Veteran Graduate Thankful for Battle Buddy, GI Bill and USF

Army Specialist Cheyenne Forsythe served on a Combat Stress Control Team in Iraq, 2003.

By Cheyenne Forsythe

Graduate of the University of South Florida: Green to Gold

Long after we come back from our deployments and our service to our country is officially over, we continue to serve our nation in ways you may not always see or hear about. Behind this anonymity, we take pride in continuing to serve the country and its citizens, which have given us so much.

We may not always show it, but we appreciate the New GI Bill, the opportunities for employment, housing for the disabled, and the “atta-boys” from our fellow countrymen.

Over the last several years, I’ve taken the opportunity granted by my service to use up all of the GI Bill that I was promised and some assistance Vocational Rehabilitation had granted me to complete the undergraduate portion of my education. On August 4th, 2012, after what seems like a lifetime of hard work and study, I’ll finally walk across the stage at my bachelor’s degree, commencement ceremony. Not only that, I’ll finally get to see the look on my mother’s face that I’ve been looking forward to.

Cheyenne and Joy share a quiet moment on a Pinellas County beach.

My son will also be there to see the example every father should have the opportunity to provide for their child. There were many people along the way that helped me keep my eyes focused on the prize and provided the right example for me. From my wife, Joy to my social worker, Ann, there have been many along the way who have been by my side from the very beginning of this journey at USF. I’ve been extremely lucky to find a great group of friends and professionals who were there, throughout my progress towards completing this degree. The staff at the university is a very special group of people. Any soldier looking for a university should put the University of South Florida at the top of the list.

I got the idea to attend the University of South Florida from a battle buddy I’d met, in 2003, while serving in Iraq. I met Andrew Pogany on a Tikrit palace compound in early October of that year. Andrew is an alumnus of the university. Many of you are familiar with Andrew’s story. He was the first soldier to be charged with cowardice since the Vietnam War. I came to my battle buddy’s defense when I wrote a letter to the editor after seeing his face on the cover of the Army Times with the word “Coward,” written beneath it.

Andrew was no coward and I promised him that I would stick by him while he worked on clearing his good name. Eventually, all of the charges were dropped. You see, in the Army, cowardice is deadly. It was once punished by trial and a firing squad.

Cheyenne represented veterans with “invisible wounds” during the 2010 Florida Ride 2 Recovery from Tampa’s MacDill AFB to Jacksonville.

From our initial meeting, through all of the legal proceedings, I followed his story and became a vocal advocate for soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Today, Andrew, who was once an Army interrogator, has now also become a full time advocate for soldiers suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Over the years, we communicated via phone, text, and Facebook and together, we participated in a Ride 2 Recovery event from MacDill Air Force Base to Naval Air Station Jacksonville.

See, I’d taken to isolating myself and the program helps disabled vets get motivated and out into society, once again, with a big accomplishment under their belt. You can visit the R2R website or on Facebook.

Throughout all the tests and all the late nights or whenever I had to buckle down and handle what I thought was a difficult situation, all I had to think was, “If Andrew can go through what he went through and make it out on top, then so can I.”

Well, Andrew, the circle is now complete. Your example has served to inspire me to this end. I hope I can do the same for any veteran reading this, getting off active duty, and heading back into the classroom.

Despite whatever you think might be standing in your way, whether physical or mental, you can dream big and make it happen. There are incredible people, all around you, waiting to support you. All you have to do is take the first step.

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A Veteran Living with PTSD on Losing Control

Cheyenne Forsythe, an Iraq War veteran, is currently a business student at the University of South Florida.

BY CHEYENNE FORSYTHE

Last week, I was sitting in the office with a psychologist getting treated in a Department of Defense study called Accelerated Resolution Therapy at the University of South Florida. The Doc running the treatment was doing the routine hand movements and I was following along trying to do the best guinea pig impression that I could muster. I know I can’t tell soldiers what to do, if I’m not willing to go through it myself, so I dig in and bare my guts for him.

We go through the normal process and I start describing what happens to me when I lose control of myself and I snap at someone. He’s stunned. He starts telling me that what I experience has been found in brain scans and I should write about it because I have some training in the inner workings of the brain and veterans would appreciate the insight from one of their own. To tell you the truth, it took me a while to actually sit down and get this out. It’s been quite a rocky road to this point.

The loss of control I experience happens at an integral moment when my brain runs into a momentary wall in the communication process. That’s putting it nicely. People who can’t see things my way are at the greatest risk of my loss of control. Most of the time its happened to be the ones that I love the most. So, for a while, I took to protecting them from me by isolating myself in my apartment, which only compounded the overall problem.

The reason why we have the need to isolate ourselves is for the good of our relationships with our loved ones. We know something is different about ourselves but reintegrating becomes a daunting task that most of us choose to avoid for fear of disappointing ourselves and those that we love. We don’t want to go off in a sudden rant, or worse, and give them reason to think differently of us.

Cheyenne Forsythe and his fiance, Joy Finley.

We want to be loved. What we need to understand is that there has been a change in our brain between the higher thinking, communication portion and the reptilian fight or flight portion. There used to be a super highway between the two, where there is now only a single dirt road. When that dirt road gets a little congested our brain stops all traffic and maintains functioning at the lower, easier level of problem solving. This is when I find myself yelling at the top of my lungs or going into auto pilot, stuck in the rigidity of my own perspective or opinion; the old my way or the highway routine. In order to return to living normal lives we’ve got to start constructing a better road.

What helps to alleviate the situation is having someone around who is wise enough to spot the transition. This is where Joy, my fiancé, comes in. She’s really good at spotting the transition and with a simple sentence like, “This is the PTSD talking”, I can see myself getting angry or frustrated at something that doesn’t need that level of intensity. It’s like a light bulb moment.

Our brains have become too used to the fight or flight way of looking at things so we now apply it to everything. We have to educate ourselves and find a way to do the same with our loved ones for the sake of our relationships with them. I know a few people who’ve told me they wish they understood why they were acting the way they were, long before now. A few marriages could’ve been spared the ordeal of divorce if they had just taken the time to understand what was needed to recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One book that touches on the importance of unity in the family when facing PTSD is called, “The War at Home: One Family’s Fight Against PTSD.” I’ve been following the development of the book in a group the author and his wife started on Facebook called, “Military with PTSD.” They’re really decent people. To use boxing analogy, we’ve developed a corner for ourselves. When the fight of everyday life seems to take more out of us than usual, we come together and share some motivating words then get back in the ring. Military as well as family members can join up and see what we all go through in order to gain a little common ground.

We can’t do this on our own. It’s going to take our families, group therapy, medication and one-on-one psychotherapy for many of us to get back some normalcy in our lives. Compared to veterans of previous generations, more of us have a better chance of becoming productive and centered citizens because we know what we’re up against. All it takes is the same level of dedication that got us through Basic Training or Boot Camp. So, get in there and make it happen.

A Veteran Living with PTSD: You Owe It to Yourself

Cheyenne represented veterans with "invisible wounds" during the 2010 Florida Ride 2 Recovery from Tampa's MacDill AFB to Jacksonville.

BY CHEYENNE FORSYTHE

 

Sitting in an office, at the University of South Florida, about to participate in a PTSD study called Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) for Psychological Trauma, I heard these words, “You owe it to yourself.” For some reason they hit home and have been resonating with me all morning long. Maybe it’s the news of another suicide or the downing of a chopper with all those soldiers on it but I haven’t been able to get those words out of my head.

When I think of all the reasons to stay alive and get myself well, so that I can take on the challenge of the rest of my life, seldom do I think of myself. Usually, it’s other people that first come to mind, like my son. I want to be there to be dad even though his mom and I are divorced and he lives 1,177 miles away. Recently, he’s been calling more often. Last week, he lost two teeth and called me when he wiggled them out, both times. That felt great.

The next person that comes to mind, is my dad. He’s the greatest man who I’ve ever met. Dad is going to be 60 years old this year and mom is throwing him a big party. Relatives from all over the country are coming in to help us throw him a big surprise party. I’ve been thinking about the speech I’m going to give. It’s going to go something like this, “Many of you might think Superman is a fictional character, but I know better. Superman was born 60 years ago and has been married to my mother for 35 years.”

Point is, before you think about how much all these people will be torn up if you killed yourself, you have to remember that you owe it to yourself to succeed, first and foremost. You’re a special individual who’s carved out a niche in life and someday someone is going to be depending on you to be there. Whether it’s a joke at the old man’s birthday party or your child’s tooth story, you’ve got a responsibility to be healed, as much as possible, so you can be there to handle those situations, as best as you can.

Give yourself an opportunity to heal your mind, body and soul. In this instance, its OK to be selfish and think of yourself first. VA facilities all across the country are waiting for you to give them a call to set up an appointment to start taking care of yourself so you can be the best you possible. University counseling centers and Vet Centers all across the country are ready to help you get started on the rest of your life. Are you ready? Remember, you owe it to yourself.

“Off the Base” and “My Last Tour” Series Awarded a Murrow

Congratulations to Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Rex Temple (Ret.), former Army Specialist Cheyenne Forsythe, former Army Capt. Colleen Krepstekies and Rachel Porto, wife of Marine Cpl. Jonny Porto who was killed last year in Afghanistan.

Their WUSF stories combined just won a 2011 Edward R. Murrow award for best audio news series in Region 13. Temple’s “My Last Tour” series won a Murrow in 2010.

The Radio Television Digital News Association has been honoring outstanding achievements in electronic journalism with the Edward R. Murrow Awards since 1971.

Regional winners automatically become eligible for the national awards competition, which will be judged in June.

The Murrow entry traces the transition from WUSF’s series with Temple, “My Last Tour,” to our more expanded series that includes other service members, veterans and their families.

The stories submitted can be heard on a WUSF web page and include:

  • 1-12-10 – Pink Eye: Temple was the lead driver of a supply convoy when he developed pink eye. He could no longer see. His only way to get medical treatment was to ride with a bomb-clearing crew to the nearest base.
  • 2-24-10 – Afghan Army Classroom: Temple recorded his visit to the religious class of Afghan soldiers. He sent the audio back via Skype and offers details about the day.
  • 5-18-10 – Florida Matters Show with host Joshua Stewart features Temple, his wife Liisa and reporter O’Brien reviewing the year of reports from Afghanistan. It is WUSF’s official conclusion of the My Last Tour series.
  • 5-17-10 – Oak Grove Middle School: Temple visits in person to say thank you to the first group of students to adopt his Afghan School Supplies Drive. The unofficial start to Off the Base ongoing news series.
  • 7-12-10 – A Little Pink in a World of Camo blog: the wife of Marine Cpl. Jonathan Porto uses her blog as support after her husband is killed in Afghanistan just shy of their first wedding anniversary.
  • 11-15-10 – Ride-2-Recovery: Iraq War veteran Cheyenne Forsythe uses this 5-day marathon ride with other “wounded vets” to tackle symptoms of his PTSD.
  • 11-18-10 – Employment after Service: Former Army Capt. Colleen Krepstekies did two tours in Iraq including leading re-fueling tanker convoys. She talks about adjusting to civilian life and living with PTSD.
  • 12-7-10 – Florida Matters Show: PTSD: Rex & Kit – Temple spends time with a young soldier injured during their tour and tries to help him work through symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress.

About RTDNA

RTDNA is the world’s largest professional organization devoted exclusively to electronic journalism. RTNDA represents local and network news professionals in broadcasting, cable and other digital media in more than 30 countries.

Dissipating My PTSD: Working on Large Crowds

When spring semester started, Off the Base blog contributor Cheyenne Forsythe found he had to overcome another challenge associated with his PTSD. He’s sharing that journey in the hopes that others can learn from his experiences.

Army Specialist Cheyenne Forsythe served on a Combat Stress Control Team in Iraq, 2003.

By Cheyenne Forsythe

I’ve gradually seen the signs of PTSD dissipate over the last few years.

Number one on my list was scanning. Being the driver for a Combat Stress Control Team has its hazards. One of the ways you manage these hazards is by monitoring the horizon and the road ahead, looking for anything out of the ordinary in hopes of spotting an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) or signs of an ambush.

This was the first thing I noticed when I came home. I couldn’t stop scanning anytime I got in a car. Over time, I’ve taught myself to see the road as a peaceful place.

For therapy, I worked for a bus company in Killeen, TX, called, “The Hop”. I drove our peaceful streets for two years, managing to work my way into a para-transit route, shuttling dialysis patients to treatment, mentally challenged children to school, seniors to activity centers, and poor children to the dentist. Along with enriching my life, I learned to trust the road again.

Cheyenne is now a USF student studying business.

Well, I’ve got a new challenge now. It’s not really new. I’ve been working on it for a year. I isolated myself last year. Didn’t go out, didn’t date, just stayed in my room, when I wasn’t at counseling or school.

Last week was my first week at University of South Florida‘S Tampa campus. Class sizes on campus are in the 400 range. Going from a class size of 30 at the St. Pete campus to 400 doesn’t go unnoticed by the good old nervous system.

That first class was certainly a shock. In order to acclimate myself to the new environment, I’ve taken steps to be more outgoing. To do that, I have to pay attention to what’s happening on campus. A few weekends ago, I volunteered for the Stampede of Service and did some community revitalization.

Cheyenne represented veterans with "invisible wounds" during the 2010 Florida Ride 2 Recovery from Tampa's MacDill AFB to Jacksonville.

Since I moved to Tampa, I’ve been to a Tampa Bay Ray’s game and caught a USF Bulls football game. I have to admit, the Ride 2 Recovery event put it in perspective for me. I had become accustomed to small groups of people.

I’m going to use USF for more than just an education. The activities on campus offer a chance help me work on my issue with large crowds. Basketball season has started already. I’m going to make sure I get to more than one game.

Contributor Cheyenne Forsythe is a University of South Florida student and a 6-year Army veteran who served with the 85th Medical Detachment. He was on one of the first Combat Stress Control Teams sent to Iraq’s frontlines in 2003 to help soldiers with combat stress symptoms while still “in country.” After surviving two IED attacks, Cheyenne now lives with PTSD as well.  Speaking out on veterans’ issues has become his self-ascribed mission because as he puts it: “It’s just the right thing to do.”  His other contributions include:

Learning to Take a Break

Serving on a Combat Stress Control Team

Learning to Take a Break

By Cheyenne Forsythe

Cheyenne Forsythe proudly wears his Iraqi Freedom veteran's cap.

Before I left for Iraq I had a wife, a son, a family, a home that I had built to my specs. Since returning, I’ve managed to completely reinvent myself. I’m divorced, I might get to see my son once a year, talk to him once a month. There’s still a lot of guilt there, a lot of tearfulness about this issue.

I changed jobs a few times but settled on selling cars for Honda. I used to tell all my customers about the PBS documentary (The Soldier\’s Heart) hoping someone could put it to good use.

When I Joined the Army to be a mental health specialist, my goal was to make sure there were less alcoholics and fewer grandkids with no memories of playing or interacting with their grandparents. Time spent drinking takes time away from the family, affecting it in so many ways than we care to imagine.

Despite being an mental health specialist, Cheyenne Forsythe had to learn to give himself "time off."

Kind of ironic – I wanted to help others and ended up getting myself caught up in the emotional turmoil of PTSD to the detriment of my whole family and career.

No one would hire me. Of all the four or five military, veteran, and civilian hospitals I applied to, I never got a return call despite my qualifications. I never took a break either. Two weeks before I was officially honorably discharged, I started the job at Honda.

Everyone needs to take a break. The longer the better.

 Contributor Cheyenne Forsythe is a University of South Florida student and a 6-year Army veteran who served with the 85th Medical Detachment. He was on one of the first Combat Stress Control Teams sent to Iraq’s frontlines in 2003 to help soldiers with combat stress symptoms while still “in country.” After surviving two IED attacks, Cheyenne now lives with PTSD as well.  Speaking out on veterans’ issues has become his self-ascribed mission because as he puts it: “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Serving on a Combat Stress Control Team

I met Cheyenne Forsythe at the Florida Ride 2 Recovery– a cycling event for wounded veterans. He was riding for soldiers with “invisible wounds,” those living with PTSD or struggling with issues like depression and substance abuse. Cheyenne is a University of South Florida student and a 6-year Army veteran who served with the 85th Medical Detachment. He was on one of the first Combat Stress Control Teams sent to Iraq’s frontlines in 2003 to help soldiers with combat stress symptoms while still “in country.” After surviving two IED attacks, Cheyenne now lives with PTSD as well.

Speaking out on veterans’ issues has become his self-ascribed mission because as he puts it: “It’s just the right thing to do.” Here are a few vignettes of what it was like for him to provide help to soldiers while in a combat zone.

Cheyenne Forsythe at the start of the 6-day Florida Ride 2 Recovery which started at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.

By Cheyenne Forsythe

Through creative leadership, I was able to help my Combat Stress Control Team be more effective treating soldiers in the combat zone. I made sure to volunteer for as many missions as possible so the troops around us would get to see us and respect us. Besides teaching coping skills, we went to the extreme of pulling honor guard on the body of a soldier, when the medics had been overstressed with high casualties. I made sure my team did a full 12 hour shift while waiting for mortuary affairs. 

We made sure the medics of the 126 Forward Surgical Team kept it light hearted. We were attached to that company for the first half of the tour. Their entire team was decimated by a mortar attack on movie night. The movie was “Major Payne” and that sounded awfully painful to me, so I went to the compound movie tent to watch another movie. Thirteen soldiers were evacuated home with shrapnel wounds. I usually sat in the front. The computer screen had a huge chunk of shrapnel sitting in the middle of it.

A Going Home Gesture – IED Attacks

Cheyenne Forsythe is a guest panelist for the upcoming Florida Matters show PTSD: New Hope that will air Dec. 7, 2010 at 6:30 p.m.

On my way out of country, in December 2003, we ran into two improvised explosive devices. On our way through Samarrah, to Balad, we hit the first improvised explosive device. One soldier who was a driver in a forward vehicle was killed. The next improvised explosive device went off two vehicles in front of mine, a few miles later. We stopped the convoy and formed a perimeter, stopping traffic in both directions of what would be comparable to I-75. One vehicle tried to go through our perimeter so we opened fire on it. I was the closest to the vehicle and had a good look at the occupants and called a cease fire. There were six gentlemen in the minivan. The two young adults up front were wounded, two young boys were unharmed, and two older gentlemen were also unharmed.

That’s my story of the spontaneous violence that was to be expected at any time. I counseled hundreds of other soldiers with similar stories. I even counseled soldiers who were in the same predicaments that I found myself in.

Why Some Soldiers Seek Help

As a therapist helping soldiers while still in a combat zone, Cheyenne Forsythe said it was important to go on missions with soldiers.

For example, there was the dud mortar round. On our way back to our living quarters after dinner in Tikrit, a mortar round came bouncing down the street next to me. It stopped with a thud at the back of a port-o-john where my future client was seated. He thought his buddies were playing a joke on him. I heard the whole thing on my way to my living quarters. We didn’t realize what had almost happened until a few minutes later when someone took a look at what made the thud. On the thought of his possible death the soldier tossed his dinner. He came to see me the next day. I had to repress my emotions to let him deal with his. That was the story for my whole trip. I was a tool, doing a job, keeping soldiers focused on the task at hand, despite the horrific waking nightmare all around me.

There was the couple that got hit with a mortar round while he was proposing to her on the Tikrit palace lake. They both walked into the aid station covered in blood. I counseled the female. She wasn’t sure if she should go on with the wedding.

Another soldier that stands out to me was in 1-10 Cavalry, 4th Infantry Division, the Buffalo Soldiers. He was grazed on the forehead with a small bullet and because I had volunteered to go on a mission, his buddies trusted me enough to have him get my opinion. He wanted to stay in Iraq after being wounded and wanted my opinion as to what he should do. All my hard work had paid off. Can you imagine how I felt to be included on a decision like that? I had broken down all the barriers and gotten the infantry to seek our help. 

You can hear Cheyenne Forsythe tell his story as one of the guests on WUSF’s Florida Matters program “PTSD: New Hope” which will be broadcast Dec. 7, 2010 at 6:30 p.m. 

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