"I used to be the fist-pounder on the table. I had to learn how to be a real mediator. It gave me a whole new perspective on dealing with my PTSD."
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affects one in every 11 people in the U.S. That means you likely know someone who is struggling every day with the devastating effects of PTSD.
June is National PTSD Awareness Month. Spreading awareness about PTSD is not something I wait for other people to do. For those who do not know, one of my dearest friends is in his 17th year of living with PTSD. Together, we wrote and published Wars End With Me, the story of his ongoing battle. I met Pat Strobel in 2002 when I was working as a reporter at a daily newspaper in his hometown of Butler, Pa. When he deployed to Iraq in February 2003, my editor tasked me with chronicling Pat’s service in the pages of the newspaper. Every few weeks, as Pat had time, he would send me some photos of himself and a quick update on what it was like living – and fighting – in an active warzone.
Less than seven months after he was deployed, I received a call to tell me that he was seriously injured when his convoy came under attack in Fallujah. The physical injuries and emotional trauma Pat suffered that day forever changed him. For the last 17 years, Pat has struggled with PTSD. It has complicated his personal and professional life.
Three years have passed since we first published his story. What better way to catch up with our readers, who have joined Pat on every step of his journey? I reached out to Pat who, as always, is willing to share the most personal moments of his life in the pursuit of helping others with PTSD. What follows is a progress report and encouragement for others with PTSD to keep fighting the good fight.
Going Dutch on PTSD
Shortly after our book launched in December 2018, Pat was offered a three-year assignment as a director of maintenance. The catch: he would serve out the stint in the Netherlands, overseeing a Dutch workforce performing maintenance on U.S. Army pre-positioned stock. His new job was part of a partnership between the U.S. and Dutch governments. Pat was tasked with teaching former Dutch military personnel with mechanical backgrounds how to perform maintenance on U.S. Army equipment.
“That director of maintenance job was short-lived, because my boss was unexpectedly reassigned, and someone needed to step up,” said Pat. That someone was him. “I assumed that role, and that’s when the job became really challenging.” His new job required a little bit of finesse and a lot of political correctness. “And good communication skills to keep major political incidents from cropping up,” Pat added.
The last job Pat had in the U.S. before taking on this new assignment prepared him well. His biggest responsibilities there were contracts and negotiations. Those skills came in handy when he had to mediate between the U.S. Army and the Dutch government over a stalemate on the fine details of the working relationship.
Serving as a mediator was a new experience for Pat. He had served with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Carson, Colo. during his active enlistment. He was the guy who fixed all the equipment, to put it simply. Fixing people was never his skill set. Until now. “I used to be the fist-pounder on the table,” he said. “That kind of behavior doesn’t work with the Dutch people. They are very laid back and not easily rattled. I had to learn how to be a real mediator. It gave me a whole new perspective on dealing with my PTSD.”
Leaving his family behind for three years was the most difficult part of taking the new assignment. It was an unfortunate negative that he worked around because, as Pat puts it, he needed a reset. He made it home just twice – with an additional visit in the Netherlands from his wife – before COVID-19 hit and locked everything down. With just two months left on his current assignment, Pat said he is eager to return home for good.
One of the good things that happened with his family involves his son, Josh. For those who have read Wars End With Me, you know that Josh enlisted in the military (much to Pat’s dismay). He did not want his son to suffer the same way he had and believed the stress over his son’s decision was a trigger for his PTSD. After a few years as a Corporal in the 101st Airborne and several deployments to Africa, Josh Strobel now has a full-time position with the Iowa National Guard.
The new role removed him from active duty in the Army, which has made Pat extremely happy. “It’s one less thing for me to worry about. I don’t have to wonder where he’s at. Once I’m home, I’ll get to see him all the time. If I could have done what he’s doing, I would have. I didn’t even know that active guard existed when I joined the Army.”
A different kind of therapy
One of the downsides of his three-year stint in the Netherlands was the lack of access to his usual therapy for his PTSD. Working with the Dutch, Pat said, was an alternative form of therapy. Before his new assignment, Pat struggled a lot with angry outbursts because of his PTSD. He has mellowed out and attributes his attitude adjustment to Dutch influence. “The Dutch really have shown me that life shouldn’t be so competitive. Everybody is playing music. Everybody is happy. It’s just a different mentality.”
The Dutch do not feel pressured to perform at work the same way Americans do, Pat noted. Screaming and banging his fists on the table when things were not going as planned did not motivate them. It forced him to find a new way to lead. He discovered presenting them with metrics about their job performance compared with others doing similar work (who were more efficient at their tasks) was the best inspiration. “They taught me so much about leadership. I tried to shape my leadership style around their ethics because, at the end of the day, I was trying to extract as much talent from them as I could. Knowing what motivates workers is the key to effective leadership. That, and a lot of patience. I’m definitely learning a lot of patience,” he said, laughing.
Lessons learned, anger burned
The last three years had their fair of challenges, but Pat is thankful for the experience. “There was nothing but success stories here. That’s what I liked about this place. Getting back around maintenance – grease, oil – it was good for my morale and good for my PTSD. I was starting to doubt myself before I came here. Coming here and separating myself from all those things was almost therapeutic.”
Pat said his new attitude will help him better manage his PTSD and his job opportunities once he returns to the U.S. “I don’t know where the perfect job is or if there is such a thing. What I do know is this job I have now has taught me that I just need to shut up and color.”
Shari L. Berg is the owner/operator of The Write Reflection, and a writing professional for 25 years.