JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - The aftermath of war is
ugly. Buildings are ravaged, fields are razed and people die.
Structures are rebuilt and fields and forests are restored, but the
survivors are marked indelibly.
Air Force Master Sgt. Roger
Sparks (left) sat on his couch with his two sons leaning against him, as
they watched "Forrest Gump" together.
When the firefight
scene in Vietnam flickered on, Sparks' subconscious took over.
suddenly overwhelmed with grief," he said. "I went out into the
garage to get a hold of myself. That's when I knew I had a problem."
According to the National Center for Post-traumatic Stress
Disorder, between 11 and 20 percent of military members who have
been a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom
have experienced, or continue to experience, some form of PTSD.
Sparks, a pararescueman assigned to the Alaska Air National
Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron, became aware he had PTSD after a
particularly intense combat scenario wherein he earned a Silver Star
"I really think the cost of combat is grief," Sparks
said. "Grief is cumulative; the more we are exposed to
mortal situations, the more it builds up.
can go their whole career without meeting their threshold,"
he said. "Some guys can do one deployment and get a whole
"I've knowingly killed people
face-to-face," said the former Force Reconnaissance Marine.
"I've had buddies who were with me killed, and haven't had
trouble with emotional trauma before.
"As you grow
older, you change. Your sense of mortality changes."
The feeling of youthful invincibility fades, he said;
resolve and beliefs change.
"We've been doing
[combat] for so long, we've just normalized it," Sparks
said. "I come back from combat where a guy died in my arms
just days ago, gripping at me, clawing at me and bleeding
all over me, to sit next to a lady who's ticked off because
I'm on her armrest."
In the past, there was an
extended boat voyage between home and war, but now combat is
only a short plane ride away.
Sparks said this makes
it difficult for service members to mentally separate the
carnage of combat from the happiness of home.
believes in World War II, the journey helped service members
separate combat from normal life in their minds, but now it
has become a part of "normal" life.
If you never
truly leave home, then you can never really come home, he
"I think there's a cost to that, and each one
of these guys feels it," Sparks said.
"With as long
as we've been in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are young
infantrymen who have made a complete career out of warfare,"
Sparks said. "We've given our entire adult life to combat.
These are the kind of men I rub shoulders with."
"These service members have survived a battle with one
of the greatest enemies we face," said Air Force Capt. Chad
Killpack, a clinical psychologist with the 673d Medical
Killpack said the variety of evidence-based
programs available at the mental health clinic can, with
early intervention, have very positive results in battling
Sparks used one such approach, called cognitive
behavioral therapy, for more than a year and was later sent
to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he was
cleared to return to operational duty after consideration of
his extensive personal efforts toward recovery.
During this time, Sparks was also encouraged to get in touch
with Annie Okerlin, a Tampa, Florida, yoga instructor who
provides a mind-body approach to alleviating PTSD through
Okerlin began sending materials and
advice to Sparks. The pararescueman said he found her
program incredibly healing and still uses the relaxation
Cleared for duty and having finished the bulk of the
clinical treatment, Sparks continued to pursue a healthier
mentality - and found it in an unexpected place.
On the forward operating
base, just minutes after the life-changing 2010 battle which
earned him a Silver Star, Sparks said three men approached
One was a cameraman, another a filmmaker and the
third was Scott Campbell, a well-known tattoo artist from
New York City.
They were interested in making a
documentary showing the effects tattooing can have on
combat-exposed service members.
Sparks, exhausted and
shaken from the most intense firefight of his life, nearly
Campbell looked at him and recognized
what Sparks had just been through.
"Let's leave, this
is wrong," Sparks recalled Campbell saying.
when Sparks, looking to kill time, agreed to their proposal.
"They stayed with us for three days, tattooing us,"
Sparks said. "That distracted us, because we knew we were
about to go right back (into the fight)."
described the experience as profoundly healing.
then, he has continued tattooing as a way of expressing
himself in ways he otherwise would not be able.
really think PTSD is the lack of desire to, or inability to
express your grief to others." Sparks said. "With tattoos,
it's like a hidden language. I can express that grief in a
very tangible way."
Sparks designed a Cheshire Cat
tattoo that he and his fellow pararescuemen have adopted as
a kind of mascot.
January 25, 2015 - The Cheshire Cat design created by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Roger Sparks, 212th Rescue Squadron pararescueman, represents overcoming posttraumatic stress disorder and has been adopted as a mascot by the pararescuemen of the 212th RQS. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kyle Johnson)
"The Cheshire Cat is elusive,
appearing and disappearing at will," Sparks said. "He always
appears in a time of need and disappears, only leaving his
Many of the men in the 212th RQS wear the
tattoo as a somber mark of pride, a sobering reminder of the
gravity of their job. Like the effects of war, the mark may
fade - but never be erased.
"I really enjoy reading literature; it's been a very
cathartic thing for me to read old war literature and
realize all these feelings I have are just a human
experience," Sparks explained. "It's just a human reaction
to these things we are exposed to.
"Nobody is special
because they've experienced this; we're just human beings
trying to react to the things we've been forced to deal
Sparks explained he is particularly interested
in the Hagakure, a compilation of discussions on maintaining
a military mindset in peacetime, written for samurai in the
"A big problem with PTSD is you feel
isolated," Sparks said. "You don't think people will
understand how you feel because of the things you've
"It's a very healing experience to know
there were people feeling the same things we experience now,
in the 18th century."
Writing free-verse poetry also
provides an outlet for the emotional struggles he
"It doesn't matter how many pushups you
can do," Sparks said. "When it comes to combat grief; you
can be this physical specimen, but if you aren't equipped to
handle things emotionally, that's where you will eventually
Much has been written about dealing with the
stressors of war; finding the right way is an intensely
personal process, Sparks and his compatriots said.
"We're exposed to so many different stressful situations
that you develop your own way of dealing with it," said
Theodore "Ted" Sierocinski, also a pararescueman assigned to
the 212th RQS.
The marks of battle may or may not
fade with time, but the smile of the Cheshire Cat remains.
By U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Kyle Johnson
Image of MSgt.
Roger Sparks from photo by Justin Connaher
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