Warrior learns importance of seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Published
  • By Tammy Cournoyer
  • Air Force Wounded Warrior Program
When Staff Sgt. David Mullikin returned from Iraq in 2008, he was hypervigilant, irritable and aggressive. He suffered from nightmares, and was alarmed by any loud noises or noises similar to those he had heard in combat. All of these issues are related to an incident he will never forget.

Sergeant Mullikin, a helicopter flight engineer, and his crew were sent to rescue a fellow serviceman who went down. Because of simultaneous missions going on, they were advised to temporarily hold off. Frustration and tension set in. Once they were allowed to proceed, it was too late. The man was ultimately captured by the enemy. 

Sergeant Mullikin finished his tour and returned home to the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nev., ready to get back to "the real world." But he came back with excess baggage in the form of full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sergeant Mullikin didn't understand that PTSD could affect someone like him. How could it? He'd been through tons of tough training, including both land and water survival schools. He was a highly trained Air Force survivor. Besides that, his deployment to Iraq was his first and only combat tour.

"I considered myself a strong person and I didn't think things like this could happen to me," he said.

"It would have been different had I been deploying for years, or I was in a ground unit," he explained. "Then I would have considered myself as having 'gone through something.' I felt like I hadn't been through much, so I had no reason to seek help."

Sergeant Mullikin believed only people who "weren't right" sought mental health treatment. Plus, he wasn't willing to risk being treated differently or jeopardize his future in the Air Force.

"I wanted to keep my career and retire, not get discharged," he said.

He believed the unsettling feelings -- the aggression, irritation and haunted thoughts -- were things he could handle on his own.

"I tried to keep everything inside and used alcohol to 'fix' and deal with the problem," he explained.

Before long, Sergeant Mullikin realized that his self-treatment program was actually making things worse. He didn't have the answers or the tools to make his life better.

"I had to come to terms and admit to myself that I wasn't able to do this alone and I needed help," he said.

Sergeant Mullikin initially self-identified himself as having an alcohol problem, but it was discovered the alcohol was covering up a much deeper issue.

He called the experts at the Air Force Personnel Center and admitted, "I think I may be a wounded warrior."

He was assigned a case manager through the Air Force Wounded Warrior program, who helped him steer through the maze toward recovery. One of the first steps was seeking mental health treatment. It not only helped him understand that what he was going through as a result of his experiences in Iraq was normal, but his reluctance to seek help was also normal.

"I realized that after getting help and going through counseling and therapy that other than the combat involvement, some of this was due to my upbringing," he explained. "I came from what is called a 'dysfunctional family.' I was taught to be tough and not really talk about things; just keep them inside and deal with them by myself."

While growing up, Sergeant Mullikin was also taught that going to a psychologist or seeking mental health treatment was useless.

"I have since then learned that it is important to talk about things and let things out," he said. "It is equally important to use the services available for your help."

"The earlier someone takes care of their psychological wounds, the more likely they are to have a good outcome," said Lt. Col. David Bringhurst, the chief of the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. "Psychological wounds are just like physical wounds. If you don't take care of them, they can get infected and fester. Then, they are more difficult to heal."

In the beginning, Sergeant Mullikin said he didn't know how his PTSD happened, but now he does.

"It wasn't me that had a problem," he said, "It was the way I was dealing with it and the unhealthy thinking I was using.

"Remembering back when I was going through everything, I used to feel like there was no way out of it," he said. "I am here to let you know that if you continue to work on the issues you are having, that you can make it through. It may not be the easiest thing, but it is possible, if you want it."

Sergeant Mullikin believes it is important to work toward removing the stigma surrounding PTSD, and leaders need to make it easier for people to seek help.

"I also think it would help to have confidential support groups for spouses and family members dealing with someone going through PTSD," he said. "If the spouse and family at home has education and support, that's just one less stress removed from an Airman's life, and they may even be able to help and support the Airman better."

Today, Sergeant Mullikin feels like he's made a complete turn for the positive.

Because of his success, his care manager, Tom Sansone, asked him to be a mentor for other wounded warriors.

"Success is based on individuals accepting their diagnosis, along with having a desire to get better and continue moving on a positive life path," Mr. Sansone said. "David has succeeded because he helped himself get help."