MARYSVILLE, Wash. (Dec. 14th, 2018) – Growing up, Leslie Calderon and her three older brothers dreamt about joining the military, but she was the only one who enlisted. Her journey took her from a quiet, safe family home in Utah to war in Iraq.
Returning home, Leslie was fighting a war within. This personal war lasted nearly a decade and found its way to the doorstep of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), where the organization’s mental health telephone support program, WWP Talk, helped Leslie cope with effects of her war experience.
Desire to Serve
Born in Mexico and raised in Utah, Leslie was a high school senior when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. A few months later, she joined the U.S. Army Reserves.
“I joined out of a sense of purpose,” said Leslie. “I wanted to fight for the United States as a Mexican-American woman. 9/11 happened to all of us, and I wanted to represent the Latin community as a woman in the fight against terror."
Leslie completed boot camp, returned home, and started college while waiting for deployment. In 2007, the call came in, and her unit was deployed to Iraq.
“Deployment came at a perfect time for me,” said Leslie. “I was single, no kids, and in-between college majors. I thought ‘OK, time to go.’”
Leslie admits she felt confident and well-trained but that her family struggled with her decision to join the military and was not happy when she deployed. She was the only daughter and sister her family had, and the guilt of putting them through the fear of war haunted her for a long time.
“Looking back, I didn’t realize what I was getting into,” said Leslie. “My thoughts were focused on the job I was assigned to do, and I felt like I wasn’t in touch with the risks of war.”
The Optics of War
In Baghdad, Leslie served as an ammunition specialist and was responsible for the management of ordnance (ammunition and explosives). This role, and assigned location, made her particularly sensitive to the constant sound of bombs and mortar fire.
“With bomb blasts and mortars going off throughout the day, most times I felt like a sitting duck,” said Leslie. “I woke up every morning thinking I get to live another day. It got to the point that calculating blast distance was like seeing lightning and counting until you heard the thunder – some were closer than others.”
Part of Leslie’s job was working directly with her Iraqi counterparts. She pointed out that the irony of working with the Iraqis while being bombed daily was not lost on her.
“I knew some Iraqi soldiers were good and trying to help,” said Leslie. “On the other hand, there were some that didn't seem to care, and I felt like they wouldn't think twice about hurting us if given the chance.”
In her role, Leslie experienced psychological anguish that built up slowly and intensified over time. She explained that the constant sound of bomb blasts gave her a never-ending close-call feeling.
“We managed ammunition and weapons captured during battles or in raids,” said Leslie. “I saw a lot of knives covered in blood, and I often wondered if that was American blood.”
Complexities of war put Leslie in a constant state of high-alert, and she began to trust less and less. Soon, she felt the need to watch her back and the backs of her fellow U.S. soldiers. Living in a dangerous environment among those she didn’t trust added to Leslie’s anxiety.
Toward the end of her deployment, Leslie was ready to return home. To her, that is when her anxiety went into full force.
“The stress gets worse when you are about to go home,” said Leslie. “I thought for sure something bad would happen to me because you always heard stories like that.”
Leslie’s deployment was over, and she returned home to Utah hoping to silence the white noise of war, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and military sexual trauma (MST). In the weeks and months that followed, she fell into a deep turmoil.
“I hated the welcome home party,” said Leslie. “I hated the hugs. I couldn’t sleep or get comfortable. I felt like an alien.”
Leslie explained that there is no training on transitioning back home or how to deal with certain thoughts such as survivor’s guilt. What started as “that could have been me” when thinking about all the close calls she experienced, turned into, “I wish it had been me.”
Leslie’s family was not immune to her anger and self-imposed solitude. Her mom tried to help but didn’t know how.
"Not being able to help broke my mom's heart,” said Leslie. “She couldn't understand why I was withdrawing from my family. They were trying to get close, and that pushed me away even further.”
It was during this time that Leslie hit rock bottom.
“Drinking masked the pain, and it wasn’t long after that I would think I could end it all right then and there,” said Leslie.
It became a cycle where each time she considered taking her life, she would step back and think about her family and the pain it would cause, and the pain they already endured since she announced she was joining the military.
“I was not in a good place,” said Leslie. “I was stuck. I couldn’t get the help I needed, yet I couldn’t do anything to stop the pain.”
Seeking Help: A Struggle in Itself
Leslie’s pain grew stronger as she sought help from the VA.
Months turned into years, and she was no closer to finding the help she needed, or the tools to help her cope with what she had endured. She was left to fend for herself and found out no matter where she went, the issues she faced stared directly back at her.
“I moved around a lot,” said Leslie. “I would work multiple jobs because I couldn't sleep. I thought about going back to school, but I just kept moving. From Florida to the Maryland/DC area, and back to Utah and Washington state. I just kept moving.”
Leslie's struggle continued for nearly 10 years without improvement. By this time, she was a mother of two boys under five years of age and coping with life's regular challenges on top of her PTSD, MST, and depression. She describes that period as an emotional roller coaster that didn’t seem to end. She was overwhelmed.
To Talk is to Heal
“I had heard about Wounded Warrior Project but didn’t join until 2017,” said Leslie. “My boyfriend is also a veteran, and he had good things to say about the organization's Combat Stress Recovery Program, so I registered and attended a few connection events where I was able to meet other warriors.”
Interacting with other warriors who share similar experiences opened a part of Leslie that was closed for a long time. These interactions led her to explore other services such as WWP Talk – a regimented mental health telephone support program.
“When I registered for WWP Talk, I was pregnant with my third child and was living in an emotional whirlwind,” said Leslie.
Leslie was paired with a female WWP Talk staff member, and they set up a scheduled time each week to talk over the telephone to establish consistency. Talking with the same WWP staff member further establishes a relationship and trust within a non-judgmental platform where each warrior can talk about anything they want.
“I can’t explain how this program changed my life,” said Leslie. “We had some very dark and scary conversations that I don’t think I could have had under any other circumstance. Having her there helped me so much.”
Leslie felt energized for the first time in a decade and began to believe that there was light at the end of a tunnel she had so desperately tried to escape.
“It was important for me to learn that you have to get through the ugly parts before you can get to the good parts,” said Leslie. “For me, this program wasn’t just about talking, but about finding and learning how to use the right tools to set my mind straight when I would fall into a panic or anxiety attack. The ugliness of PTSD and MST continues to surface, but I feel armed to confront and deal with them when it happens. WWP Talk helped me find and cultivate those tools within myself.”
Leslie now can say with 100 percent confidence that she wants not only to live but thrive.
“I finally feel like I am living,” said Leslie. “I couldn’t see it before, but I get it now, and that is in large part to WWP Talk and its staff. They get me, and I feel so much healthier. I appreciate it so much.”
Leslie reports she still experiences panic attacks and anxiety over specific thoughts, memories, and situations – but she can pull herself out of those moments using the tools she has discovered through the support of WWP Talk.
“I could have called anytime,” said Leslie. “I love that. Even if just for a minute, I knew they were there.”
Just Breathe and Talk
Today, Leslie embraces the future. She learned she is not the same person who enlisted in the military more than a decade ago, but also realizes she is not the same person who returned from war.
“I have three boys now, with the youngest just three months old. I wanted to be my old self, but that person no longer exists. I am here now, and I am a mom. I want to live right for my boys, and Wounded Warrior Project is a huge part of my healing."
Leslie continues to transition from the warrior needing help to the warrior helping. The interactions and experiences she gained from WWP Talk have led her to embrace the true meaning of the WWP logo, and she is working on becoming a peer mentor to help other warriors.
“A year ago, I couldn't help myself,” said Leslie. “Now I have a strong foundation to keep fighting, and I have found a renewed strength. I have the strength to carry myself, my boys, and my fellow soldiers.”
To help more warriors like Leslie, visit https://wwp.news/Donate.
Contact: Perry Athanason – Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.654.2193
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: https://newsroom.woundedwarriorproject.org.