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Fighting the demons: A 'typical' Defender's story

  • Published
  • By Shawn Sprayberry
  • Air Force Wounded Warrior Program

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas -- If there is a “typical” security forces Airman, retired Master Sgt. Dwayne Pyle says he was it. He loved his job and felt he was good at it, even though he did get into a little trouble during his first assignment in Germany.

“I liked to work hard and play harder,” he said. “Luckily though, I had some great ‘old school’ leaders that helped keep me on track on that first assignment.”

Despite what could have been a setback early in his career, he flourished and moved to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. There, he felt things went from good to bad.

“Within six years, I deployed five times,” he said. “I deployed with the Army three times and once with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. I did every mission a security forces member dreamed of doing however, after my deployment to Camp Bucca, Iraq in 2006, I began to struggle with sleeping which was compounded by depression and loneliness.”

Pyle, who continued to excel in his career despite his mental health declining, started to keep things to himself and put on a front at work and in front of his friends.

“To an outsider, it looked like I was on top of the world,” he said. “I decided to be the life of the party, making sure everyone saw me as this great, fun person. All the while, I felt like I was dying inside.”

He began to see deployments as an “escape from reality” where he pushed boundaries; looking for trouble in places that were already dangerous. His team members never saw the turmoil he had going on inside, seeing him as a good leader.

“Outwardly to my team, I looked calm and ready,” he said. “On the inside I was terrified I would do something wrong. I would stay up for days working on operation orders for missions, my teammates grabbing me food when they saw I wasn’t eating.”

As the deployments came and went, he started to see an increase in symptoms including nightmares and a dependence on alcohol. He even used alcohol on his deployments to calm his mind enough to sleep.

“Generally my state of alert never went down,” he said. “From 2005 until 2013 my body stayed on high alert, physically and mentally draining my body. The only time I calmed down was when I drank. So, I drank a lot. I drank to sleep. I drank to enjoy people. I even drank to enjoy my own kids.”

His drinking, while a problem, is not unusual for someone suffering the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), three quarters of people who survive violent traumatic events report problems with drinking. Men with PTSD are twice as likely to develop an alcohol problem as other men. In these instances, drinking is an unhealthy coping mechanism; a way to avoid dealing with other symptoms including the memories of a traumatic event. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (5th Edition) describes this avoidance as one of the criteria for diagnosis of PTSD. Another way that Pyle chose to avoid the memories was to volunteer to deploy again.

“So, what did I do?” he asked. “I volunteered for the 820th Base Defense Group at Moody AFB (Georgia) where I would be able to continue pushing myself with deployments.”

Things did not go well.

“I got to Moody and nothing went right,” he said. “My home life was a mess, work was not getting done and my health was at an all-time low.”

His symptoms spiraled out of control with his drinking becoming more problematic and his ability to maintain focus in an office job leaving him struggling to deal with the complex emotions that came up.

“I knew I needed help,” he said. “But I still tried everything in my power to avoid talking to mental health. When I finally identified I had a problem, I got great support from my leadership. They did everything they could to make sure I got the help I needed. Unfortunately, I only put in half the effort for therapy and didn’t take full advantage of the help they offered me.”

In January 2017, he began going through a Medical Evaluation Board for complex, combat-related PTSD with the Air Force placing him on the Temporary Disability Retired List in June that year. Three years later, he reached out to the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program to tell his story, hoping it would help others seek the help they need. He wanted it to be a cautionary tale.

“I had to fight the demon inside of me that just wanted to give the right answer and move on instead of being honest with those trying to help me,” he said. “Now, I’ve given it my all and I feel better. I’m not 100% yet but I’m able to look myself in the mirror which is a huge step.”

He had people he could talk to when he was truly struggling, but he avoided letting them know how bad things had gotten. Today, he beats himself up over what he sees as a failure of his job as a leader.

“At the end, I should have known better,” he said. “I was that leader everyone came to for help and I knew how and where to get it. I should have been the role model I was portraying myself to be by getting the help I needed.”

Pyle’s non-medical case manager at AFW2 disagrees. She says he already is a role model.

“Dwayne is a great success story up to this point,” said Tamara Knause, Temporary Airman’s Care team NMCM. “He took the leap to get help with substance abuse which also led to him getting the help he needed for his PTSD. He has been persistent in filing the paperwork needed to get the benefits he needs for healing and has put himself fully into this new therapy so he can get better. In my mind, this makes him a role model.”

“If I had a chance to talk to young Airmen I would tell them to take care of themselves," Pyle said. "We all try to take care of the physical part of our life but we really should pay attention to the mental part as well. My mental state affected my whole body.”

He went on to say that leaders, especially front-line supervisors, should be there for their troops.

“Talk to them daily,” he said. “Let them know you are there for them, but understand that actions speak louder than words. To the Defenders out there I would say, ‘understand the mental health issues that face our career field.’ Know the ways to help each other and learn how to reach out to people when they may not realize they need help.” 

Pyle is currently still on the temporary disability list but, based on the stabilization of his PTSD, he should be placed on the Permanent Retired Disability List later this year.

This “typical” security forces Defender continues to work hard on his mental health and wants every Airman out there to know, it’s okay to get help.

“For those that are on the edge, make that call. It’s worth it. You have nothing to lose. Fight like you’re on the battlefield and don’t let the enemy win.”