WAYNESBURG – Mike Desrosiers is a man without a childhood.
He can't remember if he ever had a lemonade stand with his siblings while growing up, and he doesn't recall his favorite Christmas present from his parents.
Even the name of his first crush is gone.
He can't clearly remember anything before Operation Desert Storm.
It is one of the many haunting truths that Desrosiers, 54, of Waynesburg, lives with every day as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even though almost 10 years have passed since he retired from the U.S. Army as a first sergeant, the realities are difficult to confront.
He can't help but rub his white-knuckled hands from the sides of his chin up to his freshly cut military hairstyle so that his skin turns red and splotchy as he tries to open up. He doesn't share his story often, so he's not even sure where to begin.
“It is so hard because I hardly understand it all myself,” Desrosiers said. “It's a special sacrifice joining the military. You sacrifice a part of you.”
Desrosiers had no direction in his youth before entering the military.
He made it through three years of community college in Montgomery County before serving in the Air Force from 1981 to 1985 and being honorably discharged to go back to school to study criminal justice, which he failed.
“I just couldn't hack it,” Desrosiers said.
He found that he missed the military. He missed the camaraderie and the sense of purpose the military gave him that he could not seem to find in civilian life. So he returned, this time to the Army, serving in the infantry division as a tank gunner.
“I was in Germany when we got deployed to the Gulf,” Desrosiers said, his voice fading.
He can't bring himself to share anymore. At least for now. But he has to live every day with the reality of what those couple of months after deployment did to him.
Since he returned from the Gulf in 1991, he knew something was wrong with him, but he didn't want to admit it. Instead, he got rid of everything – his military uniform, the duffel bag in which he carried all of his personal belongings and a book, “The Hunt for Red October.”
All of it, gone.
“I guess I wanted to forget everything,” Desrosiers said. “But I guess it is not going to let me.”
For a while, he thought he was beating it. Years passed, and he was able to get a job at SCI-Greene prison. He married again, this time to a woman named Danielle, with whom he will celebrate 20 years of marriage this Saturday. He is raising three boys, Matthew, Casey and Ryan.
He thought he had won. But then about four years ago, the gas well industry came roaring into Greene County.
“It's like the flood gates opened,” he said. “It triggered everything, and I realized I left a part of me there, a part of my soul.”
Desrosiers explained that the smell of oil and the sight of flaring gas wells are the worst for him. He has flashbacks of sitting in his tank until he can see the bombarded holes, small fires and other destruction. Dead bodies will appear above him so real that one time during a dream he attacked his wife in his sleep.
He can taste oil in his mouth, and he expects to see black gunk when he sneezes, just like it was in Kuwait City, where everything smelled, tasted and looked like oil.
“But it used to be worse,” Desrosiers said.
Within the past four years things have improved, and he credits his small successes to getting professional help.
The Veterans Affairs office in Waynesburg recognized the severity of his symptoms and sent him to a VA medical clinic in Morgantown, W.Va., where he continues to receive help. He also began running to help himself cope. Locals recognize him running around Waynesburg University's campus and have dubbed him “the running man.”
His average week consists of two doctors' appointments, one with a speech therapist and the other with a neurologist. He also has a session with a counselor at the VA Medical Center in Morgantown.
Desrosiers knows he is not the only person who is experiencing PTSD. His advice to others is to seek help.
“It's hard admitting to yourself that you have a problem, especially for a soldier,” Desrosiers said. “But you should. It's the only way you will get better. Don't be ashamed of it.”
He knows he has a long way to go, but with the help of his family, his faith, the clinic and running, he believes he will get better.
“Sometimes I wonder if it was all worth it, and then I try and look around,” he said.
He looks around him, at Waynesburg University, where son Matthew will be attending. He remembers Casey jumping hurdles on the high school cross-country team. He can see Ryan playing in the middle school band during a concert.
“This, this all makes it worth it,” Desrosiers said. “I am trying to get better for all of this. I will find that part of me again.”