BY: PATRICK ASHTRE
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Patrick Ashtre was a happily married man with a lovely wife, three children, and a house in Arlington, Virginia. He was a good father and husband and, looking into the mirror each morning, he was happy with the reflected image—but all that was about to change.
There are events that change people forever—a friend’s premonition about the future that comes true, shaking the very fibers of our beliefs about the world around us, or a traumatic episode that casts us into a sea of despair where we question mankind’s true nature. These events can cause us to question our very existence. Our ability to recover from these experiences becomes even more convoluted when we stamp man-made lines of right and wrong onto the path leading back to constancy. The lucidity of those events and the rationalization as to why they occurred are normally a hazy quagmire of guesses and suppositions. But on occasion, seemingly at the darkest hour, one can come to an epiphany that allows crystal-clear clarity.
A Distant Island is the story about that moment when Patrick Ashtre began to understand his struggle with posttraumatic stress, the experiences from which it spawned, and the aspects of living a life under its influence. More than a tale about posttraumatic stress, it is the provocative story of a love affair with a former bargirl and how the rich and colorful Buddhist culture of Thailand helped Ashtre overcome a past filled with violence and death. It is a story that illustrates how sometimes the answers to our problems can come in unusual and unexpected packages. A Distant Island is an account of how Patrick Ashtre found his way home.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In A Distant Island by Patrick Ashtre, Ashtre tells the story of how he got and dealt with posttraumatic stress. He details his life in the military and the effect the deaths of his close friends and colleagues had on him. Unable to deal with his life in the US after being at his desk in the Pentagon on 9/11, he flees to Thailand to start over. There he meets a Buddhist bar girl who changes his life forever, helping him to deal with his posttraumatic stress.
The book is thought provoking and well written. It gives a clear picture of what posttraumatic stress is and how each person handles it differently. Even though what works for one may not work for others, Ashtre does help you to understand what it is, what causes it, and how you can come to terms with it if you have it.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: A Distant Island by Patrick Ashtre is the story of Ashtre’s journey from his life as a successful and happily married career air force officer to a desolate and unhappy man living on Thailand and struggling to overcome his posttraumatic stress. The book takes us through a week of Ashtre’s life in Thailand, using flashback to his military experiences that caused his posttraumatic stress, including sitting at his desk in the Pentagon when the plane hit on 9/11.
I found the book to be extremely educational, intriguing, and enlightening. It made me realize that anyone can suffer from posttraumatic stress whether we know it or not and most of us have it at some point in our lives. I highly recommend A Distant Island.
The Downward Spiral
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was a happily married man with a lovely wife, three children, and a house in Arlington, Virginia. I was a good father and husband, and looking into the mirror each morning, I was happy with the reflected image–but all that was about to change.
As a United States Marine, risk and violence were essential elements of my profession and had become inseparable aspects of my life. Except for one previous event in my career, my vocation and experiences had yet to have any discernible effect on my personality or life choices. I was able to compartmentalize those events that conflicted with an otherwise peaceful existence and keep them from affecting my life outside of the Marine Corps. But on that fateful day in 2001, I began an unwilling and dramatic transformation that would consume my life for nearly fourteen years.
In 2006, while commanding a squadron in Okinawa, Japan, after a tour in Iraq and a follow-up cruise, hunting for terrorists on the high seas, I realized that my life was completely out of control in an ever-accelerating downward spiral, affecting my job, marriage, and children. An emotion I could only describe as a feeling of hollowness had begun to overwhelm me several years earlier, and my response had been to turn to alcohol in an effort to numb the unwanted sensations. Not surprisingly, this simple act led to the feeling of more emotional hollowness and more drinking. In a state of denial, I felt confused and frustrated. Within a year, I would make the decision to retire from the Marine Corps after twenty-six years of service in a futile attempt to find some peace from my silent struggle. It was not until 2009 that I recognized I had Posttraumatic Stress, even though my ex-wife had made the claim years earlier and pleaded with me to get help.
First of all, let me clarify. I do not feel sorry for myself for being afflicted with posttraumatic stress, nor do I claim any government handout for the ailment. It was path that I knowingly chose and one for which I have accepted the consequences. In my opinion, posttraumatic stress is a personalized illness, each victim seeing, feeling, and reacting to its effects differently than other sufferers. For some, it is intolerable and never ending; for me it became manageable. For some there is a need to control every aspect of life; for me the response was exactly the opposite. Having come to the conclusion that ultimately people had no control over the events unfolding around them, I embraced the chaos. Professionally and personally, I found myself taking more risks, not concerning myself with the cost of failure or its effects on those around me.
My greatest regret has been that my children have suffered from my posttraumatic stress and the tainted choices I made while I struggled with the illness. Witnessing my struggle, they saw the man it had created and forgot the man I once was.
Having given posttraumatic stress a lot of thought in recent years, here is my personal view as to why it occurred in me and how it has affected my life. Sadly, I have come to realize that the best I can ever expect is to manage the illness because, like alcoholism, one can never be completely rid of its long-term effects.
In my case, posttraumatic stress was brought on by a career of adrenaline-surging events and violence, not just the drive north in Iraq. As a young pilot, it was not uncommon to hear of a friend’s demise–some dying from super-shaft failures, some becoming disoriented during an instrument approach and auguring into the ground, and others from a multitude of other dangers we risked on a daily basis. Each had an effect on me but did not become life or personality altering. However, those events did begin to dull my emotional response to violence and death.
My first recollection of a significant experience with posttraumatic stress occurred directly after the First Gulf War when I watched a young man named Jeff Couch, along with Dan Adams, Phil Chapman, and Top Snell, die. Jeff Couch, a squadron crew chief, had a premonition about dying in a helicopter and had quit flying. Not wanting to lose the two hundred dollars a month flight pay, he came to me and asked to fly on my aircraft during a training mission to Yuma, Arizona the following day. Out of all the pilots in the squadron, Jeff chose to fly with me because he believed nothing would happen to him under my care. According to him, nothing would happen to me, therefore, he would be safe at my side. We spoke with the operations department that evening and he was placed on the draft schedule to fly with me in the lead aircraft to the Chocolate Mountains, north of Yuma, early the next morning. After we had gone home that evening the schedule writers changed the draft and placed me in the second aircraft, leaving Jeff on the lead helicopter. When we came in the next morning and saw the final schedule, Jeff and I spoke and he said he would be all right. I had flown extensively with Dan Adams, the pilot of the lead aircraft, during the First Gulf War and knew him to be an incredibly talented pilot. And I didn’t believe in premonitions. In my mind, Jeff was worried about nothing and in good hands.
Two thousand feet over the fertile green farm fields of Calipatria, California, I had a front row seat to a tragedy and a lesson in premonitions. The lead helicopter’s main rotor blades slowed. I watched it suddenly begin to descend as it rolled to the left. The blades continued to slow, rocking back on the mast head and cutting the tail boom from the fuselage. The mast then broke free from the transmission and, with the blades still bridled, spun through the clear blue sky like the unleashed vanes from a windmill. The final act in the tragedy was the fuselage, unencumbered by the main rotor blades or tail-boom, falling the remaining seventeen hundred feet and landing upside down onto a freshly irrigated farm field. To this day, some twenty-three years later, I can still see those events unfold with vivid clarity in my mind. I still have a hard time coming to grips with that day, even after twenty-three years.
The first three months after his death, I thought about Jeff and the accident every hour of every day. Over the next year, I thought about the crash several times every day. And twenty-three years later I still ponder that day often.
It was my first lesson in posttraumatic stress.
Many more episodes, involving close calls, violence, deadly accidents, and destruction left me numb to death and the sentimental world around me. The straw that broke the camel’s back started on the fourth floor of the D ring in the Pentagon, continued through the drive north in Iraq, and ended on the high seas in Southeast Asia.
On September 11, 2001, while I was in my office at the Pentagon, a deep concussion shook the building around me. With my eardrums ringing from the blast, I was catapulted upward while sitting in a black, cushioned office chair, watching my laptop rise at arm’s length on a parallel course in a ballet-like trajectory above brand-new gray office cubicles. At the apex of the flight, I watched the windows of the office fracture into a spider-web-like design on a background of fire and smoke. The next hour became a lesson in human reaction to sudden and unexpected calamity–an experience that was to become the prelude to my descent into posttraumatic stress.
It was after the drive north in Iraq that many of my friends and my wife began to say I had changed. I laughed at their analysis, claiming that their observations had been tainted by the recent re-emergence of posttraumatic stress as a popular dinnertime discussion. It took years for me to realize that I had been in denial and the war had, in fact, changed me.
If asked to attribute any one event as the culprit of my posttraumatic stress, I could not. After many hours, days, and weeks of pondering the events that unfolded around me, I have finally come to believe that the accumulation of many events over my career set the stage, and my experience during the drive north in Iraq, followed by a three month cruise in Southeast Asia, set my future in stone. During the drive north, climbing into a helicopter nearly every day and believing that day to be my last became the proverbial nails in my coffin.
In order to do the job we were tasked with, we had to take chances that the average civilian would consider incredibly foolish. And, during peacetime, they would be right. But we were at war, where waking up each morning had an associated level of risk. To take the risks we did, all in the name of patriotism and getting the job done, we had to re-adjust our belief as to our future, our goals, and our ambitions. Walter Bradford Cannon and his theory of sympathetic nervous system priming an animal for fighting or fleeing were thrown out the window. The adrenal gland could produce all the hormonal cascades it wanted to, but running away wasn’t an option. The natural instinct of fight or flight had to be unnaturally reprogrammed to simply the response of fight.
I was never consumed with fear. In fact, I never recalled ever feeling afraid, but to climb into the cockpit of a helicopter during the drive north one had to understand that one’s life was already over. Whatever bullet was going to kill you had already been fired, whatever act of Mother Nature that was going to disorient you and cause you to auger into the ground had already begun to form, and whatever manmade object you weren’t going to see and crash into had already been built and your flight path predetermined. You were already dead. Without that mindset, it would have been impossible to strap into and fire up the aircraft before flying north.
The grand finale of my journey into posttraumatic stress occurred during a several-months-long cruise in Southeast Asia that a portion of our squadron was assigned to directly after the drive north. We had flown peacetime missions that rivaled the risk of those made during this cruise. The difference was we were in a fragile state. What many of us would have considered normal duty became the final act of establishing a future tainted by posttraumatic stress. About a month into the cruise, the unit flight surgeon came to me, claiming that none of the pilots were sleeping and they were playing cards all night.
He theorized that they all had posttraumatic stress.
I laughed at his proclamation and replied, “And we’re adding more traumatic stress to the traumatic stress.”
Directly after Iraq, we found ourselves flying twenty feet off the surface of the water on moonless, pitch-black nights, miles from the closest shoreline and its associated manmade illumination. For those who don’t know, night vision goggles amplify light, but if there is none to be had, they become nothing but a useless weight mounted on the front of a helmet. To make matters worse, we were operating four aircraft on a deck designed for two, landing and taking off with only a few feet of clearance between blade tips on a pitching deck in the middle of the night. So shortly after getting shot at on a daily basis in Iraq, we found ourselves flying in an environment that was as equally stressful with a slightly different twist on the anxiety catalyst–someone attempting kill you had been replaced with attempting not to kill yourself. Yes, we were once again strapping into an aircraft and going flying when every fiber of our sympathetic nervous system was telling us to flee.
“We’re all suffering from stress, Doc. Where have you been?” I said, continuing to chastise the flight surgeon as he stood in front of the gray metal desk in my stateroom. “And what would you recommend we should do about it? Tell the joint task force commander that we can’t fly anymore and we should all go home? ‘Sorry, sir, the cruise is over.’”
“But they’re not sleeping,” he mumbled, defeated by my laughing reprimand.
Realizing I had been too harsh on the poor doctor, I calmly replied, “Look, Doc, we’re not the first pilots to ever have to deal with what’s going on in our heads. But we all willingly signed up for this job and, at this point, we don’t have another option. Your job is to keep us physically healthy.” And then, suddenly understanding the depth of his concern by the expression on his face, I added, “If, in your opinion, someone is on the brink of mentally losing it, let me know and I’ll take him off the schedule for as long as it takes.”
Having quickly regained his composure from my initial scolding, he looked me in the eye. “You’re all on the brink of losing it,” he said, adding a hesitating and curt, “sir,” before turning and walking out of my stateroom.
In 2007, after watching myself spin downward at an ever-increasing rate for nearly four years, I made a panicked and frenzied attempt to save my family from witnessing a classic case of self-destruction and a dramatic change to stop the disastrous spiral I found myself in. I took an eraser and wiped the slate of my life clean. At the age of forty-seven, I left everything behind and started over. I left my wife, my children, my country, and life as I had known it, and moved to a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand, wrapping myself in a cocoon of Buddhism, searching for an inner peace that had eluded me for years. On that tropical island, I opened a small business on a crystal clear bay bordered by a wide ribbon of white sand and began the healing process. It was a decision twisted by fear, selfishness, and posttraumatic stress. It was a decision that I will never be proud of but one that I made nonetheless. At the time, it seemed the best of a lot of bad choices.
A second regret that I carry is my part in keeping a failed marriage going, truly believing that I would somehow heal and return to take up my marital and parental responsibilities. Even though our interactions during that time was proof that our relationship was over, I honestly believed that someday I would come home and we would resume the idyllic relationship we had before the drive north in Iraq. By the time my wife had filed for divorce and I was well on my way to some semblance of healing, I knew that too much damage had been done to ever think we could share the same bed again.
Several years ago, I was contacted by a friend who had served with me, both during the drive north in Iraq and the subsequent cruise in Southeast Asia, telling me that he was working in Bangkok and, if I were ever in the city, to give him a call. Eventually, on one of my trips to Bangkok, we met up at the Monsoon Restaurant on Soi Eight.
One of many oases of civility in the chaotic city, the Monsoon Restaurant has a large wooden deck that sits to one side of the Soi or street. Several thick tropical trees with bright green foliage-covered branches hover above and combine with a number of colorful overhead umbrellas to provide shade to eight black-lacquered wooden tables covered in white table cloths. Having been there several times over the years, I have found the Monsoon Restaurant to be a place where one can relax and drink a nice glass or bottle of wine for a reasonable price, all the while, watching the daily tumultuous Bangkok activities from several safe feet away.
My friend, his wife, and I met to get acquainted, reacquainted, and catch up on gossip about our old military companions. It was a hot afternoon, but pleasant, as we sat on the deck at the Monsoon Restaurant, sweat building on our brows and condensation beading on our wineglasses. We watched the tourists wandering up and down the Soi, the local merchants peddling their wares, and bargirls coming and going from several nearby hotels or bars. Most of our conversation focused on common military friends and the cruise we took directly after Iraq, hunting for terrorists on the high seas in Southeast Asia, veering away from anything about the drive north.
As the conversation began to wane, my friend looked over at me and asked, “Do you ever think about the war?”
Hearing the question, his wife politely turned her attention elsewhere, knowing and respecting that the next few minutes of conversation were to be private.
Trying to describe posttraumatic stress to someone who has never been a victim is like trying to describe blue to someone who is blind and has never seen the color. You know what it is, you can see it in front of your face, but you can’t describe how it looks in any fashion that would make sense to the blind person. Surprisingly, from my experience, two people who have shared the same risks and dangers that created posttraumatic stress see it and feel its effects slightly differently as well. Posed with his question, I immediately realized that the color blue to me would not necessarily be the color blue to my friend.
As we sat under the trees and vibrant umbrellas, all providing shade from the unrelenting heat of the afternoon, I thought about Jeff Couch, the Pentagon, Iraq, and the Southeast Asian cruise. Wondering how to put all those memories into a coherent response to my friend’s question, I sat silent for several minutes before answering.
With a career of violent experiences swirling through my head, I finally responded, “I used to think about it a lot.”
“You don’t anymore?”
“Not nearly as much as I used to, but I still think about it often.”
“I still think about it a lot,” he admitted in a somber tone.
Looking down at my wineglass, with condensation dripping from its sides making a damp ring on the white table cloth, I explained, “Directly after the war I used to tell people it was an experience that I was glad I had because it gave me a level of understanding about human nature that most people never discover or understand. That understanding somehow made it worthwhile. Later, as I began to understand the implications of what the war had done to me, I began saying that it was an experience that I was glad I had but it did me no good as a human being.” After a few more moments of silence, I looked up from my wineglass and added, “But my whole perspective on the war and those experiences has continued to slowly develop and change over the years.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, glancing over at his wife, who was watching the activity on the Soi.
“I was in Pattaya not too long afterward–after Iraq, I mean. I’m not sure why I was there but I remember a conversation I had with a complete stranger in some bar.”
“What did you talk about?”
“He saw my haircut and figured I was in the military, and asked if I had been in Iraq,” I replied before taking a sip of wine. “When he found out I had been in the war he asked if I had any regrets.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I think he was expecting me to say I was sorry I participated in what went on and that I was against the war.” I chuckled. “Boy, was he in for the shock of his life.”
“What’d you tell him?” my friend asked again, breaking into an understanding grin.
It was my turn to glance over at his wife and see that she was still focused on the Soi, before saying, “Remember that time when we were flying over An Nasiriyah and we saw all those men coming in from the farm fields outside the city? We were only a couple of days into the drive north, and they were waving and smiling at us. I thought they could be men coming home after a hard day’s work in the fields, and I was trying so hard to not to kill innocent people that I forced myself to believe they were farmers.”
His smile disappearing, my friend added, “Yeah, we found out later that they were Iraqi soldiers dressed in civilian clothes making their way to the local hospital to pick up weapons to use against us.”
”Had that occurred a couple of days later,” I continued. “I wouldn’t have hesitated. I would have killed them without any remorse.”
With his lips warping back into a grin, my friend asked, “But what did you say to that guy in the bar?”
“I was still beating myself up so much over that farm field incident that I looked the guy in the eye and told him that my biggest regret was that I didn’t kill enough of them.”
His smile breaking into a full-fledged grin, he laughed. “What did he say?”
“Nothing. He was so shocked at my answer that he looked at me with this dumbfounded expression and then, after a few minutes, walked away.”
“I think I went through the same rollercoaster of emotions right afterward,” my friend responded, still smiling. “But you say you don’t think about it as much? Why? What changed in you?”
“I don’t know. I feel like I’m slowly coming to terms with it all, I guess.” Then looking him in the eyes, I asked, “And you still think about it a lot?”
His grin quickly vanishing, replaced by a reflective solemn expression, he answered, “It’s like a huge hole in me that’s always there–a profound sadness that won’t go away. It’s hard to explain to people.”
Looking out at the Soi, watching two bargirls walk down the street, one in a skimpy black and neon blue outfit, the other in a short bright red dress, I offered, “It was a loss of innocence. I used to really believe it was an experience I was glad I had because it gave me a level of understanding about humanity that most people never achieve. And that was so far from the truth.”
“And what do you think now?”
“It was an experience I wish I never had,” I confessed. “It was loss of innocence that did me no good as a human being. I think to be truly happy in life you need to maintain a certain level of naiveté. You need to believe in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. You need to believe that good things happen to good people. When you lose that innocence, happiness becomes an evasive and unachievable objective.”
“Did your loss of innocence drive you to Thailand?” he asked, before taking another sip from his wineglass.
“Whether by subconscious design or accident, I came to a country and buried myself in a culture that is all about not judging the people around you for their failures, and making merit for the next life. I have slowly built a life here that actually has restored a small bit of that innocence. I almost feel at peace at times.”
Thailand had restored some of my innocence, but I have also come to realize that I will never be the man I would have been had I never joined the Marine Corps and witnessed the violence and death that’s associated with that profession. I may have a deeper understanding of humanity but that education came with a cost. My emotional reactions have been dulled; my smile is not as wide or as genuine; and there will always be a hole in my soul that can never be entirely filled. I will never be the happy and content man I was on the morning of September the 11, 2001 looking into that bathroom mirror.
The following story is true and takes place over the course of one week, April 10th through April 17th, 2014, accurately summarizing the beginning of my awakening from posttraumatic stress. While I have never been one to keep a journal or record of my daily activities or life, I choose to write about this week because it epitomized the sudden clarity that one sees the world around them as they emerge from a difficult struggle. The lessons seemed to suddenly be condensed; the experiences suddenly seemed to be focused on the issue at hand. Everything that happened during that seven-day span seemed to be precisely designed to aid me in surviving the remaining days of my life without the heavy yoke of posttraumatic stress.
© 2015 by Pat Ashtre