Dante Sowell is one of many US military veterans struggling with PTSD.
Firefighters in the United States are three times more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
After 10 years of serving in the US military as a firefighter, Timothy Carr decided to leave and start afresh.
Unlike many other war veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Carr was not in combat and he never had to take lives. But, he says, he had to deal with people losing their lives and routinely witnessed traumatic events.
He is still haunted by the memories of death and suffering that he saw while trying to save lives across the world.
This is his story in his own words.
Ever since I was 15 years old, I have been on my own. I was in the state’s custody and group homes. I was working two jobs while going to high school and always wanted to do something to help people, whether it was the police force or fire department or something like that.
So I decided I was going to join the military and try to be a firefighter or cop in the military because it’s easier to get on and do that there than it is to do it through a normal state, because the state will say, “Oh, you have to get all these certifications first. You’ve got to go to school first.” With the military, you can just go in, they train you and then you get a job.
I was in Tennessee at the time, and I went and talked with the recruiter. I just wanted to serve and help people. So I went into the military a week after leaving high school and became a firefighter in the Air Force, serving for a total of 10 years.
I served in Misawa in northern Japan. I was also in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in Hurlburt Field, Florida, and then I was all over the place for smaller things in Oman, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.
The main cause of post-traumatic stress for us was the things we would encounter as firefighters. I guess it’s probably the same for any firefighter, police or medics. You see a lot of death and family grieving. You might even be trying to save somebody, giving them CPR, and their kids are sitting there screaming and crying.
We were doing this one call where these guys were joyriding, and they crashed into another car. The passenger was pinned beneath the dash, and we were talking to him, and he was saying “I was telling my friend not to do it, I just want to get back to the base and see my kids.” This was right outside the base in Japan. It was snowy and icy, and the kid had a Skyline and decided that he would joyride.
So we were working on getting the guy out and reassured him, “we’ll get you out of there, you’ll be fine”. Everybody was really wanting to help and to save him. Anyway, when we pushed the dashboard, we didn’t realise that the pressure on his legs was kind of the only thing holding a wound shut.
By the time we got the dash completely off of him and were able to pull him out, he had died.
We saw stuff like that all the time. And you kind of have to get used to it and deal with it, and that’s why you develop gallows humour. You get a little bit jaded because it helps you deal with all this kind of stuff. It makes you harder than normal people.
It definitely changes how you see things and different people and situations. Once in a while, something will happen; you’ll hear something, or you’ll see something that reminds you of a call that you went on. Every time I see a Skyline, a GT-R, I think of that guy that died.
Civilians don’t often get how these experiences can affect you and how long lasting it can be. How small things can set it off. I think a lot of people just say, “whatever, suck it up”. They might talk about it to other vets, but for me it wasn’t to the point where it’s debilitating like a lot of other guys.
I say that because I didn’t have to actually take any lives. I just dealt with people losing theirs. I wasn’t in combat. I was deployed to places to support the combat staff. So for me a lot of times the way it would manifest is something would happen and then it would kind of bring me back to whatever emergency scene.
When I got out it was February of 2005, so things were starting to really get shitty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Accessing Veteran Affairs for help wasn’t really a thing yet.
Vets just kind of brushed over it or called it lifestyle shock.
It definitely changes how you see things and different people and situations. Once in a while, something will happen; you'll hear something, or you'll see something that reminds you of a call that you went on. Every time I see a Skyline, I think of that guy that died.
War now is pretty far out because it’s not like there’s some great cause, like World II. Now it’s for some politician’s gain or for some strategic thing, for lithium and oil and whatever. When something happens where we should intervene, we don’t, or we have to be forced into to it.
Even with World War I and II, it was not like we just ran over there and said hey let’s do this. You know it was kind of forced on us.
Now a lot of times it’s pointless. Look at the Iraq war. We were there, then we got out and let ISIL go in and just take over and make the country even worse than in the first place.
I definitely miss the actual firefighting. When you’re trained for it, and you get a call, you rush out like, “let’s go save somebody” or “let’s go put out a fire, let’s go whatever”. The camaraderie was always good… talking, eating, working out together, taking classes together. And we lived there 24 hours a day, every other day, 24 on, 24 off. So it’s like a second family almost.
If you had problems, we could count on one another because if someone doesn’t trust somebody or you don’t do something when you need to, someone’s going to die on that call.
What I don’t miss is being a political pawn for people’s financial gain. You’re there to help and to serve and to do this for your country and to help others.
I’m not in the military for someone that doesn’t know what he’s doing, especially the current administration. They’re sending people all over the place for stuff that they shouldn’t be there for.