Philippe: Thanks for talking to Mental Ideas about your experience. You are a combat veteran and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Tell us a bit about your military background.
Adam: I was deployed to Afghanistan for fifteen months with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team for Operation Enduring Freedom. We were in the Kunar Province of the Hindu Kush mountains along the Pakistani border. Our deployment was covered in the Oscar-nominated documentary, Restrepo, and the sequel, Korengal. I did everything from mounted patrols to escorting locals who needed security as they went about their work, and lots of guard duty. I experienced combat stress that progressively got worse, and was eventually medically retired for chronic severe post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after completing my combat deployment.
Philippe: How and when did you realise that your combat experience had affected your mental health?
A: I had already begun developing headaches and having anxiety attacks while I was still in theater. We had some services for combat stress out there, and they gave me medication and began keeping tabs on my progress. Soldiers tend not to like for our peers to be worried about us while still a part of combat operations, and I was able to complete my time in theater without getting pulled from duty early; but when I got back from deployment, I was immediately identified as having an adjustment disorder during the medical debriefing portion of our redeployment back to the civilian world. It was just a matter of time from there until I was separated from active duty with the US Army via an honorable medical retirement discharge.
P: What were the symptoms of PTSD you experienced, or are still experiencing?
A: My symptoms seemed to first manifest as migraines and anxiety attacks, which is still an issue for me sometimes. Over time, stress can cause the mind and body to react in lots of different ways though; so I’ve had everything from nervous shaking in my hands to breaking out in hives all over my body. I’ve learned to mitigate and manage many of these symptoms with different therapies over time, but insomnia is the one symptom that can flare up and still cause a domino effect against my health on occasion. When you go too long without sleep, everything else gets exponentially more difficult, in my experience.
P: We have met while training Muay Thai boxing as you were becoming an instructor at Master Toddy’s academy in Bangkok. Was martial arts a way for you to deal with your PTSD? How did you get into it, and how has it helped you?
A: I’ve been a longtime proponent of exploring all sorts of different strategies, therapies, outlets, coping mechanisms, medications, and anything else someone might experiment with as ways of living with PTSD in your life. I have other things I believe in as well, but Muay Thai has been one of the most effective tools I’ve found for me personally. I am a member of an American veterans support organization called the Wounded Warrior Project. They called me several years ago about a program they were offering in which I qualified to have my membership to my local UFC gym paid for as long as I’d commit to going to at least two classes a week for three months. I took advantage of the offer and quickly became hooked. Two sessions a week turned into almost every day of the week, three months turned into six months, and eventually I’d stumbled into a full-time training schedule that lasted for a few years. Then an opportunity arose for me to train in Thailand. I took it. I didn’t realize when I first went to do a three to four month training camp that I would fall in love so much with the training, Master Toddy’s Academy and staff, and the wonderful country I now consider my second home – Thailand. I ended up staying for almost two years, and I plan to go back as much as possible for further immersion in the training environment. The lifestyle of training like a fighter (even though I don’t actually compete professionally) has been a real boon to my physical and mental health, and I think even more so than other exercise because training martial arts also instills the practitioner with confidence you don’t get from just any sport.
P: You left the US and relocated to Thailand to train. Was that a conscious choice to change your environment completely in order to help with the process?
A: Yes. And I think it worked. I advise it for those who want and have the ability to do the same. An extended sabbatical from your normal routine and surroundings where you can buckle down with your nose to the grindstone working on taking care of yourself can be absolutely life-changing, and I firmly believe it is well worth it.
P: You wrote a book called Operation Phoenix Warrior, in which you describe what you went through. Can you tell us a bit about the book, how it came about, and if it was helpful for you to write your story?
A: Operation Phoenix Warrior is an autobiographical work that was therapeutic for me to write. I decided to share it with the world because I hope any readers may be able to relate and draw strength from it. Most any veteran can smell bullshit from a mile away, so I didn’t self-censor very much and wrote a very heartfelt and raw account of my journey and struggle. My greatest hope for the book is that it will help other survivors of PTSD to not feel alone, to break the taboos of discussing mental illness, and encourage others to keep moving forward in their own pursuit of healing and recovery.
P: Do you do any work with other veterans suffering from PTSD, who might benefit from hearing the experiences of other brothers?
A: Yes. I ran a PTSD veterans peer support group for a while, and I’m always on the lookout for a worthy effort by others I can support. I think it’s important to network and try to stay plugged in to communities that continue to focus on meeting the needs of post traumatic stress survivors.
P: You are back in the US now. What’s next for you? Do you have any new projects around PTSD you’d like to share?
A: When I got back to the US, I tried to start my own Muay Thai school first and hoped to build it to a point which could also support a non-profit program to run camps and seminars for survivors of post traumatic stress. I had classes going for less than three months and built to six students before the first COVID-19 lockdowns started here. That was enough to sink my new business for the foreseeable future. Since then, I’ve also had setbacks in my health and had to have surgery to repair my spine. It’s been a long season of healing since this summer, and I still have a few months of physical therapy to go before I can do anything too intense just yet. As I look to the future, it seems so much is so uncertain for all of us in the current pandemic – I don’t really know for sure what will be next. I know that I still have a passion to train, to learn, to teach, and to help others. I think sometimes we just have to keep moving forward, and eventually the path will reveal itself. That’s kind of where I am now.
P: Thank you for your time Adam. Stay safe, and see around in a Muay Thai gym, or elsewhere.
A: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to meet you, train with you, and spend time with you and so many others at the Muay Thai Academy in Bangkok. I also wish you all the best in your endeavors, and do hope we meet again.