News Details

Iraq War veteran with PTSD learns to cope with life day by day

by Becca Andrews

Source: The Tennessean
Published: Wednesday 10 July, 2013

MURFREESBORO — Jessica Peterson looked over at her husband of only a few months, alarmed by what he had just said.

“I understand why people kill themselves,” he said.

He glanced back at her from the sofa in the living room of their Murfreesboro apartment, expressionless.

“I’m not saying I’d do it, but I understand why people kill themselves,” said Chris Peterson, a veteran of the Iraq War.

Suicides throughout the military, including the Army, reached an all-time high of 349 in 2012, according to a U.S. war study reported in USA Today. Army suicides this year are tracking higher than 2012.

Peterson, a U.S. Marine, served two tours in Iraq during fours years of active duty. His Middle East experiences left him scarred in ways he didn’t realize until he came home for good. Now, he is coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and taking life day by day.

“Iraq was a culture shock,” he said. “We’re trained to look at these people as animals. You know, you like a dog, but you’ll shoot it if it attacks you. We got over there, and to see what poverty really was, I was blown away.”

Peterson saw the best and worst of humanity. He experienced extreme hospitality and hostility. After a group of Marines rescued a citizen’s son and brought him home, the son’s father offered his daughters to the Marines.

“He wanted us to marry his daughters and bring his daughters back to America,” Peterson said. “What do you mean to a man that he is willing to give you his daughters? Even in their culture, that’s a pretty big deal.”

Over time, Peterson learned to turn his emotions off — a coping mechanism that became a catalyst for extreme consequences when he moved out of the world of war.

“It was awkward a lot of the time, because you’re in this weird tension of really enjoying these people, but at the same time being attacked by them on a daily basis. So it was kind of hard to trust, and emotionally, you just got to a point where you turned off. Seeing a kid hurt didn’t bother you anymore, seeing one of your friends die didn’t bother you anymore; it was pretty bad. Once you got back, you had some time to grieve, but that’s a year later.”

“You’re struggling, but you don’t know you’re struggling because everyone around you is struggling,” he said.

Peterson’s response upon returning to the U.S. was to experiment with religion and spirituality. He enrolled in a private Catholic university in Hawaii to major in international business but was dissatisfied and restless. He decided to go to the closest place he could reasonably call home and transferred to Middle Tennessee State University. He fell in love with a girl and a path there.

After he met Jessica,the two were inseparable.

“Nineteen days later, we got engaged; three months later we got married,” Jessica Peterson said.


But six months into their marriage, Chris Peterson started changing.

For two months, he barely spoke to his bride. He wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t sleep and avoided all social interaction.

“I might have talked to my wife, like, twice in two months,” Peterson said. “I would literally come to the house, grab something to eat, grab a beer, watch something in the back room, walk to the office, shut the door, lock it and read. I didn’t want anything to do with her.”

Jessica Peterson begged him to see a doctor.

“You have to understand, for me, my entire life, I’ve been good at everything I’ve done,” Chris Peterson said. “If I played a sport, I picked it up, if I wanted to learn how to do something, I picked it up. Even the church — they were pushing for me to drop out of school and become a full-time pastor. But that was the perception everyone had of me. So for her to be, like, ‘There’s something wrong with you,’ it was just, like, ‘No, there’s not, I’m awesome.’ ”

Eventually, he went to a doctor. Chris Peterson was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. The medication prescribed, however, was not an instant fix.

There doesn’t seem to be a particular trigger for PTSD. Once, a sunset outside a video store sent him spiraling downward for two weeks, lost in the contemplation of humanity’s lack of appreciation for the earth’s beauty. Then, tragedy can strike, and Chris Peterson can shrug and chalk it up to “the way life is.”

He has broken a desk and a few other household items, to his wife’s chagrin. She’s learned to deal with it, but she gets frustrated with his mood swings and the feeling of helplessness when he has an episode.

But things have improved since the day he spoke about suicide.

The two are learning to deal with his PTSD, and Jessica Peterson keeps track of his medication. She can tell when he has skipped a dose and has learned how to coax him into taking it.

The Petersons hope Chris will be completely off medication someday, but for now, they’re taking things day by day.