Depression, PTSD and TBI


I want to give you some helpful information by talking about PTSD, TBI and depression. I have all three. In the last six months I have made tremendous strides to take my life back.

I know a lot of friends and family members who have these issues. Hopefully, reading about them and sharing what I’ve learned will help those suffering.

My goals in this emails to be as honest as I can. Some of these issues are deeply personal and embarrassing, but If it helps only one person it will all be worth it.

The Black Cloud

I have an amazing life. I have a fiancé who loves me. I teach the future leaders of the army on my weekend drills. I write for a living, something I love to do.

Despite all these wonderful things I live with depression. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by overly negative feelings and thoughts.

Sometimes something brings it on like the loss of a loved one or a friend. Sometimes nothing whatsoever brings it on, a black cloud will form on the horizon of a happy day.

Living with depression is disabling and awful. All the pleasure is sucked out things I love to do. I start to leak confidence and become blind to the good things in my life.

I become forgetful. I can’t keep track of my finances, or remember simple appointments because I am overwhelmed by feelings of self-loathing and a loss of self-confidence.

I become a stranger to friends, family and myself. I tell people I am doing well. In reality I can’t bear to clean the house or simply do the dishes.

The worst thing is I lose all my compassion and become selfish. I feel like a useless, ugly, stupid blob. In this state I become unpredictable, afraid and lazy.

I miss the old me full of energy, brimming with confidence.

Over time I see glimpses of my old self. It becomes harder and harder to get up the in the morning and face the day.

The worst part is how I see myself. I feel like a bad person, a rotten, selfish human being.

I feel like I fell down a black hole. I quit taking care of myself and forget to bath and eat. I feel like I will be stuck here forever.

I lost track of time, each moment feels like forever. I’m completely alone on Depression Island. I am isolated, trapped and nothing will ever be the same again.

It becomes harder and harder to get out this frame of mind, to see any hope.

I am Italian and Catholic- we do guilt, not suicide.

I do know why people kill themselves when they feel this way. It is draining and leaves you so tired you don’t want to go on. You feel once you’re gone you don’t have feel these negative feelings anymore.

Fighting Back

At some point I decide to fight back. I am determined to be strong and I remind myself I live through this. I usually do something fun to let my feelings flow.

I learned this state of mind has nothing to do with will power or attitude. It’s like being bald or short, it is what it is.

I have tried all sorts of remedies to relieve my depression: yoga, running, hiking, behavioral cognitive therapy, regression therapy, group therapy, religion and meditation.

Some helped and some made no difference at all.

Sometimes a good night’s sleep was helpful. Sometimes I stay stuck in the hole for a few days. I realized this last time I needed some professional help.

What I learned

Some depression is hereditary like male pattern baldness or brown eyes. I was probably born this way with a temperament towards depression. I think it has very little to do my experiences in the military.

It’s a well-known fact that some families have a disposition toward depression. I am reminded of the “Hemingway curse.” Ernest, his father, his brother, his sister and granddaughter all killed themselves after suffering from severe manic-depression.

Part of it may be a chemical imbalance in my brain.

The Brain

The brain is a magnificent organ. It is the command and control of your body.

The brain is very soft. It is the texture of soft butter. Only thin layers of fluid-filled membranes cushion the brain from impact.

The brain sits in the skull- a hard helmet of bone that protects the brain. The skull is full of bony ridges and sharp points. When you hit your head, the brain hits these hard places. This causes Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).


My real problems began about a few months after I got home from last tour in Afghanistan in 2012. I started to slip into a parallel world for minutes at a time. Instantly, I was back in Afghanistan, sometimes Iraq, but mostly Afghanistan.

Sometimes it was in dreams, other times it was when I was awake in flashbacks. I had the same feelings and sensations I felt there. It seemed very real.

Once in a while I would replay the explosion that killed Bruno. Other times it was stuff that happened in Iraq. I would snap back to a former reality during a deployment and exist in it for a period of time.

The war for all the things wrong with it became the defining experience of my life. There I was loved, and had purpose. I took part in the adventure of my generation.

I started to write down what was happening. It was a repetition that became a compulsion. I began to understand that my flashbacks were an overwhelming need to repeat the experience, to resolve it.

I was replaying the movie in my head to get a satisfactory ending. I just couldn’t let go of it. I was living both a nightmare and a dream. This was PTSD.


TBI is a physical injury. PTSD is the mental injury. The combination of PTSD, TBI and depression is a “perfect storm.” Symptoms of the three can be overpowering and destructive. Sometimes they overlap.

The rate of PTSD is much higher in veterans who have a brain injury.

In 2005 I was blown up in a small explosion in Iraq where I hit the side of head. It knocked me out for a minute or two. It was not that severe. It was early in the war.

Three years later I hit my forehead on the steering wheel in the initial explosion that killed Bruno.

I hit the side of my head on the door and the roof of the truck as the truck blew apart and into the air. I was knocked out for 10 minutes. I woke up and passed out twice before Jerry rescued me.

Surviving an Explosion

An explosion does horrible, violent things to the human body. A blast wave is like being hit with a tsunami, then an instant later you are pulled back into the ocean to drown. This all happens in an instant.

A complex pressure causes the explosion. A wall of heat, pressure and sound hits you at over 700 miles per hour. The blast wave passes through your eyes, nose and mouth.

Air filled organs like your lungs and gastrointestinal track lose all oxygen. A fraction of a second later, debris and fragments fly through the air.

I hit the steering wheel with my forehead, the roof and cab of my truck. I hit my head three times in less than five seconds. Each hit was like getting whacked with a baseball bat. I had major problems.


I smacked my forehead where my prefrontal cortex (PFC) is. The PFC is the part of the brain handles decision-making, planning and impulse control mixed in with depression and TBI. I was a perfect cocktail for a disaster.

My brain injury gave me a lot of problems in the years after the accident.

I can tell you from personal experience, having issues mentally like impulsiveness or memory problems is not lack of will power or a bad attitude.

Compulsiveness is not about rigid people who are over controlling. Understanding and optimizing your brain is sometimes the missing link to being successful in getting better.

A Brain Injury

My problems came from a brain injury. There was no “getting over it” with willpower or a positive mental outlook. A high performance car doesn’t run with a busted engine and a cripple can’t walk with a spinal injury.

When the command and control center of the body is injured everything else is broken.

I had no patience over trivial things like waiting in line or being struck in traffic. I was anxious or frigidity. I couldn’t talk about happened without getting angry.

I was dealing with the physical and mental scars of war, things had changed while I was away. I lived in four places in two years unable to settle down.

I knew I had to understand what happened to get better.

The Human Brain

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It is made of billions and billions of nerve cells. It is estimated there are mores nerve cells in the brain than stars in the known galaxy.

A single piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains a hundred thousand nerve cells. These nerve cells make up your personality, character and intelligence. It’s what makes us who we are.

Dopamine, the pleasure and motivation brain chemical, and serotonin, the happy and anti-worry chemical, help with anxiety, depression and obsessive thinking. When there’s too much or too little of these chemicals between connections with nerve cells things get out of whack.

Anti-depressants get things back on track. They can help to regulate, generate and control the flow of chemicals in the brain. I have seen them help some patients and hurt others.

Chronic Pain

The brain and body connection is amazing. In Iraq after my buddy Phil died, I started to lose my hair. After getting blown up in Afghanistan what was left of my hair turned white, and I had an unhealthy skin tone.

In three months after getting home I put on 20 pounds. The mountain of physical and emotional stress took a negative toll.

Chronic Stress

When you have chronic physical and emotional pain life is a struggle mix in depression and life can be become unbearable. Everything gets mixed up and seen through the prism of pain and jumbled thoughts.

Pain, both physical and emotional, is a very personal thing. Pain is a monument to wartime trauma. Pain makes you divide time into two parts: before the pain and after.

Bruno died in September, I went to my buddy Bruno’s funeral in October- where I told his loving parents how their brave son died, while I lived- and I watched Phil’s murderer be acquitted in December.

In the last three months of 2008 I aged ten years.

From that day on I grew weary and worn out. The experiences drove me like a stolen car. I was run too far, too fast and never maintained. I was broken.


My own combat experience is what baseball players call a “cup of coffee.” It’s a slang term for a minor player getting in one game of major league of baseball.

I saw enough combat for a “cup of coffee.” I’ve been shot at and mortared but never anything serious. A few frantic, scared seconds with a couple of rounds. It was over before it started.

My issues came from PTSD and TBI. It wasn’t about the duration of the experience, but the intensity. My problems were chronic pain, flashbacks, nightmares and depression.

My worst symptoms were memory problems. Negative thoughts and images lived in my subconscious.

I would be having a normal day and a damaging thought or image would invade my brain. I’d forget where I was and what I was doing. It was ruining my life.

Getting Help

Last fall, with the love and support of my fiancé, Muna, I decided to get professional help.

Over the past couple of years, but more so in the past 6 months, I really had some problems- physically (knee/shoulder/back pain and balance issues), mentally (lack of sleep, memory and concentration issues), and emotionally (withdrawing, loss of interest in formerly fun activities).

My issues snuck up on me. They were cumulative. Being a soldier is a hard life. Physically, mentally and emotionally it can be draining. The physical pounding of over 20 years in the army started to add up.

My real problems were sleep issues. At first I didn’t see it. Over the years, five hours turned into four hours turned into three hours and 45 minutes.

Good health begins with a good night’s sleep.

Having chronic pain, with PTSD, TBI and sleep issues is like living in a dumpy third world country with a strange language and unfamiliar culture- everything is hard and crappy.

It was ruining my life. Mix in all the fun of anxiety and depression and you have a perfect cocktail that drained my well-being. All of it makes you feel worn out and far too old.


In the past five months I did one-on-one and group therapy. I started eating right, taking fish oil and vitamins, exercising for 30 minutes a day, sleeping for at least 6 hours a night and got better at handling the stress in my life.

I feel younger, clearer and vibrant. The best thing I did was start to write again. It’s what I love to do most. It gives me joy to help others. I can’t draw, so I write.

It is important to re-enter the world when you feel strong. I feel like I can cope and work through life’s surprises.

Depression is tricky. It can be a one-time event or it can be long haul, lasting days or months. Either way you’ll have to wrestle with it or hide it when you have to.

Sometimes being positive makes you end up feeling positive.

Moving On

Getting through depression and my other issues is a big struggle. It’s a victory when you start to come of out it. It’s like winning a title bout.

You may be a little battered and bruised but you’ve learned a few things about yourself and maybe you can help others because who have been there.

Slowly things change. Little things start to have meaning again. You survive a little at a time. Things gradually start to get easier. Maybe you’ll want to help others. Maybe you’ll even learn to love parts of yourself.

I hope this email helps by talking about it. It helps by talking about depression. Maybe you’ll have some tools for when it shows up again.


Colonel Chuck Waggonner’s Leadership Lessons

Fort Knox, Kentucky- May 2003

In May 2003, I got a strange mission. I assigned as the Infantry’s School liaison to work at the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) at Fort Knox’s Unit of Action Maneuver Battle Lab (UAMBL). A long title for a weird job.

Armed with three-dimensional goggles and a computer mouse I helped design how the army would look in the future. We mapped new ideas by using virtual environments, called constructive simulations. It felt like the set of a Star Wars movie.

The army is a platform-oriented service. To get a new tank takes years. The idea behind the UAMBL was for the FCS development process to be sped up by using cutting-edge technology.

You need an unconventional leader for such a radical idea. Colonel Chuck “Roy” Waggoner was it. He looked like a soldier: tall, rugged, broad-shouldered and solid-looking. He had brown hair going gray and a permanent smile.

A native of Jackson, Tennessee, Waggoner was a West Point graduate. He had the résumé to lead a strange and tough mission: he gathered a small band of soldiers and contractors and formed them into a team to figure out what the future army will do and look like.

Ranger Roy

The infantry is the center of the army’s fighting strength. Everything the army does and plans for centers on the infantry. Infantry leaders led from the front, setting the example.

America’s premier light-infantry force is the 75th Ranger Regiment. It is on alert status 24/7. The men in the unit volunteer to go into harm’s way. Their mantra, “Ranger Lead the Way,” is not just a slogan, it’s a way of life.

Waggoner grew up in the 75th Ranger Regiment.

As a platoon leader in November 1978, he led his Ranger platoon into northwestern Guyana. They were the first to arrive at the mass suicide of Jonestown.

In December 1989, he led a Ranger Rifle Company that parachuted into Panama. His mission was to neutralize the Panamanian Defense Force companies and seize General Manuel Noriega’s beach house.

He commanded a light infantry battalion, ranger battalion and an infantry brigade. Waggoner was smart. He knew soldiers and how to lead a team

In those different he planned and prepared his soldiers for combat. He acted as a lay psychiatrist learning about his men, their problems, their needs and getting them to work together.

He said, “I learned to command by doing the boring work of being on a staff.” He brought what he learned to the UAMBL.

Leadership Style

By the spring of 2003, Waggoner was an “iron colonel.” He’d put in enough time to retire and he knew he would was never going to be a general. He was going to be working staff jobs as a colonel for the rest of his career. He served at his own pleasure and had nothing to lose.

He made the most of it. “No matter where you are, there is always an opportunity to lead,” he said.

Waggoner enjoyed a challenge. He got it at the UAMBL. He and his staff cranked out slides and wrote briefing papers for the Pentagon on the FCS.

He developed a checklist for best practices he thought would speed up the process. Every month he submitted a fifteen-page report on how the project to the Chief of Staff of the army.

His staff was small and inexperienced but Waggoner trained them. Waggoner told him that his top priority was finding the right people for the project. He set a restless pace with his staff and trained them by “…assembling the airplane while in flight,” he said.

He sometimes felt he was getting a lukewarm response from the Pentagon bureaucracy. He fixed this by hand delivering the fifteen-page report every month personally.

His bosses at liked his candor and vigor.

There was a little of the academic in Waggoner. He enjoyed hashing out his ideas on paper and puzzling over problems and finding solutions. He did this by asking pointed questions.

The Director

“Director” not “Commander” was in the job title but that didn’t matter to Waggoner. He cared about people. “I want to make this place something that people are proud to be a part of,” Waggoner said.

Waggoner had an ambitious approach to his leadership style. He would spend time face-to-face with all 60 members of the UAMBL- contractors and soldiers at least once a week. He wanted them to understand the dynamics and importance of the FCS.

He would come to their desk, on their turf, to make them feel comfortable. He would personally brief each new member of the team so they understood the dynamics of the UAMBL.

He leaned heavily on his staff in the initial planning of the UAMBL, but first he had to explain it to them.

It’s a tough sell trying to explain the dynamics of a theoretical program using space age technology. This was like trying to explain Star Trek to cave men.

He would ask open-ended questions: What were their priorities? What did they need? What were their biggest concerns? What was keeping them from succeeding?

He once told me, “I want everyone in the organization to be moving in one direction.” “I want folks to come to the UAMBL without thinking this is a dead-end job. Come here and you will be successful,” he said.

He kept his word. Each soldier that left the command got a school or assignment of his choice as he left. Many times Waggoner had to call in favors to help, but he always kept his word.

One soldier got airborne school and I got an assignment to Fort Drum, NY. “We made the UAMBL a place that people wanted to be a part of,” he said.

Body Man

I went with Waggoner on four trips as his aide and body man. As “body man” to Waggoner my job was to stay one step behind the colonel, but think and act three steps ahead during a typical eighteen-hour workday on these trips.

He made me responsible for balancing his schedule and drafting presentations on the trips.

As Colonel Waggoner’s personal aide during these busy trips, I sat yards from the offices of the Chief of Staff of Army and the Secretary of the Army. I spent time with Waggoner getting ready for these important meetings. After the meetings I would work on the “due outs” from his conversations with these important men.

My experiences were unique, the lessons I learned during my tenure with Colonel Waggoner are universal. He taught me the importance of “staff work.”

Staff Work

Colonel Waggoner showed me how to do good “staff work.” He managed his time and set priorities. He didn’t waste time in meetings. He used an aggressive agenda to solve problems by making decisions, and communicating with his team.

He showed me the value of good writing and how to conduct briefings. The most important lesson was the part ethics plays in being a good leader. “You need to set the example and people will follow,” he said, “sometime just out of curiousity.”

After a meeting with the Commander of Fort Knox, I saw him completely drained like a marathon runner who just ran long race. Yet, he could turn right around and recall names, and places he met new folks.

Watching him up close and seeing him perform in tough circumstances was impressive. He knew the importance in what he was doing. He showed up to give his best.

Once I saw him get a PowerPoint presentation from his staff. He opened a copy of the slides. It wasn’t what he wanted. He said, “Too much technical jargon, not enough of why the UAMBL is important.”

So he started editing. I made the changes as he talked. We emailed the new draft back and forth late into the night. He was up until almost three o’clock in the next morning doing PowerPoint triage.

I thought he must have something better to do with his time than edit a PowerPoint slides. He said, “The devil is in the details. You get the small stuff right, the rest will come.”

He was able to outline and lay out goals of what needed done by working on-on-one with his staff.

Most staff assignments like the UAMBL were a stepping-stone in the career of an army officer. Waggoner turned it into a place where people wanted to work.

He made us exceed our planning mission goals because he made us love him by the example he set.


Waggoner had plenty of personal advice for me too. He urged me not to focus so narrowly on my job as an infantry officer. He urged me to think outside of the foxhole. We talked about history and strategy.

He made me think about the relationship of the military and our civilian bosses in Washington. We talked about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He talked me into going to graduate school. “Dom, you need to be in a place with people with different ideas and experiences. Making yourself uncomfortable makes you grow.”

Lessons Learned

After almost six months of working for Colonel Waggoner here is what I learned:

1. Write Well, Make Slides and Coffee

My tactical experience as a Rifle Platoon Leader in Korea and at the Joint Readiness Training Center didn’t mean anything. No one cared about my tactical experiences. What they did care about was my ability to write well and to make coffee.

2. Contractors are important

Due to the nature of the UAMBL green suiters (soldiers) came and went. The contractors- all retired senior officers and noncommissioned officers- had seen it all and done it all. They had as much “skin in the game” as the green suiters. They were the continuity of the place. Their institutional knowledge was essential. They cared and they saw being a contractor as simple being an extension of their military service.

You can never going wrong with treating people with respect. My dad used to say, “The best compliant you can ever give someone is to have good manners.”

Waggoner talked to everyone the same. in his office he always came out from behind his desk to greet who ever came into the room. He did this for privates, generals and contractors. He made everyone feel valuable and the people who worked for him would have followed him to hell.

3. Being mentored is important

I was lucky to know and work for such a generous boss as Colonel Waggoner. The job as his “body man” was an amazing opportunity. Over the past 13 years his advice has paid off again and again. I was only a small cog on an important team- As a captain I carried bags, made coffee and did PowerPoint slides, but I was in the room when important decision were made. It was an invaluable experience.

Colonel Waggoner taught me that being honest and transparent makes great relationships. This is important to any endeavor, whether you’re building the future army concepts or a business. He led by personal and physical example in everything he did. He showed trust to his subordinates. He made you proud to be part of the organization because he was proud to have you there.


Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Blueprint for Success


Arnold is one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time. He won Mr. Olympia seven times. For a few years, in the mid-80’s, he was the highest paid movie star in Hollywood. He was a two time Governor of California.

Some of his most impressive success came through business. His net worth is around $400 million dollars. Most of his money was made through real estate and investments.

I am a big fan of Arnold. As a little boy I would watch the muscled hero shoot bad guys, rescue damsels in distress and save the day.

His greatest lesson is how he become successful not only as an actor and politician but as a businessman. His life has been an inspiration. There is a lot of things we can learn from his life.

He has a great video where he talks about his “Six Rules for Success.” I believe you can succeed by following this formula.

Lesson 1: Trust Yourself

Whatever you plan on becoming you need to trust yourself. Allowing others to define you is a waste of time. Instead define your goal and pursue it.

Arnold grew up in the small village of Thal, Austria. His father was a police officer. He wanted to Arnold to join the military.

Arnold says, “What is most important is that you have to dig deep down, and ask yourself, who you want to be? Not what, but who?”

Arnold wanted to be a bodybuilding champion. To do this he left Austria and came to America. He was 25 years old. He only had an impressive physique, $35 in his pocket a gym bag full of clothes.

His English was bad and he took a job as a part-time brick layer to make ends meet.

He continued, “I’m not talking about what your parents or teachers want you to be, but you. I ‘m talking about figuring out for yourself what makes you happy, no matter how crazy it may sound to other people. Trust yourself no matter what anyone thinks.”

Lesson 2: Break the Rules

For you to start pursing your dream, you need to be ready to step outside your comfort zone and do something different.

When Arnold transitioned from a bodybuilding icon to a movie start he faced huge obstacles. He was too big. His last name was too long. No one could understand because of his accent. In time, his liabilities became his assets because he wouldn’t quit.

Arnold said, “It is impossible to be a maverick or a true original if you’re too well-behaved and don’t want to break the rules. You have to have to think outside the box. That’s what I believe.”

He says, “What is the point of being on this earth if you all want to do is to be liked by everyone and avoid trouble?”

To be successful you have to be willing to break the rules.

Lesson 3: Don’t be Afraid to Fail

Arnold is very successful but he had a lot of failures along the way. He lost countless bodybuilding contents. He was in some truly awful movies.

He made a lot of mistakes as the Governor of California. He had a bad divorce from Maria Shriver.

Arnold’s confidence and belief in himself allowed him to take risks that made him successful.

Arnold said, “You can’t be paralyzed by fear of failure or you will never push yourself. You keep pushing because you believe in yourself and in your vision and you know that is the right thing to do and success will come. So don’t be afraid to fail.”

You learn from failure. You will never be successful without failure.

Lesson 4: Don’t Listen to the Naysayers

There comes a point in anything you do where people will tell you that something is impossible. Don’t them stop you.

Arnold said, “As a matter of fact, I love it when someone says that no one has ever done this before, because when I do it that means I’m going to the first one that done it. So pay no attention to the people who say it can’t be done.”

By visualizing what you want is one secret to his success. Your brain believes it’s true and give you the confidence you need to succeed.

Lesson 5: Work Your Butt Off

Success is hard work. Arnold would work out for three hours a day, attend business classes at night school and had a part-time job. He slept only 6 hours a night but his hunger for success made him work hard.

Arnold said, “But when you’re out there partying, horsing around, someone else is out there at the same working hard. Someone is getting smarter and someone is winning. Just remember that. If you want to win, there is absolutely no way around hard work.”

Arnold’s motto, “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.”

Lesson 6: Give Back

Arnold last rule is about giving back. He believes that no matter who you become in life, you must find a way to give back to your community. Helping other people brings immense satisfaction and joy to your life.

Arnold said, “Let me tell you something, reaching out and helping people will bring you more satisfaction than anything else you have ever done.”

Helping others makes you go outside yourself and makes a difference in someone’s life. It can give your life a sense of meaning and fulfillment.

The Mindset of a Champion

Arnold declares that winning in life is really a mindset. A positive mindset can produce success. Arnold says that his mind allows him to get up early and stay late.

The mindset of a champion allowed him to move outside his comfort zone, to visualize what he wanted and to work hard to make it come true.

Arnold developed the “whatever-it-takes” attitude that him to become successful in three different careers: bodybuilder, actor and politician.

Arnold said,”You can develop hunger by creating a goal for yourself, a short-term goal and a long-term goal, and you must go after it. If you do not see it and believe it, then who else will?”

Here is a link to a great video about how Arnold become successful: