Retired Major Bobby Charles remembers wishing someone would break into his house just so he could shoot the intruder with his 9-mm pistol. The dark thoughts, a premonition, and his commander’s intervention convinced him to get help for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Although he’d known for months he couldn’t cope, Bobby ignored the signs. During the day, he buried himself in his work with the Army Medical Recruiting Command Brigade at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. At night, isolated and missing his wife, Mary, he drank, trying to forget his time in Salerno, Afghanistan, from 2007-2008.
“I was trained to do what I did but seeing people with partially blown-off faces and amputated limbs…the smells of diesel fuel and burned flesh…they never leave you,” says Bobby, who served as an officer in charge of emergency medical treatment at a combat support hospital near the Pakistan border.
“They wear you out, especially when you’ve done all you can do. I was physically exhausted,” he says. “My injured brain could take only so much.”
Wanting to transfer closer to Mary, who was then caring for her ailing mother in the Washington, D.C. area, the request fell through, and the hallucinations began. He had a premonition of his own death. “He just fell apart,” Mary says, softly.
Hearing the details of Bobby’s experiences saddened me. As did the specifics of his struggle with PTSD.
If you knew this man, you’d understand why.
Of all my husband’s college friends, Bobby has remained among my favorites. Always hopeful. Always smiling. He accepts challenges without hesitation, finding opportunities to make a difference.
After college, he managed a camp for disadvantaged kids in Greensboro, North Carolina, and then taught inner-city toughs through the Outward Bound program. As the founder of an experiential travel company, he hiked and climbed mountains around the globe.
His adventures never stopped.
When his travel company organized a trip to Moscow just a couple of years after the Berlin Wall fell, Bobby’s enthusiasm convinced me and my brother to go. We ended up celebrating July 4 inside a Moscow apartment, eating delicious food and toasting our new Russian friends with shots of vodka.
More surreal, however, was the late-night stroll down Moscow’s famed Arbat Street.
Bobby and our hosts showed no fear when a thug flashed a knife or when an elderly Georgian woman approached, fearful for her life. Bobby escorted her to safety. The relief played all over her face as she thanked and hugged him, Bobby’s rubles clutched in her hand.
Within a few years, Bobby had switched gears. He enrolled in and graduated from nursing school, worked as an emergency-room nurse, and learned therapeutic massage. In 2006, he announced he’d joined the Army Nurse Corps.
He was 52 years old, and no one blinked an eye. If anyone could pass basic training and outperform men and women half his age, Bobby could.
A Doctor’s Callous Disregard
From their home in Wyoming, Bobby continues his story. He keeps the conversation light, reminiscing about his early career, globetrotting, and military training with some of the nation’s fiercest special-operations warriors.
His voice changes, though, when he begins describing the event he believes contributed primarily to his PTSD—a doctor’s callous disregard for the Hippocratic Oath he swore to uphold.
It happened in September 2008, just two weeks before the end of Bobby’s one-year deployment. He was war weary and ready to go home, but thought he’d performed his job well.
That day, Medevac helicopters delivered eight Afghan kids, all requiring above-and-below knee amputations caused by unexploded ordinance. The triage team assessed one boy’s injury as a priority, but the attending physician said no. The severely injured boy would wait until he finished operating on the others.
Bleeding out, the boy’s blood pressure tanked. Bobby went back to the doctor, again urging him to treat his patient at once. Now enraged, the doctor cursed Bobby and told him to give the boy fluids.
“He never gave that kid a chance,” Bobby says, emphatically. Although the doctor eventually treated him, the boy didn’t survive. “It was a disaster, and I was angry. I wanted to blow the guy’s head off.” That’s when the doctor revealed his true heart: “‘I’m not here to save Afghans.’”
The doctor remained true to his word, too.
Whether purposely or negligently, the doctor and his team left shrapnel inside wounds suffered by Afghans—something that hadn’t happened before his arrival. Hospital staff members had always treated patients with equal care and even risked their lives establishing a clinic outside the U.S. wire.
Bobby shut down, struggling to reconcile the doctor’s behavior with the values he held regarding the sanctity of life. “When I got home from deployment, I remember telling Mary, ‘I feel like something evil has crawled inside of me.’”
And all he could see in his mind’s eye was the face of that doctor.
The darkness has receded, thanks to PTSD treatment at Walter Reed Hospital, Mary’s loving care, and his 11-year-old service dog, Tobi. “She knows when I’m going down the rabbit hole,” he says of his Labrador Retriever. Even so, the sound of helicopters, the smell of barbecued meat, and the sight of flag-draped coffins still trigger him.
“The difference now is I have learned to train my brain,” Bobby says. “There really is no cure for PTSD. I have coping skills to deal with things that used to trigger me.”
Just as important, he says, is a basic tenet of his Christian faith. For too long, “I let that doctor take up residence in my head. I needed to forgive him.”
The Next Challenge
These days, Bobby is facing yet another challenge, but believes his combat PTSD uniquely prepared him for it.
In 2018, after years of enduring stomach pain, his doctors diagnosed a rare form of cancer called neuroendocrine. When he received the stage-four diagnosis, Mary cried, and his doctor looked shocked. “I said praise the Lord,” Bobby says, laughing. “Now I know what I’m dealing with.”
“You have to start with what you believe in and rely on that,” Bobby says, telling me the disease has since stabilized, although tiny tumors still dot his bones and soft tissue. “I thank God for every waking moment. It’s not good to live in a PTSD or a cancer brain. Hell’s a bad place to pitch a tent.”
God love and keep you, Bobby, my unvanquished friend. You are my hero.