leave the bar/club in the rain, marching up and down the street singing cadence, or wake up pulling her hair, thinking she was the enemy. Alcohol seemed to be a trigger but it was a way, the only way, for me to let my guard down and relax. The VA had already diagnosed me with PTSD and a Readjustment Disorder but I couldn’t make the therapy sessions because I had work and other responsibilities so for years, and still today, I struggle mightily with PTSD. The pain and guilt of not being able to save everyone is something I wish on no one.
After a few years of working for the firm, I struggled yet again. I had made their National Achiever’s Conference. I was volunteering and getting involved. I was meeting with political officials on their behalf.I had even founded the firm’s first Veteran Business Resource Group for the State of Wisconsin. I felt I had completed my mission. What was next?
I began to struggle, yet again, with relationships, personally and professionally. My direct leadership and I couldn’t seem to see eye to eye, and my firm decided I need to take on the challenge of a new location. I was successful in the first year of my transition, but I was still doing the same job, with no additional responsibilities, and no real advancement. So, I sought out more responsibility and the opportunites for advancement externally.
Nothing fit. The culture of other firms just didn’t feel right. So, I decided to stay. I was loyal to a company that brought me in when I was struggling and stuck with me when I wasn’t at my best. I pushed on, and eventually, after a few years of joining non-profit boards, helping Veterans, both homeless and not, format their resumes, improve their interviewing skills, and ultimately find employment and shelter, I found a sense of purpose and pride again. It may not have been in my day job, but I was doing my best to fulfill my obligations and my need to serve.
6 years after joining the company I have been promoted twice. I am now a Vice President of Investments working as a Financial Advisor, and I am at the lowest I have ever been. I struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. Despite marrying the woman of my dreams, my marriage is failing. My two sons aren’t getting the best of me every day, and my career is slipping through my fingertips. I have learned a few things about the corporate environment though. No one is loyal and no one is your “battle buddy”. Everyone is ultimately there to take care of their family, and you aren’t a part of that family. You aren’t having BBQs on the weekends at your married battle buddy’s house. You aren’t having nights out talking about war stories, drinking in honor of a fallen comrade or about life in general. It is cut and dry. You are simply a producer or you are not, and frankly, what you are going through, doesn’t matter to them at all. It’s safe to say, you are mainly on your own.
I have struggled with this concept of purpose and self-fulfillment since I left active duty status and just when things seem to take a turn for the better, PTSD wipes it all away. As oppose to only existing in my dreams and nightmares, guilt and pain creeps it’s way back into my every day thoughts, and here I sit. I strive to get better each and every day, but certainly miss those moments when life was as simple as being on patrol or not. I miss those moments when you never had to worry that someone had your six or that someone would look out for your family and actually care about their well-being too. Your purpose was kneeling next you, or standing behind you as you stack up against a door. It was real, and it gave a shit about you as well. What is my purpose now?
This never-ending cycle of being in fight or flight mode while trying to find purpose to rid my life of this guilt and pain is constant. It seems as if it will always be there. Despite the ups and downs, my need to serve has always been true north. My need to ensure my fellow battle buddies are successful and taking care of their family is the biggest part of that mission, and that’s what I will continue to do. Outside of my immediate family unit, they are my family and they are my responsibility. Though the private sector may never understand this mindset of loyalty, dedication, and integrity driven action, they are trying, and they are gracious. We just need to create our own path and help them see our value. We must hold them accountable for their promises as well, but do our part to ensure we aren’t terrible investments. I have and I aim to help others do the same.
I will not let PTSD prevent me from being successful or helping others do the same. It’s who I am and who we are as Veterans. Go Army! Catamounts! Climb to Glory!