PTSD nearly killed him. Now this former Marine is using it to help ​other veterans

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North Carolina Marine veteran, Bobby Grey, discusses his suicide attempt seven years after an explosive Iraqi attack on his unit during Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Day at the Charlotte National Guard Armory on July 26, 2014. (North Carolina National Guard/Sgt. Ruth McClary)

You can't see Bobby Grey's scars.

On the surface, he's just an ordinary 35-year-old husband. FedEx driver. Racing fan. Philadelphia Eagles diehard. Dog owner.

He's also a former Marine, 2003 to 2007 — a mission that has given him great pride and great anguish. Twelve years later — anguish or not — he still loves the Corps to the core. Semper Fi — always faithful.

Grey acknowledges, though, that that's where the scars originated.

As a young devil dog, a PFC scarcely six months out of boot camp, Grey deployed to Iraq and got his first taste of combat when he was only 20 years old. One day, Marines in his convoy — guys he knew — died when a roadside bomb blew up beneath them. On another day, during a firefight with Iraqi insurgents, bullets whizzed over Grey's head, close enough that he could hear them. Seconds later, when the bullets shattered the windows behind him, a shower of glass rained down on his head.

But those days were nothing compared to Dec. 3, 2004, the day a suicide bomber rocked his unit's base with an explosion so violent that it literally blew him out of the chow hall where he'd been dining. He suffered a concussion and a mild traumatic brain injury — as if anything traumatic could be mild — but several comrades fared worse, suffering broken bones and dislocated hips. Two of his buddies died in the blast, and Grey had to put them in body bags himself.

"It's like losing a brother," he says softly. "No, it is losing a brother."


These are the memories Grey brought home from Iraq, carrying them around like a rucksack on his back. Also in that invisible rucksack, Grey lugged PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — a mental and emotional condition which, though common among active military personnel and veterans alike, he knew little about and even denied having.

Six and a half years ago, that denial nearly killed him. When the PTSD that had been simmering inside him for years suddenly exploded, Grey snapped. After an argument with his wife, Kia, he stormed out of the couple's house in Thomasville, climbed a magnolia tree in the backyard, texted his wife an apology, and hanged himself with an extension cord. He only survived because of Kia's screams when she found him, a neighbor with a ladder who helped cut him down, and Kia's frantic CPR efforts as she waited for paramedics to arrive.

Bobby remembers none of this. When he emerged from a medically induced coma a week and a half later, he refused to believe he had tried to kill himself. It wasn't until nurses walked him over to a mirror and showed him the angry red scar across his neck that he realized what he'd done.

"That was so scary," Bobby says, "because I didn't remember any of it, and I didn't know what it would take for me to get to that point again."

The scar on Bobby's neck lasted for weeks.

The scars on his heart have lasted much longer.

***

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Bobby never gave much thought to joining the military. After high school, he had planned to attend the NASCAR Technical Institute and work in the racing industry, but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, got his patriotism revving. On his grandfather's advice, he followed in the old man's footsteps and joined the Marine Corps.

He enlisted in August 2003, and a short year later he and his artillery unit found themselves headed to Iraq, where a fierce battle to capture Fallujah was about to unfold. Bobby's unit patrolled the border between Iraq and Jordan, watching primarily for smugglers and illegal weapons.

Bobby seemed to adapt well to the combat environment, even when he encountered his first firefight.

"You get an adrenaline rush and your hands start shaking, but in that moment you become like a robot — your training just takes over," he says. "They were shooting at us and we were returning fire, and I remember thinking, 'Holy crap, this is legit — this is real.'"

Nothing, however, could've prepared Bobby for the events of the suicide truck bombing that killed two of his Marine brothers. After the blast threw him from the chow hall, he gingerly got to his feet and noticed blood all over his left side — but the blood wasn't his. Outside the chow hall, he walked among the surreal ruins of the explosion, including an almost-cartoonish 15-foot-wide hole in a fortified wall near where the bomb had detonated.

A frantic sergeant's voice brought him back to reality.

"We need ponchos or anything we can get to carry casualties on!" the officer yelled.

Bobby knew both of the casualties well: Corp. Matthew Wyatt, 21, and Corp. Binh Le, 20 — the same age as Bobby. According to Bobby, Wyatt and Le saw the truck bomb approaching and tried to disable it, despite not having their combat gear on them.

"They basically sacrificed themselves for 30-some Marines," he says. "And then, me and another buddy of mine, we actually had to put Le and Wyatt in their body bags ourselves. That's the kind of stuff that really weighed on me, even years after leaving the Marine Corps."

At the time, though, Bobby had no idea just how heavy those memories would be.

***

Looking back, Bobby says he was well-prepared for the enemies he faced when he was deployed overseas. It's the enemy he faced when he came home that he wasn't ready for.

As early as July 2005, while Bobby was still a Marine, he began to show signs of PTSD, including a horrific flashback he experienced at a gas station in Washington, D.C. As he was pumping gas, the smell of diesel fuel triggered a panic attack and he "freaked out," he says.

"After we got blown up in Iraq, you could smell the diesel fuel from that truck for weeks, and it was a constant reminder every day," Bobby says. "So when I smelled it that day at the gas station, it put me back in Iraq, and I actually got scared. I started screaming at the people in the parking lot, cussing at them to get out of there. I got in the car — I never even paid for the gas — and I just started driving like crazy. Kia was with me, and she had no idea what was going on. We probably got to Baltimore before I finally told her what was going on. I told her I thought I was gonna die if I didn't get out of there."

Even after his discharge in 2007, as Bobby and his wife settled down in Thomasville and began making the transition to civilian life, he began showing signs of PTSD, such as difficulty sleeping, irritability, depression and dramatic mood swings. During an argument with a family member, the relative made a derogatory comment, and within seconds Bobby had him on the ground in a chokehold.

"It's like I blacked out and was just raging," he says.

It was Kia, though, who bore the brunt of Bobby's mood swings and irritability. She frequently encouraged her husband to seek help, but her pleas only angered him more.

"She knew something was going on, but I was ignorant and had too much of an ego to admit it," Bobby says. "I was like, 'Woman, stop. You're making me think I'm crazy when there's nothing wrong. Just leave me alone.'"

Their marriage began to fray — red flags abounded — and Bobby didn't care.

"We would just argue over the tiniest little things," Kia says. "I really had a hard time trying to fight for our marriage."

The tension came to a head on May 27, 2013 — Memorial Day, ironically — when the couple had a particularly heated argument. Bobby stormed out of the house, and Kia assumed he was simply going for a ride in his truck to blow off some steam. When she walked outside a few minutes later, though, his truck was still in the driveway. She tried to call him, but got no answer.

Just then, Bobby sent his wife a text message: "I love you. I always will. I'm sorry."

Kia panicked.

"My heart just sank to the floor," she says. "I knew something was terribly wrong."

Instinctively, she ran to the backyard.

"When I got to this big magnolia tree, I looked up and I saw him hanging there from an extension cord," she says. "I just screamed at the top of my lungs — I didn't know what else to do. He was so far up in the tree that, even standing on my tippy-toes, I couldn't touch his feet."

A neighbor heard Kia's screams and came running with a ladder to help cut him down. Meanwhile, Kia called 911 and then ran back to her husband, now lying on the ground.

"His lips were already blue, and his body had already started shutting down," she recalls.

He had a faint pulse, but he wasn't breathing, so Kia started CPR.

"He finally gasped for breath," she says, "and I just stayed there and held him until the paramedics got there."

Bobby was rushed to Thomasville Medical Center, then medevacked to Wake Forest Baptist Health Care in Winston-Salem, where he had to be put in a medically induced coma.

"They couldn't give us any guarantees of whether he was gonna survive, and if he did, what the outlook was gonna be like," Kia recalls. "The longer he went without waking up, the less likely he would be to have a full recovery."

And if Bobby did survive, what would he think when he saw his wife?

"I didn't know, if he woke up, whether he was gonna hate me for saving his life, or whether he was gonna be glad that I had saved his life," Kia says.

Bobby awoke after 10 days, groggy, but lucid enough to realize he was in a hospital. When he saw Kia, he reached out his arms to hug her — he thought they must've been in a car accident, and he was thankful she had survived. Kia and the nurses had to convince a disbelieving Bobby that he had hanged himself.

"Any issue I ever had in my life, suicide was never an option," Bobby says. "I love life too much. Even when I was in my dark places before the suicide attempt, overall, I still enjoyed life. I didn't want to kill myself."

The truth, though, was as clear as that ugly scar across his neck.

And now, for whatever reason, he'd been given a second chance at life. What was he going to do with it?

***

In 2005, after the diesel-triggered flashback at the gas station, Bobby made Kia promise not to tell anyone what had happened.

"At that point, PTSD was so frowned upon," he explains. "I didn't want to lose my rank or not get a promotion or even get discharged because of PTSD. I didn't think anybody else in my unit was going through that kind of stuff."

Then, in the years leading up to his suicide attempt — and even after that — Bobby's silence was more about losing his rank in society.

"There was this stigma with having PTSD, like you're somehow less of a man," he says. "I didn't want that label on me, so I didn't talk about it. I was still struggling, but I didn't want anyone to know."

Finally, around Memorial Day of 2014 — a year after hanging himself — Bobby decided to stop hiding. By remaining silent, he'd nearly lost his marriage and, ultimately, nearly lost his life. What more did he have to lose now by speaking out? So all those years of shame, guilt, remorse, pity and pain — he exchanged them all for one shining moment of courage.

With a friend's help, Bobby made a video in which he opened up about his PTSD — the depression, the mood swings, the suicide attempt, all of it.

"I finally just stopped caring about anybody else's opinion of me and what I had been through and was still going through," he says. "I was sick of it and just said the heck with it. This is me. Own it instead of feeling for yourself. Use it in a good way."

They posted the video on YouTube, and it's still there to this day, with more than 1,800 views. Many of those who watched the video were Marines or former Marines who were going through some of the same things. They reached out to Bobby to thank him for sharing his story. They couldn't talk about their PTSD — not publicly, at least — but Bobby's testimony validated what they were experiencing.

Ironically, although Bobby had made the video to help others with PTSD, it helped him, too. Sharing his story had freed him from the chains that had been holding him down.

"I did that video, and it's been great strides ever since," he says.

In the five-plus years since then, Bobby has shared his story countless times, including testifying before Congress on behalf of the Armed Forces Foundation. He's spoken to school groups, church groups and, perhaps most importantly, fellow veterans and active military personnel, sharing their pain and encouraging them to seek help. Most recently, he and Kia shared their story in the film "Soldier's Kiss: A PTSD Documentary."

Sharing is therapeutic for Bobby, doing him as much good as it does others, he says.

"I still struggle every day," he says. "I still battle depression and mood swings, and I sleep awful. Sometimes I'll wake up in the morning and have panic attacks. I cry sometimes. But that's OK, because I'm doing better. I go to the VA and I've gotten help."

Bobby believes God has given him this second chance at life as a mission to fight PTSD.

"There's no other explanation for it," he says. "I've been put in the hells of war and life for a reason, and that's something I had to understand: Why am I still alive? I mean, there are guys who hung themselves who never came out of the coma or had the quality of life that I have, so I'd be stupid not to use this second chance to share my testimony and try to stop this thing."

That's who Bobby Grey is now. The scars around his heart may not be visible, but his heart sure is.

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press "1" to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.

———

©2019 The High Point Enterprise (High Point, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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