In 2004, at age 19, Garrett Combs enlisted in the Army, compelled by patriotism to serve after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After serving two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he returned home five years later with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a profound sense of guilt. Combs shares how a program for emotionally wounded warriors — and a video camera — helped him heal.
WebMD: What was the experience of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan like for you?
Combs: The deployments were intense. Afghanistan was the most intense deployment because we did the most ground operations in very remote areas. During one mission, we were ambushed and we lost a really good squad leader. Iraq was a different experience. There were far less engagements with the enemy. It was more like this impending sense of doom all the time. We were out on the streets where there were always hundreds of people around us and cars buzzing past. Our senses were literally in overdrive. We lived with that sensory overload every day. I think that was probably the greatest cause of my PTSD — being 23 years old and feeling like I was going to die.
WebMD: How did your combat missions affect you?
Combs: What affected me most wasn’t the combat itself, but the feeling when I realized what we were doing, and how devastating it was going to be to the people who lived in those countries. In south Baghdad, where I was operating, people were living in trash heaps or blown-out homes where they had a plastic bag as their door. And there were children sifting through garbage and human waste to find food or things they could use. When you’re in a war, you realize that it’s not just the bad guys who die. More innocent people will suffer than bad guys. I feel so bad about it. It’s affected my physical health. It’s affected my mental health. As an introspective person, I always have to ask myself if it was worth it.
WebMD: What happened when you returned home?
Combs: I moved back in with my parents. I was totally isolating myself with heavy drinking, heavy drug use, and heavy sexual promiscuity. I stayed in my room all day long. If I wasn’t in my room, I was at a bar. It was horrible. The year after I got out of the military was a really dark time. This was in 2009. I didn’t meet my girlfriend (now my wife) until 2012. In the years between, I was living with one of my best friends from the Army, which really helped me find the stability and comfort I needed to integrate back into society.
My girlfriend and I had been dating for only a couple of months and we found out she was pregnant. I had been able to suppress a lot of my anger, but once I had my son and I was put into this domestic situation, all of my symptoms became glaring. The breaking point came when my son was six months old. I was on the tail end of losing 10 guys from our unit from suicide, drug overdose, and police shootings.
WebMD: Did you think about killing yourself?
Combs: I hadn’t thought about suicide until these suicides started to happen. (But) then I thought, “I’m going to die someday. If it’s today or in 20 years, what’s the difference?” I started to have death fantasies, like walking in front of a bus.
WebMD: How did you get involved with the Save A Warrior program?
Combs: I was in Florida on a job. One of my really good friends from the Army had just died from a heroin overdose two weeks before. I was drinking heavily. It was like 2 in the morning. I was in a really bad place, and I thought, “If I’m going to kill myself, now is the time to do it because no one I know will have to find me.” I had a good friend who had gone through Save A Warrior, an intense five-day program for veterans suffering from PTSD. I wrote to my friend on Facebook, “I need you to call me right now, because I might do something.” As soon as I hit send, my phone rang. My friend said, “Don’t do anything. Somebody is going to call you right now.” I spoke to a woman with Save A Warrior that night, and then Jake Clark [the program's founder] called me the next day.
WebMD: How did Save A Warrior help you?
Combs: What helped me most was that it gave me something I could put my finger on. People with PTSD always refer to their “demons.” Spiritualizing our experiences can prevent us from making effective decisions about meaningful treatments. Save A Warrior showed me that it’s not demons, and that I’m not crazy. My body is reacting to physical circumstances in a natural way. And that gave me a lot of hope that my PTSD could be managed and treated.
WebMD: How did you get into filmmaking?
Combs: When I was in the Army, I was always the guy in the platoon who had a camera. When we would walk to the village just outside our small outpost, I’d bring my camera and take photos of the villagers. When you look at someone through the camera lens, you really see them. The interactions you have when you’re photographing them stick with you forever. After I returned home, I studied visual journalism at Brooks Institute [in Santa Barbara, CA].
I had nearly graduated with a degree in visual journalism when I was approached to do the Soledad O’Brien documentary, “The War Comes Home.” Being in the documentary in many ways propelled my career. It was such an immersive experience being the subject of a film. Talking to the field producers and Soledad about experiences I had never spoken about out loud was so cathartic. That was when I made the switch. I sold a bunch of my photography gear and bought a video camera.
WebMD: How has being a filmmaker helped you heal?
Combs: Filmmaking gave me a reason to examine my experience and look at it from many different angles and points of view. It has made me realize how vast the experiences are for people in the military, and how many people have been affected.
WebMD: How are you doing today?
Combs: All of this has really brought me to a good place. I still have temper tantrums, I still have a bit of an anger problem, but I’m not going to hurt anyone and I’m not going to hurt myself. The hypervigilance (an increased state of awareness) won’t go away, but the self-destructive behavior is gone.
To learn more about PTSD, please see WebMD’s special report, Faces of PTSD.