The news story shows a drone operation-the screen lights ups with a flash, followed by the crumbling of a building. To the viewer at home, it is a smooth, seamless operation far away. But to Capt. Joseph Siler, he would tell you that it took a team of highly-trained and dedicated intelligence professionals to carry out the critical mission witnessed on television. However, with each successful mission comes an everlasting impact. In Siler’s case, that impact came in the form of an invisible wound.
“The challenge with my role was that the mission was never-ending,” he said. “It was a 24/7 – 365 job, and we always had to be on alert.”
Siler commissioned in 2010. He attended the Intelligence Officer Initial Skills course where he met his now wife, Katherine. He spent the first three years of his career supporting dynamic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. In 2014, he deployed to Afghanistan, where he continued collecting, analyzing, and disseminating intelligence.
Upon his return from deployment in October 2014, Siler and Katherine married. After spending several years working over 12-hour shifts (or ‘abnormally long shifts’) in a fast-paced, highly stressful position, Siler and his wife decided it was time to take a step away from operations. This decision prompted his transition to a more consistent 8 a.m.-5 p.m. work environment at the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base.
It was not until his life slowed down that Siler started feeling as though his world was caving in. In August 2015, he began experiencing a loss of balance, nausea, and frequent panic attacks.
“I thought, I’ve already made it through the hard stuff,” as he questioned the onset of emotions he was facing. “Why am I having so many issues now?”
He rapidly lost 20 pounds and struggled to keep food down. His only relief from the nausea and panic attacks came when he was finally able to get a few hours of sleep.
After that first panic attack, the couple knew he needed to see someone and went to an urgent care facility off-base where doctors prescribed him medication to alleviate the attacks. After 72 hours of taking the medication and still unable to get relief, he decided that he needed to go to the Mental Health Clinic on base. There, the team arranged for Siler to be admitted to a psychiatric ward in the town outside the base for the night.
“I told them I felt like I was losing my bearings and unable to function, that the anxiety was getting really bad,” Siler said. “I didn’t know what my options were but felt like I was running out of them.”
While Siler was in the hospital, Katherine recalled from her own past Air Force training that resources were available but found it hard to know how and where to start. The one person she knew to call was the base chaplain, who immediately came to sit with her at the hospital while she waited to be reunited with her husband.
“Having the chaplain was a huge source of support and kept me grounded while I was unable to see him,” she said.
Once released from the hospital, Siler spent two weeks at a behavioral health facility. It was there he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, received counseling services and met with a psychiatrist every day. During those two weeks, they walked him through his medications, helped him work through his experiences, and taught him how to embrace his post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I learned that PTSD is not normally diagnosed in the first six months of being back from deployment,” he said. “It usually develops once the body slows down. For the first time, I got clarity of what was going on and why certain things were happening.”
He was nervous about returning to work following his recovery but found that his leadership and fellow Airmen were understanding and supportive as he transitioned back into work life.
For Siler, the biggest takeaway was understanding the tools he had at his disposal to help him overcome his PTSD.
“Medicine is just one quick fix tool, but medicine alone does not help you change the behavior that contributes to stress,” said Siler.
In addition to medicine, he identified a network of people who could support him, such as his wife and extended family. He rediscovered his love of exercise and found practicing music to be an effective outlet for stress reduction.
“Using all of the tools that were available to control and limit my anxiety, I was able to come off all medication about a year and a half later, after exhibiting healthy behaviors,” he explained.
Siler believes the Air Force’s perspective on mental health needs reframing so that people know it’s okay to seek help.
“A lot of people think that if you go to mental health, that is the end of your career,” Siler explained. “I am living proof that that is not the case. Going to get help allowed me to gain an understanding of what I experienced, get the help I needed, and come back stronger. Now when I experience the same kind of stress, I am better equipped to handle it.”
He advises his fellow Airmen who are experiencing symptoms of an invisible wound to “go in, get help, get on the road to recovery, and get back to the fight.”
Now, as a leader in the 492nd Special Operations Support Squadron, Siler has become an advocate for what he believes are healthy techniques for dealing with stress, noting that he is back in the fight as a stronger officer and more resilient Airman than he was before.
Editor’s Note: Are you or someone you know suffering from an invisible wound? Visit the Invisible Wounds Initiative website or the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program for more information. Ultimately, Airmen taking care of Airmen is what this is all about. Finding strength in yourselves and others, to go the extra distance, seek help, and come back stronger. The Air Force is committed to ensuring you have the resources to do so.