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Friday / December 8.

Military Culture: SSG Pugsley Says It Needs to Be Okay to Ask for Help

mental health and the Military

Stephanie Hepburn is a writer in New Orleans. She is the editor in chief of #CrisisTalk. You can reach her at .​

The 9/11 terrorist attacks shook the United States’ psyche: what seemed impossible wasn’t. The attacks disintegrated Americans’ perception of safety and simultaneously bolstered the number of people enlisting in the military. Among them was Staff Sgt. Charles F. Pugsley, whose life, until that moment, was “going the way it should.” His wife Amy was pregnant with their first child, Whitney, and he was enjoying a rewarding career as a high school business education teacher. After the attacks, SSG Pugsley couldn’t shake the feeling that he had to do something: he couldn’t stand idly by. He says it wasn’t an easy decision, but he felt compelled to serve his country and so, six months later, he signed up with the Army and immediately entered U.S. Army Infantry School. From there, he deployed to Iraq for 18 months. 

About three months into the tour in Iraq, SSG Pugsley began to believe he wasn’t going to make it home. Combat soldiers around him were dying, getting shot and hit by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). He spent days at a time in enemy territory. Each time he rolled outside the wire, going beyond the relative safety of the base, he was resigned to dying. “In war, there’s a constant feeling of not being safe and a sense of peace that comes with accepting that you’re going to die. It also messes with your head when you make it home and never expected to.” 

When the tour ended, SSG Pugsley filled out a questionnaire, which asked questions like whether he felt like hurting himself or others, and then he went home. There was no transition from life as a soldier to that as a husband, father, and teacher. Later, when his wife, a mental health professional, looked at his responses on the questionnaire she was dumbfounded the Army let him off the Fort Lewis, Washington, base let alone sent him home to his family and back into the classroom. SSG Pugsley went through the motions, but he and the other soldiers he deployed with were struggling. “We went to Iraq in 2003 and didn’t get home until May 2005. That’s a long time, and it was difficult to get back into my life from before. I’d missed a lot and hadn’t seen my daughter, Whitney, for more than half of her life.” He says he came home with a new norm: his brain had changed so drastically that he was no longer the same teacher, father, and husband who left. “I’m a completely different person. I even talk differently to my parents and wife. All of these changes took place over a year and a half.” It left him mourning who he had been and struggling to acclimate to who he was now in a world where he’d once been someone else. What also tugged at him, and still does today, are the moments he missed while he was away. “There are gaps in the timeline. I’ll see photos and lean over to my wife, telling her, ‘I don’t remember that trip,’ and she’ll remind me that I wasn’t there. After so many deployments, you get frustrated by all those memories you didn’t experience.”

Three years later, in 2008, SSG Pugsley was deployed again to Iraq while one of his close friends, James Gibson, wasn’t. They’d gone through their first tour together and had a lot in common: they both signed up after 9/11 and shared a deep sense of service. SSG Pugsley says Gibson wasn’t doing well after coming back from the first tour in Iraq, and it prevented him from deploying a second time. When in Iraq, he learned Gibson died of suicide. “He couldn’t handle not being able to do his duty. It’s a rare job to be a soldier—there’s a lot of pride in it, but also, for a lot of us, it’s the discipline aspect that we need and thrive on to be successful. When you take those elements away from a soldier who already has issues, you’re cutting off his connection and identity.” SSG Pugsley says actions as small as getting a haircut and shave is what soldiers sometimes need to keep going. “It’s a reminder to stay in line and that they have to be professional every day.”

When SSG Pugsley returned home from his second tour in 2009, he met his wife and children in Hawaii. It allowed for a slower transition into ordinary civilian life where he didn’t have to worry about chores or obligations and, instead, could spend time with his family. He says that it’s not just the shift from the hyperalert, survival mindset soldiers must maintain during war but also the transition from a singular focus to multi-tasking and increased responsibility. “As soldiers, we have a mission. Everything else is taken care of for us: we don’t cook, do laundry, or clean. Then we come back, and we are often responsible for other people. It can be overwhelming.” SSG Pugsley says transitioning to civilian life through vacation allowed it to go much better than his first deployment return, but he was still having a hard time. It was about a year after his second tour in Iraq when he hit rock bottom. “I started drinking more. I wasn’t drinking on the job, but it was clear to me that I was trying to cope with alcohol.” 

SSG Pugsley decided to reach out to providers during his Periodic Health Assessment (PHA), an annual screening tool that evaluates service members’ medical readiness, and told them he needed help. He says what happened next is exactly why people in the military don’t seek mental health help when in crisis. They said SSG Pugsley could speak to someone at Luke Air Force Base for mental health. When he arrived, they immediately put him in the Air Force’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment (ADAPT) Program. “There was no counseling or treatment of the underlying reasons I was drinking: that it was helping to take stuff off my mind.” 

He says reaching out for help left him in a worse position because ADAPT staff immediately told SSG Pugsley they’d have to notify his chain of command that he enrolled in the program, and his commander would have the option of recommending him for discharge. Fortunately, his commander was supportive, and it wasn’t an issue, but for many soldiers, that’s not the case. “I’m active duty. My job was in jeopardy because I asked for help when I needed it. Truthfully, I needed it years before, since my first deployment, but I was finally okay asking, and this is what happens.” SSG Pugsley’s friend had a nearly identical experience, except his commander wasn’t understanding and promptly discharged him. “Now he’s lost his job and his house. He’s divorced and rarely gets to see his child.” 

The problem, says SSG Pugsley, is that the military says it’s okay to ask for help, but it’s not. He says the contradiction is worse than the days when soldiers just weren’t supposed to talk about mental health because there wasn’t any ambiguity. “It reinforces stigma when the military says it’s okay, but it’s not. Before it was clear people shouldn’t seek help. Now it’s this hybrid where the correct words are said, but at the same time, you may face discharge for coming forward and lose everything. It’s risky.” He says many soldiers won’t seek help because of stories they’ve heard from other people or their own experiences. SSG Pugsley says there are some remarkable programs like Strong Bonds and Master Resilience Training, but many aren’t accessible. He did the resilience program and found it highly beneficial. He’s also eager to try Strong Bonds, which his colleagues rave about, but hasn’t been able to due to lack of availability or his work schedule. The fact that there are limited support options for soldiers is problematic. “There aren’t available resources on post, so soldiers have to drive an hour during the workday to Luke Air Force base. They don’t make it easy to get help, which is frustrating.” He also says commanders are more apt to be wary if a soldier walks in and says he or she is going to counseling versus Strong Bonds. “They interpret differently what the soldier is experiencing. Strong Bonds is viewed more like a vacation and family bonding, with mental health peppered in, instead of one-on-one counseling that’s going to pull you out of work, and the commander doesn’t know what kind of issues you’re experiencing. It’s all perception based. In the Army, even saying that you’re going to speak to the chaplain means people pigeon-hole you as a problem. It’s all stigma and perception.” 

He says there needs to be a preventative, proactive response where instead of expecting soldiers to risk their jobs, drive an hour during the workday to get therapy, and have to approach their commanders about needing help, there would be a mental health professional on base. “We’re all kind of right in one spot. We’re all on this base, and it wouldn’t be hard for a mental health professional to walk around and talk to people instead of sitting at a desk an hour away waiting for someone to walk in who needs help. Why not go to the people in need instead of the other way around? It’s time for the military to do that instead of waiting for the crisis to happen and maybe intervene.”

In lieu of an accessible, stigma-free mental health system on base, SSG Pugsley has taken a stance that he’s going to be there for his battle buddies and make sure they know they can call on him if they’re struggling. Looking back, he wishes he’d done so earlier and carries the guilt that he didn’t realize to intervene. “I was preoccupied with what I was going through and didn’t know they were going through it too.” Recently, one of SSG Pugsley’s soldiers was in crisis. He was 250 miles away in his garage at home, taking pills, drinking beer, and ready to end his life. The soldier reached out to the chaplain who was busy and told him he’d have to call him back. SSG Pugsley says in those moments, intervention must take place and a person can’t be put off, so he called his soldier and told him he was on his way and to hold on. “All he needed was someone that understood what he was going through to be there. I could hear his voice change from fear and uneasiness to peace that he wasn’t going to be alone.” 

SSG Pugsley didn’t ask his commander, he knew there wasn’t time. He had to act immediately to save his soldier, and so that’s what he did.

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