Post-Traumatic Stress’s Surprisingly Positive Flip Side Print
Post-Traumatic Stress’s Surprisingly Positive Flip SideStephanie Sinclair/VII, for The New York TimesSgt. Jeffrey Beltran near Fort Sill, in Lawton, Okla., where he was stationed after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among other injuries, Beltran suffered a mild traumatic brain injury in an I.E.D. attack in Iraq in 2005 and can no longer rely on his short-term memory.

Sgt. Jeffrey Beltran pulled a heavily creased Post-it note from the pocket of his fatigues, unfolded it and looked over a list he jotted down earlier that day: pick up an order of beef lo mein, take his dress uniform to work (jacket, pants and boots), do schoolwork. Beltran’s Army-issue organizer is also filled with these reminders, and he checks them every so often to jog his memory — folding and unfolding them throughout the day. Beltran’s life is filled with sticky notes because his short-term memory is no longer reliable, a result of what the Army calls a mild traumatic brain injury that he suffered in an I.E.D. attack in Iraq in 2005.

“I have pictures,” said Beltran, who is 44, as he pulled a worn Ziploc bag from his backpack and removed a half a dozen photographs. He began laying the images on his desk. “We were turning our vehicle around when we got hit.”

The photos, taken right after the explosion, show a plowed field next to a road. A few palm trees frame the horizon. In the foreground there is a deep crater. About 20 feet away, the front half of a Humvee is turned upside down. The back half is gone — parts were later discovered hundreds of feet away. When the bomb exploded, Beltran was launched into the air and landed between the blast hole and the Humvee. When he came to, he couldn’t stand up. “I knew something was wrong,” he said. “I felt swelling inside my legs. I was hyperventilating in the heat. The dirt was starting to settle down. I called out to my guys. I couldn’t see them.”

The blast broke Beltran’s knee and leg, fractured his lower spine and buried shrapnel in his thigh; the violent jolt caused his brain injury. He suffered so many wounds that he had to pause in the retelling to make sure he hadn’t left anything out. He underwent 14 operations over the next year. “I was dealing with post-traumatic stress, anger, all the emotions, the ups and downs, the physical, emotional, psychological pain,” he told me. “I was really angry. I wanted to get healed and get back into the fight.”

By 2007, Beltran was on several medications: Clonazepam and Buspirone for anxiety, Celebrex for pain and other pills for depression. Yet the Army deployed him again, this time to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, where he coordinated with nongovernmental organizations to clear minefields. He saw a farmer blown up. A soldier he worked with closely was killed. Whenever a soldier died, a memorial service was announced over the public address system, and the base’s main road was shut down for the soldier’s final ride to the mortuary. “That wears on you,” Beltran said. “As much as you want to avoid it, death is always in front of you.”

After six months in Afghanistan, Beltran was given a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and sent home. The Army offered him a medical discharge, but he declined. Beltran’s father served 21 years in the Navy, and his grandfather survived the Bataan death march. So despite all the troubles that followed — he was even hospitalized after considering suicide — he stayed in the Army.

Slowly, though, Beltran began noticing surprising changes. Before the blast, he drifted. He spent a lot of his free time playing video games. Like many soldiers, he was more concerned with figuring out how to cope from one deployment to the next than with finding a direction. He is different now. The bombing, the P.T.S.D. and the challenges he faced changed him. And he thinks he has changed for the better. “This whole experience has helped me to be more open, more flexible,” he told me. “I am branching out to activities that I was once uncomfortable with.” Beltran has taken rigorous tests in pursuit of a promotion. He’s taking online courses toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He discovered a sense of spirituality, and although he and his first wife divorced, he has remarried and reconnected with his parents, from whom he distanced himself after the explosion.

Beltran spent years in therapy and read many books about people who surmounted adversity, all of which, he says, helped him change. More recently, through classes and group therapy at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, he was introduced to the science and thinking behind this psychological change. “It’s given it a name,” Beltran said, “and has enhanced my personal development.” The name for Beltran’s change is post-traumatic growth. And the classes he takes are part of a $125 million Army-wide program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, which is intended to help soldiers become more resilient and to help them recognize how the trauma of combat can change them for the better. For years, Beltran carried photos of the explosion to remind himself of what he overcame. Now, he says, he carries those pictures to show to others. “I want to share my experience,” he told me. “Whatever knowledge or wisdom I have.”

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it is a freelance writer in New York. He is working on a book about the medical-marijuana industry.

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This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 24, 2012

An earlier version of this article identified Tzipi Weiss as the author of “Post-Traumatic Growth and Culturally Competent Practice.” She co-wrote the book with Roni Berger.

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