Mike Bressler and Raymond Mangelsdorf never served in the same unit, or even the same branch of the armed forces, but roughly a decade after deploying to Iraq, their shared experiences dealing with the aftermath of war brought them together.
Mangelsdorf served in the Army, Bressler was a Marine.
“I joined in ‘99, before the [Iraq] war,” Mangelsdorf said. “There was the before-war Army, then the war started, and then everything was different.”
Mangelsdorf deployed to Iraq in 2004. Bressler arrived a year later. They both saw intense combat.
“There was so much romance of what war was, when I was a kid,” Mangelsdorf recalled. “You watch these movies, and they even try to depict in the movies what the pain of what war is, but then you go and you see it. There’s no glory. It’s just ugly.”
For Mangelsdorf, that ugliness manifested as a combination of numbness and rage once he redeployed home. He remembers focusing on his failing marriage and his military career to distract him from his trauma, but once he’d left those both behind, he began to fall apart.
“I didn’t even know the demons were there until I had nothing to focus on,” he said. “When it happened, I lost the race. It caught up to me and I crumbled.”
“I didn't know there were demons either,” Bressler said. But within two months of leaving the military and starting classes at Penn State, he began having severe panic attacks.
“I was doing HVAC work with one of my buddies and I collapsed out in the middle of somebody’s yard,” he said. “I just started shaking and freaking out and thought I was going to die.”
For both Bressler and Mangelsdorf, alcohol became their drug of choice to keep the panic and despair at bay.
“I got to the point I didn’t want to wake up,” Bressler said.
“There was a gut instinct in me that something was wrong, so I got diagnosed with PTSD, but I didn’t know what that meant,” said Mangelsdorf. “I didn’t think I had it.”
They each went thought cycles of trying therapy, but not making progress. Mangelsdorf recalled dropping out each time the conversations got too painful. For him, the turning point came when his daughter was born. For Bressler, an ultimatum from his wife prompted him to seek help.
Both Bressler and Mangelsdorf went through cognitive processing therapy and sought counseling for alcoholism. They also found solace talking to other veterans.
“After I got the freedom of the therapy I got, I wanted to help the next guy,” said Mangelsdorf. “Now I’m a PTSD specialist for VA. That’s all I do, is walk people through the fact that they don’t have to live this way.”
The two met at the Durham VA in 2015, roughly a decade after their deployments to Iraq. Mangelsdorf encouraged Bressler to pursue a master’s degree in social work so that he too could help other veterans.
“I don’t think either of us are saying this is something that’s ever going to go away, but you learn ways to cope with it,” said Bressler. “Find every single tool you can, stick them all in your tool belt, have a little bit of hope, and you can do this. I felt like I was stuck for such a long time. Life opens doors and you’ve got to walk through them.”
This conversation was produced by North Carolina Public Radio WUNC as part of StoryCorps’ Military Voices Initiative, and made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.