LYNN HAVEN- The latest statistics show roughly 20 percent of the men and women who served in Iraq or Afghanistan will struggle with posttraumatic stress disorder or other mental illness. They left the safety and comfort of life in the U.S. to protect our freedom, but they returned as different people, often suffering from nightmares, flashbacks, and emotional numbness. But there is hope. A Lynn Haven woman is sharing her journey so others realize they don't have to struggle alone.
Jennifer Clark looks like any other happily married, busy, working mom. But finding joy in walks and wagon rides is a major victory after posttraumatic stress disorder left her life unraveling. "I was deployed in Afghanistan in 2008 with a team of army green berets. I was actually located on the most violent firebase in Afghanistan." An Air Force Physicians Assistant stationed at Tyndall at the time, Jennifer was part of a female treatment team, gathering intelligence while providing medical care to Afghan women and children. Many of them ravaged by violence. "I call it the brutalities and realities of war. It was heartbreaking," recalls Jennifer.
After 166 days of treating masses of people, she returned to the U.S., but in the depths of despair. "I would come home and just sit and cry for no reason. Things just really got to me like gunfire, noises, and crowds," explained Jennifer. Then the flashbacks began. "The very first flashback I had from the deployment was the second day I brought my little girl home from the hospital. I was up in the middle of the night and I was trying to feed her and I looked down at her and I didn't see my daughter, I saw a dying baby I had taken care of." That's when Jennifer knew she needed help. She reached out to Tyndall's mental health clinic. "They did exposure therapy and I had to go back and re-live the emotions that were attached to the things that I experienced." It was incredibly difficult, but it helped.
But so many of her comrades suffer silently. "They feel ashamed because they weren't strong enough, at least that is how I felt." Studies show treatment for PTSD is effective, but left untreated it can spiral out of control. For Jennifer it came down to making a choice. "When I was in the deepest, darkest parts of my PTSD something, by the grace of God, came over me and I really realized I could sit here and let this consume me and define me from this point on, or, I could move on.
Today, Jennifer is moving on. She is focused on the future and helping others conquer battles from the past, they're still fighting in their minds. "It's just getting people to realize there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That is where I feel my calling is."
Jennifer felt called to write to a book about her experience to help others struggling with PTSD. It's called "166 Days, My Journey Through the Darkness." She also started a foundation called "Back to Center Wellness." She frequently speaks at military bases and other at events to encourage anyone struggling with trauma.