Everyone falls. Even heroes.
Chris Hird learned that the hard way.
As a Special Forces commando, Hird was at the top of his game. He was well-respected, in a stable relationship and had his act together.
Nothing could rattle him, until it did.
Deployed to Afghanistan in 2003, the mission was simple: Remove a man from power. And by the end of it, a man was taken out.
The wrong one.
The mission went south, and while under direct fire, a weapons cache exploded near Hird’s position. Shrapnel tore through his jaw, shattering it in two places.
Surgeons labored for hours to wire his jaw shut
“I woke up in the intensive care unit the next night and the doctor explained what was going on,” Hird said. “I looked and I couldn’t find anything on my face that looked familiar – until I got to my eyes.”
For hours, a team of surgeons labored to wire his jaw shut. Excessive dental work followed.
In pain for months, the distress wore on him.
“Being disfigured, not being able to recognize yourself in the mirror… I would pass people in the hallways and they would look away from me,” he recounted.
Inside, he was the same Chris (pictured above), the guy who liked riding bikes and playing with his dogs. But all he saw was a monster.
And then he became one.
While some would’ve called it quits, Hird continued serving. But he wasn’t the same. While Hird kept up appearances professionally, his personal life unraveled.
Trained to help people but didn’t know how to help himself
As a Special Forces medic, Hird was trained to help people. But he didn’t know how to help himself.
“I thought I was maintaining, performing the same and nobody could tell,” he said. “But it was obvious to everyone but me.”
The once clean-cut soldier turned to alcohol and painkillers. Drugs followed. Then lies and cover-ups. “It was just a very dark period,” he admitted. “I was trying anything I could do to just kind of hide from it, numb it.”
In denial of his problem, Hird languished for three years until a run-in with the law forced him to face reality.
Other than a speeding ticket when he was 18, he had a stellar record. He was a guy people looked up to.
The effort was worth it. Hird made a full recovery.
Quit drugs but was still unwell
“That night, sitting there being arrested, people were looking at me like that guy everyone hates,” Hird said. “I had never been the bad guy and now I was the bad guy.”
The event marked a milestone for Hird. He quit drugs then and there.
But he still was unwell. And before he could do anything about it, Hird was ordered to the Philippines for Operation Enduring Freedom.
Duty called. Treatment would have to wait.
After having proven his worth in the Philippines, Hird continued the facade of normalcy. But his family knew he wasn’t well. So did those close to him.
“I wish I would’ve listened a little bit more.”
“A lot of guys think, ‘I’ll know if it’s going on,’” Hird said. “I just kind of dealt with the issues. I wish I would’ve listened a little bit more to people are around me.”
For more than a decade, he limped on before seriously seeking help.
“I was never suicidal, but I was unhappy,” Hird said. “For me, it wasn’t that I wanted to do it, it was that I had to.”
Entering treatment in 2019, he was surprised to learn he had it – the acronym so often thrown around in military circles: PTSD. Everything suddenly made sense.
15 months working through decades of trauma
That’s when Hird left the Special Forces, the career he’d known and loved for 30 years. It was time the command sergeant major to focus on himself for once.
The hardest part of treatment – harder than any training he endured – was reopening old wounds and reliving memories that haunted him. While many patients can finish PTSD treatment in as little as two weeks, Hird spent 15 months working through decades of trauma at the Salt Lake City VA.
Treatment was “grueling,” he said. But the effort was worth it. Ultimately, Hird made a full recovery.
He’s learned to deal with trauma and has found peace of mind. Now, back to seeing friends and doing the things he loves, Hird urged others to seek treatment.
“There’s still a little stigma in the military to get treatment,” he said. “But it’s not just for you. It’s for your family and your soldiers.”
The titanium plates in his jaw will always be there. As will the trauma he endured. But Hird’s a new man now and with the perspective he’s gained, a better one.
“I will never be able to thank VA enough for what they were able to do,” he added. “It’s like a night and day difference.”
Everyone falls. But heroes get back up.
Anthony Jarmusz is a public affairs specialist for the Salt Lake City VA.