Kayla Williams was a former Sergeant and Arabic linguist in the U.S. Army. She’s the author of the new book, “PLENTY OF TIME WHEN WE GET HOME: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War” while Williams was in Iraq, fellow service member Staff Sergeant Brian McGough (Retired), sustained severe injuries from an IED that sent shrapnel through his skull as he was traveling through a treacherous stretch outside Mosul. Kayla explains how he survived and how they resumed their friendship as Brian adjusted to life with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Williams and Brian got married, but the relationship wasn’t easy. Williams gives insight into PTSD with veterans and how debilitating it is for any marriage. She explains alcohol’s side-effects.
The topic then switches to the government and what it is doing to provide support for returning veterans from the military and the VA. Williams discusses if the United States is still oblivious to women veterans.
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Start of Interview with Kayla Williams
Jason Hartman: It’s my pleasure to welcome former staff sergeant and Arabic linguist in the US Army and that is Kayla Williams here to talk to us about her book entitled Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War. Kayla, how are you?
Kayla Williams: I’m fine. Thanks so much for having me today.
Jason Hartman: Thank you for joining us. Before we dive into your book and kind of the aftermath of war and recovery issues and things like that, the government’s response and so forth – we’ve heard a lot about that in the news – I’d like to actually talk about the war itself if you would and your experience, tours, and so forth. Tell us about that kind of from the beginning if you would.
Kayla Williams: Sure. I enlisted in the army in 2000 and although I knew that there was a chance that I would go to war, that’s what armies do, it didn’t seem like a very large possibility. And I was learning Arabic at the Defense Language Institute on 9/11. So, it was immediately clear that it was not a question of whether I would go to war but when and where.
I took part of the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 as part of the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault and and that was the day of you go to war with the army you have. So, as a woman soldier, when the expectation was that women wouldn’t be in combat, I didn’t even have plates for my flak vest. But because there weren’t enough interpreters and I spoke Arabic, I ended up going on combat foot patrol with the infantry in Baghdad. So, that was an opportunity for me to use my military training in a way that I never expected, but one that was tremendously rewarding for me to get to see the infantry do their job and get to see the immediate results of me doing my job.
Later, we were moved further north out to Mosul and then beyond. And I actually spent quite a few months on the side of a mountain, Sinjar Mountain in the Northern Iraq, in the middle of nowhere, first one of about 7 or 8 people – all the others were men. And then for another couple of months, maybe 20 or 30 other troops – again, they were all men. So it’s kind of just in very remote areas. That was a nice time for me because it was peaceful up there on the mountain, nobody was trying to kill us. Then I spent the last couple of months that I was in Iraq in Mosul itself where we were taking indirect fire, mortars and rockets were landing relatively nearby and things like that. So, that was a little less peaceful, a little bit more challenging.
While I was on the side of the mountain, I also met a man named Brian McGough who I thought was really interesting, smart, funny, handsome. But it wasn’t romantic. We couldn’t exactly go on dates. No clubs, couldn’t go party. But at one point I confessed to him that I really wanted to get to know him better. And he said “There’s plenty of time for that when we get home”. And not too long after that, he sustained a penetrating traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb or IED and nearly died. It was touch and go for several days whether or not he would survive. Luckily he did.
And he emailed me from the hospital once he had stabilized and I at that point was somewhere that I could get email and we began a very tentative romance that continued when he was released from the hospital around the same time that the rest of us got back from the Middle East. We started dating 10 years ago this month, actually, and got married about a year later. And my book is about his story. My new book is about his injury and then our family’s path from that war trauma to healing.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, I bet that is quite an amazing story. And I thank you and him for your service of course. It’s an amazing sacrifice. I don’t know how military people do it. It’s always amazed me the heroism and just the risk. I mean, it’s incredible the sacrifices he makes. So, thank you for that.
Kayla Williams: It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot since we’ve come home when people do think as far as service. I think, in some interesting ways, we as a society have maybe because so few serve – it’s less than 1% of the population now with all-volunteer force – there’s no draft – and we’re so removed as a society from troops that are actually serving that in some ways we put them on a pedestal and we lose sight of the fact that there are people in our everyday communities that serve and take tremendous risks as well like our firefighters and our police officers. And I think it’s important to note that people serve in many different ways and all of them experience different types of challenges that can be formidable in their own rights.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, certainly that’s true and it’s very nice of you to point that out, however they’re not being shot at constantly. Certainly, being in a war zone is I would look at that as just the highest amount of service and risk with virtually no breaks sometimes, right?
Kayla Williams: That’s right. Nobody gets off.
Jason Hartman: And an insane amount of stress to go through that and to be at that level of risk virtually all the time. You’re a linguist, so what did you do? You were on foot? And helping combat troops communicate with people on the ground, with civilians? Tell us about that and just give us an example of what’s a typical day.
Kayla Williams: That wasn’t what I was actually trained to do. My training was to do signals intelligence, so to do intercept and direction finding on enemy communications. Imagine sitting in your car and pushing the scan button on your car stereo trying to find a radio station in the middle of nowhere, doing that with ME communications, trying to find bad guys talking on the radio. That’s what I was trained to do. But in those early days in Baghdad, there just weren’t enough civilian interpreters available and so I ended up going out with infantry on foot patrol, going house to house, asking if there were any bad guys, any terrorists in their neighborhood asking if there were weapons around, trying to find abandoned war material.
A lot of the Iraqi army at the very beginning just literally abandoned their equipment, dropped their uniforms and took off. So, we were finding some old almost armor personnel carriers, things like that, finding unexploded ordnance, going through schools and all kinds of places, looking for caches of weapons and ammunition.
One day while we were out there, the worst day that I had in Iraq, we responded to a call for quick reaction force when some of that unexploded ordnance had gone off, injuring 4 American soldiers and 3 Iraqi civilians. And I translated while we provided medical care to the civilians, one of whom did not survive. And for me, personally, that was the worst day of the war to watch someone bleed to death and be helpless at the same time.
Jason Hartman: Let’s talk about the aftermath. When did you come home?
Kayla Williams: I came home in February of 2004 – actually February 8th, 2004 was the day that I got off the plane and back in America.
Jason Hartman: And how was that experience? You came back and tell us what happened.
Kayla Williams: It was a little surreal. Some of it was just little things. I hadn’t worn makeup in a year, so putting on makeup felt really bizarre. I hadn’t used my ATM card and I didn’t remember my pin, so I couldn’t get cash out anymore. So, I had all these little things to deal with that I hadn’t had to deal with in a year, my water bill and trying to figure out how to drive on American streets in my little car instead of on the streets of Iraq driving a Humvee.
And I didn’t have a weapon. But my brain had been trained for a year in Iraq to be alert to any potential threat. Any car cutting me off in traffic was potentially a threat to my life and the lives of my comrades. So, I was very vigilant, very alert to potential threats, possible bombs,
trash on the side of the road, could it have been an explosive device. So, my brain was very ramped up and alert to any of those possible threats. And it took months to turn that dial down in my brain to ease back on what in a combat zone is a survival mechanism, to be hyper-vigilant, to be ready to respond with violence, and to gradually convince my brain that I was back in America, strange sounds were very unlikely to be things exploding or people shooting at me, and that I could calm down again.
And I’m lucky. For me, that process did happen. Within about 6 months, most of those symptoms had retreated and I was doing pretty well. For some percentage of veterans, that doesn’t happen and they stay in that keyed up state, possibly indefinitely, and that I think is really the easiest way to explain to civilians what PTSD is for combat vets it’s that the adaptive responses of being in a combat zone, you can’t turn them back off and sometimes that can result in some really unhealthy and maladaptive behaviors back here in civilian society.
Jason Hartman: Sure. And how do you turn it off? Does it just happen over time? Did you go to counseling? Did you take pharmaceutical drugs? What happens? How does that happen?
Kayla Williams: It depends on the person. For me, I tried a little bit of therapy and I did try medication – that didn’t help me. For me, it was just a matter of time and being around other combat vets and talking about what was going on and realizing that it was pretty normal, talking to other people who were saying they had trouble sleeping, they were having angry outbursts and coming to say “Oh, I’m not crazy” and that helps me feel les panicky, just realizing that it was a fairly normal response and over time it did ramp down.
There’s some evidence that people who have experienced multiple exposures to trauma – so that could be multiple deployments or it could be that they were also in a car accident or natural disaster or experienced some kind of abuse as children – that those people’s brains may be a little more likely to develop a full-on post-traumatic stress disorder. And for people who the symptoms last more than 6 months, it’s really important that they do seek help and get therapy and find ways to try to dial that back.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, wow. You know what really bothered me? A few years back Nancy Pelosi and her clan were trying to almost classify her veterans as potential terrorists. I couldn’t believe this. And I’ve heard stories about veterans not being able to buy a gun the way most any of us can. In these restrictions actually and the suspicion towards our people who have made great sacrifices to serve, do you have any thoughts on that?
Kayla Williams: I haven’t heard exactly what you’re talking about. I do know there is evidence that there are some extremist groups who have purposefully tried to infiltrate the military in order to get military training and access to weapons in the military, so that’s something that obviously we as citizens should all be concerned about.
And then when it comes to restricting people’s ability to purchase firearms, my husband, in the worst stages of his PTSD, he was violent and he realized himself that we should not have weapons in the house because it was just too dangerous. I know also when we first got back from the war, my roommate had bought a handgun because we were all so used to having a weapon at our side at every moment and time and he slept with it under his pillow. And I was afraid that when I came home in the middle of the night, he might have a flashback and shoot me. That was a genuine concern on my part.
I think for people with well managed and mild mental health problems, owning a weapon is not a big deal. But if someone has severe or untreated post-traumatic stress disorder to the point that they could pose a threat to themselves, their family, their communities, I think it is reasonable to say that if in the opinion of a mental health professional that somebody should not be allowed to own a weapon, I think that’s personally reasonable.
Jason Hartman: Of course that’s reasonable. No one would deny that. But what is the process? I mean, what happens? Do you receive counseling before you come home, after you come home? Is it all optional?
Kayla Williams: We didn’t get counseling. Before we come home we had a chaplain tell us not to beat our wives, which was so the era of don’t ask, don’t tell. And I was like, oh, sir, I’m a woman. I don’t know if you can even say that to me. I’m just joking. But yeah, it wasn’t great in those early days. And then when we first got off the plane, the next day, we had to go and fill out these forms and nobody wanted to tell the truth. You’re checking, are you having this problem, are you having that problem, but nobody wants to tell the truth because you’re afraid that if you do you won’t be released and get to go and see your family.
So that happens again, that post-deployment health service comes again months later. But it’s really tough to get over this peer pressure almost, though it may not be explicitly stated, but the feeling in the military that you’re supposed to suck it up and drive on and not admit weakness, not admit if you’re having problems if you’re struggling because you want to be tough. You want to be seen as tough as a big premium place on that within the military. So, overcoming that and saying I’m having a really hard time, I need a little additional help getting back to normal and seeking mental health services can be really difficult for a lot of people.
Jason Hartman: So, talk to us about the care that Brian especially has received with PTSD, with the injury. How has that been? Would you say you’re critical of the government’s care? Or has it been pretty good?
Kayla Williams: When he was first injured, the military just was not prepared for the number of severely wounded warriors coming home, and just didn’t understand traumatic brain injury in particular. So, he was released from Walter Reed and sent back to his artillery battery and they didn’t know what to do with him because he was really screwed up. His wound was still fresh enough that he couldn’t even wear a head gear. He couldn’t wear his hat. The army’s really big on people wearing their hats outside. And he couldn’t wear his head gear even though he had visible scars, very fresh wounds, and it was freaking out the new guys who had just gotten assigned training. So, the unit said just don’t come in, don’t show up at work because you can’t do your job anymore and we don’t know what to do with you.
And that was not the right answer. He wasn’t getting proper medical care, but he also wasn’t getting the type of direct supervision that is typical in the military. And so eventually his mother and I lobbied to get him transferred back to Walter Reed so he could get better care as an outpatient. And that was a little bit better. Down the road, the military recognizing this gap that was happening where soldiers like Brian were slipping through the cracks established what is known as warrior transition unit where wounded warriors and other troops with severe medical problems can go and have more intense supervision from people who have been trained to help them navigate those symptoms.
It took them two years to medically retire Brian. He only got kind of sporadic therapy during that time when it came to psychological therapy and he did not get any cognitive rehab whatsoever. Again, very early in the war, they just didn’t know what was going on. Somebody literally told him, well, if you can walk and talk and wipe your own butt, then we can release you from the hospital. Nobody checked to make sure he could pay his own bills or in any other way manage his life before releasing him. And that was not the right answer. But luckily, things have improved, but in those early days, they were very, very bad.
And he went to VA early on right after he’d been medically retired and did not find it to be a good experience, was really uncomfortable, didn’t get good care. So, he didn’t go back. We just used Tricare which is health insurance for troops and retirees and sought care in the civilian sector for a long time. And then a few years ago, he decided to give VA another chance, so he went back in and got great care. He saw a specialist who has extra training in dealing with traumatic brain injuries known as a podiatrist. He got signed up for recreational therapy. It sounds a little weird, but he got to go and learn how to golf from a professional golfer and, believe it or not, some of the techniques that he learned out there on how to focus helped him deal with the anxiety attacks that he would have from PTSD. So, even though I thought it sounded hokey, it really helped him.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, I would believe that. That doesn’t sound like fluff. That sounds like a legit thing.
Kayla Williams: It really did help him and got some vestibular therapy to help. He was having bouts of dizziness. So, he got a lot of intense care that was really designed to help him with the issues he was encountering, so something with some time to kind of catch up with things. But at this point, things were a lot better. And I had similar experiences. I went to VA when I was first out of the army and did not feel comfortable as a woman, didn’t feel as if I was recognized as a veteran myself, as a woman thought it was a very comfortable environment.
We went back several years later and it was just totally changed. I had dealt with a much better environment and people who were sensitive to the fact that as a woman I had in fact been in combat. So, it’s taken the organization some time to catch up, but they’re doing a lot better and we can all continue to do our part by encouraging our elected officials to play their oversight role, make sure that VA is properly funded and is doing what they’re supposed to do to take care of our veterans.
Jason Hartman: We’ve just got a few minutes, but talk to us a little bit about alcohol and post-traumatic stress disorder. Is that a particular issue with PTSD or is it just an issue like it is for everybody?
Kayla Williams: Alcohol does not mix well with PTSD. And alcohol does not mix well with traumatic brain injuries. And I would recommend that anybody who is struggling with either a brain injury or PTSD avoid alcohol as much as possible. And if they’re unwilling to give it up entirely, to at least limit consumption of alcohol as much as possible.
Jason Hartman: What happens?
Kayla Williams: I mean, it varies by individual, but for Brian, when he was drinking and especially when he progressed from just beer to hard alcohol to doing shots of liquor, that was when he would completely lose it, when he would become violent, when he would be unable to control his temper, when the demons would overtake him really, it was when he was drinking. And there were times that I was literally afraid for my life because of how bad things got.
So, we’re very lucky that he’s been able to move forward. It took a long time. It took many years, but we’re doing great today and I would encourage anyone who’s struggling to reach out and seek help. Veterans in crisis can call 1-800-273-TALK and press 1 for immediate assistance. But I just really want to convey the message to people that there is a path forward, there is a path home from trauma and if somebody needs help they should ask for it. It’s true not just for soldiers who experience war trauma, but for anyone who has been through a traumatic experience or sustained a brain injury. Don’t give up, keep trying. Healing is possible.
Jason Hartman: Well, very good message. Thank you so much for sharing that. And give out your website, Kayla.
Kayla Williams: It’s KaylaMaureenWilliams.com.
Jason Hartman: KaylaMaureenWilliams.com, and you have a couple of books, right? Not just the one?
Kayla Williams: This is my second book, that’s right. My first one was Love My Rife More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army.
Jason Hartman: Fantastic. Well, good stuff. And the new book is entitled Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War. Kayla Williams, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kayla Williams: Thank you. Have a great day.
Narrator: Thank you for joining us today for the Holistic Survival Show, protecting the people, places and profits you care about in uncertain times. Be sure to listen to our Creating Wealth Show which focuses on exploiting the financial and wealth creation opportunities in today’s economy. Learn more at www.JasonHartman.com or search “Jason Hartman” on iTunes. This show is produced by The Hartman Media Company, offering very general guidelines and information. Opinions of guests are their own and none of the content should be considered individual advice. If you require personalized advice, please consult an appropriate professional. Information deemed reliable, but not guaranteed.
Transcribed by Ralph
Guest: Kayla Williams
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