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Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Rhodes Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Rhod... Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Rhodes Oral History Of Iraq & Af...

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Magazine

Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Rhodes

As Told To Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

September 19, 2009
Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Rhodes (retired) 48 Years Old Army, 1980-2009 Served in Iraq

Oral History Project

The son of a World War II veteran, Samuel Rhodes joined the Army in 1980 and rose to the rank of command sergeant major. He first deployed to Iraq in 2003-2004 and voluntarily returned to the warzone after just two months at home. After his third tour, when he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, his marriage of 26 years ended and he contemplated suicide. Now retired from the Army, he works with horses and helps other troubled veterans.

I used to be afraid of flying because I was afraid I was going to crash and die. The thing about life is over here you don't see any bad stuff, for the most part. People think, "They closed Wal-Mart today," and they get all stressed out. But that's not important at all. [Over there] you're seeing people killed, you're seeing Iraqis dead by the side of the roads.

You can't just stop working, you have to continue the work. You go through some traumatic events and you can't just shut it down. Continue the mission. I understand we lost [a soldier] and here's our mission and keep doing it, we love you. And when they get back to the FOB [Forwarded Operating Base], make sure they have counselors available and anything else.

 

There's a lot of counseling: combat stress doctors, chaplains, and a lot of guys like myself that have been around the block a couple of times can sometimes get more out of them with a doctor. The soldier appreciates that -- "Sergeant Major's taking time to talk to me." If you really care they can see it in your eyes; and if you don't care, you're wasting your time. So it ain't really about you, it's about what the soldiers need and deserve.

[Rhodes himself did counseling.] That's how I got diagnosed by a combat stress doctor in 2005. That was in theater. She said, "You need to go home." I said, "I can't go home."

[Then] I had a blackout. I was found unconscious and they air evac'd me. I woke in the hospital at Baghdad. I said, "You're not sending me anywhere." I got on the landline and I contacted my unit [and went back].

Over there you'd stay up till midnight, one o'clock in the morning, and then get up at four. You're literally exhausted over there. But I'd developed some sleepwalking issues: I'd have to take a shoestring and tie myself to my bed. I only had two sleepwalking incidents in the last year, so that's a pretty good success story.

The only way things get better is if you place the emphasis on it. If we put emphasis on PTSD and recovery, then they'll all get better. Some people say the word "suicide" and everybody starts crawling into a shell and hiding.

When I was at Fort Knox, the guy across the road hung himself. I didn't even know him. I think we've got to put more emphasis on caring and getting to know your neighbor.

When I redeployed back from Iraq after my first tour, it was really tough on me because I felt like I had developed a family relationship with those soldiers that had deployed with me, all of the surrounding communities in Iraq that we had dealt with and seen all the poverty and the death and the babies. That was what was on my mind, more so than my own well-being.

I came back in July, and then in September I was back in the Middle East. I really wanted to get back to the Middle East. I wanted to be in Iraq.

By the time I went back over to Iraq the third time, my wife hated Iraq, because she could see that Iraq had stole me away from her. After my third tour, about 18 months after that, we got divorced, [after] 26 years of marriage.

Her time that she hated was from six in the morning until 10 at night -- she hated that time. That's when they come and told you that your family member had died. so when 10 o'clock rolled around at night, she kind of felt like, "He didn’t die today."

She's a great lady, she's a wonderful lady. We're still real good friends, it just didn't work out. That's just the nature of life sometimes.

All our kids were grown. Both of the kids joined the Army after I deployed [in 2003]. They did their three years and got out. One's a nurse and one's an air traffic controller. Neither one of them deployed.

The only thing they wanted was to follow in my footsteps. I said they were stupid. I tell them, "You ain't going to make it through basic training." But they did well. They proved me wrong. They wanted to serve their country and they wanted to show Dad that they had grown up a whole lot.

[When Rhodes' PTSD acts up,] I can just feel the tears coming out of my eyes, and inside of me is getting real twisted. And I have the irritable bowel syndrome that starts kicking in really bad. It doesn't happen every day all the time, but for the last week it's pretty constant.

I spend a day talking about it, or I spend a day talking to my counselor, and the next thing I know that night, I pull back from everybody else and I just stay to myself -- [when] in fact that's what I really need is somebody to talk to, and to take my mind off what I've been thinking.

What that happens to me, I try to spend an extra long time with the horses at night. They're really good listeners. They can sense when something's going on with a human and react to that, and most of them are really curing. when you're brushing down a horse or just riding it, it just gives you a sense of, life's going good.

Structure and support is the two main things that we need, [those] who suffer from PTSD. We need the parents, we need the moms, we need the sisters and brothers, the people that never called us before in their life.

I got a combat stress doctor that's up in D.C. that talks to me every day, as well a lot of people that call me. I get about 150 e-mails every two or three days.

[Rhodes remarried in 2008.] She's been around the Army. She works in a brigade headquarters and she's been to a lot of memorial services. She's just very proactive about caring about me. If a couple of hours go by, she'll e-mail me or call me. In the middle of the night, she's wrapped her arms around me so tight I can't move.

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