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What It Was Like to Get the Hawaii Ballistic Missile Alert as Someone With Combat PTSD

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I am not OK.

The missile crisis is over, but I cannot shake the funk I am in. I feel like I failed my family. When the emergency alert went off this morning saying, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” I should have hit the floor running. Everyone else did, but instead fear immobilized me and flashbacks of combat suddenly overwhelmed me. Other than intense fear, there weren’t any similarities between the two events so I do not know why I stood rooted to the floor feeling lost and confused, stuck in the past but aware of what is currently going on around me.

• What is PTSD?

My son’s home health nurse dashed out of the house to go get her kids, hoping to make it in time to be with her family before the missile hit. My best friend said she had shoved her kids into their windowless bathroom and started taping up the other windows around the rest of the house, doing her best to protect her family with what she had on hand. Another provider said they filled up their bathtubs with water in an attempt to quickly acquire last minute supplies in case they survived the initial blast.

Why didn’t I think to do any of that? Why did I shut down? I have never broken down when it mattered before, not even when under direct fire.

I feel ashamed to admit I stood uselessly by and watched with haunted eyes as my autistic daughter paced back and forth in the living room, holding her hand over her heart as she tried to choke back the panic that she was feeling due to her lack of comprehension as to why the other adults were dashing around the house. In a daze, I left her that way and walked away to check on my terminally ill and disabled son, only to find him contentedly sitting in his medical bed watching his iPad; he asked me if he could stay up late tonight… I felt my eyes well with tears.

Back in the kitchen, my husband sat calmly and said there was nothing we could do: “If the impact doesn’t kill us, then the fallout will.” Numbly I stood across from him, trying to block out the memories that didn’t make any sense to be thinking about considering I wasn’t currently in Afghanistan. I got angry at him for being so calm. I sat on the bar stool at the kitchen island; internally I was freaking out.

Thankfully, about 30 minutes later we were notified that the emergency alert warning had been sounded by mistake… That was a heck of a mistake! I am still shaking even though I know now that threat was false and I am no longer high from the adrenaline coursing through my veins.

I am not the only one feeling the aftereffects of this event. One of my neighbors could be heard sobbing (from relief?) as she and her family returned to their house. I wonder where my neighbors thought they could run to for safety on this island? Regardless of why they did what they did, I understand and respect their need to try to do something to get away from the nuclear missile that was supposedly coming our way.

I don’t know what to take away from all of this. But in hindsight, I can say if this had been a real attack, I had wasted what precious minutes I had left on this earth trapped in my mind instead of loving on my children and husband, which makes me hate myself. It makes me feel weak.

I cannot make amends for my initial response during the ballistic missile threat, but I can make an effort to push past the fear, in spite of the side effects of PTSD, and embrace the rest of today. It is a blessing to simply be alive right now… I just pray if there is a “next time,” I will remember this moment and make better choices in regards to how I spend the last moments I will ever get to physically spend with my loved ones before we cease to exist.

Originally published: January 14, 2018
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