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Air Force Veteran Finds Freedom From PTSD Through Wounded Warrior Project

If Air Force veteran Sam Hargrove could step back in time, she would give her former self two words of advice: “Have faith.”

She would remind herself to have faith amid the dark moments when she tried to drown her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in alcohol. She would have faith instead of the hopelessness she felt when she got behind the wheel while intoxicated, intending to end her life.

Fortunately, Sam held on to a bit of faith and found support through Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) and its programs for veterans with PTSD, which helped turn every obstacle into a milestone and every step into a new path.   

Reflecting on where she is today, she credited faith, a new network of support through WWP, and the tough love she learned from her adoptive father, the late Clyde Draine, whom she called “Pop.”

Mentors and Mentoring
When Sam’s mother left for New York, Pop and his wife Ann provided Sam a stable home in Georgia. He challenged her to do better in school during her teenage years, and he shared stories and photos of his Army service in an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit during the Vietnam War.

“He was a huge influence in my life,” Sam said. “He said what I needed to hear.” Pop, and an older brother who served in the Marine Corps, recommended that Sam enlist in the Air Force. She took their advice, enlisted, and received training in computer networking and operating systems, eventually using her expertise while deployed in Korea and Iraq.

During her 11 years of active duty, Sam served in the 54th Combat Communications Squadron, where she made friends for life. “I still have individuals from that unit who I consider brothers and sisters,” Sam said. “During that time, I felt that I touched lives, and to this day, those fellow airmen still ask my advice.”

Feeling Hopeless
Sam and her unit went through a couple of close calls in Iraq, including a base bombing. She separated from the military in late 2007, returning to Georgia and tried reconnecting with her family, but she was not the same Sam. She was moody and lashed out at her loved ones. She drank heavily “to stop the thoughts and the flashbacks” of her time in Iraq.

“When I came back home to Georgia, I stayed near Fort Benning and could hear the gun shots in the distance when they were having field exercises,” Sam recalled. “I felt like I was right back in Iraq, and I literally would slide across the bed to take cover.” This is one of many symptoms of PTSD in veterans. In a WWP survey of the wounded warriors it serves, 83% report living with symptoms of PTSD.

“I finally realized my condition when my godson told me he was scared of me because of my anger,” Sam said.

The nightmares and thoughts continued, and Sam got to the point of hopelessness. “It got so real that I got myself really drunk one night and jumped behind the wheel of my car and thought about turning into a tree and just ending it all.”

Sam made it home, but that episode made her realize she was in danger. The next day she asked her VA counselor for help. She was sent to a 90-day inpatient program in New York.

Reckoning and Growing
While the VA program helped Sam through a crisis period, her long-term mental health continued to be a challenge. Despite inner turmoil, Sam knew there were options for her, and she knew her love for her nieces, nephews, and new stepchildren was stronger than her PTSD.

Finding new motivation, Sam reached out to WWP and found out about Soldier Ride®. This nationally recognized cycling program allows warriors to make lasting connections through a collective physical challenge where no one is left behind. Soldier Ride tested Sam physically and, more importantly, connected her to other veterans.

For Sam, Soldier Ride opened the door to other forms of healing. “Soldier Ride helped me push myself and tell myself I can do anything I put my mind to; I don’t have to be limited by injuries or ailments. It made me feel like I was fresh in the military, like you can’t tell me I can’t — because I’m going to show you I can. It was a freeing moment for me spiritually and emotionally.”

When Sam felt she was on the right path, she sought the next step in her healing journey. WWP was there to provide solutions. Sam attended a Project Odyssey® and later attended a couples’ Project Odyssey with her life partner, Onishka Miller.

They used this opportunity to work through issues, which saved their relationship, and Sam felt empowered to find emotional stability.

Later, she discovered Warrior Care Network®. This WWP program connects wounded veterans and their families with world-class mental health care through four partner academic medical centers.

Through two-to three-week intensive outpatient programs, Warrior Care Network provides care tailored to each veteran and family member. The programs integrate behavioral health care, rehabilitative medicine, wellness, nutrition, mindfulness training, and family support. Sam participated with the Warrior Care Network in Atlanta at Emory Healthcare

“I jumped right in — I was ready to rip the Band-Aid off. It was like my Pop telling me what I needed to hear. So, even though I admitted I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there, I opened up. As you tell your story, more parts come back. It puts you in an uncomfortable spot, and you have to be willing to feel uncomfortable to get to where you want to be. I was shocked that I was able to do it.”

Sam dug deep and found ways to build bridges between herself and others. “It was an intense moment. I finally got it all out when I took part in the Warrior Care Network, so that’s why I’m such an advocate for Wounded Warrior Project. I would have never gone to that program without Wounded Warrior Project. I would never have been able to tap into exactly what the issue was.”

Sharing Support for PTSD
Project Odyssey and Warrior Care Network set Sam on the right path to protecting the relationships that matter most to her. “I started to communicate better at Project Odyssey, and being at Emory for two weeks helped me be more understanding of what my partner Onishka goes through when dealing with me. Both programs really helped our relationship.”

Sam describes herself as “calmer and more problem-solving” now. She stays in touch with her godson, who is now 23, and she has a new grandson through her partner’s family who brightens her life.  

“I know I have PTSD, but I also know that I have a support system like Wounded Warrior Project, my partner Onishka, our kids, and grandkids,” Sam said. “When I sit back and think about the things I’ve been through, I think, ‘What can I do to help somebody else get to where I am?’” 

Sam’s down-to-earth character makes her accessible to other veterans who can relate to her journey. WWP has provided opportunities for Sam to tell her story through connection events, media interviews, and video gaming via Twitch and Discord. She has been playing video games since childhood and lately has been active in WWP-organized gaming activities like Monday Night Mayhem, Call of Duty® tournaments, and Women Warrior Wednesdays.

“It’s easy to connect via Twitch with other veterans,” Sam said. “Even when we come from different backgrounds, we relate to each other because of our journeys, and we’re still brothers and sisters in arms.”

Sam values her family and friends and recognizes how far she has come since reentering civilian life. “Everybody used to say to me, ‘You were so loving, and then you just got angry.’ Now I’m loving with a big heart again.”

June is PTSD Awareness Month. WWP offers mental health services for veterans and families coping with the invisible wounds of war. Get connected today or read more about how WWP helps.

Contact: Raquel Rivas – Public Relations, rrivas@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.426.9783

About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.