Life After Service - Evan Ahlin
For Evan Ahlin, a retired U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, May 22, 2010, is a day that is permanently seared into his memory. Weeks into his fifth deployment, his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan and left a trail of destruction that he and two other Marines were lucky to survive. Ahlin chose to stay on active duty but that came with a hefty stipulation: leave the artillery job field he had served with for over a decade and choose a new military occupational specialty (MOS) that wouldn’t be as physically taxing on his combat injuries. Luckily for him, his new career presented itself through an unlikely therapy program he attended that led him to pursue the MOS field of combat photography.
A photo showing the aftermath of the improvised explosive device blast on May 22, 2010, and what was left of the M-ATV carrying (then) Sgt. Evan Ahlin and two other Marines. (Photo courtesy of GySgt Evan Ahlin, USMC (Ret.))
During his time at Wounded Warrior Battalion – West aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., Ahlin participated in a variety of therapy and rehabilitation programs to help him make sense of his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) incurred during the 2010 IED blast. Here he participated in the fStop Warrior Project led by Terence Ford. The goal of the program was to teach wounded warriors the art of digital photography and enable them to use it as a tool through which self-expression and communication can flourish through imagery when words aren’t enough.
This 2004 photograph shows Marines, including (then) Lance Cpl. Evan Ahlin, with Lima Battery, 3 Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom II. They were detailed to convoy security during this deployment. (Photo courtesy of GySgt Evan Ahlin, USMC (Ret.))
“I think the big reason service members and veterans miss out on great medical care is they’re being told they have to accept things as they are,” Ahlin shared. “The same therapies, or rehabs, or support groups, don’t work for everyone. There is no one-size-fits-all for mental health or PTSD.” He adds that it’s ok, even while still in uniform, to speak up if a program or provider aren’t meeting your needs. Photography and art therapy were the break he needed from telling his story over and over again because it allowed him to express himself in a way he verbally couldn’t.
“The important thing to understand is there should be no shame in reaching out for help whether you’re still in uniform or on the civilian side now,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you’re ‘broken.’ Strong people have the courage to say they need help and to accept they don’t know everything, and it took me time to understand that too. Part of the problem is the military has this idea drilled into us that anyone who needs medical attention or mental health services is weak. And the media has all of us with PTSD looking like Frank Castle [The Punisher] or show us as homeless and unemployed. Most of us live ‘normal’ lives while also trying figure out what this new normal looks like for us, and that’s difficult when we’re constantly being told by people on the outside how we should act or feel.”
Ahlin admits the system can be difficult and daunting to navigate on your own if you’re unfamiliar with the bureaucracy of military and Veterans Affairs medicine. For years, he jokingly called his wife his “service human” since she comes from a Lebanese-immigrant and Muslim family so being around her family after being injured in combat was his form of exposure therapy. However, having a “service human,” or a battle buddy willing to navigate through the trenches with you, has its benefits. This is especially true if part of your PTSD or TBI symptoms include having difficulty expressing your needs clearly. Here is a list of things he wish he had known when he was initially injured, and services he’s discovered on the outside that have helped him with transition and recovery:
- Recovery is ongoing. There is no magic pill that will take you back to a time when PTSD was just something you read about rather than live through.
- Talk to the patient advocate or ask for a medical case manager through the hospital. The people are here to help ensure you are getting the care you need and to eliminate barriers to care.
- If you don’t jive with your provider, ask for someone else. Keep asking until you find someone you feel comfortable talking to. Therapy isn’t going to do anything for you if you’re uncomfortable and don’t feel like your needs are a priority.
- Vet Centers are a great resource on the outside. They are community-based VA partners and as long as you meet eligibility requirements, you don’t need to be service-connected to receive services.
- Find a hobby you love, even if you’re not the best at it. Give your time purpose and continue to strive to find a way to serve, whether it’s yourself, your family, or community. Having purpose is the nudge in the back many of us need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
- Find a buddy and accountability partner you can share your goals with. Ask them to check in with you in case you’re mentally not in the game to check in with them.
To see more about Evan Ahlin’s story, check out this video made during his time on active duty: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2momXHSRmI
For more resources check out:
Vet Center eligibility: https://www.vetcenter.va.gov/Eligibility.asp