By Christine Leccese, MPH
A Paratrooper from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, searches for improvised explosive devices along Highway 1, July 23, 2012, in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. Dismounted troops are often better at finding wires leading to IEDs. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Thomas Cieslak, Task Force 1-82 PAO)
Elijah Ochoa, the son of a soldier, was always interested in what the recruiters had to say when they would come to his Selma, California high school during his junior year. He also had a driving curiosity about who cared for wounded soldiers on the battlefield. By the time he was 17, Ochoa had enlisted in the U.S. Army on the delayed entry program with the goal of becoming a medic.
In May of 2004, 18-year-old Ochoa shipped off to basic training in South Carolina, then got his medical training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and was finally sent to his duty station with the 3rd Infantry Division in Fort Stewart, Georgia. He gained a lot from his medic training and felt prepared to deploy to the battlefield.
Ochoa deployed in 2005 for 13 months to Iraq, and then again in 2007 for 15 months. In between the two deployments, Ochoa noticed he picked up a habit that had never before appealed to him: drinking. He didn’t find it problematic, but he did recognize that he was using it to cope with stress. When he returned from his second deployment in March 2008, Ochoa felt fine. He went through reintegration training and other than some nightmares and general anxiety, he thought all was well.
After a few months, stress started to set in and sleep started to deteriorate. Seeking a change, he decided to move to the San Francisco Bay Area. However, once there he learned that many of the sights, sounds, and smells of the city became triggers for trauma memories.
After 2 ½ years of seeing maimed and injured people as a medic, being within 50 meters of being hit by an IED and riding in convoys that were hit with small arms fires, Ochoa had many images that could come rushing back. He began to get confused between his reality and his memories, and that was very scary.
An empty can rolling on the floor of a bus he was riding on became a smoke grenade in his mind and, jumping up in fear, Ochoa was back in Ramadi in central Iraq. A homeless man getting too close and touching Ochoa at a rail stop was nearly thrown onto the path of an oncoming train as Ochoa’s hyperawareness kicked into high gear.
Even just walking around the city could bring up memories. “I’d walk outside a building or coffee shop and that humming noise of people talking would bring back memories of mass casualties and suicide bombings,” Ochoa said. “Eventually, I didn’t want to leave my apartment at all.”
He wasn’t aware of what was happening to him, and he wishes he had taken a PTSD self-assessment at www.MindBodyStrength.org as it would have spared him months of pain.
With the hyperawareness and flashbacks came depression and panic attacks. One panic attack eventually landed Ochoa in a hospital emergency room where a psychiatrist recognized Ochoa’s symptoms as PTSD and referred him to a VA outpatient clinic, where he began treatment for PTSD. One-on-one exposure therapy, behavioral therapy, and group therapy helped, but Ochoa knew he needed more.
While in a particularly difficult place emotionally, a friend took Ochoa through a visualization meditation, also called guided imagery. The friend led him on an exercise in which they visualized a beautiful spot the two had visited when hiking a couple of weeks earlier. “This was a tremendously emotional experience because I felt like, for the first time in a while, I could quiet my ruminating mind and ease my anxiety,” he said. This led Ochoa down another path of exploring ways to manage his PTSD and stress on a daily basis.
The same friend later taught him about mindfulness meditation. With this technique, Ochoa said he worked on focusing on his breath and being mentally in the moment, instead of constantly thinking of things that made him anxious. When other thoughts would pop into his brain, he would gently let them go and continue focusing on his breathing.
Ochoa was soon introduced to another form of meditation in Tibetan singing bowls, a practice in which people listen to the soothing sounds of a small mallet hitting a bowl during the meditation. “The wooden mallets in the crystal singing bowls create a beautiful pitch and vibration, and help you as you draw breaths in and out over what feels like minutes. The sounds are very pure and healing. This creates a peaceful and silent awareness where real growth and healing happens. It’s changed my life for the better,” Ochoa says.
Ochoa has taken his experience as a medic and as someone who suffered and is now recovered from PTSD and harnessing it help other veterans. He has a year left to complete his nursing program, and has already secured a position as a psychiatric nurse at his local VA’s inpatient unit.
Christine Leccese is the marketing and communications manager of Military Pathways.